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Archive for Science and the Media

Kudos to a Journalist

Many SBM readers will remember the late, great Barry Beyerstein,  a luminary of the skeptical movement and author of a classic article that has been cited many times on SBM, an explanation of why bogus therapies seem to work.

One of his greatest personal accomplishments is not as well known: he produced an exceptional daughter, Lindsay Beyerstein, a freelance writer, philosopher, and polymath who stepped into her father’s shoes as a faculty member of the annual Skeptic’s Toolbox workshop after his death and has done a truly admirable job there.

Among Lindsay’s many other activities, she works for the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a nonprofit that honors excellence in socially conscious journalism. One of her goals has been to reward excellence in science journalism. Bob Ortega has just received a Sidney Award for his exposé of a widely used HPV (human papillomavirus) test that is not FDA approved and has an unacceptably high rate of false negative results. Her interview with him was published on the Hillman Foundation website.  On SBM, we frequently criticize journalists who get the science wrong. For a change, I’d like to congratulate Mr. Ortega for not only getting the science right, but for accomplishing something that could potentially save lives.

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Posted in: Cancer, Obstetrics & gynecology, Science and the Media

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Blame and magical thinking: The consequences of the autism “biomed” movement

That the myth that vaccines cause autism is indeed nothing more than a myth, a phantom, a delusion unsupported by science is no longer in doubt. In fact, it’s been many years now since it was last taken seriously by real scientists and physicians, as opposed to crank scientists and physicians, who are still selling the myth.  Thanks to them, and a dedicated cadre of antivaccine activists, the myth is like Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, or Freddy Krueger at the end of one of their slasher flicks. The slasher or monster appears to be dead, but we know that he isn’t because we know that he’ll eventually return in another movie to kill and terrorize a new batch of unlucky and invariably not so bright teenagers. And he always does, eventually.

Unfortunately, the myth has a price, and autistic children pay it when they are unlucky enough to have parents who have latched on to this particular myth as an explanation for why their child is autistic. One price is blame. Parents who come to believe the myth that vaccines cause autism also express extreme guilt that they “did this” to their children, that it’s their fault that their children are autistic. At the same time, they have people and entities to blame: Paul Offit, big pharma, the FDA, the scientific community, pediatricians. As a result, the second price is paid: Their children are subjected to pure quackery, such as “stem cell” injections (which almost certainly aren’t actually stem cells, given the provenance of the clinics that offer such “therapies”) into their cerebrospinal fluid, and what in essence constitutes unethical human experimentation at the hands of “autism biomed” quacks. Meanwhile these same quacks reap the financial benefits of this belief by offering a cornucopia of treatments to “recover” autistic children that range from the ineffective and usually harmless (such as homeopathy) to the ineffective and downright dangerous (dubious “stem cell” injections by lumbar puncture into a child’s cerebrospinal fluid). These treatments drain the parents’ pocketbook and do nothing other than potential harm to the children. These prices are intertwined, and just last week I saw examples of both prices on full display at various antivaccine blogs. Worse, the concept appears to be metastasizing beyond vaccines. As more and more scientific evidence fails to find even a whiff of a hint of a correlation between vaccines and autism, the One True Cause of Autism, which was once vaccines or mercury in vaccines, has become the Many True Causes of Autism, in which vaccines (it’s always the vaccines) mix with pharmaceuticals, pollution, diet, and chemicals to produce autism in a manner that is a lot harder to falsify than the older, all too scientifically testable hypothesis that vaccines cause autism.
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Posted in: Health Fraud, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski’s cancer “success” stories

The year 2012 was rung out and the year 2013 will be rung in by news that Eric Merola, propagandist for “brave maverick doctor” Stanislaw Burzynski who claims to have developed a cancer treatment far superior to current conventional science- and evidence-based cancer treatments, is releasing releasing a sequel to his wildly successful documentary (in the “alternative cancer” underground, that is) Burzynski The Movie: Cancer Is Serious Business. In fact, the sequel is coming out on DVD on March 5, and you can even preorder it now. I somehow doubt that Eric Merola will send me a screener DVD to review, but I did review the first movie because it easily falls into a genre that I like to refer to as medical propaganda movies, which are almost always made in support of dubious medical treatments. My mostly lame jokes about proposed titles aside (e.g., Burzynski II: Electric Boogaloo, Burzynski II: This Time It’s Peer-Reviewed, or even Burzynski II: Quack Harder), it’s very clear that in the wake of the Texas Medical Board’s decision to drop its case against Burzynski on a technicality, Burzynski and his very own Leni Riefenstahl named Eric Merola are planning on a huge publicity blitz, in which Burzynski will be portrayed as, yes, a “brave maverick doctor” whom “They” (as in the FDA, drug companies, and the Texas Medical Board, a.k.a “The Man”) tried to keep down but failed because he has The Natural Cure For Cancer “They” Don’t Want You Sheeple To Know About.

I come back to this again because Merola’s strategy for Burzynski II, as I pointed out, is going to involve “conversion stories” of oncologists who didn’t believe in Burzynski’s magic antineoplastons but do now, attacks on skeptics who have been critical of his work (like me), and, of course, testimonials for success stories. I don’t know how I missed this before, but what exactly that will mean in practice is actually spelled out pretty well in an installment of a video blog by a Burzynski patient named Hannah Bradley. Bradley became famous for her battle against a malignant brain tumor, her decision to go to the Burzynski Clinic, and the prodigious fundraising efforts of her partner Pete Cohen through their Team Hannah website and vlog. In this vlog, recorded on September 7, 2012, Pete and Hannah are happy because in their previous vlog of July 27, 2012, they reported that, after having received Dr. Burzynski’s antineoplaston treatment Hannah has had a “complete response,” and indeed the MRI scans shown in their movie, Hannah’s Anecdote, do appear to show just that (more on that later).

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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Science and the Media

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An open letter to Penn & Teller about their appearance on The Dr. Oz Show

An open letter to Penn & Teller about their appearance on <em>The Dr. Oz Show</em>
OzPT

 

Dear Penn & Teller,

I really don’t want to say this, but I feel obligated to. I’m afraid you screwed up. Big time. (Of course, if this weren’t a generally family-friendly blog, where we rarely go beyond PG-13 language, I’d use a term more like one that Penn would use to describe a massive fail, which, as you might guess, also starts with the letter “f”; I think he’d appreciate that.)

I’m referring, of course, to your appearance on The Dr. Oz Show one week ago (video: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4). Before I begin the criticism, let me just take care of the obligatory but honest statement that I am a fan. I’ve been a fan for a long time. Indeed, I remember seeing you guys perform in Chicago back in the late 1990s when I was doing my fellowship at the University of Chicago. I’ve also seen you in Las Vegas a couple of times, most recently a couple of years ago (see pictures below) at TAM. The two of you have become skeptical icons, through your association with James Randi and over the last several years through your Showtime series Bullshit!, which is advertised with the tagline, “Sacred cows get slaughtered here.” And so they did for the eight seasons Bullshit! was on TV. When you guys were on, it was a thing of beauty to behold, both from the standpoint of entertainment and skepticism.
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Posted in: Faith Healing & Spirituality, Homeopathy, Public Health, Science and the Media

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Are You Ready For the Oz Manifesto

“Medicine is a very religious experience. I have my religion and you have yours. It becomes difficult for us to agree on what we think works, since so much of it is in the eye of the beholder. Data is rarely clean. You find the arguments that support your data, and it’s my fact versus your fact.”

- Mehmet Oz

The above quote is from a recent article for the New Yorker by Michael Specter about Dr. Oz, the most currently popular TV doctor. Specter described this sentiment as “chilling.” To me it sounds like a manifesto – a postmodernist attack on the scientific basic of modern medicine.

In my experience, this sentiment is often at the core of belief in so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). In order to seem respectable and infiltrate the institutions of medical academia, proponents of CAM will say that their treatments are evidence-based and that they are scientific. They have a serious problem, however – their treatments are not evidence-based and are often grossly unscientific. Whenever someone bothers to look at their evidence and examine their science, therefore, they start to backtrack, eventually arriving at their true position, a postmodernist dismissal of science resembling Oz’s statement above. I have heard a hundred versions of the Oz manifesto from CAM supporters.

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Posted in: Homeopathy, Science and the Media

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One Flu Into the Cuckoo’s Nest*

“I don’t seem able to get it straight in my mind….”
― Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Influenza is going gangbusters at the moment. I like going to Google Flu trends as well as the CDC flu site to see what flu is doing. Using Google searches as a surrogate for infections is an interesting technique that public health officials have tried with less success in other illnesses but is not without utility. Behaviors of populations can presage a problem, my favorite example is the first hint of the 1993 massive Cryptosporidia diarrhea outbreak in Milwaukee was a sudden shortage of Kaopectate and Peptobismol. It appears there are more patients with flu like symptoms this year than  at the height of the H1N1 epidemic of 2009. We have lots of flu like illness, and per the CDC there are buckets of confirmed influenzaflu, but so far the season, while probably having more cases than 2009, the outbreak is clinically not the same.

Compare and contrast, the two words that defined undergraduate liberal arts essay assignments. Get out your blue books and compare and contrast influenza outbreaks from 2009 and 2013. You have one hour. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Epidemiology, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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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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