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Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

I write about a lot of depressing subjects, and sometimes a change of pace is welcome. Mary Roach, billed as “America’s funniest science writer,” has followed up on her earlier explorations of cadavers (Stiff), sex (Bonk), the afterlife (Spook), and survival on spaceships (Packing for Mars) with a new book entitled Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.

Forget all that mythology about diet, detoxification, and 10-year-old hamburger accretions in the bowel. The reality of human digestive physiology is far more interesting and has the extra-added attraction of being true. And in Roach’s hands, often howlingly funny.  She is a hands-on investigative reporter who is ready to try anything; among other adventures she inserts her entire arm in a cow’s stomach. Her highly entertaining odyssey takes her to Igloolik to eat narwhal skin, to a dog food tasting lab in Missouri, to Minnesota to observe a fecal transplant, and to strange and exotic outposts at the cutting edge of science, populated by colorful characters. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Book & movie reviews, History

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Homeopathic regulation diluted until no substance left

Homeopathy is quackery but it is perfectly legal to prescribe homeopathic products and to sell them directly to consumers in the United States as well as other supposedly civilized countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany. This makes as much sense as allowing the sale of batteries that don’t produce electricity.

What makes this state of affairs even stranger is that homeopathic products are classified as drugs under U.S. law. Does this mean that they undergo the same pre-market approval process and are subject to the same post-market requirements as pharmaceutical drugs? No, not by a long shot. In fact, the federal government and the FDA have pretty much handed regulation of homeopathic products over to their manufacturers.

How did this happen?

In 1938, Congress passed the Food, Drugs and Cosmetics Act. The Act’s principle author was Senator Royal Copeland, a physician who practiced homeopathy. He managed to include all articles monographed in the Homeopathic Pharmacopeia of the United States (HPUS) in the definition of drugs within the FDCA, although why he did so remains in dispute. The HPUS is a source for monographs, identity, methods of manufacture, standards and controls and potency levels of homeopathic products, both prescription and OTC. (The vast majority of homeopathic products are OTC.) In short, if the product is in the HPUS, it’s legal.

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Posted in: History, Homeopathy, Legal, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation

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It’s a part of my paleo fantasy, it’s a part of my paleo dream

There are many fallacies that undergird alternative medicine, which evolved into “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), and for which the preferred term among its advocates is now “integrative medicine,” meant to imply the “best of both worlds.” If I had to pick one fallacy that rules above all among proponents of CAM/IM, it would have to be either the naturalistic fallacy (i.e., that if it’s natural—whatever that means—it must be better) or the fallacy of antiquity (i.e., that if it’s really old, it must be better). Of course, the two fallacies are not unrelated. In the minds of CAM proponents, old is more likely to have been based on nature, and the naturalistic fallacy often correlates with the fallacy of antiquity. Basically, it’s a rejection of modernity, and from it flow the interest in herbalism, various religious practices rebranded as treatments (thousands of years ago, medicine was religion and religion was medicine—the two were more or less one and physicians were often priests as well), and the all-consuming fear of “toxins,” in which it is thought that the products of modernity are poisoning us.

Yes, there is a definite belief underlying much of CAM that technology and pharmaceuticals are automatically bad and that “natural” must be better. Flowing from that belief is the belief that people were happier and much healthier in the preindustrial, preagricultural past, that cardiovascular disease was rare or nonexistent, and that cancer was seldom heard of. Of course, it’s hard not to note that cancer and heart disease are primarily diseases of aging, and life expectancy was so much lower back in the day that a much smaller percentage of the population lived to advanced ages than is the case today. Even so, an implicit assumption among many CAM advocates is that cardiovascular disease is largely a disease of modern lifestyle and diet and that, if modern humans could somehow mimic preindustrial or, according to some, even preagricultural, lifestyles, that cardiovascular disease could be avoided. Not infrequently, evolutionary and genomic arguments are invoked, claiming that the estimated 10,000 years since the dawn of human agriculture is not a sufficiently long period of time for us to have evolved to handle diets rich in grains and meats and that we are “genetically wired” to exist on a diet like those of our paleolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors. For instance, in 2004, James H. O’Keefe Jr, MD and Loren Cordain, PhD wrote an article in the Mayo Proceedings entitled Cardiovascular Disease Resulting From a Diet and Lifestyle at Odds With Our Paleolithic Genome: How to Become a 21st-Century Hunter-Gatherer that asserted in essence, just that. Over the last decade, Cordain has become the most prominent promoter of the so-called “Paleo diet,” having written The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Foods You Were Designed to Eat and multiple other books advocating a paleolithic-mimetic diet as the cure for what ails modern humans. Meanwhile, diets thought to reflect what our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate, such as the Paleo Diet consisting largely of animal and fish that can be hunted and fruits and vegetables that can be foraged for in the wild, have been promoted as a near-panacea for the chronic diseases of aging, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.

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Posted in: Evolution, History, Nutrition

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Gender Differences and Why They Don’t Matter So Much

Several incidents have recently created divisions within the skeptical community.  The latest one was over a casual comment Michael Shermer made in an online talk show. He was asked why the gender split in atheism was not 50/50, “as it should be.” He said he thought it probably was 50/50, and suggested that the perception of unequal numbers might be because attending and speaking at atheist conferences was more of “a guy thing.” They might have asked him to explain what he meant. They didn’t. He didn’t mean to say it was encoded in the male DNA. He was simply recognizing a reality of our society: male/female interests and behavior tend to differ due to all sorts of cultural influences. Among other things, women might find it more difficult to attend meetings because of lower incomes and the need to arrange for babysitters. Watching sports on TV with other guys and beer is a guy thing too, but not because it’s hardwired into the male brain. It’s a guy thing because of customs and attitudes in our society.  And it certainly doesn’t mean women are less capable or that societal influences can’t be overcome.

Nevertheless, Ophelia Benson assumed Shermer meant:

that women are too stupid to do nontheism. Unbelieving in God is thinky work, and women don’t do thinky, because “that’s a guy thing.”

That’s not what he meant. It’s not fair to judge him by one off-the-cuff remark. His record stands for itself: there is not a hint of sexism in his writings and he has always fully acknowledged women’s intelligence and their ability to think critically.

In a rebuttal article, Shermer quoted me:

I think it is unreasonable to expect that equal numbers of men and women will be attracted to every sphere of human endeavor. Science has shown that real differences exist. We should level the playing field and ensure there are no preventable obstacles, then let the chips fall where they may.

PZ Myers called this “a sexist remark.” (more…)

Posted in: Evolution, History

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780.6

You can tell what a doctor does for a living by the ICD-9 codes they have memorized. There is an ICD-9 code for nearly every medical condition. Weightlessness is 994.9. Must be there for NASA, I have yet to see a weightless patient. Decapitation by guillotine is E978. There, I suppose, in case Marat returns from the dead. There is an ICD-9 code for the initial visit after being sucked into jet engine (V9733XA) and one for subsequent visits (V9733XD). Why do I suspect V9733XD has yet to be used?

780.6 is my personal favorite. Fever. All my patients have fever and 780.6 was certainly the first ICD-9 code I committed to memory. I have an endless interest in fever and after last Fridays post I thought I would toss in my two cents worth. I will remind my readers that I am an adult ID doctor (who I treat, not necessarily how I behave) and unless specifically mentioned, all that follows applies to those who can legally drink, vote and serve in the military.

98.6 F. It is not normal body temperature. Well it is. But it is not. 98.6 F as average body temperature is an enduring medical myth. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Evolution, History, Science and Medicine

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Naturopathy Embraces the Four Humors

The ancient Greeks posited a system of health and disease based on the four humors: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. According to this system, health is defined as a harmony of these four humors and disease is caused by an imbalance among them. Restore the balance, and health is restored. Bleeding is a familiar example of humoral medical treatment based on a diagnosis of an “excess” of blood. Fortunately, the humoral system of diagnosis and treatment died out with the advent of modern scientific medicine.

But as David Gorski asked (sarcastically, of course) in his presentation on quackademic medicine at CSICon in October, if supposedly ancient philosophies of diagnosis and treatment such as Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda are so beloved by CAM proponents, despite their implausibility and lack of evidence of effectiveness, why not the humoral model of health and disease? Why not include humorism in the CAM practitioner armamentarium?

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Posted in: Faith Healing & Spirituality, History, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation, Religion, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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Storytelling in Medicine

We can’t stress often enough that anecdotes are not reliable evidence; but on the other hand, patient stories can serve a valuable purpose in medical education. Hearing how a disease affected an individual patient is more powerful than reading a list of symptoms in a textbook and is far more likely to fix the disease in the student’s memory. When I think of Parkinson’s disease, the first thing that comes to mind is my first patient with Parkinson’s and how he responded to levodopa; and the first thing that may come to many people’s minds is Michael J. Fox. Of course, we must realize that they may not be typical examples; but putting a face to a diagnosis serves as a memory aid and a hook to hang the rest of our knowledge on.

In his new book, The Power of Patient Stories: Learning Moments in Medicine, Paul F. Griner, MD relates more than 50 stories that distill the wisdom he has developed over a 58-year career of practicing medicine and teaching young doctors. He describes them as “stories that provided a learning moment for me.” It’s interesting to see how much medicine has changed over his professional lifetime and yet how cases from the 50s and 60s are still highly relevant. Ethical dilemmas and lessons about medical practice come alive under his pen. Each story is followed by incisive questions and exercises that engage the reader and challenge him to think about the issues. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, History, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics

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Lessons from the History of Insulin

On my recent trip to Nashville for CSICon, I took advantage of the long hours on the plane to read Breakthrough: Elizabeth Hughes, the Discovery of Insulin, and the Making of a Medical Miracle, by Thea Cooper and Arthur Ainsberg. One of our commenters recommended it. I’m not sure who (was it Chris?), but I want to thank you.

It’s the history of insulin told from the perspective of the scientists and of a typical patient, and it touches on a number of issues that we have addressed on SBM. It shows how science works to save lives, in stark contrast to the empty promises of CAM. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, History, Pharmaceuticals

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CAM and Creationism: Separated at Birth?

Over the past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend CSICon in Nashville, Tennessee. The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (“CSI”) combats all sorts of pseudoscience, including creationism/creation science/intelligent design and alternative/complementary/integrative medicine. Our own Team SBM was ably represented by Harriet Hall, David Gorski and Kimball Atwood, whose presentation highlighted the credulous acceptance of CAM in some medical schools, and by Steve Novella, who gave a talk on the placebo effect and its exploitation by CAM proponents. Among many other presentations were those on the Mayan calendar and the end of the world, unmasking of (supposedly) paranormal events, and the neurobiology of memory. Pseudoscience was given a well-deserved thrashing by rational minds.

On Saturday, I once again had the pleasure of hearing Eugenie Scott ,Ph.D., the virtually one-woman anti-creationism campaign who founded and heads the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). As I listened to her talk I couldn’t help but being struck by a number of similarities in the weaknesses apparent in arguments for creationism/ creation science/intelligent design (or “ID”)and those for alternative/complementary/integrative medicine (or “CAM”). I doubt the two groups like to think of themselves as ideological twins, but gosh, they sure do look alike.

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Posted in: Evolution, History, Religion, Science and Medicine

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The War Against Chiropractors

In 2011, chiropractor J.C. Smith published The Medical War Against Chiropractors: The Untold Story from Persecution to Vindication. He promises an exposé comparable to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s exposé of slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. His thesis is that the AMA waged a shameless attack on competition, motivated only by money. I think the reality is closer to what he quoted from Dr. Thomas Ballantine, Harvard Medical School:

The confrontation between medicine and chiropractic is not a struggle between two professions. Rather it is more in the nature of an effort by an informed group of individuals to protect the public from fraudulent health claims and practices.

The book is self-published, long-winded, repetitive, and flawed. It is a vicious screed crammed with bias, half-truths, insulting language, and innumerable references to Nazis and racial prejudice. In my opinion, Smith not only fails to make his case but degrades chiropractic.

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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Chiropractic, History

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