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An open letter to NIH Director Francis Collins regarding his appearance at the Society for Integrative Oncology

Note from the editor: Since today is a holiday in the U.S., I had planned on taking the day off. Then I saw the subject of today’s post and had to respond. Also, please remember that, as always, the usual disclaimers apply. This letter represents my opinion, and my opinion alone. It does not represent the view or opinion of my university or cancer center—or anyone else, for that matter, other than me.

Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD
Director, National Institutes of Health

Dear Dr. Collins:

I am normally not one for writing open letters, but in this case I feel compelled to make an exception. This letter will have little or nothing to do with what seems to be the usual criticism leveled against you, namely your intense religious faith and claims. Personally, as a physician and scientist I don’t much care about what religion you follow and, unlike some writers such as Sam Harris, most definitely do not consider your strong Christian faith a disqualification for holding the position that you now hold. All I care about in an NIH director is how well he or she shepherds the scientific mission of the NIH and runs the organization. As a past (and hopefully future) NIH grantee, I want the NIH to fund and support only the most rigorous science and to be a well-run organization. Thus far in your tenure, I haven’t seen any anything major to worry about on that score.

Recently, however, I was very disappointed to discover that you will be the keynote speaker at the 8th International Conference of the Society of Integrative Oncology (SIO) in November. I hope that, when you agreed to accept this speaking engagement, you didn’t know just what it is that what you were accepting or what the Society for Integrative Oncology is, other than a professional society that was interested in hearing your views on faith and spirituality in cancer. In brief, it is our position that “integrative oncology” is a discipline that, at its core, is dedicated to “integrating” pseudoscience with science. No doubt you will think I am exaggerating, but I am not, as I hope to demonstrate. Worse, by agreeing to speak to the SIO, you will be providing it with the imprimatur of your position as NIH director. The NIH, as you know, is the most respected biomedical research institution in the U.S., if not the world, and that respect rubs off wherever you speak.

Posted in: Faith Healing & Spirituality, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media

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Utah Senator Orrin Hatch: A pit bull in defense of the supplement industry

Editor’s note: This weekend was truly NIH grant crunch time. I have to get my final version of my R01 to our university’s grants office by Tuesday, or it might not get uploaded by the July 5 deadline. (Funny how electronic submission, which was supposed to make applicants’ lives easier, seems to have made them harder.) Consequently, I decided to take a few minutes and spiff up a post I did not long ago for my other blog and use it here, mainly because it is particularly relevant to our usual SBM topics. I’ll be back next time with something new.

The weakness and ineffectiveness of the law in the U.S. regulating dietary supplements has been a frequent topic here on Science-Based Medicine, including the continued failure of efforts to address the serious shortcomings of current law and the illogic at its very heart. Indeed, over the last decade or so that I’ve paid attention to relevant issues regarding supplements continually amazed at how much supplement manufacturers can get away with and for how long. For example, one of the most recent atrocities against science occurred when Boyd Haley, disgraced chemistry professor at the University of Kentucky and prominent member of the mercury militia wing of the anti-vaccine movement, tried to sell an industrial chelator as a dietary supplement to treat autistic children. True, that was too much even for the underfunded, undermanned FDA to ignore, but it was amazing how long he got away with it. Apparently it takes someone trying to market a chemical compound that can’t by any stretch of the imagination be characterized as a “nutrient” or “food” to be so obviously against even the travesty of a mockery of a sham of a law regulating supplements (the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, or the DSHEA) that the FDA could take action.

Of course, here at SBM, we’ve written numerous posts on the shortcomings of the DSHEA. Basically, this law created a new class of regulated entities known as dietary supplements and liberalized the sorts of information that supplement manufacturers could transmit to the public. The result has been this:

It [the DSHEA] also expanded the types of products that could be marketed as “supplements.” The most logical definition of “dietary supplement” would be something that supplies one or more essential nutrients missing from the diet. DSHEA went far beyond this to include vitamins; minerals; herbs or other botanicals; amino acids; other dietary substances to supplement the diet by increasing dietary intake; and any concentrate, metabolite, constituent, extract, or combination of any such ingredients. Although many such products (particularly herbs) are marketed for their alleged preventive or therapeutic effects, the 1994 law has made it difficult or impossible for the FDA to regulate them as drugs. Since its passage, even hormones, such as DHEA and melatonin, are being hawked as supplements.

One might wonder how such a bad law could survive for so long (seventeen years now), but it has its defenders. One man, in particular, defends the DSHEA against all regulatory threats, foreign and domestic. His name is Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), and he was just the subject of a writeup in the New York Times last week referring to him as a “natural ally” of the supplement industry:

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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Blatant pro-alternative medicine propaganda in The Atlantic

Some of my fellow Science-Based Medicine (SBM) bloggers and I have been wondering lately what’s up with The Atlantic. It used to be one of my favorite magazines, so much so that I subscribed to it for roughly 25 years (and before that I used to read my mother’s copy). In general I enjoyed its mix of politics, culture, science, and other topics. Unfortunately, my opinion changed back in the fall of 2009, when, on the rising crest of the H1N1 pandemic, The Atlantic published what can only be described as an terrible bit of journalism lionizing the “brave maverick doctor” Tom Jefferson of the Cochrane Collaboration. The article, written by Shannon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer, argued, in essence, that vaccinating against H1N1 at the time was a horrendous waste of time and effort because the vaccine didn’t work. So bad was the cherry picking of data and framing of the issue as a narrative that consisted primarily of the classic lazy journalistic device of a “lone maverick” against the entire medical establishment that it earned the lovely sarcasm of our very own Mark Crislip, who wrote a complete annotated rebuttal, while I referred to the methodology presented in the article as “methodolatry.” Even public health epidemiologist Revere (who is, alas, no longer blogging but in his day provided a very balanced, science-based perspective on vaccination for influenza, complete with its shortcomings) was most definitely not pleased.

I let my subscription to The Atlantic lapse and have not to this day renewed it.

Be that as it may, last year The Atlantic published an article that wasn’t nearly as bad as the H1N1 piece but was nonetheless pretty darned annoying to us at SBM. Entitled Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science, by David Freedman, it was an article lionizing John Ioannidis (whom I, too, greatly admire) while largely missing the point of his work, turning it into an argument for why we shouldn’t believe most medical science. Now, Freedman’s back again, this time with a much, much, much worse story in The Atlantic in the July/August 2011 issue under the heading “Ideas” and entitled The Triumph of New Age Medicine, complete with a picture of a doctor in a lab coat in the lotus position. It appears to be the logical follow up to Freedman’s article about Ioannidis in that Freedman apparently seems to think that, if we can’t trust medical science, then there’s no reason why we shouldn’t embrace medical pseudoscience.

Basically, the whole idea behind the article appears to be that, even if most of alternative medicine is quackery (which it is, by the way, as we’ve documented ad nauseam on this very blog), it’s making patients better because of placebo effects and because its practitioners take the time to talk to patients and doctors do not. In other words, Freedman’s thesis appears to be a massive “What’s the harm?” argument coupled with a false dichotomy; that is, if real doctors don’t have the time to listen to patients and provide the human touch, then let’s let the quacks do it. Tacked on to that bad idea is a massive argumentum ad populum portraying alternative medicine as the wave of the future, in contrast to what Freedman calls the “failure” of conventional medicine.

Let’s dig in, shall we? I’ll start with the article itself, after which I’ll examine a few of the responses. I’ll also note that our very own Steve Novella, who was interviewed for Freedman’s article, has written a response to Freedman’s article that is very much worth reading as well.


Posted in: Acupuncture, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Nutrition, Science and the Media

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Science-based medicine, skepticism, and the scientific consensus

Editor’s note: This weekend was a big grant writing weekend for me. I’m resubmitting my R01, which means that between now and July 1 or so, my life is insanity, as I try to rewrite it into a form that has a fighting chance of being in the top 7%, which is about the level the NCI is funding at right now. This weekend, I buried myself in my Sanctum Sanctorum and tried like heck to try to pound the revision into a really good draft that I can distribute to my colleagues for feedback. Fortunately, I have some old posts that I can pull out, tart up (i.e., update a bit, as in correcting the parts that led me to groan as I reread them, thereby hopefully making them better). I think they’re quite good, if I do say so myself; so hopefully you will too.

There are some arguments made in blogs, articles, or books that strike me so hard that I remember them, even three and a half years later. Sometimes I even file them away for later use or response if the issue raised by them is interesting, relevant or compelling enough to me. Although this topic is a bit broader than many of the topics I write about for this blog, I think it also goes to the heart of science-based medicine and communicating scientific skepticism about medicine to the masses. A few years back, a Swedish blogger named Martin Rundkvist made a rather provocative observation about skepticism. Specifically, he argued that a “real skeptic always sides with scientific consensus.” Among his reasons was this one:

Science presupposes that all participants have a skeptical frame of mind and arrive at conclusions through rational deliberation. If a large group of knowledgeable people working in this way arrive at a consensus opinion, then there is really no good reason for anybody with less knowledge of the subject to question it. Informed consensus is how scientific truth is established. It’s always provisional and open to reevaluation, but as long as there’s informed consensus, then that’s our best knowledge. Humanity’s best knowledge.

Although at the time I saw where Martin was coming from, I found this viewpoint somewhat disturbing, leading me to echo Martin’s own words in response to his own rhetorical question asking whether accepting a scientific consensus is nothing more than “kowtowing to white-coated authority”: Well, yes and no.

Posted in: History, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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The impact of antivaccination lobbying

Here’s an excellent news report from Australia on the human costs of the anti-vaccine movement:

The video features Viera Scheibner, who has nothing good to say about vaccines and thinks that vaccines are dangerous and infectious diseases in childhood are good. It also features the stories of children who caught vaccine-preventable diseases. This is how it’s done.

Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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The ultimate in “integrative medicine,” continued

It’s been a recurring theme on this blog to discuss and dissect the infiltration of quackademic medicine into our medical schools. Whether it be called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or “integrative medicine” (IM), its infiltration into various academic medical centers has been one of the more alarming developments I’ve noted over the last several years. The reason is that “integrative” medicine is all too often in reality nothing more than “integrating” pseudoscience with science, quackery with medicine. The most popular modalities that medical schools and academic medicine centers can’t seem to resist are acupuncture and various forms of “energy” healing, such as reiki and therapeutic touch. Unfortunately, when you “integrate” something like reiki or therapeutic touch (TT), which basically assert that there is mystical, magical energy source (called the “universal source” by reiki practitioners, for example) that practitioners can tap into and channel into patients for healing effect, you are in essence integrating a prescientific understanding of the world with science, religious faith healing (which, let’s face it, is all that reiki is), and magic with reality.

Why would medical institutions ostensibly based on science do that?

I don’t know, but I know it’s happening. There are many forces that conspire to insert sectarian versions of medicine into bastions of scientific medicine. These include cultural relativism leading to a reluctance to call quackery quackery; financial forces such as the Bravewell Collaborative, which funds a number of IM programs at academic centers; the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM); and a variety of other factors. It’s been a depressing slide, and periodically I wonder just how much more pseudoscience can be “integrated” into medical schools and academic medical centers or how much further medical schools can go in pandering to nonsense. I’m not wondering anymore, at least for now, not after learning about a cooperative agreement between Georgetown University and the National University of Health Sciences:

Posted in: Chiropractic, Medical Academia, Naturopathy

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Anti-vaccine warriors vs. research ethics

Three weeks ago, the anti-vaccine movement took a swing for the fences and, as usual, made a mighty whiff that produced a breeze easily felt in the bleachers. In brief, a crew of anti-vaccine lawyers headed by Mary Holland, co-author of Vaccine Epidemic: How Corporate Greed, Biased Science, and Coercive Government Threaten Our Human Rights, Our Health, and Our Children, published a highly touted (by Generation Rescue and other anti-vaccine groups, that is) “study” claiming to “prove” that the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) had actually compensated children for autism. As is typical with such “studies” generated by the anti-vaccine movement, it was bad science, bad law, and just plain bad all around. The authors intentionally conflated “autism-like” symptoms with autism, trying to claim that children with neurological injury with “autism-like” symptoms actually have autism. Never mind that there are specific diagnostic criteria for autism and that, if the children actually had autism, many of them would have been given a diagnosis of autism. Never mind that what they were doing was akin to claiming that all patients with “Parkinson’s-like symptoms” have Parkinson’s disease. (Hint: They don’t.) Never mind that all they did was to demonstrate a prevalence of autism spectrum disorders among the VICP-compensated children that was clearly within the range of what would be anticipated if there were no relationship between vaccines and autism. Never mind all that. This was Holland’s big chance, but it went over like the proverbial lead balloon. No one bit, other than FOX News.

The study rapidly faded into the obscurity it so richly deserves, in spite of mighty efforts by Generation Rescue, SafeMinds, and the likes of Ginger Taylor to keep it alive and use it as a rallying point to persuade legislators to pass anti-vaccine-friendly legislation. You could feel the frustration in its backers as Holland’s study, into which groups like Generation Rescue had apparently poured their hopes of being vindicated, crashed and burned.

However, there’s one aspect of this study that I didn’t discuss. In fact, I thought of it as I read it, but I wasn’t sure. What I (and others) have noticed is that there was no statement in the article that approval had been obtained from the relevant institutional review boards (IRBs) to do human subjects research. For those not familiar with what an IRB is, an IRB is a committee that oversees all human subject research for an institution. It is the IRB’s responsibility to make sure that all studies are ethical in design and that they conform to all federal regulations. Basically, IRBs are charged with weighing the risks and benefits of proposed human subject research and making sure that

  1. risks are minimized and that the risk:benefit ratio, at least as well as it can be estimated, is very favorable;
  2. to minimize any pain, suffering or distress that might come about because of the experimental therapy; and
  3. to make sure that researchers obtain truly informed consent.

During the course of a study, regular reports must be made to the IRB, which can shut down any study in its institution if it has concerns about patient welfare.

Posted in: Medical Ethics, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Public Health, Vaccines

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Measles outbreaks, 2011

We frequently write about the consequences and costs of not vaccinating and how the anti-vaccine movement is causing real harm to real people through its assaults on public health. For example, through his fear mongering in the U.K., Andrew Wakefield, aided and abetted by a credulous and sensationalistic British media, managed to reverse decades of progress that had resulted in measles having come under control; as a result of plummeting vaccination rates in the wake of his 1998 Lancet case series, measles came roaring back in the U.K. Now it appears to be roaring back in Europe as well.

It’s bitterly ironic that news of measles outbreaks in the U.S. and Europe have come to the fore even as, over the long Memorial Day weekend, promoters of the scientifically discredited notion that vaccines cause autism gathered in a suburb of Chicago to sell “biomedical” treatments for autism and promote an anti-vaccine world view as part and parcel of the yearly autism quackfest known as Autism One. Adding to the grim irony is that last Thursday Nature published an issue with a special section devoted specifically to vaccines. The timing seemed just too deliciously appropriate to ignore. Think of it. In the Chicago area, there was a collection of anti-vaccine crackpots meeting to present fallacious “science” claiming that vaccines cause autism and all manner of chronic health problems. In contrast, one of the oldest and most distinguished scientific journals in existence publishes several articles in a single issue about vaccines. The karma was even stronger, given that the week before the CDC published a new Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) last week discussing the status of measles in the U.S.

Posted in: Public Health, Vaccines

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Fashionably toxic

It’s the toxins.

Toujours les toxines.

How many times have I read or heard from believers in “alternative” medicine that some disease or other is caused by “toxins”? I honestly can’t remember, but in alt-world, no matter what the disease or condition under discussion is, there’s a good chance that sooner or later it will be linked to “toxins.” It doesn’t matter if it’s cancer, autism, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, or that general malaise that comes over people who, as British comedians Mitchell and Webb put it, have more money than sense; somehow, some way, someone will invoke “toxins.”

I was reminded of this obsession among believers in unscientific medicine last Friday when I came across an article by Guy Trebay in the New York Times entitled The Age of Purification. The article appeared, appropriately enough, in the Fashion section and was festooned with photos of cupping, surely one of the silliest of the many “detoxification” modalities that alternative medicine practitioners use to claim to draw the “toxins” out of their clients through the application of, well, cups or various other containers in which the air had been heated in order to generate negative pressure when sealed to the skin and presumably thus bring them to a greater level of purification and health. Indeed, the only “detoxification” rituals sillier than cupping that I can think of off the top of my head are detoxifying footpads and “detox foot baths.”

Oh, wait. Scratch that. I forgot about ear candling, which must surely be the undisputed silliest “detox” treatment of all time—until someone thinks of an even sillier one. Or not. There are just so many silly “detox” procedures that it’s hard to select a “winner.”

Be that as it may, Trebay mixes sarcasm with exposition throughout his article in a rather amusing way that’s worth quoting:

My friend, like everyone else around, seemed to believe that mysterious, amorphous sludge had lodged in the anatomical crannies of half the local adult population. Unseen toxins were lurking, like Communists during the Red Scare.

The “toxins” required elimination, somehow, and thus at lunches, at cocktails, at dinner parties, normal conversations turned abruptly from the day’s news to progress reports on juice fasts, energy alignments, radical purging. From painful sessions with traditional healers to toxin-leaching treatments designed, it might seem, to clean out not just body but wallet, a surprising number of New Yorkers (not all of them well-to-do neurotics) are caught up in a new New Age, the Age of Purification.

How had it happened, I wondered, that so many otherwise sensible, urban people found themselves in the grip of a dreadful feeling that systems are down? “I just bought five pounds of carrots, ginger and kale and put it all in my Breville juicer and pounded that all day,” said a corporate adviser of my acquaintance, far from a credulous woo-woo type.

Of course, as we have noted so many times before, hard-nosed skepticism in one area of one’s life does not necessarily translate to other areas. Many are the people who would never ever fall prey to scams in business, for example, but happily fork over money for scams such as “detox footpads”—or fall for anti-vaccine quackery, like J.B. Handley. Whatever the case, why this fascination with “detoxification” in alternative medicine? Why do so many of its treatments, be they dietary, chelation therapy, purges, colon cleanses, or whatever, claim to eliminate “toxins”? Why is it that, if you Google “alternative medicine” and “detoxification,” you find so many references, some of which claim external toxins need to be eliminated, some of which claim that internal toxins need to be purged, and still more of which blame various “parasites” for all manner of health distress? In this post, I’ll try to explain, but first a little history—self-history that is.

Posted in: Naturopathy, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Surprise, surprise! Dr. Andrew Weil doesn’t like evidence-based medicine

ResearchBlogging.orgDr. Andrew Weil is a rock star in the “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) and “integrative medicine” (IM) movement. Indeed, it can be persuasively argued that he is one of its founders, at least a founder of the its most modern iteration, and I am hard-pressed to think of anyone who did more in the early days of the CAM/IM movement, back before it ever managed to achieve a modicum of unearned respectability, to popularize CAM. In fact, no physician that I can think of has over the course of his lifetime done more to promote the rise of quackademic medicine than Dr. Weil. The only forces greater than Dr. Weil in promoting the infiltration of pseudoscience into academic medicine have been the Bravewell Collaborative and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). Before there was Dr. Mehmet Oz, Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. Mark Hyman, or any of the other promoters of IM, there was Dr. Weil.

And why not? Dr. Weil looks like an aging 1960s rock star, and, operating from his redoubt at the University of Arizona, is quite charismatic. For all the world he has the appearance of a kindly, benevolent Arizona desert Santa Claus, an ex-hippie turned respectable dispensing advice about “natural” medicines, writing books, and making himself ubiquitous on television and radio whenever the topic of alternative medicine comes up. Before Dr. Oz told Steve Novella that “Western” science and medicine can’t study woo like acupuncture, Dr. Weil was there, paving the way for such arguments, previously considered ludicrous, to achieve a patina of respectability.

In fact, he’s still at it, doing it far better and far more subtly than the ham-handed Dr. Oz. Unfortunately, it’s the same anti-science message and the same appeal to other ways of knowing built upon tearing down straw men versions of evidence-based medicine (EBM) with gusto. This was brought home last week when Dr. Weil co-authored an opinion piece with Drs. Scott Shannon and Bonnie J. Kaplan for the journal Alternative and Complementary Therapies entitled Safety and Patient Preferences, Not Just Effectiveness, Should Guide Medical Treatment Decisions, an article that was noted at the blog Booster Shots in a credulous, fawning post entitled Dr. Weil says there’s a better approach to evaluating clinical drug trials. In contast, Steve Novella put it far more succinctly (and accurately) in the title of his post: Andrew Weil Attacks EBM. That’s exactly what Weil and company did in this article.

While Steve is absolutely correct, I also see it more as Dr. Weil demonstrating once again that, upstarts like Dr. Oz aside, he is still the master of CAM/IM apologia, much as, even though both were Sith Lords, Emperor Palpatine remained master over Darth Vader until just before the end. You’ll see why in terms of the arguments, both subtle and not-so-subtle, that Dr. Weil and his acolytes make. Moreover, even though his disciple Shannon is granted the coveted first author position, the arguments presented leave little doubt that it’s Weil who’s driving the bus.

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Academia

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