There is a trend in the media when presenting a contentious topic to provide balance. For topics not founded upon objective facts this serves the media well; provide both sides of the argument, and let the viewer decide. The problem is that not every issue is evenly balanced, particularly in science. Covering the discovery of a new extra-solar planet by giving equal airtime to astronomers and astrologers, for example, would be the height of absurdity, yet this is precisely how the media approaches scientific topics with frightening regularity. You need look no further than the coverage of evolution, or 2012, or global climate change (that list should derail the comments nicely) for excellent examples of the same type of false balance in mainstream media outlets.
It was with trepidation, then, that I waited to see how PBS’s Frontline handled the topic of vaccination. I was pleasantly surprised. “The Vaccine War” introduced the most common concerns expressed about vaccination, and then presented the evidence addressing each concern in turn clearly and concisely. It gave airtime to some rather prominent anti-vaccine personalities, but the bulk of the program was dedicated to the data, the science, the evidence, and where answers are available it did not hesitate to present them baldly and clearly. “The Vaccine War” was not a comprehensive review of every perspective, every theory, every vaccine and study, but it did provide a fair discussion balanced by the science.
My first clue that Frontline had acquitted itself well was when Dr. Jay Gordon, pediatrician to Jenny McCarthy’s son, tweeted his opinion of the show:
PBS show about vaccines. Don’t bother to watch it.” (more…)
A few years ago a friend asked me to comment on advice given to her adult daughter by a psychiatrist whom she’d consulted for depression. The psychiatrist had recommended testing samples of saliva and urine for hormone and neurotransmitter levels, the results of which would likely indicate a need for supplements to correct deficiencies or imbalances. According to the psychiatrist, who had an academic appointment at a medical school in New York City, “I have been using these supplements with a great deal of success.” My friend is not medically or scientifically sophisticated, but this made her a little uncomfortable. In that, she was entirely justified.
During our recent panel discussion at the NECSS, a member of the audience identified himself as a clinical pathologist at a major medical center, and wondered what he might do to become involved in the good fight against encroaching pseudoscience in medical schools. Clinical pathology is the medical specialty that concerns itself, in summary, with laboratory tests—their development, their validity, their interpretation, their usefulness and, by implication, their misuse. A topic that we haven’t much featured on SBM (we touched upon it here, here and here, and probably elsewhere) is that of bogus laboratory or other diagnostic tests.
Early in my own education in modern quackery, I found it particularly distasteful not merely that quacks misuse laboratory tests, but that several commercial laboratories market misleading tests. To the untrained eye these laboratories appear to be legitimate, even to the point of their being approved by apparently legitimate certifying bodies. We’ll discuss that below, but first let’s look more closely at the psychiatrist’s recommendations to my friend’s daughter and at other examples of bogus tests.
On Tuesday night PBS FRONTLINE aired an episode about the anti-vaccine movement entitled The Vaccine War (which, by the time you read this, should be available for online viewing in case you missed it). When I first heard that this show was going to air, I was a bit concerned. My concern, of course is what I’m always concerned about when journalists do a story about pseudoscience, be it the anti-vaccine movement, “intelligent design” creationism, various “alternative medicine” modalities, or whatever. We’ve written about such things right here on SBM on more than one occasion, be it Dr. Jay Gordon on The Doctors or Andrew Wakefield being interviewed by Matt Lauer. Although FRONTLINE has done a pretty good, science-based job on controversial topics, I felt some trepidation, particularly after seeing some of the promos for the show, even though it featured Dr. Paul Offit, and other physicians and scientists.
Fortunately, I needn’t have worried. The Vaccine War is not perfect. There are some definite flaws, but by and large it is a rare thing on TV: A science-based discussion of a pseudoscientific movement. True, the opening montage did bring back a bit of that anxiety that this was going to be a “tell both sides” bit of false balance in that it included J.B. Handley blathering and Jenny McCarthy spewing her same false dilemma of measles versus autism. (She’d choose the measles, of course.) I was able to forgive that, because it’s very clear that the producers were just setting up the story. The show then launched straight into a birth and a list of the vaccines that children get, with Melinda Wharton of the CDC and Paul Offit pointing out how much good vaccines do, how we no longer see diseases that once killed thousands or even milions.
Those with an anti-vaccine ideology come from various starting points. There are those who just hate vaccines – because they don’t trust the system, they don’t like the idea of injecting something into their children, or they blame vaccines for their child’s illness or disorder. There is also the “mercury militia” – those who blame environmental mercury for all ills, and whose attention was drawn to vaccines through the mercury-based thimerosal connection. I wrote recently about another group – radical environmentalists who see vaccines and just another environmental exposure the government is trying to cover up.
There is another group that has been around for a while but about which I have not written before – some elements of the right-to-life group. What is their connection to vaccines? – the false belief that vaccines contain cells from aborted fetuses. Recently Lifenews published an article with the following headline: Study Suggests Link Between Autism and Use of Cells From Abortions in Vaccines. The study, of course, does nothing of the sort.
The EPA Study
LifeNews editor, Steven Ertelt, was referring to a recent EPA study published in Environmental Science Technology called Timing of Increased Autistic Disorder Cumulative Incidence. If you read the paper you will find no mention of vaccines, let alone fetal cells in vaccines. The study simply looked at databases of autism diagnosis to see if there was a point at which the increasing cumulative diagnoses was most sharp – any turning points in the data. The point of this exercise is to suggest where to look for a potential environment factor contributing to autism – because that’s what the EPA does, look for environmental exposures that are causing human disease.
The American Society of Bariatric Physicians recently invited me to speak at their continuing medical education (CME) conference on obesity in Seattle. They got my name from Stephen Barrett of Quackwatch and asked if I could speak about questionable weight loss treatments like HGH, MIC (methionine, inositol and choline), and the HCG Diet. I seized the opportunity to discuss how to evaluate any medical claim, with examples from alternative medicine as well as from weight loss. My title was “Questionable Evidence for Questionable Treatments.” I talked about some of the things that can go wrong in clinical trials and why simply finding reports of positive randomized controlled trials (RCT) is not enough. I advocated rigorously science-based medicine and recommended the SBM website.
Several people came up afterwards to express their thanks and their agreement, but some of the questions from the audience were rather hostile. One man said he was a military doctor and he was using and teaching acupuncture (which I had criticized as a bad example of “tooth fairy science” in my talk). I asked for his opinion of battlefield acupuncture and he just said “No comment.” A couple of people thought science wasn’t enough and thought it was okay to prescribe questionable treatments when there was no proven effective treatment. I responded that I had no objection as long as the patient was told the facts and not given the false impression that the questionable treatment had been tested and shown to work.
I was glad for the chance to meet some of the ASBP members. I had never met a bariatric physician and was interested to learn about their practices and philosophies. I had never really thought about the fact that most obese patients had associated diseases like hypertension and diabetes, so their overall management could be very complex. I attended the whole obesity course: some of what I heard was educational, some of it was questionable, and some of it was frankly disturbing. (more…)
Last week I participated in a panel discussion at NECSS with John Snyder, Kimball Atwood, and Steve Novella, who reported on the conference last Monday. What I mentioned to some of the attendees is that I had managed to combine NECSS with a yearly ritual that I seldom miss, namely the yearly meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) meeting. There are two huge cancer meetings every year, AACR and the annual meeting of the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO). AACR is the meeting dedicated to basic and translational research; ASCO, as the word “clinical” in its name implies, is devoted mainly to clinical research. Personally, being a translational researcher myself and a surgeon, I tend to prefer the AACR meeting over ASCO, not because ASCO isn’t valuable, but mainly because ASCO tends to be devoted mostly to medical oncology and chemotherapy, which are not what I do as a surgeon. Each meeting draws between 10,000 to 15,000 or even more clinicians and researchers dedicated to the eradication of cancer.
Having taken the Acela train from the NECSS meeting in New York straight to Washington, DC for the AACR meeting, I couldn’t help but think a bit about the juxtaposition of our discussion of the infiltration of quackademic medicine into medical academia with the hard core science being discussed at AACR. One session in particular at AACR highlighted what is one of the most significant differences between science-based medicine and the various forms of “alternative” medicine that we discuss here on SBM on such a regular basis. That difference, quite simply put, is the difference between the simple and the complex. “Alternative” medicine supporters often scoff at practitioners of science-based oncology, asking why we don’t have a “cure for cancer” yet—as if cancer were a single disease!—or why we haven’t made much more progress since President Richard Nixon declared “war on cancer” back in 1971. One part of the answer is that cancer is incredibly complicated. Not only is it not a single disease, but each variety of cancer is in and of itself incredibly complicated as well. To steal from Douglas Adams, cancer is complicated. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly complicated it is. I mean, you may think algebra is complicated, but that’s just peanuts to cancer.
Back in 2008 I wrote on Near Death Experiences (NDE’s). I have an interest in this topic as I have frequent exposure to near death; my wife has a predilection for watching Judge Judy. Since 2008 there have been a few studies on the topic of NDEs as researchers try and find evidence that consciousness transcends the brain, if that is what a NDE represents. I have also been ill for most of the last week and have not had the usual time to spend generating typos to drive some readers to distraction. Fortunately, I have a miracle cure that is 100% effective in resolving all my self-limited illnesses: time. It passed and with it the illness. As a result I am about 10 days behind in the commitments in my life, so this will be a shorter than usual post.
To be blunt up front – SBM is not apologetic about the pharmaceutical industry. We get zero funding from any company, and have no ties of any kind to “big pharma.” In today’s world I have to spend time making that clear, because despite the reality critics are free to assume and falsely claim that our message is coming straight from the bowels of hell (a.k.a. the pharmaceutical industry).
We promote science-based medicine and criticize pharmaceutical companies along with everyone else when they place other concerns ahead of scientific validity, or promote bad science, for whatever reason.
It has become fashionable, however, to not only criticize the pharmaceutical industry but to demonize them – and the term “big pharma” has come to represent this demonization. Cynicism is a cheap imitation of skepticism – it is the assumption of the worst, without careful thought or any hint of fairness.
The health marketplace has a life of its own, mostly separated from science and evidence. Generally the marketplace gets a hold of an idea and runs with it, before the science is carefully worked out. Since most new ideas in science turn out to be wrong, that means most products will eventually be found to be worthless.
One such idea is that “brain training” can improve overall cognitive function – so of course now there is an industry of products which claim to train your brain. Lumosity (just to pick a random example served up by Google) claims on their website:
* Improve memory and attention
* Shown to improve cognitive function
* Neuroscience based brain training
* Train your brain today
I always enjoy the phrase “scientifically designed” or “scientifically formulated” – they are wonderful marketing phrases that invoke “science” without making any specific claims.
In his new book Breakthrough! How the 10 Greatest Discoveries in Medicine Saved Millions and Changed Our View of the World Jon Queijo describes what he believes are the 10 greatest discoveries. 9 of them are uncontroversial discoveries that have been on other top-10 lists, but his 10th choice is one that no other list of top discoveries has ever included. He realizes that, and even admits in his introduction that a former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine refused to review his book because there is no such thing as alternative medicine, only treatments that work and treatments that don’t. But he “respectfully disagrees.”
Hippocrates’ discovery that disease had natural causes, sanitation, germ theory, anesthesia, X-rays, vaccines, antibiotics, genetics, and treatments for mental disorders are all worthy candidates for the list. But Queijo ludicrously lists the “rediscovery of alternative medicine” as the tenth “great discovery.” He presents no evidence (because there is no evidence) that alternative medicine has “saved millions” or that it has saved anyone. He doesn’t realize that alternative medicine represents a betrayal of exactly the kind of rigorous scientific thinking and testing that led to all the other discoveries. His list of ten breakthroughs is actually a list of 9 breakthroughs and one breakdown. (more…)