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Flu Woo Hodge Podge

Perhaps you have discovered for yourself that I am always the last to write a post on a ‘hot’ topic. I am definitely the slowest writer (and thinker?) on this blog, starting each post at least a week before it is up. So the faster writers weigh in first and I am left with clean up.

As I finish writing on Thursday, there have been 892 cases of H1N1 aka Swine flu and 2 deaths in the US. Looks like the world has avoided a disastrous pandemic like the 1919 flu that killed off 2 to 5% of the world. For now. Maybe. I hope.

However, the flood of nonsense about the flu far exceeds the infection rates from H1N1. This entry will be the limited by necessity. The quantity of quackery (9) far exceeds my ability to type. I thought that influenza virus replicated and spread fast. It pales next to the flu woo.
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Posted in: Health Fraud, Homeopathy, Public Health, Science and Medicine, 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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Lyme disease—who is credible?

I recently had a pleasant, brief email exchange with Kris Newby, the producer of the latest medical advocacy pic, Under Our Skin. There’s been a number of similar movies lately, mostly about quacky cancer therapies. This one is apparently much better made, and follows the controversy regarding “chronic” Lyme disease.

I’d heard an interview about the movie on Diane Rehm, and was rather unnerved by it. It sounded like a typical I-drank-the-Kool-Aid-now-I’m-gonna-make-a-movie kind of thing. Still, I haven’t written about it, because I haven’t seen the movie. That’s going to change. Kris is being kind enough to send me a copy, despite my warning that I’m very likely to pan it.

Anyway, in our conversation, she recommended that I check out a particular piece in the Journal of Medical Ethics. Before I go into the significance of this paper, let me give you a little background. Stick with me here, I’ll make it brief. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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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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Homeocracy II

ResearchBlogging.orgThis is the second installment analysis of a three (and now 4) part series of articles on effects of homeopathy on childhood diarrhea. This second installment elaborates on our findings on data from the second clinical trial in Nicaragua. (1)

I should first explain the title. In order for homeopathy to operate as a base or operating system for medicine “for the 21st century,” the entire system of measurement and of course all physical laws would have to be changed. In analogous political terms, it would be similar to – but more massive a change than – changing a nation from a democracy to a completely different system such as a theocracy with completely different laws and behavior expectations. So…well, it was the best I could think up at the time.

Last time I recounted how the Jacobs ll trial setup was incoherent and unable to produce  results that could prove efficacy – unless the differences between treatment and controls were quite large,  greater than just barely significant. Most patients were treated differently from others, with multiple preparations (that were in reality the same: pill filler) at differing times during the illness, with each preparation selected according to symptoms that likely varied by the hour, and influenced by memory, well known to be faulty in medical studies.

In fact, given the lack of homogeneity in the trial diagnoses and treatments, outcomes should not have made sense at all.  Now I must admit that the thought did not occur to us at the time we undertook the review, nor during the review. If it had, our job would have been easier and the paper shorter.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Health Fraud, Homeopathy, Science and Medicine

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The Huffington Post’s War On Science

It is unfortunately a common human reaction to respond to criticism by attacking those leveling the criticism, rather than addressing the points being made. This is especially true if the criticism is legitimate and one cannot reasonably counter it.

Substantive criticism is also a central part of the scientific endeavor, and so the culture of science has developed a tolerance for harsh criticism and a general understanding that the only proper response is with logic and evidence. Examples of exceptions are legion, human frailty being what it is, but you cannot live in the world of science for long without learning the rules of the game. Peers are expected to pull no punches when criticizing the errors or countering the arguments of their colleagues. Everyone is expected to be their own harshest critic (criticize your own data before someone has a chance to). And when criticized yourself, acknowledge what is legitimate and make appropriate corrections, but feel free to defend yourself against weak criticisms by pointing out additional data, interpretations, or errors in the arguments of your critics.

This meat grinder approach to scientific discourse works.  Slowly, bad ideas and claims are beaten down, and only good ideas have the stamina to persist.

But here at science-based medicine we engage not only with the scientific community, but also with the public, and with those on the fringes of science. This means we often engage with those who do not play by the rules of science. A recent example is that of J.B. Handley from Age of Autism. David Gorski and I (and later Mark Crislip) wrote blog entries criticizing their 14 studies website with a detailed analysis. Handley responded with a full frontal personal assault sprinkled with irrelevant accusations. He ignored the vast majority of our actual criticisms, and those few he took on he completely botched.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Double-Talk And Paternalism

One of the more frustrating things about practitioners who promote unsafe and scientifically discredited medical practices is their tendency to change their message for different audiences. One day they’ll tell you that they espouse only evidence-based practices and the next they’ll be promoting snake oil. This double talk is hard to combat, since to disprove them one would essentially have to provide a video of their contradictory remarks.

One day I participated in a series of business meetings with a CAM practitioner in attendance (he was an MD who graduated from UCSF). During one meeting he boldly proclaimed his support of scientifically rigorous research, and praised the Cochrane Collaborative’s efforts to provide systematic reviews of the evidence (or lack thereof) for various practices.

Several hours later we were sitting together in another meeting in which I objected to the publication of a consumer article that would assist parents of children with autism in finding a DAN! practitioner who could provide chelation therapy to their children. I explained that there was no evidence for the efficacy of such treatments, and plenty of evidence for their harm (including the death of at least one child that I’d read about in the news). I suggested that an article describing these dangers might be in order, but that an article encouraging chelation use for autism was simply unethical and I would not allow it to be published.

Instead of agreeing with me, the CAM MD suggested that I was being “narrow” and that I should allow consumers to “explore all their options.” I was stunned. This was the same person who had just said that he fully supported scientific inquiry. So I asked him how he could say that he supported evidence-based medicine, and then turn around and ignore evidence at will – even at the peril of human life.

His response dumbfounded me:

“I am just as comfortable practicing within an evidence-based framework as I am outside it.”
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Posted in: Public Health, Science and Medicine

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Mathematically modeling why quackery persists

ResearchBlogging.orgIt’s often puzzled me (and, I daresay, many other skeptics and boosters of science- and evidence-based medicine) why various forms of quackery and woo that have either about as close to zero prior probability as you can get and/or have failed to show evidence greater than placebo in clinical trials manage to retain so much traction among the public. Think homeopathy. Think reiki. The former is nothing more than sympathetic magic prettied up with science-y sounding terms, while the latter is nothing more than faith healing given a slant based on Eastern mysticism and religion instead of Christianity. Indeed, reiki was even inspired by stories of Jesus’ healing powers, complete with a trip into the wilderness for fasting and prayer, resulting in revelation. Or consider acupuncture, a modality that is seemingly more popular than ever, even invading the very sanctum sanctorum of the ivory towers of academic medicine, yet every study of which that is done under rigorous conditions with proper placebo controls shows it to be no more efficacious than a placebo. It’s easy enough to shake one’s head and chalk it up to irrationality, ignorance of science, or even religious faith, but I’ve always been dissatisfied with such glib explanations, even though admittedly I have myself used them on occasion.

That’s why a study released last week in PLoS One by Mark M. Tanaka, Jeremy R. Kendal, Kevin N. Laland out of the Evolution & Ecology Research Centre, School of Biotechnology & Biomolecular Sciences, University of New South Wales, the Department of Anthropology, University of Durham, and the School of Biology, University of St Andrews, Fife, respectively, entitled From Traditional Medicine to Witchcraft: Why Medical Treatments Are Not Always Efficacious. Besides loving the title, I also like the methodology, which in essence adapts the tools of modeling evolution and the spread of traits throughout a population and asks the question: Why do ineffective or even harmful (or, as the authors characterize them, “maladaptive”) treatments for various illnesses persist in populations? The results are surprising and counterintuitive, yet ring true. In essence, the authors conclude that the most efficacious self-treatments are not always the ones that spread and that even harmful treatments can spread. Both of these observations are entirely plausible based on the prevalence of usage of common woo and quackery, and what the authors have done, in essence, is to model mathematically why quackery persists.

Indeed, the authors set the stage:
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Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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Harvard Medical School: Veritas for Sale (Part V)

September 26, 2002

Kimball Atwood, M.D.
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Dear Kim,

I have now had time to look into the allegations in your letter of June 14th which, incidentally, I shared with Dr. David Eisenberg and he with several others. I have sought consultation about our exchanges and the gist of my response follows.

Some of your concerns and allegations are very helpful and constructive. Perceptions are particularly important in controversial fields where there is limited objective proof. Your cautions and interpretations in this area have been very useful to us.

Some of what you said is just plain wrong. This includes the allegation the Harvard has “a stake” in the area and therefore would not look into your allegations objectively. Relatedly, Dr. Howard Koh has written us a construction of the events in the Massachusetts Special Commission that is strikingly different from yours. And Dr. Anthony Komoroff has pointed out that many of your comments about the InteliHealth treatment of CAM are now grossly out of date as the material inherited from another provider has been reviewed by HMS faculty and modified. [Indeed, you have referred in other correspondence to modifications you have noticed.] Dr. Komaroff also commented on the misleading way your citation the treatment of homeopathy was disconnected from the rest of the paragraph.

Some of what you said is a matter of taste or interpretation, where even well intentioned people may disagree. In this particular area I have weighed your arguments carefully and, in places, learned from them.

But I think the biggest difference may be in a misperception about what our purposes are. The Council of Academic Deans of Harvard Medical School approved beginning a Division of Research and Education in Complementary and Alternative Therapies with exactly the focus described. Our goal is to do peer-reviewed basic and clinical research on the claimed, but unproven, efficacies of complementary and alternative approaches to therapeutics. The recent scientific sessions and requests for proposal held by the Division are clear testament to this intent. In addition, in common with the Association of American Medical Colleges and most of the allopathic schools of medicine, we intend to teach our students something about CAM and in particular how to assess its claims rigorously. We do not, repeat NOT, have any intention of making our students CAM practitioners. They have enough to do learning what we have always focused on.

Sincerely,

Daniel D. Federman, M.D.

cc: David M. Eisenberg, M.D.

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Posted in: Health Fraud, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Differences Of Opinion

After my fairly recent awakening from shruggieness  (i.e. a condition in which one is largely unaware of or uninterested in CAM) I decided to discuss my concerns about pseudoscience with my friends. One particular friend is a nationally recognized physician who believes in the importance of accurate health information and the promotion of science. However, he sees no urgent need to warn people against snake oil, and so long as it’s correctly labeled he doesn’t seem to mind it co-existing with scientific alternatives.

My friend and I had dinner a few weeks ago, and our conversation was both animated and disappointing. I somehow felt inadequate in conveying my objections (both ethical and scientific) to the promotion of pseudoscience. My best explanations were met with cheerful rebuttals, and while not intellectually convincing to me, those retorts satisfied my friend just fine. I guess the bottom line was that he was more interested in maintaining his position than reconsidering it… and so it left me feeling rather frustrated and a little sad.
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