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Systematic Review claims acupuncture as effective as antidepressants: Part 1: Checking the past literature

acupuncture

A recent systematic review in PLOS One raised the question whether acupuncture and other alternative therapies are as effective as antidepressants and psychotherapy for depression. The authors concluded

 differences were not seen with psychotherapy compared to antidepressants, alternative therapies [and notably acupuncture] or active intervention controls

or put it differently,

antidepressants alone and psychotherapy alone are not significantly different from alternative therapies or active controls.

There are clear messages here. To consumers: Why take antidepressants with their long delay and uncertainty in showing any benefits–but immediate side effects and potential risks–when a few sessions of acupuncture work just as well? To promoters of acupuncture and alternative therapies: you can now cite an authoritative review in the peer-reviewed PLOS One as scientific evidence that your treatments is as effective as scary antidepressants and time-consuming psychotherapy when you make appeals to consumers and to third-party payers.

The systematic review had five co-authors, of whom three have been involved in previous meta-analyses of the efficacy of antidepressants. However, fourth author Irving Kirsch will undoubtedly be the author most recognizable to consumers and policymakers, largely because his relentless media campaign claiming antidepressants are essentially worthless, no better than placebo. For instance, in an interview with CBS 60 Minutes Irving Kirsch: The difference between the effect of a placebo and the effect of an antidepressant is minimal for most people.

Irving Kirsch: The difference between the effect of a placebo and the effect of an antidepressant is minimal for most people.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and the Media

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The Placebo Narrative

Science journalist Sharon Begley wrote a recent piece in The Saturday Evening Post about Placebo Power. The piece, while generally better than the typical popular writing on placebos, still falls into the standard placebo narrative that is ubiquitous in the mainstream media. The article is virtually identical to a dozen other articles I have read on placebo effects in the popular press, and most significantly fails to even question that narrative.

Begley is generally one of the better science journalists, although I have had my disagreements with her – specifically over her attitude toward the relationship between skeptics and the media. She seems to have a distorted and negative view of skeptics and does not think that the media can or should help us in our “debunking crusade.” (The term itself speaks of a fundamental misunderstanding of the modern skeptical movement.)

I have also parted ways with Begley over her view of the relationship between science and medicine. She seems to have a fairly negative view of doctors, fueled in part by her imperfect grasp of medical science. This is the risk with even the best lay science journalists – science is often complex and it is difficult to master the nuances if you are not an expert and steeped in the evidence and the community. Further there is a tendency for people in general (including journalists) to go along with an appealing and available narrative. (For journalists those narratives that are appealing are the ones that make good headlines.) These shortcomings are present throughout her recent article on placebos.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Nonsense about the Health Effects of Electromagnetic Radiation

Helke Ferrie has written an article for The CCPA Monitor, a monthly journal published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, entitled “Dirty electricity, EMF radiation can be removed or reduced.” It is in the June 2012 issue, and is not available online. She calls herself a science writer, but this is not the writing of a person who understands science. There is hardly a word of truth in it. It’s a classic example of pseudoscientific propaganda, an appalling farrago of false statements and fallacious arguments. The nonsense starts with the very first sentence:

The symptoms of electropollution-induced sickness involve all organs with many debilitating symptoms, from skin rashes to cancer; they are part of the Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) spectrum.

The diagnoses of “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” and “multiple chemical sensitivity” are not recognized by the medical and scientific communities. Up to 5% of the population has come to attribute a large variety of nonspecific symptoms to non-ionizing electromagnetic fields from cell phones and other common electrical devices or to the chemicals in their environment. Their complaints have been thoroughly evaluated. Numerous studies and systematic reviews have been done; they are summarized in a Wikipedia article.  Just to give one example, a systematic review published in Psychosomatic Medicine in 2006 analyzed 31 double blind studies comparing real radiation to sham radiation. Patients couldn’t tell the difference. 24 of the studies found no effect, 7 reported “some” supporting evidence (2 of which could not be replicated on subsequent trials by the same researchers), 3 were false positives attributed to statistical artefacts, and the final 2 had mutually incompatible results. They concluded:

The symptoms described by “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” sufferers can be severe and are sometimes disabling. However, it has proved difficult to show under blind conditions that exposure to EMF can trigger these symptoms. This suggests that “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” is unrelated to the presence of EMF.

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Posted in: Public Health, Science and the Media

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The Great and Powerful Oz versus science and research ethics

That Dr. Mehmet Oz uses his show to promote quackery of the vilest sort is no longer in any doubt. I was reminded yet again of this last week when I caught a rerun of one of his shows from earlier this season, when he gazed in wonder at the tired old cold reading schtick used by all “psychic mediums” from time immemorial, long before the current crop of celebrity psychic mediums, such as John Edward, Sylvia Browne, and the “Long Island Medium” Theresa Caputo, discovered how much fame and fortune they could accrue by scamming the current generation of the credulous. Speaking of Theresa Caputo, that’s exactly who was on The Dr. Oz Show last week (in reruns), and, instead of being presented as the scammer that she is, never was heard even a hint of a skeptical word from our erstwhile “America’s doctor,” who cheerily suggested that seeing a psychic medium scammer is a perfectly fine way to treat crippling anxiety because, well, Caputo claims that it is. Even worse, apparently it wasn’t even the first time that Dr. Oz had Caputo on his show, and Caputo wasn’t even the first psychic whose schtick he represented as somehow being a useful therapeutic modality for various psychological issues. “Crossing Over” psychic John Edward was there first in a segment Oz entitled Are Psychics the New Therapists? I could have saved him the embarrassment and simply told him no, but apparently Oz is too easily impressed. As I said before, if he’s impressed by clumsy cold readers like Browne, Caputo, and Edward, it doesn’t take much to impress him. Also, apparently his producers aren’t above editing science-based voices beyond recognition to support their quackery.

I was further reminded how Dr. Oz promotes quackery by an article in Slate yesterday entitled Dr. Oz’s Miraculous Medical Advice: Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. I suppose it would be mildly hypocritical of me to snark at the rather obvious “Wizard of Oz” jokes aimed at Dr. Oz. After all, I’ve used the same joke myself at one time or another and, in light of the Slate.com article, couldn’t resist using it in the title of my post. However, I wasn’t about to let that distract me from the article itself, which is very good. The reason is that there are two aspects to Dr. Oz’s offenses against medical science. There is the pure quackery that he features and promotes, such as psychic scammers like John Edward and Theresa Caputo, faith healing scammers like Dr. Issam Nemeh, and “alternative health” scammers like reiki masters, practitioners of ayruveda, Dr. Joe Mercola, who was promoted as a “pioneer” that your doctor doesn’t want you to know about. Never was it mentioned that there are very good reasons why a competent science-based physician would prefer that his patients have nothing to do with Dr. Mercola, who runs what is arguably the most popular and lucrative alternative medicine website currently in existence and manages to present himself as reasonable simply because he is not as utterly loony as his main competition, Mike Adams if NaturalNews.com (who has of late let his New World Order, anti-government, “Obama’s coming to take away your guns” conspiracy theory freak flag fly) and Gary Null.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Science and the Media

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“Moneyball,” the 2012 election, and science- and evidence-based medicine

Regular readers of my other blog probably know that I’m into more than just science, skepticism, and promoting science-based medicine (SBM). I’m also into science fiction, computers, and baseball, not to mention politics (at least more than average). That’s why our recent election, coming as it did hot on the heels of the World Series in which my beloved Detroit Tigers utterly choked got me to thinking. Actually, it was more than just that. It was also an article that appeared a couple of weeks before the election in the New England Journal of Medicine entitled Moneyball and Medicine, by Christopher J. Phillips, PhD, Jeremy A. Greene, MD, PhD, and Scott H. Podolsky, MD. In it, they compare what they call “evidence-based” baseball to “evidence-based medicine,” something that is not as far-fetched as one might think.

“Moneyball,” as baseball fans know, refers to a book by Michael Lewis entitled Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. Published in 2003, Moneyball is the story of the Oakland Athletics and their manager Billy Beane and how the A’s managed to field a competitive team even though the organization was—shall we say?—”revenue challenged” compared to big market teams like the New York Yankees. The central premise of the book was that that the collective wisdom of baseball leaders, such as managers, coaches, scouts, owners, and general managers, was flawed and too subjective. Using rigorous statistical analysis, the A’s front office determined various metrics that were better predictors of offensive success than previously used indicators. For example, conventional wisdom at the time valued stolen bases, runs batted in, and batting average, but the A’s determined that on-base percentage and slugging percentage were better predictors, and cheaper to obtain on the free market, to boot. As a result, the 2002 Athletics, with a payroll of $41 million (the third lowest in baseball), were able to compete in the market against teams like the Yankees, which had a payroll of $125 million. The book also discussed the A’s farm system and how it determined which players were more likely to develop into solid major league players, as well as the history of sabermetric analysis, a term coined by one of its pioneers Bill James after SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research. Sabermetrics is basically concerned with determining the value of a player or team in current or past seasons and with predicting the value of a player or team in the future.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Low Level Lasers: N-Rays in action.

I do not want to get all angsty and omphaloskeptic, but I have been thinking more of late about the purpose of the blog and my role in it.  Blogs,and the people who write them,  are ephemeral.  It takes a unique personality and commitment to churn out these essays and commit them to the ether.  Especially since Michelson and Morley.

I have never given much thought as to who our readers are, at least as a composite.  I read most of the comments on every entry and have certainly developed a mental picture of some of our regular commenters, although I suspect I probably do not have even the gender correct most of the time.  The commenters represent a tiny fraction of the regular readers and an even smaller fraction of occasional readers.  It occurs to me I haven’t a clue who the real audience of this blog is.

I write  first for my own education and entertainment, then for the slightly bored and overwhelmed medicine resident, since that is who I spend most of my time educating at work.  Someone educated with an understanding of basic medicine but has more important things on their mind than a need for a detailed understanding of why homeopathy is complete nonsense.  I doubt the majority of my readers are health care workers and I suspect  continuing medical education is not a major part of the blog.

I never considered SBM to be a consumer protection group, but this week my wife showed me a half page advertisement in the local paper, and I realized that not only was the advertisement a good topic for blogging, but consumer protection is a fundamental result of this blog.  There really is no site on the interweb that looks at both SCAM and real medicine with quite the same skeptical eye.  Here is the headline:

A Special Wellness Report

New Medicine Based On An 88- Year Old Theory By Albert Einstein Can Help Almost Everyone Who Is Sick Or Injured! (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Energy Medicine, Health Fraud, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Related by coincidence only? University and medical journal press releases versus journal articles

There are certain topics in Science-Based Medicine (or, in this case, considering the difference between SBM and quackery) that keep recurring over and over. One of these, which is of particular interest to me because I am a cancer surgeon specializing in breast cancer, is the issue of alternative medicine use for cancer therapy. Yesterday, I posted a link to an interview that I did for Uprising Radio that aired on KPFK 90.7 Los Angeles. My original intent was to do a followup post about how that interview came about and to discuss the Gerson therapy, a particularly pernicious and persistent form of quackery. However, it occurred to me as I began to write the article that it would be better to wait a week. The reason is that part of how this interview came about involved three movies, one of which I’ve seen and reviewed before, two of which I have not. In other words, there appears to be a concerted effort to promote the Gerson therapy more than ever before, and it seems to be bearing fruit. In order to give you, our readers, the best discussion possible, I felt it was essential to watch the other two movies. So discussion of the Gerson protocol will have to wait a week or two.

In the meantime, there’s something else that’s been eating me. Whether it’s confirmation bias or something else, whenever something’s been bugging me it’s usually not long before I find a paper or online source to discuss it. In this case, it’s the issue of why scientific studies are reported so badly in the press. It’s a common theme, one that’s popped upon SBM time and time again. Why are medical and scientific studies reported so badly in the lay press? Some would argue that it has something to do with the decline of old-fashioned dead tree media. With content all moving online and newspapers, magazines, and other media are struggling to find a way to provide content (which Internet users have come to expect to be free online) and still make a profit. The result has been the decline of specialized journalists, such as science and medical writers. That’s too easy of an answer, though. As is usually the case, things are a bit more complicated. More importantly, we in academia need to take our share of the blame. A few months ago, Lisa Schwartz and colleagues (the same Lisa Schwartz who with Steven Woloshin at Dartmouth University co-authored an editorial criticizing the Susan G. Komen Foundation for having used an inappropriate measure in one of its ads) actually attempted to look at how much we as an academic community might be responsible for bad reporting of new scientific findings by examining the relationship between the quality of press releases issued by medical journals to describe research findings by their physicians and scientists and the subsequent media reports of those very same findings. The CliffsNotes version of their findings is that we have a problem in academia, and our hands are not entirely clean of the taint of misleading and exaggerated reporting. The version as reported by Schwartz et al in their article published in BMJ entitled Influence of medical journal press releases on the quality of associated newspaper coverage: retrospective cohort study. It’s an article I can’t believe I missed when it came out earlier this year.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Academia, Science and the Media

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The Mind in Cancer: Low Quality Evidence from a High-Impact Journal

My science writing covers diverse topics but increasingly concerns two intertwined themes in cancer and psychology. First, I bring evidence to bear against an exaggerated role for psychological factors in cancer, as well as against claims that the cancer experience is a mental health issue for which many patients require specialty mental health interventions. Second, I explore unnoticed social and organizational influences and publishing practices, which limit evaluation of the best evidence for theories and practices claiming to be evidence based, especially those recommended (and even mandated) by professional organizations and accrediting bodies.

I benefit from a great set of international collaborators, and my colleagues and I have repeatedly  debunked claims that psychological interventions increase the survival time of cancer patients by improving their immune systems. Wally Sampson and Bernie Fox provided important inspiration for these efforts. A key source of such claims is the classic Lancet study by David Spiegel, which I will dissect in a later post for ScienceBasedMedicine.org (for now, see our published critique of Spiegel).
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Posted in: Cancer, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and the Media

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Dr. Google and Mr. Hyde

Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Isaac Asimov

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.

Richard P. Feynman

The Internet.

What would we do without it? It’s become so necessary, so pervasive, so utterly all-enveloping that it’s hard to imagine a world without it. Given how much it pervades everything these days, it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t that long ago that the Internet was primarily the domain of universities and large research groups. Indeed, the Internet hasn’t really been widely and easily available to the average citizen for very long at all. Go back 20 years, and most people didn’t have it. For example, Netscape Navigator, the popular browser that made the Internet accessible, wasn’t released until 1994. Amazon.com, an online store I can’t imagine living without now, didn’t sell its first book until 1995, and I didn’t discover it until 1996 or 1997. Google, that ubiquitous search engine that everyone uses, wasn’t incorporated until 1998. Now, less than 14 years after Google was incorporated most people have the Internet in their pockets with them in the form of mobile devices that have computing power undreamed-of in the 1990s and can access the Internet at speeds that increasingly blur the line between landline access and mobile computing. It’s been an amazingly fast social and technological revolution, and we don’t yet know where it will take us, but we do know that it’s not going away. If anything, the Internet will continue to become more and more pervasive.
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Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Cantron: A tale of false hope for cancer

A couple of months ago, a reader sent me an article that really disturbed me. In fact, I had originally been planning to write about it not long after I received it. It is, as you might imagine given my specialty and what disturbs me the most wehen I encounter quackery, a story of a cancer patient. Worse, it’s the story of a cancer patient in my neck of the woods. True, it’s not in the same country, but my cancer center is only around two or three miles from the Detroit River and the Canadian border; so it’s plenty close enough. Too close, in fact. Reading the story, in fact, I realized that it features a form of cancer quackery that, as far as my searches have been able to tell me, we haven’t covered before here at SBM, which alone makes it worth taking on, even though the story is two months old. The “cure” is called Cantron, and it is deeply rooted right here in my metropolitan area. Not only that, its siren song and false promises are attracting patients from across the boarder in Canada. Bernie Mulligan is one such patient:
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Posted in: Cancer, Health Fraud, Homeopathy, Science and the Media

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