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Dummy Medicines, Dummy Doctors, and a Dummy Degree, Part 1: a Curious Editorial Choice for the New England Journal of Medicine

Background

This post concerns the recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) titled “Active Albuterol or Placebo, Sham Acupuncture, or No Intervention in Asthma.” It was ably reviewed by Dr. Gorski on Monday, so I will merely summarize its findings: of the three interventions used—inhaled albuterol (a bronchodilator), a placebo inhaler designed to mimic albuterol, or ‘sham acupuncture’—only albuterol resulted in a clinically important improvement of bronchial airflow; for that outcome the two sham treatments were equivalent to “no intervention.” For all three interventions, however, self-reported improvements were substantial and were much greater than self-reported improvements after “no intervention.” In other words, dummy treatments made the subjects (report that they) feel better, whereas real medicine not only made them feel better but actually made them better.

Before proceeding, let me offer a couple of caveats. First, the word ”doctors” in the flippant title of this post refers mainly to two individuals: Daniel Moerman, PhD, the anthropologist who wrote the accompanying editorial, and Ted Kaptchuk, the Senior Author of the trial report. It does not refer to any of the other authors of the report. Second, I have no quarrel with the trial itself, which was quite good, or with the NEJM having published it, or even with most of the language in the article, save for the “spin” that Dr. Gorski has already discussed.

My quarrels are the same as those expressed by Drs. Gorski and Novella, and by all of us on the Placebo Panel at TAM. This post and the next will develop some of those points by considering the roles and opinions of Moerman and Kaptchuk, respectively.

A True Story

Late one night during the 1960s a friend and I, already in a cannabis-induced fog, wandered into a house that had been rented by one of his friends. There were about 8-10 ‘freaks’ there (the term was laudatory at the time); I didn’t know any of them. The air was thick with smoke of at least two varieties. After an uncertain interval I became aware of a guy who was having trouble breathing. He was sitting bolt upright in a chair, his hands on his knees, his mouth open, making wheezing sounds. He took short noisy breaths in, followed by what seemed to be very long breaths out, as though he was breathing through a straw. You could hear the wheezing in both directions. Others had also noticed that he was in distress; they tried to be helpful (“hey, man, ya want some water or somethin’?”), but he just shook his head. He couldn’t talk. My friend, who had asthma himself, announced that this guy was having an asthma attack and asked if he or anyone else had any asthma medicine. No one did.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Health Fraud, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Pharmaceuticals, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Anti-vaccine propaganda in The Baltimore Sun

The hypothesis that vaccines cause autism has been about as thoroughly falsified through research as any health hypothesis can be. Even if, by bending over backward into a back-breaking contortionist pose to be “open-minded”, some people will concede that there’s still a bit of room for reasonable doubt about whether there is no link between vaccines and autism in “susceptible” populations, there is no room for reasonable doubt left over whether vaccines caused the so-called “autism-epidemic” of the last two decades. They did not. Similarly, the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal, which used to be in several childhood vaccines until the end of 2001, when thimerosal was removed from all but some flu vaccines, has been about as cleared of being a cause of autism as it is possible for a substance to be. Basically, if thimerosal-containing vaccines were a cause of autism, we would have expected to see a decrease in autism prevalence beginning three to five years after the removal of thimerosal. Epidemiological studies have failed to find such a decline and have also failed to find evidence of correlation. I realize that anti-vaccine activists argue that there are still trace amounts of thimerosal in some vaccines, but, even so, thimerosal exposure in children fell almost overnight to levels lower than the 1980s, which was before the beginning of the “autism epidemic.” At the very least, one would expect autism rates to fall back to 1980s levels if thimerosal in vaccines were a driving force behind this “epidemic.” They haven’t. Quite the contrary, they’ve continued to climb.

So why does the manufactroversy that vaccines cause autism persist? There is no longer a scientific controversy; by and large, the question has been asked and answered. Vaccines do not cause autism, as far as we can detect. True, it’s impossible to completely prove a negative hypothesis, but if there is any way that vaccines do cause autism, it’s at a level below the ability of large epidemiological studies with tens or even hundreds of thousands of children to detect. Yet the fear persists.

One reason is that it’s very hard to eradicate a false belief, once entrenched. I’ve discussed many times how difficult it is to change people’s minds, as motivated reasoning leads them to seek confirming evidence and discount all else. Disconfirming evidence can even lead people to harden their beliefs even more. In particular, the hardcore anti-vaccine activists who persist in spreading the vaccine-autism myth have an interest and motivation in this mythology at least as potent as the interest pharmaceutical companies have in defending vaccines—more so, arguably, given the emotional attachment people have for their children. After all, all pharmaceutical companies are interested in, according to this mythology, is profit. If a parent, correctly or incorrectly, somehow comes to believe that something or someone has hurt his or her child, it is among the most potent motivations known to do something about it.

Another reason is that the concept has become entrenched in our culture—or at least parts of our culture—to the point where it appears regularly in the media, thus reinforcing the idea among those who don’t pay attention to the issue or those who do but haven’t decided if they believe that vaccines cause autism that maybe there is something to fear. Maybe there is still a controversy. A perfect example appeared in The Baltimore Sun over the weekend entitled We don’t know enough about childhood vaccines and subtitled Researcher asks: Are 36 doses of vaccine by age 2 too much, too little, or just right? I contend that the editors of The Baltimore Sun, by publishing this anti-vaccine propaganda, which would have been at home on the websites of the anti-vaccine blog Age of Autism or on the website of anti-vaccine groups SafeMinds, Generation Rescue, the International Medical Council on Vaccination or the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC). Examining this article, written by Margaret Dunkle, described as a “senior research scientist at the Department of Health Policy at George Washington University and director of the Early Identification and Intervention Collaborative for Los Angeles County” and as having “a family member who is vaccine-injured,” is what I would consider a “teachable moment” in analyzing the tactics of the anti-vaccine movement.
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Posted in: Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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An open letter to NIH Director Francis Collins regarding his appearance at the Society for Integrative Oncology

Note from the editor: Since today is a holiday in the U.S., I had planned on taking the day off. Then I saw the subject of today’s post and had to respond. Also, please remember that, as always, the usual disclaimers apply. This letter represents my opinion, and my opinion alone. It does not represent the view or opinion of my university or cancer center—or anyone else, for that matter, other than me.

Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD
Director, National Institutes of Health

Dear Dr. Collins:

I am normally not one for writing open letters, but in this case I feel compelled to make an exception. This letter will have little or nothing to do with what seems to be the usual criticism leveled against you, namely your intense religious faith and claims. Personally, as a physician and scientist I don’t much care about what religion you follow and, unlike some writers such as Sam Harris, most definitely do not consider your strong Christian faith a disqualification for holding the position that you now hold. All I care about in an NIH director is how well he or she shepherds the scientific mission of the NIH and runs the organization. As a past (and hopefully future) NIH grantee, I want the NIH to fund and support only the most rigorous science and to be a well-run organization. Thus far in your tenure, I haven’t seen any anything major to worry about on that score.

Recently, however, I was very disappointed to discover that you will be the keynote speaker at the 8th International Conference of the Society of Integrative Oncology (SIO) in November. I hope that, when you agreed to accept this speaking engagement, you didn’t know just what it is that what you were accepting or what the Society for Integrative Oncology is, other than a professional society that was interested in hearing your views on faith and spirituality in cancer. In brief, it is our position that “integrative oncology” is a discipline that, at its core, is dedicated to “integrating” pseudoscience with science. No doubt you will think I am exaggerating, but I am not, as I hope to demonstrate. Worse, by agreeing to speak to the SIO, you will be providing it with the imprimatur of your position as NIH director. The NIH, as you know, is the most respected biomedical research institution in the U.S., if not the world, and that respect rubs off wherever you speak.
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Blatant pro-alternative medicine propaganda in The Atlantic

Some of my fellow Science-Based Medicine (SBM) bloggers and I have been wondering lately what’s up with The Atlantic. It used to be one of my favorite magazines, so much so that I subscribed to it for roughly 25 years (and before that I used to read my mother’s copy). In general I enjoyed its mix of politics, culture, science, and other topics. Unfortunately, my opinion changed back in the fall of 2009, when, on the rising crest of the H1N1 pandemic, The Atlantic published what can only be described as an terrible bit of journalism lionizing the “brave maverick doctor” Tom Jefferson of the Cochrane Collaboration. The article, written by Shannon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer, argued, in essence, that vaccinating against H1N1 at the time was a horrendous waste of time and effort because the vaccine didn’t work. So bad was the cherry picking of data and framing of the issue as a narrative that consisted primarily of the classic lazy journalistic device of a “lone maverick” against the entire medical establishment that it earned the lovely sarcasm of our very own Mark Crislip, who wrote a complete annotated rebuttal, while I referred to the methodology presented in the article as “methodolatry.” Even public health epidemiologist Revere (who is, alas, no longer blogging but in his day provided a very balanced, science-based perspective on vaccination for influenza, complete with its shortcomings) was most definitely not pleased.

I let my subscription to The Atlantic lapse and have not to this day renewed it.

Be that as it may, last year The Atlantic published an article that wasn’t nearly as bad as the H1N1 piece but was nonetheless pretty darned annoying to us at SBM. Entitled Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science, by David Freedman, it was an article lionizing John Ioannidis (whom I, too, greatly admire) while largely missing the point of his work, turning it into an argument for why we shouldn’t believe most medical science. Now, Freedman’s back again, this time with a much, much, much worse story in The Atlantic in the July/August 2011 issue under the heading “Ideas” and entitled The Triumph of New Age Medicine, complete with a picture of a doctor in a lab coat in the lotus position. It appears to be the logical follow up to Freedman’s article about Ioannidis in that Freedman apparently seems to think that, if we can’t trust medical science, then there’s no reason why we shouldn’t embrace medical pseudoscience.

Basically, the whole idea behind the article appears to be that, even if most of alternative medicine is quackery (which it is, by the way, as we’ve documented ad nauseam on this very blog), it’s making patients better because of placebo effects and because its practitioners take the time to talk to patients and doctors do not. In other words, Freedman’s thesis appears to be a massive “What’s the harm?” argument coupled with a false dichotomy; that is, if real doctors don’t have the time to listen to patients and provide the human touch, then let’s let the quacks do it. Tacked on to that bad idea is a massive argumentum ad populum portraying alternative medicine as the wave of the future, in contrast to what Freedman calls the “failure” of conventional medicine.

Let’s dig in, shall we? I’ll start with the article itself, after which I’ll examine a few of the responses. I’ll also note that our very own Steve Novella, who was interviewed for Freedman’s article, has written a response to Freedman’s article that is very much worth reading as well.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Nutrition, Science and the Media

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The impact of antivaccination lobbying

Here’s an excellent news report from Australia on the human costs of the anti-vaccine movement:

The video features Viera Scheibner, who has nothing good to say about vaccines and thinks that vaccines are dangerous and infectious diseases in childhood are good. It also features the stories of children who caught vaccine-preventable diseases. This is how it’s done.

Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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How to Build a Bridge

People tend to limit their reading to sources that agree with their beliefs. We find ourselves mostly preaching to the choir; our message usually doesn’t reach those who most need to hear it. I recently received an inquiry from a science-based medical doctor asking how to approach others in building a bridge to clarify so much misinformation.

My first thought was that you can build a bridge but the real challenge is persuading people to cross that bridge. Like leading a horse to water…

How to approach others? That’s a tough question. The best approach varies with the individual and with where he is in his journey. Confrontation seldom works: it just makes people angry. It is counterproductive: it only serves to make them invent more rationalizations to defend their beliefs. Although sometimes anger can be a good thing. I got an e-mail from an acupuncturist who was incensed by an article I wrote saying that acupuncture was not based on good evidence. He set out to prove me wrong by looking up the evidence behind what he had been taught by his teachers about acupuncture’s efficacy for specific conditions, and when he couldn’t find any, he realized that his teachers and his textbooks had misled him with lies. He gave up acupuncture and went back to school to learn a science-based health profession. (more…)

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Fashionably toxic

It’s the toxins.

Toujours les toxines.

How many times have I read or heard from believers in “alternative” medicine that some disease or other is caused by “toxins”? I honestly can’t remember, but in alt-world, no matter what the disease or condition under discussion is, there’s a good chance that sooner or later it will be linked to “toxins.” It doesn’t matter if it’s cancer, autism, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, or that general malaise that comes over people who, as British comedians Mitchell and Webb put it, have more money than sense; somehow, some way, someone will invoke “toxins.”

I was reminded of this obsession among believers in unscientific medicine last Friday when I came across an article by Guy Trebay in the New York Times entitled The Age of Purification. The article appeared, appropriately enough, in the Fashion section and was festooned with photos of cupping, surely one of the silliest of the many “detoxification” modalities that alternative medicine practitioners use to claim to draw the “toxins” out of their clients through the application of, well, cups or various other containers in which the air had been heated in order to generate negative pressure when sealed to the skin and presumably thus bring them to a greater level of purification and health. Indeed, the only “detoxification” rituals sillier than cupping that I can think of off the top of my head are detoxifying footpads and “detox foot baths.”

Oh, wait. Scratch that. I forgot about ear candling, which must surely be the undisputed silliest “detox” treatment of all time—until someone thinks of an even sillier one. Or not. There are just so many silly “detox” procedures that it’s hard to select a “winner.”

Be that as it may, Trebay mixes sarcasm with exposition throughout his article in a rather amusing way that’s worth quoting:

My friend, like everyone else around, seemed to believe that mysterious, amorphous sludge had lodged in the anatomical crannies of half the local adult population. Unseen toxins were lurking, like Communists during the Red Scare.

The “toxins” required elimination, somehow, and thus at lunches, at cocktails, at dinner parties, normal conversations turned abruptly from the day’s news to progress reports on juice fasts, energy alignments, radical purging. From painful sessions with traditional healers to toxin-leaching treatments designed, it might seem, to clean out not just body but wallet, a surprising number of New Yorkers (not all of them well-to-do neurotics) are caught up in a new New Age, the Age of Purification.

How had it happened, I wondered, that so many otherwise sensible, urban people found themselves in the grip of a dreadful feeling that systems are down? “I just bought five pounds of carrots, ginger and kale and put it all in my Breville juicer and pounded that all day,” said a corporate adviser of my acquaintance, far from a credulous woo-woo type.

Of course, as we have noted so many times before, hard-nosed skepticism in one area of one’s life does not necessarily translate to other areas. Many are the people who would never ever fall prey to scams in business, for example, but happily fork over money for scams such as “detox footpads”—or fall for anti-vaccine quackery, like J.B. Handley. Whatever the case, why this fascination with “detoxification” in alternative medicine? Why do so many of its treatments, be they dietary, chelation therapy, purges, colon cleanses, or whatever, claim to eliminate “toxins”? Why is it that, if you Google “alternative medicine” and “detoxification,” you find so many references, some of which claim external toxins need to be eliminated, some of which claim that internal toxins need to be purged, and still more of which blame various “parasites” for all manner of health distress? In this post, I’ll try to explain, but first a little history—self-history that is.
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Posted in: Naturopathy, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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When you can’t win on science, invoke the law…

Late last week, the anti-vaccine underground was all atwitter. The reason was the announcement of an impending press conference, scheduled for yesterday at noon in Washington, DC that proclaimed:

Investigators and Families of Vaccine-Injured Children to Unveil Report Detailing Clear Vaccine-Autism Link Based on Government’s Own Data

Report Demands Immediate Congressional Action

Directors of the Elizabeth Birt Center for Autism Law and Advocacy (EBCALA), parents and vaccine-injured children will hold a press conference on the steps of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims (717 Madison Place, NW in Washington, DC) on Tuesday, May 10 at 12:00 PM to unveil an investigation linking vaccine injury to autism. For over 20 years, the federal government has publicly denied a vaccine-autism link, while at the same time its Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) has been awarding damages for vaccine injury to children with brain damage, seizures and autism. This investigation, based on public, verifiable government data, breaks new ground in the controversial vaccine-autism debate.

The investigation found that a substantial number of children compensated for vaccine injury also have autism. The government has asserted that it “does not track” autism among the vaccine-injured. Based on this preliminary investigation, the evidence suggests that autism is at least three times more prevalent among vaccine-injured children than among children in the general population.

I could hardly wait.
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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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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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