One of the basic principles of science-based medicine is that a single study rarely tells us much about any complex topic. Reliable conclusions are derived from an assessment of basic science (i.e prior probability or plausibility) and a pattern of effects across multiple clinical trials. However the mainstream media generally report each study as if it is a breakthrough or the definitive answer to the question at hand. If the many e-mails I receive asking me about such studies are representative, the general public takes a similar approach, perhaps due in part to the media coverage.
I generally do not plan to report on each study that comes out as that would be an endless and ultimately pointless exercise. But occasionally focusing on a specific study is educational, especially if that study is garnering a significant amount of media attention. And so I turn my attention this week to a recent study looking at acupuncture in major depression during pregnancy. The study concludes:
The short acupuncture protocol demonstrated symptom reduction and a response rate comparable to those observed in standard depression treatments of similar length and could be a viable treatment option for depression during pregnancy.
I must admit, I never saw it coming.
At least, I never saw it coming this fast and this dramatically. After all, this is a saga that has been going on for twelve solid years now, and it’s an investigation that has been going on at least since 2004. Yes, I’m referring to that (possibly former) hero of the anti-vaccine movement, the man who is arguably the most responsible for suffering and death due to the resurgence of measles in the U.K. because of his role in frightening parents about the MMR vaccine.
I’m referring to the fall of Andrew Wakefield
The news is finally filtering out to the rest of the world.
As Steve Novella and my good buddy pointed out a few days ago (and as Steve pointed out in an interview on NPR), Dr. Steven Laureys admitted that Rom Houben, the unfortunate victim of a car crash that left him in what had been diagnosed as a persistent vegetative state, was in fact not able to communicate through the woo known as facilitated communication. This came as no surprise to anyone who has followed FC over the years. In fact, what had come as a surprise is that Dr. Laureys could have been so easily taken in by pseudoscience that had been so thoroughly debunked in the 1990s. To his credit, though, after a period of initially stubbornly defending FC, he relented and allowed objective testing, and the result was predictable. It took a few days, but the English language world is learning of the failure of FC in Houben’s case:
The sceptics said it was impossible – and it was. The story of Rom Houben of Belgium, which made headlines worldwide last November when he was shown to be “talking”, was today revealed to have been nothing of the sort.
Dr Steven Laureys, one of the doctors treating him, acknowledged that his patient could not make himself understood after all. Facilitated communication, the technique said to have made Houben’s apparent contact with the outside world possible, did not work, Laureys declared.
“We did not have all the facts before,” he said. “To me, it’s enough to say that this method doesn’t work.” Just three months ago the doctor was proclaiming that Houben had been trapped in his own body, the victim of a horrendous misdiagnosis, and only rescued from his terrible plight thanks to medical advances.
What was not reported is that skeptics were involved in the testing of Rom Houben. I recently received a statement from the Belgian Skeptics (SKEPP):
Scientific studies are not meant to be amusing, but I laughed out loud when I heard about this one. After all the concern about possible adverse health effects from cell phone use, this study tells us cell phone use can prevent Alzheimer’s, treat Alzheimer’s, and even improve cognitive function in healthy users.
They studied transgenic mice programmed by their genes to develop Alzheimer’s-like cognitive impairment; they used a group of non-transgenic littermates as controls. For an hour twice daily over several months they exposed the entire mouse cage to EMF comparable to what is emitted by cell phones. They tested cognitive function with maze tests and other tasks that are thought to measure the same things as human tests of cognitive function. The authors claim to have found striking evidence for both protective and disease-reversing effects. (more…)
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.
Peter Lipson reported Monday about new research suggesting that Multiple Sclerosis may be caused by venous blockage. He correctly characterized some of the hype surrounding this story as “irrational exuberance.”
This is a phenomenon all too common in the media – taking the preliminary research of an individual or group (always presented as a maverick) and declaring it a “stunning breakthrough,” combined with the ubiquitous personal anecdote of someone “saved” by the new treatment.
The medical community, meanwhile, responds with appropriate caution and healthy skepticism. Looks interesting – let’s see some more research. There is a reason for such a response from experts – experience.
The primary reason that I and others favor science-based medicine, as opposed to the alternatives, is that science works. As Carl Sagan said, “Science delivers the good.” Science has other virtues – it is transparent and self-corrective also.
Recently two unrelated news items have provided an opportunity to compare a scientific vs a pseudoscientific approach to the same problem – that of communicating to patients who are locked-in.
Locked-in describes those who suffer from an injury or neurological disease that mostly paralyzes them, so that they cannot move or communicate. One scenario that leads to a locked-in state is a brainstem stroke, where patients are paralyzed below the eyes – they can only blink and move their eyes, but nothing else. Widespread trauma can lead to a similar situation. ALS, which leads to progressive loss of motor neurons, can also result in total or near total paralysis.
Many parents of children with autism have expressed to me their dismay that the anti-vaccine lobby is sucking all the oxygen out of the room for autism awareness. They feel that just being a parent of a child with autism makes others assume that they are anti-vaccine. They also worry that resources and attention are being diverted from promising legitimate research because of all the attention being paid to the failed vaccine hypothesis.
So it is good to occasionally focus on mainstream autism research to show that progress is being made, despite the unfortunate anti-vaccine sideshow.
A recent study published in the latest issue of Pediatrics shows that early intervention in toddlers with autism can have significant benefits. The study is a randomized controlled trial of the Early Start Denver Model compared to conventional treatment in 18-30 month old children with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The study is a reasonable size for this kind of intervention – 48 children were randomized – and this is sufficiently powered to get statistical significance. But it should be noted this is still a smallish study and replication to confirm the results is welcome.
Another potential weakness is that the control group was “referral to community providers for intervention commonly available in the community.” Therefore the control group was not standardized and it’s possible this group was sub-optimally treated. Further, while the groups were randomized they were not blinded.
I don’t know. The mainstream media is doing a wonderful job sensationalizing this case, presenting it without skepticism. Some outlets are doing a good job of discussing the relevant issues – but they don’t have the information to have a meaningful discussion of this particular case. Details are tantalizing but thin.
The case is that of Rom Houben. The story was broke, as far as I can tell, by the Mail Online – yes, that is a huge red flag. It does not make the story wrong, it just doesn’t instill in me confidence in the reporting.
Mr. Houben was in a terrible motor vehicle accident 23 years ago and has been paralyzed ever since. His diagnosis has been PVS – persistent vegetative state. However, recently, we are told, his mother insisted on a neurological re-evaluation. This is actually quite reasonable, generally speaking (again, without knowing specific details of this case).
Karl Popper said “Science must begin with myths and with the criticism of myths.” Popular psychology is a prolific source of myths. It has produced widely held beliefs that “everyone knows are true” but that are contradicted by psychological research. A new book does an excellent job of mythbusting: 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior by Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and the late, great skeptic Barry L. Beyerstein.
I read a lot of psychology and skeptical literature, and I thought I knew a lot about false beliefs in psychology, but I wasn’t as savvy as I thought. Some of these myths I knew were myths, and the book reinforced my convictions with new evidence that I hadn’t seen; some I had questioned and I was glad to see my skepticism vindicated; but some myths I had swallowed whole and the book’s carefully presented evidence made me change my mind. (more…)