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A Science Lesson from a Homeopath and Behavioral Optometrist

Charlene Werner is getting a lot of attention she probably did not anticipate or desire. She is the star of a YouTube video in which she explains the scientific basis of homeopathy. Before you watch it, make sure you are sitting down, relax, and brace yourself for an onslaught of profound scientific illiteracy combined with stunning arrogance. For those with more delicate constitutions I will give you the quick summary:

Einstein taught us that energy equals matter and light, but because matter can be condensed down to a very small space if you remove all the empty space between the elementary particles (I am paraphrasing to make her statements minimally coherent), we can mostly ignore matter. Therefore energy is light, and we are all made of energy – not matter (or at least so little matter, you can ignore it). Stephen Hawking then came up with string theory, which tells us that all matter (which we can ignore) is made of vibrating strings. Therefore we are made of vibrating energy. All diseases are therefore caused by unhealthy vibrational states, and all disease can be treated by returning the body to a previous healthy vibrational state. This can be done with homeopathy, which extracts the vibrational energy out of stuff and places it in a small pill that can be used at any time.

Got it? This is now my favorite example of meaningless pseudobabble from a CAM proponent. Also, I am not picking on some unrepresentative crank – this is as good as homeopathy gets. Werner may be more clumsy and fumbling than more eloquent homeopathy proponents, but when you strip it down, magical vibrations is what you get. But Werner does a fabulous job of exposing the gaping holes is homeopathic nonsense.

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Posted in: Homeopathy, Ophthalmology, Science and Medicine

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The effective wordsmithing of Amy Wallace

One of the most engaging and clearly-written pieces of science journalism over the last year or so was published in Wired magazine last week. Now in the midst of a firestorm of attention, Amy Wallace’s, “An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All,” is part interview with rotavirus vaccine developer, pediatric infectious disease physician and immunologist, Dr Paul Offit, and description of the anti-vaccination movement in the United States.

Wallace’s work is the centerpiece of a masterful collection of smaller articles providing science-based information about vaccination that also refuts common anti-vaccination myths including “How To Win An Argument About Vaccines” and “The Misinformants: Prominent Voices in the Anti-Vaccine Crusade”.

Wired’s follow-up discussion of the issue includes, “A Short History of Vaccine Panic,” for those of us who “have a day job” and not enough time to read Paul Offit’s 2008 book, “Autism’s False Prophets.”
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Posted in: Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Military Medicine in Iraq

 Doctors get a lot of flak these days without ever going near a battle zone. They are bombarded with accusations of not caring about their patients, of being shills for Big Pharma, of being motivated by money, of killing patients with medical errors and drug side effects. In addition, they are bombarded with claims that non-scientific medical systems (so-called alternative medicine, from chiropractic to Ayurveda) offer greater benefits to patients. 

It was a delight to read a new book   about a doctor who was exposed to real flak in Iraq. His story is a wonderful reminder of how effective modern medicine is and it is an eye-opener about the selfless dedication of doctors who put themselves in harm’s way; who accept lower incomes, separation from families, and poor living conditions; who care desperately about their patients; and who magnanimously apply the same skills to treating friend and foe. 

The title is Coppola: A Pediatric Surgeon in Iraq. The author, Chris Coppola, is an Air Force pediatric surgeon who was twice deployed to Balad Air Base, 50 miles north of Baghdad, as a trauma surgeon. In his first night on call, he treats the five worst gunshot injuries he has ever seen – and they are all in the same patient! Despite serious damage to liver, colon, small intestine, pancreas, duodenum, vena cava and spine, the patient, a 22 year old Iraqi policeman, recovers. As the foreword of the book explains, the survival rate for troops injured in the field was 20% in WWI, 40% in WWII, 66% in Viet Nam, and is now an astounding 97% in Iraq. Lessons learned in war are translated to civilian trauma care and we all benefit from the knowledge however much we may deplore the war. 

No subluxations were adjusted, no qi manipulated, no acupuncture points stimulated, no homeopathic or herbal medicines given. Beside numbers like these, alternative medicine looks pretty puny and irrelevant. And the Air Force’s initiative to train doctors in battlefield acupuncture looks frankly delusional.  (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews

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A Not-So-Split Decision

For those who battle tirelessly against the never ending onslaught of anti-vaccine propaganda, misinformation, and fear, there was great news the other day from Merck. The pharmaceutical company, and maker of the MMR vaccine against measles, mumps, and rubella, has decided not to resume production of the individual, or “split”, components of the vaccine. A Merck representative made the announcement during a meeting of the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) on Tuesday. During previous ACIP meetings, science experts on that committee presented compelling arguments against  continued, large scale production of the monovalent components of the MMR vaccine, which were echoed by scientists in Merck’s vaccine division. In a moment, I’ll discuss the arguments against the split vaccine, and why this is so important a decision. First, some background on the issue of splitting the MMR.
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Posted in: Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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A science-based blog about GMO

Much time, money, and ink is spent in our culture obsessing over what foods are “good” or “bad” for health. Oftentimes such claims are out of proportion with available evidence, perhaps based on reasonable-sounding theories but not so much on convincing data. Here are a few examples of SBM bloggers addressing food and diet: 1, 2, 3, 4.

An interesting subset of food claims relate to the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMO) in the food chain, safety both for individuals and for ecosystems. I’d like to recommend SBM readers to a blog called Biofortified written by graduate students and scientists in plant genetics. The Biofortified bloggers explain hot topics and controversies in genetic engineering, attempting to cut through the wild propoganda in favor of calm science. The authors tend to be more pro-GMO than not—perhaps unsurprising since their careers are spent studying them—but they strike me as quite reasonable in their support. Here are a few posts I liked: on fears about GE crops, on food labels, on anecdotal health claims, on gene patents, on smoking your vaccines someday.

Today is a particularly good time for you to check out Biofortified because they are competing in the Ashoka Changemakers “GMO: Risk or Rescue?” contest. According to Karl, a grad student who writes on Biofortified, theirs is the only “pro-science” group in the running. The prize includes a nice grant and an opportunity to have a conversation with author Michael Pollan. If you like the blog enough to vote for them by this Wednesday 10/28 at 6pm EST, see details about the contest here.

Posted in: Genetically modified organisms (GMOs)

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Suzanne Somers’ Knockout: Dangerous misinformation about cancer (part 1)

If there’s one thing I’ve become utterly disgusted with in the time since I first became interested in science-based medicine as a concept, its promotion, and the refutation of quackery and medical pseudoscience, it’s empty-brained celebrities with an agenda. Be it from imbibing the atmosphere within the bubble of woo-friendly southern California or taking a crash course at the University of Google and, through the arrogance of ignorance, concluding that they know more than scientists who have devoted their lives to studying a problem, celebrities believing in and credulously promoting pseudoscience present a special problem because of the oversized soapboxes they command. Examples abound. There’s Bill Maher promoting anti-vaccine pseudoscience, germ theory denialism, and cancer quackery on his show Real Time with Bill Maher and getting the Richard Dawkins Award from the Atheist Alliance International in spite of his antiscience stances on vaccines and what he sneeringly calls “Western medicine.” Then there are, of course, the current public faces of the anti-vaccine movement, Jenny McCarthy and her boyfriend Jim Carrey, the former of whom thinks it’s just hunky dory (or at least doesn’t appear to be the least bit troubled) that her efforts are contributing to the return of vaccine-preventable infectious diseases because she apparently thinks that’s what it will take to make the pharmaceutical companies change their “shit” product (her words), and the latter of whom spreads conspiracy theories about vaccines and contempt on people suffering from restless leg syndrome. Finally, there’s the grand macher of celebrity woo promotion, Oprah Winfrey, who routinely promotes all manner of medical pseudoscience, be it “bioidentical” hormones, the myth that vaccines cause autism (even hiring Jenny McCarthy to do a blog and develop a talk show for her company Harpo Productions), or other nonsense, such as Christiane Northrup urging Oprah viewers to focus their qi to their vaginas for better sex.

Unfortunately, last week the latest celebrity know-nothing to promote health misinformation released a brand new book and has been all over the airwaves, including The Today Show, Larry King Live, and elsewhere promoting it. Yes, I’m talking about Suzanne Somers, formerly known for her testimonial of having “rejected chemotherapy and tamoxifen” for her breast cancer, as well as her promotion of “bioidentical hormones,” various exercise devices such as the Thighmaster and all manner of supplements. Her book is entitled Knockout: Interviews with Doctors Who Are Curing Cancer–And How to Prevent Getting It in the First Place. It is described on the Random House website thusly:
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Cancer, Science and the Media

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“Methodolatry”: My new favorite term for one of the shortcomings of evidence-based medicine

I’d like to thank revere right now publicly. He’s taught me a new word:

Methodolatry: The profane worship of the randomized clinical trial as the only valid method of investigation.

Many of you have e-mailed me and other SBM bloggers about a recent article in The Atlantic by Shannon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer, two reporters whose particular bias is that we as a nation are “over treated.” That may be true, although not to the extent that Brownlee, at least, seems to think, and her article on swine flu was truly biased and painful to read. Moreover, “methodalatry” perfectly describes one of the complaints we at SBM have about the “evidence-based medicine” paradigm. So I’m really glad that revere took it on and demolished it.

The hero of The Atlantic article, Tom Jefferson clearly has an agenda about flu vaccines. Indeed, he has such an agenda that he was invited to the National Vaccine Information Center’s vaccine conference in early October. The NVIC is the oldest and biggest antivaccine organization there is. Either he didn’t know that, in which case he’s clueless, or he didn’t care. In any case, it was clear that he was invited there because of his stance on flu vaccination, and he was even going to be awarded the NVIC “Courage in Science” Award. To his credit, Jefferson backed out when he found out that he would be sharing the stage with Andrew Wakefield, who was to be given the NVIC “Humanitarian Award.” He was appropriately horrified. Still, he should never have accepted in the first place, given that the NVIC clearly wanted to coopt him and use his gadfly status to make its anti-vaccine stance seem reasonable and science-based.

That’s just one reason why I don’t take Tom Jefferson particularly seriously anymore. I tend to agree with revere that Jefferson is drifting perilously close to crank territory with respect to flu vaccines. Indeed, “methodolatry” is an awesome term to describe his approach. Actually, it’s a great term to describe some of the Cochrane scientists responsible for analyzing the efficacy of mammography screening, as well; their conclusions and methods rather remind me of Jefferson’s.

Finally, you might also want to reread (or read for the first time if you haven’t read it already) Mark Crislip’s article on flu vaccine efficacy, which, although not directly written in response to Brownlee’s article, does address many of the shortcomings in its analysis of H1N1 vaccine efficacy.

Posted in: Science and Medicine, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Journalist fails but science wins during flu pandemic

The Atlantic has a monumentally horrible article up about flu vaccination which has been buzzing around our bloggy back channels. There has been some good science reporting out there lately, but this ain’t it. I was hoping one of the best public health blogs would jump on this, and jump on it they did.  It is a terrific example of how to approach difficult data in the heat of a pandemic. This is your reading assignment for the weekend, and you can probably finish up before the Michigan game.  Go and read (and Go Blue!).

Posted in: Science and the Media

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Hi Ho Silver

I was making rounds at the hospital and, for some strange reason, I was being asked about influenza. No, this is not going to be an entry on influenza. But I was asked if there was anything besides the vaccines that can prevent influenza.  Masks and good hand washing will help, I said.

Anything else?

A nurse suggested colloidal silver.
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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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A Case Study In Aggressive Quackery Marketing

With some degree of sadness I recently “outed” a former co-resident of mine who has turned to the dark side and begun putting money-making before truth and science. Without any clear evidence of benefit beyond placebo, platelet-rich plasma (PRP) is now being marketed aggressively as a cure-all for sports injuries. And at about $300 per injection (the NYT reports $2000/treatment), there’s plenty of money to be made.

Like the fake “stem cell” clinics in Russia (where, according to Sanjay Gupta’s recent book, Chasing Life, a person’s fat cells are harvested, washed, and re-injected into their blood stream), PRP also involves injection of autologous body fluids. Essentially, a small amount of blood is drawn from the patient, centrifuged, and the plasma supernatant is then injected directly into tendons and/or joints. After a series of 3 injections (one/month), most sports injuries are “cured.” Of course, most injuries would heal themselves in three months anyway. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Dentistry, Health Fraud, Surgical Procedures

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