Archive for History

Lessons from History of Medical Delusions

A brief reference on the web site The Quackometer recently drew my attention to a very short book (really more of a pamphlet, in the historical sense) by Dr. Worthington Hooker, Lessons from the History of Medical Delusions, which I thought might be of interest to readers of this blog. Though published in 1850, the book contains many eloquent observations that are just as relevant to understanding how pseudoscience and quackery persist and even flourish in what we otherwise assume to be an age of scientific medicine. The book is available online as a Google eBook, and relatively cheap printed facsimiles are available as well.

Dr. Hooker was a physician, a professor at Yale, and an outspoken critic of homeopathy in it’s early days. His critique of homeopathy still resonates today, and has long drawn the ire of Hahneman loyalists, such as this one who makes reference to Dr. Hooker’s, “periodical fulminations for the destruction of Homoeopathy that have appeared like locusts or cholera at certain dates.” Though Dr. Hooker wrote an entire book discussing homeopathy, Homeopathy: An Examination of its Doctrines and Evidences, he does spare a few words here for this less-than-venerated practice:

The error I have been illustrating is carried to an extreme by the Homeopathist. He attributes palpable results to doses of medicine which are so small that they cannot produce any perceptible effect except by miracle.


Posted in: Book & movie reviews, History, Science and Medicine

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“Obama Promises $156 Million to Alzheimer’s…But where will the money come from?” That’s easy: the NCCAM!

The quoted language above is part of the headline of this story in today’s The Scientist:

Citing the rising tide of Americans with Alzheimer’s—projections suggest 10 million people will be afflicted by 2050—the Obama administration and top National Institutes of Health officials are taking action. On February 7, they announced that they will add an additional $80 million to the 2013 NIH budget for the Alzheimer’s research program.

The problem is that there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch:

However, Richard Hodes, director of the NIH’s National Institute on Aging, told Nature that the 2013 dollars still have to be approved by Congress in the next budget and, if not, existing programs may need to be cut. And this year’s $50 million is likely to bump other projects, perhaps at NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute. “If there’s a finite budget anywhere, once there’s more of something, there is less of something else,” he said.

Often such budget compromises are difficult, because there is no ready way to choose between two or more competing recipients of taxpayers’ money, each of which might be comparably worthy. Thus it is with a great sense of relief that in this case, we in the biomedical community can assure President Obama that no such dilemma exists. This is one of those occasional decisions that requires no hair-pulling whatsoever. The obvious solution is to defund the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), which, at about $130 million/yr, would solve the problem of funding Alzheimer’s research and take the heat off other worthy programs such as those mentioned by Richard Hodes.


Posted in: History, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Homeopathy and Its Kindred Delusions

Note: The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) is publishing a new series of e-books.  The first two offerings are an excellent new book on critical thinking by Bob Carroll, Unnatural Acts, and the first in a planned series of republications of classic skeptical works, Homeopathy and Its Kindred Delusions, by Oliver Wendell Holmes. I was asked to write the introduction for the latter, and the JREF has kindly given their permission for me to reproduce it here.


The German philosopher Hegel said, “We learn from history that we don’t learn from history.” “Homeopathy and Its Kindred Delusions” is a remarkable little book based on two lectures Oliver Wendell Holmes gave in 1842. It is a masterful debunking of homeopathy. If his lessons had been taken to heart, homeopathy would not have survived and we could have avoided a great number of other medical delusions that continue to plague us today, both from charlatans and from well-meaning advocates who lack Holmes’ critical thinking skills.

To realize just how remarkable this book is, imagine the world of 1842.  Samuel Hahnemann, the inventor of homeopathy, was still alive. Roentgen wouldn’t discover x-rays until 1895. The germ theory was not yet established. Semmelweis wouldn’t make his observations on puerperal fever until 3 years later. It wasn’t until 1854 that John Snow removed the Broad Street pump handle and stopped a cholera epidemic. Koch’s postulates for determining infectious causes of disease weren’t published until 1890. Doctors didn’t wash their hands or use sterile precautions for surgery. Bloodletting to “balance the humors“ was still a common practice. The randomized placebo-controlled trial wouldn’t appear for another century. Contemporary medicine often did more harm than good. In fact, Holmes himself famously quipped “I firmly believe that if the whole materia medica could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be all the better for mankind and all the worse for the fishes.” (more…)

Posted in: History, Homeopathy

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The New England Journal of Medicine Sinks a Bit Lower

I suppose it was bound to happen, but it still rankles. Here is the back cover of last week’s issue of the decreasingly prestigious New England Journal of Medicine:


Here’s the front cover:

It’s the 200th Anniversary issue, no less. Some might protest that ‘probiotics’—live bacteria of ‘good’ varieties, as far as the gut is concerned—aren’t all that implausible, and that there is some trial evidence that they help for some conditions. That’s true, but as is typically the case even for the somewhat plausible end of the “CAM” spectrum, the hype greatly surpasses the evidence. The abstract of the most recent systematic review that I could find for probiotic treatment of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS: symptoms and signs that best match the claims in the advertisement above) concluded:


Posted in: Clinical Trials, Herbs & Supplements, History, Legal, Medical Ethics, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Integrative Medicine: “Patient-Centered Care” is the new Medical Paternalism

Integrative Pitchmen

Several of us have written about how contemporary quacks have artfully pitched their wares to a higherbrow market than their predecessors were accustomed to, back in the day. Through clever packaging,* quacks today can reasonably hope to become professors at prestigious medical schools, to control and receive substantial grant money from the NIH, to preside over reviews for the Cochrane Collaboration, to be featured as guests and even as hosts on mainstream television networks and on PBS, to issue opinions in the name of the National Academy of Sciences, to be patronized by powerful politicians, and even to be chosen by U.S. presidents to chair influential government commissions.

The most successful pitch so far, and the one that the fattest quack-cats of all have apparently decided to bet the farm on, is “integrative medicine” (IM). Good call: the term avoids any direct mention of the only thing that distinguishes it from plain medicine. Its proponents, unsurprisingly, have increasingly come to understand that when they are asked to explain what IM is, it is prudent to leave some things to the imagination. They’re more likely to get a warm reception if they lead people to believe that IM has to do with reaching goals that almost everyone agrees are worthy: compassionate, affordable health care for all, for example.

In that vein, the two most consistent IM pitches in recent years—seen repeatedly in statements found in links from this post—are that IM is “preventive medicine” and that it involves “patient-centered care.” I demolished the “preventive” claim a couple of years ago, as did Drs. Lipson, Gorski, and probably others. Today I’ll explain why the “patient-centered care” claim is worse than fatuous.


Posted in: Health Fraud, History, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Dummy Medicine, Dummy Doctors, and a Dummy Degree, Part 2.0: Harvard Medical School and the Curious Case of Ted Kaptchuk, OMD


The recent albuterol vs. placebo trial reported in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) found that experimental subjects with asthma experienced substantial, measured improvements in lung function after inhaling albuterol, but not after inhaling placebo, undergoing sham acupuncture, or “no treatment.” It also found that the same subjects reported having felt substantially improved after either albuterol or each of the two sham treatments, but not after “no treatment.” Anthropologist Daniel Moerman, in an accompanying editorial, wrote, “the authors conclude that the patient reports were ‘unreliable,’ since they reported improvement when there was none”—precisely as any rational clinician or biomedical scientist would have concluded.

In Part 1 of this blog we saw that Moerman took issue with that conclusion. He argued, with just a bit of hedging, that the subjects’ perceptions of improvement were more important than objective measures of their lung function. I wondered how the NEJM editors had chosen someone whose bibliography predicted such an anti-medical opinion. I doubted that Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Drazen, an expert in the pathophysiology of asthma, had ever heard of Moerman. I suggested, in a way that probably appeared facetious, that Ted Kaptchuk, the senior author of the asthma report, might have recommended him. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Clinical Trials, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, History, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Oh yeah? Thalidomide! Where’s your science now?

Online discussions on the merits of alternative medicine can get quite heated. And its proponents, given enough time, will inevitably cite the same drug as “evidence” of the failings of science. Call it Gavura’s Law, with apologies to Mike Godwin:

As an online discussion on the effectiveness of alternative medicine grows longer,  the probability that thalidomide will be cited approaches one.

A recent comment on my own blog, regarding the homeopathic product Traumeel, is typical:

If the scientific method is all that separates an accepted claim, ie Thalidomide, Vioxx, Bextra, Darvon, from mere anecdote, of what benefit is the Science?

As a non-scientist consumer, I’ll take the anecdotes and my own experience. Thank you.

If scientists want to be taken seriously, they must stop selling themselves to the highest bidder becoming corporate whores without a shred of decency. To my mind, that’s how the claims for Thalidomide, Vioxx, Bextra, Darvon were accepted, making the scientific method utterly worthless.

To this commenter, “science has been wrong before.” And that invalidates science, and apparently validates homeopathy. It’s a fallacious argument. But does thalidomide actually represent a failing of science-based medicine? No, not even close. It’s so wrong, it’s not even wrong. Thalidomide is good example of the importance of science-based medicine and why allowing alternative medicine to be sold in the absence of good science is a concern. (more…)

Posted in: History, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Everthing Old is New Again!

I have as much of a sense of nostalgia as anyone.  I love history.  I think that there is lots to be said about the “good old days,” whenever the heck they were.  I do not, however, think that the “good old days” generally include medicine.

nostalgiaThe fact is that it’s only been about 100 or so years since medical practitioners really got their acts together and started to be able to figure out if they were actually doing anything good.  Prior to that, medicine was a world of humo(u)rs and miasms, treated by bleeding, burning, and purging, plants and animal matter of all sorts (the 6th century Chinese apparently liked otter feces) and all sorts of other awfulness.  In light of some of the things that were done, it’s kind of amazing that anyone survived their treatments.  Mostly, people (and horses) survived in spite of the crazy things that were done to them.

Nevertheless, in those wild and wooly days of yesteryear, enterprising medical entrepreneurs turned out an endless stream of products, with some pretty fantastic claims.  They designed some absolutely artistic advertising cards to go along with those claims, too.  These trade cards surged onto the scene in the 1870’s, coinciding with the advent of color printing.

Posted in: History, Science and Medicine

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“CAM” Education in Medical Schools—A Critical Opportunity Missed

Mea culpa to the max. I completely forgot that today is my day to post on SBM, so I’m going to have to cheat a little. Here is a link to a recent article by yours truly that appeared on Virtual Mentor, an online ethics journal published by the AMA with major input from medical students. Note that I didn’t write the initial scenario; that was provided to me for my comments. The contents for the entire issue, titled “Complementary and Alternative Therapies—Medicine’s Response,” are here. Check out some of the other contributors (I was unaware of who they would be when I agreed to write my piece).

Posted in: Acupuncture, Basic Science, Chiropractic, Energy Medicine, Herbs & Supplements, History, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Science-based medicine, skepticism, and the scientific consensus

Editor’s note: This weekend was a big grant writing weekend for me. I’m resubmitting my R01, which means that between now and July 1 or so, my life is insanity, as I try to rewrite it into a form that has a fighting chance of being in the top 7%, which is about the level the NCI is funding at right now. This weekend, I buried myself in my Sanctum Sanctorum and tried like heck to try to pound the revision into a really good draft that I can distribute to my colleagues for feedback. Fortunately, I have some old posts that I can pull out, tart up (i.e., update a bit, as in correcting the parts that led me to groan as I reread them, thereby hopefully making them better). I think they’re quite good, if I do say so myself; so hopefully you will too.

There are some arguments made in blogs, articles, or books that strike me so hard that I remember them, even three and a half years later. Sometimes I even file them away for later use or response if the issue raised by them is interesting, relevant or compelling enough to me. Although this topic is a bit broader than many of the topics I write about for this blog, I think it also goes to the heart of science-based medicine and communicating scientific skepticism about medicine to the masses. A few years back, a Swedish blogger named Martin Rundkvist made a rather provocative observation about skepticism. Specifically, he argued that a “real skeptic always sides with scientific consensus.” Among his reasons was this one:

Science presupposes that all participants have a skeptical frame of mind and arrive at conclusions through rational deliberation. If a large group of knowledgeable people working in this way arrive at a consensus opinion, then there is really no good reason for anybody with less knowledge of the subject to question it. Informed consensus is how scientific truth is established. It’s always provisional and open to reevaluation, but as long as there’s informed consensus, then that’s our best knowledge. Humanity’s best knowledge.

Although at the time I saw where Martin was coming from, I found this viewpoint somewhat disturbing, leading me to echo Martin’s own words in response to his own rhetorical question asking whether accepting a scientific consensus is nothing more than “kowtowing to white-coated authority”: Well, yes and no.

Posted in: History, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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