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Parody beats political analysis

When out of town this past week I was bereft of tantalizing subjects, with our 5 other bloggers covering so many topics so well. I was about to toss in an empty towel, when two news absurdities fell into my driveway in the pages of the SF Chronicle. One was this morning’s (7/23) report that one Dragan Dabic, an alternative medicine healer had been captured in Belgrade, Serbia. He was Radovan Karadzic, former Serbian Prime Minister and acknowledged immediate archtect of the 1990s massacres of Bosnia-Herzagovena Muslims. Like Saddam Hussein, he had been a fugitive for years, and was found in an unusual place in an unusual disguise. What more need be said about this former psychiatrist and presumed war crimes mass murderer changing occupations in midlife to alternative healing? Complete with full beard and pony tail, yet. Does this give some clue to some personality types that drift toward junk medicine? One could say the disguise was intentional and had nothing to do with personality. Perhaps. Perhaps. But the situation reinforces my theory that most “CAM”mers are at least intellectual psychopaths – renegades from reason. The picture of Karadzic brings to mind pictures of others with full beards and hidden finger salutes to reason and authority.

The second absurdity was in a recent cartoon subtitled, “The lies behind the truth and the truth behind those lies that lie behind that truth…” So reads the title explanation for Don Asmussen’s “Bad Reporter” comic in the SF Chronicle.

Asmussen parodies headlines by combining them absurdly with commentaries that “explain” the absurd headlines with even more absurd hypothetical events. In these days of absurd happenings, I find Asmussen the right stuff remedy for us perplexed realists who “…cannot believe this is happening.” My mental health now depends on Asmussen and nighttime doses of Phil Hendrie Show. Nothing like satire to put into perspective interest in “alternative medicine” and qualifications and characteristics of presidential candidates.

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Posted in: Nutrition, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media

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Autism and Vaccines: Responding to Poling and Kirby

In response to my NeuroLogica blog post on Monday, David Kirby wrote a response in the Huffington Post and Dr. Jon Poling (father of Hannah Poling) wrote an open letter to me, placed in the comment section and posted at Age of Autism. It seems only polite that I respond to their kind attention.The primary focus of my original post (which I further developed yesterday) was that the media is focusing too much attention on what celebrities and politicians are saying about the controversy surrounding the discredited notion that vaccines are a significant cause of autism. Over the past year Jenny McCarthy (now joined by her boyfriend Jim Carrey) has become the major spokesperson for a movement that, at its core, is anti-vaccine and is dedicated to the scientific opinion that vaccines are toxic and cause autism. Recently actress Amanda Peet joined the fray, professing her belief that vaccines are safe, are not associated with autism, and that parents who do not vaccinate their children are “parasites” for depending on other parents who do. (She later apologized for that remark, calling it “divisive”.)

While I appreciate Amanda Peet’s support, I feel strongly that scientific questions should be handled by the scientific community. Celebrities are great when they support causes – but when they second guess the scientific community and decide to advocate for their own scientific conclusions, they are more likely to cause harm than good. (more…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Public Health, Vaccines

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Can Psychosis be Prevented?

I recently read an article in Discover magazine entitled “Stop the Madness.” It was about a new treatment program that allegedly can prevent schizophrenia and other forms of psychosis. I found it very disturbing.

The PIER (Portland Identification and Early Referral) program was founded by a psychiatrist, Dr. William McFarlane, in Portland, Maine. It has recently expanded to 4 other US sites and there are similar programs in several other countries. PIER is an effort to find and treat patients in the “early stages of deterioration towards psychosis,” so as to prevent the development of psychotic illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression. The program involves various psychosocial interventions and psychotropic drugs.

On the surface it sounds promising, but there is a dark side. I’m particularly concerned about the use of antipsychotic drugs in people who haven’t been diagnosed as psychotic. (more…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine

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Resistance is futile? Hell, no! (A call to arms)

Well, I won’t back down
No, I won’t back down
You can stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won’t back down

Gonna stand my ground
Won’t be turned around
And I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me down
Gonna stand my ground
And I won’t back down

From “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty, 1989

This week, in a little bit of a departure, I have a minor bone to pick with our fearless leader and his podcast partner in crime Rebecca Watson (a.k.a. the Skepchick), who both managed to annoy me a bit the other day. (Don’t worry, Steve and Rebecca, I still love you guys…)

I’ll explain. You see, I had originally had a much different topic in mind for this week. Indeed, I even had my post mostly written by Saturday morning, when I had to take care of some mundane personal business, namely getting an oil change and some minor work done on my car. Since I need my car to commute to work and the maintenance needed was relatively minor, I decided to wait for the work to be done. As is my wont when sitting in waiting rooms with nothing much else to do, I decided to plug my earphones into my iPhone and catch up on some podcasts. Since the dealer also had free wifi, I brought my laptop along as well, the better to finish up my originally intended post.

The first thing I realized as I perused the list of unlistened-to podcasts was that I had fallen far behind in listening to one of my favorite podcasts, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. To begin catching up, I decided to start with what was at the time the most recently available episode, specifically the July 9 podcast, figuring I could work my way back to through the earlier ones and thereby catch up with at least two episodes before my car was ready. In the second segment (beginning around 14:31 minutes into the podcast), Steve Novella and crew discussed a bit the recent news that the National Institute of Mental Health was trying to resurrect a dubious and highly unethical clinical trial proposed to test chelation therapy as a treatment for autism, referencing his excellent post on this very blog about why the trial is scientifically dubious (at best) and totally unethical. So far, so good.

Then the conversation veered into another area that I agree with, namely the utter uselessness of National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and how its main purpose is more proselytization for “alternative” and “complementary” medicine than actual rigorous scientific research, as I pointed out before in one of my earliest posts for SBM. As Steve pointed out that, for all the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by NCCAM, not a single new medicine or treatment has been added to the armamentarium of modern medicine, nor, even more importantly, have CAM practitioners abandoned a single bit of unscientific medicine due to any of the negative studies. Indeed, their enthusiasm hasn’t been dampened in the least. This line of discussion led to the question of whether we, as skeptics and advocates of science- and evidence-based medicine need to rethink and refocus our efforts.
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Posted in: Medical Academia, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Science, Reason, Ethics, and Modern Medicine, Part 2: the Tortured Logic of David Katz

In Part 1 of this series* I asserted that a physician’s primary ethical responsibility is to honesty and integrity, which in turn must be largely based on science and reason (I apologize if that sounded preachy; if there had been more time I might have couched it in more congenial terms). I mentioned the fallacious reasoning whereby proponents of implausible medical claims (IMC) point to real and imagined weaknesses of modern medicine to justify their own agenda. I offered, as a favorite example of such proponents, science-based medicine’s having not yet solved every health problem. This week I’ll show how this version of the tu quoque fallacy has led a prestigious medical school to advocate pseudoscience-based medicine.

Modern Medicine: a Brief, Fragile Commitment to Science

First, a few more words about the title of this series. Modern medicine is not science, even if it draws upon science for its knowledge: it is an applied science similar, in that sense, to engineering. Modern medicine is also not synonymous with the “medical profession,” if the term means the collection of all people with MD degrees. That is true for the obvious reason that medicine is more than people, but also because a small but loud minority of MDs rejects modern medicine and science.

Modern medicine has made an uneven commitment to science and reason. At its best, it has formally embraced them in the faculties and curricula of medical schools, in its codes of ethics, and in its contributions to knowledge, both basic and applied, over the past 150 years or so. As discussed last week, it is because of science and reason that modern medicine has made dramatic, revolutionary advances in a very short time. That is what distinguishes it from every other “healing tradition,” and why there is no legitimate competition. The only valid medicine in the modern world is science-based medicine—not “allopathic,” “Western,” “conventional,” “regular,” “integrative,” “complementary and alternative,” or any of the so-called “whole medical systems.” The pre-scientific (and, ironically, “post-modern”) designation of “schools” or “systems” of medicine, so stridently trumpeted by quacks, is an anachronism—even if it persists in archaic, governmental edicts.

Compared to the actual sciences, however, modern medicine’s commitment to science is fragile. Its recent confusion of error-prone clinical trials with science itself—the project called “evidence-based medicine”—has been a mixed blessing. Its growing tolerance of charlatans and crackpots, at times elevating them to celebrity status, would be unthinkable in physics or biology. Its dalliances with quackery, so depressingly recounted in recent posts here, here, here, and here, are why your SBM bloggers do what we do. Biologists, other scientists, and intellectuals in general have joined the battle against the pseudoscientific travesty known as “intelligent design.” Many physicians, however, even of the brainy, academic variety, act as though the equally pseudoscientific but more dangerous travesty known as “integrative medicine” is either a good thing or, at least, is a necessary addition to medical school curricula.

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

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Chiropractic and Stroke: Evaluation of One Paper

Do not trust the cheering, for those persons would shout as much if you or I were going to be hanged.”
~ Oliver Cromwell

In the blogosphere, the proponents of chiropractic often quote the following paper, with the abstract:

Risk of Vertebrobasilar Stroke and Chiropractic Care
Results of a Population-Based Case-Control and Case-Crossover Study
Spine. 2008 Feb 15;33(4 Suppl):S176-83.
by Cassidy JD, Boyle E, Côté P, He Y, Hogg-Johnson S, Silver FL, Bondy SJ.
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Why be different? Here is the abstract.

STUDY DESIGN: Population-based, case-control and case-crossover study. OBJECTIVE: To investigate associations between chiropractic visits and vertebrobasilar artery (VBA) stroke and to contrast this with primary care physician (PCP) visits and VBA stroke.
SUMMARY OF BACKGROUND DATA: Chiropractic care is popular for neck pain and headache, but may increase the risk for VBA dissection and stroke. Neck pain and headache are common symptoms of VBA dissection, which commonly precedes VBA stroke.
METHODS: Cases included eligible incident VBA strokes admitted to Ontario hospitals from April 1, 1993 to March 31, 2002. Four controls were age and gender matched to each case. Case and control exposures to chiropractors and PCPs were determined from health billing records in the year before the stroke date. In the case-crossover analysis, cases acted as their own controls.
RESULTS: There were 818 VBA strokes hospitalized in a population of more than 100 million person-years. In those aged <45 years, cases were about three times more likely to see a chiropractor or a PCP before their stroke than controls. Results were similar in the case control and case crossover analyses. There was no increased association between chiropractic visits and VBA stroke in those older than 45 years. Positive associations were found between PCP visits and VBA stroke in all age groups. Practitioner visits billed for headache and neck complaints were highly associated with subsequent VBA stroke.
CONCLUSION: VBA stroke is a very rare event in the population. The increased risks of VBA stroke associated with chiropractic and PCP visits is likely due to patients with headache and neck pain from VBA dissection seeking care before their stroke. We found no evidence of excess risk of VBA stroke associated chiropractic care compared to primary care.

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Posted in: Chiropractic

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A Guide for Confronting Patients

I sometimes lecture on science-based medicine to my colleagues and one of the most common questions I get is how to deal with a patient who expresses belief in unscientific treatments. The dilemma for the physician is that professionalism requires that we do not confront patients regarding their personal beliefs. We are there to inform and advise, not preach. And yet proper medical care is often hampered by unscientific beliefs on the part of patients.

David wrote previously about a case he reviewed in which a woman with a very treatable early stage of breast cancer opted for “alternative” treatment rather than the standard treatment, which carries a > 93% good outcome. As a result her cancer progressed horribly – but she clung to belief in CAM despite its obvious failure in her case. This story highlighted the fact that giving patients proper medical advice sometime requires confronting their false beliefs.

Unscientific and bizarre medical practices are in vogue and are increasingly infiltrating the medical system through a combination of misguided political correctness, stealth, and apathy. This is exacerbating the dilemma for science-based practitioners who are caught between the imperative to do the right thing in accordance with evidence-based guidelines and the default respect for the patient and the desire to maintain a therapeutic relationship.

In my experience, however, these two goals do not have to be mutually exclusive. An uncompromising but non-judgmental approach works very well.

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Posted in: General, Medical Ethics

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Should I Take a Multivitamin?

I’ll start with a confession. I used to do something irrational. I used to take a daily multivitamin, not because I thought there was good scientific evidence to support the practice, but for psychotherapy. I tried to eat a healthy diet and worried about it. By taking a pill, I could stop worrying.

Then I found out that higher intake of vitamin A was associated with an increased risk of hip fractures in postmenopausal women like me, and I stopped. (High doses of vitamin A also cause births defects and are contraindicated in pregnancy.) Now I only take supplemental calcium and vitamin D, not on general principles but because of personal risk factors.

We’re being bombarded by advice to take vitamins and various other supplements. Health gurus like Andrew Weil recommend that everyone take vitamins (which they just happen to sell). The orthomolecular followers of Linus Pauling want us to take megadoses of vitamins. Ray Kurzweil tells us we should take vitamins to make us live longer; he takes 250 vitamin and supplement pills a day and thinks he will live forever. (You can read about his ideas in his book Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever.) Who should we believe? (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Nutrition

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When “investigative reporting” becomes anti-vaccine propaganda

Introduction: The following is the text of a letter that I mailed to Bob Sliva, General Manager of WXYZ-TV in Detroit in response to arguably the most biased and incompetent “investigative report” about mercury, vaccines, or autism that I have ever seen. I sent the letter by snail mail, because I was always taught that that gets a station manager’s attention far better than e-mail. My plan was to allow the three days until today for the letter to arrive and then to publish the text of my letter here on SBM as an open letter. After I mailed my letter, I worried that no one would bother to look at links that they had to type in themselves, which is why I wanted to post this as an open letter whose link I could then e-mail to the station.

I also worried that maybe I had been insufficiently polite and persuasive, given that one is always urged not to be too insulting or strident when writing to a media outlet. After all, if I were too strident, Mr. Sliva would find it easy to write me off as a biased crank. I also worried that maybe I should have e-mailed Mr. Wilson first. On the other hand, Mr. Wilson is a serial offender. In 2003 and 2004, he did a series on mercury, vaccines, and autism that credulously parroted all the pseudoscience, distortions, and misinformation that we’ve come to expect from the anti-vaccine movement. About two weeks before the “Green Our Vaccines” rally, my routine monitoring of the anti-vaccine underground turned up references to a story that Wilson was working on about the rally and the thimerosal issue. Believers in the myth that vaccines cause autism described Wilson and his earlier report in glowing terms, which sent up huge red flags to me. The original links no longer function, but, thanks to the Wayback Machine, I was able to find the transcripts of the original reports (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). This “reporting” (if you can call it that) somehow garnered an Emmy Award, showing that an award, even a normally prestigious one, is no guarantee of anything resembling scientific accuracy in reporting.

However, it was Mr. Wilson’s comments and behavior after a post by a friend of mine, Dr. Peter Lipson, that made me realize that dealing directly with Wilson was a waste of time and that I was right to go straight to the General Manager. I’ll show why in an addendum and will also add references to sources that refute Wilson’s one-sided and credulous reporting. It’s funny how such a pit pull of an “investigative journalist” who goes after politicians and others with such tenacity can’t find it in himself to ask even a mildly probing question when interviewing “luminaries” such as Boyd Haley or parents with no scientific background repeating anti-vaccine talking points. In any case, here follows the text of the letter that I sent to Bob Sliva, the Vice President and General Manager of WXYZ-TV:

July 9,2008Bob Sliva
Vice President/General Manager
WXYZ-TV
20777 West Ten Mile Road
Southfield, MI 48037

Dear Mr. Silva:
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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Science, Reason, Ethics, and Modern Medicine Part 1: Tu Quoque and History

Several weeks ago I argued here that a physician’s primary ethical obligation is to science and truth. In retrospect I probably should have put it a slightly different way: a physician’s primary ethical obligation is the same as everyone else’s. It is to honesty and integrity. For physicians, however, that means being true to real medical knowledge, among other things, and real medical knowledge comes from science. That is what this and the next several posts will be about.*

First, a little Tu Quoque

After reading some of the comments that followed my posting of two weeks ago, I reluctantly thought to add a few words about the medical profession’s view of physicians selling drugs. It felt tiresome to have to address the issue, because it is beside the point. The series was about “naturopathic medicine,” not about modern medicine. If readers who understand the point will excuse the interruption, I’ll quickly attempt to explain why by posing two extreme possibilities: If MDs are entirely innocent of the relevant breach of ethics, what would that have to do with naturopaths selling drugs? But if MDs are entirely guilty, two wrongs don’t make a right—demonstrating the same irrelevancy.

That is why the ”you should talk” sneer is known, in debate, as the tu quoque (“you too”) fallacy. It’s funny how parents seem to recognize it when faced with children who, in seeking permission to engage in dubious activities, invoke the parents’ own sordid histories or the equally irrelevant, alleged prerogatives of other people’s children. Yet the same parents appear to forget it in other contexts.

I was also weary and wary of those who would draw me into a strawman debate pitting the medical profession against any group of sectarian health advocates. I have only a small sense of “solidarity” with the group of people who have MD degrees, and even less so with organized medicine. My first allegiance, as I’ve explained elsewhere, is to science and reason. Those modes of inquiry, together with their obvious bearing on the integrity of all claims about nature, are the bases for my objections to naturopathy and to pseudoscience in general. The medical profession per se is related but not central to the issue. While thinking about these things, it dawned on me that a discussion of why that is might be useful. (more…)

Posted in: Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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