Archive for Science and Medicine

Homeopathy and Evidence-Based Medicine: Back to the Future Part V

Homeopathy and Science: Discussion, Summary and Conclusions

I was not surprised by a couple of the dissenting comments after Part IV of this blog. One writer worried that I had neglected, presumably for nefarious reasons, to cite replications of Benveniste’s results; another cited several examples of “positive” homeopathy studies that I had failed to mention. I answered some of those points here. I am fully aware of such “positive” reports, including those seeming to support Benveniste. I didn’t cite them, but not in some futile hope of concealing their existence from the watchful eyes of the readership. I also didn’t cite several “negative” reports, including an independent, disconfirming report of one of the claims of David Reilly, whose words began this series,* and the most recent of several reviews (referenced here) to conclude that “the clinical effects of homoeopathy are placebo effects.” I didn’t cite those reports for the same reasons that I didn’t cite the “positive” studies: they are mere footnotes to the overwhelming evidence against homeopathy.

To explain why, it will be necessary to discuss some of the strengths and weaknesses of the project known as “Evidence-Based Medicine.”


Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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The International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics

There is an organization that calls itself The International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics (THINCS). Its members “thinc” they are smarter than the average doctor. They “thinc” that cholesterol has nothing to do with cardiovascular disease and that we have been deluded into waging a “cholesterol campaign” for which the scientific evidence is non-existent. They say, “What we all oppose is that animal fat and high cholesterol play a role.” I find even the wording of this statement problematical: one does not usually hear scientists “opposing” matters of fact or non-fact. They go on to say, “The aim with this website is to inform our colleagues and the public that this idea is not supported by scientific evidence; in fact, for many years a huge number of scientific studies have directly contradicted it.”

They tell us about those contradicting studies; but they don’t tell us about the flaws in those studies, they misrepresent some of the results, and they don’t tell us about the many good studies that support the cholesterol/heart link. The issue is a complex one, and it is easy to find studies to support any claim. Good science is about weighing all the evidence pro and con before reaching a conclusion. As far as I can see, these folks have cherry-picked the literature to support an agenda. They seem to have a vendetta against statin drugs in particular.

The website solicits complaints of adverse effects from statin drugs. It features a petition to the WHO that you can sign requesting an investigation of statin side effects. It alleges that lowering cholesterol endangers the elderly. It provides “what the medical journals and newspapers won’t let you hear” – letters and papers that have been rejected for publication. It lists books, published papers and talks by its members. It solicits financial contributions to the cause.

This movement seems to have started with Uffe Ravnskov’s book The Cholesterol Myths, published in Swedish in 1991 and in English in 2000. That book has been severely criticized, for instance in The Skeptic’s Dictionary , where Bob Carroll points out some of the distortions and deceptive techniques found in the cholesterol skeptics’ arguments. A typical claim: “Cholesterol is highly protective against cancer, infection and atherosclerosis” and “high TC [total cholesterol] and LDL levels are beneficial at all ages.” These statements are not only false, they are potentially dangerous to the health of those who believe them. (more…)

Posted in: Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine

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The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM): Your tax dollars hard at work

What’s an advocate of evidence- and science-based medicine to think about the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, better known by its abbrevation NCCAM? As I’ve pointed out before, I used to be somewhat of a supporter of NCCAM. I really did, back when I was more naïve and idealistic. Indeed, as I mentioned before, when I first read Wally Sampson’s article Why NCCAM should be defunded, I thought it a bit too strident and even rather close-minded. At the time, I thought that the best way to separate the wheat from the chaff was to apply the scientific method to the various “CAM” modalities and let the chips fall where they may.

Two developments over the last several years have led me to sour on NCCAM and move towards an opinion more like Dr. Sampson’s. First, after its doubling from FY 1998-2003, the NIH budget stopped growing. In fact, adjusting for inflation, the NIH budget is now contracting. NCCAM’s yearly budget remains in the range of $121 million a year, for well over $1 billion spent since its inception as the Office of Alternative Medicine in 1993. Its yearly budget contains enough money to fund around 75 to 100 new five year R01 grants, give or take. In tight budgetary times my view is that it is a grossly irresponsible use of taxpayer money not to prioritize funding for projects that have hypotheses behind them that have a reasonable chance of being true. Scarce NIH funds should not be for projects that have as their basis hypotheses that are outlandishly implausible from a scientific standpoint. Second, I’ve seen over the last few years how NCCAM is not only funding research (most of which is of the sort that wouldn’t stand a chance in a study section from other Institutes or Centers)) but it’s funding training programs. Indeed, that was the core complaint against NCCAM: that it facilitates and promotes the infiltration of nonscience- and nonevidence-based treatments falling under the rubric of so-called “complementary and alternative” or “integrative” medicine into academic medicine. However, NCCAM cannot do otherwise, given its mission:

  • Explore complementary and alternative healing practices in the context of rigorous science.
  • Train complementary and alternative medicine researchers.
  • Disseminate authoritative information to the public and professionals.

If, in fact, NCCAM actually did devote itself solely to “rigorous science” with regard to “alternative” healing practices, I would have much less problem with it than I do. However, it broadly interprets the second and third parts of its mission. For example, it views part of its mission as promotion, rather than study: “Supporting integration of proven CAM therapies. Our research helps the public and health professionals understand which CAM therapies have been proven to be safe and effective.” This would be all well and good if NCCAM had as yet actually proven any CAM therapies to be at least effective, but it has not. Worse, it has not even managed to demonstrate any of them to be ineffective, either, thus leading to endless studies of modalities that either do not work or at the very least would have marginal efficacy.

Still, I thought; All questions of promotion of CAM modalities aside, least there’s the science. Surely, under the auspices of the NIH, NCCAM must be funding some high-quality studies into CAM modalities that couldn’t be done any other way. That thought died when NCCAM announced last week the studies that it had funded during FY 2007.

Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Medical Academia, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Homeopathy and Evidence-Based Medicine: Back to the Future Part IV



Homeopathy and Science

This week’s entry† is a summary of some of the tests of homeopathy. It is a necessary prelude to a discussion of how homeopaths and their apologists promote the method. Several tenets of homeopathy lend themselves to tests. The doctrine of similia similibus curantur (“like cures like”) was tested by Hahnemann himself, as introduced in Part I of this blog. It is a special case that will be discussed further below. Hahnemann’s second doctrine, “infinitesimals,” suggests laboratory, animal, and clinical studies looking for specific effects of homeopathic preparations.

“Provings,” also called “homeopathic pathogenic trials,” suggest testing “provers” for the ability to distinguish between homeopathic preparations and placebos, and suggest asking homeopaths to identify specific remedies solely by the “symptoms” they elicit in “provers.” The homeopathic interview and prescribing scheme, gathering copious “symptoms” and matching them to the appropriate “remedy” in the Materia Medica, suggests testing homeopaths for consistency in symptom interpretations and prescriptions. The clinical practice suggests outcome studies, both of individual “conditions” (with the caveat that, strictly speaking, homeopathy does not recognize disease categories—only “symptom” complexes) and of the practice as a whole.

Several of these categories overlap. Several have been tested: the results have overwhelmingly failed to confirm homeopathy’s claims. I will mention a few of the more conspicuous examples.


Posted in: Clinical Trials, Homeopathy, Science and Medicine

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Alternative Flight

The following commentary is the first contribution to SBM by guest author, Mark Crislip.

The airline industry in the United States is often used as an example of a complex technological system that provides high volume, inexpensive and reliable transportation to millions of people every year, that, despite sending tons of aluminum five miles into the air, has an amazing safety record. Crashes and deaths are rare despite the high intrinsic risk of flight.

It is often suggested that the policies and procedures that have been used in the airline industry be applied to health care to help increase the safely and performance of hospitals and to lower complications and deaths.

Some airline methodologies have been applied to health care with good results.

Airlines have many of the same characteristics of health care and many of the same problems in providing for their customers. The airlines are monolithic industries that often treat their passengers like cattle, all of a kind, rather than unique individuals with unique travel needs.


Posted in: Science and Medicine

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The Role of Anecdotes in Science-Based Medicine

While attending a lecture by a naturopath at my institution I had the opportunity to ask the following question: given the extreme scientific implausibility of homeopathy, and the overall negative clinical evidence, why do you continue to prescribe homeopathic remedies? The answer, as much as my question, exposed a core difference between scientific and sectarian health care providers. She said, “Because I have seen it work in my practice.”

There it is. She and many other practitioners of dubious modalities are compelled by anecdotal experience while I am not.

An anecdote is a story – in the context of medicine it often relates to an individual’s experience with their disease or symptoms and their efforts to treat it. People generally find anecdotes highly compelling, while scientists are deeply suspicious of anecdotes. We are fond of saying that the plural of anecdote is anecdotes, not data. Why is this?


Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Science by press release: A helmet to fight Alzheimer’s disease?


Recently, I’ve had a number of people bring to my attention a news story that has apparently been sweeping the wire services and showing up in all sorts of venues. It is, on its surface, a story of hope, hope for the millions of elderly (and even the not-so-elderly) who are or will be afflicted by that scourge of the mind, memory, and personality, Alzheimer’s disease. This disease is one of the most feared of diseases. A progressive and fatal disease of the brain, it robs a person of his memory and personality, until he no longer recognizes loved ones and becomes too demented to care for himself. The pathophysiology involves the accumulation in the brain of a protein known as β-amyloid, which forms plaques outside of cells, while neurofibrillary tangles believed to be due to the hyperphosphorylation of a protein known as tau develop in dying cells. The exact mechanism by which neuron death occurs is not fully understood, but over time this process leads to a decrease in the amount of gray matter in the cortex. There is no known cure, and the current treatments that we have result in at best a modest delay of the inevitable dementia that accompanies progression of the disease.

Given this grim backdrop and the general aging of the population in developed nations, it is expected that there will be a large increase in the number of people developing Alzheimer’s disease over the next few decades. Naturally, this provides a great deal of incentive to develop more effective treatments. Not surprisingly, sometimes the treatments proposed may sound somewhat outlandish and may even be somewhat outlandish. The treatment about which people were e-mailing me falls into this category, and I haven’t decided yet whether it’s science or pseudoscience. It could be legitimate. What I do know, however, is that I don’t like the way its inventors are promoting it by press conference before any evidence of its clinical efficacy in humans has been accepted by a peer-reviewed publication, leading to a flurry of stories about a new possible “miracle cure” for Alzheimer’s disease grounded in not a lot of science. I’m referring, of course, to the “Alzheimer’s helmet” developed by Dr. Gordon Dougal and his colleagues Dr. Paul Chazot and Abdel Ennaceur at Durham University. Dr. Dougal is a director of Virulite, a medical company based in County Durham in the U.K. Here’s a widely cited article from the Daily Mail that describes the device:

Posted in: Basic Science, Medical devices, Medical Ethics, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Annals of Questionable Evidence: a new study reveals substantial publication bias in trials of anti-depressants

Part IV of the ongoing Homeopathy series will have to wait a day or two, because it is superceded by a recent, comment-worthy publication. Nevertheless, “H series” fans will find here a bit of grist for that mill, too.

An important role for this blog is to discuss problems of interpreting data from clinical studies. Academic medicine has committed itself, on the whole, to scientific rigor—to the extent that this is possible in messy, clinical (especially human) trials. Several tools have been proposed, and to a varying extent used, to enhance the rigor of clinical research and the reporting of clinical research. One of those tools is the registering of clinical trials prior to recruiting subjects. Registration would stipulate a trial’s a priori hypothesis(es), design, planned endpoints, and planned statistical methods, among other things. This would guard against several problems: publication bias—the tendency for some trials, usually “negative” ones, to go unreported; selective reporting of the results of a trial, if some are pleasing but others are not; and post hoc data analysis—finding data after the fact to suggest a novel hypothesis that will falsely be portrayed as an a priori hypothesis. Publication bias is also known as “selective publication” or the “file drawer problem”; post hoc analysis is also known as “data dredging” or “HARKing” (Hypothesizing After the Results are Known).

An article in the Jan. 17 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine demonstrates the usefulness of a trial registry:

Selective Publication of Antidepressant Trials and Its Influence on Apparent Efficacy

Erick H. Turner, M.D., Annette M. Matthews, M.D., Eftihia Linardatos, B.S., Robert A. Tell, L.C.S.W., and Robert Rosenthal, Ph.D.


Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Itching and the Imaginary Passenger Brake

The press and government agencies ally to shine a disproportionate amount of publicity on false and improbable medical ideas. (Danger: Congressmen and reporters at work.)

The latest was a press release from either the Centers for Disease Control (and prevention? – I’ll get to the “prevention” part later,) or from Kaiser-Permanente Medical Group. Three Bay Area newspapers carried simultaneous articles. The articles announced a new, $338,000 CDC/Permanente study of something they call “Morgellon’s disease.” I say they call it that because what they are describing is not what was originally described as “Morgellon’s,” but what is most likely a form of somatiform illness – delusional parasitosis, or neurodermatitis.

What is Morgellon’s and why is CDC funding Kaiser/Permanente with $338,000 to study it? I was never taught about anything called Morgellon’s, and althoughI had practiced medicine for forty years, I still had not known of it until several years ago when a group of affected San Francisco patients and R L Stricker MD, were reported as having a number of cases of it.


Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and Medicine

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The infiltration of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and “integrative medicine” into academia

A few years back, my co-blogger Wally Sampson wrote a now infamous editorial entitled Why the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) Should Be Defunded. When I first read it, I must admit, I found it to be a bit harsh and–dare I say?–even close-minded. After all, plausibility aside, I believed at the time that the only way to demonstrate once and for all in a way that everyone would have to accept that many of these “alternative” therapies were no more effective than a placebo would be to do high-quality randomized clinical trials to test whether they worked, and NCCAM seemed to be the perfect funding agency to see that this occurred. Yes, this attitude in retrospect was quite naïve, as I have since learned the hard lesson over several years that no amount of studies will convince advocates of complimentary and alternative medicine (CAM) that their favored therapy doesn’t work, be it chelation therapy for autism or cardiovascular disease, homeopathy, reiki, or various other “energy” therapies that invoke manipulation of qi as a means of “healing,” such as acupuncture, but that is what I believed at the time.

Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Medical Academia, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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