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The difference between science-based medicine and CAM

“Alternative medicine,” so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), or, as it’s become fashionable to call it, “integrative medicine” is a set of medical practices that are far more based on belief than science. As Mark Crislip so pointedly reminded us last week, CAM is far more akin to religion than science-based medicine (SBM). However, as I’ve discussed more times than I can remember over the years, both here and at my not-so-super-secret-other blog, CAM practitioners and advocates, despite practicing what is in reality mostly pseudoscience-based medicine, crave the imprimatur that science can provide, the respect that science has. That is why, no matter how scientifically implausible the treatment, CAM practitioners try to tart it up with science. I say “tart it up” because they aren’t really providing a scientific basis for their favored quackery. In reality, what they are doing is choosing science-y words and using them as explanations without actually demonstrating that these words have anything to do with how their favored CAM works.

A more important fundamental difference between CAM and real medicine is that CAM practices are not rejected based on evidence. Basically, they never go away. Take homeopathy, for example. (Please!) It’s the ultimate chameleon. Even 160 years ago, it was obvious from a scientific point of view that homeopathy was nonsense and that diluting something doesn’t make it stronger. When it became undeniable that this was the case, through the power of actually knowing Avogadro’s number, homeopaths were undeterred. They concocted amazing explanations of how homeopathy “works” by claiming that water has “memory.” It supposedly “remembers” the substances with which it’s been in contact and transmits that “information” to the patient. No one’s ever been able to explain to me why transmitting the “information” from a supposed memory of water is better than the information from the real drug or substance itself, but that’s just my old, nasty, dogmatic, reductionist, scientific nature being old, nasty, dogmatic, reductionist, and scientific. Then, of course, there’s the term “quantum,” which has been so widely abused by Deepak Chopra, his acolytes, and the CAM community in general, while the new CAM buzzword these days to explain why quackery “works” is epigenetics. Basically, whenever a proponent of alternative medicine uses the word “epigenetics” or “quantum” to explain how an alternative medicine treatment “works,” what he really means is, “It’s magic.” This is a near-universal truth, and even the most superficial probing of such justifications will virtually always reveal magical thinking combined with an utter ignorance of the science of quantum mechanics or epigenetics.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Homeopathy, Medical Academia

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The problem with preclinical research? Or: A former pharma exec discovers the nature of science

If there’s one thing about quacks, it’s that they are profoundly hostile to science. Actually, they have a seriously mixed up view of science in that they hate it because it doesn’t support what they believe. Yet at the same time they very much crave the imprimatur that science provides. When science tells them they are wrong, they therefore often try to attack the scientific method itself or claim that they are the true scientists. We see this behavior not just in quackery but any time scientific findings collide with entrenched belief systems, for example, medicine, evolution, anthropogenic global warming, and many others. So it was not surprising that a rant I saw a few weeks ago by a well-known supporter of pseudoscience who blogs under the pseudonym of Vox Day caught my interest. Basically, he saw a news report about an article in Nature condemning the quality of current preclinical research. From it, he draws exactly the wrong conclusions about what this article means for medical science:

Fascinating. That’s an 88.6 percent unreliability rate for landmark, gold-standard science. Imagine how bad it is in the stuff that is only peer-reviewed and isn’t even theoretically replicable, like evolutionary biology. Keep that figure in mind the next time some secularist is claiming that we should structure society around scientific technocracy; they are arguing for the foundation of society upon something that has a reliability rate of 11 percent.

Now, I’ve noted previously that atheists often attempt to compare ideal science with real theology and noted that in a fair comparison, ideal theology trumps ideal science. But as we gather more evidence about the true reliability of science, it is becoming increasingly obvious that real theology also trumps real science. The selling point of science is supposed to be its replicability… so what is the value of science that cannot be repeated?

No, a problem with science as it is carried out by scientists in the real world doesn’t mean that religion is true or that a crank like Vox is somehow the “real” intellectual defender of science. Later, Vox doubles down on his misunderstanding by trying to argue that the problem in this article means that science is not, in fact, “self-correcting.” This is, of course, nonsense in that the very article Vox is touting is an example of science trying to correct itself. Be that at it may, none of this is surprising, given that Vox has demonstrated considerable crank magnetism, being antivaccine, anti-evolution, an anthropogenic global warming denialist, and just in general anti-science, but he’s not alone. Quackery supporters of all stripes are jumping on the bandwagon to imply that this study somehow “proves” that the scientific basis of medicine is invalid. A writer at Mike Adams’ wretched hive of scum and quackery, NaturalNews.com, crows:

Begley says he cannot publish the names of the studies whose findings are false. But since it is now apparent that the vast majority of them are invalid, it only follows that the vast majority of modern approaches to cancer treatment are also invalid.

But does this study show this? I must admit that it was a topic of conversation at the recent AACR meeting, given that the article was published shortly before the meeting. It’s also been a topic of e-mail conversations and debates at my very own institution. But do the findings reported in this article mean that the scientific basis of cancer treatment is so off-base that quackery of the sort championed by Mike Adams is a viable alternative or that science-based medicine is irrevocably broken?

Not so fast there, pardner…
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Clinical Trials

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A Christmas Card from the SkepDoc

The holiday season is upon us. As a bit of a holiday from science-based writing, I thought I would offer some thoughts inspired by the season and not supported by any scientific evidence.

One of my friends refers to Christmas as “The Feast of St. Dyspepsia.” Holidays are indeed an occasion for over-indulging. People change their routine: they have time off work, they travel, spend too much money, go to parties, skip exercising, eat and drink things they ordinarily avoid, gain weight, and then suffer from post-holiday guilt.

Science and Mom both tell us we will be healthier if we eat our fruits and vegetables, exercise, avoid large quantities of alcohol, get enough rest, avoid stress, and control our weight. I would argue that if we follow that guidance most of the time, an occasional lapse is not likely to matter very much. And the pleasure we experience might even be good for our health.

Now for some heretical words.

Science isn’t everything. Health isn’t everything. Even truth isn’t everything. Humans find value in other things like music and mythology, things that bring great pleasure and help make life worth living.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Why You Can’t Depend On The Press For Science Reporting

I admit that the title of this post is a little inflammatory, but it’s frustrating when reporters call for input and then proceed to write unbalanced accounts of pseudoscientific practices. A case in point – my last post described a conversation I had with a reporter about energy medicine. My interviewee was very nice and seemed to “track” with me on what I was saying. I did my level best to be compelling, empathic, and fair – but in the final analysis, not a single word of what I said made it into her article. For fun, I thought you’d like to compare what I said, with the final product.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Disease has always been with us, but modern, Western medicine is only a few hundred years old.

Before germ theory and pharmaceutical research, the human race devised countless strategies to relieve pain, banish illness and prolong life. Southern Marylanders are keeping a few of these ancient disciplines alive, insisting they have much to teach us, even in a scientific age. (more…)

Posted in: Energy Medicine, Science and the Media

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Is Francis Collins Bringing Sexy Back To Science?

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Rudy Tanzi, Joe Perry, Francis Collins

I know. I was just as surprised as you are. Dr. Francis Collins, former director of the Human Genome Project, author of The Language Of God, and new director of the National Institutes of Health performed live in front of a group of Washington locals at the Capitol building today. He actually jammed with Aerosmith’s Joe Perry in an “unplugged” performance of Bob Dylan’s, “The Times They Are A Changin’.” This is not the kind of thing one expects in the hallowed halls of the Capitol building. But maybe it’s time to expect the unexpected?

I’ve spent some time on this blog wondering about the difference between being “right” and being “influential” – and how to combat the Jenny McCarthyism that is misleading Americans about their health. I’ve argued that we need to find a way to rekindle the public’s interest in good science, and learn to speak to folks in a way that is captivating and respectful. I guess that some of our peers are engaged in a rebranding of science.
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Posted in: Science and the Media

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Why We Need Science: “I saw it with my own eyes” Is Not Enough

I recently wrote an article for a community newspaper attempting to explain to scientifically naive readers why testimonial “evidence” is unreliable; unfortunately, they decided not to print it. I considered using it here, but I thought it was too elementary for this audience. I have changed my mind and I am offering it below (with apologies to the majority of our readers), because it seems a few of our readers still don’t “get” why we have to use rigorous science to evaluate claims. People can be fooled, folks. All people. That includes me and it includes you. Richard Feynman said

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool.

Science is the only way to correct for our errors of perception and of attribution. It is the only way to make sure we are not fooling ourselves. Either Science-Based Medicine has not done a good job of explaining these vital facts, or some of our readers are unable or unwilling to understand our explanations.

Our commenters still frequently offer testimonials about how some CAM method “really worked for me.” They fail to understand that they have no basis for claiming that it “worked.” All they can really claim is that they observed an improvement following the treatment. That could indicate a real effect or it could indicate an inaccurate observation or it could indicate a post hoc ergo propter hoc error, a false assumption that temporal correlation meant causation. Such observations are only a starting point: we need to do science to find out what the observations mean. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Science-Based Medicine 101: How To Establish A Source’s Credibility

I thought I’d do a little SBM 101 series for our lay readers. Forgive me if this information is too basic… at least it’s a place to start for those who are budding scientists and critical thinkers. :)

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Which news source do you trust more: The New York Times or The National Enquirer? Which news reporter would you trust more: Charlie Gibson or Jerry Springer? As it turns out, medical journals and science researchers run the gamut from highly credible and respected to dishonest and untrustworthy. So as we continue down this road of learning how to evaluate health news, let’s now turn our attention to pillar number one of trustworthy science: credibility.

In medical research, I like to think of credibility in three categories:

1. The credibility of the researcher: does the researcher have a track record of excellence in research methodology? Is he or she well-trained and/or have access to mentors who can shepherd along the research project and avoid the pitfalls of false positive “artifacts?” Has the researcher published previously in highly respected, peer reviewed journals?

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Posted in: Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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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 And The Game Of 20 Questions

An audience member at a recent NYC Skeptics meeting asked me how I handled conflict surrounding strongly held beliefs that are not supported by conclusive evidence. As a dentist, he argued, he often witnessed professionals touting procedure A over procedure B as the “best way” to do X, when in reality there are no controlled clinical trials comparing A and B. “How am I to know what’s right in these circumstances?” He asked.

And this is more-or-less what I said:

The truth is, you probably can’t know which procedure is better. At least, not at this point in history. The beauty of science is that it’s evolving. We are constantly learning more about our bodies and our environment, so that we are getting an ever-clearer degree of resolution on what we see and experience.

It’s like having a blurry camera lens at a farm.  At first we can only perceive that there are living things moving around on the other side of the lens – but as we begin to focus the camera, we begin to make out that the animals are in the horse or cattle family. With further focus we might be able to differentiate a horse from a cow… and eventually we’ll be able to tell if the horse has a saddle on it, and maybe one day we’ll be able to see what brand of saddle it is. Each scientific conundrum that we approach is often quite blurry at the onset. People get very invested in their theories of the presence or absence of cows, and whether or not the moving objects could in fact be horses. Others say that those looking through the camera contradict one another too much to be trusted – that they must be offering false ideas or willfully misleading people about the picture they’re describing.

In fact, we just have different degrees of clarity on issues at any given point in time. This is not cause for alarm, nor is it a reason to abandon our cameras. No, it just gives us more reason to continue to review, analyze, and revise our understanding of the picture at hand. We should try not to make more out of photo than we can at a given resolution – and understand that contradicting opinions are more likely to be evidence of insufficient information than a fundamental flaw of the scientific method.
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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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