A Navy neurologist, Capt. Elwood Hopkins, has posted a 3-part article on “The Power of Acupuncture” on Navy Medicine Live, the official blog of Navy and Marine Corps Health Care. It can serve as a useful lesson in how not to think about medicine. It is a prime example of how an intelligent, educated doctor can be fooled and can fool himself into thinking that a placebo is an effective treatment.
To set the scene: acupuncture has been increasingly accepted in military circles. The Air Force is teaching its doctors “battlefield acupuncture” based on the faulty evidence of one Air Force doctor, Richard Niemtzow. The Army is using it to treat PTSD. The Navy offers it too.
Hopkins says that after 40 years of practicing neurology, “It was only natural to begin thinking about something else.” (Why? Boredom? And why pick acupuncture?) When he got an e-mail from his Specialty Leader announcing the opportunity for Navy doctors to learn how to do acupuncture, he submitted his application that same day. He was undoubtedly impressed that this training was being offered by the Navy, lending it the imprimatur of authority. His prior impression of acupuncture was that it was a “mysterious tool” that seemed to work; and instead of asking critical questions, he says he was looking for “a fundamental scientific understanding of acupuncture” and asking to see the supporting research and data. (more…)
Critics of mainstream medicine often point to the dangers of drugs. I previously wrote about “Death by Medicine,” where I explained the fallacy of fixating on harmful effects of drugs without putting them into perspective with all the good drugs do. Yes, patients have died from severe allergic reactions to penicillin, but penicillin has also saved countless lives.
A recent article in The New England Journal of Medicine looks at emergency hospitalizations for adverse drug events in elderly Americans. It confirms that adverse reactions are a serious problem, but some of its findings are surprising.
A number of buzz-words appear repeatedly in health claims, such as natural, antioxidants, organic, and inflammation. Inflammation has been implicated in a number of chronic diseases, including diabetes, Parkinson’s, rheumatoid arthritis, allergies, atherosclerosis, and even cancer. Inflammation has been demonized, and is usually thought of as a bad thing. But it is not all bad.
In a study in Nature Medicine in September 2011, a research group led by Dr. Umut Ozcan at Children’s Hospital Boston (a teaching hospital affiliated with Harvard Medical School) reported that two proteins activated by inflammation are crucial to maintaining normal blood sugar levels in obese and diabetic mice. This could be the beginning of a new paradigm. Ozcan says:
This finding is completely contrary to the general dogma in the diabetes field that low-grade inflammation in obesity causes insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. For 20 years, this inflammation has been seen as detrimental, whereas it is actually beneficial.
Increasing levels of these inflammatory signals might actually be therapeutic in diabetes and obesity. On the other hand, they might worsen inflammatory diseases like asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. Ozcan’s findings are intriguing and might eventually lead to new treatments, but there are no clinical applications as yet.
The holiday season is upon us. As a bit of a holiday from science-based writing, I thought I would offer some thoughts inspired by the season and not supported by any scientific evidence.
One of my friends refers to Christmas as “The Feast of St. Dyspepsia.” Holidays are indeed an occasion for over-indulging. People change their routine: they have time off work, they travel, spend too much money, go to parties, skip exercising, eat and drink things they ordinarily avoid, gain weight, and then suffer from post-holiday guilt.
Science and Mom both tell us we will be healthier if we eat our fruits and vegetables, exercise, avoid large quantities of alcohol, get enough rest, avoid stress, and control our weight. I would argue that if we follow that guidance most of the time, an occasional lapse is not likely to matter very much. And the pleasure we experience might even be good for our health.
Now for some heretical words.
Science isn’t everything. Health isn’t everything. Even truth isn’t everything. Humans find value in other things like music and mythology, things that bring great pleasure and help make life worth living.
Is your soup poisoning you? In a recent study subjects who ate canned vegetable soup had markedly increased levels of BPA in their urine compared to those who ate freshly prepared soup. We are constantly bombarded with alarmist warnings about the dangerous chemicals in the products we use. Especially BPA (Bisphenol A) and phthalates. Beware plastic bottles! Beware rubber ducks! And now, beware canned soup! BPA and phthalates are classified as endocrine disruptors. They have been discussed before on SBM here and here. BPA has been accused of causing everything from obesity to prostate cancer. Phthalates have been accused of causing everything from breast cancer to reduced anogenital distance in baby boys (the significance of this is unknown: there is not even any standard for what the normal distance is).
In the book Slow Death by Rubber Duck
Using a variety of test methods, the authors determined individual “body burdens,” or the toxic chemical load we carry. The innocuous rubber duck, for example, offers a poison soup of phthalates that “permeate the environment and humans.” From other products and food we also have a collection of chemicals shorthanded as PFCs, PFOAs, PSOSs, and PCBs. None of them are good, and they are everywhere…
Is this science or irresponsible fear-mongering? What does the best evidence tell us? Should we be afraid of our canned soup and rubber ducks? (more…)
I recently received an e-mail from a high school science department head who is teaching a unit on nutritional science. He asked for my opinion of a YouTube video of a lecture advocating a high saturated fat diet. The speaker is Donald W. Miller, Jr., M.D., a cardiothoracic surgeon at my alma mater, the University of Washington. My correspondent commented, “I have a feeling that there is room for some skepticism.” I agree: there’s a whole lot of room for skepticism.
An article based on that video lecture is available on Dr. Miller’s website. It’s entitled “Enjoy Saturated Fats, They’re Good for You!” If you want to judge for yourselves, I recommend the article over the video, as he is a poor public speaker.
Dr. Miller’s website contains a lot of disturbing material. He appears to be a contrarian who disagrees with the consensus of scientific experts on a wide variety of topics, for instance:
- Health Benefits of a Low-Carbohydrate, High-Saturated Fat Diet
- Fighting Fluoride [fluoride is poison!]
- Cardiac Surgeon Dr. Donald Miller Tells Dr. Dean Ornish to Take a Hike
- Avoid Flu Shot, Take Vitamin D [flu is a Vitamin D deficiency disease?]
- Questioning HIV/AIDS, Human-Caused Global Warming, and other Orthodoxies in the Biomedical Sciences
- A User-Friendly Vaccination Schedule [no vaccinations before age 2, no live vaccines, etc.]
He refers to questionable sources of information like the Weston Price Foundation and the notorious AIDS denialist Peter Duesberg. (more…)
Picture of the human retina; the bright spot on the right is the blind spot where the optic nerve leaves the eye.
Steven Novella recently wrote about so-called “chiropractic neurology” and its most outspoken proponent, Ted Carrick. In 2005 I published an article in The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine (Vol 9, No 1, p. 11-15) entitled “Blind-Spot Mapping, Cortical Function, and Chiropractic Manipulation.” It was an analysis of a study Carrick had published.
Carrick read a shorter, popularized version of my critique in Skeptical Inquirer and responded with a diatribe that was inaccurate, distorted what I had said, and accused me of fraud, deception, and mis-representation. He failed to offer a credible rebuttal of my specific criticisms; and, in my opinion, showed that he failed to understand some of my points. He referred to me as “Ms. Hall” and suggested that I was psychotic. He characterized my e-mail correspondence with him as “bizarre, rude, and offensive.” It was none of those, and I have copies of the e-mails to prove it. Carrick says he “forwarded it to the legal council for the American Chiropractic Association for review.” Now that strikes me as bizarre.
I am re-publishing the entire text of my article here as an instructive example of what passes for science in the chiropractic neurology community. Readers can judge for themselves whether my critique amounts to fraud and whether I am showing signs of psychosis, whether Carrick is a good scientist and whether his reply to my critique was appropriate. (more…)
A recent announcement is likely to generate a lot of controversy. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices of the CDC has recommended that boys and young men be vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV). Previously the guidelines said boys “could” be given the HPV vaccine. Now they have recommended that boys age 11 to 12 “should” be vaccinated, as well as boys age 13 to 21 who have not already had the full series of 3 shots. The vaccine can also be given to boys as young as 9 and to young men age 22 to 26.
The vaccine was originally promoted as a way to prevent cervical cancer. Boys don’t have a cervix, so why should they be subjected to a “girl’s” vaccine? There are some good science-based reasons:
- Boys can transmit the virus to female sex partners later in life, leading to cervical cancer in women.
- More importantly, boys themselves can also be directly harmed by the virus. It can cause genital warts, cancer of the head and neck (tongue, tonsils and throat), anal and penile cancer, respiratory papillomatosis, and giant condyloma of Buschke and Lowenstein. In rare cases, immunocompromised patients can develop epidermodysplasia verruciformis.
- There are other unconfirmed concerns: HPV has been associated with cardiovascular disease in one study.
Some of these conditions are not common, and the most common one, genital warts, may sound trivial. But “a picture is worth a thousand words,” so here is a link to a picture of a giant condyloma of Buschke and Lowenstein as an example of what HPV can do to the unvaccinated. The picture is not pleasant. If you are squeamish, you may not want to look at it. If you can’t even stand to look at it, imagine how devastating it would be to have it appear on your own body, and how nice it would be to be vaccinated against it.
I just returned from a trip to Montreal where I spoke at the Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium, an annual event that David Gorski spoke at a year ago. My topic was “Puncturing the Acupuncture Myth” and the other speakers were Paul Offit, Edzard Ernst, and Bob Park. I was honored to be in such august company; and we were wined, dined, and cossetted: overall, an experience that will count among the high points of my career. In addition to speaking at the Symposium, I was interviewed on the radio; participated in a roundtable discussion with other doctors, scientists and journalists; and was invited to speak to a large freshman chemistry class at McGill University. I told the students a bit about how I came to be the SkepDoc and some of the things I’ve written about, with “Vitamin O” as an example, and I provided 3 “lessons I have learned” from my investigations that are general principles applicable to other fields:
- Roosters don’t make the sun come up.
- Never believe one study.
- The SkepDoc’s Rule of Thumb: when encountering a new or questionable claim, always try to find out who disagrees and why.
My presentation was recorded and is available as a webcast. Scroll down to “2011/11/08 HallOffit” near the bottom and click on the appropriate symbol to the far right. That saves me having to write a post this week. I think SBM readers will find it pertinent to all we discuss here.
I first wrote about Hoodia in my “SkepDoc” column in Skeptic magazine (Vol. 13, No. 1, 2007). The following is adapted from that column with an update from new research revealing that it doesn’t work and that it causes worrisome side effects.
I first heard of Hoodia in 2006, when a radio ad informed me that it was the new miracle weight loss pill. Shortly after that, I started seeing ads for Hoodia everywhere. Anna Nicole Smith took it. It was featured on Oprah. Lesley Stahl went to Africa to taste the plant on 60 Minutes. There are nearly 40 competing brands of pills, a patch version, and even a Hoodia lollipop. It seems to have taken the world by storm; but it’s not new.
Hoodia gordonii is a cactus that grows in the deserts of southern Africa, and the San people have traditionally used it as an appetite suppressant, thirst quencher and to treat severe abdominal cramps, hemorrhoids, tuberculosis, indigestion, hypertension and diabetes. The claim is that it banishes hunger and thirst. What is the evidence? At this point it’s strictly anecdotal. Skinny Bushmen report it relieves hunger pangs in starvation conditions on long hunts; we don’t know what happens if it’s used by lazy fat people with access to food. Before the new study, there hadn’t been a single published study in humans. (more…)