Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld have written a new book, Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience. Its purpose is not to critique neuroscience, but to expose and protest its mindless oversimplification, interpretive license, and premature application in the legal, commercial, clinical, and philosophical domains.
The brain is a wondrous thing: “…the three pound universe between our ears has more connections than there are stars in the Milky Way.” Trying to understand how it works and how it generates conscious awareness and subjective feelings is a daunting task. Neuroimaging is one of the tools we are using to study it. Unfortunately, people get so enthusiastic about its possibilities that they are constantly tempted to read more into the images than is really there. This has given rise to a new phrenology that interprets our mental characteristics with pretty colored pictures. We are easily impressed by pictures; after all, a picture is worth a thousand words.
Brain imaging can’t show us what is going on in the mind of the person. It shows areas that have increased oxygen consumption. A spot lights up when a person thinks or acts, but that doesn’t tell us much. Single blobs that light up in the brain have been interpreted as centers for things like love, rewards, hate, and belief in God. This is sometimes referred to as “blobology.” They found an area in one person that lit up when he thought about an actress he loved. That area was thought to be a “reward” center. But it also lit up when he thought of Ahmadinejad! So they did some fancy footwork and rationalized that he believed that the Jewish people would endure and therefore he derived pleasure from the idea that Ahmadinejad would fail. That’s pretty far-fetched. Occam’s razor would suggest that maybe the area that lit up was reacting not to pleasure, but to something else. People tend to read what they want to see into ambiguous patterns like a Rorschach test. Mental functions are rarely limited to a single spot in the brain; multiple areas are involved and interconnected. Researchers are increasingly moving away from blobology and towards pattern analysis where they look at the patterns of activation across the entire brain. (more…)
I don’t know how I missed them, but somehow homeopathic first aid kits had not registered on my radar. They’re readily available. Even Amazon.com sells them, for $54.99. They contain 18 vials of tiny sugar pills, all with potencies of 200C, guaranteed by Avogadro not to contain a single molecule of the active ingredient. (For those of you who may not know, Avogadro was the Italian scientist who discovered the Avogadro constant, the number of atoms needed such that the number of grams of a substance equals the atomic mass of the substance.
If that paralyzes your brain, never mind. Just take my word for it that Avogadro’s discovery allows us to calculate that a 13C dilution (a 1 in 100 to the 13th power dilution), is the equivalent of diluting 1/3 of a drop of the original substance in all the water on earth, and to reach a 200C potency you would have to continue to dilute it by 1 to 100 a total of 187 more times.)
What’s in the kits?
On homeopathy websites you can buy special first aid kits for the car, for hiking and camping, for horses, for pets, for pregnancy, for childbirth, and for travel. One website sells a first aid kit that “contains all the major homeopathic first aid remedies which work so amazingly well particularly when given immediately after an accident or injury.” Only $99.95, but you’re also advised to buy a book to explain its use, for an additional $18.95. It contains 15 remedies in a 30C potency:
A vaccine to prevent cancer
Conservative Christians are calling for banning oral and anal sex between consenting adults, claiming that the practices allow for the spread of disease. Radio host Brian Fischer says that a rise in head, neck and throat cancers “among millennials” is a direct result of the influence of “Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.” He compares oral sex and homosexual sex to drug trafficking, pedophilia and bestiality. He hasn’t decided how offenders should be punished but he suggests either issuing summonses like parking tickets or putting them into programs akin to drug rehab. He says Liz Cheney (the daughter of former Vice President Cheney) is “not a patriot” because she may support gay marriage.
Those of us who want the government to stay the hell out of our bedrooms will gladly ignore such rants, but the health risks of sexual practices are real. Michael Douglas recently shocked the world by announcing that cunnilingus could have caused his throat cancer. He was right, it could have.
HPV causes several kinds of cancer
Most head and neck cancers are caused by tobacco and alcohol, but researchers believe that up to 80% of oropharyngeal cancers are due to HPV (human papilloma virus) infection. The cause can be confirmed by testing biopsy samples for HPV DNA. The incidence of throat cancer caused by HPV is rising rapidly (a 225% increase from 1988 to 2004) and has been attributed to an increase in oral sex. It is estimated that by 2020 HPV will cause more oropharyngeal cancers than cervical cancers in the US. (more…)
Doctors are often accused of being unfeeling technicians who treat their patients like cases of disease rather than people (think Dr. House). We were taught in medical school to remain detached, not get too close to patients, and not show our emotions. That attitude was epitomized in William Osler’s essay Aequanimitas. But doctors have feelings like anyone else, and no one is Spockishly rational. A patient might reasonably say “I don’t give a damn how my doctor feels as long as she gets me better,” but emotions affect everything we do, influencing clinical decisions and patient outcomes. This subject is investigated in a new book, What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine, by Danielle Ofri, MD, PhD, an associate professor of medicine and an accomplished writer who has written extensively about her experiences in medicine.
She tells anecdotes from her training to give the reader a feel for what it was like to be in an extremely stressful situation with time pressure, conflicting duties, lack of sleep, life-or-death responsibilities, the highest expectations, and the impossibility of both getting everything done and doing each thing well. It reminded me of times in my own training when I desperately wanted to just somehow survive the day and not kill anyone. Medical residency can be almost as stressful as a war zone, and has its own PTSD victims, complete with flashbacks.
Part of the stress is being suddenly immersed in a new culture with its own tribal customs, slang, in-jokes, and a foreign language: “82WM w/PMH of CAD, CVA, MIx2, s/p 3V-CABG, c/o CP, SOB 2 wks PTA. BIBA s/p LOC. No F/C/N/V/D.” (more…)
I’m going to follow Mark Crislip’s example and recycle my presentation from The Amazing Meeting last week, not because I’m lazy or short on time (although I am both), but because I think the information is worth sharing with a larger audience.
We’ve all had screening tests and we’re all likely to have more of them, but there is a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding about what screening tests can and can’t do. Screening tests are done on populations of asymptomatic people and must be distinguished from diagnostic tests done on individual patients who have symptoms. Some tests are excellent for diagnostic purposes but are not appropriate for screening purposes.
We’re constantly being admonished to get tested for one thing or another. A typical example was a recent Dear Abby column. She got a letter from a woman who had been screened for kidney disease and learned that she had a mild decrease in kidney function. Abby was shocked to learn that 26 million Americans have chronic kidney disease, and she advised her readers to get their kidneys checked. This was terrible advice. It superficially seems like good advice, because if you have something wrong with your kidneys, you’d want to know about it, right? In fact, if there was anything wrong anywhere in your body, you’d want to know about it. By that logic, it might seem advisable to test everyone for everything. But that would be stupid. It would find lots of false positives, it would create anxiety by picking up harmless variants and anomalies that never would have caused problems, it would be expensive, and it would do more harm than good.
A correspondent asked for my opinion of a new book by journalist Jennifer Margulis that is apparently getting a lot of attention in some circles: The Business of Baby: What Doctors Don’t Tell You, What Corporations Try to Sell You, and How to Put Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Baby Before Their Bottom Line. I got a copy from the library and read it. It was a painful experience. One of the customer reviews on the Amazon website accurately sums up my own reaction:
There is a great need for an incisive look at all sides of modern maternity care in the United States, because — let’s face it — we all know it’s not perfect. This, however, is not that book.
The author is a strong advocate of home birth, water birth, midwives, “embracing the pain to make you stronger,” “parents know better than doctors,” natural = good, and very early potty training. She thinks bathing a newborn is harmful. She questions the need for well baby checkups: she thinks they are mainly a gimmick to sell vaccines. She questions the (science-based) practice of giving newborns vitamin K and prophylactic eye drops. She is against the use of chemicals in general. She reports that Johnson’s Baby Wash contains “a host of unpronounceable chemicals, some of which are known toxins…and carcinogens.” She doesn’t seem to have grasped the basic principle of toxicology that the poison is in the dose. She is against formula, which she says is killing babies, and against disposable diapers because they contain chemicals and petroleum and because they can cause your child to become infertile. Her only evidence for “infertility” is one study showing that disposable diapers raise scrotal temperatures. Indeed, plastic underpants are probably warm.
When I read that a new study had shown that antihistamines were harmful for patients with morning sickness, I cringed and thought “Here we go again.”
Hyperemesis gravidarum (HG) is a serious complication of pregnancy. Simple morning sickness is more common and less serious. When I started out in medicine, we routinely treated morning sickness with Bendectin. It was a safe and effective remedy, a combination of the antihistamine doxylamine and a B vitamin, pyridoxine. Unfortunately the manufacturer, Merrill Dow Pharmaceuticals, was bombarded with numerous lawsuits claiming that Bendectin caused birth defects. There was a clear scientific consensus that the evidence did not show that Bendectin caused birth defects and there was plentiful evidence of its safety. The lawyers prevailed over the science, and in 1983, Dow voluntarily took Bendectin off the market to avoid further litigation expenses. After the drug’s withdrawal, the rate of birth defects did not decrease, but the rate of hospitalization for hyperemesis gravidarum doubled. (more…)
Ever heard of George Augustus Scott? Probably not. Although he was once touted as “Man of the Century,” he was actually a charlatan who sold electric hairbrushes. (No, an electric hairbrush isn’t a device that will brush your hair for you; it’s a hairbrush that supposedly produces a “permanent electric current” to cure everything from baldness to headaches.) He went on to sell magnetic corsets, electric rings for rheumatism, and sarsaparilla, advertised as the “GREATEST MEDICAL DISCOVERY of the AGE.” (You probably haven’t heard about that greatest discovery either.)
He and his many comrades in crime are profiled in a new book, The Medical Electricians: Dr. Scott and his Victorian Cohorts in Quackery by Robert K. Waits. You will find more quacks in this book than in any duck pond. It provides historical insights and reminds us that there is nothing new under the sun; similar charlatans continue to sell similar quack devices today, facilitated by the Internet and other media.
Electricity and magnetism sounded exciting to Victorian ears, but their properties were poorly understood. Great hopes were raised for medical applications. The opinions of experts varied. Priestly reported experiments from Italy and Germany in 1747-8 showing that a patient who held a vial of medicine while being electrified would get the same benefit as if he took the medicine by mouth. Benjamin Franklin, on the other hand, was persuaded that these reports were not true. (more…)
We are not alone. Walt Whitman didn’t know how right he was when he said, “I contain multitudes.” The microbes on and in our bodies outnumber our own cells 10:1. Perhaps that creeps you out. Perhaps that makes you curious to know just who all these billions of creatures are that are using your body for a home and a transportation device.
For just $89 you can learn what’s in your gut, nose, mouth, skin, genitals…or sample anything!
The offer comes from uBiome, a “citizen science startup” that has scientific goals somewhere down the line, but for the moment is happy to just provide a personal service, to sequence your microbiome and tell you how you compare to others. The current utility of this offering is questionable. It’s just not ready for prime time. (more…)
Skin tags (acrochordon) are benign growths, often raised on a pedicle with a tiny stem. 46% of the population has one or more of them. They are usually ignored, but some people think they are ugly and want to get rid of them, and sometimes the lesions rub on clothing and become irritated. Never fear! Tag Away is here!
I saw it advertised on TV. They said it is “not available in stores.” But they only meant their special TV offer is not available in stores. You can buy Tag Away on Amazon.com, at Walgreens, at Walmart, and elsewhere. Tag Away is an all-natural product that promises to remove unsightly skin tags painlessly. It comes in a 15 cc bottle and is applied with a cotton swab 3 times daily for 3-8 weeks. One website claims:
One of the secrets of this product’s amazing success rate is Thuka [sic] Occidentalis, which is world-renowned for its ability to eradicate even the largest, most unsightly skin tags.
That’s not true. It doesn’t have an amazing success rate, it’s not world-renowned, and there’s no evidence that it can actually remove skin tags of any size. (more…)