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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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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Primary care challenge

In this space we’ve read about the efforts of “alternative” practitioners such as naturopaths to gain the moniker “primary care provider”.  I’ve been wondering a bit about this.  I’m a primary care physician.  Specialists in internal medicine, pediatrics, and family medicine provide the bulk of primary care in the U.S. They attend a 4-year medical school, complete a 3-4 year residency, take their specialty board, and then work as experts in the screening, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of common diseases.

So, what I’d like to do is give you a typical scenario from an internal medicine or family medicine practice.  It’s a simple one, one you might see on Step II of the USMLE boards or on a shelf exam for an internal medicine rotation.  I’d like to offer alternative practioners, especially naturopaths, an opportunity to show how they would approach the clinical scenario so that we can see what kind of primary care they provide.

Yes, every patient and every situation is different, but there are some general ways to approach health and disease based on the evidence.
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Posted in: Health Fraud, Science and Medicine

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Modern shamanism—naturopathy for hypertension

I’m a primary care physician. What I, other internists, pediatricians, and family medicine docs do is prevent and treat common diseases. When we get to diseases that require more specialized care, we refer to our specialist colleagues. There is a movement afoot to broaden the role of naturopaths to make them primary care doctors. The big difference between naturopaths and real primary care physicians (PCPs) is that naturopaths haven’t gone to medical school, completed a post-graduate residency program, and taken their specialty boards. Why is this important? If a naturopath wants to be a PCP, then they must provide the same services as other PCPs. They do not. What, you don’t believe me? The thing is, naturopaths have an incorrect understanding of human biology and do not understand how this is applied in a science-based fashion to prevent and treat human disease.

Naturopathic “physicians” claim that “the human body has an innate healing ability” and that they “teach their patients to use diet, exercise, lifestyle changes and cutting edge natural therapies to enhance their bodies’ ability to ward off and combat disease.”

I must admit that I don’t get it. As a primary care physician (the real kind) I talk to my patients every day about diet, exercise, and lifestyle changes. I’m not sure what “natural therapies” are—all of the medications that I prescribe are “natural”. What is the opposite of natural? Unnatural? Supernatural?
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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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The Dull-Man Law

Kimball Atwood is obviously trying to throw mud at Harvard and at homeopathy, but when you throw mud, you get dirty…

(Sigh) So little time, so much misinformation. Hence the Dull-Man Law:

In any discussion involving science or medicine, being Dana Ullman loses you the argument immediately…and gets you laughed out of the room.

This will be the last time that I don’t invoke that law, because it is the perfect opportunity to explain why it is such a useful shortcut. The occasion is the current series about my alma mater, Harvard Medical School (HMS), and its regrettable dalliances with quackery.† The series consists mostly of correspondence that occurred between Dean Daniel Federman and me in 2002. Some of it refers to homeopathy.*

Mr. Ullman, a self-styled expert on homeopathy who lacks any medical training, is a darling of the ‘integrative medicine’ movement, as explained here. He has posted several comments objecting to my assertions in the HMS series. Other commenters have skillfully refuted some of his arguments. Some have been left unchallenged, however, and a naive reader might therefore assume that they are valid. They are not, but explaining why takes time and a modest acquaintance with the topic. Other than to clarify the issues for the uninitiated, then, such time would be wasted. Henceforth, let it not be so: From now on, this post can be cited by anyone wanting to avoid the drudgery of refuting Mr. Ullman’s claims. (more…)

Posted in: Health Fraud, Homeopathy, Humor, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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Dr. Michael Dixon – “A Pyromaniac In a Field of (Integrative) Straw Men”

Dr. Michael Dixon, the medical director of the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health, wrote an editorial for BBC news that is a densely packed rant of tiresome straw men often trotted out by the defenders of so-called “integrative” medicine. (The reason for the quotes in the headline, by the way, is because I stole that line from George Will who used in on This Week recently – it was too perfect not to co-opt.) Dixon was responding to an excellent commentary by Edzard Ernst, in which he characterized integrative medicine as a”shabby smokescreen for unproven treatments.”

Dixon was writing right out of the playbook of “integrative” propaganda, so it is worthwhile to expose his numerous logical fallacies and mischaracterizations of fact.

The Holism Gambit

Dixon begins:

Integrated health is not a new concept – the best doctors and their clinical colleagues have practised it for years.

It means treating patients as whole human beings – paying attention to body, mind and soul – instead of regarding them as nothing more than a set of symptoms to be got out the door as quickly as possible.

If Dixon wishes to be taken seriously by scientific practitioners he should make more of an effort to more fairly characterize mainstream medical practice. Of course, I must acknowledge up front, that there are mediocre and even bad doctors. There are also good doctors struggling within failing systems. And there are also many excellent doctors with effective practices. However, Dixon makes it seem as if the absolute worst of mainstream medicine is standard and typical. This is insulting, dismissive, and frankly ignorant of the facts on the ground. I find it interesting that defenders of integrative medicine are frequently whining about the dismissive attitudes of scientific practitioners of whom they are dismissive.

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