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Is Addiction a Disease? Yes and No

Yes, it's a disease

Yes, it’s a disease

No, it's a habit

No, it’s a habit

Addiction is a puzzling phenomenon. Why do addicts persist in self-destructive behavior even after it has lost them their jobs, their family, their health, and their self-respect? Do they have any control over their behavior? If so, why don’t they control it? If not, why not? Two recent books shed light on these questions: The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction Is Not a Disease, by Marc Lewis and The Thirteenth Step: Addiction in the Age of Brain Science, by Markus Heilig.

Lewis is a neuroscientist and former addict; Heilig is a physician and addiction researcher. Lewis is convinced that addiction is not a disease, but a habit created by the neural circuitry of desire in the course of its normal functioning. Heilig is convinced that addiction is a chronic disease like diabetes that can’t be cured but that must be managed by lifelong treatment.

While they disagree about whether addiction is a disease, they actually agree about almost everything else. They agree that we should reject the stigma of addiction as a kind of moral failing. They reject the hypotheses that addiction is a matter of choice or self-medication. They think current diagnostic labels are inadequate. They both try to integrate two levels of information: the case histories of addicts and the scientific knowledge from research. They are both skeptical of AA and of conventional rehab programs. They both support evidence-based treatments. They both think addicts are not all alike and that individual addicts will respond better to individualized approaches. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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How not to debate a “pro-vaxer”

When people debating against vaccines win, children lose.

When people debating against vaccines win, children lose.

To say that the relationship that antivaccine activists have with science and fact is a tenuous, twisted one is a major understatement. Despite mountains of science that says otherwise, antivaccinationists still cling to the three core tenets of their faith, namely that (1) vaccines are ineffective (or at least nowhere near as effective as health officials claim; (2) vaccines are dangerous, causing autism, autoimmune disease, neurodevelopmental disorders, diabetes, sudden infant death syndrome, and a syndrome that is misdiagnosed as shaken baby syndrome; and, of course, (3) the Truth (capital-T, of course!) is being covered up by a nefarious combination of big pharma, the medical profession, and the government (in the US, primarily the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which works with pediatricians to produce the recommended schedule of vaccines). Because vaccine rejectors don’t have science on their side, they have to resort strategies common to science denialists like those who reject the scientific consensus about evolution or human-caused global climate change. These fallacious strategies include (but are not limited to) selective citation of evidence (i.e., cherry picking), misrepresentation and logical fallacies, impossible expectations about what science can deliver (e.g., vaccine denialists expecting 100% efficacy and 100% safety from vaccines or cancer quacks expecting 100% cure rates and no side effects from chemotherapy); fake experts (e.g., Andrew Wakefield); and, of course, conspiracy theories. Add to that appeals to personal freedom and “health choiceüber alles and painting any form of vaccine mandate as incipient totalitarianism, with those rejecting vaccines taking on the role of the Jews in Hitler’s Germany, and you have a pretty good idea of the sorts of arguments antivaccine activists resort to.

Not surprisingly, even the most diehard antivaccine advocate can get frustrated. After all, it must be very frustrating to have one’s posterior handed to one in arguments on the science of vaccines time and time again. Of course, for that purpose, like most science denialists, antivaccine activists have the Internet. In particular, they’ve taken full advantage of Facebook, and, more recently, Twitter. One such online gathering place is the public group known as Vaccine Resistance Movement (VRM). I encourage pro-science advocates to peruse this group, just to see that when I refer to people being anti-vaccine, there is no doubt that that is what they are. It was there that I found a rather telling document posted, for the benefit of antivaccine advocates everywhere.

Posted in: Critical Thinking, Vaccines

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No, Purell Does Not Breed Super-Anything

Pictured:  Mechanism of pumpy doom, or savior to us all?  Neither!

Pictured: Superbug spawner, or savior to us all? Neither!

Recently, I was sitting in a meeting and reached for the dispenser of Purell hand sanitizer sitting on the conference room table. A colleague of mine gave a small, rueful shake of her head to the person on her other side. Apparently I had erred. I asked what was the matter, and got a brief answer to the effect of “because superbugs.” We exchanged nothing more about it; the interaction was over before the alcohol had dried from my hands.

I wouldn’t have thought anything of such an interaction with anyone else, but my colleague is a PhD student in immunology, six years older and more schooled than I, doing her doctoral research in a lab run by a physician-scientist — a specialist in infectious disease, no less. A touch ironic.

And so I noticed a need for some mythbusting: alcohol-based hand sanitizers do not breed resistant bacteria. (more…)

Posted in: Epidemiology, Evolution, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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Announcing: Video Lecture Course on Science-Based Medicine

A couple of years ago, the James Randi Educational Foundation commissioned me to develop a series of 10 video lectures on Science-Based Medicine. After a lot of work and many vicissitudes, it has finally gone live on YouTube. The lecture titles are:

  1. Science-Based Medicine vs. Evidence-Based Medicine
  2. What Is CAM?
  3. Chiropractic
  4. Acupuncture
  5. Homeopathy
  6. Naturopathy and Herbal Medicine
  7. Energy Medicine
  8. Miscellaneous “Alternatives”
  9. Pitfalls in Research
  10. Science-Based Medicine in the Media and Politics

The series is accompanied by a Course Guide that can be downloaded as a pdf.



Posted in: Announcements, Science and Medicine

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SCAM Cell Therapies

Surprisingly, the best youth is in the chump.

Pictured: Stem cells.  Surprisingly, the best youth is in the chump.

Injecting animal cells into humans for therapeutic reasons has a long history. The most infamous was John Brinkley who injected goat testicles into 16,000 men in the 1920s and 30s to treat impotence. Harriet wrote a review of Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam, which covers the topic. I wonder who would get the title today. Chopra…Gesundheit.

I had thought this therapy was consigned to the sharps container of history. Of course not. No SCAM ever fades away.

As part of my ID reading I came across the headline “Q Fever Outbreak Among Travelers to Germany Who Received Live Cell Therapy — United States and Canada, 2014.”

It surpasses the classic “Notes from the Field: Campylobacter jejuni Infections Associated with Sheep Castration — Wyoming, 2011” for foolishness, where:

…men reported having used their teeth to castrate some of the lambs.

Really. A most curious way to acquire Campylobacter. But at least the castrators were doing practical, albeit eeewwwwwwww, work. And there is an alternative to teeth, including the Burdizzo Emasculatone, which is:

an elegant little tool especially suited to crushing the spermatic cords of a variety of male mammals. It really helps to make a neat job of what would otherwise be an unpleasantly messy endeavor, and the Burdizzo achieves the goal of bloodless castration admirably.

But I digress and leave to the commenters to make completely inappropriate remarks. Only the SCAM universe can be odder than infectious diseases. (more…)

Posted in: Homeopathy, Humor

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Brian Clement claims Hippocrates treatments “reverse” multiple sclerosis

Brian Clement

Brian Clement

American charlatan Brian Clement made another trip to Canada recently and was caught on audiotape claiming multiple sclerosis could be “reversed” at the Hippocrates Health Institute (HHI), where he serves as Director. This is yet another in a series of his misrepresentations about the effectiveness of the quack treatments offered at HHI. Indeed, Clement calls to mind the old joke about inveterate liars:

Q: Know how can you tell this guy is lying?

A: His lips are moving.

Once again, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), which has done an outstanding job exposing Clement and his mendacity, caught him in this particular fabrication. (The American media, by contrast, has largely ignored the story, even to the point of printing credulous puff pieces about Clement.) According to the CBC, it:

obtained a recording of a lecture Clement gave in September in Montreal where he said, “Last week, we had somebody at the institute that reversed multiple sclerosis.”

He went on to claim that many other people who visited his Florida spa, the Hippocrates Health Institute, saw similar results.

“A nurse that came to us two years ago was crippled, had braces on. By the time she left Hippocrates, she reversed the multiple sclerosis.

“And mainstream medicine, they think it’s remarkable. I’ve seen lots and lots of people over the years did that.”


Posted in: Cancer, Health Fraud, Legal, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media

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Exercise and Memory

exercise-brainThere is no escaping the evidence that regular moderate exercise is associated with a host of medical benefits. Among those benefits are perhaps improved memory and cognition, and questionably a decreased risk of developing dementia.

The latest study to show this correlation involved younger and older adults who wore a step-monitor. The number of steps they took during the study interval was then correlated with their performance on neuropsychological testing. The researchers found that for the older adults, but not younger adults, more physical activity correlated with better overall cognitive performance, but especially for face-name recognition.

This is a small study, with 60 subjects total. Also, the study is correlational only. It is possible that healthier older adults are both more physically active and cognitively nimble, because of underlying biological fitness. More cognitively active older adults may also be more physically active – the lines of cause and effect are plausible in multiple ways. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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American Academy of Family Physicians Home Study Course Recommends Non-Science-Based Treatments


Strong medicine…along with a little nonsense

Since passing my board exams in family practice in 1979 I have relied heavily on the American Academy of Family Physicians for continuing medical education via the American Family Physician and the AAFP home study programs. The AAFP prides itself on its evidence-based approach to medicine. In general, it delivers. But the recent FP Essentials Number 432 on “Chronic Pain Management” fell short. It recommended treating chronic pain with acupuncture, chiropractic, touch therapy, and S-adenosyl methionine (SAM-e), presenting them in a way that misled readers into thinking that the recommendations were based on good scientific evidence. They were not.

With 6,500 peer reviewed journals and over two million papers published every year, it is easy to find a study to support pretty much any point of view. John Ioannidis taught us that most published research findings are false, with preliminary studies frequently being overturned by larger, better follow-up studies. When evaluating the evidence for a treatment, it is not enough to find one or two positive studies. It is essential to also look for negative studies and for systematic analyses that weigh all the published evidence, and to put all the available evidence into perspective. The authors failed to do that. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Stanislaw Burzynski and Robert O. Young: How two quacks of a feather illustrate how poorly states regulate medical practice

Stanislaw Burzynski (upper panel) and Robert O. Young (lower panel), two quacks whose activities reveal the weaknesses in how the practice of medicine is regulated.

Stanislaw Burzynski (upper panel) and Robert O. Young (lower panel), two quacks whose activities reveal the weaknesses in how the practice of medicine is regulated.

One of the weaknesses in our system of regulating the practice of medicine in the United States is that, unlike most countries, we don’t have one system. We have 50 systems. That’s because the functions of licensing physicians and regulating the practice of medicine are not federal functions, but state functions. Each state sets its own laws and regulations governing the practice of medicine, making for wide variability from state to state. Some states are lax in their regulation (cough, cough, I’m talking to you, Texas), others are not so lax.

Given how often state medical boards and the other enforcement bodies states use to protect the public from professional misconduct and quackery, I thought I’d take this opportunity to update our readers on two men who have been frequent topics of discussion on this blog, Stanislaw Burzynski and Robert O. Young. The reason is that, through some bizarre confluence of events, both of them faced justice last week, in the form of a hearing due to action against Burzynski by the Texas Medical Board, and in the form of the trial of Robert O. Young in southern California.

What these two quacks share in common is that they’ve gotten away with their cancer quackery for a very long time, two decades in the case of Robert O. Young and nearly four decades in the case of Stanislaw Burzynski, with attempts by the law to bring them to heel having been largely ineffective. They are different in that one is a physician (Dr. Burzynski) and one is not (Young) and therefore different legal considerations come into play. Young, for instance, is a self-proclaimed naturopath known for his “pH Miracle Living” cure, which, he claims, can be used to cure basically any disease by “alkalinizing” the body. After two decades of running, he is being tried for practicing medicine without a license, and, of course, fraud. Burzynski, although not an oncologist, is a licensed physician in Texas and has been administering an unproven and almost certainly ineffective “natural” treatment consisting of substances derived from blood and urine that he dubbed “antineoplastons” (ANPs) back in the 1970s. He is also different in that he’s gotten away with this largely through abuse of the clinical trial process, which is regulated at the federal level through the FDA and the HHS. It is not, however, the federal government that is pursuing action against Burzynski, but rather the Texas Medical Board (TMB). Thus, while Young is on trial and could go to jail if he loses, if Burzynski loses he will only lose his license to practice medicine in the state of Texas.

Despite their differences, both Stanislaw Burzynski and Robert O. Young illuminate major shortcomings in how the legal system deals with quacks.

Posted in: Health Fraud, Politics and Regulation

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Separating Fact from Fiction in Pediatric Medicine: Ear Infections


Please don’t try chiropractic first, or at all, for any pediatric condition

As discussed numerous times on the pages of Science-Based Medicine, children are increasingly a target of chiropractors, with some even pushing for recognition as primary care practitioners. Despite a thoroughly inadequate training, and a lack of experience with ill pediatric patients, they believe that they have what it takes to recognize and manage common pediatric conditions or refer to an actual pediatric medical professional when they deem it appropriate. While a significant percentage of pediatric illness is self-limited, and thus might appear to respond to chiropractic manipulation, I have seen many deteriorate quickly and with little warning. The idea of an ill child suffering at the hands of a charlatan is terrifying.

Many chiropractors are of course more than happy to see pediatric patients without acting as their PCP. They love to claim that children are at risk of developing misalignment of the bones of the skull and spine, chiropractic subluxations, and numerous other conditions unique to alternative medical reality, particularly during the first few years of life. They tell caregivers that these insults can be subtle, or even silent for years, and that regular maintenance care is required to prevent severe problems, even going so far as to blame SIDS and “shaken baby syndrome” on these fictional entities.

Many chiropractors are also quick to claim that they can prevent or cure some of the most common conditions seen by pediatricians and family healthcare providers, such as viral infections of the upper respiratory tract, asthma, bedwetting, and ear infections to name just a few. By simply improving the function of the nervous system, chiropractors believe that they can “boost” the immune system’s ability to fight infections, improve control over bladder function, and even reduce airway inflammation and bronchoconstriction. If you think that sounds like nonsense, you’re right!


Posted in: Science and Medicine

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