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Bad Science: Four Things I Learned From Dr. Ben Goldacre

“You cannot reason people out of positions they didn’t reason themselves into.”

– Ben Goldacre, MD

Dr. Ben Goldacre is the author of the popular Guardian column, Bad Science. He has recently published a book by the same name. Bad Science received a very favorable review from the British Medical Journal and although I was tempted to write my own review for Science Based Medicine, I decided to cherry pick some concepts from the book instead. I hope you’ll enjoy the cherries.

Honesty & Placebos

As you can imagine, any good book about bad science must devote at least one chapter to the concept of placebos. We are all quite familiar with placebos, and how squarely the vast majority (and some would argue all) of complementary and alternative medicines fit into that category.  Ben surprised me with a couple of points that I hadn’t considered previously. Firstly, that alerting patients to the fact that you’re planning to prescribe them a placebo does not necessarily negate its effects, and secondly that no matter how skeptical or intelligent you are – all humans are subject to placebo effects.

Ben references a 1965 study from Johns Hopkins [Park et al., Archives of General Psychiatry] in which patients were explicitly told that they were going to receive a sugar pill (with no medicine in it at all) as treatment for their neuroses. The researchers reported substantial improvements in many of the study subjects’ symptoms.

This is the script that the physicians were to use to explain the placebos to the study subjects:

Mr. Doe… we have a week between now and your next appointment, and we would like to do something to give you some relief from your symptoms. Many different kinds of tranquilizers and similar pills have been used for conditions such as yours, and many of them have helped. Many people with your kind of condition have also been helped by what are sometimes called ‘sugar pills,’ and we feel that a so-called sugar pill may help you too. Do you know what a sugar pill is? A sugar pill is a pill with no medicine in it at all. I think this pill will help you as it has helped so many others. Are you willing to try this pill?

Wow. I was under the impression that the efficacy of the placebo was in the person’s belief that it was a legitimate medicine/therapy. Perhaps it only matters that the prescribing physician believes it might help? Perhaps snake oil salesmen are wasting their time on linguistic and pseudoscientific mental gymnastics?

Of course, the “gymnastics” do help. Other research has shown that the more complex the associated placebo ritual, the more potent its effects (such as piercing the skin with fine needles in many different locations). Nonetheless, I was surprised that an honest and accurate description of a placebo does not necessarily negate its effects.
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, General, Herbs & Supplements, Science and the Media

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Knowledge Versus Expertise: The View From Consumer Land

“The internet, in democratizing knowledge, has led a lot of people to believe that it is also possible to democratize expertise.”

- SBM Commenter, yeahsurewhatever

I’ve spent the last few years of my life in Internet “Consumer Land,” doing what I can to bring accurate health information directly to patients. Of course, I have been surprised by the push-back, and the demand for misinformation. When I first left full time clinical work, it never occurred to me that people would prefer to read falsehoods when provided a clear choice between truth and error. I guess I was pretty naïve.

Journalist Lesley Stahl provided me with some helpful insights during a recent conference. She explained that the Internet has catalyzed a new method of information transfer – speed trumps accuracy, the line between pundits and journalists is blurred, and anyone who can get to a microphone can become an “expert.” Gone are the days of careful sourcing and fact-checking. And gone is the public trust in “mainstream media.”

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Posted in: General, Health Fraud, Humor, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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When Further Research Is NOT Warranted: The “Wisdom of Crowds” Fallacy

Most scientific research studies have at least one thing in common: the conclusion section ends with, “further research is warranted.” I’d say it’s about as common as the “talk to your doctor” disclaimer in TV ads for pharmaceutical products. And in a way, they both serve the same purpose. They’re a “CYA” move.

What does “further research is warranted” mean in plain English? I think it can be roughly translated: “My research study is not of the size or scope to fully explain all the phenomena described in this article. Therefore, draw conclusions beyond the data and study methods at your own risk. And yeah, my work is important and cool – so people should study it further.”

Of course, the first two sentences are reasonable – we should always remember not to draw conclusions beyond the information provided by the data we’ve collected (even though that’s about as challenging as getting a beagle not to eat a table scrap in an empty room). The real problem is the third sentence. Is the research promising enough to require further investment? How are we to know if further research is indeed warranted? I would argue that it should not be based solely on the subjective opinions of the researchers nor the popularity of the research topic to the general public. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, General, Science and Medicine

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Disintegrating Integrative Medicine: Lessons From Baking

Suppose I were to bake you a cake and my ingredient list included the following:

  • Eggs
  • Milk
  • Butter
  • Sand
  • Flour
  • Baking Powder
  • Vanilla
  • Melamine
  • Sugar
  • Chocolate icing

What is the problem with the ingredient list? It has integrated inedible and poisonous items into the very fine basic ingredients that make a good cake. This is the exact same problem that the medical profession faces with the “integrative medicine” movement. Insofar as it espouses and promotes well-vetted, healthy ingredients, it is a boon to patients. But when inordinate emphasis is placed on placebos (“sand”) or when dangerous practices (“melamine”) are inserted into the prescription for our patients’ “health and wellness,” that attractive-appearing cake becomes a recipe for disaster.

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Posted in: General, Science and Medicine

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A “Shruggie” Awakening – One Doctor’s Journey Toward Scientific Enlightenment

ED. NOTE: Circumstances have dictated an unexpected change of plans; so you’re in for a treat. Dr. Val Jones is starting two days earlier than previously announced. Beginning next week, her posts will appear regularly on Thursday mornings. Harriet Hall’s post scheduled for today will appear on Thursday this week. Be ready; it’ll be the return of the cholesterol “skeptics.” Now, Dr. Val…

Greetings, everyone. I am a proud new member of the Science Based Medicine blogging team, and have committed to one post each Thursday morning. As part of my “grand entrance” onto the skeptical blogging stage, I was hoping to introduce a new noun into our lexicon. I’ve asked permission from Steve Novella and David Gorski, and they’ve given me a wink and a nod, so here goes:

Shruggie (noun): a person who doesn’t care about the science versus pseudoscience debate. When presented with descriptions of exaggerated or fraudulent health claims or practices, their response is to shrug. Shruggies are fairly inert, they will not argue the merits (or lack thereof) of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) or pseudoscience in general. They simply aren’t all that interested in the discussion, and are somewhat puzzled by those who are.

I’m sure you’ve encountered shruggies in your daily life. They are quite common – in fact, they may actually be in the majority among healthcare professionals. And I have a confession to make — I used to be one myself.

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to tell you the story of how I was awakened from my unhealthy indifference toward pseudoscience. (more…)

Posted in: General, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Is medical academia just following academia?

Is Medical Academia repeating Academia’s history? In a recent essay in a small-circulation, specialized periodical, Academic Questions, Prof. John M. Ellis, emeritus Professor of Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, recounts the past 4-5 decades of changes in liberal arts departments in US colleges. (How Preferences Have Corrupted Higher Education, Acad Quest, 2008; 21(2):265-274)  One modern academic controversy not needing recounting is the takeover of liberal arts departments by post-modernist theology and the partial takeover of universities themselves by radical politics dating from the 1960s.  But as recounted by Prof. Ellis, the fifty-year metamorphosis has not only changed universities, but has produced a branching network of intended and unintended consequences.

We have noted before that medicine is both a science and a practice that reflects current social attitudes and mores. (I minimize the aliquot of art, persisting from prior centuries; cultural influences being a more accurate term.) But the changes in universities now reflect in the normative thinking and mores of the modern medical school – at least a nucleus of them.  Thus Dr. Ellis’s observations may be a metaphor or template for a medicine of the next several decades.

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Posted in: General, Medical Academia

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Impossibilities

“If you’ve done six impossible things this morning, why not round it off with breakfast at Milliway’s—the Restaurant at the End of the Universe!”–Douglas Adams

I recently finished reading the book “The Joy of Pi” by David Blatner. There is a chapter about the concept of squaring a circle, also called the quadrature of a circle. The idea is that, with just a ruler and a compass, you construct a square of equal area to a given circle.

It turns out it cannot be done. It is, in this iteration of the multiverse, impossible. Not difficult, or implausible or really hard. Impossible. You cannot square a circle in a finite number of steps given the conditions of using only a ruler and a compass.

That it is impossible does not prevent people from trying. Individuals do derive solutions to squaring the circle, and sometimes the derivation is erroneous, and sometimes they have a solution that requires a new value for pi.

Pi is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. Take the circumference of a circle, divide it by its diameter and get the endless, or transcendental, number 3.141592654….(1) That number is part of the fabric of this universe. It is a fundamental part of how life, the universe, and everything is put together (2). It is a curious psychopathology that some people feel that all of known mathematics is wrong, and that they have a solution to an impossible problem and that they have discovered the hither to unknown, one true value of pi as a result.

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Posted in: General, Science and Medicine

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Snipers – A Short Reflection

The blogosphere held no fascination for me before my involvement with sciencebasedmedicine.com. I had checked into a few blogs, and found some capturing attention, allowing exploration of ideas and personal views in greater scope than allowed for in scientific papers. But many seemed not to expand discussion after an original post.  When the blogger would describe some series of events or ideas, there would follow a series of pro and con short commentaries, whose authors seemed to enjoy sniping at irrelevant issues. The emotional level rose with each series of exchanges. One had to search for pages with comments that expanded knowledge, and were not just argumentative.Some commenters took off on small details in the original.. Then ensued a series of yes I did – no I didn‘t, you said – I said, you said – I meant, you‘re a blank – you’re a worse blank, and on, as readers know.

I wrote an article or two for an online ‘zine, and the format allowed for extended exchanges, like the blogs. Comments followed a similar pattern. They continued for 2 weeks. Same thing happened when I critiqued traditional Chinese medicine, implausible claims, ethics of “CAM” in editorials in an online journal. Questions there were screened by editors, but I filled more space  elaborating answers than I was allowed by the word limit to the original articles. I noted that even news items in online news sources were followed by series of comments, challenges, counterchallenges and on they went, often getting uncomfortably personal. Lost in some of this was the meat of the original article as small point after smaller point appeared.

All this is old stuff to most of you readers, but to me, it was new. And I wondered not only about the format and policies that allowed ongoing sniping, but had to look at my own reactions, often surging in the same direction of telling people off. I keep telling myself not to answer snipes, but the temptation sometimes wins. Too much chance to show cleverness and to enjoy that basic, innate joy of putting it to someone who wrote something that really ticked me off.
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Posted in: Basic Science, General, Science and Medicine

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Pro-CAM Wikipedia – Skeptics Need Not Apply

The internet is arguably the ultimate expression of democracy and the free market. For the cost of internet access anyone can pull up a virtual soap box and preach to the world. There are no real gatekeepers, and the public can vote with their search entries, clicks, and links. Every point of view can be catered to and every special interest satisfied. Type in any obscure term or concept into Google and see how many hits you get (“banana farming” yielded 1,470,000 hits).

There is potentially a downside to this as well, however. Because there are websites fashioned for every opinion and perspective no one has to venture far out of their intellectual comfort zone. Virtual communities of like-minded individuals can gather and reinforce their prejudices, and to varying degrees keep out contrary opinions. This is harmless when dealing with aesthetic tastes, but can be stifling to intellectual discourse.

On the other hand defining the mission, scope, and character of a blog, website, or forum is necessary to some degree. Every site does not have to be a free-for-all. If biologists want a forum to politely discuss biological topics in a collegial fashion they have the right to create a virtual space in which to do that, and whoever owns and operates the site has the right to mandate whatever rules they wish. Allowing political activists to overrun the site and hijack the conversation would be counterproductive. Like most things a healthy balance probably works best.

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Posted in: General

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Politics of N of 1 pseudoscience

More Politics

Medicine’s ethics and basis in science hang by a thread at times. At least in the US of A. I will present a few examples and illustrate them with correlates from other fields in which decisions with wide effects are sometimes made by the whim of one person. And that’s not just the declaring of war or whatever we call it these days.Start with an anecdote of mine from the mid-1970s or so. I somehow got involved in a dispute with the staff of then Gov. Jerry Brown over his proposal to de-license medical practice. He sent out early holistic medicine vibes and viewed health and medicine as fields open to anyone to practice by simply hanging out a shingle. I asked to meet with my state assemblyman and complained about the situation. I stated that physicians determined what medical practice is. He smiled benevolently and broke the news. “No, doc, we (in state government) do.“

I immediately recognized what he was saying. All licensure is granted by the state, and all regulations and laws referring to each occupation’s license are determined essentially by a majority vote and a governor’s signature. All those heroes in the history of medicine and science not withstanding. It was an awakening.

Jerry Brown’s vision did not materialize and he came to recognize holistic and alternative medicines as so much goofy stuff and quackery, as he later confided at a fund-raiser (yes, I went.)

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Posted in: General, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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