Science-based medicine is a concept that is larger than the analysis of any specific topic. It is, essentially, an approach to answering health and medical questions, one that involves careful and thorough analysis of scientific evidence within a framework of understanding of critical thinking, mechanisms of self-deception, and the process of science itself. We feel this creates the best opportunity to arrive at tentative conclusions that are most likely to be reliable.
We often address claims that are the result of a very different process. In fact there seems to be a thriving subculture on the internet that emphasizes the naturalistic fallacy, fear of anything technological (including irrational chemophobia), paranoia about the government, corporations, and mainstream medicine, and embracing anything perceived as being contrarian, exotic, or radical. To this subculture science is either the enemy, or it is used (as Andrew Lang famously quipped) like a drunk uses a lamppost, for support rather than illumination. This approach is simultaneously gullible and cynical.
It is no surprise that those who follow this fatally flawed approach consistently arrive at the wrong conclusion, especially on any controversial scientific topic. The two most prominent netizens following this approach, in my opinion, are Joseph Mercola and Mike Adams. I do believe, however, that there is another hoping to join their ranks – Vani Hari, who blogs under the name Food Babe. (Mark Crislip also blogged about her here.)
Not long ago I wrote about the free online “Food for Thought” course. Joe Schwarcz (“Dr. Joe”) was one of the three professors teaching that course. He also has a radio show, a blog, a podcast, and he writes books. His newest book will be of particular interest to SBM readers: Is That a Fact? Frauds, Quacks, and the Real Science of Everyday Life.
I reviewed an earlier book of his, The Right Chemistry, for Skeptic magazine. You can read my review online here. I called him “The Carl Sagan of Chemistry” for his ability to popularize science and make it not only palatable but fascinating and entertaining. In the new book, Dr. Joe turns his attention to exactly the kind of subjects we cover on this blog. He is a chemist and most of us are physicians, but we reach the same conclusions because we look at the evidence from the same rigorous scientific viewpoint.
In The Right Chemistry, Dr. Joe explains that “chemical” does not mean “bad stuff” — chemicals make up the entire world, and we are made of chemicals that our own body manufactures. He shares his encyclopedic store of obscure and intriguing scientific facts. Have you ever heard of kangatarians? Did you know asparagus can grow up to 10 inches a day? Can you explain why crystals of Epsom salts crumble if you yell at them? Do you think explosives can’t be made on a plane with small amounts of liquids? (Dr. Joe thinks they can, but for obvious reasons he’s not divulging the recipe.) You probably didn’t know that in World War II the U.S. military developed a mixture called “Who Me?” that smelled like feces and was dispensed with an atomizer. French Resistance fighters were supposed to surreptitiously spray it on German officers to embarrass them, but it wasn’t a great success since the sprayer ended up as stinky as the sprayee.
Over the weekend, I was perusing my Google Alerts, along with various blogs and news websites, looking for my weekly topic, when I noticed a disturbance in the pseudoscience Force. It’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed many times before, but, as far as I can tell, I haven’t actually blogged about it here, at least not specifically, although I have mentioned it, particularly in posts about Stanislaw Burzynski. I have, however, blogged about it over at my not-so-super-secret other blog, which means that some of the thoughts (if you can call them that) that I plan to lay down in this post will likely seem familiar to some of you, but I think this is an important enough topic that I should cover it here, too. As arrogant as I might sometimes seem, even I’m not so deluded as to think that the fraction of SBM readers who are regulars at my not-so-super-secret other blog is anything greater than a clear minority, and even for those of you for whom there’s overlap I’ll try to make things different enough to be interesting.
On Friday, Sharon Hill published a post over at Doubtful News entitled Chiropractors get their spine out of place over critique. It’s about how chiropractors have reacted to a post by Steve Salzberg over at Forbes entitled New Medicare Data Reveal Startling $496 Million Wasted On Chiropractors. Salzberg’s blog post was basically about just that, namely the amount of money billed Medicare by chiropractors, information that’s possible to obtain since the government released Medicare billing data for individual practitioners. Salzberg pointed out that half a billion dollars is a lot of money, more than twice as much as what is wasted every year on the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and the National Cancer Institute’s Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine (OCCAM). The result was rapid. Chiropractors swarmed, complaining to Forbes.com, and making the usual threats to sue, much as they actually did sue Simon Singh and, fortunately, saw their lawsuit blow up in their faces.
This, of course, can be looked upon as a purely mercenary protection of turf and livelihood not unlike how Daniel Kopans attacks any study that finds mammography to be less effective than thought (or even ineffective) in decreasing deaths from breast cancer. There is, however, a form of backlash against criticism of pseudoscience that is different and, when I first encountered it, more disturbing to deal with. It’s a level of pure, visceral hatred that is difficult to understand; that is, until you try to put yourself into your “enemy’s” shoes. Consider this post an exercise in doing just that, an exercise that will no doubt shock at least one of our readers.
Not too long ago, I expressed alarm at a series of bills that were popping up like so much kudzu in various state legislatures, namely “right to try” bills. Both Jann Bellamy and I warned that these bills gave a false illusion of hope to patients with terminal illnesses. Basically, these laws claim to grant the “right” of patients with terminal illnesses to access promising experimental medicines that have not yet been approved by the FDA. Indeed, these investigational drugs need merely to have passed phase I trials, and these “right to try” laws would allow them to be used in pretty much any human with a terminal illness who can persuade a pharmaceutical company to let them have such drugs. Of course, as I pointed out, such laws are based on a false premise, namely that there are lots of promising drugs out there that could save lots of lives of terminally ill patients, if only the hidebound FDA would get out of the way and let the people try them. The problem (besides the false assumption behind such laws) is that they are all state laws, and the FDA and federal law still trump state laws with respect to drug approval.
Apparently, advocates of “right to try” laws have gotten around to trying to take care of that little obstacle, too. I’m referring to a federal law under consideration in the House of Representatives and championed by the usual suspects, including the Alliance for Natural Health USA, a “health freedom” group that has yet to see a pro-quackery bill it doesn’t like.
In any case, at the time I originally learned about this bill, HR 4475, which was introduced by Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) and entitled “The Compassionate Freedom of Choice Act of 2014,” its text hadn’t yet been published to the Congressional website. I did learn that the bill has been floating around for a while in various forms (for instance, former Representative Ron Paul (R-TX) apparently introduced it.) Now its text has been published, as Guy Chapman has noted. He calls it a “quack’s charter,” and he’s only off by a bit. The bill doesn’t go quite as far as he believes, but the bill is still plenty bad, man. If enacted, HR 4475 would amend the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act by inserting after section 561 (21 U.S.C. 360bbb) the text of HR 4475. This section of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act is entitled “Expanded Access to Unapproved Therapies and Diagnostics,” and it’s the section of the act that regulates exactly that. The interesting thing is that this particular section of existing law is the framework under which the whole system of single patient INDs (also known as “compassionate use exemptions”) is already based. As I’ve described before, single patients can receive promising unapproved drugs under what’s known as a single patient IND, which has to be approved by the Institutional Review Board and the FDA and allows single patients to receive unapproved drugs. You can (and many have) argued that the single patient IND process is too cumbersome and restrictive, but HR 4475 seeks to (mostly) nuke this requirement. You’ll see what I mean in a minute.
I don’t recall if I’ve ever mentioned my connection with the Cleveland Clinic Foundation (CCF). I probably have, but just don’t remember it. Long-time readers might recall that I did my general surgery training at Case Western Reserve University at University Hospitals of Cleveland. Indeed, I did my PhD there as well in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics. Up the road less than a mile from UH is the Cleveland Clinic. As it turns out, during my stint in Physiology and Biophysics at CWRU, I happened to do a research rotation in a lab at the CCF, which lasted a few months. OK, so it’s not much of a connection. It was over 20 years ago and only lasted a few months, but it’s something that gives me an obvious and blatant hook to start out this post, particularly given the number of cardiac patients I delivered to the CCF back in the early 1990s when I moonlighted as a flight physician for Metro LifeFlight.
Obvious and clunky introduction aside (hey, they can’t all be brilliant; so I’ll settle for nauseatingly self-deprecating), several of my readers have been sending me a link to a story that appeared in the Wall Street Journal the other day: A Top Hospital Opens Up to Chinese Herbs as Medicines: Evidence is lacking that herbs are effective. I also noticed that our fearless leader Steve Novella blogged about it and was tempted to let it pass, given that I had seemingly lost my window, but then I realized that there’s always something I can add to a post, even after the topic’s been blogged by Steve Novella. Whether that something is of value or not, I leave to the reader. So here we go. Besides, if this article truly indicates a new trend in academic medical centers, it’s—if you’ll excuse the term—quantum leap in the infiltration of quackademic medicine into formerly reputable medical centers. It’s a depressing thing, and it needs to be publicized.
As I write this post, a large outbreak of mumps is ongoing in Columbus, Ohio. The city, which on average sees a single case each year, has seen over 250 since February. To put things in further perspective, only about 440 cases are normally diagnosed in the entire United States annually. The outbreak began on the campus of Ohio State University, where about 150 cases have been identified, but no information about the index case has been reported thus far.
Although the current outbreak will likely smolder for months, the total number of cases thus far is considerably fewer than the worst of the past decade. A 2009-2010 outbreak in New York and New Jersey ended up affecting about 3,000 people. In 2006, about 6,500 college students throughout the Midwest were infected. It is unlikely we will see these kinds of numbers in Ohio, but even our worst in recent years pale in comparison to those that have occurred in England over the past decade, where there was a peak of about 56,000 documented cases in 2005.
The diagnosis of only a few hundred cases per year is a clear victory of the mumps vaccination program, which started in 1967. Prior to the widespread adoption of the vaccine, 186,000 cases were seen in the United States annually. That works out to a decrease in cases of over 99%. This reduction didn’t occur because of improved sanitation, cleaner water, or even sunspots. It occurred because of the hard work and dedication of vaccine researchers, medical professionals and the widespread public acceptance of a safe and effective vaccine.
Mumps doesn’t get the kind of press that measles outbreaks do. There are a number of reasons why this is true and reasonable. I will get into more detail, but essentially mumps, although it can result in significant morbidity, just isn’t as sexy and it isn’t a good candidate for anti-anti-vaccine poster child. Measles wins in that regard, and let’s hope it stays that way. I am terrified at the thought of HiB meningitis returning. But that doesn’t mean that mumps outbreaks can’t serve as fodder for educating the public on vaccines. First though, a primer on mumps.
We saw it coming. The re-emergence of vaccine-preventable disease should surprise no-one that’s been following the anti-vaccine movement.
Rebutting anti-vaccine rhetoric feels like a Sisyphean struggle. Steven Novella likened it to a game of whack-a-mole, where the moles are the same old tropes that keep popping up, no matter how often they are refuted with facts. Vaccines are a remarkable success of modern medicine: They are health interventions that are both demonstrably effective and remarkably cost-effective. Vaccination has likely prevented more deaths in the past 50 years than any other health intervention. Smallpox was a ruthless killer that took 300 million lives, just in the 20th century alone. Today it’s gone – eliminated forever. And now there are now over two dozen diseases that are vaccine-preventable. They should be an easy sell, and to most people, they are. But the control of vaccine-preventable disease relies in part on herd immunity – sufficient immunization to stop the spread of infection (no vaccine offers 100% protection) and protect those that cannot be immunized. Even a modest number of unvaccinated individuals can lead to reemergence of disease. None of this matters to antivaccinationists, to whom vaccines are bad. Viewing anti-vaccine websites for only five to ten minutes can increase the perception of risk of vaccination, and decrease the perceived risk of omitting vaccines. It also lowers vaccination intentions. By changing perceptions of safety, the willingness to vaccinate decreases. Now imagine that someone you believe to be a health professional openly questioned the efficacy and safety of vaccines – would it reduce your willingness to vaccinate? The evidence says it does. And that’s why the modern practice of naturopathy or “naturopathic medicine” is so concerning. Naturopaths have opposed vaccinations since the invention of naturopathy – starting with smallpox: (more…)
The infiltration of pseudoscience and simply bad medicine into mainstream medicine continues. Hospitals are an easy breech point because they are run by administrators who may have more talent and interest in marketing than in science. Many hospitals in my area, for example, proudly display their “integrative” centers, offering nutrition advice and massage alongside more dubious offerings, such as reflexology and reiki.
So-called “alternative” treatments are tempting because they are often not covered by insurance, and so patients will have to pay cash for them, and they are often inexpensive to run – so they are a nice cash cow for hospitals.
The Wall Street Journal reports another, more serious, chapter in this infiltration – the opening of Chinese herbal clinics, specifically in the Cleveland Clinic. The article itself is reasonably balanced, and lacks the gushing anecdotes that most such pieces have, but could certainly have been more hard-hitting in terms of the serious problems with herbal medicine.
Even though yesterday was Easter, and, as unreligious as I am, I was still thinking of taking it easy, there was one target that popped up that I just couldn’t resist. My wife and I were sitting around yesterday reading the Sunday papers and perusing the Internet (as is frequently our wont on Sunday mornings), when I heard a contemptuous harrumph coming from her direction. She then pointed me to an article in our local newspaper entitled Gluten-free beauty products in demand among some customers. Now, I must admit that I haven’t been keeping up with the gluten-free trend, other than how easily it fits within the niche of “autism biomed” quackery, where, apparently, nearly every “biomed” protocol for autistic children demands that gluten be stripped completely from their diets, lest the evil molecule continue to infect them with the dreaded autism. I’ve kept an eye the literature, but haven’t really written about gluten. That’s why I could immediately tell why my wife had called my attention to the article:
Amy Soergel’s lip gloss was making her sick. The problem, she realized, was gluten — hydrologized wheat protein, to be exact. Then she went to the hairdresser who used a shampoo that made her neck burn. Again, it contained gluten.
“There’s hidden gluten in many places you may not consider,” including stamp and envelope glues, toothpaste and lip balms, said Soergel, who has a store, Naturally Soergel’s, near Pittsburgh that caters to people with allergies. Indeed, for people with celiac disease, a bit of gluten that might get swallowed from a lipstick or a stream of shampoo in the shower can be enough to cause illness.
A slew of gluten-free skin care products have come on the market, including items from well-known companies such as Murad, Dr. Hauschka, EO, MyChelle, Suntegrity, Acure and derma-e. Many are sold in Whole Foods and other health food stores. If they’ve been certified by a third-party agency, an icon usually appears on the packaging.
Whole Foods. Of course, it had to be Whole Foods (among others). Let’s take a look at the whole gluten-free movement and then at the end I’ll revisit the question of gluten-free cosmetics and skin products.