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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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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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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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Psychology and Psychotherapy: How Much Is Evidence-Based?

psychology gone wrong
Despite all those Polish jokes, Poland has its share of good scientists and critical thinkers. A superb new book illustrates that fact in spades:

Psychology Gone Wrong: The Dark Side of Science and Therapy, by Tomasz Witkowski and Maciej Zatonski, Witkowski is a psychologist, science writer, and founder of the Polish Skeptics Club; Zatonski is a surgeon and researcher known for debunking unscientific therapies and claims in clinical medicine. Together, they turn a spotlight on research and treatment in the field of psychology. They uncover distressing flaws, show that many commonly accepted psychological principles are based on myths, argue that psychotherapy is a business and a kind of prostitution rather than an effective evidence-based medical treatment, and question whether psychotherapy should even exist, since in most cases it offers no advantage over talking to a friend about one’s problems, and in some cases can cause harm. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and Medicine

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Ken Burns Presents Cancer

Note: I wrote two posts today to alert readers to two upcoming television events in time for them to plan their viewing. See the second post for an announcement about a film on scientology, along with an article about Scientology’s War on Medicine that I wrote for Skeptic magazine.

Ken Burns

Filmmaker Ken Burns

Ken Burns has made a lot of outstanding films. His The Civil War has been listed as second only to Nanook of the North as the most influential documentary of all time. I was delighted to learn that he had applied his exceptional skills to a topic that is very important to us on the Science-Based medicine blog, cancer. His film is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.

I reviewed Mukherjee’s book in 2010. He is an oncologist and cancer researcher and also a superb writer. I characterized his book as:

a unique combination of insightful history, cutting edge science reporting, and vivid stories about the individuals involved: the scientists, the activists, the doctors, and the patients. It is also the story of science itself: how the scientific method works and how it developed, how we learned to randomize, do controlled trials, get informed consent, use statistics appropriately, and how science can go wrong.

I continue to think it is the best book ever written on cancer.

The film interviews Mukherjee and many of the researchers and patients whose stories appear in the book. If you haven’t read the book, it will give you an idea what it’s about. If you have read the book, you will enjoy it even more as you meet the people you have read about. It covers the history of cancer as well as the most recent scientific developments and is very optimistic about the future.

The movie is scheduled to premiere March 30 – April 1 at 9 PM EST on PBS, in 3 parts with a total duration of 6 hours. You can watch the trailer online. The producers sent me a press preview 1-hour highlight reel and I was very impressed. I can’t wait to watch the whole thing. I hope you will be able to watch it too.

Posted in: Announcements, Book & movie reviews, Cancer

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Scientology’s War on Medicine

Note: The film Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief will be available on HBO starting March 29th. I haven’t seen it yet, but apparently it profiles former members who reveal details that have elicited a very angry response from the Church of Scientology. I thought I would use the occasion to reprint a SkepDoc column that originally appeared in Skeptic magazine (Volume 18: Number 3) titled “Scientology’s War on Medicine.”

Scientology has openly declared war on psychiatry and is ambivalent if not openly hostile towards the rest of medicine. Its “mind over matter” philosophy promises that attaining the “Clear” state will eliminate illness.

Recently there has been a spate of exposés of Scientology, ably reviewed by Jim Lippard on eSkeptic. They offer some shocking revelations. Defectors from Scientology have described kidnappings, deliberate lying, unnecessary deaths, human trafficking, thought control (“brainwashing”), coercion, violations of labor standards, violations of human and civil rights, and other crimes. Scientology has been protected from prosecution by its designation as a religion and its vast wealth and influence; but if even a fraction of these accusations are true, Scientology has much to answer for.

Initially people are attracted to Scientology because it provides answers. Your problems are due to past experiences holding you back. Scientology can help you deal with those problems and the upper levels will reveal the secret of life itself.

Mark VIII E-Meter, from the Wikimedia Commons

Mark VIII E-Meter, from the Wikimedia Commons by Colliric

Members are audited with an E-Meter (similar to a lie detector) and one-on-one attention. The auditing process is similar to psychotherapy in that it encourages people to think about their problems and work to overcome them. In Scientology, ideas are not immaterial: they have weight and solidity. The E-Meter locates and discharges mental masses that are blocking the free flow of energy. Memories are blamed and traced back in time even into past lives. Patients keep repeating the details of the experience until they are drained of any emotional charge. Once the painful experiences and associations are drained off, there are astonishing results: asthma, headaches, arthritis, menstrual cramps, astigmatism, and ulcers simply disappear. The reactive mind is replaced by the rational mind. In one case a boy’s IQ supposedly rose from 83 to 212. (more…)

Posted in: Announcements, Book & movie reviews, Religion

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Mind Over Matter: The Brain’s Way of Healing

The Brain's Way of HealingIn 2008 I wrote about neuroplasticity as presented in Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself. I urge you to click on the link and read what I wrote there before you continue. The science is fascinating. The brain is far more malleable than we once thought. Areas of the cortex devoted to a sensory input shrink when that input is lost. Neurons from other parts of the brain can be co-opted to take over lost functions. Learning a new skill actually changes the structure and function of the brain: the areas of the cortex devoted to that skill enlarge as the new skill is practiced and perfected.

This is exciting stuff, with potential therapeutic applications in chronic pain, brain damage, and chronic illness. When I reviewed that book, I said I thought Doidge was a bit overenthusiastic; and now he has written a follow-up book that is even more overenthusiastic. In The Brain’s Way of Healing: Stories of Remarkable Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity, he slips into unscientific speculations and relies on anecdotes about patients who have allegedly benefited from practical applications of brain plasticity science. The title is accurate: these are stories, not scientific studies. I continue to find the subject fascinating and to believe that neuroplasticity offers a lot of potential for human healing, but I don’t believe we have learned much about practical ways to accomplish that. Doidge’s book goes beyond the science. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Facing Decline and Death

Gawande book

Note: Atul Gawande and his book will be featured on a Frontline episode airing on PBS tonight.

We’re all going to die. (There’s nothing like starting on a positive note! :-) ) We’re all going to die, and if we are fortunate enough to survive long enough to become old, we’re all going to experience a decline of one sort or another before we die: reduced hearing and vision, less strength, poorer memory, etc. As a society, and as a medical profession, we have been reluctant to confront those issues head on. Dr. Atul Gawande faces them unflinchingly in his thought-provoking new book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End.

In a simpler time, there were fewer old people; they were respected for their knowledge and were cared for by their families who supplied their increasing needs as age made them more dependent on others; they died at home surrounded by supportive loved ones. Today we warehouse our elders in nursing homes, where they are denied the independence of even making simple everyday choices like when to get up and when to eat. We consign them to a regimented, less enjoyable, less meaningful life; and they frequently die alone in hospitals, connected to tubes and machines.

Doctors are not always good at making it clear to terminally ill patients that they are going to die soon. They are not always good at discussing end-of-life issues and securing advance directives. They often treat end-of-life diseases so aggressively that they end up causing more suffering or even shortening lives. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Cancer, Medical Ethics

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A Scientist in Wonderland

Edzard Ernst is one of those rare people who dare to question their own beliefs, look at the evidence without bias, and change their minds. He went from practicing alternative medicine to questioning it, to researching it, to becoming its most prolific critic. I have long admired his work, and I finally met him in person when we were invited to speak at the same conferences. He shattered my stereotype of the stern, formal, self-important German “Herr Professor Doktor.” He was affable, unassuming, and funny; he was even a jazz musician. I wished I knew more about his history, and my wishes have been granted in the form of his new autobiographical book, A Scientist in Wonderland: A Memoir of Searching for Truth and Finding Trouble.

This is a well-written, entertaining book that anyone would enjoy reading and that advocates of alternative medicine should read: they might learn a thing or two about science, critical thinking, honesty, and the importance of truth.

This is a well-written, entertaining book that anyone would enjoy reading and that advocates of alternative medicine should read: they might learn a thing or two about science, critical thinking, honesty, and the importance of truth.

Edzard Ernst, the early years

Dr. Ernst was born in post-war Germany; his family had suffered greatly during the war and his uncle had been a general in the Waffen SS. He felt slightly ashamed to be German, and as a result he researched and wrote about Nazi health beliefs and medical atrocities so the history of their misdeeds would not be forgotten.

His father was a doctor, his mother an enthusiastic devotee of alternative medicine who subjected him to homeopathy, ice cold baths, and barefoot walks at dawn through wet grass. Early in life, Ernst began to manifest a tendency towards doubt and irreverence, along with an irrepressible sense of curiosity.

Music was his first love. He earned good money when he and his friends spent their summer vacation busking on the beach at St. Tropez, and he had been seriously considering a musical career until his mother persuaded him to study medicine. He earned an MD in Germany, in an environment where alternative medicine was unquestioningly integrated with mainstream medicine. He received hands-on training in acupuncture, autogenic training, herbalism, homeopathy, cupping, massage therapy, spinal manipulation, even leeches. His first job was in a homeopathic hospital where a colleague chose remedies by dowsing with a pendulum. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Clinical Trials, Critical Thinking

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The Marvelous Dr. Mütter

The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia has a marvelous collection of human bones, surgical specimens, monsters in jars, and medical memorabilia. It holds attractions for everyone, from the jaded medical professionals who thought they’d seen it all to the coveys of youngsters who compete to point out the grossest items to their friends, from the student of history to the connoisseur of the macabre. There is an enormous megacolon said to look like a sandworm from Dune, a plaster cast of the famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng along with their actual preserved conjoined livers, a collection of bizarre swallowed objects, an iron lung, a tumor removed from president Grover Cleveland’s jaw while he was in office, a shocking assortment of deformed fetuses…the list goes on.

I knew about the museum and greatly enjoyed visiting it, but I didn’t know anything about Dr. Mütter himself until I read a delightful new book by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz , Dr. Mutter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine. I learned that the good doctor was every bit as marvelous as his museum, and the book took me on a fascinating trip back to the medicine of the early 1800s that made me better appreciate all that modern medicine has accomplished.

(more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, History, Surgical Procedures

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