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Probiotics

The Wall Street Journal has an assessment of Probiotics in the Jan 13, 2009 issue entitled Bug Crazy: Assessing the Benefits of Probiotics (1). For some reason when I wander around the hospital on rounds people show me articles such as this and ask, so whatcha think about this?

Probiotics are interesting. They are live bacteria given to treat and prevent diseases. It is one of those overlap areas for scientific medicine and so called alternative medicine. There are good clinical trials to suggest areas where these agents are of benefit, but other aspects of their use are blown out of proportion for the real or imagined benefit probiotics may provide. Much of alternative medicine where it overlaps with real medicine is the art of making therapeutic mountains out of clinical molehills.

The Wall Street Journal article is the kind of reporting that drives. me. nuts. It drive me nuts because the reporting acts as if the underlying assumptions of the therapies are true.

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

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How Is Alternative Medicine Like Earmark Spending?

I recently watched a special news report about John McCain leading the charge towards making legislative earmarks illegal. The Economist defines earmarks this way:

Earmarks, for the uninitiated, are spending projects that are directly requested by individual members of Congress and are not subject to competitive bidding.

Most Americans are rightly upset about the practice of slipping pet projects into larger, well-vetted, and consensus-built legislative initiatives. They know instinctively that it’s morally wrong to sneak in personal favors and appropriate tax payer dollars to special interest groups without allowing others to weigh in. I certainly hope that McCain and his peers will succeed in discontinuing this corrupt practice.

Coincidentally, just after I watched this news report about earmarks, I went online to catch up on my blog reading. The first post I encountered made reference to an opinion piece written by Deepak Chopra, Andrew Weil, Dean Ornish, and Rustum Roy in the Wall Street Journal. Chopra et al. were asking Americans to redouble their efforts to adopt healthy lifestyles (including wholesome diets and regular physical activity) as a means to promote good health and avoid disease. At the end of the article they slipped in a plea for President-elect Obama to consider integrating alternative medicine practices (which included everything from healthy diet to meditation and acupuncture) into a government-sponsored approach to health.
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Posted in: Nutrition, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Chopra and Weil and Roy, oh my! Or: The Wall Street Journal, coopted.

The quest of advocates of unscientific medicine, the so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) movement is to convince policy makers, patients, and physicians that it does not deserve the rubric of “alternative,” that it is in fact mainstream. Indeed, that is the very reason why “alternative” medicine morphed into CAM in order to soften the “alternative” label. Increasingly, however, advocates of such highly implausible medical practices appear no longer to like CAM as term for their dubious practicies, because it still uses the word “alternative.” That is, of course, because they recognize that labeling something as “alternative” in relationship to scientific medicine automatically implies inferiority, and CAM advocates are nothing if not full of hubris. Such a term conflicts with their desire to “go mainstream,” and they most definitely do want to go mainstream, but they want to do it on their own terms, without all that pesky mucking about with science, evidence, and rigorous clinical trials. Consequently, they increasingly use a new term, a shiny term, a term free of that pesky “alternative” label. Now they want to “integrate” their unscientific placebo-based practice with real, scientific medicine. Thus was born the term “integrative” medicine (IM, an abbreviation that is the same as that for internal medicine, an identity that I don’t consider coincidence).

One of the biggest complaints we at SBM (or at least I at SBM) have about the attitude of practitioners of scientific medicine towards CAM/IM is that most of them do not see it as a major problem. Dr. Jones characterized this attitude as the “shruggie” attitude, and it’s a perfect term. Equally perfect is her analogy as to why “integrating” pseudoscience with medical science is not a good idea. I myself have lamented the infiltration of pseudoscience and outright quackery into medical academia and the role that the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) has played in promoting that infiltration. In addition, wealthy patrons of CAM/IM such as Donna Karan and the Bravewell Collaborative have been generous spreading their money around. In this increasingly cash-strapped health care environment, hospitals know on which side their bread is buttered and see the “integration” of woo into their service portfolio as a means of beefing up the bottom line with cash on the barrelhead transactions that require no mucking about with nasty insurance forms. In fact, services such as reiki, homeopathy, acupuncture, and others often require no forms other than credit card receipts for the patient to sign.
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Posted in: Medical Academia, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Who Should Ascend To The Office Of Surgeon General?

President-elect Obama’s nomination of CNN medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta, for the Office of Surgeon General of the United States has ignited a firestorm of debate across the Internet. Some argue that he is not qualified for the position, others say that his charisma would be a boon to public health communications, though the lay majority appear to have mixed feelings.

It is highly irregular for a Surgeon General nominee to be announced before the Secretary of Health and Human Services is confirmed. This faux pas in itself may speak to an irresistible opportunity for self-promotion, or that the Senate confirmation hearing is not the independent review event that we assume it is.

At age 39, Gupta has long aspired to become the Surgeon General, as sources close to him report that he has been saying (since age 33) that “it’s the next logical step in his career development.”

But before we draw conclusions about who’s right for the job, we need to understand what the job entails.

I asked Dr. Richard Carmona, 17th Surgeon General of the United States, to explain the roles and responsibilities of the office. A summary of our conversation follows:
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media

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Christine Maggiore and Eliza Jane Scovill: Living and dying with HIV/AIDS denialism

Christine Maggiore

On Science-Based Medicine, we strive to apply the light of science and reason on all manner of unscientific belief systems about medicine. For the most part, but by no means exclusively, we have concentrated on so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) because there is an active movement to infiltrate faith-based, rather than science-based, modalities into “conventional” medicine. Indeed, such efforts are well-financed, both by public and private organizations, and are alarmingly successful at insinuating postmodernist and pseudoscientific beliefs into academia to form an unholy new monster that has been termed by some as “quackademic medicine.”

However, one pseudoscientific belief system about medicine that we at SBM have perhaps not dealt with as much as we should is the belief that, contrary to the overwhelming scientific consensus built up over 25 years, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) does not cause Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). True, working with Tara Smith, our fearless leader Steve Novella has published an excellent primer on the phenomenon, but not on this blog. This belief system, which is commonly called HIV/AIDS denial or HIV/AIDS denialism, is championed by virologist Peter Duesberg, along with a panoply of groups, such as Alive & Well AIDS Alternatives and Rethinking AIDS; blogs, such as Science Guardian, HIV/AIDS Skepticism, and AIDS Is Over; podcasts, such as How Positive Are You?; books, such as What If Everything You Thought You Knew About AIDS Was Wrong? by Christine Maggiore; and movies, such as The Other Side of AIDS (which resembles in many ways the anti-evolution movie Expelled! and the pro-quackery movie The Beautiful Truth). The influence of HIV/AIDS denialism is horrific, too, particularly in Africa, where advocates of such nonsense, such as Matthias Rath, have advocated quackery over antiretroviral therapy and had the ear of South African President Thabo Mbeki, who lost power in late 2007.
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Posted in: Health Fraud, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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AARP and Alternative Medicine

I know I said the next entry would be about the efficacy of the influenza vaccine. The road to blogging in paved with good intentions. I will eventually write that entry, but the ADD has kicked in and my attention has wandered elsewhere.

I am 51 and one of the benefits of this advanced age is you get to join AARP, the American Association of Retired People. Yes, I know I am not retired, and given the current economic situation I am already practicing for my retirement.

“Do you what paper or plastic?”

“For here or to go?”

“Do you want fries with that?

Piece of cake. Who needs a 401K?

The day I received the AARP application, on my 50th birthday, despite some misgivings (8), I joined.

The purpose of AARP, besides discounts at Denny’s and the right to yell at kids when they are on your lawn, is, according to their mission statement, “AARP is dedicated to enhancing quality of life for all as we age. We lead positive social change and deliver value to members through information, advocacy and service. (1)” AARP is a lobby/special interest group for the elderly. In medicine the elderly are considered a vulnerable/at risk group. The elderly may have have fixed incomes, chronic medical problems, declining cognitive function and social situations that make them particularly susceptible to scams of all kinds. So it was nice to have an organization looking after our interests.

AARP has at least 40 million members. Accompanying the membership is their magazine, somewhat eponymously entitled AARP Magazine. The AARP Magazine has the largest circualtion of any magazine in the US with 24 million copies, each read issue by more than one person (7). It has 3 times the circulation of Readers digest. Only Parade magazine has a wider circulation. These are the publications where people receive casual information about about health care. I would assume that a magazine from my advocacy organization would contain information that I can trust. After all, AARP is looking out for my interests as a senior, and any article they would publish, especially relating to health and finances, I should be confident was reliable.

The January/February had an article “Drug Free Remedies for Chronic Pain” by Loolwa Khazzoom (2).
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Posted in: Energy Medicine, Science and the Media

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The fallacy of “balance” and “fairness” about unscientific health claims in the media: A case study

For those of us who have dedicated ourselves to promoting science-based medicine, one of the most frustrating impediments to our message is the media. Time and time again, I’ve complained about how the media takes unscientific health claims, particularly when it comes to vaccines, and gives a credulous hearing to them. Sometimes, it’s a filmmaker with a distinct ideological axe to grind who is not making even the pretense of trying to be objective. Sometimes it’s a reporter with a clear bias favoring the antivaccine movement parroting the most idiotic of unscientific lies. Other times, it’s celebrities who think their “education” from Google University trumps science, clinical trials, and epidemiology, often given aid and comfort by sympathetic physicians. Add to that others inclined to support pseudoscience against science-based medicine, such as Don Imus, Larry King, and others, and is it any wonder that the media seems like one huge cesspit of woo?

However, more often, it’s none of these things. As much as they infuriate me, I believe that most reporters in the media do really want to get it right. However, they are hobbled by three things. First, many, if not most, of them have little training in science or the scientific method and are not particularly valued by their employers. For example, witness how CNN shut down their science division. Second, the only medical or science stories that seem to be valued are one of three types. The first type is the new breakthrough, the cool new discovery that might result in a new treatment or cure. Of course, this type doesn’t distinguish between science-based and non-science-based “breakthroughs.” They are both treated equally, which is why “alternative medicine” stories are so popular. The second type is the human interest story, which is inherently interesting to readers, listeners, or viewers because, well, it’s full of human interest. This sort of story involves the child fighting against long odds to get a needed transplant, for example, especially if the insurance company is refusing to pay for it. The third type, unfortunately, often coopts the second type and, to a lesser extent, the first type. I’m referring to the “medical controversy” story. Unfortunately, the “controversy” is usually more of a manufactroversy. In other words, it’s a fake controversy. No scientific controversy exists, but ideologues desperately try to make it appear as though a real scientific controversy exists. Non-medical examples include creationism versus evolution and the “9/11 Truth” movement versus history. Medical examples include the so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” movement versus science-based medicine and, of course, the anti-vaccine movement.

But the thing that most prevents the scientifically accurate evaluation by the media of unscientific health claims has to be the “tell both sides” culture of “balance” demanded by journalists. Telling both sides is, of course, very important when one side is not obviously correct compared to the other. Examples of such a situation include virtually any political controversy, where there almost always are two (and usually more) sides to an issue. In contrast, in science and medicine, there are not always two sides to an issue. (Again, think of creationism versus evolution.) In science and medicine, there is often a side supported so overwhelmingly by evidence, experimentation, and observation that the “other side” does not warrant being told, as it has already been considered and rejected by science. An excellent example of this is homeopathy. Another excellent example of this is the antivaccine movement, and, unfortunately, a prime example of “telling both sides” of the “vaccine debate” reared its ugly head a couple of weeks ago. Worse, it reared its ugly head on a show that ostensibly claims to be medically accurate, so much so that it features four doctors as its hosts.

I’m referring to a TV show called The Doctors. If the episode segment I’m about to discuss, which aired on December 11, is any indication, these are Doctors that anyone seeking scientifically sound information about medicine should run, not walk, away from.
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Posted in: Health Fraud, Medical Academia, Science and the Media

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Battlefield acupuncture revisited: That’s it? That‘s all Col. Niemtzow’s got?

It’s like the zombie that wouldn’t die, isn’t it?

I’m referring to so-called “battlefield acupuncture,” a topic that I wrote about last week for this very blog. With a week separating my usual posts, I normally don’t write about the same topic two times right in a row, but I’m making an exception for this topic. There are three reasons. First, I remain appalled at how one ideologue, Col. (Dr.) Richard Niemtzow, a radiation oncologist and Air Force physician turned number one advocate of acupuncture use in the military, has succeeded in introducing acupuncture into not only military hospitals like Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Landstuhl Regional Medical Center (which is, by the way, the first stop outside of the Middle East for our wounded soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan), but has even started to train U.S. Army Rangers in the technique. While before I thought the term “battlefield acupuncture” was a misnomer because it wasn’t actually being used on the battlefield, but rather for phantom limb pain and other chronic pain conditions, this latter development shows just how far Col. Niemtzow wishes to go with this “technique.” Second, Col. Niemtzow’s acupuncture technique isn’t even “real” acupuncture. He calls it “auricular acupuncture,” and it involves sticking needles a mere 1 mm into the earlobe. Worse, he justifies this technique through ignorance of anatomy, claiming that “the ear acts as a ‘monitor’ of signals passing from body sensors to the brain” and that “those signals can be intercepted and manipulated to stop pain or for other purposes.” He even made a comment about 18th century pirates wearing a lot of earrings in order to improve their night vision. I kid you not. Third, and finally, Col. Niemtzow has published another one of his “studies” to support the use of acupuncture in chronic pain syndromes among our combat wounded veterans.

Last time around, I referred to an earlier study by Col. Niemtzow published in Military Medicine in 2006. This study was clearly labeled as a “pilot study.” Although it was randomized (good), it was small (tolerable for a pilot study); it was unblinded (bad); and there was no placebo or “sham acupuncture” control group (horrible). There were multiple other serious shortcomings, but those are the main ones. In other words, Col. Niemtzow’s 2006 study was custom-designed to show a “positive” result that could be entirely explained by the placebo effect, and that’s exactly what it did. Indeed, even by that standard, its results were unimpressive. Although the pain scores in the acupuncture group were reported to have decreased by 23% initially, compared to the conventional therapy group, which did not decrease measurably, within 24 hours after treatment there was no difference between the two groups. I’ve referred to this study as “thin gruel” upon which to base the creation of a military acupuncture program, much less expanding that program into combat and training military physicians and medics being sent to combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan to do auricular acupuncture. I still say it’s thin gruel,.

So what about this new study by Col. Niemtzow, hot off the presses in the latest issue of Medical Acupuncture?
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Medical Academia, Science and the Media

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Farewell To The Medscape Journal: Profits, Losses And A Canary In A Coal Mine

On January 31, 2009 The Medscape Journal will be discontinued.* One can only assume that the journal’s parent company, WebMD, could no longer justify the cost associated with a free, open-access, peer-reviewed medical journal that receives no income from advertisers or sponsors. The Medscape Journal’s budget has been supported by revenue generated from Medscape (the website), and their robust Continuing Medical Education (CME) business.

In these challenging economic times, American companies are taking a cold, hard look at their P and L spreadsheets and nixing the least profitable parts of their businesses. The inevitable “non-profit” casualties present an ethical dilemma. What will become of the noble pursuits that are based upon “doing the right thing” rather than making a profit?

There is no such thing as completely unbiased publishing (humans all have personal agendas – whether conscious or unconscious), though The Medscape Journal came about as close to it as any medical journal ever has. The journal is free to authors and readers, and provides 24-hour online access to both professional and lay viewers from around the globe. There are no advertisements or outside sponsors, peer reviewers work without compensation or specific recognition, and editors are paid a minimal salary (full disclosure: I know this because I was an editor for The Medscape Journal several years ago). CME credit is offered for articles determined to be of special relevance, but no articles are commissioned specifically for the purpose of CME.

The Medscape Journal is a wonderful experiment in high ethics. It espouses, in my opinion, the gold standard principles of medical publishing. Tragically, market forces (or perhaps the lack of perceived value by its own parent company) killed it. So what does this mean for medical publishing? If there is no economic model for “pure science” then are medical journals doomed to go the way of health media – promoting sensational or biased science for profit?
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Posted in: Announcements, Medical Academia, Science and the Media

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Now there’s something you don’t see on TV every day…

I rather like Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Unfortunately, I seldom get to watch, mainly because I usually show up at work sometime between 7:00 and 7:30 AM, and I don’t like watching more than a few minutes of video on my computer.

However, Hugh Laurie, star of House, was interviewed by Conan and revealed himself to be not unlike me in that he’s definitely a booster of reason and science in medicine over irrationality and dubious “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) therapies. In fact, his attitude towards CAM appears to be not at all unlike that of the character he plays on House. Check out the interview. (If you want to watch, the relevant part of the interview begins at about 23:50 into the show.)

For those who might have problems playing Internet video, I’ve found a transcript:
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