I intended to read Sam Kean’s new book The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius as Written by our Genetic Code just for fun. I was expecting a miscellany of trivia loosely gathered around the theme of DNA. But I found something much more worthwhile that I thought merited a book review to bring it to the attention of our readers. Kean interweaves entertaining stories into a somewhat disjointed but nonetheless valuable history and primer of genetics. The title refers to Paganini, whose DNA created the unusual joint flexibility that facilitated his unprecedented feats of virtuosity on the violin.
Archive for History
Editor’s Note: Dr. Gorski was on a rare vacation last week, recharging his batteries. As a result, there is no new material by him this week. Fortunately, Ben Kavoussi was ready with another in his series of posts on traditional Chinese medicine. Dr. Gorski will return next week; that is, if he doesn’t return even sooner because he can’t stand to be away from SBM for two whole weeks.
The established laws of nature do not support Oriental Medicine’s claim of Yin and Yang and Five-Phases Theory. Oriental Medicine’s main theory was constructed when our civilization had limited methods to understand our surroundings, and as such, it is only an ancient illusion.1
— Yong-Sang Yoo, MD, PhD, Chairman of the Committee for Medical Unification, Korean Medical Association, 2010
Yong-Sang Yoo is one of the strong and growing voices in Korea that is calling for an end to the national insurance coverage for Oriental Medicine.
Similarly, Professor Zhang Gongyao of the Central South China University petitioned the central government of China in 2006 to abolish support for Oriental Medicine because it has “no clear understanding of the human body, of the functions of medicines and their links to disease. It is more like a boat without a compass: it may reach the shore finally but it’s all up to luck.”2 Zhang Gongyao and fellow critics have consequently blasted China’s traditional medicine as an often ineffective, even dangerous derivative of witchcraft that relies on untested concoctions and obscure ingredients to trick patients, and employs a host of excuses if the treatments do not work.3
Bloodletting is used in Oriental Medicine to relieve excess “heat,” meaning fever, sore throat, joint pain, muscle sprain, as well as inflammation. It is often practiced in unsanitary conditions.
A Product of Archaic Thinking
The arguments of Yong-Sang Yoo and Zhang Gongyao are reminiscent of those of William R. Morse, Dean of Medical School at West China Union University, who wrote in 1934 that China’s traditional medicine was a “weird medley of philosophy, religion, superstition, magic, alchemy, astrology, feng shui, divination, sorcery, demonology and quackery.” Morse added that Chinese diagnostic methods “border on the ridiculous and possibly cross the line into absurdity.” Harvey J. Howard — a Dean at the Peking Union Medical College — also wrote in 1934 that “the great majority of these Chinese medicines reminds one of the list of remedies suggested by the third witch in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.”4
The term “evidence-based medicine” first appeared in the medical literature in 1992. It quickly became popular and developed into a systematic enterprise. A book by Ulrich Tröhler To Improve the Evidence of Medicine: The 18th century British origins of a critical approach argues that its roots go back to the 1700s in Scotland and England. An e-mail correspondent recommended it to me. Can’t remember who, but I would like to thank him.
Francis Bacon (1561-1626) differentiated between “ordinary experience” (chance observations) and more objective “ordered experience” (methodological observations). Both of these involved empirical knowledge. It’s hard to get back into the mindset of his time, when most physicians rejected empiricism as the sphere of quacks and surgeons. Tröhler helps us understand why they did:
…since antiquity, the mark of distinction of a learned man had been the certainty of his knowledge. A doctor knew — he did not need to test his kind of knowledge empirically because this would imply acknowledgement of uncertainty.
This is yet another response to the recent “Integrative Medicine in America” report published by the Bravewell Collaborative. Drs. Novella and Gorski have already given that report its due, so I won’t repeat the background information. Inevitably, I’ll cover some of the same points, but I’ll also try to emphasize a few that stand out to me. Most of these have been discussed on SBM over the years, but bear repeating from time to time. Let’s begin with:
If it Ducks like a Quack…
Misleading language is the sine qua non of ‘integrative medicine’ (IM) and its various synonyms. The term itself is a euphemism, intended to distract the reader from first noticing the quackery that is its distinguishing characteristic. As previously explained, Bravewell darlings Andrew Weil and Ralph Snyderman, quack pitchmen extraordinaires, recognized nearly 10 years ago that if you really want to sell the product, you should dress it up in ways that appeal to a broad market.
Let’s see how this is done in the latest report. Here is the very first sentence:
The impetus for developing and implementing integrative medicine strategies is rooted in the desire to improve patient care.
Who would disagree with improving patient care? (Try not to notice the begged question). Here’s the next paragraph (emphasis added): (more…)
A brief reference on the web site The Quackometer recently drew my attention to a very short book (really more of a pamphlet, in the historical sense) by Dr. Worthington Hooker, Lessons from the History of Medical Delusions, which I thought might be of interest to readers of this blog. Though published in 1850, the book contains many eloquent observations that are just as relevant to understanding how pseudoscience and quackery persist and even flourish in what we otherwise assume to be an age of scientific medicine. The book is available online as a Google eBook, and relatively cheap printed facsimiles are available as well.
Dr. Hooker was a physician, a professor at Yale, and an outspoken critic of homeopathy in it’s early days. His critique of homeopathy still resonates today, and has long drawn the ire of Hahneman loyalists, such as this one who makes reference to Dr. Hooker’s, “periodical fulminations for the destruction of Homoeopathy that have appeared like locusts or cholera at certain dates.” Though Dr. Hooker wrote an entire book discussing homeopathy, Homeopathy: An Examination of its Doctrines and Evidences, he does spare a few words here for this less-than-venerated practice:
The error I have been illustrating is carried to an extreme by the Homeopathist. He attributes palpable results to doses of medicine which are so small that they cannot produce any perceptible effect except by miracle.
“Obama Promises $156 Million to Alzheimer’s…But where will the money come from?” That’s easy: the NCCAM!
The quoted language above is part of the headline of this story in today’s The Scientist:
Citing the rising tide of Americans with Alzheimer’s—projections suggest 10 million people will be afflicted by 2050—the Obama administration and top National Institutes of Health officials are taking action. On February 7, they announced that they will add an additional $80 million to the 2013 NIH budget for the Alzheimer’s research program.
The problem is that there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch:
However, Richard Hodes, director of the NIH’s National Institute on Aging, told Nature that the 2013 dollars still have to be approved by Congress in the next budget and, if not, existing programs may need to be cut. And this year’s $50 million is likely to bump other projects, perhaps at NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute. “If there’s a finite budget anywhere, once there’s more of something, there is less of something else,” he said.
Often such budget compromises are difficult, because there is no ready way to choose between two or more competing recipients of taxpayers’ money, each of which might be comparably worthy. Thus it is with a great sense of relief that in this case, we in the biomedical community can assure President Obama that no such dilemma exists. This is one of those occasional decisions that requires no hair-pulling whatsoever. The obvious solution is to defund the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), which, at about $130 million/yr, would solve the problem of funding Alzheimer’s research and take the heat off other worthy programs such as those mentioned by Richard Hodes.
Note: The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) is publishing a new series of e-books. The first two offerings are an excellent new book on critical thinking by Bob Carroll, Unnatural Acts, and the first in a planned series of republications of classic skeptical works, Homeopathy and Its Kindred Delusions, by Oliver Wendell Holmes. I was asked to write the introduction for the latter, and the JREF has kindly given their permission for me to reproduce it here.
The German philosopher Hegel said, “We learn from history that we don’t learn from history.” “Homeopathy and Its Kindred Delusions” is a remarkable little book based on two lectures Oliver Wendell Holmes gave in 1842. It is a masterful debunking of homeopathy. If his lessons had been taken to heart, homeopathy would not have survived and we could have avoided a great number of other medical delusions that continue to plague us today, both from charlatans and from well-meaning advocates who lack Holmes’ critical thinking skills.
To realize just how remarkable this book is, imagine the world of 1842. Samuel Hahnemann, the inventor of homeopathy, was still alive. Roentgen wouldn’t discover x-rays until 1895. The germ theory was not yet established. Semmelweis wouldn’t make his observations on puerperal fever until 3 years later. It wasn’t until 1854 that John Snow removed the Broad Street pump handle and stopped a cholera epidemic. Koch’s postulates for determining infectious causes of disease weren’t published until 1890. Doctors didn’t wash their hands or use sterile precautions for surgery. Bloodletting to “balance the humors“ was still a common practice. The randomized placebo-controlled trial wouldn’t appear for another century. Contemporary medicine often did more harm than good. In fact, Holmes himself famously quipped “I firmly believe that if the whole materia medica could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be all the better for mankind and all the worse for the fishes.” (more…)
I suppose it was bound to happen, but it still rankles. Here is the back cover of last week’s issue of the decreasingly prestigious New England Journal of Medicine:
It’s the 200th Anniversary issue, no less. Some might protest that ‘probiotics’—live bacteria of ‘good’ varieties, as far as the gut is concerned—aren’t all that implausible, and that there is some trial evidence that they help for some conditions. That’s true, but as is typically the case even for the somewhat plausible end of the “CAM” spectrum, the hype greatly surpasses the evidence. The abstract of the most recent systematic review that I could find for probiotic treatment of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS: symptoms and signs that best match the claims in the advertisement above) concluded:
Several of us have written about how contemporary quacks have artfully pitched their wares to a higherbrow market than their predecessors were accustomed to, back in the day. Through clever packaging,* quacks today can reasonably hope to become professors at prestigious medical schools, to control and receive substantial grant money from the NIH, to preside over reviews for the Cochrane Collaboration, to be featured as guests and even as hosts on mainstream television networks and on PBS, to issue opinions in the name of the National Academy of Sciences, to be patronized by powerful politicians, and even to be chosen by U.S. presidents to chair influential government commissions.
The most successful pitch so far, and the one that the fattest quack-cats of all have apparently decided to bet the farm on, is “integrative medicine” (IM). Good call: the term avoids any direct mention of the only thing that distinguishes it from plain medicine. Its proponents, unsurprisingly, have increasingly come to understand that when they are asked to explain what IM is, it is prudent to leave some things to the imagination. They’re more likely to get a warm reception if they lead people to believe that IM has to do with reaching goals that almost everyone agrees are worthy: compassionate, affordable health care for all, for example.
In that vein, the two most consistent IM pitches in recent years—seen repeatedly in statements found in links from this post—are that IM is “preventive medicine” and that it involves “patient-centered care.” I demolished the “preventive” claim a couple of years ago, as did Drs. Lipson, Gorski, and probably others. Today I’ll explain why the “patient-centered care” claim is worse than fatuous.
Dummy Medicine, Dummy Doctors, and a Dummy Degree, Part 2.0: Harvard Medical School and the Curious Case of Ted Kaptchuk, OMD
The recent albuterol vs. placebo trial reported in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) found that experimental subjects with asthma experienced substantial, measured improvements in lung function after inhaling albuterol, but not after inhaling placebo, undergoing sham acupuncture, or “no treatment.” It also found that the same subjects reported having felt substantially improved after either albuterol or each of the two sham treatments, but not after “no treatment.” Anthropologist Daniel Moerman, in an accompanying editorial, wrote, “the authors conclude that the patient reports were ‘unreliable,’ since they reported improvement when there was none”—precisely as any rational clinician or biomedical scientist would have concluded.
In Part 1 of this blog we saw that Moerman took issue with that conclusion. He argued, with just a bit of hedging, that the subjects’ perceptions of improvement were more important than objective measures of their lung function. I wondered how the NEJM editors had chosen someone whose bibliography predicted such an anti-medical opinion. I doubted that Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Drazen, an expert in the pathophysiology of asthma, had ever heard of Moerman. I suggested, in a way that probably appeared facetious, that Ted Kaptchuk, the senior author of the asthma report, might have recommended him. (more…)