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The war in California over nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates

The war in California over nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates

As I write this, I am currently at the Center for Inquiry (CFI) Reason for Change conference, where on Friday Steve, Harriet, and I did a panel on—what else?—alternative medicine and how it’s become “integrative medicine.” As a result, I’ve been very busy, which means that parts (but by no means all) of this post will look familiar to those of you who follow me at my not-so-super-secret other blog. However, it occurred to me after we did our panel discussion that there are important things happening in California that we’ve only barely touched on here on this blog. I’m referring, of course, to a bill (SB 277) that’s wending its way through the California legislature. SB 277, if passed, would eliminate nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates. That’s not to say we haven’t discussed the issue of nonmedical exemptions, of which there are two types: religious and personal belief exemptions (PBEs), which can all be simply described as PBEs. Both Steve Novella and I have addressed them on SBM. For example, when an earlier bill (AB 2109) was passed that mandated that parents seeking PBEs consult with a physician or other listed health care professionals (which, unfortunately, included naturopaths) before a PBE would be granted, I documented how the antivaccine movement strenuously objected even to this minor tweak in the law that would make PBEs slightly more difficult to obtain. Unfortunately, even though, against all expectations, the bill passed, Governor Jerry Brown sabotaged it with a signing statement that betrayed California children by reinstating, in essence, religious exemptions. Specifically, Gov. Brown ordered the California Department of Public Health to include a check box on the form that parents could check to say they have religious objections to vaccines. Parents who checked that box could thus bypass even the anemic requirement to consult with a pediatrician before being granted a PBE.

The problem with nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates is that vaccine-averse and antivaccine parents tend to cluster mostly in areas where white, affluent people live, as demonstrated in California and my own state of Michigan. So, even though antivaccinationists frequently tout high statewide vaccination rates as evidence that the process for obtaining PBEs does not need to be tightened up, they are disingenuously using a straw man argument against vaccine mandates, because it’s the pockets of low vaccine uptake that compromise local herd immunity that are the problem. We see these in Oregon, California, Michigan, and many other states with PBEs, and we also know that ease of obtaining PBEs is correlated with more PBEs and more outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.

All of this came to a head earlier this year with what is now known as the Disneyland measles outbreak, a large multistate outbreak originating at Disneyland and traced to unvaccinated children. This outbreak so shocked California that the unthinkable happened. The possibility of passing a law eliminating nonmedical exemptions to vaccine mandates, something virtually everyone would have considered as much a fantasy as many of the characters played by the recently deceased great Christopher Lee played during his career, suddenly became an attainable goal. Senators Richard Pan and Ben Allen introduced SB 277, which would eliminate the personal belief exemption for children attending state licensed schools, daycares, and nurseries in California.

Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Vaccines

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Mandatory breast density reporting legislation: The law outpaces science, and not in a good way

Over the years, our bloggers here at Science-Based Medicine have written time and time again about the intersection of law and science in medicine. Sometimes, we support a particular bill or law, such as laws to protect children against religion-inspired medical neglect; laws making it harder for manufacturers of homeopathic “medicines” to deceive the public; or California Bill AB 2109, a bill whose intent was to make it more difficult for parents to obtain nonmedical exemptions to vaccine mandates but whose implementation after being passed into law was profoundly sabotaged by Governor Jerry Brown. or, more recently, California SB 277, a bill currently wending its way through the California legislature that would eliminate nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates and has, not surprisingly, engendered extreme resistance from the antivaccine crowd, including by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. In the vast majority of cases we explain how the law lets us down when it comes to science in medicine, and, unfortunately, examples are many: Naturopathic licensing laws; supplement regulation (or, more appropriately, lack of regulation); misguided, deceptive, and patient-hostile “right-to-try” laws; state laws regulating medical practice that allow quackery to flourish unchecked; laws regulating pharmaceutical cost transparency that ask the wrong question.

The case I will discuss here is unusual in that it is a case of the law getting ahead of what the science says in a manner that will likely do little, if any, good for patients, cause a lot of confusion until the science is worked out better, and end up costing patients money for little or no benefit. I am referring to laws mandating the reporting of high-breast-density to women with dense breasts undergoing mammography. These laws are sweeping the country (albeit not as rapidly as “right-to-try” laws), with a total of 22 states having passed them as of today since Connecticut became the first to do so in 2009. The most recent of these laws went into effect in my own state of Michigan exactly one week ago:

Women with dense breast tissue — the sort that can hide potentially deadly tumors from routine mammograms — must be notified in writing and encouraged to consider additional tests under a new state law that is effective Monday.

While mammograms remain the gold standard for detecting breast tumors, they’re less reliable in almost half of women with dense breast tissue. Dense or fibrous tissue shows up as splotches of white on a mammogram — so do tumors.

That will likely surprise many of the millions of women who rely on mammography for catching the earliest signs of cancer, said Nancy Cappello. The Connecticut woman was shocked in 2004, when her gynecologist found a lump — advanced cancer that had already spread to her lymph nodes — just months after a mammogram deemed her cancer-free.


Posted in: Cancer, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food? The obsessive worship of “medicinal foods”

Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food? The obsessive worship of “medicinal foods”

Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.

– attributed to Hippocrates

Who said anything about medicine? Let’s eat!

– attributed to one of Hippocrates forgotten (and skeptical) students


Who hasn’t seen or heard Hippocrates’ famous quote about letting food be your medicine and your medicine your food? If you have Facebook friends who are the least bit into “natural” medicine or living, you’ve almost certainly come across it in your feed, and if you’re a skeptic who pays the least bit of attention to what’s going on in the quackosphere you will almost certainly have seen it plastered on a picture as a meme, either using a picture of Hippocrates or pictures of plates of green, leafy vegetables, or both. I like to view the fetishization of “food as medicine,” to cite Hippocrates, as one of the best examples out there of the logical fallacy known as the appeal to antiquity; in other words, the claim that if something is ancient and still around it must be correct (or at least there must be something to it worth considering).

Of course, just because an idea is old doesn’t mean it’s good, any more than just because Hippocrates said it means it must be true. Hippocrates was an important figure in the history of medicine because he was among the earliest to assert that diseases were caused by natural processes rather than the gods and because of his emphasis on the careful observation and documentation of patient history and physical findings, which led to the discovery of physical signs associated with diseases of specific organs. However, let’s not also forget that Hippocrates and his followers also believed in humoral theory, the idea that all disease results from an imbalance of the “four humors.” It’s also amusing to note that this quote by Hippocrates is thought to be a misquote, as it is nowhere to be found in the more than 60 texts known as The Hippocratic Corpus (Corpus Hippocraticum).

As Diana Cardenes argues:

But Hippocratic doctors clearly saw a difference between food and medicines. In fact, food was considered as a material that could be assimilated after digestion (e.g. the air was also food) and converted into the substance of the body. For example, food was converted into the different parts of the body such as muscles, nerves, etc. By contrast, the concept of medicines at the time was a product which was able to change the body’s own nature (in terms of humor quality or quantity) but not be converted into the body’s own substance. Thus a food wasn’t considered a medicine. A possible root of the food-medicine confusion is the following cryptic phrase found in the work On Aliment: “In food excellent medication, in food bad medication, bad and good relatively”.3 This text is nowadays attributed to the Hellenistic period, but was considered to be Hippocratic in Antiquity by Galenus in particular.

Now, it is certainly true that Hippocrates and his followers used diet to treat many illnesses, it’s not really clear what sort of success they had. However, this ancient idea that virtually all disease could be treated with diet, however much or little it was embraced by Hippocrates, has become an idée fixe in alternative medicine, so much so that it leads its proponents twist new science (like epigenetics) to try to fit it into a framework where diet rules all, often coupled with the idea that doctors don’t understand or care about nutrition and it’s big pharma that’s preventing the acceptance of dietary interventions. That thinking also permeates popular culture, fitting in very nicely with an equally ancient phenomenon, the moralization of food choices (discussed ably by Dr. Jones a month ago).

Posted in: Cancer, Nutrition

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As in 2014, “right-to-try” laws continue to metastasize in 2015, part 2

As in 2014, “right-to-try” laws continue to metastasize in 2015, part 2

When I wrote a week ago about the sham that is “right-to-try”, one criticism (among many) that I made of these misguided, profoundly patient-unfriendly laws was that I have as yet been unable to find a single example of a patient who has managed to obtain access to an experimental therapeutic through such a law, much less been helped by it. So-called “right-to-try” laws, of course, claim to provide a mechanism by which patients with terminal illnesses can obtain access to experimental therapeutics not yet approved by the FDA but still in clinical trials. They are, as I’ve pointed out, a cruel sham, placebo legislation that makes lawmakers feel as though they’ve done something good but do nothing of substance for patients while providing them with false hope. The federal government through the FDA controls drug approval, which means that states can’t compel a drug company to provide a drug to a patient, and most drug companies would not want to risk jeopardizing approval of their drug, which is what could happen if they grant access to an investigational drug under right-to-try and the patient suffers an adverse event. After all, the success rate for drugs that have passed phase 1 (which is all that right-to-try requires) in phase 3 trials is only on the order of 9-12%, meaning that that’s the most optimistic probability that such drugs would benefit a patient. In reality, it’s almost certainly much, much lower.

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation

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Should placebos be used in randomized controlled trials of surgical interventions?

Randomized controlled trial

Alone of all the regular contributors to this blog, I am a surgeon. Specifically, I’m a surgical oncologist specializing in breast cancer surgery, which makes me one of those hyper-specialized docs that are sometimes mocked as not being “real” doctors. Of course, the road to my current practice and research focus was long and involved quite a few years doing general surgery, so it is not as though I am unfamiliar with a wide variety of surgical procedures. Heck, I’m sure I could do an old-fashioned appendectomy, bowel resection, or cholecystectomy if I had to. Just don’t ask me to use the da Vinci robot or, with the exception of the case of a cholecystectomy, a laparoscope, although, given the popularity of robotic surgery, I sometimes joke that I really, really need to figure out how to do breast surgery with the robot. After all, if plastic surgeons are using it for breast reconstruction, surely the cancer surgeon should get in on the action.

I keed. I keed.

Clinical trials of surgical procedures and placebo controls

I have, however, from time to time addressed the issue of science-based surgery, and this weekend seems like as good a time to do so again, given that I just came across an article in the BMJ reporting a systematic review of the use of placebos in surgical trials. It’s a year old, but worth discussing. Before I get to discussing the nitty-gritty of this particular trial, let me just note that the evaluation of surgical procedures for efficacy and safety tends to be more difficult to accomplish than it is for medications, mainly because it’s much harder to do the gold standard clinical trial for surgical procedures, the double-blind, placebo-controlled randomized clinical trial. The two most problematic aspects of designing such an RCT in surgery, as you might imagine, are the blinding, particularly if it’s a trial of a surgical procedure versus no surgical procedure, and persuading patients to agree. I’ll deal with the latter first, because I have direct personal experience with it. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Surgical Procedures

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As in 2014, “right-to-try” laws continue to metastasize in 2015

As in 2014, “right-to-try” laws continue to metastasize in 2015

Last year, I did several posts on what I consider to be a profoundly misguided and potentially harmful type of law known as “right-to-try.” Beginning about a year and a half ago, promoted by the libertarian think tank known as the Goldwater Institute, right-to-try laws began popping up in state legislatures, which I likened to Dallas Buyers Club laws. Both Jann Bellamy and I wrote about how these laws are far more likely to do harm than good, and that is a position that I maintain today. The idea behind these laws is to give terminally ill patients access to experimental drugs—in some cases drugs that have only passed phase I testing—that might help them. It’s an understandable, albeit flawed argument. After all, it’s perfectly understandable why terminally ill patients would fight for drugs that give them hope, and it’s just as understandable why politicians and the public would see such a goal as a good thing. In practice, as I will explain again in the context of this update, such laws are far more likely to harm patients than help them. Indeed, as you will see, in the year since the first wave of right-to-try laws have passed, not a single patient that I can find has obtained access to experimental drugs under a right-to-try law, much less been helped by them.

Unfortunately, given how effectively “right to try” has been sold on grounds of providing terminally ill patients hope and as a matter of personal freedom, it’s clear that this wave is not going to abate. Since Colorado passed the very first right-to-try law almost exactly a year ago today, a total of 17 more states now have passed passed similar legislation, the most recent being Tennessee, and 22 others have introduced legislation. It’s a good bet that right-to-try will pass in all of those states, because, as I’ve explained many times before and in many interviews, if you don’t understand clinical trial ethics and science, opposing the concept of right-to-try comes across like opposing Mom, apple pie, and the American flag, and leaves opponents open to false—but seemingly convincing—charges of callousness towards the terminally ill on the order of enjoying drop kicking puppies through flaming goalposts.

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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The measles vaccine protects against more than just the measles

Vaccines Protect

One of the disadvantages of writing for this blog is that sometimes I feel as though I spend so much time deconstructing bad science and pseudoscience in medicine that I’m rarely left with the time or the opportunity to discuss some interesting science. Of course, even when I do that, usually it’s in the context of that very same bad science or pseudoscience, and this post won’t be different. Still, there was some interesting science with respect to vaccines published last week in Science, and I think it’s worth looking over. The only thing that surprises me is that the antivaccine movement hasn’t jumped all over it yet. On the other hand, its press coverage was relatively minimal, and I didn’t really notice it until an article appeared on (sadly, yes) The Huffington Post entitled “The Measles Vaccine Can Protect Against Much More Than Measles, According To New Study“:

A new study suggests the measles shot comes with a bonus: By preventing that disease, the vaccine may also help your body fight off other illnesses for years.

It’s long been known that contracting measles weakens the immune system for weeks or months, putting people, especially children, at increased risk for potentially fatal infection by a host of germs.

Now, scientists find that this vulnerable period goes on much longer than thought, up to three years. So the benefit of avoiding measles also extends longer than was appreciated. Researchers also found that measles vaccination campaigns were followed by a drop in deaths for other infectious diseases.

Experts said the work is a wake-up call to parents who don’t vaccinate their children out of unfounded fears about a link between vaccines and autism.


Posted in: Basic Science, Vaccines

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“Science.” You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.


I’ve discussed on many occasions over the years how antivaccine activists really, really don’t want to be known as “antivaccine.” However, if there’s one thing that rivals how much antivaccinationists detest being called “antivaccine,” it’s how much they detest being called antiscience. To try to deny that they are antiscience, they will frequently invoke ridiculous analogies such as claiming that being for better car safety does not make one “anti-car” and the like. It is here that the Dunning-Kruger effect comes to the fore, wherein antivaccine activists think that they understand as much or more than actual scientists because of their education and self-taught Google University courses on vaccines, that their pronouncements on vaccines should be taken seriously. If there are two antivaccine blogs that epitomize the Dunning-Kruger effect, they are Age of Autism and, of course, the most hilariously inappropriately named The Thinking Moms’ Revolution (TMR). It is the latter of these two that late last week produced a tour de force of Dunning-Kruger, coming, as the most hilariously off-base posts on TMR usually do, from the “Thinking Mom” known as “The Professor.” I shouldn’t be surprised, given her history, but nonetheless it’s worth taking a look at her latest post, Anti-science: “You Keep Using That Word. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means.”

Actually, it does. And if The Professor is going to spend nearly 7,000 words riffing on a bit of dialogue from The Princess Bride, surpassing in verbiage all but a small minority of my posts, it almost makes me want to make this post 8,000 words.

Fortunately, for you, I resisted that temptation and instead merely retort: “Science. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Then I demonstrate why.

Posted in: Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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A journey to alternative and integrative medicine apostasy

Julian the Apostate presiding at a conference of sectarians, by Edward Armitage, 1875

Julian the Apostate presiding at a conference of sectarians, by Edward Armitage, 1875

I’ve been blogging for over a decade now, a fact that I find really hard to believe looking back on it right now. I’ve told the story before, but it’s worth briefly recounting again because doing so will explain why the story I’m about to discuss caught my attention. My “gateway drug,” if you will, into skepticism was discovering Holocaust denial in the late 1990s on Usenet, a vast and sprawling conglomeration of thousands of discussion forums that began to fade away at the turn of the century with the rise of web-based forums and Google providing an interface to it to make it Google Groups. The forum where I first discovered Holocaust denial and learned to combat it, alt.revisionism, still exists, but long ago degenerated into a cesspool of racism, spam, and trolling. A couple of years later, around 2000 or so, I discovered quackery and the antivaccine movement, thanks to a Usenet newsgroup known as, which is where I honed my early skills applying science to medical claims. It’s also where I first encountered Peter Moran, a regular commenter here who greatly inspired me back then with his full-throated criticism of cancer quackery and his website that taught me reasons why cancer quackery could appear to work even when it did nothing to impact the progression of the cancer.

In December 2004, intrigued by all the news stories about blogging and having discovered a number of good blogs, I decided on one dark, gray Saturday afternoon to dip my toe in the blogosphere. On the spur of the moment I created the first iteration of my not-so-super-secret other blog on—what else?—Blogger. Much to my own amazement, over the course of a year I got my little hobby noticed, to the point where I was invited to join a blog collective; by late 2007 I had become prominent enough to be invited by Steve Novella to join this very blog at its founding, where I have remained for seven years, with no plans to move on any time soon. During my early days, though, there was one person who also inspired me, helping me to learn about the pseudoscience that undergirds the antivaccine movement and, in particular, the quackery making up what is known these days as the “autism biomed” movement. His name is James Laidler, and he was one of the ones who introduced me to this topic which I’ve written about many times both at my not-so-super-secret other blog and, of course, right here on SBM. In doing so, over the years I’ve catalogued why “autism biomed” seems compelling to many parents with children with autism, how antivaccine groups use fake “medical conferences” to sell autism biomed by giving a patina of medical respectability to rank quackery like bleach enemas, and providing a place where those selling unscientific treatments can find willing customers and where disreputable discredited “scientists” like Andrew Wakefield and Mark Geier can find adoring fans who believe their quackery.

I bring this up because last week WIRED published an excellent article about Jim Laidler, “An Alternative-Medicine Believer’s Journey Back to Science.” Appropriately enough, it’s by Alan Levinovitz, an assistant professor of religion at James Madison University. I say “appropriately enough” because, as has been noted here on a number of occasions, there are many religion-like aspects to alternative medicine in general but to the autism biomed movement in particular. Indeed, the two are often tied together, with the motivation for some alt-med being explicitly religious and belief in alt-med sharing some major characteristics with religion, particularly belief in miracles against evidence, charismatic leaders (like Andrew Wakefield) who can do no wrong, and mutually-supportive communities of believers who reinforce each others’ beliefs and ward off skepticism. Add to that the magical thinking, and it’s not for nothing that I’ve referred to the central dogma of alternative medicine as being that wishing makes it so. Indeed, it’s for good reason that I frequently point out that most “energy medicine” (particularly reiki) is basically faith healing that substitutes Eastern mysticism for Judeo-Christian religious beliefs.

In Levinovitz’s profile of Jim Laidler, we see a lot of this, and I learned some details that I didn’t know about Laidler before. Levinovitz also grasps the religion-like nature of alt-med by starting the article bluntly saying:

Jim and Louise Laidler lost their faith on a trip to Disneyland in 2002, while having breakfast in Goofy’s Kitchen.


Posted in: Health Fraud, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Vaccines

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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.

Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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