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Bad Books

In the interests of fairness and intellectual honesty, I’ve forced myself to read a lot of really bad books. The True Believer tells me his guru’s book is the Real Stuff. He tells me I have a closed mind and won’t look at anything outside establishment dogma, and if I only read the book and understood Dr. Quack’s evidence and arguments, I would be a True Believer too. I have tried, really I have. I’ve given the Dr. Quacks every chance to convert me, and I’ve hoped to learn something new, but I’m always disappointed. I’ve come to the point that I feel like I’m reading the same book over and over: it is always a mixture of real science, pseudoscience, and speculation, based on cherry-picked evidence and argued with the same logical fallacies.

I recently got hooked into reading another one by a correspondent who had called me an “ignorant relic” for writing a “grossly ignorant article” about alternative medicine. I suggested he read R. Barker Bausell’s book Snake Oil Science and a couple of others, which he promised to do. Then he said, “If I am willing to buy three books that you have suggested and read them and you are not willing to read what I have suggested, then that pretty much says all that needs to be said.”

I was willing, even though the very title of the book suggested that its message was incompatible with the scientific evidence as I know it: How to Prevent and Treat Cancer with Natural Medicine. The authors are big names in naturopathic and herbal medicine: Michael Murray, Tim Birdsall, Joseph Pizzorno, and Paul Riley. It’s nowhere near as bad as some of the bad books I’ve read, but it is a good example of the genre and I’ll use it to illustrate why I call them bad.

It offers “an arsenal of disease-fighting tools for prevention, treatment, and coping with side effects” (Yes, it offers tools; but do those tools work?) And it promises to “change your internal environment so cancer can’t survive.” (Wow! If it could really do that, every oncologist in the world would enthusiastically adopt these methods and the authors would be eligible for a Nobel prize.)
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Herbs & Supplements, Science and Medicine

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Tom Harkin’s War on Science (or, “meet the new boss…”)

This was cross-posted at White Coat Underground, despite the topic having been covered by Dr. Gorski yesterday. The topic is important enough that many of us in the medical blogosphere are going to be talking about this.

Remember when President Obama said something about returning science to it’s rightful place? Well, our new president has a real tough climb ahead of him. The previous administration shoved science aside for political expediency and religious ideology. Now, forces in the president’s own party are trying to insert their own quasi-religious beliefs into health care reform, leaving science in a whole different place altogether.

Here’s the deal. Some years back, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) helped set up the National Center on Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). The whole idea of setting up such an agency is a bit quixotic—after all, the National Institutes of Health already study health science. As my colleagues and I have written many times before, the very idea of the agency seems ridiculous. Many, many studies have been funded which fail basic tests of plausibility and ethical propriety. Also, a huge percentage of the studies funded fail to ever publish their results. Still, some studies have been published, and more often than not, they find that the “alternative” modality being studied fails to behave better than placebo. That’s probably the sole redeeming quality of the agency, but not enough to keep it open, as these studies could have been done under the auspices of the NIH.

It turns out that Senator Harkin agrees with me on one point: NCCAM is failing to validate many alternative modalities. The difference is that I find it heartening and Harkin finds it disturbing:

“One of the purposes of this center was to investigate and validate alternative approaches. Quite frankly, I must say publicly that it has fallen short. It think quite frankly that in this center and in the office previously before it, most of its focus has been on disproving things rather than seeking out and approving.”(from last week’s hearings, time marker approx. 17:20)

Well, at least he’s honest. He comes right out and bemoans the fact that science hasn’t upheld his quasi-religious medical beliefs. He just doesn’t get it. If you choose to investigate a scientific question, you have to be prepared for “bad news”. You don’t get to decide the outcome before the fact.

But Harkin makes his goals very clear, from his prepared statement, to the “experts” from whom he took testimony.
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Senator Tom Harkin: “Disappointed” that NCCAM hasn’t “validated” more CAM

Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) owes me a new irony meter.

I’ll explain in a minute, but first you have to know why I even care about what Harkin says or does, given that he’s not my Senator. As you may recall, arguably no single legislator in the U.S. has done more to harm to the cause of promoting science- and evidence-based medicine than Tom Harkin. That’s because it was primarily through Harkin’s efforts that the National Institutes of Health, despite the fact that its scientists were not agitating for it, had the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) rammed down its throat in 1992, first as the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM), then in 1998, when NIH Director Harold Varmus tried to place OAM under more scientific NIH control, by elevating OAM to a full and independent Center within the NIH. Thus was NCCAM born.

I’ve complained many times about how NCCAM funds studies that, let’s face it, are of pseudoscience and quackery (homeopathy, anyone?) and even more about how it promotes unscientific medical practices. I’ve argued time and time again that there is no research that is funded by NCCAM that couldn’t be dealt with as well or better by other Centers or Institutes within the NIH. I’ve even argued that NCCAM should be defunded and dismantled, allowing CAM grant applications to be evaluated by the most appropriate center, as has our fearless leader Steve Novella. Most vociferous of all has been my fellow SBM blogger Kimball Atwood, who has made similar arguments at even greater length. I’ve also pointed out Harkin and other CAM-friendly legislators created and managed to increase the funding of NCCAM to the tune of $120+ million a year not for the purpose of rigorous scientific evaluation of CAM practices, but rather to promote CAM and ultimately “integrate” it with scientific medicine. At this they have been enormously successful.

Let me clarify. What I meant is that NCCAM, along with the Bravewell Collaborative, has been very successful in popularizing CAM in medical academia; at “proving” that CAM works, not so much. Evidence that this is so comes from a recent observation that Senator Tom Harkin is very, very unhappy with NCCAM these days and has publicly said so recently, as pointed out by Lindsay Beyerstein, daughter of the late, great skeptical psychologist Barry Beyerstein. On Thursday, Harkin told a Senate panel, Integrative Care: A Pathway to a Healthier Nation, that he was disappointed that NCCAM had disproven too many alternative therapies. (His remarks begin about 17 minutes into the video on the webpage to which I linked.) In addition, Harkin’s statements have also been posted to his Senate blog:
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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A Medical-Skeptical Classic

The medical literature slowly becomes outdated. As a result there are not that many ‘classics’ in the field, since their content becomes less relevant. The medical aphorism is that 10 years after graduation from medical school, half of everything you learned will no longer be valid. The problem for medical students is trying to figure out which half of their curriculum is not worth learning.

Old studies become increasingly irrelevant as diagnosis and treatment changes over time under the relentless pressure of medicine. I once came across the best of Osler, with his descriptions of typhoid fever and pneumococcal pneumonia. The essays were far more literary in style than today’s journal articles, describing the presentation of these diseases in Dickens-like detail, but of little practical help given the advances in treatment and the understanding of the microbiology of diseases.

Technology also expands and limits what papers are available. If there is not an electronic form of an article, it might as well not exist. Many classic articles are not yet available in digital form, and the article in question for this post I had to get as a scanned version of the original paper, rather than a pdf. As a result of time and lack of electronic access, much of the older medical literature is not easily accessible, and journal publishers are not particularly interested in the free dissemination of information. Which is a shame. There is the occasional older reference that is as applicable today as when it was published. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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How To Get Physicians To Use The Same Science-Based Playbook

Pretty much everyone agrees that we need to improve the quality of healthcare delivered to patients in the US. We’ve all heard the frightening statistics from the Institute of Medicine about medical error rates – that as many as 98,000 patients die each year as a result of them – and we also know that the US spends about 33% more than most industrialized country on healthcare, without substantial improvements in outcomes.

However, a large number of quality improvement initiatives rely on additional rules, regulations, and penalties to inspire change (for example, decreasing Medicare payments to hospitals with higher readmission rates, and decreasing provider compensation based on quality indicators). Not only am I skeptical about this stick vs. carrot strategy, but I think it will further demoralize providers, pit key stakeholders against one another, and cause people to spend their energy figuring out how to game the system than do the right thing for patients.

There is a carrot approach that could theoretically result in a $757 billion savings/year that has not been fully explored – and I suggest that we take a look at it before we “release the hounds” on hospitals and providers in an attempt to improve healthcare quality.

I attended the Senate Finance Committee’s hearing on budget options for health care reform on February 25th. One of the potential areas of substantial cost savings identified by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is non evidence-based variations in practice patterns. In fact, at the recent Medicare Policy Summit, CBO staff identified this problem as one of the top three causes of rising healthcare costs. Just take a look at this map of variations of healthcare spending to get a feel for the local practice cultures that influence treatment choices and prices for those treatments. There seems to be no organizing principle at all.

Senator Baucus (Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee) appeared genuinely distressed about this situation and was unclear about the best way to incentivize (or penalize) doctors to make their care decisions more uniformly evidence-based. In my opinion, a “top down” approach will likely be received with mistrust and disgruntlement on the part of physicians. What the Senator needs to know is that there is a bottom up approach already in place that could provide a real win-win here.
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Healing But Not Curing

Last week I discussed the book Healing, Hype, or Harm? edited by Edzard Ernst. I was particularly struck by one of the essays in that book: “Healing but not Curing” by Bruce Charlton, MD, a reader in evolutionary psychiatry at the Department of Psychology of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Charlton proposes a new way of looking at CAM. He describes three common attitudes:

  •  CAM does good and should be integrated with orthodox medicine. 
  • CAM is worthless and should be discarded.
  •  CAM may or may not do good and this should be decided using science.

He rejects all three. In his view,

  •  Alternative therapies do good.
  •  From a strictly medical perspective they are worthless.
  •  They should not be integrated with orthodox medicine.
  •  Because they are explained non-scientifically, they cannot be evaluated using the criteria of medical science.

He suggests that alternative therapies be regarded as spiritual practices. They are about making people feel better (‘healing’) not about mending their dysfunctional brains and bodies (‘curing’). (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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2009: Shaping up to be a really bad year for antivaccinationists

I will begin this post with a bit of an explanation. Between one and two weeks ago, there appeared two momentous news about the manufactroversy regarding vaccines and autism. No doubt, many SBM readers were expecting that I, as the resident maven of this particular bit of pseudoscience, would have been here last week to give you, our readers, the skinny on all of this. Unfortunately, as some know, my wife’s mother died, coincidentally enough, on the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birthday and a day when one of those two momentous bits of news was released to the public, which is why I used one of my handful of posts written and then held in reserve. I’m back now, though, and I don’t think it’s too late to comment on these bits of news because now that over a week has gone by what I’ve seen has led me to draw some conclusions that I might not have been able to do, had I done my usual bit and been first off the mark (at least among SBM bloggers) discussing the story.

2008: The Best of Years for the Antivaccine Movement

But first, let’s take a look at last year. In 2008, Jenny McCarthy was the new and fresh celebrity face of the movement that believes that autism and all manner of other neurodevelopmental disorders are caused by vaccines and that the government and big pharma are suppressing The Truth. She had emerged in the fall of 2007 after having tried to erase from the Internet her previous involvement in the “Indigo Child” movement in preparation for becoming an “autism advocate” who could write a book that could land her on Oprah’s show. Thanks to her and, perhaps even more so to the star power of her boyfriend Jim Carrey, who is just as wrong about vaccines and medicine as Jenny is, the antivaccine movement came roaring into prominence in a way that it had never managed to pull off before. After all, let’s face it, a former Playboy Playmate of the Year and a famous comedian are far more “interesting” public figures for various media outlets to interview than previous celebrities who spearheaded the vaccine manufactroversy, such as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. or Don Imus and his wife Deirdre.

Indeed, Jenny’s combination of good looks and utter obnoxiousness led to her showing up all over the media in 2008. For example, on April 1 (appropriately enough), she appeared on Larry King Live! and shouted down physicians who had the temerity to tell her that her Google University knowledge was just plain wrong. The pinnacle of her influence came during the summer, when, having now supplanted J.B. Handley as the public face of the antivaccine group Generation Rescue and transforming GR into “Jenny McCarthy’s autism charity,” she led the “Green Our Vaccines” rally in Washington, DC. True, at most there were several hundred people there, but it got wide news attention, and Jenny was all over the news. She rapidly followed it up by releasing a second book Mother Warriors: A Nation of Parents Healing Autism Against All Odds and appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show yet again.
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Colorado is Nearer to Promoting Naturopathic Pseudomedicine—Aided by the Colorado Medical Society

This week we’ll take a break from lambasting the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, as worthy as that task is, in order to confront some of the latest events involving the pseudomedical cult that calls itself “naturopathic medicine.”* Intrepid nurse and anti-healthfraud activist Linda Rosa reports that Colorado is dangerously close to becoming the next state to endorse ”NDs” as health care practitioners, and Scott Gavura of Science-Based Pharmacy called my attention to a report that British Columbia is considering enlarging the scope of practice for NDs, who are already licensed there, and that Alberta is on the verge of licensing them. In each case, those whom the public trusts to make wise decisions have betrayed their ignorance of both pseudomedicine and the realities of governmental regulation.

To explain why, it will first be necessary to make a few assertions, which are linked to developed arguments where necessary:

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Posted in: Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Medical Ethics, Nutrition, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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Fakin’ it

Last week the Times of London revealed inside information from the General Medical Council (UK, responsible for physician licensing) of an ongoing investigation of Dr. Andrew Wakefield and from its own investigation. This revelation recalled other instances of fakery from reports of sectarian medicine (“CAM”) successes. The Medical Council information contained evidence that the data from the now famous Wakefield cases used to claim an association of the MMR vaccine with childhood autism and inflammatory bowel disease were misinterpreted, altered, and to some extent, faked. The report and history were reviewed by David Gorski last week. In eight of twelve cases, the dates of autism onset were “rearranged” to fit the needed time association, and many small bowel biopsies were “reinterpreted” to show inflammation.

The Wakefield claims were long suspected by reputable medical scientists and skeptics  as being erroneous or fraudulent.  Note: the Council hearings are still in progress, and the Times report is subject to legal complaint.  The original details can also be seen in the Times articles.

This expose’ adds to a growing list of reports with erroneous and faked information in medical journals used either for economic reward, undeserved fame, or to promote ideological claims for medical sects and cults. Although history of erroneous or false claims goes back hundreds of years, the altering or synthesizing of data passing the recently conceived peer review system is new,  illuminating defects in the journal peer review and editing system.

If journals were invented in the 18th century, and operated like journals of today, Mesmer’s demonstrations might have been published, and the Ben Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier and French Academy’s disproof might have been rejected. (Laughter here.) But journals continue to make major goofs in publishing implausible results despite the popularity of a famous specialty journal for that purpose.

Examples vary from acceptance of language manipulation – “alternative,” “healing,” “integrative,” etc., to the fakery of recent papers showing effects of prayer. The two famous studies of prayer in the cardiac care unit ranged from the unadmitted breaking of the blind in the Bird study (So Med J 1988; 81:826-826) to unadmitted imbalances of subject and control groups (Harris, Arch Int Med 1999;159:2273-2278.) And from those to the likely fakery of the distant prayer study of in vitro fertilization (Cha, Wirth, Lobo; J Reprod Med 2001:46;781-786) in which three separate prayer groups on two continents improved pregnancy rates in a group of women on a third continent by an implausible 100 percent. In all of these cases, the papers passed peer or editorial review despite the methodological defects that were picked up by us skeptics (K. Atwood, K.Courcey [an RN] B. Flamm, and others.)

Adding insult to the above, Annals of Internal Medicine published a systematic review of intercessory prayer (Astin et al, Ann Int Med, 2000;132: 903-910) containing not only the Bird and Harris studies counted as positive, but also the Targ study on brain tumors, found by reporter Po Bronson to have had its end point altered by the authors when the primary one showed no effect.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Health Fraud, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Edzard Ernst Does It Again

Publishing one excellent book is an accomplishment; publishing two in one year is a truly outstanding achievement. In 2008 Edzard Ernst and Simon Singh published a landmark book Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts About Alternative Medicine. I reviewed it on this blog last summer.  It is particularly important since Ernst is a former advocate for CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) who was able to objectively look at the scientific evidence and realize that it doesn’t support most CAM methods.

Before the year was out, Ernst had published another book, Healing, Hype or Harm? A Critical Analysis of Complementary or Alternative Medicine. It is a compilation of essays on various general and specific topics in CAM. Ernst is the editor; he and 15 other authors have contributed, mostly from the UK but also including Asbjorn Hrobjartsson from the Nordic Cochrane Centre in Denmark (the author of a landmark paper on placebos), Canadian health activist Terry Polevoy, and our own inimitable James (The Amaz!ng) Randi.

In the preface, Ernst says,

Our book tries to look behind the various smoke screens that tend to obstruct our vision and often prevent us from understanding the truth. The authors of this volume have very different backgrounds and views but they are all well-informed critics who do not dismiss CAM lightly. If they disapprove of certain aspects, they do so for well-argued reasons. (more…)

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