Recently my co-blogger David Gorski wrote an excellent analysis of the latest propaganda effort from the anti-vaccine crowd – a website that attempts to deconstruct the fourteen studies most often cited to argue for a lack of association between vaccines and autism. As David pointed out, there are many more than 14 studies which demonstrate this, and no credible studies showing that there is any correlation. David covered some of the 14 discussed studies, and today I will discuss one more.
On that anti-vaccine propaganda site J.B. Handley begins his introduction with this logical fallacy:
Of all the remarkable frauds that will one day surround the autism epidemic, perhaps one of the most galling is the simple statement that the “science has spoken” and “vaccines don’t cause autism.” Anytime a public health official or other talking head states this, you can be assured that one of two things is true: they have never read the studies they are talking about, or they are lying through their teeth.
Of course this is a false dichotomy, or forced choice. I personally know of many people, including myself and David, who have both read all the studies and are telling the truth about our opinions that they do not support a link between autism and vaccines. It seems to be inconceivable to Mr. Handley that an informed professional could honestly disagree with his opinions – such is the nature of fanaticism.
Dr. Michael Dixon, the medical director of the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health, wrote an editorial for BBC news that is a densely packed rant of tiresome straw men often trotted out by the defenders of so-called “integrative” medicine. (The reason for the quotes in the headline, by the way, is because I stole that line from George Will who used in on This Week recently – it was too perfect not to co-opt.) Dixon was responding to an excellent commentary by Edzard Ernst, in which he characterized integrative medicine as a”shabby smokescreen for unproven treatments.”
Dixon was writing right out of the playbook of “integrative” propaganda, so it is worthwhile to expose his numerous logical fallacies and mischaracterizations of fact.
The Holism Gambit
Integrated health is not a new concept – the best doctors and their clinical colleagues have practised it for years.
It means treating patients as whole human beings – paying attention to body, mind and soul – instead of regarding them as nothing more than a set of symptoms to be got out the door as quickly as possible.
If Dixon wishes to be taken seriously by scientific practitioners he should make more of an effort to more fairly characterize mainstream medical practice. Of course, I must acknowledge up front, that there are mediocre and even bad doctors. There are also good doctors struggling within failing systems. And there are also many excellent doctors with effective practices. However, Dixon makes it seem as if the absolute worst of mainstream medicine is standard and typical. This is insulting, dismissive, and frankly ignorant of the facts on the ground. I find it interesting that defenders of integrative medicine are frequently whining about the dismissive attitudes of scientific practitioners of whom they are dismissive.
The LA Times recently published their analysis of data provided them by the state of California and found that there are pockets of high rates of exemption from vaccines among kindergarteners. In the US public schools require that all children receive the recommended vaccines. However, states can allow exemptions for the religious beliefs of the parents.
Over the years anti-vaccine activists have been successful in many states in expanding the rules for exemption. In California, for example, parents may seek excemption if they have “philosophical” objections to vaccines – which means there really isn’t any criteria beyond the parent’s wishes. The anti-vaccine movement has been active not only in pushing for the weakening of vaccine requirements but also in teaching parents how to use the laws to evade vaccination for their children.
The LA Times found that, while state wide the exemption rate was only 2%, exemptions were largely clustered in certain schools. They report:
In all, more than 10,000 kindergartners started school last fall with vaccine exemptions, up from about 8,300 the previous school year. In 1997, when enrollment was higher, the number of exempted kindergartners was 4,318.
At Ocean Charter School in Del Rey, near Marina del Rey, 40% of kindergartners entering school last fall and 58% entering the previous year were exempted from vaccines, the highest rates in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
When beginning a discussion of a controversial topic I like to establish the common ground upon which most or all people can agree. Everyone seems to agree that real conflicts of interest in medical research and practice is a bad thing and steps should be taken to minimize, eliminate, and illuminate any such conflicts. The controversy revolves around what constitutes a real conflict of interest.
There is broad agreement that researchers should not have a personal financial stake in the outcome of their own research – they should not make more money if their research is positive than if it’s negative. That creates a clear and powerful bias. There is also now broad agreement and adoption of standards that speakers, authors, and researchers should disclose any potential conflicts of interest – primarily the source of their funding. If someone is being paid by a drug company to say that their drug is effective for a particular disease, they should disclose that up front.
These same standard are now being applied to IRBs – institutional review boards, and that seems apprpriate. Every institution that does biomedical research must have an IRB, which is a committee of appropriate professionals (and there are rules as to the IRB’s constitution) that review all human research proposals to make sure they meet ethical guidelines and that subjects are adequately protected. This is a good system that generally works.
The primary goal of science-based medicine (SBM) is to connect the practice of medicine to the best currently available science. This is similar to evidence-based medicine (EBM), although we quibble about the relative roles of evidence vs prior plausibility. In a recent survey 86% of Americans said they thought that science education was “absolutely essential” or “very important” to the healthcare system. So there seems to be general agreement that science is a good way to determine which treatments are safe and work and which ones are not safe or don’t work.
The need for SBM also stems from an understanding of human frailty – there are a host of psychological effects and intellectual pitfalls that tend to lead us to wrong conclusions. Even the smartest and best-meaning among us can be lead astray by the failure to recognize a subtle error in logic or perception. In fact, coming to a reliable conclusion is hard work, and is always a work in progress.
There are also huge pressures at work that value things other than just the most effective healthcare. Industry, for example, is often motivated by profit. Institutions and health care providers may be motivated by the desire for prestige in addition to profits. Insurance companies are motivated by cost savings. Everyone is motivated by a desire to have the best health possible – we all want treatments that work safely, often more so than the desire to be logical or consistent. And often personal or institutional ideology comes into play – we want health care to validate our belief systems.
We advocate for Science-Based Medicine partly because science incorporates various generic intellectual virtues to which everyone should aspire. These include logical and clear thinking, unambiguous definitions, and internal consistency. In fact it is demonstrably true that opposing science often equates to promoting muddied and sloppy thinking, ambiguous language, and self-contradiction.
Last week I wrote about that latter virtue – consistency – and its lack when dealing with regulating physicians vs regulating so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). In fact CAM exists, in my opinion, specifically to create a double-standard to disguise contradictory standards. It is institutionalized compartmentalization to minimize public cognitive dissonance.
This week, as promised, I will discuss how the same double standard has been made to apply to the regulation of supplements vs pharmaceuticals. The recently published Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on supplement regulation by the FDA brings this to light.
My colleagues and I will be holding a Science-Based Medicine conference on Thursday, July 9th. This is an all-day conference covering topics of science and medicine. The conference is designed for both a professional and general audience.
The conference will be at the Southpoint Casino and Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. It is also part of The Amazing Meeting 7 (TAM7) which is run by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). You can register for the conference either separately or packaged with TAM7. You can register for both here.
Physicians can earn 6 hours of category 1 CME credits for attending the conference.
Below is the list of speakers and the titles of their talks, and below that is the bio for each speaker.
There has been a flurry of news relevant to science-based medicine in the last week – more than enough to keep a bevy of bloggers busy. More important than the individual news items themselves is the striking pattern they bring into focus when viewed together – the growing and pernicious double-standard between mainstream medicine and so-called CAM.
Begley vs Doctors
Science editor Sharon Begley wrote an interesting piece in Newsweek with the provocative title: Why Doctors Hate Science. I was not particularly impressed with the article – it took a rather narrow approach to a complex problem and ran with it. She writes:
It’s hard not to scream when you see how many physicians, pharmaceutical companies, medical-device makers and, lately, hysterical conservatives seem to hate science, or at best ignore it. These days the science that inspires fear and loathing is “comparative-effectiveness research” (CER), which is receiving $1 billion under the stimulus bill President Obama signed. CER means studies to determine which treatments, including drugs, are more medically and cost-effective for a given ailment than others.
I’m a big fan of video games, puzzles, and brain teasers. So the notion that so-called “brain training” games can help improve mental function and stave off dementia has some appeal to me. It also makes a certain amount of sense – exercise your brain and its function will improve.
And yet, as a skeptic, I have always been bothered by the specific claims made by marketers of games, websites, devices and programs. The formula is probably familiar to you, a specifically designed program is optimized to stimulate brain function, improve integration of information, and improve global function.
The website promotion for Brain Age, for example, claims:
Everyone knows you can prevent muscle loss with exercise, and use such activities to improve your body over time. And the same could be said for your brain. The design of Brain Age is based on the premise that cognitive exercise can improve blood flow to the brain. All it takes is as little as a few minutes of play time a day. For everyone who spends all their play time at the gym working out the major muscle groups, don’t forget – your brain is like a muscle, too. And it craves exercise.
The blood flow argument is pure hand-waving. The muscle analogy is perhaps more apt than intended – do muscles respond to a specific exercise or to any exercise?
In 2001 George Bush signed an executive order banning federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, except for those lines that were already established. As a result such research ground to a halt in the US.
While the order was presented as a compromise, the effect was chilling in its application. No researcher receiving federal dollars (even for a separate project) could do embryonic stem cell research, except on the approved lines. Institutions could not risk losing federal grants and so had to purge themselves of any banned research. The approved lines did not turn out to be as useful as was originally claims, and they became progressively obsolete as new techniques were being developed through state and private funding.
It is impossible to measure the effect that Bush’s ban had on ultimate scientific progress in this area. It is not just that we lost eight years – expertise in a cutting-edge scientific area can be a tenuous cultural and institutional thread, once broken it is difficult to recreate.
We will hopefully have a chance to find out. It was expected that one of the first measures of the Obama administration would be to lift the federal ban. In fact, I am a bit surprised it has not happened already. But it seems it soon will – insiders are saying that Obama plans to lift the ban soon.