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Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends, part II: Generation Rescue, the anti-vaccine propaganda machine, and “Fourteen Studies”

I hadn’t planned on writing about the antivaccine movement again this week, so soon after having had to subject myself to yet another round of Jenny McCarthy on Larry King Live and a truly execrable Generation Rescue “study.” I really hadn’t. For one thing, there’s just so much nonsense laid down by antivaccinationists these days that it’s utterly impossible for one blogger to keep up with it all. I could write about them every single day and still not counter the sheer mass of pseudoscience, misinformation, and general ignorance that antivaccine activists spout each and every day, and because this is Autism Awareness Month lately the misinformation has been coming particularly fast and furiously. Sometimes, however, there arrives a bit of misinformation that is so egregious that it requires some response, regardless of how burned out on the topic I might be; so I guess I’ll just have to suck it up and plunge into the morass again.

The reason is that, in retrospect, I now realize that the Jenny and Jim antivaccine propaganda tour was clearly merely phase I of Generation Rescue’s April public relations offensive. In rapid succession last week, courtesy of J.B. Handley, the founder of Generation Rescue, who in order to have a couple of famous faces fronting his organization has allowed himself to be displaced, so that Generation Rescue has now been “reborn” as Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey’s Autism Organization (the better to capitalize on her D-list celebrity yoked to Jim Carrey’s formerly A-list (but rapidly plunging) celebrity), announced Generation Rescue’s latest initiative in a post on its antivaccine blog Age of Autism entitled Fourteen Studies? Only if you never read them.:
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Modern shamanism—naturopathy for hypertension

I’m a primary care physician. What I, other internists, pediatricians, and family medicine docs do is prevent and treat common diseases. When we get to diseases that require more specialized care, we refer to our specialist colleagues. There is a movement afoot to broaden the role of naturopaths to make them primary care doctors. The big difference between naturopaths and real primary care physicians (PCPs) is that naturopaths haven’t gone to medical school, completed a post-graduate residency program, and taken their specialty boards. Why is this important? If a naturopath wants to be a PCP, then they must provide the same services as other PCPs. They do not. What, you don’t believe me? The thing is, naturopaths have an incorrect understanding of human biology and do not understand how this is applied in a science-based fashion to prevent and treat human disease.

Naturopathic “physicians” claim that “the human body has an innate healing ability” and that they “teach their patients to use diet, exercise, lifestyle changes and cutting edge natural therapies to enhance their bodies’ ability to ward off and combat disease.”

I must admit that I don’t get it. As a primary care physician (the real kind) I talk to my patients every day about diet, exercise, and lifestyle changes. I’m not sure what “natural therapies” are—all of the medications that I prescribe are “natural”. What is the opposite of natural? Unnatural? Supernatural?
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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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The Dull-Man Law

Kimball Atwood is obviously trying to throw mud at Harvard and at homeopathy, but when you throw mud, you get dirty…

(Sigh) So little time, so much misinformation. Hence the Dull-Man Law:

In any discussion involving science or medicine, being Dana Ullman loses you the argument immediately…and gets you laughed out of the room.

This will be the last time that I don’t invoke that law, because it is the perfect opportunity to explain why it is such a useful shortcut. The occasion is the current series about my alma mater, Harvard Medical School (HMS), and its regrettable dalliances with quackery.† The series consists mostly of correspondence that occurred between Dean Daniel Federman and me in 2002. Some of it refers to homeopathy.*

Mr. Ullman, a self-styled expert on homeopathy who lacks any medical training, is a darling of the ‘integrative medicine’ movement, as explained here. He has posted several comments objecting to my assertions in the HMS series. Other commenters have skillfully refuted some of his arguments. Some have been left unchallenged, however, and a naive reader might therefore assume that they are valid. They are not, but explaining why takes time and a modest acquaintance with the topic. Other than to clarify the issues for the uninitiated, then, such time would be wasted. Henceforth, let it not be so: From now on, this post can be cited by anyone wanting to avoid the drudgery of refuting Mr. Ullman’s claims. (more…)

Posted in: Health Fraud, Homeopathy, Humor, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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Harvard Medical School: Veritas for Sale (Part IV)

HMS Puts the Messenger in its Crosshairs

When, during the fall and winter of 2001-02 I first approached Dean Daniel Federman of the Harvard Medical School (HMS) with evidence that the HMS “CAM” program was promoting pseudomedicine, I gave him some materials that I thought would be adequate to make the case: ‘CAM’ Director David Eisenberg’s dubious funding sources and his failure to disclose them to the Massachusetts Special Commission; the website of the Caregroup/Harvard Medical School Center for Alternative Medicine Research and Education (CAMRE), which urged anonymous websurfers to “consult your local telephone yellow pages” for ‘naturopathic physicians’ and other quacks; the presence on the ultra-PPO American Association for Health Freedom (AAHF) Advisory Board of attorney Michael H. Cohen, the Harvard CAMRE’s “Director of Legal Programs” (at the time, Dr. Federman agreed with me that the mere existence of such a position was curious, if the CAMRE’s purpose was ”research and education”); that Dr. Eisenberg and Atty Cohen had contributed to a report to the Massachusetts State Legislature recommending a formal state imprimatur for the practice of pseudomedicine; and other embarrassing findings. A bit later, in March 2002, I sent him a draft of the essay that I posted in Parts I and II of this series.

That material proved not to be adequate, for on March 20, 2002, Dr. Federman sent me the following letter:

Dear Kim,

I ready to undertake a formal review of the Harvard Medical School’s Division of Research and Education in Complementary and Alternative Medicine, and of its leadership to investigate the charges outlined in your letter of November 4, 2001, subsequent emails, and our meeting of January 22, 2002 in my office. I have read almost all of the voluminous literature you sent me and am writing to ask you to assist our efforts. Specifically, I am asking you to prepare a one to three page summary of the specific portions of the material you sent me that you consider erroneous, duplicitous, misleading, or fraudulent.* I do not feel I should summarize your views. Please be specific and give sources, where you can, in support of your statements.

I am committed to achieving a careful and balanced review of the issues you raise.

Sincerely,

Daniel E. Federman, M.D.

* [These are terms that I had used in my communications with Dr. Federman; the only one from which I backed away, after he reacted with considerable alarm, was "fraudulent."]

That was the first real suggestion that the fix was in. The pertinent literature that I’d sent Dr. Federman did not consist of “my views” or even my words. It consisted of statements copied from CAMRE publications and other public sources. Why did Dr. Federman now seem to be framing the issue as a matter of (my) opinion? Why weren’t the points that I’d already presented and documented (they were specific and I gave sources) sufficient to trigger an independent, formal review? What about the summary that I’d already written in the form of a letter to Harvard Magazine, which Dr. Federman had also read? No matter: I was still confident that he would do the right thing when he saw the totality of the evidence, abundantly and overwhelmingly supporting my contention that the CAMRE and other HMS affiliates were promoting pseudomedicine—dangerously, unethically, and in contrast to their stated purpose.

It was then that I resolved to write the essays that I posted in Parts I, II and III of this series.‡ I also prepared the summary that Dr. Federman had requested, which is reprinted below. In June, 2002, I sent these together with this letter:

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Posted in: Health Fraud, Medical Academia, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media

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This one’s for you, Dana

As you may have noticed, everybody’s “favorite” homeopath, Dana Ullman, has made a return visit to our humble little blog, where he is laying down his usual list of logical fallacies and irrelevencies (such as attacking Oliver Wendell Holmes) in defense of homeopathy. Consequently, now’s as good a time as any to unveil what is perhaps the best ready-for-a-poster criticism of homeopathy I’ve ever seen:

HN09poster1A

Clicking on the picture will lead you to a blog post where you can download a high resolution version suitable for printing up and either distributing or posting on a bulletin board or wall. I particularly like that it was made by The American Institute for the Destruction of Tooth Fairy Science. Truly, a nod to SBM blogger extraordinaire Harriet Hall!

My only objection to the poster is the use of the word “shit.” Don’t get me wrong here. Yes, it’s accurate. No, I’m not some sort of prude who never uses the word and wilts at the very sight or sound of it. My problem with it is that its inclusion on the image means that I can’t actually print up and post this beautiful (and brief) mockery of homeopathy on my lab door or on the bulletin board in my office. I can’t put something like that up in public at work. It also made me a little leery of posting it here, which led me to check with our fearless leader before doing it. So I started thinking of alternatives that get the message across but without any curse words.

Clearly, a version of the poster suitable for a G (or at least PG) audience is required.

How about something like:

If water has a memory, then homeopathy is full of crap
Homeopathy: Potentizing poo by flushing.

After all, flushing should “succuss” the remedy as well as hitting it against a Bible.

Yes, I do watch Dirty Jobs a lot, with its host, Mike Rowe, who likes to use the word “poo” a lot. Come to think of it, perhaps Mike Rowe should do a segment of Dirty Jobs segment at a manufacturer of homeopathic remedies. Why? Think of the potentized poo!

Posted in: Homeopathy, Humor

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Response to a “CAM on campus” post

I only recently began contributing to SBM, bringing not any particular expertise or scholarship but rather the perspective of a student. My goal in blogging is not to focus on issues specific to my school, of which I am quite fond and proud in general. Instead I hope to use my experiences, which SBM editors and readers tell me are not unique, to illustrate how CAM can interact with medical education. When writing, I constantly remind myself, “Everything you know about homeopathy and naturopathy was heavily influenced by the SBM docs, so try not to parrot their arguments lest you look like a brainwashed fanboy. Focus on relaying your experiences and trust readers to reach their own conclusions.” As a result, some have called my critiques a bit mild, but I can accept blandness to avoid seeming arrogant beyond my qualifications.

I was surprised, therefore, to be told by leaders of a campus CAM group that my most recent SBM post was full of personal attacks. (more…)

Posted in: Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation

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Dr. Michael Dixon – “A Pyromaniac In a Field of (Integrative) Straw Men”

Dr. Michael Dixon, the medical director of the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health, wrote an editorial for BBC news that is a densely packed rant of tiresome straw men often trotted out by the defenders of so-called “integrative” medicine. (The reason for the quotes in the headline, by the way, is because I stole that line from George Will who used in on This Week recently – it was too perfect not to co-opt.) Dixon was responding to an excellent commentary by Edzard Ernst, in which he characterized integrative medicine as a”shabby smokescreen for unproven treatments.”

Dixon was writing right out of the playbook of “integrative” propaganda, so it is worthwhile to expose his numerous logical fallacies and mischaracterizations of fact.

The Holism Gambit

Dixon begins:

Integrated health is not a new concept – the best doctors and their clinical colleagues have practised it for years.

It means treating patients as whole human beings – paying attention to body, mind and soul – instead of regarding them as nothing more than a set of symptoms to be got out the door as quickly as possible.

If Dixon wishes to be taken seriously by scientific practitioners he should make more of an effort to more fairly characterize mainstream medical practice. Of course, I must acknowledge up front, that there are mediocre and even bad doctors. There are also good doctors struggling within failing systems. And there are also many excellent doctors with effective practices. However, Dixon makes it seem as if the absolute worst of mainstream medicine is standard and typical. This is insulting, dismissive, and frankly ignorant of the facts on the ground. I find it interesting that defenders of integrative medicine are frequently whining about the dismissive attitudes of scientific practitioners of whom they are dismissive.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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PSA – To Screen or Not to Screen

You’ve all heard the dramatic testimonials in the media: “I had a PSA test and they found my prostate cancer early enough to treat it. The test saved my life. You should get tested too.” The subject of screening tests is one that confuses the public. On the surface, it would seem that if you can screen everyone and find abnormalities before they become symptomatic, only good would result. That’s not true. Screening tests do harm as well as good, and we need to carefully consider the trade-offs.

About half of American men over the age of 50 have had a PSA (prostate-specific antigen) screening test for prostate cancer. Recommendations for screening vary. The US Preventive Services Taskforce (USPSTF) says there is insufficient evidence to recommend screening. The American Urological Association and the American Cancer Society recommend screening. Urologists practice what they preach: 95% of male urologists over the age of 50 have been screened. But other groups like the American Academy of Family Physicians recommend discussing the pros and cons of screening with patients and letting them make an informed choice.

Two recent studies published simultaneously in The New England Journal of Medicine have added to the controversy. One concluded that screening does not reduce deaths from prostate cancer; the other concluded that it reduces deaths by 20%. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Diagnostic tests & procedures

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Harvard Medical School: Veritas for Sale (Part III)

In Parts I and II of this series* we saw that from 2000 to 2002, key members of the Harvard Medical School “CAM” program, including the Director, had promoted quackery to the legislature of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. We also saw other explicit or tacit promotions by Harvard institutions and professors, and embarrassing examples of such promotions on InteliHealth, a consumer health website ostensibly committed to “providing credible information from the most trusted sources, including Harvard Medical School….”

Those points were made in an essay that I sent in the spring of 2002 to Daniel Federman, the Senior Dean for Alumni Relations and Clinical Teaching at Harvard Medical School (HMS). I also sent Dr. Federman a treatise on homeopathy, including several examples of credulous Harvard professors and misrepresentations aimed at students, patients, and the public. Much of the content of that treatise has been covered by the series on homeopathy† with which I began my stint here on SBM, so here I’ll post only the parts relevant to promotions by academic physicians, including those at Harvard. There is a bit of redundancy involving InteliHealth, but please bear with me if you’ve made it this far; the discussion will be meatier than the short summary in Part II.

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Posted in: Health Fraud, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends: The Jenny and Jim antivaccine propaganda tour has begun


As hard as it is to believe, 2009 started out very promising from the perspective of actually countering the misinformation of the antivaccine movement. Antivaccine hero Andrew Wakefield, who with the help of the credulous and sensationalistic media started the entire MMR-autism scare in the U.K. a decade ago, was revealed as not just having been in the pocket of trial lawyers suing vaccine manufacturers and having been an incompetent scientist but as a scientific fraud, thanks to the investigative tenacity of Brian Deer. Thanks to Wakfield, the measles, once declared conquered in the U.K. in the mid-1990s, has come roaring back to the point where it has been declared endemic again by the ealth Protection Agency (HPA), the public health body of England and Wales. This was rapidly followed by the rejection by the Special Masters of the Vaccine Court of the claims of all the test cases in the Autism Omnibus case. It was a one-two body blow to the antivaccine movement.

Unfortunately, the antivaccine movement is nothing if not resilient. After all, the science has consistently been against each of its favorite claims, namely that the mercury in the thimerosal used as a preservative in vaccines or that the MMR vaccine causes autism. They simply move the goalposts and pivoted effortlessly to much harder to falsify ideas, such as blaming “toxins” in vaccines or proclaiming that our current vaccine schedule is “too many too soon.” After scientific setback after scientific setback that have revealed the antivaccine movement to be nothing more than the 2009 equivalent of creationists or the flat Earth movement, why would it matter to them that Andrew Wakefield has been thoroughly discredited and their signature legal action, the Autism Omnibus, has gone donw in flames? It doesn’t. Certainly it didn’t stop David Kirby from duping Keith Olbermann into chastising Brian Deer for nonexistent conflicts of interest; a group proclaiming loudly “We Support Dr. Andrew Wakefield” with a petition; David Kirby, Generation Rescue, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. from trying to distract attention from the defeat of the antivaccine movement in the Autism Omnibus ruling; or Andrew Wakefield himself from “complaining” to a press board about Brian Deer’s alleged misbehavior and errors. After all, science doesn’t matter to the antivaccine movement.
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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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