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Archive for Politics and Regulation

Chemical castration for autism: After three years, the mainstream media finally notices

We’ve written a lot about anti-vaccine zealotry on this blog, as Steve and I take a particular interest in this particular form of dangerous pseudoscience for a number of reasons. One reason, of course, is that the activities of antivaccine groups like Generation Rescue and its spokesmodel since 2007 (Jenny McCarthy, a frequent topic on this blog) have started to frighten parents about vaccines enough that vaccination rates are falling well below that required for herd immunity in some parts of the country. Indeed, McCarthy, at the behest of her handlers in Generation Rescue, serves up a regular “toxic” brew of misinformation and nonsense about vaccines, most recently in a video that was the subject of a post by Val Jones about her unbelievably pseudoscience-laden blather. Truly, it has to be seen to be believed. Meanwhile, Generation Rescue has sent McCarthy on a media propaganda tour for her latest antivaccine pro-quackery book and set up a misinformation-laden propaganda site called Fourteen Studies (blogged about by Steve Novella, Mark Crislip, and, of course, yours truly) in which they attack well-designed studies that have failed to confirm their pet idea that somehow, some way, vaccines must be the cause of autism. And, when their pseudoscience is criticized, the antivaccine movement has a tendency to launch vicious ad hominem attacks, as they recently did against Steve Novella and have done multiple times in the past against me.

However, there is one other consequence of the antivaccine movement, however, and it is at least as important as the public health implications of the potential dimunition of herd immunity caused by the fear mongering of groups like Generation Rescue. That consequence is the cottage industry of “biomedical” treatments to which desperate parents subject their children. Gluten-free diets, chelation therapy (which has caused deaths), hyperbaric oxygen chambers (a recent story described a child getting severely burned when one of these caught fire), autistic children have been subjected to it all. But of all the biomedical woo to which autistic children have been subjected, one form of woo stands out as being particularly heinous. Indeed, I agree with our fearless leader Steve in characterizing it as an “atrocity.”

I’m referring to Mark and David Geier’s favored “treatment” for autistic children, namely a drug called Lupron.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Health Fraud, Medical Ethics, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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The British Chiropractic Association versus Simon Singh

Simon SinghIf there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years promoting skepticism and science in medicine and writing critically about various forms of unscientific medical practices and outright quackery, it’s that there will always be pushback. Much, if not most, of the time, it’s just insults online. However, occasionally, the pushback enters into the realm of real life. I can remember the very first time this happened to me. It was in 2005, and a man by the name of William P. O’Neill of the Canadian Cancer Research Group sent legal threats to my Department Chairman, my Division Chief, and my Cancer Center Director. The legal threat was clearly vacuous, as Mr. O’Neill seemed upset mainly that I had praised his arch-nemesis, Australian skeptic Peter Bowditch (who even keeps a running tally of threats he receives from Mr. O’Neill under the heading The GAL Chronicles, where GAL stands for “gutless anonymous liar”). I must admit, at the time it scared the crap out of me, but the reaction of my Chairman at the time, Dr. Stephen Lowry, was classic in that he said he did not care what I did in my spare time and referred to Mr. O’Neill as a “cowardly bully.” From then on, every time Mr. O’Neill tried something similar, I simply replied that I was forwarding his e-mail to Dr. Lowry (who was amused by all this) and thanked him for his concern.

More recently, J.B. Handley wrote a rather ugly screed (one of two, actually) about me. Somehow, this screed was e-mailed to my cancer center director. Whether Mr. Handley, one of the crew at Age of Autism, or an AoA reader did it, I don’t know. However, it is typical behavior of the anti-vaccine movement. Based on this history, I’ve concluded that, if you’re going to be a skeptic you’d better be prepared for this sort of thing, and if you’re going to blog under a pseudonym you’d better expect that sooner or later someone will try very, very hard indeed to “out” you and use that against you–which is of course blogging at SBM is in a way liberating in that it removes that threat.

However, whatever obnoxiousness or attempts to harass me at my job I may on occasion have to worry about, one thing I don’t have to worry about (much) is legal threats, at least as long as I keep all my ducks in a row, so to speak. In the U.S., libel is a very difficult charge to prove. The First Amendment gives wide latitude to free speech, and that places the burden of proof on the plaintiff to show that a statement is defamatory, with libel being in essence written defamation. In general, this is what constitutes defamation in the U.S.:

In order for the person about whom a statement is made to recover for libel, the false statement must be defamatory, meaning that it actually harms the reputation of the other person, as opposed to being merely insulting or offensive.

The statement(s) alleged to be defamatory must also have been published to at least one other person (other than the subject of the statement) and must be “of and concerning” the plaintiff. That is, those hearing or reading the statement must identify it specifically with the plaintiff.

The statement(s) alleged to be defamatory must also be a false statement of fact. That which is name-calling, hyperbole, or, however characterized, cannot be proven true or false, cannot be the subject of a libel or slander claim.

The defamatory statement must also have been made with fault. The extent of the fault depends primarily on the status of the plaintiff. Public figures, such as government officials, celebrities, well-known individuals, and people involved in specific public controversies, are required to prove actual malice, a legal term which means the defendant knew his statement was false or recklessly disregarded the truth or falsity of his statement. In most jurisdictions, private individuals must show only that the defendant was negligent: that he failed to act with due care in the situation.

A defamation claim — at least one based upon statements about issues that are matters of public interest — will likely fail if any of these elements are not met.

As you can see, it is a high bar of evidence to overcome to prove libel. Of course, that is a two-edged sword in that it allows J.B. Handley to slime me whenever he wishes, with little I can do about it, but I am also allowed, as I see fit, to respond or not to such attacks. I can also continue to criticize anti-vaccine propagandists like Mr. Handley as I see fit. Unfortunately, for my U.K. colleagues, the same is most assuredly not true in British courts, where the rules are very much weighted against the defendant. Witness this travesty of a ruling on the libel case against Simon Singh, coauthor with Edzard Ernst of Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine (which Harriet Hall reviewed last year) by the British Chiropractic Association, as related by Jack of Kent. This ruling came about because the BCA did not like an article that Singh wrote for The Guardian entitled Beware the spinal trap.
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Posted in: Chiropractic, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media

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Georgia on my mind

Scales

My inaugural post was about vaccines, and I promised that I wouldn’t write exclusively on this topic. But something rotten is brewing in the state of Georgia and this story is just too important to ignore.

The first successful challenge to the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Compensation Act (NCVICA) has taken place in Georgia, and we all should be just a little bit worried. In Ferrari v. American Home Products Corp., the plaintiffs, Marcello and Carolyn Ferrari of Atlanta, have sued American Home Products Corp. (otherwise known as Wyeth) and the co-defendant GlaxoSmithKline, claiming that the vaccine preservative thimerosal led to their son’s autism. The consequences of this ruling could effect the health of the entire nation. To understand why, we need to delve a bit into what the NCVICA is exactly, and why it was created in the first place.
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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The Huffington Post‘s War on Medical Science: A Brief History

I realize that our fearless leader Steve Novella has already written about this topic twice. He has, as usual, done a bang-up job of describing how Arianna Huffington’s political news blog has become a haven for quackery, even going so far as to entitle his followup post The Huffington Post’s War on Science. And he’s absolutely right. The Huffington Post has waged a war on science, at least a war on science-based medicine, ever since its inception, a mere two weeks after which it was first noticed that anti-vaccine lunacy ruled the roost there. Because I’ve had experience with this topic since 2005, I thought I’d try to put some perspective on the issue, in order to show you just how pervasive pseudoscience has been (and for how long) at the blog whose name is often abbreviated as “HuffPo.”
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Posted in: Cancer, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Harvard Medical School: Veritas for Sale (Part VI)

Loose Ends: Dr. Koh and More

After Dr. Federman’s letter and my reply, posted in Part V of this series,† there seemed little point in pursuing the matter further. Although Dr. Federman never answered my reply, he did send, at my request, a copy of Commissioner of Public Health Howard Koh‘s written “construction of the events in the Massachusetts Special Commission.” As you may recall, those events had occurred at meetings that Dr. Koh never attended:

July 29, 2002

Dear Dr. Federman:

I have had an opportunity to review Dr. Kimball Atwood’s characterizations of the role Dr. David Eisenberg played as an advisor and designee of the Department of Public Health (DPH) and I am writing to clarify several misrepresentations of that role. As you may know, I personally selected Dr. Eisenberg as my designee for the Massachusetts Special Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medical Practitioners based on his high level of scientific and clinical expertise in the field, as well as his international reputation for evidence-based research. I felt at that time, as I do now, that he was the appropriate choice to represent the Department and I am extremely grateful for his advice and his integrity during this most contentious process.

During the course of the Commission, Dr. Eisenberg brought to my attention some of the conflicts that had arisen among the members, despite his attempts to diffuse the hostility and to engage the members in collegial debate. In an effort to overcome these difficulties and deflect unwarranted criticism, Nancy Ridley, Assistant Commissioner for Health Quality Management, attended the meetings over the last six months as the DPH voting designee, with Dr. Eisenberg as an advisor. She also organized a DPH workgroup of the Commission in an attempt to bring consensus and closure to what had become a very polarized and highly personalized process.

I need to state emphatically that the approval of the final Commission report is my responsibility, and is largely a product of the DPH workgroup that Assistant Commissioner Ridley chaired. Dr. Eisenberg had actually not been supportive of either the “majority” or “minority” reports that were originally presented, and neither was Ms. Ridley. She attempted to address as many of Dr. Eisenberg’s concerns as possible but knew he still had issues with the final document. She feels very strongly that there needs to be regulatory oversight of non-physician practitioners of complementary and alternative naturopathic practice. Assistant Commissioner Ridley, on behalf of the Department and with my consent, signed the report that included a significant number of revisions which narrowed the scope of practice, ensured collaborative relationships between physician and non-physician practitioners, and broadened the scope of any proposed regulatory oversight required. Dr. Eisenberg’s advice to DPH was delivered in a fair and balanced manner based his outstanding experience as a clinician and scientist.

I believe that one of the contributing factors for the polarization within the Commission had little to do with Dr. Eisenberg’s participation rather than that of his staffperson, Michael Cohen, who attended Commission meetings in his absence. Mr. Cohen was repeatedly characterized as the alternate DPH designee, which he was not.

In summary, Dr. Eisenberg’s expertise and professionalism throughout this difficult process have been greatly appreciated by the Department. DPH was truly fortunate to be represented and advised by a person of Dr. Eisenberg’s stature and character. I would be more that pleased to speak to you or Dean Martin on his behalf. Please feel free to contact me at xxx.xxx.xxxx if you need any additional information.

Sincerely,

Howard K. Koh, MD, MPH

The range of self-serving misrepresentations in that letter is wide, and is worrisome in someone who will be “responsible for the major health agencies, including the CDC, FDA and NIH, and [will be] the leading health advisor to the Secretary of HHS.” I have already discussed some of the facts here and here, and will add more now.

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

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Human subjects protections and research ethics: Where the rubber hits the road for science-based medicine

Arguably the most difficult aspect of science-based medicine is where the rubber hits the road, so to speak. That’s where scientists and physicians take the results of preclinical studies performed in vitro in biochemical assays and cell culture models and in vivo in animal models to humans. There are numerous reasons for this, not the least of which that preclinical models, contrary to what animal rights activists would like you to believe, do not predict human responses to new therapeutic agents as much as we would like. However, the single biggest reason that we cannot answer questions in human studies as easily as we can in cell culture and animal studies is ethics. Of course, answering questions using cell culture and animal studies is not “easy,” either, but performing studies using human beings as subjects is an order of magnitude (at least) more difficult because the potential to cause harm exists, and if harm is caused by the experimental treatment under study, that harm will be done to human beings, rather than cells in a dish or mice bred for research.

The “gold standard” type of study that we do to test the efficacy of a new drug is known as the randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blinded study, often abbreviated RCT. Indeed, this remains the gold standard and is accorded the highest level of “power” in the framework of evidence-based medicine. Of course, as we have argued time and time again, using the RCT to test therapies that are incredibly implausible on a strictly scientific basis (homeopathy or reiki, for instance) inevitably leads to numerous “false positives” in which the therapy appears to produce results statistically significantly better than the control. John Ioannidis has done numerous clever analyses that demonstrate how easily clinical research is led astray if it is not grounded in scientific plausibility. Indeed, the probability of false positive studies increases, the more improbable the modality. It is for these very reasons that we have proposed the concept of science-based medicine, which takes into account estimates of prior probability based on preclinical studies and basic scientific principles, rather than evidence-based medicine, which does not. Indeed, Wally Sampson has even proposed a “plausibility scale” for rating RCTs, and Steve Novella has pointed out how difficult it can be to interpret the medical literature.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Surgical Procedures, Vaccines

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Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends, part II: Generation Rescue, the anti-vaccine propaganda machine, and “Fourteen Studies”

I hadn’t planned on writing about the antivaccine movement again this week, so soon after having had to subject myself to yet another round of Jenny McCarthy on Larry King Live and a truly execrable Generation Rescue “study.” I really hadn’t. For one thing, there’s just so much nonsense laid down by antivaccinationists these days that it’s utterly impossible for one blogger to keep up with it all. I could write about them every single day and still not counter the sheer mass of pseudoscience, misinformation, and general ignorance that antivaccine activists spout each and every day, and because this is Autism Awareness Month lately the misinformation has been coming particularly fast and furiously. Sometimes, however, there arrives a bit of misinformation that is so egregious that it requires some response, regardless of how burned out on the topic I might be; so I guess I’ll just have to suck it up and plunge into the morass again.

The reason is that, in retrospect, I now realize that the Jenny and Jim antivaccine propaganda tour was clearly merely phase I of Generation Rescue’s April public relations offensive. In rapid succession last week, courtesy of J.B. Handley, the founder of Generation Rescue, who in order to have a couple of famous faces fronting his organization has allowed himself to be displaced, so that Generation Rescue has now been “reborn” as Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey’s Autism Organization (the better to capitalize on her D-list celebrity yoked to Jim Carrey’s formerly A-list (but rapidly plunging) celebrity), announced Generation Rescue’s latest initiative in a post on its antivaccine blog Age of Autism entitled Fourteen Studies? Only if you never read them.:
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Harvard Medical School: Veritas for Sale (Part IV)

HMS Puts the Messenger in its Crosshairs

When, during the fall and winter of 2001-02 I first approached Dean Daniel Federman of the Harvard Medical School (HMS) with evidence that the HMS “CAM” program was promoting pseudomedicine, I gave him some materials that I thought would be adequate to make the case: ‘CAM’ Director David Eisenberg’s dubious funding sources and his failure to disclose them to the Massachusetts Special Commission; the website of the Caregroup/Harvard Medical School Center for Alternative Medicine Research and Education (CAMRE), which urged anonymous websurfers to “consult your local telephone yellow pages” for ‘naturopathic physicians’ and other quacks; the presence on the ultra-PPO American Association for Health Freedom (AAHF) Advisory Board of attorney Michael H. Cohen, the Harvard CAMRE’s “Director of Legal Programs” (at the time, Dr. Federman agreed with me that the mere existence of such a position was curious, if the CAMRE’s purpose was ”research and education”); that Dr. Eisenberg and Atty Cohen had contributed to a report to the Massachusetts State Legislature recommending a formal state imprimatur for the practice of pseudomedicine; and other embarrassing findings. A bit later, in March 2002, I sent him a draft of the essay that I posted in Parts I and II of this series.

That material proved not to be adequate, for on March 20, 2002, Dr. Federman sent me the following letter:

Dear Kim,

I ready to undertake a formal review of the Harvard Medical School’s Division of Research and Education in Complementary and Alternative Medicine, and of its leadership to investigate the charges outlined in your letter of November 4, 2001, subsequent emails, and our meeting of January 22, 2002 in my office. I have read almost all of the voluminous literature you sent me and am writing to ask you to assist our efforts. Specifically, I am asking you to prepare a one to three page summary of the specific portions of the material you sent me that you consider erroneous, duplicitous, misleading, or fraudulent.* I do not feel I should summarize your views. Please be specific and give sources, where you can, in support of your statements.

I am committed to achieving a careful and balanced review of the issues you raise.

Sincerely,

Daniel E. Federman, M.D.

* [These are terms that I had used in my communications with Dr. Federman; the only one from which I backed away, after he reacted with considerable alarm, was "fraudulent."]

That was the first real suggestion that the fix was in. The pertinent literature that I’d sent Dr. Federman did not consist of “my views” or even my words. It consisted of statements copied from CAMRE publications and other public sources. Why did Dr. Federman now seem to be framing the issue as a matter of (my) opinion? Why weren’t the points that I’d already presented and documented (they were specific and I gave sources) sufficient to trigger an independent, formal review? What about the summary that I’d already written in the form of a letter to Harvard Magazine, which Dr. Federman had also read? No matter: I was still confident that he would do the right thing when he saw the totality of the evidence, abundantly and overwhelmingly supporting my contention that the CAMRE and other HMS affiliates were promoting pseudomedicine—dangerously, unethically, and in contrast to their stated purpose.

It was then that I resolved to write the essays that I posted in Parts I, II and III of this series.‡ I also prepared the summary that Dr. Federman had requested, which is reprinted below. In June, 2002, I sent these together with this letter:

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Posted in: Health Fraud, Medical Academia, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media

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Response to a “CAM on campus” post

I only recently began contributing to SBM, bringing not any particular expertise or scholarship but rather the perspective of a student. My goal in blogging is not to focus on issues specific to my school, of which I am quite fond and proud in general. Instead I hope to use my experiences, which SBM editors and readers tell me are not unique, to illustrate how CAM can interact with medical education. When writing, I constantly remind myself, “Everything you know about homeopathy and naturopathy was heavily influenced by the SBM docs, so try not to parrot their arguments lest you look like a brainwashed fanboy. Focus on relaying your experiences and trust readers to reach their own conclusions.” As a result, some have called my critiques a bit mild, but I can accept blandness to avoid seeming arrogant beyond my qualifications.

I was surprised, therefore, to be told by leaders of a campus CAM group that my most recent SBM post was full of personal attacks. (more…)

Posted in: Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation

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IRBs, Conflicts of Interest, and Witch Hunts

When beginning a discussion of a controversial topic I like to establish the common ground upon which most or all people can agree. Everyone seems to agree that real conflicts of interest in medical research and practice is a bad thing and steps should be taken to minimize, eliminate, and illuminate any such conflicts. The controversy revolves around what constitutes a real conflict of interest.

There is broad agreement that researchers should not have a personal financial stake in the outcome of their own research – they should not make more money if their research is positive than if it’s negative. That creates a clear and powerful bias.  There is also now broad agreement and adoption of standards that speakers, authors, and researchers should disclose any potential conflicts of interest – primarily the source of their funding. If someone is being paid by a drug company to say that their drug is effective for a particular disease, they should disclose that up front.

These same standard are now being applied to IRBs – institutional review boards, and that seems apprpriate. Every institution that does biomedical research must have an IRB, which is a committee of appropriate professionals (and there are rules as to the IRB’s constitution) that review all human research proposals to make sure they meet ethical guidelines and that subjects are adequately protected. This is a good system that generally works.

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