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Archive for Critical Thinking

This Book Won’t Cure Your Cancer, But It Will Help You Think More Clearly About It

cancerGideon Burrows has an inoperable brain cancer that is slow growing but is inevitably going to kill him. He has written a remarkable book about his experience, This Book Won’t Cure Your Cancer. A professional wordsmith, he is able to describe his experience of illness so vividly that the reader enters into his life, feels what he feels, and shares his suspense about what the next scan or doctor’s visit will reveal. Along with him, we suffer through the panic and fear, the chaos, the agonies of delays and uncertainty, the unpleasant hospital environment, and specialists with poor bedside manners. We follow him through difficult decisions about how to share the bad news with friends, relatives, and his young children; and we understand why this engenders guilt feelings. The story is as engaging as a detective story; we can hardly wait to see what the next scan will show and how the story of his illness will play out. It puts a human face on the cancer experience, and it would be valuable for that alone, but it is much more. The gradually unfolding episodes of his personal story are interwoven with what amounts to a primer on how to think critically about science-based medicine vs. alternative treatments. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Cancer, Critical Thinking

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Authority versus science on integrative medicine

Should we respect David Katz's authority?

Should we respect David Katz’s authority?

David Katz doesn’t much like us here at Science-Based Medicine. In fairness, I can’t say that I much blame him. We have been very critical of his writings and talks over the years, dating back as far as Steve Novella’s deconstruction of one of Dr. Katz’s more infamous statements about using a “more fluid concept of evidence” to Kimball Atwood’s characterization of his tortured logic to my pointing out that his arguments frequently boil down to a false dichotomy of either abandoning science or abandoning patients.

Last week, Jann Bellamy did her usual great job discussing an unfortunate special supplement of the American Journal of Preventative Medicine (AJPM) entitled Integrative Medicine in Preventive Medicine Education. This supplement included articles summarizing the results of project called IMPriME (Integrative Medicine in Preventive Medicine Education), funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), to advance the inclusion of “integrative medicine” in Preventive Medicine residency programs. Not surprisingly, this project was led by Dr. Katz. Jann used this special issue as a jumping off point to show, quite correctly, how, when it comes to so-called “integrative medicine,” it is always about the “potential,” which has always been elusive and has never been realized. Unfortunately, the elusiveness of the amazing potential attributed to “integrative medicine” (formerly referred to as “complementary and alternative medicine” or “CAM”) has done almost nothing to dampen the ardor of its cheerleaders for “integrating” as much woo as they can into medicine, which is why a major journal would allow someone like David Katz to edit a special issue dedicated to articles discussing IMPriME’s findings.

Thanks to Jann’s post, it appears that Dr. Katz is most displeased with us again here at SBM. To express his displeasure, he has rattled off a little rant over at his usual non-academic hangout and quack-friendly Internet outlet, The Huffington Post. There, he castigates us with a post entitled Science and Medicine, Fools and Fanatics: The ‘Fluidity’ of Woo. Yes, right off the bat, it’s the same old strategy, to paint advocates of “integrative medicine” as the “reasonable” ones while those of us who object to integrating prescientific quackery into medicine are clearly the “fanatics” (or, if you prefer, the fools). In it, as usual, Dr. Katz lays down some real howlers in defense of his integration of woo with medicine.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Critical Thinking, Medical Academia

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October is National Chiropractic Health Month!

nchm-logo-for-web
October is National Chiropractic Health Month (NCHM) and chiropractors can’t resist the opportunity to overstate, obfuscate, and prevaricate in celebration.

They do this in the face of some unfortunate (for them) statistics revealed by a recent Gallup Poll. The Poll was paid for by Palmer College of Chiropractic as part of an effort to increase the chiropractic share of the health care pie. (There is also a secondary analysis of the poll in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics.) We’ll get to those stats in a few minutes.

But first, in celebration of NCHM, the American Chiropractic Association (ACA) has produced a set of six graphics chiropractors can download and display. Four of them fudge on the facts. Let’s take a look at these graphics, compare them to the evidence cited in support of their claims, and see where the ACA went astray. (The ACA also hosted a twitter chat yesterday with the hashtag #PainFreeNation.)

chiro-infographic-spinal-manip-low-back-pain

The study cited as evidence for this graphic actually compared both manual thrust manipulation (MTM) and mechanical-assisted manipulation (MAM) to each other as well as manipulation versus usual medical care (UMC). Although MAM, such as the Activator Method, is the second most common manipulation technique used by American chiropractors, is increasing in popularity among them, and is touted to be a safe and effective alternative to MTM, this study found that MTM is more effective (at 4 weeks) than MAM and that MAM had no advantage over UMC. But you don’t see that in this graphic.

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Posted in: Chiropractic, Clinical Trials, Critical Thinking

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“Aborted fetal tissue” and vaccines: Combining pseudoscience and religion to demonize vaccines

Yes, there are antivaccinationists who actually believe this.

Yes, there are antivaccinationists who actually believe this.

As hard as it is to believe after seven and a half years of existence and nearly 2,400 posts on SBM, every so often, something reminds me that we here at SBM haven’t discussed a topic that should be discussed. So it was a couple of weeks ago, when I saw a familiar name in a news story that wasn’t about vaccines. You might recall a news story last month when a shadowy group with ties to radical antiabortion groups, the Center for Medical Progress, led by a man named David Daleiden, ran a highly questionable “sting” operation (complete with fake IDs) to “prove” that Planned Parenthood was selling aborted fetuses for medical research.

While reading news stories about Daleiden and CMP, I came across a familiar name, a name that many of us who discuss antivaccine misinformation are familiar with. I’m referring to Theresa Deisher, founder of the Sound Choice Pharmaceutical Institute. It turns out that Deisher helped to prepare Daleiden for his role as a biomedical representative that he assumed in order to deceive representatives of Planned Parenthood. She taught him how to talk the talk and walk the walk, so to speak, so that he was convincing as a representative of a biomedical research firm.

I can hear you asking: So what? What do Daleiden and CMP have to do with vaccines? It’s not CMP per se, but Deisher who is relevant. The reason that Deisher is so relevant to Science-Based Medicine (SBM) is because she is one of the foremost promoters of a particularly pernicious form of antivaccine misinformation that tries desperately to create a religious basis to oppose vaccines with antivaccine activism. It is a form of misinformation designed to deceive those who believe abortion is a moral wrong into thinking that vaccines, too, are a moral wrong because some of the viruses used to make specific vaccines are grown during the manufacturing process in cell lines derived from human fetuses decades ago. But Deisher goes one huge step beyond just guilt by association for vaccines. She is, as the news story cited above notes, the foremost promoter of a related and equally pernicious form of antivaccine information that claims that DNA from the fetal cell lines used to grow vaccine strains of viruses is a cause of autism. The truly depressing thing about Deisher is that she is, in fact, a real scientist (or at least was).

In any event, it occurred to me that, although I’ve mentioned Deisher briefly before in the context of the Disneyland measles outbreak, I’ve never deconstructed her antivaccine misinformation in detail here. Yet, her work is often cited by antivaccine activists to persuade those whose religion tells them abortion is morally wrong that they shouldn’t vaccinate their children by adding to the false claim that somehow “fetal parts” are used in the making of vaccines the even more false claim that fetal DNA somehow gets into the brain, recombines with the DNA in neurons, and causes autism. She’s also just released what appears to be a new paper claiming to show how fetal DNA causes autism. The confluence of her name coming up in stories about CMP and Planned Parenthood and her release of this new “paper” makes this a perfect time to write about Deisher.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Critical Thinking, Religion, Vaccines

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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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Don’t just stand there, do nothing! The difference between science-based medicine and quackery

Tree of Life - the first-known sketch by Charles Darwin of an evolutionary tree describing the relationships among groups of organisms (Cambridge University Library).

Tree of Life – the first-known sketch by Charles Darwin of an evolutionary tree describing the relationships among groups of organisms (Cambridge University Library).

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines science as:

Knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation.

And:

Knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding.

While this should distinguish science from pseudoscience, those who practice the latter often lay claim to the same definition. But one of the major differences between science and pseudoscience is that science advances through constant rejection and revision of prior models and hypotheses as new evidence is produced; it evolves. This is the antithesis of pseudoscience. At the heart of pseudoscience-based medicine (PBM) is dogma and belief. It clings to its preconceptions and never changes in order to improve. It thrives on the intransigence of its belief system, and rejects threats to its dogma. Despite the constant claims by peddlers of pseudoscience that SBM practitioners are closed-minded, we know that, in fact, PBM is the ultimate in closed-minded belief. Of course, those of us who claim to practice SBM aren’t always quick to adopt new evidence. We sometimes continue practices that may once have been the standard of care but are no longer supported by the best available evidence, or perhaps may even be contradicted by the latest evidence. Often this is a byproduct of habituated practice and a failure to keep current with the literature. While this is certainly a failure of modern medicine, it is not an inevitable outcome. It is not emblematic of the practice of medicine, as it is with PBM. When medicine is science-based, it strives for continual improvement based on modifications around emerging evidence. (more…)

Posted in: Critical Thinking, Medical Ethics, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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What Should We Do in the Absence of Evidence?

Pictured: Smarter than you.

Pictured: Smarter than you.

For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple—and wrong.

– H.L. Mencken

Despite my multiple personalities, it seems that only the OCD doctor gets anything done. The Goth cowgirl persona? Lazy. And the NBA playoffs are sucking up an inordinate amount of time. Go Blazers. Just not very far. Sigh. But what are you going to do. Work needs doing and someone has to do it.

This week was one of deadlines. In June I am giving a series of talks at the SMACC conference in Chicago and I have to have all my talks ready to go today. So sometimes to meet all my deadlines I need to re-purpose other material.

Spoiler alert: if you are going to be at SMACC and hear my lectures, stop reading here. Everything I am going say in 6 weeks will follow. And really even if you are going to SMACC, it is a content-free post. You might be better off spending your time elsewhere. (more…)

Posted in: Critical Thinking, Humor, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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On the “right” to challenge a medical or scientific consensus

Jenny McCarthy flaunting her "expertise" at the antivaccine "Green Our Vaccines" rally in Washington, DC in 2008

Jenny McCarthy flaunting her “expertise” at the antivaccine “Green Our Vaccines” rally in Washington, DC in 2008

The major theme of the Science-Based Medicine blog is that the application of good science to medicine is the best way to maintain and improve the quality of patient care. Consequently, we spend considerable time dissecting medical treatments based on pseudoscience, bad science, and no science, and trying to prevent their contaminating existing medicine with unscientific claims and treatments. Often these claims and treatments are represented as “challenging” the scientific consensus and end up being presented in the media—or, sadly, sometimes even in the scientific literature—as valid alternatives to existing medicine. Think homeopathy. Think antivaccine views. Think various alternative cancer treatments. When such pseudoscientific medicine is criticized, frequently the reaction from its proponents is to attack “consensus science.” Indeed, I’ve argued that one red flag identifying a crank or a quack is a hostility towards the very concept of a scientific consensus.

Indeed, I even cited as an example of this attitude a Tweet by Jane Orient, MD, executive director of the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS). This is an organization of physicians that values “mavericky-ness” above all else, in the process rejecting the scientific consensus that vaccines are safe and effective and do not cause autism or sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), that HIV causes AIDS, and that abortion doesn’t cause breast cancer, to name a few. Along the way the AAPS embraces some seriously wacky far right wing viewpoints such as that Medicare is unconstitutional and that doctors should not be bound by evidence-based practice guidelines because they are an affront to the primacy of the doctor-patient relationship and—or so it seems to me—the “freedom” of a doctor to do pretty much damned well anything he pleases to treat a patient.
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Posted in: Critical Thinking, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Do two half-truths add up to a complete truth or a complete falsehood?

olivia-twenty-dahl

I swear that the evidence that I shall give, shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth

The interwebs are not a court of law, that is for sure. The whole truth. Interesting idea. I have no idea how applicable Godel’s theorems are outside of mathematics, but from a practical point knowledge is always incomplete. There is too much to know and too little time and brain power to acquire perfect knowledge of a topic.

It is why medicine is a challenge. You have to synthesize all the available data, which is often incomplete. You have to decide what is quality information, what is not, and why, and how a given study or fact fits into the overall picture, on the continuous asymptotic journey towards unobtainable total knowledge. But you try for the whole truth, the good, the bad and the ugly.

Half-truths, partial stories, can be hard to challenge. In part because, well, they are half-true. They have an air of truthiness. It is perhaps much easier to counter an out-and-out lie. Well, maybe not. I’m thinking Wakefield here. I suspect that in having to admit that half-truths have some validity, it renders them more believable.

The world of pseudo-medicine, and pseudo-science, is filled with half-truths. I wonder when I read these half-truths whether the author is deliberately avoiding all the information, especially since the rest of the story often results in the weakening the impact of the half-truth. Paul Harvey could have had a field day with the anti-vaccine literature.

One of the greatest challenge facing young people today, is the large scale availability of half truth’s and manipulated facts
– Oche Otorkpa, The Unseen Terrorist

Influenza

Beware of the half-truth. You may have gotten hold of the wrong half.
– Author unknown

Take “Do Not Believe Everything You Read About Flu Deaths” from the October, 2014 Journal of Advanced Practice Nursing. As best I can tell this is a peer reviewed journal. You know, “peer“, as in “to appear partially or dimly.”

I imagine someone squinting over the top of their glasses at the manuscript, muttering, “that ‘peers to be a paper about influenza deaths. Let’s publish it.”
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Posted in: Critical Thinking, Vaccines

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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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