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Suzanne Somers’ Knockout: Dangerous misinformation about cancer (part 1)

If there’s one thing I’ve become utterly disgusted with in the time since I first became interested in science-based medicine as a concept, its promotion, and the refutation of quackery and medical pseudoscience, it’s empty-brained celebrities with an agenda. Be it from imbibing the atmosphere within the bubble of woo-friendly southern California or taking a crash course at the University of Google and, through the arrogance of ignorance, concluding that they know more than scientists who have devoted their lives to studying a problem, celebrities believing in and credulously promoting pseudoscience present a special problem because of the oversized soapboxes they command. Examples abound. There’s Bill Maher promoting anti-vaccine pseudoscience, germ theory denialism, and cancer quackery on his show Real Time with Bill Maher and getting the Richard Dawkins Award from the Atheist Alliance International in spite of his antiscience stances on vaccines and what he sneeringly calls “Western medicine.” Then there are, of course, the current public faces of the anti-vaccine movement, Jenny McCarthy and her boyfriend Jim Carrey, the former of whom thinks it’s just hunky dory (or at least doesn’t appear to be the least bit troubled) that her efforts are contributing to the return of vaccine-preventable infectious diseases because she apparently thinks that’s what it will take to make the pharmaceutical companies change their “shit” product (her words), and the latter of whom spreads conspiracy theories about vaccines and contempt on people suffering from restless leg syndrome. Finally, there’s the grand macher of celebrity woo promotion, Oprah Winfrey, who routinely promotes all manner of medical pseudoscience, be it “bioidentical” hormones, the myth that vaccines cause autism (even hiring Jenny McCarthy to do a blog and develop a talk show for her company Harpo Productions), or other nonsense, such as Christiane Northrup urging Oprah viewers to focus their qi to their vaginas for better sex.

Unfortunately, last week the latest celebrity know-nothing to promote health misinformation released a brand new book and has been all over the airwaves, including The Today Show, Larry King Live, and elsewhere promoting it. Yes, I’m talking about Suzanne Somers, formerly known for her testimonial of having “rejected chemotherapy and tamoxifen” for her breast cancer, as well as her promotion of “bioidentical hormones,” various exercise devices such as the Thighmaster and all manner of supplements. Her book is entitled Knockout: Interviews with Doctors Who Are Curing Cancer–And How to Prevent Getting It in the First Place. It is described on the Random House website thusly:
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Cancer, Science and the Media

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“Methodolatry”: My new favorite term for one of the shortcomings of evidence-based medicine

I’d like to thank revere right now publicly. He’s taught me a new word:

Methodolatry: The profane worship of the randomized clinical trial as the only valid method of investigation.

Many of you have e-mailed me and other SBM bloggers about a recent article in The Atlantic by Shannon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer, two reporters whose particular bias is that we as a nation are “over treated.” That may be true, although not to the extent that Brownlee, at least, seems to think, and her article on swine flu was truly biased and painful to read. Moreover, “methodalatry” perfectly describes one of the complaints we at SBM have about the “evidence-based medicine” paradigm. So I’m really glad that revere took it on and demolished it.

The hero of The Atlantic article, Tom Jefferson clearly has an agenda about flu vaccines. Indeed, he has such an agenda that he was invited to the National Vaccine Information Center’s vaccine conference in early October. The NVIC is the oldest and biggest antivaccine organization there is. Either he didn’t know that, in which case he’s clueless, or he didn’t care. In any case, it was clear that he was invited there because of his stance on flu vaccination, and he was even going to be awarded the NVIC “Courage in Science” Award. To his credit, Jefferson backed out when he found out that he would be sharing the stage with Andrew Wakefield, who was to be given the NVIC “Humanitarian Award.” He was appropriately horrified. Still, he should never have accepted in the first place, given that the NVIC clearly wanted to coopt him and use his gadfly status to make its anti-vaccine stance seem reasonable and science-based.

That’s just one reason why I don’t take Tom Jefferson particularly seriously anymore. I tend to agree with revere that Jefferson is drifting perilously close to crank territory with respect to flu vaccines. Indeed, “methodolatry” is an awesome term to describe his approach. Actually, it’s a great term to describe some of the Cochrane scientists responsible for analyzing the efficacy of mammography screening, as well; their conclusions and methods rather remind me of Jefferson’s.

Finally, you might also want to reread (or read for the first time if you haven’t read it already) Mark Crislip’s article on flu vaccine efficacy, which, although not directly written in response to Brownlee’s article, does address many of the shortcomings in its analysis of H1N1 vaccine efficacy.

Posted in: Science and Medicine, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Journalist fails but science wins during flu pandemic

The Atlantic has a monumentally horrible article up about flu vaccination which has been buzzing around our bloggy back channels. There has been some good science reporting out there lately, but this ain’t it. I was hoping one of the best public health blogs would jump on this, and jump on it they did.  It is a terrific example of how to approach difficult data in the heat of a pandemic. This is your reading assignment for the weekend, and you can probably finish up before the Michigan game.  Go and read (and Go Blue!).

Posted in: Science and the Media

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“Oh, come on, Superman!” (Part II): Bill Maher meets Kryptonite over vaccines and “Western medicine”

It’s rather amazing how sometimes the best laid plans of mice and men (and bloggers) come to naught. I had planned on doing a followup post to my previous post about the cancer quackery known as the German New Medicine by discussing a particularly nasty French variant of it. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending upon your point of view), events conspired to move my blogging ire towards another target, particularly since I had addressed this isse before. Specifically, I’m talking about 2009 Recipient of the Richard Dawkins Award, comedian and HBO talk show host Bill Maher.

As you may recall, about a month ago, I wrote a rather long post (par for the course for me, I know) detailing ad nauseam how Bill Maher not only embraces germ theory denialism, anti-vaccine nonsense, and alternative medicine, in particular his apparent belief that “aggregate toxicity” or the typical unnamed “toxins” that alternative medicine mavens are so fond of blaming most disease on or, as Maher likes to call it, the “poisons” that we are eating and otherwise exposed to every day, but has been preaching this pseudoscience since at least 2005. Maher then followed this up a mere week before receiving his award named after a famous scientist with a hideously irrational promotion of cancer quackery. At that point, I thought I was done with the topic, at least as far as this particular blog goes (others know that elsewhere I’ve not been so quiet). At least, I had intended not to deal with this again on SBM.

Unfortunately, Bill Maher had other ideas. This is the perfect description for how I felt having to blog about this again:

Yes, it fits, particularly after Maher Tweeted to his fans:

If u get a swine flu shot ur an idiot.

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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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David & Goliath: A Dramatic Role Reversal Spurred On By The Media

The Internet is teeming with false health claims and a long line of celebrities willing to throw their media weight behind every new flavor of snake oil. The irony is that alternative medicine proponents see themselves as a persecuted minority – the victims of some nebulous health industry conspiracy. But in reality, they have ingratiated themselves with the media to such an extent that they may in fact have the upper hand.

Pseudoscience has become Goliath, and physicians have never faced a more pernicious foe. With patients’ lives hanging in the balance, some of us are waging the war for hearts and minds with gumption, zeal, and a little help from a brave minority of media who have finally woken up and realized that alternative medicine is not as soft and cuddly as they once thought.

Take for example those who wrongly believe that vaccines cause autism. Many of them subject their children to unproven and harmful therapies, diets, and regimens – some of which are tantamount to child abuse. Consider the cases described most recently by David Gorski here. One child underwent repeated IV chelation therapy for years followed by the invasive injection of “stem cells” into her cerebrospinal fluid. (more…)

Posted in: Science and the Media

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Monkey business in autism research, part II

Over the last couple of months, I’ve noticed something about the anti-vaccine movement. Specifically, I’ve noticed that the mavens of pseudoscience that make up the movement seem to have turned their sights with a vengeance on the Hepatitis B vaccine. The reason for this new tactic, I believe, is fairly obvious. The fact that the Hep B vaccine is administered shortly after birth seems somehow to enrage the anti-vaccine movement more than just about any other vaccine. Moreover, given that, aside from maternal-child transmission when the mother is infected, hepatitis B is usually only contracted through either bloodborne contact (the sharing of needles, the administration of contaminated blood) or sexual activity, it’s very easy for anti-vaccinationists to make a superficially plausible-sounding argument that it’s not a necessary vaccine, even though there are reasonable rationales for giving it to infants. The image of sticking a needle into a newborn infant trumps that, though, at least for the anti-vaccine movement. Another possibility, suggested by Steve Novella just yesterday, is that, with the collapse under a overwhelmingly huge pile of evidence of the idea that the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal that used to be used in childhood vaccines until 2001, caused an “epidemic” of autism and the failure of the “too many too soon” slogan to convince anyone who is not already an anti-vaccinationist, the movement needed a new bogeyman to blame for autism. The hepatitis B vaccine, which was added to the pediatric vaccination schedule in the 1990s, around the right time to confuse correlation with causation when it comes to the increase in autism diagnoses (just like thimerosal) was a perfect next target, given that it’s administered shortly after birth.

Indeed, just the other day, the anti-vaccine crank groups the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), Talk About Curing Autism (TACA), and the anti-vaccine crank blog Age of Autism posted a call for the elimination of hepatitis B vaccination for newborns:

Washington, DC – National Vaccine Information Center and Talk About Curing Autism are calling on President Obama to order the immediate suspension of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation of the birth dose of the Hepatitis B vaccine after two recent studies linking the Hepatitis B vaccine to functional brain damage in U.S. male newborns and infant primates.  In a related development today, the United States Department of Health and Human Services, including the Health Resources and Services Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,  announced that 1 in every 91 children are now diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder as reported in the November 2009 issue of Pediatrics. Previous data released by the CDC indicated a prevalence of 1 in every 150 children affected by the disorder.

Note how AoA not-so-subtly interposed the latest information about autism prevalence with its call to eliminate the birth dose of the hepatitis B vaccine. Very clever. By doing so, it linked the two in readers’ minds, as if one had something to do with the other. There’s no good scientific evidence that the hepatitis B vaccine has anything to do with the “autism epidemic.” Meanwhile, David Kirby is up to his usual nonsense, and the resident anti-vaccine propagandist at CBS News, Sharyl Attkisson, who has been known to feed Age of Autism information on at least one occasion in the past, served up this credulous, noncritical interview with Andrew Wakefield:

The quantity of misinformation in that single six minute video is far beyond the scope of this article. Were I to start dissecting it, I would not have time to do what the purpose of this article was intended to do: To deal with the study Wakefield is hawking. That’s why I leave the dissection of this pièce de résistance of disingenuousness and misinformation as an exercise for SBM readers–after reading the rest of this post, of course. Trust me, it will help you.

At the heart of this latest propaganda onslaught by the anti-vaccine movement are two studies, one a restrospective study in humans and the other a study in monkeys, both of which the anti-vaccine movement is promoting as slam dunk evidence that the hepatitis B vaccine is causing all sorts of horrific problems. Taking both of them on in one post is too much, even for my logorrheic tendencies. So I’ll deal first with Wakefield’s monkey study and then, either later this week or sometime next week, hopefully discuss the human study.
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Posted in: Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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“Obesity Linked to Stupidity”- an Example of Stupid Reporting

A news story on Science a Gogo reports that obesity is linked to stupidity, according to a new study based on brain scans. Apparently the reporter can’t read. That’s not at all what the study showed.

What the Study Really Said

The study was entitled “Brain structure and obesity.”It was published in Human Brain Mapping. There were 10 authors listed, with the two interviewed for the news report being the lead author (CA Raji) and the last listed author (PM Thompson). The study evaluated MRI scans of 94 elderly subjects who were cognitively normal and remained cognitively normal for at least 5 years after their scan. It found that obese people had 8 percent less brain tissue than people with normal weight, while overweight people had 4 percent less tissue. The deficits were in areas of the brain that have been associated with Alzheimer’s disease. The story reports that this put the subjects at high risk for Alzheimer’s disease. But the subjects remained cognitively normal for at least 5 years after the scan. They were not rendered stupid. They did not develop Alzheimer’s. They remained cognitively normal. You might also interpret the study as showing that obese patients with those findings on brain scan could be predicted not to develop Alzheimer’s or develop any other cognitive deficits for at least five years. (more…)

Posted in: Science and the Media

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The Huffington Post is at it again

As many of our readers know, there are plenty of websites devoted entirely to fake medicine. Sites such as whale.to and NatrualNews are repositories of paranoid, unscientific thinking and promotion of dangerous health practices. Thankfully, they are rather fringe (but not fringe enough). More mainstream outlets print some pretty bad stuff, but it’s usually just lazy reporting and not a concerted, organized effort to promote implausible medical claims. As many of us have written, both hear and at our other blogs, the Huffington Post is the exception. It actively and in an organized way promotes dangerous, implausible pseudo-medicine. This starts at the top with Arianna, and is actively encouraged by medical and health editors like Patricia Fitzgerald and Dean Ornish.  In the spring, our complaints were picked up briefly by the larger blogosphere and for a while, HuffPo appeared to have toned it down.  Some of that may have been due to our critique of their flu coverage, much of which was mere infomercials for patent medicine.

As the old joke goes, “Break’s over—back on your knees.”  HuffPo has jumped back into the quakery pond with full abandon.  Venues like HuffPo are one of the reasons a site like this one are necessary.  So let’s take a look at the latest abominations from “the other side”.

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Posted in: Homeopathy, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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The price of anti-vaccine fanaticism: Case histories

One of the major themes of SBM has been to combat one flavor of anti-SBM movement that believes, despite all the evidence otherwise, that vaccines cause autism and that autism can be reversed with all sorts of “biomedical” quackery. Many (but by no means all) of these so-called “biomedical” treatments are based on the false view that vaccines somehow caused autism. I and my fellow SBM bloggers have expended huge quantities of verbiage refuting the pseudoscience, misinformation, and outright lies regularly spread by various anti-vaccine groups and two celebrities in particular, namely Jenny McCarthy and her boyfriend Jim Carrey. Most of the time, we discuss these issues in terms of the harm to public health that is done by falling vaccination rates due to the fear engendered by the message of the anti-vaccine movement and the threat of the return of vaccine-preventable diseases that once wreaked havoc among children.

There is another price, however. There is a price that is paid by autistic children themselves and their parents. It is a price paid in money and lost time. It is a price paid in being subjected to treatments that are highly implausible from a scientific standpoint and for which there is no good scientific evidence. It is a price that can result in bankruptcy, suffering, and, yes, even death.

It is a price, I think, that is best demonstrated through a few case studies. This is a situation when anecdotes have their use.
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Posted in: Health Fraud, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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