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Science under Siege

A new book, Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience addresses many of the issues near and dear to the hearts of SBM bloggers and readers. A compilation of some of the best writing from the last few years of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, it’s not only good reading but can serve as a useful reference.

Skeptical Inquirer is the official magazine of what was formerly called The Committee for the Skeptical Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). It was formed in 1976 and in its early days it concentrated on things like Bigfoot, UFOs and psychics. It has morphed into the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the magazine is now described on its cover as “The Magazine for Science and Reason.” It has gone way beyond paranormal claims to address everything from intelligent design to AIDS denial. In the 3 decades of its existence it has performed an invaluable service by investigating alleged phenomena and testing claims scientifically, providing natural explanations for weird observations, refuting pseudoscientific arguments, and teaching people how science works and how to think critically.

We now have many skeptical magazines, including Michael Shermer’s Skeptic in the US and similarly named publications in the UK, Australia and elsewhere. But Skeptical Inquirer was the first. It was the trailblazer and set the standard.

The word “skeptic” has negative connotations for some. But it is really a positive, inquisitive, reality-based approach to all aspects of life. A skeptic is a person who asks for evidence before accepting a belief and who asks if there could be another explanation other than the first one that is offered. Scientists are skeptics. Skeptics think scientifically. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews

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How do scientists become cranks and doctors quacks?

As a physician and scientists who’s dedicated his life to the application of science to the development of better medical treatments, I’ve often wondered how formerly admired scientists and physicians fall into pseudoscience or even generate into out-and-out cranks. Examples are numerous and depressing to contemplate. For example, there’s Linus Pauling, a highly respected chemist and Nobel Laureate, who in his later years became convinced that high dose vitamin C could cure cancer. Indeed, Pauling’s belief that high dose vitamin C could cure the common cold and cancer fueled the development of a whole new form of quackery known as “orthomolecular medicine,” whose entire philosophy seems to be based on the concept that if some vitamins are good more must be better. In essence, “orthomolecular medicine” is a parody of nutritional science; indeed, its advocates take credit for how some strains of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) so frequently advocate the ingestion of huge amounts of dietary “supplements.” I could even go farther and say that orthomolecular medicine is clearly a major part of the “intellectual” (and I do use that term loosely) underpinning of the various biomedical treatments for autism that Jenny McCarthy and Generation Rescue advcoate.

There are other examples as well, all just as depressing to contemplate. For example, consider Peter Duesberg, a brilliant virologist who in the 1980s was widely believed to be on track for a Nobel Prize; that is, until he became fixated on the idea that HIV does not cause AIDS. True, lately he’s been trying to resurrect his scientific reputation with his interesting and possibly even promising chromosomal aneuploidy hypothesis of cancer, but, alas, true to form he’s been doing it by acting like a crank. Specifically, he sees his hypothesis as The One True Cause of Cancer and disparages conventional thinking as having been so very, very wrong all these years (with his being, of course, so very, very brilliant that he saw what no one else could see). Then there are people like Dr. Lorraine Day, who was a respected academic orthopedic surgeon in the 1980s. In the late 1980s, she started to flirt with AIDS pseudoscience through a scare campaign about catching AIDS from aerosolized blood. Of course, given the mystery and fear over HIV in the early years of the epidemic, such a fear, although overblown, was not so far out of the mainstream as to be worthy of the appellation crank. However, after being diagnosed with breast cancer, unfortunately Dr. Day rapidly degenerated into a purveyor of rank pseudoscience, as well as a New World Order conspiracy theorist, religious loon, and Holocaust denier. And let’s not forget Mark Geier, who, although not a distinguished scientist, did, before his conversion to antivaccinationism, apparently do a real fellowship at the NIH and appeared to be on track to a respectable, maybe even impressive, career as an academic physician. Now he’s doing “research” in his basement, injecting autistic children with a powerful anti-sex hormone drug and abusing epidemiology. There are innumerable other examples.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Health Fraud, Science and Medicine

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Is translational research impaired by an emphasis on basic science?

Sharon Begley, the Science Editor for Newsweek, wrote about translational research in the latest issue, and the tone of the essay reminded me of Begley’s previous piece on comparative-effectiveness research. Being an MD/PhD student (just defended!) I am very interested in the process of communicating “from bench to bedside.” New to science as I may be, I found Begley’s arguments to be overly simplistic and short-sighted. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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“Acupuncture Anesthesia”: a Proclamation from Chairman Mao (Part III)

A Digression: The Politics of Chinese Medicine in the People’s Republic of China (The Early Years)

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A Partial Book Review: Chinese Medicine in Early Communist China, 1945-63: a Medicine of Revolution, by Kim Taylor

Mao’s was a complex personality. He was by nature a control freak, highly secretive, quickly suspicious, ruthless in revenge. These were all personal characteristics that were to determine the flow of politics in early Communist China. (Taylor, p. 4)

We have already seen that attempts to create ‘acupuncture anesthesia’ began in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1958. As suggested by the title of this series, this resulted from neither rigorous research nor the serendipity that occasionally heralds important discoveries. Rather, the apparent prominence of acupuncture in health care in the PRC was a matter of governmental fiat. Even before the Communist victory in 1949, it was clear to Chairman Mao Zedong that there were not enough ‘Western’ trained physicians to handle the massive health problems of the country, which included an infant mortality rate of 1 in 5, an overall death rate of 30 per 1000 per year, and widespread disability. Most of this was due to malnutrition and infectious diseases, including many that sound exotic and ominous to the modern ear:

…schistosomiasis, filariasis, ancyclostomiasis, Kala-azar, encephalitis, plague, malaria, smallpox and venereal disease…measles, dysentery, typhoid, diphtheria, trachoma, tuberculosis, leprosy, goitre, Kaschin-Beck’s disease…(Taylor, p. 103)

Pre-scientific Chinese medicine, acupuncture in particular, was identified by Mao and other Communist leaders as worthy of cultivating:

Our nation’s health work teams are large. They have to concern themselves with over five hundred million people [including the] young, old, and ill. This is a huge enterprise, and one that is extremely important. Thus our responsibility weighs heavily…At present, doctors of Western medicine are few [10,000-20,000], and [thus] the broad masses of the people, and in particular the peasants, rely on Chinese medicine to treat illness. Therefore, we must strive for the complete unification of Chinese medicine. –Mao Zedong, 1950, quoted in Taylor (p. 33)

Taylor writes that there may have been 500,000 doctors of ‘Chinese Medicine’ at the time. It is tempting to conclude that Mao’s call for the ‘unification of Chinese medicine’ was a cynical way to make it appear that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could provide adequate health care in a much shorter time than would be required to train sufficient numbers of modern physicians and to build and equip modern facilities. This is undoubtedly true, but Taylor argues that there were additional considerations:

…Mao evidently saw the profession of Chinese medicine not so much as a therapeutic practice, but more as a large, and therefore significant, body of people. Mao’s support of Chinese medicine during this time can be linked to a concern for adequate health care manpower, and by extrapolation, to a concern for social stability. If the Chinese medical practitioners were ignored and not forcibly, as it were, integrated into the new Communist society, and if their medicine was not encouraged, it would mean hundreds of thousands of people would be without a livelihood. Including their dependents, this would mean that there would be hundreds of thousands of people without any means of support. It is likely that Mao interpreted the more serious problem to be one of economics, and the importance of keeping people usefully employed within society, rather than the dangers of supporting a potentially ineffective medicine. (Taylor, p. 35)

Mao also wrote:

Although we should have an all-round and correct understanding of Chinese medicine, Chinese medicine also has to transform itself. We must accept this slice of our old heritage critically. To look down upon Chinese medicine is not correct. To claim that everything about Chinese medicine is good, or too good, this is also not correct. Chinese and Western medicines must unite. (Mao Zedung, 1954, quoted in Taylor, p. 35)

Thus there was, according to Taylor, to be a ‘scientification’ of Chinese medicine. This did not mean ‘scientific’ in the familiar sense:

In Mao’s definition of this ‘new democratic culture’, he was to use three words which were to describe its development. These were ‘new’ (xin), ‘science’ (kexue), and ‘unity’ (tuanjie). The term ‘new’ implied free from superstition and the heavy links to a feudal past. Instead the components of the new culture would have to be forward moving and enterprising. Mao advocated that such a change would be possible through the use of ‘science’. By ‘science’ Mao was not so much referring to the science linked with the Western investigation of nature, but more to the Marxist ideal of science as the criteria for true knowledge. For Mao stated that ‘this type of new democratic culture is scientific. It is opposed to all feudal and superstitious ideas; it stands for seeking truth from facts, it stands for objective truth and for unity between theory and practice’. ‘Unity’ was the third criterion in the building up of a new China. Everybody had to join together and fight for the same cause, and this included all classes of Chinese society, from the upper bourgeoisie to the peasantry, so long as their beliefs were not against those of the Party. It also implied a unity of knowledge, and this had particular implications for the revolutionary intellectual. (Taylor, pp. 15-16)

In other words, as Mao later asserted,

In the future there will be only one medicine; that is to say a [single] medicine guided by the laws of dialectical materialism, and not two [separate] medicines. (Quoted in Taylor, p. 35)

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Book & movie reviews, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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Politics as Ususal

POLITICS. We have a tacit understanding to exclude politics from the blog, but current events are pushing the borders.  It’s not our fault, other forces are on the move. At the border last year was the Iraqi civilian body count issue precipitated by articles in The Lancet. That’s when politics intrudes into medical research and literature.

Other borders are matters of licensure, and of permitted and rejected methods and materials, encoded into licensure, food and drug laws, and a myriad of administrative edicts and court decisions.  One can’t escape the politics of those, especially when Congress and states start to control as commercial entities, areas that historically belong in culture: professional behavior codes, codes of traditional relationships between physicians and patients, for instance. These are under further pressures of conformity and legal sanctions enforced by the power of central government.

Steve  Salerno (web site: www.journalismpro.com, blog: www.shamblog.com), author of the WSJ article on “CAM” and the NCCAM last December that precipitated the Chopra, and Co. responses, brought to attention a recent House hearing at which Congr. Riley (D, Ohio) queried Sec. Sibelius whether she was aware of “mindful meditation” as a cost-saving method that should be included in any federal health plan.

Here we go again. Ten to 15 years ago it was Sen. Harkin legislating research and practice from halls of Congress resulting in the Office of Alternative Medicine and NCCAM. That legislation resulted in financed medical school courses, multiple more lectures and demonstrations, and now med school divisions with endowed chairs, scores to hundreds of employed associates, and with little to no scientific feedback or oversight.
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Posted in: Health Fraud, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media

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Counterfeit Drugs: A Growing Global Health Crisis

A resistant strain of bacteria –created by partially effective counterfeit antibiotics – doesn’t need a VISA and passport to get to the U.S.

-    Paul Orhii, National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, Nigeria

I attended a conference in DC yesterday called, “The Global Impact of Fake Medicine.” Although I had initially wondered if homeopathy and the supplement industry would be the subjects of discussion, I quickly realized that there was another world of medical fraud that I hadn’t previously considered: counterfeit pharmaceuticals.

Just as designer goods have low-cost knock-offs, so too do pharmaceuticals and medical devices. Unfortunately, counterfeit medical products are a higher risk proposition – perhaps causing the death of hundreds of thousands of people worldwide each year.

It is difficult to quantify the international morbidity and mortality toll of counterfeit drugs – there have been no comprehensive global studies to determine the prevalence and collateral damage of the problem.  But I found these data points of interest (they were in the slide decks presented at the conference):
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Posted in: Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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Science is hard, and best left to professionals (the same may be said for journalism)

It might seem a bit undemocratic, but science, like medicine or dentistry, is a profession. One doesn’t become a scientist by fiat but by education and training. I am not a scientist. I apply science. My colleague Dr. Gorski is a scientist (as well as physician). He understands in a way that I never will the practical process of science—funding, experimental design, statistics. While I can read and understand scientific studies in my field, I cannot design and run them (but I probably could in a limited way with some additional training). Even reading and understanding journal articles is difficult, and actually takes training (which can be terribly boring, but I sometimes teach it anyway).

So when I read a newspaper article about science or medicine, I usually end up disappointed—sometimes with the science, and sometimes with the reporting. A recent newspaper article made me weep for both. Local newspapers serve an important role in covering news in smaller communities, and are often jumping off points for young, talented journalists. Or sometimes, not so much.

The article was in the Darien (CT) Times. The headline reads, in part, “surveys refute national Lyme disease findings.” Epidemiologic studies, such as surveys, are very tricky. They require a firm grounding in statistics, among other things. You must know what kind of question to ask, how many people to ask, how to choose these people, etc, etc, etc. So what institution conducted this groundbreaking survey on Lyme disease?
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Posted in: Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Connecticut Legislature Intrudes on Debate Over Chronic Lyme Disease

The tick borne spirochete infection known as Lyme disease was named after Lyme, CT – a part of the country where the disease remains endemic. It is therefore especially poignant that the Connecticut state senate unanimously passed Public Act No. 09-128: AN ACT CONCERNING THE USE OF LONG-TERM ANTIBIOTICS FOR THE TREATMENT OF LYME DISEASE.The bill had previously passed the state House, also unanimously.

This is a terrible bill that is both anti-science and anti-consumer protection. How it passed both houses without dissent reflects exactly why such micro-management decisions should not be made by politicians.  It is the result of lobbying by a narrow interest group and does not reflect either the state of the science on Lyme disease nor the proper role of regulation to ensure standards of care within medicine.

This is also not an isolated case. There is already a similar law in Rhode Island, and there have been similar bills proposed in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York, and a bill in Maryland that would compel insurance companies to pay for antibiotic treatment for chronic Lyme disease CLD.   This is part of a coordinated effort by individuals and organizations who hold an ideological opinion regarding the cause and treatment of CLD. They wish to use the political process to win a victory for their view that they have been unable to win in the arena of science (sound familiar).

The bill now awaits Governor Rell’s signature, which given the heavy political support for this bill seems almost certain.

This bill represents much which is wrong with the state of science and medicine in the US.

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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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What is disease? Diabetes, diagnosis, and real science

ResearchBlogging.orgOne of the concepts we often discuss around here is “what is disease?” As we’ve seen in the discussion of Lyme disease and so-called Morgellons syndrome, this is not always an easy question to answer. Knowing what states are disease states does not always yield a black-or-white answer. The first step is usually to define what a disease is. The next problem is to decide who in fact has that disease. The first question is hard enough, especially in disease states that we don’t understand too well. The second question can be equally tricky. To explore the scientific and philosophical issues of diagnosing an illness we will use as a model diabetes mellitus (DM). This won’t be quite as boring as you think, so don’t click away yet. (Most of the information here refers more specifically to type II diabetes, but most of it is valid for type I as well.) (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Vaccines and Autism: A Deadly Manufactroversy

I was recently asked to write about vaccines and autism for Skeptic magazine. I approached the project with trepidation. So much has been written, from Paul Offit’s book Autism’s False Prophets to a veritable flood of blogorrhea on the Internet. I didn’t have anything new to add, and I couldn’t hope to cover all aspects of the subject.

After some thought, I realized I could contribute something useful. I could organize the highlights into a concise and accessible story. While it awaits publication in the magazine, Michael Shermer elected to pre-publish it in the e-Skeptic newsletter. You can read it here.

Posted in: Vaccines

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