As I write this, the American news cycle is firmly focused on the issue of drug harms. It’s in the headlines not because of the thousands of cases of drug toxicity, hospitalizations, and even deaths that are documented each year, but because of the untimely death of singer Whitney Houston. While the cause of Houston’s death has not yet been identified,prescription drugs and alcohol are suspected to have played a role. If that’s the case, she’ll join a long list of celebrities whose deaths have been attributed to the abuse of prescription drugs. Over at Natural News, Mike Adams has already added her name to the list of “celebrities killed by Big Pharma“. He elaborated on drug-related deaths back in 2009 when actor Brittany Murphy died, deeming her death to be due to “Acute Pharmaceutical Toxicity“: (more…)
Archive for Science and the Media
The Bravewell Collaborative maps the state of “integrative medicine” in the U.S., or: Survey says, “Hop on the bandwagon of ‘integrative medicine’!” (2012 Edition)
Earlier today, Steve discussed a new report hot off the presses (metaphorically speaking, given that it’s been published online) from the Bravewell Collaborative. Naturally, given the importance of the issue, I couldn’t resist jumping in myself, but before you read the blather I have to lay down, you really should read what Steve wrote about it. It’s that good. (Also, he’s our fearless leader, and I wouldn’t want him to be…unhappy about my having muscled in on his usual day to post.) Have you read it? Good. Now we can begin…
One of the most common (and potent) strategies used by promoters of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM)–or, as its proponents like to call it these days, “integrative medicine” (IM)–to convince the public and physicians either to use it (or at least to remain a shruggie about it) is in essence an argumentum ad populum; i.e., an appeal to popularity. Specifically, CAM/IM apologists like to use the variant of argumentum ad populum known as the “bandwagon effect,” in which they try to persuade patients and physicians that they should get with the CAM/IM program because, in essence, everyone else is doing it and it’s sweeping the nation in much the same way New Coke did in the 1980s. (Admittedly, CAM/IM apologists are, unfortunately, much better at sales than Coca-Cola was.) Not coincidentally, this is one type of method of persuasion much favored by Madison Avenue when selling cars, clothing, music, movies, food, beer, and nearly every other product–like Coca-Cola. I say “not coincidentally” because what CAM proponents are doing, more than anything else, is selling a lifestyle, a brand, a belief system, and, of course, many, many products whose value reminds me, more than anything else, of the aforementioned New Coke. In using this appeal to popularity, CAM/IM proponents try to portray stodgy physicians (you know, like pretty much every one of us at this blog) who insist on plausibility, science, and evidence to support the use of drugs and treatments as hopelessly behind the times, dogmatic, out of touch, and in general no fun to be around at all, particularly at parties.
Does massage therapy decrease inflammation and stimulate mitochondrial growth? An intriguing study oversold
If there’s one form of so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) that I find more tolerable than most, it’s massage therapy. The reason, of course, is that, whatever else anyone claims about massage, there’s no doubt that it feels good. Indeed, I’ve sort of come around to Kimball Atwood’s way of thinking. Back when he and I were on a panel together at TAM9, Kimball said something somewhat surprising, namely that he’s not sure we even need to test massage in randomized clinical trials because we all know that it feels good and if it feels good it can certainly be helpful at the very least to improve patients’ quality of life. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of woo in massage these days, and massage therapists who buy into the woo aren’t satisfied with simply using the rationale that massage feels good to recommend it to patients. They just can’t resist going beyond that to infuse massage therapy with every bit as much woo as any chiropractor or acupuncturist infuses into his respective specialty. For instance, some of the claims for massage include:
- Decreases muscle pain & tension.
- Rejuvenates the body and mind and lifts the spirit.
- Relieves anxiety, stress and tension.
- Relaxes muscles.
- Alleviates headaches.
- Hastens healing.
- Increases ranges of motion.
- Facilitates removal of waste and inflammation by-products.
- Stimulates the immune system.
- Eases symptoms related to fibromyalgia.
- Promotes relaxation and comfort.
- Reduces nausea in pregnant women.
- Accelerates weight gain in premature infants.
- Helps premature infants become more active and aware.
- Increases energy and alertness.
- Enhances morale and attitude.
Of course, there’s little doubt that a good massage probably can relax muscles, promote relaxation and comfort (which seems like the same thing to me), and enhance morale and attitude. I’d even be willing to concede that massage, properly administered, can probably also alleviate headaches (tension headaches, anyway) and increase range of motion in joints. But facilitate the removal of waste and inflammation byproducts? Stimulate the immune system (the all-purpose meaningless claim)? Hasten healing? Not so much.
All too often massage therapists ruin a perfectly good massage by imposing pseudoscientific and quack claims on it, such as claims that they are stimulating acupressure points or their adoption of the language of “energy healing.” So it was with a bit of trepidation (but also more than a bit of interest) that I took a look at some links that readers sent me about a week ago (too late, alas, for me to write about this last Monday). These links were to news stories with titles like Scientists Uncover Why Massage Heals Sore Muscles and Massage Reduces Inflammation And Promotes Growth Of New Mitochondria Following Strenuous Exercise, Study Finds. My first impression, actually, was that this was somewhat counterintuitive in that one might predict that deep kneading of muscles might actually cause a bit of inflammation and that it’s the counterirritation effect that leads to the perceived reduction in the amount of pain. Yet, according to the press release issued by McMasters University, whose contents were mirrored in many news stories, a study claiming state-of-the-art methods is concluding that massage is reducing inflammation:
It is one of the pleasures of travel to read the local newspapers of places I visit. I wholly agree with In a Sunburned Country author Bill Bryson, who observed,
It always amazes me how seldom visitors bother with local papers. Personally I can think of nothing more exciting – certainly nothing you could do in a public place with a cup of coffee – than to read newspapers from a part of the world you know almost nothing about. What a comfort it is to find a nation preoccupied by matters of no possible consequence to oneself. I love reading about scandals involving ministers of whom I have never heard, murder hunts in communities whose name sound dusty and remote, features on revered artists and thinkers whose achievements have never reached my ears, whose talents I must take on faith.
In a Sunburned Country chronicles Bryson’s travels in Australia, which I recently visited, along with New Zealand. Lovely places both – friendly people, jaw-dropping scenery, delicious food and wine. And a welcome vacation from American political wars, American economic wars and American war wars.
We’ve written about Joe Mercola’s support for quackery on this blog several times (for instance, here and here). It’s good to see that some of the mainstream media are starting to take notice, as evidenced by this article by Bryan Smith for Chicago Magazine entitled Dr. Mercola: Visionary or Quack? It features comments from a couple of—shall we say?—familiar people.
Although this article did irk me a bit for its tendency to buy into the false “tell both sides” balance, even going so far as to claim that much of what’s on Mercola’s website is actually based in science, I do think it is nonetheless very useful in that it demonstrates just how powerful and influential Mercola has become:
According to traffic-tracking firm Quantcast, Mercola.com draws about 1.9 million unique visitors per month, each of whom returns an average of nearly ten times a month. That remarkable “stickiness” puts the site’s total visits on a par with those to the National Institutes of Health’s website. (Mercola claims his is “the world’s No. 1 natural health website,” citing figures from Alexa.com.) Mercola’s 200,000-plus “likes” on Facebook are more than double the number for WebMD. And two of his eight books—2003’s The No-Grain Diet and 2006’s The Great Bird Flu Hoax—have landed on the New York Times bestseller list.
What a depressing thought that Mercola.com draws about the same traffic as the NIH website!
I suppose it was bound to happen, but it still rankles. Here is the back cover of last week’s issue of the decreasingly prestigious New England Journal of Medicine:
It’s the 200th Anniversary issue, no less. Some might protest that ‘probiotics’—live bacteria of ‘good’ varieties, as far as the gut is concerned—aren’t all that implausible, and that there is some trial evidence that they help for some conditions. That’s true, but as is typically the case even for the somewhat plausible end of the “CAM” spectrum, the hype greatly surpasses the evidence. The abstract of the most recent systematic review that I could find for probiotic treatment of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS: symptoms and signs that best match the claims in the advertisement above) concluded:
Here we go again.
In fact, I think I’m starting to see a pattern here among antivaccine organizations. You might remember that in November 2010, the antivaccine group SafeMinds bought ad space in AMC Theaters over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, one of the heaviest moviegoing time periods of the year. This use of pre-movie time to promote antivaccine propaganda resulted in a campaign by skeptics to try to persuade AMC to see the error of its ways, a campaign that was successful.
Then, a few months later, the the grande dame of the antivaccine movement, arguably the woman who started the most recent incarnation of that hoary old anti-science movement back in the 1980s, Barbara Loe Fisher, decided to start advertising the antivaccine message she promotes through her group, the Orwellian-named National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) using the JumboTron in Times Square. Unfortunately, despite protests from the American Academy of Pediatrics, promoters of science-based medicine, and skeptics, the ads apparently aired for the full buy.
Then, a few months later (just last month, in fact), somehow the NVIC managed to dupe Delta Airlines, through its video provider In-Flight Media into airing a more subtle “public service announcement” whose antivaccine message was cleverly muted so that it wasn’t so obvious, except to those of us who knew the NVIC (and, of course, the buzzwords used by the antivaccine movement) that its message was antivaccine. Of course, it also didn’t help that the PSA urged viewers to go to the NVIC website, which, as I’ve described many times before, is a font of misinformation, pseudoscience, and antivaccine propaganda. (Just type “NVIC” into this blog’s search box to see.) At least Fisher’s response of crying “repression” in response to the AAP’s complaint to Delta Air Lines was good for a chuckle or two. Unfortunately, the NVIC advertorials aired through the entire buy. Meanwhile, this fall a major dump of antivaccine propaganda was circulating around the country in various film festivals in the form of an antivaccine propaganda movie called The Greater Good, whose manipulativeness and misinformation would make a North Korean propagandists planning state media coverage of Kim Jong-il‘s funeral blush.
Now, it would appear, the NVIC wants to close out 2011 and ring in 2012 with a new round of antivaccine propaganda, this time revisiting Times Square at the heart of the New Years Eve celebration, an effort it’s trumpeting through a press release entitled National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) Educates One Million Plus in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Here, Barbara, I’ll fix that for you. It should read “National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) Mis-Educates One Million Plus in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.”
There, that’s better.
The demographic of SBM readers are likely to remember the early Miller Lite beer television commercials where sports personalities debated as to whether the beverage “tastes great” or was “less filling.” In one classic version, New York Mets’ Marv Throneberry breaks the shouting match to level his decision: “I feel strongly both ways.”
My colleagues at Science-Based Medicine have generally been opposed completely to the existence of the NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). The primary objection is that the Center awards roughly $125 million per year in taxpayer dollars to studies that are generally not based on a strong scientific foundation or, in some cases, absolutely no scientific basis. On the other hand, the best NCCAM-supported studies have provided fruitful results, if not negative with regard to clinical outcomes.
The recent series of articles by Trine Tsouderos at the Chicago Tribune (1, 2, 3, 4) has reignited a national debate as to whether NCCAM is needed at all. After all, NCCAM was not because of science but because of politics, particularly the efforts of Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Dan Burton. And other NIH institutes, such as the National Cancer Institute, seem to do a much more rigorous and science-based job of funding studies of alternative cancer therapies through their unfortunately-named Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine, or OCCAM.
In fact, I have long argued that if alternative therapies are to be investigated rigorously, they should be done so under each of the specific NIH institutes and centers (ICs) that have been established to focus on organ systems (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; NIDDK) or a class of related disorders (National Institute on Drug Abuse; NIDA).
I’ve spent the last three weeks writing about a “brave maverick doctor” by the name of Stanislaw Burzynski who claims that he can cure cancers that regular oncologists cannot. He uses a combination of what he calls “antineoplastons” (which, it turns out, are more or less than the active metabolites of an orphan drug known as sodium phenylbutyrate) plus a very expensive cocktail of chemotherapy and targeted agents chosen in a haphazard fashion and thrown together with little rhyme or reason. This week, I had planned to move on. However, I felt that I had to mention the Burzynski saga because it provides me with the most appropriate segue to a topic I’ve been meaning to write about for a long time, possibly since this blog began. In fact, it’s about as perfect a framework as I can think of upon which to drape the points I want to make in this post.
What I will discuss is perhaps the most effective, devastating attack that proponents of quackery, woo, and nonsense aim at supporters of science-based medicine (SBM). As far as that is the case, it is not effective because it’s fact-based, evidence-based, or science-based. Far from it. Rather, it’s effective because it appeals to the emotions and very effectively demonizes SBM proponents to the point where they often have a hard time standing their ground when it is used. Sometimes, it preemptively prevents them from even speaking up in the first place. It’s a little tactic that I like to call the “compassion gambit,” which means trying to discredit critics of “alternative” medicine by painting them as cold, unfeeling, uncaring, arrogant monsters who want to hurt or kill children (and probably get a big smile on their faces when they torture puppies, to boot).
I have never belonged to the American Medical Association. As a student I didn’t want to pay the dues. As a practicing physician I am of the opinion that the AMA has two often mutually exclusive goals (promoting physician income and patient care) and they are doing both badly.
In the 1990’s the AMA entered into a contract with Sunbeam to get an AMA seal of approval for Sunbeam products, but due to objections the AMA backed out of the deal, in the end costing them almost 10 million dollars.
As was noted at the time:
“I think if we’d gone to trial,” Dr. Relman said on Saturday, ”probably a lot more relevant information would have been uncovered and made available to the membership. As a result of this settlement, we will never know the truth of what happened. It does not let the sun shine in.”
Yeah AMA. It is probably for good reason that only around 29% f of US physicians belong to the AMA; I have never seen them as representing me or my patients. Whether the AMA or physicians, I am automatically suspicious of any person or institution who puts their seal of approval on a product. I figure they are only doing it for the money. Not that there is anything wrong for that; I am for sale if anyone can meet my price. Trusting endorsements is like George Carlin’s (I think) observation that he did not like doing standup for stoners since you never know if was the act or the dope that lead to the laughter. I know celebrities are paid for their endorsements; it is not conflict of interest when it is your job to sell a product. At least actors say they only play a doctor on TV. But when professionals use their authority to recommend products, I would love to see a conflict of interest statement in the recommendation.
When I give a lecture I have to mention my conflicts of interest (COI)* and I have to specifically confirm or deny that I will mention products in which I have a financial interest^. The COI rules are nice, so you know, sort of, who has an interest in pleasing their corporate masters, although I suspect most doctors do not take COI statements seriously. At IDSA this year most of the speakers gave their COI statements with a short, dismissive sneer and a roll of the eyes. Me? Potentially Biased? Puh-please. (more…)