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“The Disappearing Male” – A Pinch of Science, a Pound of Speculation

A documentary film entitled “The Disappearing Male” was first shown on CBC in June, 2009. It can be viewed online here.

Some of its rhetoric is reminiscent of Chicken Little:

  • “Where have all the boys gone?”
  • “Millions of males are disappearing.”
  • “We’re on the Titanic and we see the iceberg but we just can’t turn the ship.”
  • “It may be a threat to the survival of the species.”

The claims behind the rhetoric are that male to female sex ratios at birth are decreasing, sperm quality and fertility are decreasing, and genitourinary birth defects like hypospadias are becoming more common. The film blames environmental chemicals, especially endocrine disruptors, and it claims they are causing “the most rapid period of evolution our species has ever seen” and that this may lead to our extinction. (more…)

Posted in: Science and the Media

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If you’re sick, even the ridiculous can seem sublime

Let’s say you have cancer. And let’s say you’re really, really sick of having cancer. And let’s say that you’re also pretty tired of scans, chemo, radiation, hair loss, nausea. And let’s say you’re not really sick and tired of living, but actually pretty happy to be alive.

Finally, let’s say someone says that they can get rid of your cancer, without all of those pesky side-effects. It’s a win-win, no?

No.

It’s easy to believe in promises that are congruent with our wishes. That’s what makes human beings so easy to deceive. A case in point is the VIBE Machine, a discredited quackery device. This thing was marketed until about a year ago. Not surprisingly, Orac has written about this thing in his Friday Dose of Woo. Stephen Barrett, the King of Quack-Busters, has also tracked the sordid history of this rip-off. The device was recalled back in 2008, so this shouldn’t even be a story anymore, except that word of the device still circulates among cancer patients and their friends. The company’s website is down, which is good, but this thing is still out there.

At least one website is still promoting it in detail. The website is, needless to say, a whole lot of words that make no sense: (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Health Fraud, Science and Medicine

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“There must be a reason,” or how we support our own false beliefs

ResearchBlogging.orgFor a change of pace, I want to step back from medicine for this post, although, as you will see (I hope), the study I’m going to discuss has a great deal of relevance to the topics covered regularly on this blog. One of the most frustrating aspects of being a skeptic and championing science-based medicine is just how unyielding belief in pseudscience is. Whatever realm of science in which there is pseudoscience I wander into, I find beliefs that simply will not yield to science or reason. Whether it be creationism, quackery such as homeopathy, the anti-vaccine movement, the “9/11 Truth” movement, moon hoaxers, or any of a number of pseudoscientific movements and conspiracy theories, any skeptic who ventures into discussions of such a topic with believers will become very frustrated very fast. It takes a lot of tenacity to keep going back to the well to argue the same points over and over again and refute the same nonsense you’ve refuted over and over again. Many do not have sufficient stick-to-it-iveness, leading them to throw up their hands and withdraw from the fight.

Although some of us here have blamed this phenomenon on “cultishness” and, make no mistake, I do think that there is an element of that in many of these movement, particularly the anti-vaccine movements, cultishness alone can’t explain why people hold on so hard to beliefs that are clearly not supported by science or evidence, such as the belief that vaccines are responsible for an “autism epidemic.” Then last week, what should pop up in the newsfeeds that I regularly monitor but a rather interesting article in Science Daily entitled How We Support Our False Beliefs. It was a press release about a study1 that appeared a few months ago in Sociological Inquiry, and the the study was described thusly:
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Oriental Medicine or Medical Orientalism?

The following is the second adapted excerpt of an upcoming article called “The Untold Story of Acupuncture.” It is scheduled to be published in December 2009 in Focus in Alternative and Complementary Therapies (FACT), a review journal that presents the evidence on alternative medicine in an analytical and impartial manner. This section argues that the current flurry of interest in acupuncture and Oriental Medicine stems predominantly out of postmodern opposition to Enlightenment rationalism, and bears witness to Orientalism and consumerism in contemporary medicine.

In five years, from 1971 to 1975, l directly experienced Est [Erhard Seminars Training], gestalt therapy, bioenergetics, rolfing, massage, jogging, health foods, tai chi, Esalen, hypnotism, modern dance, meditation, Silva Mind Control, Arica, acupuncture, sex therapy, Reichian therapy and More House — a smorgasbord course in New Consciousness.1

 Jerry Rubin (1938 – 1994)

Although acupuncture has been known in the US since the 19th Century, its therapeutic claims were dismissed or judged to be “much overrated” by the medical community.2,3 Nonetheless, the publication of a report in the New York Times by James Reston, a reporter in President Nixon’s press corps who had received acupuncture for postoperative cramps in Beijing in 1971 changed this perception, and triggered a flurry of interest amongst the American public and some in the medical community.4 Within the following months, journalists, scientists and physicians rushed to China to withness this peculiar phenomenon, which the popular press and a few scientific journals sensationalized by reporting that thousands of successful operations of all sorts were being carried out in PRC using acupuncture anesthesia; some elaborated on its widespread use for a myriad of conditions, to include paralysis and deafness!5

These unconfirmed claims in the heady social and intellectual climate of the 1970s–meaning the American Counterculture; the rejection of mainstream values, beliefs and ideals; the youth movement, nonconformism and the hippie subculture, the belief in a “New” and  “Cosmic” consciousness and the cult phenomenon; revolutionary ideas mixed with environmentalism; organic farming and the avoidance of pollution, agrochemicals and pharmaceuticals; nonconformism and alternative lifestyles; a syncretistic mix of psychedelic drugs, Eastern religions and Native American spiritualities; the resurgence of the taste for mystic, occult, and magical phenomena;6,7 and the belief in the existence of a separate and non-ordinary reality, as upheld by one of the fathers of the New Age movement, Carlos Castaneda8–gave the justification to view acupuncture as a “heal all” therapy based on alternate perceptions of health and disease.  This amalgamation happened precisely when a whole generation of disenchanted Westerners were eager to find novel solutions for their existential predicaments; one that would be free from the constraints of the so-called “repressive rationality” of modern science in “overdeveloped” societies.9,10. Most Western publications on acupuncture therefore fostered the belief that Eastern healing arts have crucial characteristics directly and unequivocally opposite to the repressive rationalism of the West.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, History, Science and Medicine

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Neck Manipulation: Risk vs. Benefit

While manipulation of any kind has the potential to cause injury, stroke caused by neck manipulation is of greatest concern. Risk must always be weighed against benefit when upper neck manipulation is considered. Risk of stroke caused by neck manipulation is statistically low, but the risk is serious enough to outweigh benefit in all but a few rare, carefully selected cases.

When the RAND (Research and Development) organization published its review of the literature on cervical spine manipulation and mobilization in 1996, it concluded that only about 11.1% of reported indications for cervical spine manipulation were appropriate and that stroke and other serious complications occurred about 1.46 times per one million neck manipulations.1 In the same year, after examining 183 cases of vertebrobasilar stroke that occurred from 1934 through 1994 following neck manipulation, the National Chiropractic Mutual Insurance Company (NCMIC) concluded that “It has to be accepted that VBS [vertebrobasilar stroke] following SMT [spinal manipulative therapy] does occur.”2
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Posted in: Chiropractic

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SBM in primary practice: one student’s experience

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Jones is off this week; fortunately, we have this guest post by Tim Kreider, our science-based medical student. Enjoy!

My first clerkship of my third year of medical school was Family Medicine, and I had a great experience. After the first two years spent mostly with books and then a three-year interlude in a basic science lab, these past five weeks were my first extended foray into the world of patient care. I had a few lectures and seminars on campus, but most days were spent in a primary care office learning on the job. I was assigned to an office attached to a community hospital with a Family Medicine residency program, so I was able to work with both attending physicians and residents in training. I learned a lot and gained some much needed confidence regarding my clinical exam skills, which were rather rusty after grad school.

I have heard as a criticism of the SBM mission that practicing medicine “in the real world” is different from what evidence-obsessed, ivory tower dwellers think it should be. Therefore I approached my Family Medicine clerkship as my first chance to see the challenges and realities of practice outside the university setting. How would the practice of community-based physicians compare to the perhaps lofty ideals espoused by academics? (more…)

Posted in: Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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Off-Label Use of Prescription Drugs

A recent survey of 599 primary care physicians and 600 psychiatrists found that:

The adjusted response rate was 47%, respondents were similar to non-respondents, and physicians commonly prescribed the drugs examined. The average respondent accurately identified the FDA-approval status of just over half of the drug-indication pairs queried (mean 55%; median 57%). Accuracy increased modestly (mean 60%, median 63%) when limited to drugs the respondent reported having prescribed during the previous 12 months. There was a strong association between physicians’ belief that an indication was FDA-approved and greater evidence supporting efficacy for that use (Spearman’s 0.74, p < 0.001). However, 41% of physicians believed at least one drug-indication pair with uncertain or no supporting evidence (e.g., quetiapine [Seroquel®] for dementia with agitation) was FDA approved.

These results are interesting, but deserve to be dissected a bit further. Taken at face value they indicate that physicians need better education regarding the FDA indications and (more importantly) the evidence-base for commonly prescribed drugs. This is an uncontroversial recommendation, and I personally strongly advocate more thorough physician continuing medical education.

Of course, at SBM we have to also dissect the weaknesses of any study we examine. This was a voluntary survey with a 47% response rate, which opens the door for significant responder bias. The survey does not broadly represent different specialties and therefore its relevance beyond primary care and psychiatry is uncertain. The details of the study may also have greatly influenced the outcome.

For example, one of the drug-indication pairs was gabapentin for diabetic peripheral neuropathy. Gabapentin is not specifically indicated for diabetic neuropathy, but it is indicated for post-herpetic neuralgia. Both conditions are forms of neuropathic pain, and it is highly scientifically plausible for a treatment of one condition to also be effective for the other. In fact, there is strong evidence that gabapentin is effective for diabetic neuropathy, and it is commonly prescribed for this condition (in fact insurance companies often require that it is first line treatment as it is now available generically and is therefore less expensive than newer drugs that are indicated specifically for diabetic neuropathy). In other words, this was one of the easiest mistakes to make.

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Posted in: Pharmaceuticals

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James Reston’s Tooth of Gold

One of the fathers of critical thinking and skeptical inquiry, the French philosopher Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657–1757) recounts in 1687 in his Histoire des oracles–a debunking book on popular beliefs, myths and superstitions that caused tremendous stir in theological and philosophical circles of his time–a colorful story that could very well illustrate the flurry of interest and research in acupuncture that followed a 1971 anecdotal account of its use in China, and the plethora of verbiage and publications that ensued. If the story of the Tooth of Gold is comical, colorful and amusing, its applicability to acupuncture is not.

In 1593, the rumor ran that a seven year old in Silesia grew a tooth of gold in place of one of the cheek tooth he lost. Horatius, professor of medicine at the University of Helmstad, wrote a history of this tooth in 1595 and alleged that it was partially natural, partially miraculous, and that it was sent by God to this child to console the Christians that were oppressed by the Turks. Just imagine what consolation and what concern this tooth might bring to the Christians or to the Turks. For this tooth not to lack historians, Rullandus rewrote its history in the same year. Two years later, Ingolsteterus, another learned man, wrote against the views of Rullandus on the tooth of gold; to which Rullandus immediately wrote a fine and wise reply. Another great man named Libavius gathered all that had been written on this tooth and added his own views. Nothing lacked to these many fine books, other than the tooth were truly of gold. When the goldsmith examined it, he found that it was made of a leaf of gold skillfully applied to the tooth; but they began by writing books and then they consulted the goldsmith.1

Translated from French by the author

Besides the glut of popular publications on Chinese acupuncture and medicine by wishful authors without any training in biomedical sciences and healthcare, the NIH, the NCCAM, and some of our most prodigious medical universities also have official and academic publications on the subject that too well resemble the fine and wise publications of Horatius and his contemporaries. They also began by writing books and articles on the theories that could explain the purported indications of acupuncture, and then they assessed the veracity these indications in clinical trials and according to the principles of evidence-based medicine.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, History, Science and the Media

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Protandim: Another Kind of Antioxidant

Four years ago I received an e-mail inquiry about Protandim. I had never heard of it; but I looked it up and wrote a quick, informal, somewhat snarky answer that got posted on the Internet. It got a lot of attention. Googling for Protandim now brings up my critique right after the Protandim website itself: that can’t be good for sales. Over the years, several e-mails and blog comments have informed me that I was wrong (usually offering testimonials or calling me closed-minded), and recently I’ve been getting inquiries asking if I’ve changed my mind now that a clinical study has been published. I haven’t.

Instead of providing antioxidants directly, Protandim is supposed to stimulate the body to produce its own antioxidants. The website tells us it is “the only supplement clinically proven to reduce oxidative stress by 40%, slowing down the rate of cell aging to the level of a 20 year old.” It provides “thousands of times more antioxidant power than any food or conventional antioxidant supplement.” It signals the body’s genes to produce the enzymes SOD (superoxide dismutase) and CAT (catalase) that act as catalysts to neutralize free radicals and are not “used up” like ingested antioxidants are. It “creates a cascade of your body’s natural catalytic antioxidants that are able to destroy millions of free radicals per second.” It raises the level of glutathione by 300%. Glutathione is good, apparently.

What is Protandim? It’s a combination of Milk thistle, Bacopa extract, Ashwagandha, Green tea extract, and Turmeric extract. I looked these up in the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. None of them is known to have any significant clinical benefit from antioxidant effects. Some of them are listed as “not enough information” to know if they are safe. One has estrogenic properties and more than one has known side effects and potential interactions with other drugs. The only one that even sounds remotely like it might have some pertinent data behind it is green tea. Green tea contains antioxidant catechins that are “thought to possibly have a protective effect against atherosclerosis and heart disease” and contains flavonoids that “might reduce lipoprotein oxidation; however benefits have not yet been described in humans.”

A Pubmed search for “Protandim” yielded only 3 studies: One in mice, one in cell cultures and one in humans. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements

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The perils and pitfalls of doing a “vaccinated versus unvaccinated” study

The anti-vaccine movement is nothing if not plastic. It “evolves” very rapidly in response to selective pressures applied to it in the form of science refuting its key beliefs. For instance, when multiple studies looking at the MMR vaccine and autism failed to confirm the myth that the MMR causes autism or “autistic enterocolitis,” most recently late last year, it was not a problem to the anti-vaccine movement. Neither was it a major problem to the movement when multiple studies similarly failed to find a link between mercury in the preservative thimerosal that used to be in most childhood vaccines and is no more (except the flu vaccine) and autism. No problem! Andrew Wakefield is alleged, based on strong evidence, to have falsified his data alleging a link between the MMR vaccine and “autistic enterocolitis”? Fuggedabouddit! The anti-vaccine movement simply pivoted neatly, de-emphasized points that the evidence was so clearly against that even they couldn’t spin it to a positive anymore, and found new bogeymen. These days, it’s the “toxins” (such as formaldehyde and the latest antivax bogeyman, squalene), and “too many too soon” (a gambit given seeming respectability by Dr. Bob Sears and Dr. Jay Gordon, apologists for and supplicants to the anti-vaccine movement both.

However, there is one trait of the anti-vaccine movement that, however its camouflaging plumage may evolve, never, ever changes. It is as immutable as believers say that God is. That trait is that, whatever other claims, the anti-vaccine movement makes, at its core it is always about the vaccines. Always. No matter how often science fails to find a link between vaccines and autism or vaccines and whatever other horreur du jour the anti-vaccine movement tries to pin on vaccines, no matter how many studies do not support the viewpoint that vaccines cause autism, no matter how much the anti-vaccine movement tries to deny and obfuscate by saying that it is not “anti-vaccine” but rather “pro-safe vaccine,” at its core the anti-vaccine movement is about fear and loathing of vaccines. Always. When inconvenient science doesn’t support their views, anti-vaccine activists either ignore the science, distort the science, or launch ad hominems against the people doing the science or citing the science. And, as I said before, the claims of the anti-vaccine movement evolve. Never again will the anti-vaccine movement make the horrific mistake of yoking itself to a hypothesis that is as easily testable as the hypothesis that mercury in vaccines causes autism. The claim that mercury in vaccines causes autism predicted that, if thimerosal were removed from vaccines or reduced to pre-”epidemic levels” of the early 1990s, then autism rates should plummet. Thimerosal was removed from nearly all childhood vaccines (the sole exception being some flu vaccines), reducing infant mercury exposure from vaccines to levels not seen since the 1980s; yet autism rates continue to rise. This is about as resounding a refutation of the hypothesis that mercury in vaccines is a major cause or contributor to autism that even the anti-vaccine movement has backed away from the pure claim, which has now evolved to unnamed “environmental toxins,” either in concert with mercury or with other nasty things, as being the Real One True Cause of Autism.

It’s evolution in action. These new claims are much “fitter” because they are much harder to falsify through scientific research, epidemiology, and clinical trials.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Ethics, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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