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“Motivated reasoning,” alternative medicine, and the anti-vaccine movement

One theme that we at Science-Based Medicine keep revisiting again and again is not so much a question of the science behind medical therapies (although we do discuss that issue arguably more than any other) but rather a question of why. Why is it that so many people cling so tenaciously to pseudoscience, quackery, and, frequently, conspiracy theories used by believers to justify why various pseudoscience and quackery are rejected by mainstream science and medicine? Certainly, I’ve touched on this issue before on several occasions, for example, with respect to the anti-vaccine movement, the claim that abortion causes breast cancer, and how we as humans crave certainty.

It turns out that science and science-based medicine are hard for humans to accept because they often conflict with what our senses perceive and brains interpret as irrefutable evidence. The pattern-seeking function of our brain, when evaluating questions of causation in medicine, frequently betrays us. For instance, when a parent sees her child regress into autism sometime not long after being vaccinated, the easiest, most instinctive, and most emotionally compelling conclusion is that the vaccine must have had something to do with it. When scientists tell her that, no, in large studies looking at hundreds of thousands of children, there is no good evidence that vaccination confers an increased risk of autism and a lot of evidence that it does not, it’s a very hard message to believe, because it goes against how the parent interprets what she’s seen with her own eyes. Indeed, how often have we seen believers in the vaccine-autism link pour derision on the concept that when something like autistic regression happens in close temporal proximity to vaccination that the correlation does not necessarily equal causation? Similarly, believers in “alternative medicine” who experience improvement in their symptoms also pour derision on the observation, explained so well by R. Barker Bausell in Snake Oil Science, that people frequently take remedies when their symptoms are at their worst, leading them to attribute natural regression to the mean to whatever nostrum they started taking at the time.

These issues have come to the fore again, thanks to an article by an acquaintance of mine, Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science, Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future (co-authored with Sheril Kirshenbaum). The article appeared in a recent issue of Mother Jones and was entitled, rather ironically, The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science. Chris made his name as an author primarily in writing about the science of anthropogenic global warming and the political battles over policies intended to mitigate it and, to a lesser extent, over creationism and evolution denial. Of late he has written about the anti-vaccine movement as an anti-science movement, leading predictably to his being attacked by the likes of J.B. Handley as viciously as I and others have. Also of note, although he was widely praised for The Republican War on Science and Storm World, Mooney has been widely criticized in some circles for being too critical of “new atheists” and for lack of substance. In his current article, he discusses some of the science thus far about why people can cling to beliefs that science doesn’t just cast doubt upon but shows convincingly are totally wrong.
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Posted in: Evolution, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Dr. Oz on alternative medicine: Bread and circuses

NOTE: Dr. Novella has written up a detailed description of his experiences on The Dr. Oz Show. Please read it. Also note that the online video for Dr. Novella’s appearance is now available:

  1. Controversial Medicine: Alternative Health, Part 1
  2. Controversial Medicine: Alternative Health, Part 2
  3. Controversial Medicine: Alternative Health, Part 3

When I first learned that our fearless leader and partner in crime for this blog, Dr. Steve Novella, Yale neurologist, blogger, and host of the popular skeptical podcast the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe was going to be on The Dr. Oz Show, I was concerned. After all, this is the same physician who had in essence given up science-based medicine in favor of media stardom based on the promotion of alternative medicine. Of late Dr. Oz has been getting worse, too, promoting pseudoscience and what can only be described, in my opinion, as quackery. The snake oil that Dr. Oz has promoted over the last several months includes Dr. Joe Mercola, one of the biggest promoters of “alternative” health, whom Dr. Oz first had on his show about a year ago and then defiantly defended in a return appearance in early 2011, to be followed by a rapid one-two punch in which Dr. Oz had an ayurvedic yogi named Cameron Alborzian, who promoted highly dubious medicine, including “tongue diagnosis,” to be followed a few days later by something I would never, even in my most cynical assessment of Dr. Oz, expected, namely the appearance of faith healer Issam Nemeh on his show. ext Dr. Oz endorsed a diet that he once eschewed as quackery and then, to top it all off, invited psychic John Edward onto his show, asking Is talking to the dead a new kind of therapy? All of these offenses contributed to the reasons why in 2011 the James Randi Educational Foundation awarded him the The Media Pigasus Award for the second year in a row.

So right from the start I wasn’t very optimistic about how this whole thing would turn out. Fortunately, however, I was pleasantly surprised. Steve managed to hold his own in a completely hostile environment with only minor stumbles, while Dr. Oz peppered him with “Have you stopped beating your wife?”-style questions. At one point, Steve even managed to hand Dr. Oz his posterior. Alas, I doubt it will make any difference to Dr. Oz’s viewers, but we can always hope to change a few minds. I also realize that, however a big deal being on Dr. Oz’s show was to Steve and many members of the skeptical movement (especially supporters of SBM), to Dr. Oz it was just one segment in one episode of one season of a daily talk show made up of 150 episodes, each containing four or so segments. Not to detract from Steve’s achievement at all (it’s truly amazing that he managed to get on the show and do as well as he did, given how badly the deck was stacked against him), but to us this is big; to Dr. Oz it’s just another segment of another episode. It’s entertainment. As giddy and anxious as we at SBM have been the last two weeks, we have to keep things in perspective.

So what happened?
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Herbs & Supplements, Science and the Media

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A Skeptic In Oz

UPDATE 4/27/2011: Here’s the online video of Dr. Novella’s appearance on The Dr. Oz Show:

  1. Controversial Medicine: Alternative Health, Part 1
  2. Controversial Medicine: Alternative Health, Part 2
  3. Controversial Medicine: Alternative Health, Part 3

I must say I was a bit shocked two weeks ago when I was contacted by a producer for The Dr. Oz Show inviting me on to discuss alternative medicine. We have been quite critical of Dr. Mehmet Oz over his promotion of dubious medical treatments and practitioners, and I wondered if they were aware of the extent of our criticism (they were, it turns out).

Despite the many cautions I received from friends and colleagues (along with support as well) – I am always willing to engage those with whom I disagree. I knew it was a risk going into a forum completely controlled by someone who does not appear to look kindly upon my point of view, but a risk worth taking. I could only hope I was given the opportunity to make my case (and that it would survive the editing process).

The Process

Of course, everyone was extremely friendly throughout the entire process, including Dr. Oz himself (of that I never had any doubt). The taping itself went reasonably well. I was given what seemed a good opportunity to make my points. However, Dr. Oz did reserve for himself the privilege of getting in the last word—including a rather long finale, to which I had no opportunity to respond. Fine—it’s his show, and I knew what I was getting into. It would have been classy for him to give an adversarial guest the last word, or at least an opportunity to respond, but I can’t say I expected it.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Science and the Media

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The trouble with Dr. Oz

UPDATE 4/27/2011: Here’s the online video of Dr. Novella’s appearance on The Dr. Oz Show:

  1. Controversial Medicine: Alternative Health, Part 1
  2. Controversial Medicine: Alternative Health, Part 2
  3. Controversial Medicine: Alternative Health, Part 3

Welcome, Dr. Oz viewers!

As managing editor of the Science-Based Medicine (SBM) blog, I am writing this post because our founder and exective editor Dr. Steven Novella was invited to be on The Doctor Oz Show. Later today, the episode in which he will appear will air in most of your local markets, and we wanted to make sure that any Dr. Oz viewer who sees the segment and as a result is intrigued (or angered) enough to wonder what it is that we are all about will have a convenient “primer,” so to speak, on the problem with Dr. Oz from a science-based perspective. In other words, who are these obnoxious upstart bloggers who are so critical of Dr. Oz are and, far more importantly, exactly why are we so critical? What is science-based medicine, anyway?

On to some of the answers!
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Posted in: Science and the Media

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The curious case of Poul Thorsen, fraud and embezzlement, and the Danish vaccine-autism studies

If there’s one thing about the anti-vaccine movement, it’s all about the ad hominem attack. Failing to win on science, clinical trials, epidemiology, and other objective evidence, with few exceptions, anti-vaccine propagandists fall back on attacking the person instead of the evidence. For example, as I’ve noted numerous times, Paul Offit has been the subject of unrelenting attacks from Generation Rescue and other anti-vaccine groups, having been dubbed “Dr. Proffit” and accused of being so in the pocket of big pharma that he’ll do and say anything for it. I personally have been accused by Jake Crosby of a conflict of interest that isn’t, based on conspiracy mongering and an utterly brain dead argument (which is much like every other argument Jake likes to make on this issue). Steve Novella, Paul Offit, Amy Wallace, Trine Tsouderos, and others were portrayed as cannibals sitting down to a Thanksgiving feast of baby. Meanwhile, anti-vaccine luminaries invoke the pharma shill gambit with abandon and try their best to smear journalists who write about how anti-vaccine views are endangering herd immunity, journalists such as Trine Tsouderos, Amy Wallace, Chris Mooney, and Seth Mnookin, to name a few.

Sometimes, however, for whatever reason karma, fate, God, or whatever you want to call it smiles on anti-vaccine activists, dropping a story into their laps that allow them to indulge the worst of their tendencies towards ad hominem attacks and seem superficially credible. So it was about a year ago when an financial fraud investigation was being undertaken in the case of Poul Thorsen, a Danish investigator who had contributed to two large Danish studies, one of which failed to find an association between the MMR and autism in the immediate wake of Andrew Wakefield’s falsified data suggesting such an assocation and one of which failed to find an association between mercury in the thimerosal preservative in vaccines and an increased incidence of autism. At the time longstanding anti-vaccine propagandist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. tore into Thorsen with abandon before he was even indicted or charged (he was only under investigation at the time) as though, even if he actually did commit fraud, such fraud invalidated the two large studies regarding MMR and autism and thimerosal and autism with which he had been involved. Did it?

To find out, let’s hop into our SBM TARDIS and go back in time about a year, in order to see the genesis of this manufactorversy that AoA is currently flogging. Let’s look at the case of Danish investigator Poul Thorsen as it developed.
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Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Watch Steve Novella on The Dr. Oz Show on Tuesday!

UPDATE 4/27/2011: Here’s the online video of Dr. Novella’s appearance on The Dr. Oz Show:

  1. Controversial Medicine: Alternative Health, Part 1
  2. Controversial Medicine: Alternative Health, Part 2
  3. Controversial Medicine: Alternative Health, Part 3

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I want you all to tune in to The Dr. Oz Show on Tuesday, April 26. Either that, or DVR it. Why am I asking you to do this? Have I lost my mind? Have I suddenly gone woo? Of course not. The reason is that, an episode I’ve been waiting for since I learned it was in the works last week will air on that date.

That’s right. Our fearless leader Steve Novella will be on The Doctor Oz Show this Tuesday to do battle in the belly of the beast.

Unfortunately, I fear for the results. I know Steve acquitted himself quite well, at least as well or better than any skeptic and booster of SBM could hope to do in such a hostile environment, but get a load of the title of the segment, Controversial Medicine: Why your doctor is afraid of alternative health?

Afraid?

Afraid?

Afraid?

No, no, no, no! A thousand times no!

I do worry a bit how the producers edited Steve’s segment, though. Look at the promo. In it Dr. Oz is doing what I was afraid of, trying to portray himself as the voice of reason and accusing Steve of being “dismissive.” I was afraid Dr. Oz would play the “don’t be close-minded” or “you’re too dismissive” card, and he appears to have done it. Then get a load of the advertised segment that follows, showing Dr. Oz dictating what’s true and not in medicine, as in “Dr. Oz approved.”

Truly, the man has no shame.

I’ll have to wait until Tuesday to see what the final results are. Whatever happens, we at SBM are all incredibly proud of Steve for going into the proverbial lions’ den. As managing editor, I’m also enormously proud of our stable of bloggers; after all, it is a collective effort that got us noticed by the producers of The Dr. Oz Show. Also, now that Dr. Oz and his producers have noticed us, however the segment turns out we promise to keep holding Dr. Oz’s feet to the fire when he starts promoting nonsense like faith healers, psychic mediums, dubious diabetes treatments, and über-quacks like Joe Mercola. This should be facilitated by our new partnership with the James Randi Educational Foundation that was announced earlier this week.

You can also rest assured that Steve will blog about his experience after the episode airs, and I hope our readers will dive into the discussion forums after the show.

Posted in: Announcements, Science and the Media

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CAM In Medical Schools

A recent US News and World Report article on the incorporation of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) into US medical schools credulously repeats the pro-CAM marketing hype. There is no evidence that the author, Meryl Davids Landau, spoke to a single critic of CAM, or is even aware that such criticism exists. The result looks more like marketing copy than serious journalism.

She begins:

Now that nearly 40 percent of American adults swear by some form of complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM—from nutrition and mental relaxation to acupuncture, magnet therapy, and foreign healing systems like traditional Chinese medicine and Indian ayurveda—a growing number of medical schools, too, are supplementing medication with meditation.

There is much to deconstruct just in this first paragraph. The entire article in an argument from popularity. This is a game the pro-CAM community has been playing for years. People are using CAM because it’s popular; medical schools should teach it because people are using it; the government should research it because of all the interest in it; and CAM should be popular because it’s being researched and taught in medical schools. CAM is like Paris Hilton – famous for being famous.

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Posted in: Medical Academia, Science and the Media

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The World Has Moved On

I do a lot of driving as part of my job.  I am the sole Infectious Disease doctor at three hospitals and I can spend an hour or two a day in the car, depending on traffic.  What prevents me from going crazy sitting in traffic is listening to podcasts and audible books.    I especially like reading (and yes, audio books is reading, pedant) multivolume epics.   Currently I am reading Steven King’s Dark Tower series, which occurs in a universe “where the world has moved on.”  In Mid-world there was once a world with science and beauty and art, but something changed, what I do not know yet (I am only on the third volume; no spoilers in the comments), and the world moved on, leaving behind some artifacts of science and technology, but it appears to be an increasingly primitive world.  Being fantasy, there is, unlike the world I live in, magic as well.

I like that phrase: “the world has moved on.” (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Homeopathy, Science and the Media

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Anti-vaccine propaganda from Sharyl Attkisson of CBS News

I’m not infrequently asked why the myth that vaccines cause autism and other anti-vaccine myths are so stubbornly resistant to the science that time and time again fails to support them. Certainly useful celebrity idiots like Jenny McCarthy are one reason. So, too, are anti-vaccine propaganda websites and blogs such as Age of Autism and anti-vaccine organizations like Generation Rescue, the National Vaccine Information Center, and SafeMinds and the organizations that publish them. However, these are clearly not the only reason. Alone, these people and organizations are in general quite rightly viewed as fringe, although they are very popular among the anti-vaccine movement. It is when such groups find a willing conduit for their pseudoscience in the “mainstream media” that they see the opportunity to attain a degree of seeming respectability that they can’t achieve on their own based on science. Worse, when mainstream news organizations or reporters fall for the pseudoscience claiming that vaccines cause autism, they contribute to the persistence of this myth outside the activist core of the anti-vaccine movement in the public at large.

In the past, anti-vaccine activists tried to accomplish this with the help of formerly respectable journalists such as David Kirby and Dan Olmsted, the former of whom wrote Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Mystery and the latter of whom wrote and promoted the Age of Autism series when he was an editor at UPI. However, although Kirby was never really that prominent or trusted, Olmsted was an editor of UPI. Now that he’s given up his UPI gig to become full time editor of AoA and to team up with Mark Blaxill to write a book (Age of Autism: Mercury, Medicine and a Manmade Epidemic) that regurgitated all the old misinformation about thimerosal and autism in a way that’s so 2005, Olmsted’s lost all credibility as a serious reporter. That’s a good thing.

The bad thing is that he has a replacement. Or at least so it would appear.
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Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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The Hazards of “CAM”-Pandering

Steven Salzberg, a friend of this blog and Director of the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology at the University of Maryland, is on the editorial boards of three of the many journals published by BioMed Central (BMC), an important source of open-access, peer-reviewed biomedical reports. He is disturbed by the presence of two other journals under the BMC umbrella: Chinese Medicine and BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. A couple of days ago, on his Forbes science blog, Dr. Salzberg explained why. Here are some excerpts:

The Chinese Medicine journal promotes, according to its own mission statement, studies of “acupuncture, Tui-na, Qi-qong, Tai Chi Quan, energy research,” and other nonsense. Tui na, for example, supposedly “affects the flow of energy by holding and pressing the body at acupressure points.”

Right. What is this doing in a scientific journal?… I support BMC…But their corporate leaders seem to care more about expanding their stable than about maintaining the integrity of science. Chinese Medicine simply does not belong in the company of respectable scientific journals.

Forming a scientific journal whose goal is to validate antiquated, unproven superstitions is simply not science, whatever the editors of Chinese Medicine claim.

BMC should be embarrassed to be publishing journals that promote anti-scientific theories and otherwise muddy the literature. By supporting these journals, they undermine the credibility of many excellent BMC journals. They should cut these journals loose.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Herbs & Supplements, History, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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