Countering ideologically motivated bad science, pseudoscience, misinformation, and lies is one of the main purposes of this blog. Specifically, we try to combat such misinformation in medicine; elsewhere Steve and I, as well as some of our other “partners in crime” combat other forms of pseudoscience. During the nearly five year existence of this blog, we’ve covered a lot of topics in medicine that tend to be prone to pseudoscience and quackery. Oddly enough, there’s one topic that we haven’t really written much about at all, and that’s genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GMOs, as you know, are proliferating, and it’s quite worth discussing the potential and risks of this new technology, just as it is worthwhile to discuss the potential benefits versus the risks of any new technology that can impact our health, not to mention the health of the planet. Unfortunately, GMOs have become a huge political issue, and, I would argue, they have become just as prone to pseudoscience, misinformation, and bad science as vaccines, with a radical group of anti-GMO activists who are as anti-science as any antivaccinationist or quack.
Leave it to that quackery promoter to rule all quackery promoters, Mike Adams, to give me just the opportunity to show you what I mean. Over the last couple of weeks, Mike has been in a fine lather about GMOs, with multiple posts with titles such as The GMO debate is over; GM crops must be immediately outlawed; Monsanto halted from threatening humanity and The evil of Monsanto and GMOs explained: Bad technology, endless greed and the destruction of humanity. In other words, it’s a series of post with Adams’ typical hyperbole. If you were to believe him, GMOs are the product of a plot by Satan, Monsanto, big pharma, and the government, and he’s not sure which one of these is the most evil of the bunch.
There’s an oft-quoted saying that’s become a bit of a cliché among skeptics that goes something like this: There are two kinds of medicine: medicine that’s been proven scientifically to work, and medicine that hasn’t. This is then often followed up with a rhetorical question and its answer: What do call “alternative medicine” that’s been proven to work? Medicine. Of course, being the kind of guy that I am, I have to make it a bit more complicated than that while driving home in essence the same message. In my hands, the way this argument goes is that the whole concept of “alternative” medicine is a false dichotomy. There is no such thing. In reality, there are three kinds of medicine: Medicine that has been shown to efficacious and safe (i.e., shown to work); medicine that has not yet been shown to work (i.e., that is unproven); and medicine that has been shown not to work (i.e., that is disproven). So-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM or, its newer, shinier name, “integrative medicine”) consists almost completely of the latter two categories.
Part of the reason why this saying and its variants have become so commonplace among those of us who support science-based medicine is that they strike at a common truth about medicine, both science-based and “alternative.” That common truth is what we here at SBM have been arguing since the very inception of this blog, namely that there must be one science-based standard of evidence for all treatments, be they “alternative” or the latest creation of big pharma. That point informs everything I write here and everything my blogging parters in crime write about too. What that means is a single, clear set of standards for evaluating medical evidence, in which clinical evidence is coupled to basic science and scientific plausibility. Indeed, one of our main complaints against CAM and its supporters has been how they invoke a double standard, in which they expect their therapies to be accepted as “working” on the basis of a much lower standard of evidence. Indeed, when they see high quality clinical trials demonstrating that, for example, acupuncture doesn’t work, they will frequently advocate the use of “pragmatic” trials, lower quality trials of “real world effectiveness” that do not adequately control for placebo effects. It’s putting the cart before the horse.
It’s that time of year again, namely flu vaccine time. My very own cancer institute will be offering the flu vaccine for its staff beginning October 1, and I plan on getting mine just as soon as I get back from the American College of Surgeons Clinical Congress in Chicago early next week. In the meantime, it’s always great to read Mark Crislip’s take on the yearly flu vaccine kerfuffle, particularly this part:
I have little (actually none) respect for HCW’s [health care workers] who do not get vaccinated. We have a professional and moral obligation to place our patients first. I think those who do not get vaccinated, except for a minority with a valid allergy, are dumb asses.
Preach it, Dr. Crislip!
However, this time of year is also a vaccine time of year for another reason (well, actually it was about a month ago). That’s because in late August or early September, depending on your state, the little kiddies (and not-so-little kiddies) return to school and therefore have to be up to date on their required vaccines or face not being able to go to school. No wonder the antivaccine movement goes nuts this time of the year, given the double whammy of antivaccine parents trying to avoid vaccinating their children before going to school by hook or by crook and the yearly promotion of flu vaccines and mandates that health care workers get them. (For the record, my cancer center requires it, and if there’s one thing the administration of my hospital has done that I fully support it’s the yearly vaccine requirement. We’re a cancer hospital, fer cryin’ out loud, and we have lots of immunosuppressed patients that we take care of!) The only other time of year when antivaccinationists are even close to this actively ridiculous is every April, which is Autism Awareness Month, when they start trying to tar attempts to highlight autism and autism research with demands that antivaccine pseudoscience be thrown into the mix like the proverbial cow pie added to the apple pie.
Since Mark’s already covered the flu vaccine so well, let’s talk about the topic of nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates. This topic came up when I noticed that the bloggers and denizens of that most wretched hive of antivaccine scum and quackery, Age of Autism, have swarmed over to a news story about how Washington State has made it harder for parents to obtain nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine requirements:
In the last 20 or so years, the popularity of so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” began to lure physicians (M.D.s and D.O.s) into employing CAM treatments, or what is now rebranded as “integrative medicine.” Of course, CAM use by a physician necessarily requires some deviation from the “conventional” standard of care. Because deviation from the standard of care can be grounds for discipline by the state medical board, state legislatures and medical boards in the United States have had to grapple with just how much medical practice acts and regulations should accommodate CAM use by physicians.
As it turns out, less than you might think.
There is a disturbing effort afoot to rebrand chiropractors as primary care physicians, a subject both Harriet Hall and I have discussed in previous posts. Part of this effort includes convincing state legislatures to grant prescription privileges to chiropractors, an effort that succeeded in New Mexico, as reported in a post a couple of years ago. Let’s return to New Mexico and see how that is working out for everyone.
By way of background, in 2008, the New Mexico legislature created a new iteration of chiropractor called “certified advanced practice chiropractic physicians” with the authority to
prescribe, administer and dispense herbal medicine, homeopathic medicines, vitamins, minerals, enzymes, glandular products, naturally derived substances, protomorphogens, live cell products, gerovital, amino acids, dietary supplements, foods for special dietary use, bioidentical hormones, sterile water, sterile saline, sarapin or its generic, caffeine, procaine, oxygen, epinephrine and vapocoolants.
As Ben Kavoussi observed recently,
[o]nce considered archaic and obsolete, Oriental Medicine has greatly benefited from the postmodern attitudes towards science and knowledge. This is because postmodernists consider the ‘truth’ as being relative to one’s viewpoint or stance. They do not see science as a superior process of acquiring knowledge, but as a ‘belief system,’ a ‘language game,’ which does not give more access to truth than other conceptual constructs.
This “postmodern fallacy,” he continued,
has allowed the return of mass professional delusions under the label of Chinese, Oriental or Asian Medicine. As an unfortunate byproduct, dangerous and outdated therapies have been legitimized, and quacks and charlatans can overtly defraud those who cannot distinguish scientific medicine from lore and fantasy.
There is probably no better example of this “unfortunate byproduct” than the state acupuncture and oriental medicine practice acts. These laws have indeed legitimized dangerous and outdated therapies, allowing quacks and charlatans to defraud the public.
The burgeoning U.S. stem cell therapy industry was delivered a setback last month in the form of a U.S. District Court injunction against use of the “Regenexx™ Procedure,” which purports to treat joint, muscle, tendon or bone pain due to injury or other conditions. The court agreed with the FDA that the cell product used in the procedure is both a drug and a “biological product” subject to FDA regulation. Because a similar process is used in other stem cell therapies the decision increases the possibility that the FDA will take a like position in other cases.
The general term “stem cell therapy” comprises an array of treatments which range from the clinically proven to quackery. On one end of the spectrum is blood stem cell transplantation to treat diseases and conditions of the blood and immune system. On the other lies the kind of stem cell therapy tourism addressed by both Steve Novella (here and here) and Orac (here and here), which involves the injection of what may, or may not be, stem cells from what may, or may not be, humans. In between fall therapies which are plausible and have promise but have not been adequately tested in clinical trials. There is a concern that these therapies are being oversold by clinics which charge thousands of dollars (not reimbursed by insurance) to treat conditions including multiple sclerosis, musculoskeletal pain, and cardiac disease.
One issue that keeps coming up time and time again for me is the issue of screening for cancer. Because I’m primarily a breast cancer surgeon in my clinical life, that means mammography, although many of the same issues come up time and time again in discussions of using prostate-specific antigen (PSA) screening for prostate cancer. Over time, my position regarding how to screen and when to screen has vacillated—er, um, evolved, yeah, that’s it—in response to new evidence, although the core, including my conclusion that women should definitely be screened beginning at age 50 and that it’s probably also a good idea to begin at age 40 but less frequently during that decade, has never changed. What does change is how strongly I feel about screening before 50.
My changes in emphasis and conclusions regarding screening mammography derive from my reading of the latest scientific and clinical evidence, but it’s more than just evidence that is in play here. Mammography, perhaps more than screening for any disease, is affected by more than just science. Policies regarding mammographic screening are also based on value judgments, politics, and awareness and advocacy campaigns going back decades. To some extent, this is true of many common diseases (i.e., that whether and how to screen for them are about more than just science), but in breast cancer arguably these issues are more intense. Add to that the seemingly eternal conflict between science and medicine communication, in which a simple message, repeated over and over, is required to get through, versus the messy science that tells us that the benefits of mammography are confounded by issues such as lead time and length bias that make it difficult indeed to tell if mammography—or any screening test for cancer, for that matter—saves lives and, if it does, how many. Part of the problem is that mammography tends to detect preferentially the very tumors that are less likely to be deadly, and it’s not surprising that periodically what I like to call the “mammography wars” heat up. This is not a new issue, but rather a controversy that flares up periodically. Usually this is a good thing.
And these wars just just heated up a little bit again late last week.
“Complementary and alternative medicine,” as pediatrician and fellow blogger John Snyder aptly stated in a recent journal article on CAM and children,
is a term used to describe a disparate, poorly defined set of practices and treatment modalities presumed to be distinct from so-called ‘conventional medicine’.
As we have discussed here at Science-Based Medicine, this amorphous concept facilitates a convenient fluidity in delineating the parameters of CAM. Without a clear definition, CAM (and integrative medicine) proponents are able to rebrand plausible and evidence-based practices such as diet, exercise and relaxation as CAM, a tactic we at SBM call “bait and switch.” This results in inflation in the figures of CAM use (important because CAM is all about popularity) and claims that CAM “works.”
I’ve just returned from TAM, along with Steve Novella and Harriet Hall. While there, we joined up with Rachael Dunlop to do what has become a yearly feature of TAM, the Science-Based Medicine workshop, as well as a panel discussion on one of our favorite subjects, “integrative” medicine. Between it all, I did the usual TAM thing, meeting up with old friends, taking in some talks, and, of course, spending the evenings imbibing more alcohol than I probably should have so that I could look and feel my best for our morning sessions, particularly given my difficulty adapting to the time change. One thing I did was completely unexpected, something I learned about the night before our workshop when I happened to run into Evan Bernstein. He informed me of something that our fearless leader Steve Novella was going to do the next day right after our workshop. In a nutshell, Evan told me that Steve was going to debate an antivaccinationist. Evan didn’t know any details other than that Michael Shermer had arranged it and that Steve had been tapped at the last minute. Evan didn’t even know who the antivaccinationist was going to be or what the event was. Naturally, I was intrigued.
So, the next morning I asked Steve about it. I turns out that the event was FreedomFest, a right-wing/Libertarian confab that happened to be going on at the same time as TAM up the road a piece on the Strip at Bally’s. Steve didn’t know who the antivaccinationist was going to be either, which made me marvel at him. I don’t know that I’d have the confidence agree to walk into the lion’s den with less than a day’s notice not even knowing who my opponent is. Steve was more than happy to invite me along. Clearly, this was was an opportunity that I couldn’t resist. So we met up with Michael Shermer, and it was from him that I learned that Steve’s opponent was to be Dr. Julian Whitaker.
My eyes lit up.