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Hostility towards scientific consensus: A red flag identifying a crank or quack

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I have yet another grant deadline to deal with, this time for the Department of Defense Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs, this time around its Breast Cancer Research Program. Unfortunately, that put a high degree of time pressure on me. Fortunately, there’s still stuff in the archives of my not-so-secret other blog that I deem quite appropriate for this blog and that can be updated with minimal effort. If you don’t know what I’m talking about when I refer to my not-so-secret other blog, then it’ll definitely be new to you. If you haven’t been reading that blog for at least four and a half years, it’ll be new to you as well. And even if you have seen it before, I think it’s worth revisiting.

Why? It came up because of an encounter I had on Twitter with Jane Orient, MD, who, as you might recall, is the executive director of the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS). I’ve written about the AAPS before. You can get the details in the link, but if you don’t have time suffice to say that it is an entire organization of libertarian-leaning “brave maverick doctors” who think Medicare is unconstitutional, don’t believe that the government should have much, if anything, to do with regulating the practice of medicine, and reject evidence-based guidelines as an unholy affront to the independence of the physician. Along the way, the AAPS, through its journal, The Journal of American Association of Physicians and Surgeons (often abbreviated JPANDS), promoted antivaccine views, including the discredited concept that vaccines cause sudden infant death syndrome, HIV/AIDS denialism, and the scientifically unsupported idea that abortion causes breast cancer (a topic I might have to revisit, given the activity promoting it recently).

In any case, two or three weeks ago, I was having a bit of an exchange with Dr. Orient over anthropogenic global climate change (often abbreviated as AGW, for anthropogenic global warming, for short), the well-accepted science that concludes that CO2 generated by human activity is having a serious warming effect on the earth’s climate. As you might expect, she’s not big on this particular scientific consensus. I forgot about it, but then the other day saw this Tweet exchange between Dr. Orient and Ed Wiebe:
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Posted in: Critical Thinking, Science and Medicine

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Selective pressures on alternative medicine

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(Editor’s note: I was away at Skepticon over the weekend, where I gave a talk entitled “The Central Dogma of Alternative Medicine”. (When the talk’s up on YouTube, I’ll provide a link, of course.) Because of all the fun and travel delays I didn’t get a chance to turn my slides and notes into a blog post yet. Also, I’m on vacation this week. However, this gives me the opportunity to resurrect a blog post from 2007 on my not-so-super-secret other blog, because I think the concept is interesting. I even use it in a slide that shows up in many of my talks (above). I’ve updated dead links and added some text to include relevant links to posts written since. Enjoy, and I’ll definitely be back next week with original material, if not sooner, given that there are others here who might have the temerity to take part or all of this week off.)

I wish I had thought of this one, but I didn’t. However, I never let a little thing like not having thought of an idea first to stop me from discussing it (even if Steve Novella’s also discussed it), and this particular idea is definitely worth expanding upon because (1) it’s interesting and (2) it combines two of my interests, alternative medicine and evolution. I agree with parts of the idea, but it’s not without its shortcomings. Indeed, I’d very much welcome any of the evolutionary biologists who read this blog to chime in with their own ideas.

A colleague of mine, Martin Rundkvist over at Aardvarchaeology, has proposed a rather fascinating idea regarding the evolution of alternative medicine in which he argues that alternative medicine evolves according to certain selective pressures. As you may or may not know, evolution is not just for biology, but has been proposed as a mechanism in cultural memes, for example. Since alternative medicine is a cultural phenomenon, it is not unreasonable to look at such non-evidence-based medicine and hypothesize what might be the selective pressures that shape its popularity and evolution. After all, if we’re going to discourage the use of non-evidence-based medicine or even quackery, it’s helpful to understand it. We already know that alt-med terminology has evolved considerably into the current preferred term, “integrative medicine.” (See also the image above and my blog posts on this evolution here and here.)
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Posted in: Basic Science, Evolution, Science and Medicine

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Animal rights activism: Petitions aren’t science

I had originally planned on writing about a different topic today, but, as is so often the case in blogging, something came up that caught my attention, much as the errant thought of a squirrel distracts Dug the Dog. It’s no big deal. My original topic is not time-sensitive, and I’ll get to it next week (that is, unless something like this happens again). In any case, my tendency towards blogging ADHD notwithstanding, the “inspiration” for this post began on Friday morning, making it timely. Let me tell you what happened, and then I’ll delve into the topic.

We all have our daily rituals, and I’m no different. When I wake up in the morning, I usually check my iPhone to see how many e-mails I’ve gotten overnight. If there’s time before I have to leave for work, I’ll frequently go through them all right then, answering ones I can answer quickly and filing for later responses those that I can’t. If I don’t have time (as in I overslept), I’ll check them whenever I get an opportunity. Last Friday, I was rather surprised to see that the little badge on the Mail app showed well over three times the usual number of messages I get overnight, even accounting for e-mail notifications of comments on the blogs and the usual smattering of mailing list messages and the odd junk spam that got through the filters. So having that many messages in my unread mail queue caught my attention. Even when a new troll shows up in the comments of one of the blogs, I usually don’t get that many notifications. I figured I’d better go and check to see what was going on right then, rather than waiting until later. What I found was something that I never would have guessed.

As odd as it seems to me now, I had apparently been targeted by a Change.org petition Animal Experimenters – JUSTIFY YOUR SCIENCE CLAIMS. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Evolution

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It’s a part of my paleo fantasy, it’s a part of my paleo dream

There are many fallacies that undergird alternative medicine, which evolved into “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), and for which the preferred term among its advocates is now “integrative medicine,” meant to imply the “best of both worlds.” If I had to pick one fallacy that rules above all among proponents of CAM/IM, it would have to be either the naturalistic fallacy (i.e., that if it’s natural—whatever that means—it must be better) or the fallacy of antiquity (i.e., that if it’s really old, it must be better). Of course, the two fallacies are not unrelated. In the minds of CAM proponents, old is more likely to have been based on nature, and the naturalistic fallacy often correlates with the fallacy of antiquity. Basically, it’s a rejection of modernity, and from it flow the interest in herbalism, various religious practices rebranded as treatments (thousands of years ago, medicine was religion and religion was medicine—the two were more or less one and physicians were often priests as well), and the all-consuming fear of “toxins,” in which it is thought that the products of modernity are poisoning us.

Yes, there is a definite belief underlying much of CAM that technology and pharmaceuticals are automatically bad and that “natural” must be better. Flowing from that belief is the belief that people were happier and much healthier in the preindustrial, preagricultural past, that cardiovascular disease was rare or nonexistent, and that cancer was seldom heard of. Of course, it’s hard not to note that cancer and heart disease are primarily diseases of aging, and life expectancy was so much lower back in the day that a much smaller percentage of the population lived to advanced ages than is the case today. Even so, an implicit assumption among many CAM advocates is that cardiovascular disease is largely a disease of modern lifestyle and diet and that, if modern humans could somehow mimic preindustrial or, according to some, even preagricultural, lifestyles, that cardiovascular disease could be avoided. Not infrequently, evolutionary and genomic arguments are invoked, claiming that the estimated 10,000 years since the dawn of human agriculture is not a sufficiently long period of time for us to have evolved to handle diets rich in grains and meats and that we are “genetically wired” to exist on a diet like those of our paleolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors. For instance, in 2004, James H. O’Keefe Jr, MD and Loren Cordain, PhD wrote an article in the Mayo Proceedings entitled Cardiovascular Disease Resulting From a Diet and Lifestyle at Odds With Our Paleolithic Genome: How to Become a 21st-Century Hunter-Gatherer that asserted in essence, just that. Over the last decade, Cordain has become the most prominent promoter of the so-called “Paleo diet,” having written The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Foods You Were Designed to Eat and multiple other books advocating a paleolithic-mimetic diet as the cure for what ails modern humans. Meanwhile, diets thought to reflect what our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate, such as the Paleo Diet consisting largely of animal and fish that can be hunted and fruits and vegetables that can be foraged for in the wild, have been promoted as a near-panacea for the chronic diseases of aging, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.

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Posted in: Evolution, History, Nutrition

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Thumbthing Worth Reading

I intended to read Sam Kean’s new book The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius as Written by our Genetic Code  just for fun. I was expecting a miscellany of trivia loosely gathered around the theme of DNA. But I found something much more worthwhile that I thought merited a book review to bring it to the attention of our readers. Kean interweaves entertaining stories into a somewhat disjointed but nonetheless valuable history and primer of genetics. The title refers to Paganini, whose DNA created the unusual joint flexibility that facilitated his unprecedented feats of virtuosity on the violin.

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Posted in: Basic Science, Book & movie reviews, Evolution, History

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Evolution in Medicine

A recent series of article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) discusses the role of evolutionary biology in modern medicine. The authors collectively make a forceful point – medicine is an applied science. It is based upon a number of basic sciences, and one of those basic sciences is evolution.

The most obvious example is bacterial antibiotic resistance. Antibiotics place a selective pressure on a bacterial population, often resulting in the emergence of resistant strains. Understanding this “evolutionary arms race” between bacteria and antibiotics allows us to develop strategies for minimizing resistance.

But there are less obvious ways in which evolutionary principles apply to infectious diseases. It has been known for a long time that sickle-cell trait provides resistance to malaria (the blood cells are less hospitable to the P. falciparum protozoan parasite that is one cause of malaria). This explains the persistence of sickle cell disease in populations where malaria is endemic.

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Posted in: Evolution, Science and Medicine

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Could Francis Collins’ Faith Create Conflicts For His Potential Directorship of NIH?

Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., is probably best known for his leadership of the Human Genome Project, though his discoveries of the Cystic Fibrosis, Huntington’s, and Neurofibromatosis genes are also extraordinary accomplishments. Dr. Collins is a world-renowned scientist and geneticist, and also a committed Christian. In his recent best-selling book, The Language Of God, Dr. Collins attempts to harmonize his commitment to both science and religion.

Some critics (such as Richard Dawkins) have expressed reservations about Dr. Collins’ faith, wondering if it might cloud his scientific judgment. Since Collins is rumored to be the most likely candidate for directorship of the NIH, and because I wanted to know if Dawkins et al. had any reason for concern, I decided to read The Language Of God.

First of all, Christians are a rather heterogeneous group – with a range of viewpoints on evolution, science, and the interpretation of Biblical texts. On one extreme there are Christians (often referred to as “young earth creationists” or simply “creationists”) who believe in an absolutely literal interpretation of the Genesis story, and see evolution as antithetical to true faith. Dr. Collins suggests that as many as 45% of Christians may actually be in this camp.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Book & movie reviews, Evolution

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Science under Siege

A new book, Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience addresses many of the issues near and dear to the hearts of SBM bloggers and readers. A compilation of some of the best writing from the last few years of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, it’s not only good reading but can serve as a useful reference.

Skeptical Inquirer is the official magazine of what was formerly called The Committee for the Skeptical Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). It was formed in 1976 and in its early days it concentrated on things like Bigfoot, UFOs and psychics. It has morphed into the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the magazine is now described on its cover as “The Magazine for Science and Reason.” It has gone way beyond paranormal claims to address everything from intelligent design to AIDS denial. In the 3 decades of its existence it has performed an invaluable service by investigating alleged phenomena and testing claims scientifically, providing natural explanations for weird observations, refuting pseudoscientific arguments, and teaching people how science works and how to think critically.

We now have many skeptical magazines, including Michael Shermer’s Skeptic in the US and similarly named publications in the UK, Australia and elsewhere. But Skeptical Inquirer was the first. It was the trailblazer and set the standard.

The word “skeptic” has negative connotations for some. But it is really a positive, inquisitive, reality-based approach to all aspects of life. A skeptic is a person who asks for evidence before accepting a belief and who asks if there could be another explanation other than the first one that is offered. Scientists are skeptics. Skeptics think scientifically. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews

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Another Kind of Evolutionary Medicine

Last month I wrote about a book on evolutionary medicine that I could not recommend. Now I’ve found one I can recommend. Marlene Zuk, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Riverside, has written a delightful book entitled Riddled with Life: Friendly Worms, Ladybug Sex, and the Parasites That Make Us Who We Are. She describes how our parasites and diseases co-evolved with us: as we developed better defenses, they developed better weapons. “We do not choose to have them, but our lives are unimaginable without them, and for better or worse, they have made us who we are.” Parasites have altered our bodies in ways that science fiction filmmakers could never have imagined. She even suggests that we can thank parasites for the fact that we reproduce sexually rather than asexually.

She advocates an evolutionary medicine that “places diseases and defects in an evolutionary framework to make sense of the apparent mismatch between the way our bodies often work and the way we would like them to.” Evolution did not design our bodies for health, but to maximize reproduction.

“Just because our species evolved in a different environment does not mean …that following the ways of the past is automatically going to free us from the illnesses of modern life.” She incisively debunks the myth of the Paleolithic diet and points out that if we wanted to copy our hunter-gatherer ancestors we would have no way of deciding which ones to copy – the ones from 10,000 years ago or the ones from 100,000 years ago; the Inuits or the Kalahari Bushmen. She also points out that evolution explains why humans vary and why one diet won’t suit everyone. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Evolution

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Playing by the Rules

I recently read Flock of Dodos (no relation to the movie of the same name). It’s a hilarious no-holds-barred send-up of the lies and poor reasoning of the intelligent design movement. I was particularly struck by a quotation from William Dembski’s Intelligent Design.

We are dealing here with something more than a straightforward determination of scientific facts or confirmation of scientific theories. Rather we are dealing with competing world-views and incompatible metaphysical systems.

That cuts to the essence of what we are confronting on Science-Based Medicine. We are trying to evaluate the science behind claims that are often not based on science but on beliefs that are incompatible with science. The claimants are happy to use science when it supports them, but when it doesn’t they are likely to unfairly critique the science or even to dismiss the entire scientific enterprise as a “materialistic world view” or “closed-minded.” We are talking at cross purposes. How can we communicate if we say “this variety of apple is red” and they insist “it feels green to me”?

We get frustrated when we show these folks the scientific evidence and they refuse to accept it. Homeopathy is not only implausible, but it has been tested and has failed the tests. Yet proponents refuse to acknowledge those failures and still want to talk about data from the 19th century and make claims for the memory of water. We have to realize we are not even speaking the same language. We are trying to play a civilized game of gin rummy and they are dribbling a basketball all over the card table. Before getting into a debate, doesn’t it make sense to define what game you’re playing and what the rules are?

Science has been a very successful self-correcting group endeavor. It wouldn’t be successful if it didn’t follow a strict set of rules designed to avoid errors. [Note: there are no rules written in stone; I’m talking about conventions that are generally understood and accepted by scientists, conventions that grow naturally out of reason and critical thinking.] If proponents of alternative medicine want to play the science game, they ought to play by the rules. If they won’t play by the rules, they effectively take themselves out of the scientific arena and into the metaphysical arena. In that case, it is useless for us to talk to them about science.
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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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