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Archive for Science and Medicine

Different Strokes for Different Folks: Assessing Risk in Women

You may have noticed that men and women are different. I hope you have noticed. As the French say, vive la différence! It’s not just that one has dangly bits and the other has bumpy chests. Or that one has to shave a beard and doesn’t like to ask for directions while the other has menstrual periods and likes to discuss feelings. There are differences in physiology and in the incidence of various diseases. For instance, normal lab values for hemoglobin are higher for men than for women, and autism is more prevalent in males while multiple sclerosis is more prevalent in females.

In the past, women have been underrepresented in clinical studies; when the first studies of aspirin for cardiovascular prevention came out, we knew it was effective for men, but we didn’t have enough evidence to recommend it for women. This is changing; researchers today are more aware of the need to include women in their studies. Now the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association (AHA/ASA) has issued the first evidence-based guidelines for reducing the risk of stroke in women. (more…)

Posted in: Public Health, Science and Medicine

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Measles gets a helping hand

In a recent post I shared a bit of my personal, near-death experience with measles during the US epidemic of 1989-1991. As I describe in that post, I contracted a very serious measles infection at the end of medical school, and was highly infectious when I interviewed for a residency position at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Like others my age who received an ineffective, killed measles vaccine between 1963 and 1967, I had not been adequately protected. The MMR vaccine was not yet available, and no boosters were recommended at the time. Unfortunately, though my measles titers (a test of immunity to measles) were checked when I entered medical school, the school’s student health department failed to notice or respond to the results – I was not immune and did not receive a booster dose at that time, as I should have. That mistake was huge, and could have cost me my life. It also caused me to potentially sicken many vulnerable children during my tour of the hospital, as well as others I may have inadvertently exposed during the window of communicability as I walked the streets of Seattle. The Department of Health had to be called to trace all of my steps and attempt to track down and protect any potential contacts.
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Posted in: Epidemiology, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Open Data

PLOS (the Public Library of Science) is a non-profit open access publisher of science articles. Their goal is to make scientific data accessible to everyone, in the name of transparency and open communication. Now they have taken their approach one step further, announcing their policy that all articles published in a PLOS journal must submit their original data so that anyone can access and analyze it for themselves.

In an effort to increase access to this data, we are now revising our data-sharing policy for all PLOS journals: authors must make all data publicly available, without restriction, immediately upon publication of the article. Beginning March 3rd, 2014, all authors who submit to a PLOS journal will be asked to provide a Data Availability Statement, describing where and how others can access each dataset that underlies the findings. This Data Availability Statement will be published on the first page of each article.

They allow for exceptions—when subject confidentiality is an issue, sensitive information related to endangered species, and when the authors do not own the data. In such cases, however, data must be available upon request, and not controlled by the authors. Otherwise the raw data must be made available.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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False “balance” on influenza with an appeal to nature

One of the encouraging shifts I’ve seen in health journalism over the past few years is the growing recognition that antivaccine sentiment is antiscientific at its core, and doesn’t justify false “balance” in the media. There’s no reason to give credibility to the antivaccine argument when their positions are built on a selection of discredited and debunked tropes. This move away from false balance and towards a more accurate reflection of the evidence seems to have started with the decline and disgrace of Andrew Wakefield and his MMR fraud. And there is now no question that antivaccine sentiment has a body count: Simply look at the resurgence of preventable communicable disease. Today, antivaccinationists are increasingly recognized for what they are – threats to public health. It seems less common today (versus just 5 years ago) that strident antivaccine voices are given either air time or credibility in the media.

But false balance on topics like influenza can occur without giving a voice to groups like antivaccinationists. A more subtle technique to shift perceptions is both widespread and hard to detect, unless you’re aware of it: the naturalistic fallacy, known more accurately as the appeal to nature. In short, it means “It’s natural so it’s good” with the converse being “unnatural is bad.” In general, the term “natural” has a positive perception, so calling a product (or a health intervention) “natural” is implying goodness. The appeal to nature is so common that you may not even recognize it as a logical fallacy. Unnatural can be good, and natural can be bad: Eyeglasses are unnatural. And cyanide is natural. Natural doesn’t mean safe or effective. But the appeal to nature is powerful, and it’s even persuasive to governments. If we believe that health interventions and treatments should be evaluated on their merits, rather than whether or not they’re “natural”, then decisions to regulate “natural” products differently than the “unnatural” ones (like drugs) makes little sense. Yet the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act was a legislative appeal to nature, introducing a different regulatory and safety standard for a group of products while drawing a fallacious distinction with “unnatural” products like drugs. Canada fell for the appeal to nature too: It has the Natural Health Products Regulations which entrenched a lowered bar for efficacy and safety for anything a manufacturer can demonstrate is somehow “natural”. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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HIV Denial and “Just Asking Questions”

The “just asking questions” maneuver is familiar to many skeptics. The idea is to feign neutrality, to insulate oneself from accountability or being held to answer for any specific position, but meanwhile to sow doubt about a scientific claim by raising (dubious) questions.

Sometimes the “I’m just asking questions” gambit also tries to disguise itself as sincere journalism. That’s what journalists do, right, ask the tough questions, uncover the uncomfortable truth?

I find this approach particularly deceptive. It tries to hide the fact that the journalist is working off of a particular narrative. Asking questions is, in fact, just another narrative style, one that is meant to lead the reader/viewer to a particular conclusion about the subject. The narrative determines what questions are asked and how they are answered.

A perfect example of this deceptive approach is the HIV denialist movie, House of Numbers. Here is the synopsis from the movie’s website:

What is HIV? What is AIDS? What is being done to cure it? These questions sent Canadian filmmaker Brent Leung on a worldwide journey, from the highest echelons of the medical research establishment to the slums of South Africa, where death and disease are the order of the day. In this up-to-the-minute documentary, he observes that although AIDS has been front-page news for over 29 years, it is barely understood. Despite the great effort, time, and money spent, no cure is in sight.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Does treating fever spread influenza?

Influenza

One of these things is not like the other

Treating a fever with medication like Advil or Tylenol is reflex action when we come down with colds and influenza. But could treating fevers actually worsen an illness and contribute to its spread in the population? That’s the impression you may have gained from the headlines and press last week, where antipyretics (fever-reducing medications) were described as some type of “anti-vaccine”:

Fever-reducing meds encourage spread of flu: McMaster report

Taking over-the-counter flu medication to cut your fever might help you feel better, but it might not be so good for the people you come into contact with.

When it comes to fever, your mother really did know what’s best

Who would have thought that the simple giving of a fever reducing agent, to either one of our family members or ourselves before we go off to school or work, may inadvertently lead to the death of someone that we see that day?

Use of fever-reducing drugs may lead to tens of thousands more influenza cases

The bottom line is that fever suppression increases the number of annual cases by approximately five per cent, corresponding to more than 1,000 additional deaths from influenza in a typical year across North America.

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Posted in: Epidemiology, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine

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Fighting Against Evidence

For the past 17 years Edge magazine has put an interesting question to a group of people they consider to be smart public intellectuals. This year’s question is: What Scientific Idea is Ready for Retirement? Several of the answers display, in my opinion, a hostility toward science itself. Two in particular aim their sights at science in medicine, the first by Dean Ornish, who takes issue with large randomized controlled clinical trials, and the second by Gary Klein, who has a beef with evidence-based medicine.

These responses do not come out of nowhere. The “alternative medicine” meme that has taken hold in the last few decades (a triumph of slick marketing over reason) is all about creating a double standard. There is regular medicine which needs to justify itself with rigorous science, and then there is alternative medicine, where the rules of evidence bend to the needs of the guru or snake oil salesperson.

We have been hearing arguments from alternative medicine proponents for years now for why the strict rules of science need to be relaxed or expanded. Andrew Weil has advocated for the use of “uncontrolled clinical observations,” (also known as anecdotes). David Katz advocates for a “more fluid concept of evidence.” Dr. Oz went as far as advocating outright medical relativism, saying. “You find the arguments that support your data, and it’s my fact versus your fact.” (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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The New Cough and Cold Products for Children: Evidence is Optional and Science is Marketing

Zarbee's Helixia, Oscillococcinum

It’s the time of year where if you’re not sick, someone you know probably is. The influenza season in the Northern hemisphere started out slowly, but seems to be accelerating and hasn’t peaked yet. Add that to cold viruses circulating, and you get the peak purchasing period for cough and cold remedies. John Snyder gave a nice summary of the evidence base for the common treatments a few weeks ago. In short, despite all the advertising, there is little evidence to suggest that most of the “tried and true” products we’ve used for decades have any effect on our symptoms. One of the most sensible developments that’s occurred over the past few years has been the discontinuation or relabeling (depending on your country) of cough and cold products for children. The rationale to pull these products is compelling: Cough and cold remedies have a long history of use, and were sold without prescriptions before current regulatory standards were in place. They were effectively grandfathered onto the marketplace. When it comes to their use in children, the data are even more limited. There are few published trials and the results are complicated by different age groups, irregular dosing, lack of placebo control, and very small patient numbers. What’s even harder to believe was that doses were based mainly on expert opinion, not data, and generally didn’t consider that children don’t handle drugs the way adults do. So why withdraw them from pediatric use, but not adult use? Like most regulation, it comes down to risk and benefit. Both are troubling for pediatric use. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Science and Medicine

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Quantum Snake Oil – A Primer

Let’s conduct a little thought experiment. First, for the sake of this thought experiment let’s assume that you have no morals, ethics, or conscience. You are comfortable lying to people, even if they are sick, and even if it will harm their health.

Your task is to get as many people as possible to believe that small bits of plastic can improve their health and treat their symptoms. This is not as difficult as it may at first appear, and the payout can be huge. Small plastic stickers can be mass produced for pennies. The primary investment will be creating and maintaining a website. Then, if you can get people to believe that the plastic stickers are magical, the money will come rolling in.

What claims should we make for the stickers? Let’s stay away from anything that has an objective outcome, so we won’t claim that they can be used as an antibiotic to treat pneumonia, or as a way to treat heart attacks. I also understand that in the US and other countries, they take a close look at claims made to treat specific diseases, but you can make vague “structure function” claims with abandon, so let’s go with those. We can always imply that they are effective for diseases, even serious ones like cancer. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Placebo effects are not the “power of positive thinking”

Here we go again. I once said that, in the wake of study after study that fails to find activity of various “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) beyond that of placebo, CAM advocates are now in the midst of a “rebranding” campaign in which CAM is said to work through the “power of placebo.” Personally, I’ve argued that in reality this new focus on placebo effects as the “mechanism” through which CAM “works” is in reality more a manifestation of the common fantasy that wishing makes it so.

None of this, of course, can stop everybody’s favorite apologist for “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) and, in particular, using placebo effects therapeutically, from continuing to do what he does with a study that’s been widely reported in the news and even featured on Science Friday last week. Basically, it’s a study in Science Translational Medicine, in which our old friend Ted Kaptchuk teamed up with an investigator interested in migraines, Rami Burstein, to do a study that finds that believing a medicine will work can have a strong effect on its actual activity on migraine. As is the case with most studies in which Kaptchuk is involved, it’s mildly interesting from a scientific standpoint. Unlike most studies in which he is involved, Kaptchuk seems a bit more able to tone down the hyperbole, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, this study, as much as it’s being touted by the press as providing new information on placebo effects, really doesn’t tell us much that is new. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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