“If you’ve done six impossible things this morning, why not round it off with breakfast at Milliway’s—the Restaurant at the End of the Universe!”–Douglas Adams
I recently finished reading the book “The Joy of Pi” by David Blatner. There is a chapter about the concept of squaring a circle, also called the quadrature of a circle. The idea is that, with just a ruler and a compass, you construct a square of equal area to a given circle.
It turns out it cannot be done. It is, in this iteration of the multiverse, impossible. Not difficult, or implausible or really hard. Impossible. You cannot square a circle in a finite number of steps given the conditions of using only a ruler and a compass.
That it is impossible does not prevent people from trying. Individuals do derive solutions to squaring the circle, and sometimes the derivation is erroneous, and sometimes they have a solution that requires a new value for pi.
Pi is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. Take the circumference of a circle, divide it by its diameter and get the endless, or transcendental, number 3.141592654….(1) That number is part of the fabric of this universe. It is a fundamental part of how life, the universe, and everything is put together (2). It is a curious psychopathology that some people feel that all of known mathematics is wrong, and that they have a solution to an impossible problem and that they have discovered the hither to unknown, one true value of pi as a result.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) conducts an ongoing telephone survey of medical problems and health care utilization – called the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS). They recently released their data from 2007. This is the first year for which they specifically broke out questions assessing the use of so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).
CAM is a political/ideological entity, not a scientific one. It is an artificial category created for the purpose of promoting a diverse set of dubious, untested, or fraudulent health practices. It is an excellent example of the (successful) use of language as a propaganda tool.
The fundamental intellectual flaw of “CAM” as a concept is that it is made to include modalities that are extremely diverse, even mutually contradictory, under one umbrella. Very deliberately modalities which are scientific and mainstream, like the proper use of nutrition, are often included under the CAM umbrella by proponents in order to make it seem like CAM is a bigger phenomenon than it actually is, and as a wedge to open the door for the more pseudoscientific modalities.
Kava is a plant that grows in the western Pacific. It was traditionally prepared as a drink and used for its psychoactive properties, including sedation, relaxation, and relief of anxiety. It is intoxicating but not addictive.
It has become a popular supplement in the US, used to treat anxiety, depression, insomnia, stress, and menopausal symptoms. It has also been suspected of killing quite a few people.
The AAFP Recommends Kava
In August 2007 American Family Physician, the journal of the American Academy of Family Physicians, published an article on “Herbal and Dietary Supplements for Treatment of Anxiety Disorders.”
They concluded that
St. John’s wort, valerian, and omega-3 fatty acids have little therapeutic value for anxiety disorders, and their use should be discouraged.
But they recommended kava. Not only that, they gave it the highest quality-of-evidence rating: A. They said,
Short-term use of kava is recommended for patients with mild to moderate anxiety disorders who are not using alcohol or taking other medicines metabolized by the liver, but who wish to use “natural” remedies.
THE BEST OF TIMES
It was the best of times (for antivaccinationists). It was the worst of times (for antivaccinationists). It was the age of wisdom (definitely not for antivaccinationists). It was the age of foolishness (definitely for antivaccinationists). It was the epoch of belief (for antivaccinationists).
Such is the time we live in, my apologies to Charles Dickens, even though he is long dead.
Let’s face it. If we ignore the science, it is, alas, indeed the best of times for antivaccinationists. I’ve lamented the rise of non-science-based fearmongering among the antivaccine brigade before many times. Indeed, I’ve lamented how the influence of ignorant, unscientific dolts like Jenny McCarthy spouting nonsense about vaccines has already resulted in the resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles in areas of the U.S. to the point where I’m not along in fearing that the bad old days will soon return, just as Andrew Wakefield’s litigation- and money-driven “studies” suggesting that the MMR was somehow responsible for autism and GI problems linked with autism resulted in the measles going from being conquered in the U.K. 14 years ago to being declared endemic again there, all because of the fear stoked in parents by bad science, paranoia, and anti-vaccine fearmongering.
Truly, it is the best of times for antivaccinationists, or so it seems from a superficial view.
Quacks and their apologists often cite surgery and emergency treatments of traumatic injury and a few other catastrophic or potentially catastrophic events as the only ”conventional” or “allopathic” methods that they consistently recommend. Explicitly or implicitly, for most problems they tout “holistic” or “CAM” treatments. In modern medicine, however, there are plenty of non-surgical and non-emergency treatments whose outcomes are so manifest that even the most exuberant advocates of implausible medical claims (IMC) seem careful to steer clear, lest they blow their cover. Where are the promoters or consumers of homeopathic contraceptives? Why haven’t we heard of a chiropractic adjustment for high blood sugar? How many pitches for Ayurvedic treatments of gout have you seen? There are exceptions, of course, the most notable being the nearly ubiquitous anti-immunization stance among IMC promoters.
Anesthesiology and Implausible Claims
In my day job I specialize in anesthesiology, a non-surgical field whose methods are so obviously effective that little is heard from the IMC crowd. Consider: is it likely that even the slickest of the current crop of snake oil salesmen, if they had the bad sense to try, could talk many people into accepting an implausible method for rendering the body insensible to pain? No, that would require a more effective form of persuasion, such as that used in China to promote “acupuncture anesthesia” from the mid-1950s until the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. That’s a story I’ll tell another time.
A few other implausible claims have crept into the broader realm of anesthesiology. Stimulation of the “pericardial 6″ acupuncture point on the ventral aspect of the wrist is said to prevent post-operative nausea. There is little basis for this, the Cochrane Review notwithstanding. Verbal messages, given to a patient under general anesthesia, are said to result in “faster healing.” The major proponent of this claim is Peggy Huddleston, a self-described psychotherapist with an M.T.S. (Master of Theological Studies) degree from the Harvard Divinity School. Ms. Huddleston appears to have parlayed the “faster healing” claim into a successful entreprenurial venture, featuring a website, workshops, CDs, and a book:
Peer-review is a critical part of the functioning of the scientific community, of quality control, and the self corrective nature of science. But it is no panacea. It is helpful to understand what it is, and what it isn’t, its uses and abuses.
When the statement is made that research is “peer-reviewed” this is usually meant to refer to the fact that it has been published in a peer-reviewed journal. Different scientific disciplines have different mechanisms for determining which journals are legitimately peer-reviewed. In medicine the National Library of Medicine (NLM) has rules for peer-review and they decide on a case by case basis which journals get their stamp of approval. Such journals are then listed as peer-reviewed.
There was a full-page ad in my local paper today for Back in Action Spine and Health Centers, targeted at sufferers from almost any kind of chronic back pain. It started with “Are You Ready to Throw in the Towel and Just Live with Hurting So Bad?” It went on to make a number of claims:
- Doctors can fix the problem.
- Breakthrough medical technologies.
- Treatments are FDA cleared.
- Treatments are scientifically proven.
- No side effects.
- Best kept secrets for healing “bad backs.”
- Corrects scoliosis.
- Corrects compressed discs.
- Several university studies at Johns Hopkins, Stanford and Duke have confirmed that these treatments work.
- Medical researchers have reported these methods up to 89% effective.
- Treatments work for back and neck pain, sciatica/numbness, herniated and/or bulging discs, degenerative disc disease (arthritis), spinal stenosis, facet syndromes, spondylolisthesis.
- Their questionnaire can determine who will benefit – if you fit even one criterion like “does your back feel out of alignment?” or “do you have arthritis?” you should call right away.
The ad offers a “Free Qualifying Exam” but you “Must Not Wait” because appointments are limited and they can only honor this free offer for 3 weeks. To encourage you to call, they sweeten the pot with a FREE $49 gift bag.
Are you suspicious yet? You should be. (more…)
Should Medical Journals Inform Readers if a Book Reviewer can’t be Objective?
At the end of last week’s post I suggested that book reviewer Donald Abrams and the New England Journal of Medicine had withheld information useful for evaluating Abrams’ review: that he is the Secretary/Treasurer of the Society for Integrative Oncology (SIO), the organization of which Lorenzo Cohen, the first editor of the book that Abrams reviewed,* is President. I also promised to look at material from the book and from the Society’s website in order to discover “data that will allow even the most conventional oncologists to appreciate [the value of 'integrative' methods].”
There is little question that Abrams and Cohen know each other, or at least that Abrams couldn’t have been expected to write an entirely objective review of Cohen’s book. Abrams is the Program Chair for the Society’s upcoming 5th International Conference, sponsored by the American Cancer Society. He and Cohen will be sharing the stage for the “Intro/Welcome.” Does it matter that most NEJM readers wouldn’t have learned of this association by reading the review? Probably not, in the case of readers who are well-versed in the misleading language of “CAM.”
I believe that most readers of medical journals are not so sophisticated. Otherwise, how could it have been so easy for “CAM” literature to seep through the usual evaluative filters, not only in medical schools and government but in the editorial boardrooms of prestigious journals? For anyone from the Journal who might be following this thread, Dr. Sampson’s satirical but deadly serious account of “how we did it” is obligatory reading.
Do “Integrative Oncology” Methods have Value?
Now let’s take a look at what Dr. Cohen’s book and the SIO are up to. The book’s introduction and table of contents are available on Amazon.com. The introduction contains the usual, misleading assertions and falsehoods that are ubiquitous in “CAM” promotions. I’ve added a few hyperlinks:
Increasingly there is a cultural trend toward health care freedom and empowerment. This trend is partly a reaction to the paternalism of the past, and reflects an overall change in attitude by the public toward all institutions and authority. Within medicine there has also been a move toward the partnership model of practice – where patients are well-informed full partners in the decision-making process. But this trend has also been fueled by providers who want the public to have the freedom to choose their unconventional treatment, even if it does not meet reasonable standards for evidence or even ethics.
In addition the public must deal with an increasingly free health care market with an expanding array of products, and claims to back them up. The internet has served to facilitate and accelerate this process.
Therefore public education about common health matters is more important than ever. Part of the mission for this blog is to improve public health education, to correct common misconceptions, help put recent research into proper perspective, and to counter false or misleading propaganda or marketing claims. There seems to be an intense need for such correction, and mainstream media and the internet are full of misinformation. News outlets are a mixed-bag, sometimes providing helpful information, but more often emphasizing unusual or dramatic health risks while ignoring far more important but less interesting ones.
I’ve just finished reading Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst. I’d been looking forward to the publication of this book, and it exceeded my expectations.
Edzard Ernst, based at the University of Exeter in England, is the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, a post he has held for 15 years. An MD and a PhD, he also embraced alternative medicine and used to practice homeopathy. He has done extensive research and published widely. His stated objective is “to apply the principles of evidence-based medicine to the field of complementary medicine such that those treatments which demonstrably do generate more good than harm become part of conventional medicine and those which fail to meet this criterion become obsolete.” His most important accomplishment has been to “demonstrate that complementary medicine can be scientifically investigated which, in turn, brought about a change in attitude both in the way the medical establishment looks upon complementary medicine and in the way complementary medicine looks upon scientific investigation.”
Simon Singh is a science writer with a PhD in particle physics. As a team, he and Ernst are uniquely qualified to ferret out the truth about alternative medicine and explain it to the public. (more…)