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Archive for Science and Medicine

When Further Research Is NOT Warranted: The “Wisdom of Crowds” Fallacy

Most scientific research studies have at least one thing in common: the conclusion section ends with, “further research is warranted.” I’d say it’s about as common as the “talk to your doctor” disclaimer in TV ads for pharmaceutical products. And in a way, they both serve the same purpose. They’re a “CYA” move.

What does “further research is warranted” mean in plain English? I think it can be roughly translated: “My research study is not of the size or scope to fully explain all the phenomena described in this article. Therefore, draw conclusions beyond the data and study methods at your own risk. And yeah, my work is important and cool – so people should study it further.”

Of course, the first two sentences are reasonable – we should always remember not to draw conclusions beyond the information provided by the data we’ve collected (even though that’s about as challenging as getting a beagle not to eat a table scrap in an empty room). The real problem is the third sentence. Is the research promising enough to require further investment? How are we to know if further research is indeed warranted? I would argue that it should not be based solely on the subjective opinions of the researchers nor the popularity of the research topic to the general public. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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Interpreting the Medical Literature

The science in science-based medicine includes all of science, but relies most heavily on the biomedical literature – published studies that collectively represent our scientific medical knowledge. The scientific basis of medicine is only as good as this body of knowledge and the manner in which it is interpreted and put into practice.

We often discuss on this blog how to evaluate individual studies- the need for blinding, randomization, the importance of study size to meaningful statistical analysis, and other features that distinguish a reliable study from a worthless one. This is important, but only half of the equation. We also at times discuss the medical literature as it relates to a specific medical question or set of related questions – does homeopathy work or are statins beneficial for cholesterol reduction, for example. This requires not only the ability to judge individual studies, but a higher order analysis of the overall pattern of evidence among all relevant studies. Failure to do this, by focusing only on individual studies, results in the failure to see the forest for the trees.

It is this higher order analysis that I wish to discuss in this entry.

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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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A New Twist for Autism: A Bogus “Biomedical” Board

Here’s a short addition to the topic of Pseudomedical Pseudoprofessional Organizations (PPOs).† New pseudo-board-certification schemes pop up like mushrooms after a spring rain, but just last week there was an announcement of one with a difference:

The American Medical Autism Board

AMAB offers the first of its kind board/diplomate certification program for medical doctors specializing in biomedical treatment of autism and related disorders. These disorders are known collectively as the Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Thus, medical doctors who become certified by the American Medical Autism Board show that they specialize in biomedical treatment of ASD, and will have met the Board’s high levels of criteria for training and experience, and will have passed its rigorous certification examination.

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Posted in: Health Fraud, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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The Pseudomedical Pseudoprofessional Organization (PPO*)

(*Not to be confused with “Preferred Provider Organization,” which shares the acronym)

This is part of an ongoing series† discussing pitfalls of regulating physicians, but I’ve decided, in the interest of flexibility, to vary the title. A couple of weeks ago I gave some examples of how individual physicians practicing substandard, implausible medicine manage to avoid or delay being disciplined by state medical boards. I observed that the boards themselves seem reluctant or slow to act against such practices, even those that are illegal, and that this stands in contrast to their prompt actions against other types of malfeasance: those of the “low-hanging fruit” variety. In a comment, David Gorski reminded me that he had previously offered a few reasons for that discrepancy, with which I agree. Nevertheless, it seems odd that state boards don’t do better.

In an attempt to find more explanations, this week we’ll look at another tactic of practitioners of pseudomedicine: banding together to create pseudomedical pseudoprofessional organizations (PPOs), complete with pseudo-legitimate names, pseudo-legitimate conferences, pseudo-legitimate appearing websites, pseudo-”board certifications,” protocols for pseudo-therapies, patient brochures hyping pseudo-therapies, pseudo-consent forms for pseudo-therapies, pseudo-Institutional Review Boards to approve pseudo-research, pseudo-journals to publish reports of pseudo-research, very real financial contributions from pseudoscientific corporations to help pay for very real advertising, very real lobbying, very real legal representation, and more.

There are many more PPOs than we’ll be able to examine, but they have common features. We’ll also look at how some Institutions That Should Know Better respond to PPOs, which can be frightening. (more…)

Posted in: Health Fraud, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Getting It On with Homeopathy

I have more thoughts on the homeopathy matter than fit in follow-up notes, so here goes.

First, David Gorski recalls the 1994 Pediatrics report on childhood diarrhea treated with tailored homeopathic remedies for each patient. There is more to the story than has been written. I am certain much of this will get back to the authors, but others may benefit from knowing how this group of homeopaths operate.

I recall the paper well, because it was the first journal report that I deconstructed and published (Pediatrics, Oct 1995) as a regular article. I think it was the first time the journal had published a formal rebuttal outside the Letters section. The head of pediatric pharmacy at Valley Medical Center, San Jose, brought the paper to me and asked what I thought if it. Bill London of National Council against Health Fraud and I spent six months discussing it and working over the details.

The paper had so many flaws, that one letter could not contain them. It had five or six end points, several arithmetical errors, graphs with missing data, only one end point reached consensus signficance (barely.)

Each case received a remedy tailored to the age, condition, duration of symptoms, appearance and odor of the stool, the recall of the parent or relative about stool frequency (which depended on how often the child’s diapers were changed, and a number of other qualities, typical of a homeopathic approach to diagnosis. The remedies given were not based on etiology, but based on personal observations, We saw that the remedy was chosen at a snapshot in time, depending on all those factors which varied from hour to hour. So the remedies depended on the time at which the child was brought in for examination and were unchanged throughout the duration of illness. That made no sense at all. Besides, the specific remedies had no data behind them for proof of efficacy, and were chosen on basis of charts and computer references.

One could hardly find anything about the paper that would lend credibility to its conclusion that suggested homeopathy “worked“ better than placebo. The results in our opinion demonstrated nothing more than the variations in the clinical trial system (noise.)
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Homeopathy, Science and Medicine

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Disintegrating Integrative Medicine: Lessons From Baking

Suppose I were to bake you a cake and my ingredient list included the following:

  • Eggs
  • Milk
  • Butter
  • Sand
  • Flour
  • Baking Powder
  • Vanilla
  • Melamine
  • Sugar
  • Chocolate icing

What is the problem with the ingredient list? It has integrated inedible and poisonous items into the very fine basic ingredients that make a good cake. This is the exact same problem that the medical profession faces with the “integrative medicine” movement. Insofar as it espouses and promotes well-vetted, healthy ingredients, it is a boon to patients. But when inordinate emphasis is placed on placebos (“sand”) or when dangerous practices (“melamine”) are inserted into the prescription for our patients’ “health and wellness,” that attractive-appearing cake becomes a recipe for disaster.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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A natural product of his environment

I’m delighted to have the opportunity to join this outstanding group of medical professional bloggers in adding my natural products angle to the application of science-based medicine.  With the exception of Dr. Gorski, who holds MD and PhD degrees, I believe I am the first “only a PhD” to be invited to SBM.  However, I have spent much of my career training, and training with, physician-scientists; so enthusiastic am I about the special qualities of the physician-scientist that I married one (or, rather, she chose to marry me, truth be told.).  Conversely, I view the invitation to write here as a responsibility in representing what my fellow basic scientists bring to bear on discussions of the scientific arguments for and against modalities classified broadly as complementary and alternative medicine or integrative medicine.

Why write about herbal medicines and natural products?

I have long been interested in bringing objective scientific information to the public, perhaps as early as my college years in bars while visiting my working-class hometown of Wallington, NJ, or while shooting darts with Philadelphia cops across from my undergrad apartment.  Any chat I’d have with an old buddy or bartender about drugs, cancer, or drugs and cancer would invariably draw some interest from fellow patrons overhearing my discussions.  These were usually followed by, “Hey, aren’t you Frankie Kroll’s boy?,” or “I’ve heard the government is hiding the cure for cancer – do you have any inside dope on that?”
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Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Medical Academia, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Is there no end to unscientific treatments for autism?

OK, it’s true that I’m only scheduled to post every other week or so, but I couldn’t resist sharing this one with you (which I’ve cross-posted over at denialism blog).  I promise to get back to my assigned schedule after this one.  Thanks for your indulgence.  –PalMD

If you’ve been a regular reader of SBM or denialism blog, you know that plausibility plays an important part in science-based medicine.  If plausibility is discounted, clinical studies of improbable medical claims can show apparently positive results.  But once pre-test probability is factored in, the truth is revealed—magic water can’t treat disease, no matter what a particular study may say.  So it was with great dismay that I read an email from a reader telling me about parents buying hyperbaric chambers for their autistic children.  Let’s review some science.

In Breathing 101, we talked about how the oxygen delivered to your lungs depends on both the percentage of oxygen in the air, and the air pressure.  We looked at how diminishing atmospheric pressure, for example at altitude, makes it harder to breathe.

Of course it is also possible to expose people to increased atmospheric pressure, which has therapeutic uses in the form of hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT).

Oxygen delivery to tissue depends on several factors.  We already talked about the air itself.  Once air gets enters the lungs, most of the oxygen transported to your tissues is carried by the hemoglobin molecules in your red blood cells (under normal conditions).  A small amount is directly dissolved in the blood.  The amount dissolved in the blood is dependent on (no surprise) the percentage of oxygen and the atmospheric pressure.  By increasing the atmospheric pressure from 1 atm (760 torr) to 3 atm, the amount of oxygen dissolved in the blood is enough to meet your body’s needs independent of heme-associated oxygen.

This is a good thing.
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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and Medicine

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Fake diseases, false compassion

Hi,  everybody!  I’m PalMD (although my byline says differently), and you may remember me from such other blogs as WhiteCoat Underground and denialism. The folks around here were kind enough to give me a regular gig dispensing my brand of medical information transfer, and I’m going to start out with a basic question: what is a disease?

Human beings have some pretty powerful pattern-recognition software—so powerful that it can over-perceive patterns, sometimes causing us to confuse randomness for order.  This impacts all aspects of human thought, including medicine.

In the realm of medicine, we define disease as alterations in physiology, anatomy, biochemistry, etc. that causes significant discomfort, disability, or increased risk for same.  OK, really, I sort of cobbled that together, but you get the idea — a disease is a definable alteration in normal function.  A corollary to this is that to define a disease, we must know something about what is normal (a discussion for another time).  A related term is syndrome, which we usually define as  “a set of signs or a series of events occurring together that often point to a single disease or condition as the cause.”  What this effectively means is that we use the word “syndrome” to indicate a set of abnormal findings without a clear cause, and “disease” to indicate the abnormal findings with a putative cause.

(All this verbosity is leading somewhere—I promise.)

“Syndrome” is sometimes a useful place-holder term for a nascent disease.  Sometimes, however, a set of signs and symptoms is simply coincidence that we erroneously recognize as a pattern.

In popular culture there’s a lot of talk about “overmedicalization”, that is, calling things abnormal that are simply slight variations in the wide range of human health.   You’ll find people who argue that treating ADHD with medications is tantamount to abuse (and lost in the hysteria is the real possibility that we are over-medicating some kids). You’ll also find groups that argue that deafness or autism are simply “other”, but not “abnormal” as such.  This, of course, is wrong.  While a deaf or autistic person is just as valuable as a “normal”, and may have just as much to contribute to society, they are very far from normal human health.

And now you have the proper background to approach the problem of fake diseases.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Cholesterol Skeptics Strike Again

I’m really tired of arguing about cholesterol, but I feel obliged to stand up once more to defend science-based medicine from unfair calumny.

Lewis Jones’s article “Cholesterol-shmesterol” in Skeptical Briefs (December 2007) included errors and misconceptions about cholesterol. It was a re-hash of the same kind of misinformation that is being spread by The International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics (THINCS) and that I addressed in an earlier post. THINCS would like us to believe that cholesterol has nothing to do with heart disease; that low cholesterol is harmful and high cholesterol is beneficial; and they demonize statins, even falsely claiming that they cause cancer.

I answered Jones with my own article “Cholesterol Clarifications” in the June 2008 issue of Skeptical Briefs. I said I agreed that cholesterol does not “cause” heart disease, that low-fat and low-cholesterol diets have been promoted way beyond the evidence and that statins are being over-prescribed. The public has a lot of misconceptions, but thoughtful science-based doctors agree that the evidence shows: (more…)

Posted in: Nutrition, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine

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