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Why science reporters should do their homework

One of the most significant medical advancements of the last few decades has been the use of cholesterol-lowering medications called statins.  These drugs, when used properly, have been shown over and over to lower the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and death.  But like all drugs, they have many effects, both those we like (preventing heart attacks) and those we don’t (in this case, rare liver and muscle problems); the latter we call “side-effects”.  Studies done on drugs before they hit the market can identify common side-effects, but it’s not until many more people are exposed for a long period of time that rare side-effects show up.

A recent Scientific American article wondered if one of these rare side-effects could be memory problems.  At first glance, the idea seems pretty improbable, but the SI article takes some sketchy anecdotes and runs with the idea, managing to cobble together an interesting hypothesis: (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Skeptically Speaking with Dr. Gorski

I have been very, very remiss about this, but I totally forgot to pimp my appearance a week and a half ago on Skeptically Speaking. Part of the reason was that I tend to be rather shy about interviews, and part of the reason was that I just plain forgot. Given our having dedicated this week to the discussion of vaccines on Science-Based Medicine, I thought it would be the perfect time to point out to Skeptically Speaking #82 Vaccines.

Posted in: Announcements, Vaccines

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A Shot in the Dark Revisited

Most shots in the dark miss. Scientists learn this early in their career – most of the guesses we make as to how things work will turn out to be wrong. In fact, a proper understanding of science requires thorough knowledge of all the ways in which humans deceive themselves into believing things that are not true. In fact, most shots in well-lit conditions (informed by prior knowledge) miss. Ignoring prior knowledge results in chances that are all but hopeless.

Therefore the title of the 1985 book DPT: A Shot in the Dark by Harris Coulter and Barbara Loe Fisher, is perhaps unintentionally ironic. The book sparked the first modern popular concern about the risk of neurological damage from vaccines, in this case the pertussis vaccine that is part of the DTP vaccine.Fisher, of the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) still promotes the book and its content, even though the science has progressed in the last 25 years.

At the time the whole cell pertussis vaccine was part of the diptheria, tetanus, pertussis vaccine (DTwP). This combination has been largely replaced with the DTaP vaccine, which contains an acellular pertussis component. This change was partly due to safety issues, rare cases of neurological disease (seizures and encephalopathy) following DTwP being given. DTaP has a lower incidence of fever, seizures, and other side effects.

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Posted in: Vaccines

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Journal Club Debunks Anti-Vaccine Myths

American Family Physician, the journal of the American Academy of Family Physicians, has a feature called AFP Journal Club, where physicians analyze a journal article that either involves a hot topic affecting family physicians or busts a commonly held medical myth. In the September 15, 2010 issue they discussed “Vaccines and autism: a tale of shifting hypotheses,” by Gerber and Offit, published in Clinical Infectious Diseases in 2009.  

The article presented convincing evidence to debunk 3 myths:

  1. MMR causes autism.
  2. Thimerosal (mercury) causes autism.
  3. Simultaneous administration of multiple vaccines overwhelms and weakens the immune system, triggering autism in a susceptible host.

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Posted in: Vaccines

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What does “anti-vaccine” really mean?

We write a lot about vaccines here at Science-Based Medicine. Indeed, as I write this, I note that there are 155 posts under the Vaccines category, with this post to make it 156. This is third only to Science and Medicine (which is such a vague, generic category that I’ve been seriously tempted to get rid of it, anyway) and Science and the Media. There is no doubt that vaccines represent one of the most common topics that we cover here on SBM, and with good reason. That good reason is that, compared to virtually any other modality used in the world of SBM, vaccines are under the most persistent attack from a vocal group of people, who, either because they mistakenly believe that vaccines caused their children’s autism, because they don’t like being told what to do by The Man, because they think that “natural” is always better to the point of thinking that it’s better to get a vaccine-preventable disease in order to achieve immunity than to vaccinate against it, or because a combination of some or all of the above plus other reasons, are anti-vaccine.

“Anti-vaccine.” We regularly throw that word around here at SBM — and, most of the time, with good reason. Many skeptics and defenders of SBM also throw that word around, again with good reason most of the time. There really is a shocking amount of anti-vaccine sentiment out there. But what does “anti-vaccine” really mean? What is “anti-vaccine”? Who is “anti-vaccine”?

Given that this is my first post for SBM’s self-declared Vaccine Awareness Week, proposed to counter Barbara Loe Fisher’s National Vaccine Information Center’s and Joe Mercola’s proposal that November 1-6 be designated “Vaccine Awareness Week” for the purpose of posting all sorts of pseudoscience and misinformation about “vaccine injury” and how dangerous vaccines supposedly are, we decided to try to coopt the concept for the purpose of countering the pseudoscience promoted by the anti-vaccine movement. To kick things off, I thought it would be a good idea to pontificate a bit on the topic of how to identify an anti-vaxer. What makes an anti-vaxer different from people who are simply skeptical of vaccines or skeptical of specific vaccines (for instance, the HPV vaccine)? I don’t pretend to have the complete answer, which is why I hope we’ll have a vigorous discussion in the comments.
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Vaccines

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Corporate pharma ethics and you

Although I’m one of the few non-clinicians writing here at SBM, I think about clinical trials a great deal – especially this week.

First, our colleague, Dr. David Gorski, had a superb analysis and highly-commented post on The Atlantic story by David H. Freedman about the work of John Ioannadis – more accurately, on Freedman’s misinterpretation of Ioannadis’s work and Dr. Gorski’s comments. While too rich to distill to one line, Dr. Gorski’s post struck me in that we who study the scientific basis of medicine actually change our minds when new data become available. That is a GoodThing – I want my physician to guide my care based on the latest data that challenges or proves incorrect previously held assumptions. However, this concept is not well-appreciated in a society that speaks in absolutes (broadly, not just with regard to medicine), expecting benefits with no assumption of risk or sacrifice in reaping those benefits. Indeed, the fact that we change our minds, evolving and refining disease prevention and treatment approaches, is how science and medicine move forward.

Then, I had the opportunity to hear an excellent talk on pharmaceutical bioethics by Ross E. McKinney, Jr., MD, Director of the Trent Center for Humanities, Bioethics, and History of Medicine at Duke University School of Medicine. McKinney is a pediatrics infectious disease specialist who led and published landmark Phase I and Phase II trials zidovudine (AZT) for pediatric AIDS patients. While he continues working in this realm, McKinney also studies clinical research ethics, conflicts of interest, and informed consent. I was absolutely fascinated and refreshed by hearing from an expert who while describing and citing major ethical lapses in our system of drug development is also willing to propose solutions and do the hard thinking required for us to maximize the benefits we derive from pharmaceuticals while minimizing unethical behavior.

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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Pharmaceuticals

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Fatigued by a Fake Disease

One of the realities of being a pharmacist is that we’re easily accessible. There’s no appointment necessary for consultation and advice at the pharmacy counter. Questions range from “Does this look infected?” (Yes) to “What should I do about this chest pain?” to more routine questions about conditions that can easily be self-treated. Part of the pharmacist’s role is triage — advising on conditions that can be self-managed, and making medical referrals when warranted. Among the most common questions I receive are related to stress and fatigue. Energy levels are are down, and patients want advice, and solutions. Some want a “quick fix,” believing that the right combination of B-vitamins are all that stand between them and unlimited energy. Others may ask if prescription drugs or caffeine tablets could help. Evaluating vague symptoms is a challenge. Many of us have busy lifestyles, and don’t get the sleep and exercise we need. We may compromise our diets in the interest of time and convenience. With some simple questions I might make a few basic lifestyle recommendations, talk about the evidence supporting supplements, and suggest physician follow-up if symptoms persist. Fatigue and stress may be part of life, but they’re also symptoms of serious medical conditions. But they can be hard to treat because they’re non-specific and may not be easily distinguishable from the fatigue of, well, life.

This same vague collection of symptoms is called something entirely different in the alternative health world. It’s branded “adrenal fatigue,” an invented condition that’s widely embraced as real among alternative health providers. There’s no evidence that adrenal fatigue actually exists. The public education arm of the Endocrine Society, representing 14,000 endocrinologists, recently issued the following advisory:

“Adrenal fatigue” is not a real medical condition. There are no scientific facts to support the theory that long-term mental, emotional, or physical stress drains the adrenal glands and causes many common symptoms.

Unequivocal words. But facts about adrenal fatigue neatly illustrate why a science-based approach is a consumer’s best protection against being diagnosed with a fake disease. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Blog Discussion with an SBM Critic

Over the last couple of days I have been engaged at NeuroLogica in a discussion with a fellow blogger, Marya Zilberberg who blogs at Healthcare, etc. Since the topic of discussion is science-based medicine I thought it appropriate to reproduce my two posts here, which contain links to her posts.

A Post-Modernist Response to Science-Based Medicine

I receive frequent commentary on my public writing, which is great. The feature that most distinguishes blogs is that they are conversations. So I am glad to see that science-based medicine (a term I coined) is getting targeted for criticism in other blogs. One blogger, Marya Zilberberg at Healthcare, etc., has written a series of posts responding to what she thinks is our position at Science-based medicine. What she has done, however, is make many of the logical fallacies typically committed in defense of unscientific medical modalities and framed them as one giant straw man.

She is partly responding to this article of mine on SBM (What’s the harm) in which I make the point that medicine is a risk vs benefit game. Ethical responsible medical practice involves interventions where there is at least the probability of doing more benefit than harm with proper informed consent, so the patient knows what those chances are. Using scientifically dubious treatments, where there is little or no chance of benefit, especially when they are overhyped, is therefore unethical. And further, the “harm” side of the equation needs to include all forms of harm, not just direct physical harm.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Energy Bracelets: Embedding Frequencies in Holograms for Fun and Profit

A salesman is demonstrating a new product at a sports store in the local mall. He has a customer stand with his arms extended horizontally to the sides; he presses down on an arm and the customer starts to fall over. Then he puts a bracelet on the customer and repeats the test; this time he is apparently unable to make the customer lose his balance. He has the customer turn his head as far as he can without the bracelet, and shows that he can turn his head a few degrees more after he puts on the bracelet. (Try this yourself: if you turn your head, wait a couple of seconds and try again, you will always be able to turn it further on the second trial). He similarly shows that the customer is stronger when he wears the bracelet. The customer and the onlookers are mightily impressed by the demonstration, by the salesman’s testimonials, and by the endorsements of famous athletes: they buy the bracelets to improve their athletic performance.

These so-called energy bracelets (also pendants and cards) allegedly contain a hologram embedded with frequencies that react positively with your body’s energy field to improve your balance, strength, flexibility, energy, and sports performance; and they also offer all sorts of other benefits (such as helping horses and birds and relieving menstrual cramps and headaches). The claims and the language on their websites are so blatantly pseudoscientific it’s hard to believe anyone would fall for them. Here are just a few examples from the Power Balance website:

  • We react with frequency because we are a frequency.
  • Your body’s energy field likes things that are good for it.
  • Why Holograms? We use holograms because they are composed of Mylar—a polyester film used for imprinting music, movies, pictures, and other data. Thus, it was a natural fit.
  • A primitive form of this technology was discovered when someone, somewhere along the line, picked up a rock and felt something that reacted positively with his body.

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Posted in: Energy Medicine

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Lies, damned lies, and…science-based medicine?

I realize that in the question-and-answer session after my talk at the Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium a week ago I suggested in response to a man named Leon Maliniak, who monopolized the first part of what was already a too-brief Q&A session by expounding on the supposed genius of Royal Rife, that I would be doing a post about the Rife Machine soon. And so I probably will; such a post is long overdue at this blog, and I’m surprised that no one’s done one after nearly three years. However, as I arrived back home in the Detroit area Tuesday evening, I was greeted by an article that, I believe, requires a timely response. (No, it wasn’t this article, although responding to it might be amusing even though it’s a rant against me based on a post that is two and a half years old.) Rather, this time around, the article is in the most recent issue of The Atlantic and on the surface appears to be yet another indictment of science-based medicine, this time in the form of a hagiography of Greek researcher John Ioannidis. The article, trumpeted by Tara Parker-Pope, comes under the heading of “Brave Thinkers” and is entitled Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science. It is being promoted in news stories like this, where the story is spun as indicating that medical science is so flawed that even the cell-phone cancer data can’t be trusted:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Let me mention two things before I delve into the meat of the article. First, these days I’m not nearly as enamored of The Atlantic as I used to be. I was a long-time subscriber (at least 20 years) until last fall, when The Atlantic published an article so egregiously bad on the H1N1 vaccine that our very own Mark Crislip decided to annotate it in his own inimitable fashion. That article was so awful that I decided not to renew my subscription; it is to my shame that I didn’t find the time to write a letter to The Atlantic explaining why. Fortunately, this article isn’t as bad (it’s a mixed bag, actually, making some good points and then undermining some of them by overreaching), although it does lay on the praise for Ioannidis and the attacks on SBM a bit thick. Be that as it may, clearly The Atlantic has developed a penchant for “brave maverick doctors” and using them to cast doubt on science-based medicine. Second, I actually happen to love John Ioannidis’ work, so much so that I’ve written about it at least twice over the last three years, including The life cycle of translational research and Does popularity lead to unreliability in scientific research?, where I introduced the topic using Ioannidis’ work. Indeed, I find nothing at all threatening to me as an advocate of science-based medicine in Ioannidis’ two most famous papers, Contradicted and Initially Stronger Effects in Highly Cited Clinical Research and Why Most Published Research Findings Are False. The conclusions of these papers to me are akin to concluding that water is wet and everybody dies. It is, however, quite good that Ioannidis is there to spell out these difficulties with SBM, because he tries to keep us honest.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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