Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety.
Antony and Cleopatra. Act II. Scene II.
I know it is in reference to Cleopatra, but William could have been talking about the realm of alternative pseudo-medicine. Just when you think you have seen it all, that every pseudo-medicine that can be invented has been invented, pop, out of nothing, comes another pseudo-medicine. Perhaps that is the true quantum medicine, although I wish there was a corresponding annihilating anti-pseudo-medicine. I have mentioned before that I have been unable to come up with a unique, never seen before, form of pseudo-medicine. I lack the imagination I suppose.
Freak shows have become a thing of past and for good reason. Or if they do still tour, none have come though Portland; it would be difficult to distinguish them from the residents. I kid. Once at the State Fair my boys each paid a dollar to see a giant pig. I passed on the opportunity and regret it to this day. Evidently it was one huge hog. The medical equivalent of the carnival board walk, with all the curious variations, is the world of pseudo-medicines. The giant pig I came across this week is Earthing/Grounding, not to disrespect that enormous boar, because the pork, at least, was real. (more…)
Almost 10 years ago, a thoughtful article, entitled “Chiropractic as spine care: a model for the profession”, appeared in the journal Chiropractic & Osteopathy. The authors were a group of both academic and practicing chiropractors, as well as representatives from a health insurer specializing in coverage of CAM provider services. Another article, under different authorship, appeared the same year deploring some aspects of chiropractic education. In 2008, a third article came out with a similar theme, “How can chiropractic become a respected mainstream profession? The example of podiatry.” All three are open access and worth reading. The authors are to be commended for taking on an extremely contentious subject in their own profession.
The first article is a refreshingly honest look at the current state of chiropractic. The authors note the inability of chiropractors to consistently define who they are and what they do, which results in public confusion (including among those in the healthcare industry) about just what role chiropractors should play in the healthcare system. The authors deplore the continued existence of the “subluxation” in chiropractic and it’s accommodation by no less than the Association of Chiropractic Colleges. And they thoroughly deconstruct any notion that such a thing exists. The idea that chiropractors are capable of acting as primary care physicians is given equally short shrift and debunked as well.
The article points out that, whatever the confusion among chiropractors about who they are and what they do, the public has decided on its own: the public perception of chiropractors is that of back pain specialists. Back-related problems account for over 90% of the reason patients see chiropractors. They also argue that chiropractic must embrace evidence-based healthcare and stop relying on their clinical experience, noting the many reasons (e.g., regression to the mean) that a chiropractor’s observations may be explained by something other than treatment effectiveness. They admit that the chiropractor’s stock-in-trade, spinal manipulation, might not hold up under an evidence-based standard. (A possibility that is becoming a reality.) They even quote Marcia Angel’s observation on “alternative” medicine:
There is only medicine that has been adequately tested and medicine that has not, medicine that works and medicine that may or may not work.
The word “paradigm” is over misused and overused, diluting its utility. Thomas Kuhn coined the term in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to refer to an overarching explanatory system in science. Scientists, according to Kuhn, work within a paradigm during periods of “normal science,” punctuated by occasional “paradigm shifts” when the old explanatory model no longer sufficed, and a radically new explanatory system was required. The term has since come into colloquial use to mean any scientific breakthrough, which marketers quickly overused to refer to just about any new product.
I am therefore cautious about using the term, but I think it is appropriate in this case. In medicine I would consider a new paradigm to be an entirely new approach to some forms of illness. Common treatment paradigms include nutrition, physical therapy, surgery, and pharmacology. A new paradigm is emerging in my field of neurology – directly affecting brain function through electromagnetic stimulation.
The brain is a chemical organ, with many receptors for specific neurotransmitters. This has allowed us to use a pharmacological approach in treating brain disorders – using drugs that are agonists (activators) or antagonists (blockers) of various neurotransmitter receptors, or that affect the production or inactivation of the neurotransmitters themselves. There are limits to this approach, however. First, neurotransmitters are not the only factor affecting brain function. The brain is also a biological organ like any other, and so all the normal physiological factors are in play. Further, there is only so much evolved specificity to the neurotransmitters and their receptors.
I’ve always thought of Tylenol (AKA acetaminophen in the US and paracetamol in the UK) as one of the safest drugs around, with essentially no side effects when used as directed. But it has been in the limelight lately. Several SBM articles have addressed it here, here, and here. We know there is a risk of liver damage and death with acetaminophen overdose or accidental ingestion (458 deaths a year in the US). Since it is included in many other products (painkillers, cold and cough remedies, etc.) consumers may not realize how much they’re taking. The FDA has addressed this problem, and reformulations and lower daily dose recommendations are being implemented; but there is still no guarantee that consumers will realize that their “non-aspirin pain reliever,” pain pills like Vicodin, and many cold, sinus, and cough remedies have the same ingredient as Tylenol.
We have gradually become aware of other dangers not associated with overdose. Acetaminophen has been associated with kidney damage (especially with long-term use), gastrointestinal symptoms, and cardiovascular events. Combining the recommended dose with alcohol ingestion can lead to liver failure. It can also interact with some other drugs, for instance isoniazid. Allergic reactions can occur, and 7% of patients who are allergic to aspirin or NSAIDs also react to acetaminophen. It is excreted in breast milk, but in very low concentrations. The manufacturer’s professional product information includes detailed listings of reported reactions, drug/drug interactions, and safety studies in patients with various diseases. There is no need to adjust dosage for the elderly or for those with liver or kidney disease. For most patients, including those with chronic disease, acetaminophen is the pain-reliever of choice due to its low risk. But recently a draft recommendation from the UK’s NICE (National Institute of Health and Care Excellence) has warned us against using it, at least to treat the pain of osteoarthritis. (more…)
The last couple of weeks, I’ve made allusions to the “Bat Signal” (or, as I called it, the “Cancer Signal,” although that’s a horrible name and I need to think of a better one). Basically, when the Bat Cancer Signal goes up (hey, I like that one better, but do bats get cancer?), it means that a study or story has hit the press that demands my attention. It happened again just last week, when stories started hitting the press hot and heavy about a new study of mammography, stories with titles like Vast Study Casts Doubts on Value of Mammograms and Do Mammograms Save Lives? ‘Hardly,’ a New Study Finds, but I had a dilemma. The reason is that the stories about this new study hit the press largely last Tuesday and Wednesday, the study having apparently been released “in the wild” Monday night. People were e-mailing me and Tweeting at me the study and asking if I was going to blog it. Even Harriet Hall wanted to know if I was going to cover it. (And you know we all have a damned hard time denying such a request when Harriet makes it.) Even worse, the PR person at my cancer center was sending out frantic e-mails to breast cancer clinicians because the press had been calling her and wanted expert comment. Yikes!
What to do? What to do? My turn to blog here wasn’t for five more days, and, although I have in the past occasionally jumped my turn and posted on a day not my own, I hate to draw attention from one of our other fine bloggers unless it’s something really critical. Yet, in the blogosphere, stories like this have a short half-life. I could have written something up and posted it on my not-so-secret other blog (NSSOB, for you newbies), but I like to save studies like this to appear either first here or, at worst, concurrently with a crosspost at my NSSOB. (Guess what’s happening today?) So that’s what I ended up doing, and in a way I’m glad I did. The reason is that it gave me time to cogitate and wait for reactions. True, it’s at the risk of the study fading from the public consciousness, as it had already begun to do by Friday, but such is life.
Pollyanna, a popular children’s book written in 1913 by Eleanor H. Porter, introduced the world to one of the most optimistic fictional characters ever created. She always saw the good in people and her approach to life frequently involved playing “The Glad Game”, where she attempted to find something to appreciate in every situation no matter how unfortunate. She was glad about receiving crutches rather than a doll one Christmas because it was great that she didn’t actually need them. She teaches this philosophy to those around her, even her cantankerous Aunt Polly, and the entire town is transformed into a veritable Mayberry, USA. Later, when she actually does require the use of crutches, her resolve is tested but she triumphantly finds a silver lining.
The Pollyanna principle, first described by Matlin and Stang in 1978 and also known as positivity bias, is a psychological tendency for people to place greater importance on, and assume better accuracy of, descriptive statements about them that are positive. This goes on behind the scenes while our conscious brain tends to dwell on what is perceived as negative stimuli. Though many folks do come across as pessimistic, we are subconsciously biased to accept praise and reject criticism. Anyone who isn’t clinically depressed is on some level more like Pollyanna than Eeyore.
This positivity bias also plays a large role in how we remember past events. As has been covered extensively in prior posts here on SBM, and on Dr. Novella’s excellent Neurologica blog, memory isn’t a replayed video or audio recording of prior events and our interpretations of them, but rather is a reconstruction that is prone to errors during processing and editing that accumulate over time. This leads to false memories that feel no less real than our recollection of what happened five minutes ago.
In this case, the Pollyanna principle results in positive information being more accurately processed and recalled than negative experiences. It also causes our memory of negative events to gradually become less negative as the years go by. I couldn’t have done that terribly during my first high school trumpet solo because I remember people telling me it was pretty good afterwards, right?
So what does this have to do with the practice of medicine? Biases that affect memory also impact how physicians and patients interact. I once assumed the overnight care of a child who had undergone a lumbar puncture performed by one of my female colleagues earlier that day. I ordered no tests and performed no procedures during my brief exposure to the family—yet over a year later when I admitted the same child for a completely different reason I was accused of being the terrible doctor who had unnecessarily subjected their baby to a spinal tap during the last hospitalization. Even after I showed them the documentation which proved that I had nothing to do with that (very appropriate) decision, and that I did not put a needle in their child’s spine, they refused to accept the evidence and had great difficulty trusting my diagnosis and recommendations.
One of the encouraging shifts I’ve seen in health journalism over the past few years is the growing recognition that antivaccine sentiment is antiscientific at its core, and doesn’t justify false “balance” in the media. There’s no reason to give credibility to the antivaccine argument when their positions are built on a selection of discredited and debunked tropes. This move away from false balance and towards a more accurate reflection of the evidence seems to have started with the decline and disgrace of Andrew Wakefield and his MMR fraud. And there is now no question that antivaccine sentiment has a body count: Simply look at the resurgence of preventable communicable disease. Today, antivaccinationists are increasingly recognized for what they are – threats to public health. It seems less common today (versus just 5 years ago) that strident antivaccine voices are given either air time or credibility in the media.
But false balance on topics like influenza can occur without giving a voice to groups like antivaccinationists. A more subtle technique to shift perceptions is both widespread and hard to detect, unless you’re aware of it: the naturalistic fallacy, known more accurately as the appeal to nature. In short, it means “It’s natural so it’s good” with the converse being “unnatural is bad.” In general, the term “natural” has a positive perception, so calling a product (or a health intervention) “natural” is implying goodness. The appeal to nature is so common that you may not even recognize it as a logical fallacy. Unnatural can be good, and natural can be bad: Eyeglasses are unnatural. And cyanide is natural. Natural doesn’t mean safe or effective. But the appeal to nature is powerful, and it’s even persuasive to governments. If we believe that health interventions and treatments should be evaluated on their merits, rather than whether or not they’re “natural”, then decisions to regulate “natural” products differently than the “unnatural” ones (like drugs) makes little sense. Yet the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act was a legislative appeal to nature, introducing a different regulatory and safety standard for a group of products while drawing a fallacious distinction with “unnatural” products like drugs. Canada fell for the appeal to nature too: It has the Natural Health Products Regulations which entrenched a lowered bar for efficacy and safety for anything a manufacturer can demonstrate is somehow “natural”. (more…)
The “just asking questions” maneuver is familiar to many skeptics. The idea is to feign neutrality, to insulate oneself from accountability or being held to answer for any specific position, but meanwhile to sow doubt about a scientific claim by raising (dubious) questions.
Sometimes the “I’m just asking questions” gambit also tries to disguise itself as sincere journalism. That’s what journalists do, right, ask the tough questions, uncover the uncomfortable truth?
I find this approach particularly deceptive. It tries to hide the fact that the journalist is working off of a particular narrative. Asking questions is, in fact, just another narrative style, one that is meant to lead the reader/viewer to a particular conclusion about the subject. The narrative determines what questions are asked and how they are answered.
A perfect example of this deceptive approach is the HIV denialist movie, House of Numbers. Here is the synopsis from the movie’s website:
What is HIV? What is AIDS? What is being done to cure it? These questions sent Canadian filmmaker Brent Leung on a worldwide journey, from the highest echelons of the medical research establishment to the slums of South Africa, where death and disease are the order of the day. In this up-to-the-minute documentary, he observes that although AIDS has been front-page news for over 29 years, it is barely understood. Despite the great effort, time, and money spent, no cure is in sight.
Robert Todd Carroll, the author of The Skeptic’s Dictionary, has a new book out: The Critical Thinker’s Dictionary: Biases, Fallacies, and Illusion and what you can do about them. Since some of our commenters and most of the CAM advocates we critique are constantly committing logical fallacies, a survey of logical fallacies is a good idea both for us and for them, and this book fits the bill.
When I received the book in the mail, I set it aside, thinking it would be a somewhat boring listing of things I already knew. When I finally got around to reading it, I was surprised and delighted. It held my interest, reminded me of things I had forgotten, explained other things I had never heard of, and provided entertaining stories to illustrate each point. Best of all, the bulk of his examples are taken from medicine and relate directly to the topics we discuss on SBM.
Carroll is well-qualified to write about logical fallacies: he is a retired professor of philosophy who has long promoted skepticism and taught classes in critical thinking, and he writes in an entertaining, accessible style. He started The Skeptic’s Dictionary website in 1994 with 50 articles and it has now grown to several hundred articles. It attracts more than a million visitors a month, and some of its entries have been translated into more than a dozen languages. It has become a go-to reference for anyone seeking the facts on questionable claims about everything from crop circles to homeopathy. Its articles are thorough and well documented with lots of references and links. (more…)
Somehow, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore—except that we are, as you will soon see.
Because I’m the resident cancer specialist on this blog, it usually falls on me to discuss the various bits of science, pseudoscience, and quackery that come up around the vast collection of diseases known collectively as “cancer.” I don’t mind, any more than my esteemed colleague Dr. Crislip minds discussing infectious diseases and, of course, vaccines, the most effective tool there is to prevent said infectious diseases. In any case, there are certain things that can happen during a week leading up to my Monday posting slot on SBM that are the equivalent of the Bat Signal. Call them the Cancer Signal, if you will. One of these happened last week, thus displacing that post I’ve been meaning to write on a particular topic once again. At this rate, I might just have to find a way to write an extra bonus post. But not this week.
In any case, this week’s Cancer Signal consisted of a series of articles and news reports with titles like: