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Bill Maher: Still an antivaccine crank after all these years

Bill Maher (right) pays rapt attention to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (left) as he gives pointers about how to be a crankier antivaccine crank.

Bill Maher (right) pays rapt attention to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (left) as he gives pointers about how to be a crankier antivaccine crank.

It is with reluctance that I decided to write about this topic again, given how many times I’ve written about it over the last decade, both here and at my not-so-super-secret other blog and given how little his fans seems to care when I do. I’m referring to the antivaccine stylings of comedian and political pundit Bill Maher, something I’ve been writing about for over a decade now. Indeed, a little more than five years ago, I stirred up a bit of trouble in the skeptical community through some particularly harsh criticisms of Bill Maher, in particular of the Atheist Alliance International’s (AAI) decision to award Maher the Richard Dawkins Award. More than once, I’ve likened giving Bill Maher an award that lists “advocates increased scientific knowledge” anywhere in its criteria, not to mention being named after Richard Dawkins, to giving Jenny McCarthy an award for public health, given that, at least when it comes to medicine, Maher is anti-science to the core. Along the way, I’ve ruffled the feathers of some of both Dawkins’ and Maher’s fans.

Arguably Maher reached his peak of antivaccine advocacy through his weekly HBO talk show, Real Time With Bill Maher, five years ago, when the H1N1 pandemic was going on and public health officials were working hard to persuade people to get vaccinated against H1N1 influenza. Indeed, it got so bad that his own guests, such as Bill Frist and Bob Costas, were openly dissing him on his own show for his antivaccine views. Perhaps my favorite example came from Bob Costas, who in response to a wild claim by Maher that he doesn’t worry about getting the flu, even in the crowded confines of an airplane because of his superior lifestyle that apparently made him immune, blurted out, “Oh, come on, Superman!” Even worse, a friend of Maher, Michael Shermer, published an “Open Letter to Bill Maher on Vaccinations” in—of all places—The Huffington Post, which led Maher to respond, both on his show (in which he referred to vaccination as a “risky medical procedure”) and in a post on HuffPo himself entitled “Vaccination: A Conversation Worth Having“. It was, as a certain “friend of the blog” put it, a pyre of stupidity.
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Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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“America’s Quack” strikes back

Wile E. Coyote or Dr. Henry Miller? You be the judge!

Wile E. Coyote or Dr. Henry Miller? You be the judge!

Those of you who read my not-so-super-secret other blog (or who follow the news) familiar with this, but I feel that what happened over the last couple of weeks with respect to a man to whom I like to refer as “America’s Quack” is worth posting right here, in modified form.

Last week, a group of ten doctors led by Dr. Henry Miller, most of whom were affiliated either with the Hoover Institution or the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH)—or both—wrote a letter to Lee Goldman, MD, the Dean of the Faculties of Health Sciences and Medicine at Columbia University complaining that Dr. Mehmet Oz shouldn’t be faculty at Columbia University because of his “disdain for science and for evidence-based medicine, as well as baseless and relentless opposition to the genetic engineering of food crops” and “an egregious lack of integrity by promoting quack treatments and cures in the interest of personal financial gain.” The letter produced a fair amount of media attention a week ago. I originally mildly approved of it, but over the course of a few days after the letter was released, my opinion on it soured. The reasons were several and included a profound distaste for threatening letters sent to a person’s employers, admittedly based in part on my own experiences having been at the receiving end of such intimidation tactics, as well as a concern that the letter had been written with no clear purpose behind it other than as a publicity stunt to embarrass Dr. Oz and Columbia. When I learned that Dr. Oz was planning to answer the letter on his show this week, there were predictions that this particularly bone-headed publicity stunt would backfire spectacularly. And it did.
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Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Science and the Media, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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Stem cells versus Gordie Howe’s stroke, part 3

Gordie Howe in his Red Wings days.

Gordie Howe in his Red Wings days.

Here I am in Philadelphia attending the 2015 American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) meeting to imbibe the latest basic and translational science about oncology. So what am I doing in my non-conference time? I’m holed up in my hotel room near Rittenhouse Square writing a DoD Grant and this post. Fortunately, I am nearly done with the grant, with nothing I can do until I receive one last letter of support from a person who, as much as he’s my bud, is incredibly annoying and always makes me sit on pins and needles waiting for his letter of support. (Those of you who’ve applied for a lot of grants know what I mean.) Then tomorrow I will have to assemble the PDF package to get to my grants office two days before the deadline, which is pushing it to make sure they get it uploaded to Grants.gov in time. Fun times.

With the Stanley Cup playoffs just getting underway (complete with the ugly faux “Stanley Cup” made out of garbage cans our next door neighbor’s son puts on his lawn every year, bathed in red light for the Red Wings), it’s also the perfect time to revisit a story I’ve written about a couple of times before right here on this very blog. I’m referring (this time) to the story of hockey legend Gordie Howe and news stories of his “miraculous” recovery from a serious stroke suffered back in October due to treatment at a stem cell clinic in Tijuana back in December. Of course, when I looked into it, there were a lot of holes in the story and clearly a lot of hype on the part of several parties: Howe’s son Murray Howe, whose love for his father apparently blinded him to some rather obvious issues with the care that his father was receiving and whether it was responsible for his recovery; Stemedica, the American stem cell company based in San Diego that sells its stem cells to a dubious Mexican stem cell company, Novastem, for use outside its U.S. clinical trials; and, of course, the credulous sports media, led by that most credulous of the credulous (with respect to Gordie Howe), Keith Olbermann, who was none too pleased with a certain not-so-pseudonymous “friend” of SBM and completely embarrassed himself in the process of attacking anyone who questioned whether stem cells caused Howe’s recovery. The whole story did have one salutary effect, though. It introduced me to a real stem cell scientist, Paul Knoepfler, who did a guest post for us.

It’s been a couple of months since I last paid attention to what was going on with Gordie Howe’s recovery. Fortunately, our very own Scott Gavura tweaked me by sending me a story by Avis Favaro and Elizabeth St. Philip that appeared over the weekend in the Toronto Star, entitled “A closer look at the startling recovery of Gordie Howe.” Accompanying the story is a broadcast on CTV’s W5 entitled “Gordie’s Comeback”. (See part 1, part 2, part 3.) Also accompanying all of this is a press release discussing how a Canadian stem cell researcher visited Novastem and left unimpressed.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and the Media

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Integrative medicine, naturopathy, and David Katz’s “more fluid concept of evidence”

The Integrative Medicine Wheel

The Integrative Medicine Wheel

Dr. David Katz is undoubtedly a heavy hitter in the brave new world of “integrative medicine,” a specialty that seeks to “integrate” pseudoscience with science, nonsense, with sense, and quackery with real medicine. In fairness, that’s not the way physicians like Dr. Katz see it. Rather, they see it as “integrating” the “best of both worlds” to the benefit of patients. However, as we’ve documented extensively here, on our personal blogs, and even in the biomedical literature (plug, plug), what “integrative” medicine means in practice is indeed what I characterized, the infiltration of woo into medicine. This infiltration seems to have started mainly in academia—hence the term “quackademic medicine” and “quackademia”—with the steady infiltration of nonsense into medical schools and academic medical centers, but has since metastasized to the world of community hospitals. This “integration” (or, as I like to refer to it, “infiltration”) has become so pronounced that a few years ago The Atlantic published an article entitled “The Triumph of New Age Medicine“, and just last December the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (JNCI) published a monograph full of articles touting “integrative oncology,” including guidelines recommended by the Society of Integrative Oncology (SIO) for the “integrative” treatment of breast cancer symptoms.

I mention Dr. Katz for two reasons. First, he’s taken another broadside at us at Science-Based Medicine in blog entry at The Huffington Postwhere else?—entitled “Holism, Holes and Poles” that I’ve been meaning to address for a while. But before I address Dr. Katz’s most recent complaint against science-based medicine (SBM), it’s necessary to step back and look at some history.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Naturopathy

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Angelina Jolie, surgical strategies for cancer prevention, and genetics denialism (revisited)

Angelina Jolie

Angelina Jolie

Sometimes, weird things happen when I’m at meetings. For example, I just got home from the Society of Surgical Oncology (SSO) meeting in Houston over the weekend. Now, one thing I like about this meeting is that, unlike so many other meetings these days—cough, cough, ASCO, I’m looking at you—at the SSO there wasn’t a single talk I could find about “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or, as its proponents like to call it now, “integrative medicine.” It’s also a great chance to get caught up on new science and clinical guidelines in cancer surgery, as well as to see people I tend only to see at these meetings.

However, I must admit that by the last day I tend to be “meeting-ed” out and sometimes my attention wanders. Unfortunately, there are ample ways to indulge that attention deficit. Actually, it’s my iPhone. And it’s Twitter. So it was an odd coincidence that right after a talk by Dr. Deanna Attai about whether surgical oncologists can or should offer genetic counseling services to their patients, when I somehow let myself get into an exchange with Sayer Ji, the “natural health expert” responsible for GreenMedInfo, over BRCA1 mutations and the risk of breast and ovarian cancer, in other words, exactly the sort of thing that Dr. Attai had just discussed. For example:

After a bit of back-and-forth, I got fed up:

This minor Twitter exchange came about because of Angelina Jolie’s announcement in a New York Times op-ed last week entitled “Diary of a Surgery” that she had had her ovaries removed to prevent ovarian cancer due to her being a carrier of a high-risk mutation in BRCA1. As you might recall, I wrote about Jolie’s case two years ago, when she first announced in a NYT op-ed entitled “My Medical Choice” that she had undergone a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction to decrease her BRCA1-related risk of breast cancer. Although I had discussed the story before, I thought it worth doing again here in a bit more detail. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Surgical Procedures

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On the “right” to challenge a medical or scientific consensus

Jenny McCarthy flaunting her "expertise" at the antivaccine "Green Our Vaccines" rally in Washington, DC in 2008

Jenny McCarthy flaunting her “expertise” at the antivaccine “Green Our Vaccines” rally in Washington, DC in 2008

The major theme of the Science-Based Medicine blog is that the application of good science to medicine is the best way to maintain and improve the quality of patient care. Consequently, we spend considerable time dissecting medical treatments based on pseudoscience, bad science, and no science, and trying to prevent their contaminating existing medicine with unscientific claims and treatments. Often these claims and treatments are represented as “challenging” the scientific consensus and end up being presented in the media—or, sadly, sometimes even in the scientific literature—as valid alternatives to existing medicine. Think homeopathy. Think antivaccine views. Think various alternative cancer treatments. When such pseudoscientific medicine is criticized, frequently the reaction from its proponents is to attack “consensus science.” Indeed, I’ve argued that one red flag identifying a crank or a quack is a hostility towards the very concept of a scientific consensus.

Indeed, I even cited as an example of this attitude a Tweet by Jane Orient, MD, executive director of the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS). This is an organization of physicians that values “mavericky-ness” above all else, in the process rejecting the scientific consensus that vaccines are safe and effective and do not cause autism or sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), that HIV causes AIDS, and that abortion doesn’t cause breast cancer, to name a few. Along the way the AAPS embraces some seriously wacky far right wing viewpoints such as that Medicare is unconstitutional and that doctors should not be bound by evidence-based practice guidelines because they are an affront to the primacy of the doctor-patient relationship and—or so it seems to me—the “freedom” of a doctor to do pretty much damned well anything he pleases to treat a patient.
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Posted in: Critical Thinking, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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A brief bit of shameless self-promotion…The Prince of Wales edition

PrinceCharles-590x350

In an effort to expand the Gorski empire almost to the level of the Crislip empire and to try to make it to somewhere within two or three orders of magnitude of the Novella empire, I’ve published an article on Slate.com about Prince Charles’ visit to our fine country entitled “Prince of Pseudoscience“. Consider this the mandatory shameless self-promotion that all SBM bloggers take advantage of from time to time to publicize their activities elsewhere.

Enjoy! (I hope.)

I’m told that Dana Ullman has made an appearance in the comments. I might have to head on over after work tonight…

Posted in: Announcements, Homeopathy, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media

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Medical marijuana as the new herbalism, part 3: A “cannabis cures cancer” testimonial

Medical marijuana as the new herbalism, part 3: A “cannabis cures cancer” testimonial

It’s been a while since I discussed medical marijuana, even though it’s a topic I’ve been meaning to come back to since I first dubbed medical marijuana to be the equivalent of herbalism and discussed how the potential of cannabinoids to treat cancer has been, thus far, unimpressive, with relatively modest antitumor effects. The reason I refer to medical marijuana as the “new herbalism” is because the arguments made in favor of medical marijuana are very much like arguments for herbalism, including arguments that using the natural plant is superior to using specific purified cannabinoids, appeals to how “natural” marijuana is, and claims of incredible effectiveness against all manner of diseases, including deadly diseases like cancer, based on anecdotes and testimonials. Now, as I pointed out before, not only am I not opposed to the legalization and regulation of marijuana for recreational use, even though I’ve never tried it myself, but I support it. What I do not support are claims for medical effects that are not backed up with good scientific evidence, and for medical marijuana most claims fall into that category. That’s why I tend to view medical marijuana as a backdoor way to get marijuana legalized. Personally I’d rather advocates of marijuana legalization drop the charade, argue for legalization, and stop with the medical nonsense.

The last time around, I discussed the evidence supporting claims that “cannabis cures cancer” and found them to be wanting based on science. I didn’t however, discuss the “cannabis cures cancer” testimonial machine that drives the claim that marijuana is useful for treating cancer; at least, I only touched on it by discussing briefly Rick Simpson, who claims that his hash oil cures approximately 70% of patients with terminal cancer and a published anecdote in which it was claimed that hemp oil was effective in treating acute lymphoblastic leukemia. (It wasn’t. At least, the evidence presented was not convincing.) Since then, I’ve wanted to revisit the topic of “cannabis cures cancer” testimonials, and, for whatever reason, now seems like a good time to do it.
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Posted in: Cancer, Herbs & Supplements

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Clinical trials of homeopathy versus “respect for science”

Trojan Rabbit

A few months ago, Steve Novella and I published an article in Trends in Molecular Medicine entitled “Clinical trials of integrative medicine: testing whether magic works?” It was our first foray together into publishing commentary about science-based medicine versus evidence-based medicine, using a topic that we’ve both written extensively about over the years on this blog and our respective personal blogs. Specifically, we discussed whether it is worthwhile to do randomized clinical trials (RCTs) testing highly improbable treatments, such as reiki and homeopathy, both of which have no physical basis to believe that they do anything whatsoever. As I’ve said many times before, reiki is simply faith healing in which Eastern mysticism is substituted for Christian beliefs, and homeopathy, as we’ve discussed many times here on SBM, is vitalistic sympathetic magic with no evidence to support its two laws.

To our surprise, that article generated a fair amount of press (for example this), with accounts of it showing up in the media in various places and Steven and I being asked to do a fair number of interviews. Part of the reason, I suspect, is that the editor made the article available for free for a month after its initial publication. (Unfortunately it’s back behind the pay wall again.) Part of the reason is that, intuitively, it makes sense to people not to waste money testing what is, at its core, magic. When I followed up that publication with an article criticizing “integrative oncology” in Nature Reviews Cancer entitled “Integrative oncology: Really the best of both worlds?“, the target was well and truly on my back. Indeed, let’s just say that the Society for Integrative Oncology and the Consortium of Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine (CAHCIM) are quite unhappy with me. When both their letters to the editor are published (right now, only one is), I might even blog about them.

In the meantime, I want to deal with criticism published in an unexpected place, albeit not by unexpected critics. The reason is that this criticism relies on a common straw man caricature of what we are saying when we advocate science-based medicine (SBM) that considers prior plausibility in determining what modalities to test in clinical trials and understands Bayesian thinking in which prior plausibility affects posterior plausibility that a “significant” result is not a false positive in contrast to the current evidence-based medicine (EBM) paradigm, which relegates basic science knowledge, even well-established principles of science that show that something like, say, homeopathy or reiki is impossible under the current understanding of physics, chemistry and biology, to the lowest rung on the EBM pyramid. It’s also a criticism that comes up frequently enough that, even though it’s been addressed before in various ways by various SBM bloggers, it’s worth revisiting from time to time. In this case, that’s particularly so because one of the two critics taking Steve and me to task is currently embroiled in a controversy about testing homeopathy for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) at the University of Toronto (more details on that later). Let’s just say, the criticism of Steve and me gives me an “in” to address a story that I thought had passed me by, and I intend to take it.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Homeopathy

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The Gerson protocol, cancer, and the death of Jess Ainscough, a.k.a. “The Wellness Warrior”

The Wellness Warrior website now redirects to this photo.

The Wellness Warrior website now redirects to this photo.

Less than four days ago, a young Australian woman died of a very rare type of cancer. Most of my American and probably many of my European readers have never heard of her, but in Australia she had become quite famous over the last seven years as a major proponent of “natural health.” Her name was Jess Ainscough, but, like a certain American woman who has become famous for promoting dubious science, she was better known by her “brand” name. That brand name was The Wellness Warrior.

I first encountered Ms. Ainscough about a year and a half ago and have been intermittently following her career ever since. I’ve even blogged about her three or four times during that period over at my not-so-super-secret other blog. However, for whatever reason, even though it was my intent to write about her here on Science-Based Medicine, I never got around to it. Her death prodded me to write now, because her tale is a cautionary one important enough that I believe there should be something written here about it. Given that, those of you who follow my cubical other self will find some of this post repetitive. However, think of it as the first opportunity I’ve had to tell the story from beginning to end, along with a major deconstruction of the Gerson protocol. (Yes, unfortunately the Gerson protocol figures heavily in this story.) It’s a story that has led to the deaths of at least two people, and whose harm to others is impossible to quantify, given that the reach of The Wellness Warrior was long, at least in Australia.
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Posted in: Cancer, Herbs & Supplements, History, Science and the Media

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