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Evolution in Medicine

A recent series of article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) discusses the role of evolutionary biology in modern medicine. The authors collectively make a forceful point – medicine is an applied science. It is based upon a number of basic sciences, and one of those basic sciences is evolution.

The most obvious example is bacterial antibiotic resistance. Antibiotics place a selective pressure on a bacterial population, often resulting in the emergence of resistant strains. Understanding this “evolutionary arms race” between bacteria and antibiotics allows us to develop strategies for minimizing resistance.

But there are less obvious ways in which evolutionary principles apply to infectious diseases. It has been known for a long time that sickle-cell trait provides resistance to malaria (the blood cells are less hospitable to the P. falciparum protozoan parasite that is one cause of malaria). This explains the persistence of sickle cell disease in populations where malaria is endemic.

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Posted in: Evolution, Science and Medicine

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On the “individualization” of treatments in “alternative medicine”

One of the claims most frequently made by “alternative medicine” advocates regarding why alt-med is supposedly superior (or at least equal) to “conventional” medicine and should not be dismissed, regardless of how scientifically improbable any individual alt-med modality may be, is that the treatments are, if you believe many of the practitioners touting them, highly “individualized.” In other words, the “entire patient” is taken into account with what is frequently referred to as a “holistic approach” that looks at “every aspect” of the patient, with the result that every patient requires a different treatment, sometimes even for the exact same disease of very close to the same severity. Indeed, as I have described before, a variant of this claim, often laden with meaningless pseudoscientific babble about “emergent systems,” is sometimes used to claim that the standard methods of science- and evidence-based medicine are not appropriate to studying the efficacy of alternative medicine. Of course, this is, in nearly all cases, simply an excuse to dismiss scientific studies that fail to find efficacy for various “alt-med” modalities, but, even so, it is a claim that irritates me to no end, because it is so clearly nonsense. As Harriet Hall pointed out, alt-med “practitioners” frequently ascribe One True Cause to All Disease, which is about as far from “individualization” as you can get, when you come right down to it. More on that later.

A couple of years ago, before I became involved with this blog, I was surprised to learn that even some advocates of alt-med have their doubts that “individualization” is such a great strength. I had never realized that this might be the case until I came across a post by naturopath Travis Elliott, who runs a pro-alt-med blog, Dr. Travis Elliott and the Two-Sided Coin, entitled The Single Most Frustrating Thing About (Most) Alternative Medicine. In this article, Elliott referred to a case written up by a fellow naturopath, who used an anecdote about the evaluation and treatment plan by a naturopath of a pregnant woman with nausea to show what is supposedly the “unique power of our medicine.” Unexpectedly (to me at least at the time), Elliott did not quite see it that way:
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Homeopathy, Science and Medicine

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You can’t hide in the herd

Can you hide in the herd?  Well, I suppose the title has given away the punch line.

Herd immunity is a fascinating effect, and one of the mainstays of a public vaccination effort.  The idea is that if enough people in the community are immune to a particular disease, then those who are susceptible will rarely come into contact with a person who is contagious, and the disease will be unable (or find it difficult) to spread.  This results in a greatly reduced risk of infection for the entire population regardless of their individual immunity.

This has lead to the belief that because of the protection of the herd’s immunity, individuals now have the option to avoid even the minimal cost and risk of vaccination while having the same reduced risk of infection as if they had vaccinated.

Let’s set aside the fact that that there are people who have no choice but to rely upon herd immunity as their sole line of protection against these infections.  Forget that there is a threshold below which herd immunity collapses, and that our current vaccination rates tend to be right on the cusp of that threshold.  Pay no attention to the fact that the personal decision to not vaccinate deprives others of their sole protection from these infections.  Finally, ignore the ethics and self-defeating nature of benefiting from the sacrifice of others while simultaneously eroding the efficacy of the herd immunity being exploited.  On a small enough scale, doesn’t the tactic of hiding in the herd provide the same protection as getting vaccinated without incurring the minimal risk of vaccination?

Not so much. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Big Placebo says Medicine never cures anything

Kudos to Lindsay Beyerstein of Majikthise for coining a new appellation “Big Placebo.” Big Placebo is the alternative health counterpart to Big Pharma. Both are special interest groups designed to promote their products, whether they are worthy of promotion or not. There is one big difference between them: Big Pharma makes products that usually work (though not always, and sometimes not safely). Big Placebo hawks books and products that never work.

Big Placebo is unsatisfied with the $40 billion it takes in every year on treatments that don’t even work. They’re aiming for a much larger piece of the healthcare pie and to do so they are criticizing modern medicine.

To hear Big Placebo tell it, virtually all illness can be prevented and anyone who gets sick deserves it because of poor lifestyle choices. If only that were so. Unfortunately, most illness and disease is caused by factors beyond people’s control, including infectious agents, genetic defects and inherited predispositions.
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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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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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Haiti

The current tragedy in Haiti may turn out to be one of the worst natural disasters (if not the worst) the Western Hemisphere has seen in the post-colonial era. Immediate deaths caused directly by trauma from the quake itself will likely number in the tens of thousands but we can be pretty sure that there’s more horror to come. This is a tragedy which is going to continue for months—probably years—to come. Science-based medicine has taught us much about how to mitigate disasters such as this one. Unfortunately, in Haiti medicine is only part of the problem; the long-standing political and economic problems have helped limit what medicine can do. But even in the most troubled of countries, attitudes toward science-based medicine can have profound effects on the health of the population.  (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Is breech vaginal delivery safe?

Between 3-4% of babies begin labor in the breech (bottom first) position, increasing the risk of neonatal morbidity and mortality. Pre-emptive C-section has become the preferred method of delivery for breech babies, but now some are questioning this recommendation. The controversy is fueled by differing appraisals of the danger and by differing assessments of the whether any risk of neonatal death can be justified in the age of the safe Cesarean.

The best conducted and most important study comparing breech vaginal delivery with elective C-section is the Term Breech Trial (TBT) conducted by Mary Hannah and colleagues. It is the only randomized control trial of its kind.

… [W]e found that the fetuses of women allocated planned caesarean section were significantly less likely to die or to experience poor outcomes in the immediate neonatal period than the fetuses of women allocated planned vaginal birth. Although some of the deaths in the planned vaginal birth group were related to difficulty with vaginal breech delivery, others were clearly associated with problems during labour. Thus the avoidance of labour and vaginal breech delivery could have contributed to better outcomes with planned caesarean section…

A more recent trial, the PREMODA (PREsentation et MODe d’Accouchement: presentation and mode of delivery) study produced different findings and as a result, some obstetricians have been calling for a re-evaluation of the standard recommendation for C-section delivery of a breech baby. (more…)

Posted in: Obstetrics & gynecology, Science and Medicine

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The War on Salt

The problem with the Western diet is not one of deficiency, but one of excess. We get too much of a good thing – too many calories, too much of the wrong kind of fat, and too much salt. As a result obesity, diabetes, and hypertension are growing health problems.

There also does not appear to be an easy solution – voluntary diets founded primarily on will power are notoriously ineffective in the long term. Add to that is the marketplace of misinformation that makes it challenging for the average person to even know where to apply their (largely ineffective) will power.

It can be argued that this is partly a failure, or an unintended consequence, of market forces. Food products that provide cheap calories and are tasty (sweet, fatty, or salty) sell well and provide market incentives to sell such products. Consumers then get spoiled by the cheap abundance of tempting foods, even to the point that our perspective on appropriate portion sizes have been super-sized.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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The Water Cure: Another Example of Self Deception and the “Lone Genius”

A correspondent wrote:

I hear all day long on my local radio station commercials for The Water Cure, which was created by a Dr. Batmangelli (I have no idea how to spell his name) promising wonderful cures by eliminating caffeine and alcohol and drinking water and sprinkling sea salt on your food. If you REALLY want to get cured even faster, swim in the ocean everyday.

That’s Dr. Fereydoon Batmanghelidj. His Big Idea was that dehydration is the main cause of disease. It was untenable to begin with, is supported by no evidence, was debunked on Quackwatch several years ago, and Dr. Batmanghelidj died in 2004, so I was surprised to hear it was still being vigorously promoted. But not very surprised. After all, homeopathy is still around.

The Water Cure is another in a long list of alleged miracle cures discovered by “lone geniuses” who are allegedly persecuted by a resistant medical establishment. These stories follow a pattern, and I think it is worthwhile looking at this prime example to understand something of the psychology of self-deception that is involved. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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A victory for science-based medicine

The following is a collaborative effort by Peter Lipson, MD, a usual contributor to Science-Based Medicine, and Ames Grawert, JD, a soon-to-be-sworn-in attorney working in New York City.

Proponents of science-based medicine have always had one major problem—human beings are natural scientists, but we are also very prone to cognitive mis-steps. When we follow the scientific method we have developed, we succeed very well in understanding and manipulating our environment. When we follow our instincts instead, we frequently fail to understand cause and effect. This is how people on the fringes of medicine and science survive—intentionally or otherwise, they exploit our natural tendency to have too much faith in our own non-systematic observations.

One of the most important examples of this is the anti-vaccination movement (hereafter called the “infectious disease promotion movement” or IDPM). There have always been those suspicious of medicine and science, but the IDPM has taken this a step farther. They encourage people to “go with the gut”, ignoring centuries of science and public health data in favor of superstition. It’s not hard to exploit a parent’s fears. But exploiting these fears leads to real harm as many of us in the blogosphere have documented (and documented, and documented).

The IDPM is so fixed on their false beliefs that vaccination causes some sort of serious harm that they cannot be swayed by evidence. As each piece of their hypothesis is disproved, they move on to the next. Thimerosal doesn’t lead to autism? Then maybe it’s “the toxins”. Once the idea is fixed, there is no way to dislodge it. It simply shifts around a bit.

Since there is no science to lend legitimacy to the infectious disease promoters, they must rely on appeals to emotion. Most of their websites are full of testimonials, misinformation, and outright hostility. And when they really get backed into a corner, rather than hunkering down to do some real science, they sue.

Dr. Paul Offit is a nationally known expert on vaccination. He was featured in an excellent article by WIRED reporter Amy Wallace in which he said, among other things:

She lies.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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