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Answering Cancer Quackery: The Sophisticated Approach to True Believers

 You can lead a true believer to facts, but can you make him think?

You can lead a true believer to facts, but can you make him think?

I got an e-mail with a link to a video featuring “Dr.” Leonard Coldwell, a naturopath who has been characterized on RationalWiki as a scammer and all-round mountebank. Here are just a few examples of his claims in that video:

  • Every cancer can be cured in 2-16 weeks.
  • The second you are alkaline, the cancer already stops. A pH of 7.36 is ideal; 7.5 is best during the healing phase. [We are all alkaline. Normal pH is 7.35-7.45.]
  • IV vitamin C makes tumors disappear in a couple of days.
  • Very often table salt is 1/3 glass, 1/3 sand, and 1/3 salt. The glass and sand scratch the lining of the arteries, they bleed, and cholesterol is deposited there to stop the bleeding.
  • Patients in burn units get 20-25 hard-boiled eggs a day because only cholesterol can rebuild healthy cells; 87% of a cell is built on cholesterol.
  • Medical doctors have the shortest lifespan: 56. [Actually they live longer than average.]

My correspondent recognized that this video was dangerous charlatanism that could lead to harm for vulnerable patients. He called it a “train wreck, with fantasy piled upon idiocy.” His question was about the best way to convince someone that it was insane. He said, “If you could rely on someone to follow and understand basic information about the relevant claims, it would be a gimme. But to the casual disinterested observer, who can interpret the whole video as ‘Well, he just wants people to eat right,’ pointing out the individual bits of lunacy just looks like so much negativity.”

He asked, “How do I best represent what’s happening to someone who is either a) emotionally invested in this and/or b) casually approving of it? … I just want to be patient, not shout anyone down, not make anyone defensive, and then win. Very surprised I don’t already know how. But I feel like I don’t. What is the psychologically sophisticated approach to this?” (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Critical Thinking, Religion

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Functional Disc Rehydration for Chronic Back Pain

A chiropractor in Illinois named Jeff Winternheimer claims to have discovered an effective way to heal herniated discs by rehydrating them. He calls it Functional Disc Rehydration and he offers it through a network of four offices in the Chicago area called the Illinois Back Clinic. He has lots of testimonials and one sorry amateurish attempt at a scientific study that claimed to show 100% improvement; but there is no published evidence, no controlled observations, and no comparison of his methods with other methods.

Degenerative disc disease

Between the spinal vertebrae there are soft, jelly-like compressible discs that act as shock absorbers. They are “corralled” by a fibrous annulus. As we get older, the disc material loses water and becomes less flexible; the disc thins, and the space between the vertebrae narrows, so in old age we are not quite as tall as we once were. Cracks in the annulus develop with age or with trauma, allowing the disc material to bulge out or rupture. Herniated discs don’t necessarily cause pain; disc degeneration can be seen on MRI in 37% of asymptomatic people over the age of 60.

by “debivort,” licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

by “debivort,” licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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Posted in: Chiropractic

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Aging and Longevity: Science for Spring Chickens

Spring Chicken

We’re all going to die, but we don’t like to think about it. I’ll reach the proverbial threescore years and ten next month, so I’ve been thinking more about it, wishing I knew some reliable way to ensure that I would live many more years and remain fully functional until I suddenly collapsed like the Deacon’s wonderful one-hoss shay. There are myriad “longevity clinics” and “anti-aging” formulas, and every centenarian has an explanation that is the direct opposite of some other centenarian’s explanation. But what does the scientific evidence say? In his new book Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (Or Die Trying), Bill Gifford has done us a great service by investigating the latest scientific evidence about aging and presenting his findings in an engaging narrative form. He interviews some of the major players and introduces us to health fanatics who are convinced they can prolong their lives by doing things like monitoring their own blood cholesterol levels on a weekly basis, exercising obsessively, severely restricting their calorie intake, fasting intermittently, deliberately exposing themselves to stress like swimming in icy water, competing in extreme athletics, taking boatloads of hormones and supplements, experimenting on themselves with investigational drugs, and doing other questionable and sometimes bizarre things.

Are there limits to human life expectancy?

There is no documented case of anyone living longer than Jeanne Calment of France, who died at the age of 122. Jay Olshansky thinks biological forces limit how long we can live. Aubrey de Grey thinks some people alive today will live to be a thousand years old. Gifford explains the controversy and the reasoning behind both sides. Will we someday be able to re-engineer human biology to overcome the limits? The jury is still out. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Book & movie reviews

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Green Tea: Panacea or Poison?

320px-Genmaicha_tea_brewed_and_unbrewed

In the news: a woman in Fort Wayne, Indiana is suing the Arbonne International company in Allen Superior Court, claiming that its product contained toxic levels of green tea extracts, causing her to develop acute liver failure.

Green tea accounts for 20% of tea consumption worldwide. It has become more and more popular because of its many reported health benefits; the consumption of green tea in the US has risen by 40% just since 2000. A less-processed form of tea, green tea contains higher levels of antioxidants and polyphenols than other teas. It was traditionally used to control bleeding, heal wounds, aid digestion, improve heart and mental health and regulate body temperature. More recently, research has suggested that it has many health benefits.

The evidence for health benefits

The University of Maryland Medical Center has a helpful webpage that summarizes all the relevant research and provides a long list of references. Green tea may reduce the risk of heart disease (but the FDA prohibits that claim on labels; they concluded there was no credible evidence to support it). Green tea lowers total cholesterol and raises HDL. Population studies suggest that it may help protect against several kinds of cancer, but the evidence is mixed: other studies suggest that it may actually increase the risk of some cancers, and it may interfere with cancer chemotherapy. It may help in inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, liver disease, and weight loss. There is even preliminary evidence that it might prevent dental cavities, might be useful in arthritis, might help treat genital warts, and might even prevent symptoms of colds and flu. Studies show that drinking green tea is associated with reduced risk of dying from any cause. At first glance, it might sound like a panacea, but the evidence is still questionable. Much of it is from small, preliminary studies that have not been replicated or that contradict each other. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements

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The Rosedale Diet: Here We Go Again

The Rosedale Diet

Ron Rosedale, MD has devised a “powerful program based on the new science of leptin.” “Finally — the ultimate diet for fast, safe weight loss, lifelong health, and longer life…” He suggests it will prevent or improve high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, and a host of other ills. He repeats the CAM canard that “doctors only treat symptoms” and claims that his diet corrects the underlying cause of obesity, premature aging, and many diseases. That underlying cause is hormone (leptin) dysfunction. His is essentially just another low carb diet, only with more fat and less protein than other versions. His recommendations are ridiculously elaborate and are not supported by good evidence. His diet extrapolates from basic science, is based on speculative hypotheses, and has never been tested to see whether it works and is safe, much less whether it is superior to other diets.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, it should. He is doing what so many proponents of fad diets have done in the past, and he does it poorly. His book is a puerile effort compared to Gary TaubesGood Calories, Bad Calories; Taubes at least marshaled an impressive mass of scientific data, presented a cogent argument, and ultimately acknowledged that more studies would be needed to test his recommendations. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Herbs & Supplements, Nutrition

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Escharotic Treatment for Cervical Dysplasia: A New Incarnation of Black Salve?

Flowers of the bloodroot plant, Sanguinaria canadensis.  You're welcome, I could have used a very different image (warning: gross bordering on horrifying).

Flowers of the bloodroot plant, Sanguinaria canadensis. You’re welcome, I could have used a very different image (warning: gross bordering on horrifying; click on image to see it).

Cervical dysplasia is a precancerous condition picked up by Pap smears. It is most often caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. Mild cases may resolve spontaneously and can be followed by observation with frequent Pap smears, but cervical dysplasia can progress to cancer. The standard treatment is to remove the abnormal cells with a cone biopsy (using a knife) or a Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure (LEEP) using a wire loop heated by electricity. Those procedures not only treat the disease, but they provide a pathology specimen that can be examined to rule out more serious or invasive disease. Both LEEP and cone biopsy are 85-90% effective in removing all the abnormal cells. If cancer is suspected, a cone biopsy is preferable because LEEP may damage the edges of the specimen and make it more difficult to interpret. Otherwise, LEEP is often preferred because it is less expensive and doesn’t require anesthesia or an operating room. I have discussed misguided attempts by alternative medicine practitioners to treat cervical dysplasia before.

Surgery is often perceived as scary and not “natural,” so it’s not surprising that a “natural” treatment has been devised to replace surgery. Escharotics are corrosive salves that get their name from the thick dry scab that they can produce called an eschar. The “natural” escharotic treatment alternative for cervical dysplasia involves applying a solution of bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and zinc chloride. They claim that the solution selectively kills abnormal cells of the cervix while leaving healthy cells unaffected. That claim is almost certainly false, and the efficacy and safety of escharotic treatment has not been properly tested or compared to conventional treatment. (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Herbs & Supplements, Naturopathy, Obstetrics & gynecology

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Do Helmets Prevent Head Injuries?

320px-Humpty_was_pushed_(298669543)
A cycling enthusiast asked me about helmets. It seems compellingly obvious to me that a head impacting the pavement without a helmet is likely to sustain more damage than a head protected by a helmet. He challenged that, citing a BMJ article by Ben Goldacre that questioned whether the evidence showed that helmets do any good. He said I was making a non-evidence-based assumption and challenged me to actually look at the evidence, so I did.

Goldacre says there is a:

complex contradictory mess of evidence on the impact of bicycle helmets. Like most places where there’s controversy and disagreement, this is a great opportunity to walk through the benefits and shortcomings of different epidemiological techniques, from case control studies to modeling.

He proceeds to give a lesson in epidemiology. He points out that there are a lot of emotion involved, and that epidemiologic studies, because of their inherent imperfections, are probably not capable of resolving the debate.

There are basically two questions:

  1. What is the effect of wearing a helmet for the individual?
  2. What is the effect of a public policy that promotes or requires helmet use?

(more…)

Posted in: Epidemiology, Politics and Regulation

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Homeopathy and the UK’s National Health Service

Homeopathy in the UK, flag, small

Homeopathy is arguably the silliest form of alternative medicine: the published studies show no evidence of anything beyond nonspecific contextual effects, and the underlying premise is incompatible with the existing body of scientific knowledge. Homeopathy has increasingly been questioned or denounced by organizations in several countries, most recently in FDA hearings in the US.

I recently spoke at the QED conference (Question, Explore, Discover) in Manchester, England. Another speaker, Michael Marshall, gave a talk on homeopathy and the National Health Service. He presented information that was new to me and that I thought was worthy of sharing with SBM readers. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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“Finally…The Low Back Pain Solution”: A Chiropractor Makes Questionable Claims

Pictured: Railgun patient launcher Magnetic resonance imaging machine

Pictured: Railgun patient launcher Magnetic resonance imaging machine, not a useful tool in identifying the cause of back pain

The ads in my local newspaper are a never-ending source of questionable health claims, most often from diet supplement manufacturers and chiropractors. There’s no single spokesman like Dr. Oz, but as a group they remind me of Oz’s unending series of weight loss miracles, each one the perfect solution until the next one comes along. The proliferation of chiropractic ads is bad advertising for the efficacy of chiropractic itself, since chiropractors are increasingly turning to adjunctive treatments like lasers and decompression machines.

The latest ad that annoyed me was from the Objective Diagnostics Research and Rehabilitation Institute (ODRRI). What an impressive name! On their website, not only do they advertise “the low back pain solution,” but they offer to fix herniated discs without surgery. They say they treat the underlying cause and say their approach is “based on solid and leading edge diagnostics, scientific research, and experience.” While not a complete lie, that statement is certainly misleading. (more…)

Posted in: Chiropractic, Diagnostic tests & procedures

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The “Healing Codes” of Alex Loyd: Energy Healing with Words and Finger Exercises

Pictured: A book that you should not buy.

Pictured: A book that you shouloyd not buy.

Alex Loyd’s concept of “Healing Codes” is one of the most bizarre, ridiculous offshoots of so-called energy medicine. Loyd is a naturopath who has been criticized by “Dr. Joe” Schwarcz for recycling old bunk for profit. He claims that illness is due to disturbances in the human energy field and that the cells of our body store destructive energy patterns and all our memories, habits, interests, and tastes. This is pure imagination: there is no scientific evidence for the existence of a human energy field or of cellular memory.

By one account, God told Loyd about the Healing Codes in a dream. By another account, he studied under Roger Callahan in 1999 and derived his system from Callahan’s Thought Field Therapy, a fringe psychological treatment with no scientific evidence of efficacy. By another account, a 10-year-old boy had a vivid dream in which a “power” gave him a gift: a series of 10 words that could heal. His parents used the words and experienced near-miraculous healing. They were past clients of Loyd and they offered the words to Loyd. The parents didn’t want any money; they wanted to share their miraculous discovery with the world and help as many people as possible. Loyd was not bound by any such scruples. He proceeded to develop an elaborate money-making business around those words, charging clients hundreds of dollars to get in on the secret. He claims to have customers in 50 states and 143 countries. If using a special sequence of words to heal reminds you of Harry Potter and witches’ books of spells, you’re not alone. (more…)

Posted in: Energy Medicine

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