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Cell phones and cancer again, or: Oh, no! My cell phone’s going to give me cancer!

Before I start into the meat of this post, I feel the need to emphasize, as strongly as I can, four things:

  1. I do not receive any funding from the telecommunications industry in general, or wireless phone companies in particular. None at all. In other words, I’m not in the pocket of “big mobile” any more than I am in the pocket of big pharma.
  2. I don’t own any stock in telecommunications companies, other than as parts of mutual funds in which my retirement funds are invested that purchase shares in many, many different companies, some of which may or may not be telecommunications companies. (I should probably go and look at the list.)
  3. None of my friends or family work for cell phone companies.
  4. I don’t have a dog in this hunt. I really don’t.

I say this because these are the most common accusations I hear whenever I venture into this particular topic area, and I thought I’d just clear that up right away in order (hopefully) to preempt any similar comments after this post. Indeed, one of the favorite retorts to anyone who criticizes fearmongering about cell phones is to try to insinuate that that person is only doing so because he or she is in the pocket of industry, and I’ve been at the receiving end of such claims. Unfortunately, I’m sure someone will probably show his or her lack of reading comprehension and post one of those very criticisms of me. It’s almost inevitable. Even though posting such disclaimers never works against the “pharma shill” gambit when I write about vaccines or dubious cancer cures, nonetheless hope springs eternal.

Now that that obligatory unpleasantness is out of the way, let me move on to say that I’m very puzzled about something that happened last week.

I know that being puzzled isn’t particularly unusual for me. Indeed, I’m frequently puzzled about a great many things. I can’t figure out how, for example, anyone with the slightest bit of reason or critical thinking ability can believe that homeopathy is anything other than water treated with, in essence, magical spells accompanied by shaking or do anything other than laugh when informed what homeopathy really is and how it supposedly “works.” I can’t figure out how anyone can look at the mass of interlocking evidence from multiple different scientific specialties supporting evolution and reject still reject one of the most powerful scientific theories ever to spring from the human mind, deciding instead that creationism or its bastard offspring, “intelligent design” creationism is anything more than pure religion or rank religion-inspired pseudoscience. I can’t figure out why American Idol or Survivor is so amazingly popular.

And I can’t figure out why on earth the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Center released this warning about cell phones last week:

PITTSBURGH July 24, 2008, 07:13 am ET · The head of a prominent cancer research institute issued an unprecedented warning to his faculty and staff Wednesday: Limit cell phone use because of the possible risk of cancer.

The warning from Dr. Ronald B. Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, is contrary to numerous studies that don’t find a link between cancer and cell phone use, and a public lack of worry by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Herberman is basing his alarm on early unpublished data. He says it takes too long to get answers from science and he believes people should take action now — especially when it comes to children.

“Really at the heart of my concern is that we shouldn’t wait for a definitive study to come out, but err on the side of being safe rather than sorry later,” Herberman said.

Dr. Herberman is a highly respected cancer center director whom I’ve in general thought well of, and the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute is a highly respected cancer center. I know a few people there, and in the past I’ve worked closely with two surgeons who trained there. One in particular remains my collaborator, even though I’ve moved on from the institution where we were once partners.

That’s why I can’t help but wonder just what on earth Dr. Herberman was smoking when he decided to issue this warning, given my general respect for the University of Pittsburgh to the point where I once even tried to land a faculty position there. His announcement strikes me as being rash in the extreme, especially given that its text even admits outright that the published data at present do not appear to support a link between cell phone use and brain tumors. Consequently, I conclude that this is alarmism that, I suspect, even a prominent blogger known to be somewhat receptive to the claim that cell phones cause brain tumors (Revere) would have a hard time supporting, because it goes far beyond the published evidence and is based on “early unpublished data.” Scaring the nation based on “early unpublished data” that can’t be examined by the entire medical and scientific community is generally not a good idea. That’s why I’ve been asking over the last few days: Why on earth did Dr. Herberman do it?
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Posted in: Cancer, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Science, Reason, Ethics, and Modern Medicine, Part 3: Implausible Claims and Formal Ethics Statements

The Ethics of Implausible Medical Claims (IMC)

In Part 2 of this series* we learned from David Katz, MD, a key member of the Yale School of Medicine’s “integrative medicine” program, that he had been “pushed toward integrative medicine by the needs of [his] patients.” We also learned that Dr. Katz’s rationale for this decision justifies a wide range of quackery—both in principle and in fact. I had previously alluded to arguments like those of Dr. Katz in a comment on SBM several months ago:

…we must be true to medical ethics, no matter what else we do. If that means losing a few patients, so be it. Patients are free agents, and we can only do so much to influence them. To the extent that we don’t do that as well as we might (which is obviously true in some cases), we might do better. But our ethical obligation is to science and truth; it is not, as many modern physicians would have it and as much as we may lament sometimes losing patients to woo, to seducing patients to stick with us no matter what, if the “what” includes engaging in a charade about “integration” or “complementary therapies”…

Realizing that some might argue that physicians’ obligations to patients ought to trump their obligations to “science and truth,” I later revised that statement:

Several weeks ago I argued here that a physician’s primary ethical obligation is to science and truth. In retrospect I probably should have put it a slightly different way: a physician’s primary ethical obligation is the same as everyone else’s. It is to honesty and integrity. For physicians, however, that means being true to real medical knowledge, among other things, and real medical knowledge comes from science.

In spite of that revision, two readers whose opinions I respect challenged my assertion. Dr. Peter Moran’s worthy efforts to educate patients about the realities of “alternative” cancer treatments are considerable. Here on SBM he has repeatedly challenged us to explain how, when confronted with testimonials of “alternative” cures, we ought to respond without using “a high-handed, ‘we know best’ stance” and thus “appear to want to distance [ourselves] from the intimate concerns of [our] patients.” I was thinking mainly of him when I wrote the revision above, because on this key topic—how to respond ethically, but with compassion, to patients who want to believe in implausible treatments—I’ve come to think of Dr. Moran as the “conscience” of Science-Based Medicine. Those with cancer, he has reminded us, “are folk very like you and me who are simply grasping at any straw that might save or prolong their lives.” His take on why IMCs are appealing to those with less ominous problems is well-developed and agrees with my own, mostly. We part ways, however, when he concludes (also here and here) that ethical physicians might have good reasons—unlike Dr. Katz’s—to entertain benign, if implausible treatments:

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Posted in: Health Fraud, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Can Psychosis be Prevented?

I recently read an article in Discover magazine entitled “Stop the Madness.” It was about a new treatment program that allegedly can prevent schizophrenia and other forms of psychosis. I found it very disturbing.

The PIER (Portland Identification and Early Referral) program was founded by a psychiatrist, Dr. William McFarlane, in Portland, Maine. It has recently expanded to 4 other US sites and there are similar programs in several other countries. PIER is an effort to find and treat patients in the “early stages of deterioration towards psychosis,” so as to prevent the development of psychotic illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression. The program involves various psychosocial interventions and psychotropic drugs.

On the surface it sounds promising, but there is a dark side. I’m particularly concerned about the use of antipsychotic drugs in people who haven’t been diagnosed as psychotic. (more…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine

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Resistance is futile? Hell, no! (A call to arms)

Well, I won’t back down
No, I won’t back down
You can stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won’t back down

Gonna stand my ground
Won’t be turned around
And I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me down
Gonna stand my ground
And I won’t back down

From “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty, 1989

This week, in a little bit of a departure, I have a minor bone to pick with our fearless leader and his podcast partner in crime Rebecca Watson (a.k.a. the Skepchick), who both managed to annoy me a bit the other day. (Don’t worry, Steve and Rebecca, I still love you guys…)

I’ll explain. You see, I had originally had a much different topic in mind for this week. Indeed, I even had my post mostly written by Saturday morning, when I had to take care of some mundane personal business, namely getting an oil change and some minor work done on my car. Since I need my car to commute to work and the maintenance needed was relatively minor, I decided to wait for the work to be done. As is my wont when sitting in waiting rooms with nothing much else to do, I decided to plug my earphones into my iPhone and catch up on some podcasts. Since the dealer also had free wifi, I brought my laptop along as well, the better to finish up my originally intended post.

The first thing I realized as I perused the list of unlistened-to podcasts was that I had fallen far behind in listening to one of my favorite podcasts, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. To begin catching up, I decided to start with what was at the time the most recently available episode, specifically the July 9 podcast, figuring I could work my way back to through the earlier ones and thereby catch up with at least two episodes before my car was ready. In the second segment (beginning around 14:31 minutes into the podcast), Steve Novella and crew discussed a bit the recent news that the National Institute of Mental Health was trying to resurrect a dubious and highly unethical clinical trial proposed to test chelation therapy as a treatment for autism, referencing his excellent post on this very blog about why the trial is scientifically dubious (at best) and totally unethical. So far, so good.

Then the conversation veered into another area that I agree with, namely the utter uselessness of National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and how its main purpose is more proselytization for “alternative” and “complementary” medicine than actual rigorous scientific research, as I pointed out before in one of my earliest posts for SBM. As Steve pointed out that, for all the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by NCCAM, not a single new medicine or treatment has been added to the armamentarium of modern medicine, nor, even more importantly, have CAM practitioners abandoned a single bit of unscientific medicine due to any of the negative studies. Indeed, their enthusiasm hasn’t been dampened in the least. This line of discussion led to the question of whether we, as skeptics and advocates of science- and evidence-based medicine need to rethink and refocus our efforts.
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Posted in: Medical Academia, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Science, Reason, Ethics, and Modern Medicine, Part 2: the Tortured Logic of David Katz

In Part 1 of this series* I asserted that a physician’s primary ethical responsibility is to honesty and integrity, which in turn must be largely based on science and reason (I apologize if that sounded preachy; if there had been more time I might have couched it in more congenial terms). I mentioned the fallacious reasoning whereby proponents of implausible medical claims (IMC) point to real and imagined weaknesses of modern medicine to justify their own agenda. I offered, as a favorite example of such proponents, science-based medicine’s having not yet solved every health problem. This week I’ll show how this version of the tu quoque fallacy has led a prestigious medical school to advocate pseudoscience-based medicine.

Modern Medicine: a Brief, Fragile Commitment to Science

First, a few more words about the title of this series. Modern medicine is not science, even if it draws upon science for its knowledge: it is an applied science similar, in that sense, to engineering. Modern medicine is also not synonymous with the “medical profession,” if the term means the collection of all people with MD degrees. That is true for the obvious reason that medicine is more than people, but also because a small but loud minority of MDs rejects modern medicine and science.

Modern medicine has made an uneven commitment to science and reason. At its best, it has formally embraced them in the faculties and curricula of medical schools, in its codes of ethics, and in its contributions to knowledge, both basic and applied, over the past 150 years or so. As discussed last week, it is because of science and reason that modern medicine has made dramatic, revolutionary advances in a very short time. That is what distinguishes it from every other “healing tradition,” and why there is no legitimate competition. The only valid medicine in the modern world is science-based medicine—not “allopathic,” “Western,” “conventional,” “regular,” “integrative,” “complementary and alternative,” or any of the so-called “whole medical systems.” The pre-scientific (and, ironically, “post-modern”) designation of “schools” or “systems” of medicine, so stridently trumpeted by quacks, is an anachronism—even if it persists in archaic, governmental edicts.

Compared to the actual sciences, however, modern medicine’s commitment to science is fragile. Its recent confusion of error-prone clinical trials with science itself—the project called “evidence-based medicine”—has been a mixed blessing. Its growing tolerance of charlatans and crackpots, at times elevating them to celebrity status, would be unthinkable in physics or biology. Its dalliances with quackery, so depressingly recounted in recent posts here, here, here, and here, are why your SBM bloggers do what we do. Biologists, other scientists, and intellectuals in general have joined the battle against the pseudoscientific travesty known as “intelligent design.” Many physicians, however, even of the brainy, academic variety, act as though the equally pseudoscientific but more dangerous travesty known as “integrative medicine” is either a good thing or, at least, is a necessary addition to medical school curricula.

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

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Science, Reason, Ethics, and Modern Medicine Part 1: Tu Quoque and History

Several weeks ago I argued here that a physician’s primary ethical obligation is to science and truth. In retrospect I probably should have put it a slightly different way: a physician’s primary ethical obligation is the same as everyone else’s. It is to honesty and integrity. For physicians, however, that means being true to real medical knowledge, among other things, and real medical knowledge comes from science. That is what this and the next several posts will be about.*

First, a little Tu Quoque

After reading some of the comments that followed my posting of two weeks ago, I reluctantly thought to add a few words about the medical profession’s view of physicians selling drugs. It felt tiresome to have to address the issue, because it is beside the point. The series was about “naturopathic medicine,” not about modern medicine. If readers who understand the point will excuse the interruption, I’ll quickly attempt to explain why by posing two extreme possibilities: If MDs are entirely innocent of the relevant breach of ethics, what would that have to do with naturopaths selling drugs? But if MDs are entirely guilty, two wrongs don’t make a right—demonstrating the same irrelevancy.

That is why the ”you should talk” sneer is known, in debate, as the tu quoque (“you too”) fallacy. It’s funny how parents seem to recognize it when faced with children who, in seeking permission to engage in dubious activities, invoke the parents’ own sordid histories or the equally irrelevant, alleged prerogatives of other people’s children. Yet the same parents appear to forget it in other contexts.

I was also weary and wary of those who would draw me into a strawman debate pitting the medical profession against any group of sectarian health advocates. I have only a small sense of “solidarity” with the group of people who have MD degrees, and even less so with organized medicine. My first allegiance, as I’ve explained elsewhere, is to science and reason. Those modes of inquiry, together with their obvious bearing on the integrity of all claims about nature, are the bases for my objections to naturopathy and to pseudoscience in general. The medical profession per se is related but not central to the issue. While thinking about these things, it dawned on me that a discussion of why that is might be useful. (more…)

Posted in: Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Cavalcade of Quackery: A Pantomine Horse

Last week I received the news release below that Steve Zeitzew, an orthopedic surgeon at VA Hospital Los Angeles and UCLA, sent to the Healthfraud list. It was sent to me by our colleague Liz Woeckner, President of the nonprofit research protection advocacy organization Citizens for Responsible Care in Research (CIRCARE) http://www.circare.org/
Ms. Woeckner sent it on with a cryptic comment, wondering if this action was a quid pro quo for the Chinese granting less than a dozen FDA “inspection stations” in Chinese cities. The latter is supposed to be an attempt to control the impurities and adulterants of Chinese herbal products.

But before proceeding, read for yourselves:

Monday, June 16, 2008 Contact: HHS Press Office

HHS Secretary and Chinese Minister of Health Sign Memorandum of Understanding on Traditional Chinese Medicine Research .

HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt today signed a memorandum of understanding with Chinese Vice Minister of Health Wang Guoqiang to foster collaboration between scientists in both countries in research on integrative and traditional Chinese medicine. The signing marks the opening of a two-day traditional Chinese medicine Research Roundtable at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The roundtable features scientific presentations by researchers from China and the United States. Topics include the synthesis of Western medicine and traditional Chinese medicine, criteria for evaluating traditional Chinese medicine practices, and the application of modern scientific tools such as proteomics (the study of proteins) to the study of traditional Chinese medicine. “Many Americans incorporate alternative medical practices into their personal health care and are interested in the potential of a variety of traditional Chinese medicine approaches,” Secretary Leavitt said. “This project will advance our understanding of when and how to appropriately integrate traditional Chinese medicine with Western medical approaches to improve the health of the American and Chinese people.” The memorandum of understanding and the establishment of the international collaboration will aid in furthering scientific research on traditional Chinese medicine. Participants in the roundtable include a delegation from the Chinese State Administration on Traditional Chinese Medicine, academics from U.S. universities, and scientists and researchers from NIH, Indian Health Service and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Thirty-six percent of Americans use some form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), according to the 2002 National Health Interview Survey. In the United States, traditional Chinese medicine is an alternative medical system that is considered a part of complementary and alternative medicine. Integrative medicine combines mainstream medical practices with alternative medical practices. Traditional Chinese medicine involves numerous practices including acupuncture, tai chi, and herbal therapies. In 2007, NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) supported nearly $20 million in research on traditional Chinese medicine practices. Secretary Leavitt was joined at the signing by FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach, M.D., and NCCAM Director Josephine P. Briggs, M.D. The roundtable, which was coordinated by NCCAM, National Cancer Institute’s Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine and the Fogarty International Center, is being held in advance of the Fourth Session of the United States-China Strategic Economic Dialogue, which began today in Annapolis, Md.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Clinical Trials, Herbs & Supplements, Science and Medicine

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Are Cardiologists Ordering Too Many CT Angiograms?

A really snazzy new invention allows doctors to see inside their patients’ hearts as never before: the CT angiogram. It produces gorgeous 3-D video images of the beating heart in action. It allows us to see the blood flow through the heart’s chambers and it shows any plaque in the coronary arteries. Cardiologists are understandably excited about this new tool. Too excited. Some of them are using it indiscriminately and are getting half their income from using it.

On June 29, 2008 the New York Times published an excellent article entitled “Weighing the Costs of a CT Scan’s Look Inside the Heart.” A commenter on this blog has quoted from that article to criticize scientific medicine, and it brings up some important points that deserve a closer look.

With any new technology, the important question is whether it really improves patient outcome or just increases the cost of healthcare. These scans are a huge improvement for visualizing the heart. But are they any better than older diagnostic methods at actually preventing heart attacks or prolonging life? We don’t know yet. Will they cause harm through over-diagnosis? We don’t know yet. Will they cause radiation-induced cancers? We think they might. What’s the risk/benefit ratio? We don’t know yet.

Oprah thinks she knows. She’s urging her viewers to get tested. But she may not be the best source of medical advice. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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The Placebo Myth

King Arthur: Now stand aside, worthy adversary.
Black Knight: ‘Tis but a scratch.
King Arthur: A scratch? Your arm’s off.
Black Knight: No it isn’t.
King Arthur: What’s that, then?
Black Knight: [after a pause] I’ve had worse.
King Arthur: You liar.
Black Knight: Come on ya pansy.King Arthur: [after Arthur's cut off both of the Black Knight's arms] Look, you stupid Bastard. You’ve got no arms left.
Black Knight: Yes I have.
King Arthur: Look!
Black Knight: It’s just a flesh wound.Monty Python and the Holy Grail

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I am, I think, in a minority on this blog, in that I do not think there is a placebo effect. Period. None. Zip. Zero. Nada. Zilch.

For analysis purposes, I divide the lack of placebo effect into outcomes that do not occur with objective measurement and those that do not occur with subjective measurement.

Why the dichotomy? Those studies where there have been an active treatment, a placebo treatment and an observation group, have demonstrated no difference between observation and placebo (1). To summarize from the conclusion of the compelling NEJM review:

“We found little evidence in general that placebos had powerful clinical effects. Although placebos had no significant effects on objective or binary outcomes, they had possible small benefits in studies with continuous subjective outcomes and for the treatment of pain. Outside the setting of clinical trials, there is no justification for the use of placebos.”

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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The Bait and Switch of Unscientific Medicine

Savvy consumers are familiar with the classic scam of the “bait and switch” – in practice if not the term itself. My wife and I ran across it when we were shopping for our first car. We needed a bargain and so we were attracted to the ads that promised a new Colt for only $9,000 (that’s the bait). Of course when we got to the dealership they were all out of Colts with the configuration advertised, but they had plenty of others that had different options that cost several thousand dollars more (that’s the switch).

It’s a basic and very successful form of deception, and so even though there are laws against such practices it is impossible to eliminate in all its various and more subtle forms. It even permeates scientific, political, and other intellectual endeavors – anytime a more palatable idea or claim is put forward to represent the less acceptable truth.

Science, however, requires transparent honesty to function properly, and therefore scientific practitioners must vigilantly guard against the cognitive bait and switch. Generic intellectual virtues incorporate this vigilance – they include the need to unambiguously define terms, to make claims as specific and operational as possible, and the use of valid logic. Beware of any claims that subtly violate these rules because they are probably setting you up for a bait and switch.

The purveyors of unscientific medical claims have become as expert at this classic deception as the slickest used-car salesman – in fact they have left the hawkers of dubious transportation in the dust.

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