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Archive for Science and Medicine

“Vaccines didn’t save us” (a.k.a. “vaccines don’t work”): Intellectual dishonesty at its most naked

If there’s one thing about the anti-vaccine movement I’ve learned over the last several years, it’s that it’s almost completely immune to evidence, science, and reason. No matter how much evidence is arrayed against it, its spokespeople always finds a way to spin, distort, or misrepresent the evidence to combat it and not have to give up the concept that vaccines cause autism. Not that this is any news to readers of this blog, but it bears repeating often. It also bears repeating and emphasizing examples of just the sort of disingenuous and even outright deceptive techniques used by promoters of anti-vaccine pseudoscience to sow fear and doubt about vaccines among parents. These arguments may seem persuasive to those who have little knowledge about science or epidemiology. Sometimes they even seemed somewhat persuasive to me; that is, at least until I actually took the time to look into them.

One example of such a myth is the claim that “vaccines didn’t save us,” also sometimes going under the claim that “vaccines don’t work.” The anti-vaccine website Vaccine Liberation has a large set of graphs purporting to show that the death rates of several vaccine-preventable diseases, including whooping cough, diptheria, measles, and polio were falling before the vaccines for each disease were introduced. The the article quotes Andrew Weil:
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Posted in: Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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The case of John Lykoudis and peptic ulcer disease revisited: Crank or visionary?

One of the themes of SBM has been, since the very beginning, how the paradigm of evidence-based medicine discounts plausibility (or, perhaps more appropriately, implausibility) when evaluating whether or not a given therapy works. One of our favorite examples is homeopathy, a therapy that is so implausible on a strictly scientific basis that, for it to work, huge swaths of well-established science supported by equally huge amounts of experimental and observational evidence would have to be found to be all in serious error. While such an occurrence is not per se impossible, it is incredibly unlikely. Moreover, for scientists actually to start to doubt our understanding of chemistry, biochemistry, pharmacology, and physics to the point of thinking that our understanding of them is in such serious error that homeopathy is a valid description of reality, it would take a lot more than a bunch of low-quality or equivocal studies that show no effect due to homeopathy detectably greater than placebo.

On Friday, Kim Atwood undertook an excellent discussion of this very issue. What really caught my attention, though, was how he educated me about a bit of medical history of which I had been completely unaware. Specifically, Kim discussed the strange case of John Lykoudis, a physician in Greece who may have discovered the etiology of peptic ulcer disease (PUD) due to H. pylori more than a quarter century before Barry Marshall and Robin Warren discovered the bacterial etiology of PUD in 1984. One reason that this story intrigued me is the same reason that it intrigued Kimball. Lykoudis’ story very much resembles that of many quacks, in particular Nicholas Gonzalez, in that he claimed results far better than what medicine could produce at the time, fought relentlessly to try to prove his ideas to the medical authorities in Greece at the time, and ultimately failed to do so. Despite his failure, however, he had a very large and loyal following of patients who fervently believed in his methods. The twist on a familiar story, however, is that Lykoudis may very well have been right and have discovered a real, effective treatment long before his time.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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H. Pylori, Plausibility, and Greek Tragedy: the Quirky Case of Dr. John Lykoudis

Mark Crislip is on vacation, but through an arduous series of shakings and succussions (beating his head against the wall?) we have channeled part of his essence: This post mostly concerns itself with infectious diseases, thanks to several recent posts on SBM that discussed the plausibility of health claims† and that touched on the recent discovery that most peptic ulcer disease (PUD) is caused by a bacterium, Helicobacter pylori. Several comments and statements quoted in those posts reveal recurrent questions regarding both plausibility itself and the history of the H. pylori hypothesis. In this post I’ll attempt to answer some of those questions, but I’ll also insert some new confusion.

Plausibility ≠ Knowing the Mechanism

Let’s first dispense with a simple misunderstanding: We, by which I mean We Supreme Arbiters of Plausibility (We SAPs) here at SBM, do not require knowing the mechanism of some putative effect in order to deem it plausible. This seems so obvious that it ought not be necessary to repeat it over and over again, and yet the topic can’t be broached without some nebbishy South Park do-gooder chanting a litany of “just because you don’t know how it works doesn’t mean it can’t work,” as if that were a compelling or even relevant rebuttal. Let’s get this straight once and for all: IT ISN’T.

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Posted in: Basic Science, History, Science and Medicine

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Vaccinations and autism: are we number 1?

It has been alleged by Great Minds such as Jenny McCarthy that the US recommends far more vaccinations than other countries.  Her precise statement was, “How come many other countries give their kids one-third as many shots as we do?” She put this into the context of wondering if our current vaccine schedule should be less rigid.  The entire piece was filled with what could charitably called less-than-truthful assertions, but examining simply this one assertion might be useful.  Dr. John Snyder has an excellent analysis of the most important assertion, that of the possible benefits of an “alternative vaccination schedule”  which I would encourage you to read.

First, we need to parse out this “more shots than everyone else” statement.  Some countries–Haiti, for example–give far fewer vaccines due not to fewer recommendations but to adverse economic conditions. Because of this, they have very high rates of vaccine-preventable diseases.  They want to vaccinate more, but can’t.  Then there are countries who can afford to vaccinate. Let’s look at what three industrialized nations recommend before six years of age.

Vaccinations, by disease and country, 0-6 years of age

Vaccine France Germany USA Iceland
Hepatitis B Yes Yes Yes No
Rotavirus No No Yes No
Diphtheria, tetanus, and pertusis Yes Yes Yes Yes
Hib Yes Yes Yes Yes
Pneumococcus Yes Yes Yes No
Polio Yes Yes Yes Yes
Influenza Not reported Not reported Yes No
Meales, mumps, rubella Yes Yes Yes Yes
Varicella No Yes Yes No
Hepatitis A No No Yes No
BCG (disseminated TB) Yes No No No
Meningococcus No Yes For some Yes

The chart, as I’ve presented it, is somewhat imprecise.  Some vaccinations are given in a single shot, others in multiple shots, but these generally represent the childhood vaccinations in each country, and the links provided will take you to the more detailed information.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Placebo Effects Revisited

In the Wall Street Journal last week was a particularly bad article by Melinda Beck about acupuncture. While there was token skepticism (by Edzard Ernst, of course, who is the media’s go-to expert for CAM), the article credulously reported the marketing hype of acupuncture proponents.

Toward the end of the article Beck admits that “some critics” claim that acupuncture provides nothing more than a placebo effect, but this was followed by the usual canard:

“I don’t see any disconnect between how acupuncture works and how a placebo works,” says radiologist Vitaly Napadow at the Martinos center. “The body knows how to heal itself. That’s what a placebo does, too.”

That is a bold claim, and very common among CAM proponents, especially acupuncturists. As the data increasingly shows that acupuncture (and other implausible treatments) provides no benefit beyond placebo, we hear the special pleading that placebos work also.

But is that true? It turns out there is a literature on the placebo effect itself, and the evidence suggests that placebos generally do not work.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Homeopathy, Science and Medicine

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KA at Boston Skeptics in the Pub March 29

Yers truly will speak at Tommy Doyle’s, Harvard Square, Cambridge. 7:00 PM on March 29.

Title:

Implausible Health Claims and Human Studies Ethics: A Collision Course

Description:

A broad international consensus regarding protections for subjects in human trials emerged during the 2nd half of the 20th century. It can be summarized in several tenets, most of which pertain explicitly or implicitly to scientific considerations. Recent projects involving human trials of implausible health claims (“CAM”) have been at odds with some of those tenets. I’ll discuss one trial in detail and mention a few others. I will argue that all such trials are likely to be unethical.

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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The Evolving Science and Guidelines of CPR

Pearl of wisdom for the day: If given the option, don’t let your heart stop.  Very Bad Things soon follow if your heart stops.

In spite of what the entertainment industry would have you believe, it is extremely difficult to save the life of someone in cardiac arrest.  A few random breaths, slow rocking chest compressions, even the ever-so-dramatic overhand blow to the chest accompanied by the scream “Don’t you die on me, dammit!” are unlikely to successfully resuscitate someone following an arrest, and even if it does, they won’t be in any shape to go chase Locke across the island with Jack and Kate five minutes later.

Even with properly performed CPR, started within seconds of an arrest, in a hospital with all the required expertise and support equipment, only roughly half survive their initial arrest event.  Even fewer (25-33%) survive to discharge from the hospital, and ~75% have a good neurologic outcome.  For arrests out of the hospital, where there can be huge delays in treatment, mere survival is significantly lower, often measured in the single digits.

The Limitations Of CPR

Why doesn’t CPR save more people?  Well, it really isn’t meant to; at least, not on its own.  Cardio-respiratory arrest is the common pathway of death, but it isn’t in itself a diagnosis.  The essential question to be answered is why someone stopped breathing, or why their heart stopped in the first place.  Unless you can answer that question and address the problem, even if CPR manages to restore a heartbeat it’s likely to stop again in short order. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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How bad can health reporting get?

A couple of years ago, a number of us raised concerns about an “investigative reporter” at a Detroit television station.  At the time I noted that investigative reporters serve an important role in a democracy, but that they can also do great harm, as when Channel 7′s Steve Wilson parroted the talking points of the anti-vaccine movement.  Wilson has since been canned but apparently, not much has changed.  While performing my evening ablutions, I stumbled upon the latest abomination.

The story is about a surgeon turned faith healer.  I can think of about a half-dozen different ways to make an interesting story out of this.  But Channel 7, rather than doing the harder but more interesting story about the chicanery of faith healers, presented an infomercial. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Diagnosis, Therapy and Evidence

When Dr. Novella recently wrote about plausibility in science-based medicine, one of our most assiduous commenters, Daedalus2u, added a very important point. The data are always right, but the explanations may be wrong. The idea of treating ulcers with antibiotics was not incompatible with any of the data about ulcers; it was only incompatible with the idea that ulcers were caused by too much acid. Even scientists tend to think on the level of the explanations rather than on the level of the data that led to those explanations.

A valuable new book elaborates on this concept: Diagnosis, Therapy and Evidence: Conundrums in Modern American Medicine, by medical historian Gerald N. Grob and sociologist Allan V. Horwitz. They point out that 

many claims about the causes of disease, therapeutic practices, and even diagnoses are shaped by beliefs that are unscientific, unproven, or completely wrong. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Science and Medicine

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Is there a role for speculative journals like Medical Hypotheses in the scientific literature?

The core information supporting science-based medicine resides in the scientific literature. There, scientists and physicians publish the results of experiments and clinical trials that seek to understand the biological mechanisms by which the human body functions and through which disease forms and to apply this understanding to test new treatments for diease. Consequently, the quality and integrity of the biomedical literature are topics of utmost importance to supporters of science-based medicine. We’ve discussed problems with the scientific literature before here, ranging from how pseudoscientific “complementary and alternative medicine” journals have insinuated themselves into the medical literature and how drug companies have managed exercise undue influence over clinical trials and journals.

One question that perhaps we have not dealt with so much is the question of the very nature of a good scientific journal, particularly what is suitable material for such a journal. For purposes of this discussion, I will focus mainly on the biomedical literature, which spans a range from basic science journals dealing with biomedical science to clinical journals, which mainly report the results of clinical trials and clinical research. Of these journals, there are in general two types, journals that primarily report original research and those that present reviews of existing research. Most journals do a mix of the two, the majority tending towards a form where most of the articles are reports of orginal research mixed in with a much smaller number of review articles.

There is one journal, however, that is different. It is a journal known as Medical Hypotheses. It is a journal that (or so it claims) exists to present radical scientific ideas, the more radical the better. Here is how the journal is described on its website:
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Posted in: Medical Academia, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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