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The Mythology of Larry Dossey

A “Double Standard”?

Last week I had planned to write a comprehensive critique of a recent comment by Larry Dossey. He had posted it on Val Jones’s betterhealth website in response to Dr. Val’s essay, “The Decade’s Top 5 Threats To Science In Medicine,” originally posted here on SBM. Much of what Dr. Val had identified as the top threats involved recent dalliances, by government, medical schools, and the media, with the collection of implausible and mostly nonsensical health claims that advocates have dubbed “CAM.” As uncontroversial as Dr. Val’s assertions ought to have been—similar to suggesting that closing one’s eyes and “using the force” would be a threat to safe driving (even if some might quibble over the top threats to science in medicine)—Dr. Dossey demurred by distraction:

Your article implies that conventional medicine is grounded in evidence-based research and that CAM is not. This is grossly overstated, and suggests that a double standard is being applied to these fields.

Dossey trotted out familiar arguments: “Much, if not most, of contemporary medical practice still lacks a scientific foundation”; “the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) found that only an estimated 10 to 20% of the techniques that physicians use are empirically proven”; hospital care is “the third leading cause of death in the United States,” accounting for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year.

He concluded with an appeal to fairness, rationality, and collegiality:

Overwhelming evidence reveals that conventional medicine is, on the whole, woefully unscientific. It’s fashionable and easy to deny this, but the facts say otherwise. So, by all means, Dr. Val, be critical of CAM – but do not fall into a double standard. Let us ruthlessly apply science to ALL we do as physicians. Let us challenge ALL areas of medicine to a higher standard. On that, I’m pretty sure we can agree.

Keep up the good work.

Sincerely yours,
Larry Dossey, MD

I procrastinated with my own rebuttal, and in the meantime David Gorski responded to similar language found in an article by Dossey (and two other magical thinkers) titled “The Mythology of Science-Based Medicine,” published by the Huffington Post. I’ll not repeat Dr. Gorski’s able rebuttal in any detail, and I’ve already written about much of what this matter brings to mind. Examples are here, here, and here on the perils of conflating science-based medicine and Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM); here on the false dichotomy of modern medicine vs. “CAM”; here on a concise definition of “CAM”; here and here on the mischief spawned by demands to “ruthlessly apply science,” in the narrow, EBM sense of the word, to implausible health claims; here (point #7) and here regarding the tu quoque fallacy, the “10-20% empirically proven” claim, and the risks of modern health care; here (scroll down to “this week’s entry”) and here, regarding some of Dossey’s own opinions about science and the future of medicine.

For now I’ll elaborate on a few points. These pertain not only to Dr. Dossey but also to myths common to the advocacy of pseudomedicine, so I hope to provide some useful information.

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Posted in: Energy Medicine, Faith Healing & Spirituality, History, Medical Academia, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Be careful what you wish for, Dr. Dossey, you just might get it

If there’s one thing about the so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) movement that I’ve emphasized time and time again, it’s that its adherents have a definite love-hate relationship with science. They hate it because it is the single greatest threat to their beliefs system and the pseudoscience that underlies it. At the same time, they crave the legitimacy that science confers. They crave it not because they have any great love for science. Quite the contrary. It is simply that they recognize that science actually delivers the goods. Of course, they believe that they deliver the goods too, but they come to this belief not through science but rather through all the cognitive shortcomings and biases to which humans are prone, such as confusing correlation with causation, confirmation bias, not recognizing regression to the mean, and being fooled by the placebo effect. Whether it’s through a misunderstanding of science or less innocent reasons, they go to great lengths to torture it into superficially appearing to support their claims through a combination of cherry-picking of studies that seem to support them and misrepresenting ones that don’t, discussions of which abound right here in this very blog.

The other thing I’ve emphasized about the CAM movement is that, even more than scientific credibility, they crave legitimacy. To them, however, science is but one pathway to legitimacy, because, unlike practitioners of science-based medicine, they are more than willing to bypass science to obtain the legitimacy–or at least the appearance of the legitimacy–they so crave. If it means doing an end run around science by trying to hijack the Obama health insurance reform bill that is currently being negotiated to resolve the differences between the Senate and House versions, so be it. Indeed, earlier this year, I described how Senator Tom Harkin has tried to promote CAM through the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and trying to insert provisions into the bill that would mandate that government-subsidized insurance exchanges pay for CAM. Meanwhile, prominent CAM advocates have been carpet-bombing the media with dubious arguments in support of CAM, as in when Deepak Chopra, Rustum Roy, Dean Ornish, and Andrew Weil teamed up in different combinations to promote the idea that CAM is all about “prevention” and that science-based medicine, in all its reductionistic evil, is nothing more than pushing pills.

They’re at it again.
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Posted in: Energy Medicine, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Politics and Regulation

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Conflicts of interest in science-based medicine

The topic of conflicts of interest among medical researchers has recently bubbled up to the public consciousness more than usual. The catalyst for this most recent round of criticism by the press and navel-gazing by researchers is the investigation of Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) of nine psychiatric researchers, one of which held $6 million in stock in a company formed to bring a drug for depression to market, but had allegedly concealed this, even though he was an investigator on an NIH grant to study the drug he was developing. From my perspective, there is more than a little politics going on in this story, given that for the last decade federal law, specifically the Bayh-Dole Act, and policy have actually encouraged investigators and universities to co-develop drugs and treatments with industry, but it does bring into focus the issue of conflicts of interest, in particular undisclosed conflicts of interest. There are two articles of note that recently appeared in the scientific literature discussing this issue, one in Science in July (about the Grassley investigation) and an editorial in the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience by Simon N. Young, PhD, the Co-Editor-in-Chief of the journal and faculty at McGill University. I was more interested in the latter article because it takes a much braoder view of the issue. Science-based medicine (SBM) depends upon the integrity of the science being done to justify treatments; so it’s useful to discuss how conflicts of interest intersect medical research.

In most public discussions of conflicts of interest (COIs), Young notes, the primary focus is on payments by pharmaceutical companies to investigators. Make no mistake, this is a big issue, but COIs are not just payments from drug companies. Indeed, I’ve written about just such COIs that have arguably impacted patient care negatively right her on this very blog, for example seeding trials (in which clinical trials are designed by the marketing division of pharmaceutical companies), a case of fraud that appeared to have been motivated by COIs. What needs to be understood is that every single scientific and medical investigators have COIs of one sort or another, and many are not financial. That’s why I like Young’s introduction to what COIs are:
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Academia, Politics and Regulation, Vaccines

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The NCCAM Seeks Comments for its “Strategic Plan: 2010.” Part I

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) has posted three essays about its latest “strategic planning process,” and has invited “stakeholders” to make comments. I have previously made my own opinions clear,* as have fellow bloggers Gorski, Novella, Lipson, and Sampson: the best strategic plan for the NCCAM would be to extinguish itself. Since politics makes that plan unlikely, there are strategies that could minimize the considerable harm now done by the Center, while possibly offering a modest benefit. In summary:

  • For both scientific and ethical reasons the NCCAM must dispense with trials of highly implausible claims. It should start by abandoning the ongoing Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy (TACT), its largest and most expensive trial yet, and one that has proven to place experimental subjects in considerable danger. It should publicly acknowledge such mistakes and explain why they must not be repeated—no matter how much political pressure there may be to do so.
  • The Center should use its website’s Health Information function to explain what’s known, rather than continue its customary practice of putting the best possible slant on most “CAM” claims, no matter how absurd or disproven.
  • The Center should address aspects of “CAM” advocacy that it has previously avoided, the most important being the close affiliation of such advocacy with the anti-vaccination (and autism quackery) movement. The NCCAM should consider itself an important source of rational information for a public that is currently, and dangerously, misled about immunizations. A related example of mischievous “CAM” advocacy, so far also ignored by the Center’s website, involves an imagined, sinister cartel of physicians, the AMA, pharmaceutical companies, and the FDA. The NCCAM should vigorously debunk such myths by providing facts and data.
  • The Center should pursue the question of why some people are stubbornly attracted to implausible, unproven, and/or inert treatments. Wally Sampson suggested this idea years ago. It is one of many legacies of the late Barry Beyerstein, among others, whose writings could serve as a template for legitimate NCCAM research topics.

The NCCAM’s Charter and its boosters in Congress make such strategies exceedingly unlikely, as explained here. Therefore, in this and two subsequent postings I’ll address a few of the assertions made in each of the Center’s three “big picture” essays. These will not be comprehensive critiques of those essays, which would require deconstructions of nearly every sentence.

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Posted in: Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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CFS: Viral vs somatization

On 10/08/09, the NIH and Science through press releases announced the following remarkable information:  Consortium of Researchers Discover Retroviral Link to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS.) From Science on line:

Scientists have discovered a potential retroviral link to chronic fatigue syndrome, known as CFS, a debilitating disease that affects millions of people in the United States. Researchers from the Whittemore Peterson Institute (WPI), located at the University of Nevada, Reno, the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the National Institutes of Health, and the Cleveland Clinic, report this finding online Oct. 8, 2009, issue of Science.

“We now have evidence that a retrovirus named XMRV is frequently present in the blood of patients with CFS. This discovery could be a major step in the discovery of vital treatment options for millions of patients,” said Judy Mikovits, Ph.D., director of research for WPI and leader of the team that discovered this association. Researchers cautioned however, that this finding shows there is an association between XMRV and CFS but does not prove that XMRV causes CFS.

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Posted in: History, Medical Academia, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and Medicine

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Infiltration of Quackademic Medicine into Mainstream: A pernicious influence

Editor’s note: Kausik Datta, Ph.D. is postdoctoral research fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. He works in immunology, specifically as related to two major mycoses (Aspergillosis and Cryptococcosis). Rationality and skepticism have been his long-standing interests, which led him into science- and evidence-based medicine. This is his first contribution to this blog.

Quackademic ‘Medicine’* is a collective of pseudoscientific, data-free, evidence-less, nonsensical therapeutic modalities (the so-called “alternative” therapies) – otherwise known as “complementary and alternative” medicine (CAM) or integrative or holistic medicine. These include, among other things, chelation therapy (for autism and cardiovascular diseases); chiropractic; use of random nutritional supplements; abuse of various prescription drugs; coffee enemas; naturopathy; homeopathy; reiki; energy healing that invokes manipulation of ‘life force’ or qi; acupuncture; ‘healing touch’, and intercessory prayer – the list goes on, since there is essentially no limit to human stupidity and no depth that the human mind cannot plumb.

Qualified professionals – those who are in the business of doing the hard work of science to gather critical evidence regarding the action of a therapy, as well as those who implement those modalities routinely and save lives – may perhaps find it easy to dismiss the proponents of quackademic medicine as an ill-informed, misguided, or downright lunatic, fringe. However, much like a bad case of household mold infestation, this community with its myrmidons continues to thrive and grow, impervious to reason, immune to evidence, unable to comprehend the danger they pose (and the harm they cause) to themselves, their children and millions of others on the planet. As discussed in the science blog Respectful Insolence, a large part of that harm derives from their promotion of unfounded (and repeatedly proven to be untrue) fears of vaccines causing autism, discouraging a lot of parents from vaccinating their children and prompting many of them to seek quack treatments (some of which are potentially dangerous) to try to ‘cure’ autistic
children. But still another part – a far more pernicious and pervasive one – has to do with the growing presence (and, it seems, acceptance) of quackademic pseudoscience in establishments of mainstream academic medicine.
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Posted in: Medical Academia

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HIV/AIDS denialists do it too!

Remember my post from Monday about fake scientific conferences organized by the anti-vaccine movement that are designed to paint a picture of legitimate science being done, so much so that they even fool some academics into speaking there? (I realize that the server issues we had from Monday through Wednesday that rendered the site completely FUBAR may have prevented some of you from reading it.)

Well, it turns out that HIV/AIDS denialists do it too!

Why am I not surprised?

Posted in: Medical Academia, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Crank “scientific” conferences: A parody of science-based medicine that can deceive even reputable scientists and institutions

If there’s one thing that purveyors of pseudoscientific medical modalities crave, probably above all else, it’s legitimacy. They want to be taken seriously as Real Scientists. Of course, my usual reaction to this desire is to point out that anyone can be take seriously as a real scientist if he is able to do science and that science actually shows that there is something to his claims. In other words, do his hypotheses make testable predictions, and does testing these predictions fail to falsify his hypotheses? That’s what it takes, but advocates of so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or “integrative medicine” (IM, or, as I like to refer to it: “integrating” quackery with scientific medicine) want their woo to be considered science without actually doing the hard work of science.

There are several strategies that pseudoscientists use to give their beliefs the appearance of science, a patina of “science-y” camouflage, if you will. One, of course, is the cooptation and corruption of the language of science, which has been a frequent topic on this blog, particularly in posts written by Drs. Atwood and Sampson. Another is to produce journals that appear to be science, but are anything but. I’ve discussed one example, the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons and Medical Acupuncture, but others include Homeopathy, the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, and Medical Hypotheses, which recently was forced to retract a horrible paper by arch-HIV/AIDS denialist Peter Duesberg. What’s worse is that some of these journals are even published by what are considered major publishers, such as Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., and Elsevier.

There is, however, a third strategy. How do scientists communicate their findings to other scientists, as well as meeting and mingling with other scientists? Why, they hold scientific meetings, of course! These meetings can be small or even as large as the American Association for Cancer Research meeting, which is attended by around 15,000 cancer researchers each year. So, too, do cranks hold meetings. These meetings often have all the trappings of scientific meetings, with plenary sessions, smaller parallel sessions, poster sesssions, and an exhibition hall, complete with exhibits by sponsoring companies. Sometimes these meetings can even appear so much like the real thing that they take in legitimate researchers and legitimate universities. Here, I present two examples of such conferences.
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Posted in: Medical Academia, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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“Gonzalez Regimen” for Cancer of the Pancreas: Even Worse than We Thought (Part II: Loose Ends)

Last week I discussed the dismal results of the “Gonzalez Trial” for cancer of the pancreas,* as reported in an article recently posted on the website of the Journal of Clinical Oncology. I promised that this week I’d discuss “troubling information, both stated and unstated [in the report],” and also some ethical issues. More has come to light in the past few days, including Nicholas Gonzalez’s own voluminous, angry response to the JCO article. I’ll comment upon that below, but first a brief review.

The trial was begun in 1999 under the auspices of Columbia University, after Rep. Dan Burton had pressured NCI Director Richard Klausner to fund it. It was originally conceived as a randomized, controlled trial comparing the “Gonzalez Regimen” to standard chemotherapy for cancer of the pancreas. In the first year, however, only 2 subjects had been accrued, purportedly because those seeking Gonzalez’s treatment were not willing to risk random assignment to the chemotherapy arm. In 2000, the protocol was changed to a “prospective, cohort study” to allow potential subjects to choose which treatment they would follow. Gonzalez himself was to provide the ‘enzyme’ treatments.

After that there was little public information about the trial for several years, other than a few determination letters from the Office of Human Research Protections and a frightening account of the experience of one subject treated by Gonzalez. By 2006 or so, those of us who pay attention to creeping pseudomedicine in the academy were wondering what had become of it. About a year ago we found out: the trial had been quietly “terminated” in 2005 after it met “pre-determined stopping criteria.” As explained here, that meant that the Gonzalez group had not fared well.

Four years after the trial’s ‘termination,’ the report was finally published: The Gonzalez cohort had not only fared much worse than the cohort that received chemotherapy, but it had fared worse than a comparable group of historical controls. Here, again, is the survival graph from the JCO paper:

Snapshot 2009-09-11 16-16-15

The Gonzalez group had also fared much worse in ‘quality of life’ scores, which included a measure of pain.

Now let’s read between the lines. Forgive me for taking shortcuts; I’m a little pressed for time. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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An open letter to Dr. J. Douglas Bremner

Peter Lipson wrote a post last week entitled Before You Trust That Blog…, which was a criticism of Dr. J. Douglas Bremner’s blog Before You Take That Pill. Dr. Bremner was not pleased, and posted a rebuttal entitled Response to Peter Lipson MD of “Science” Based Blogs, My Blog Does Not Suck, Yours Does. Given the kerfuffle and my role as managing editor of SBM, I felt the need to put my two cents in, which is why I’m posting this open letter to Dr. Bremner. This letter started as a much briefer response that I was going to e-mail to Dr. Bremner, but as I wrote it grew and grew to the point where I decided that, given the public nature of the disagreement between Dr. Lipson and Dr. Bremner, I might as well make my commentary public too. Consider it a bonus post from me. I still plan a post for my usual slot on Monday. In the meantime, here’s my open letter:
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Posted in: Medical Academia, Pharmaceuticals, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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