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Is medical academia just following academia?

Is Medical Academia repeating Academia’s history? In a recent essay in a small-circulation, specialized periodical, Academic Questions, Prof. John M. Ellis, emeritus Professor of Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, recounts the past 4-5 decades of changes in liberal arts departments in US colleges. (How Preferences Have Corrupted Higher Education, Acad Quest, 2008; 21(2):265-274)  One modern academic controversy not needing recounting is the takeover of liberal arts departments by post-modernist theology and the partial takeover of universities themselves by radical politics dating from the 1960s.  But as recounted by Prof. Ellis, the fifty-year metamorphosis has not only changed universities, but has produced a branching network of intended and unintended consequences.

We have noted before that medicine is both a science and a practice that reflects current social attitudes and mores. (I minimize the aliquot of art, persisting from prior centuries; cultural influences being a more accurate term.) But the changes in universities now reflect in the normative thinking and mores of the modern medical school – at least a nucleus of them.  Thus Dr. Ellis’s observations may be a metaphor or template for a medicine of the next several decades.

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Postmodernist attacks on science-based medicine

The postmodernist critique of science consists of two interrelated arguments, epistemological and ideological. Both are based on subjectivity. First, because of the subjectivity of the human object, anthropology, according to the epistemological argument cannot be a science; and in any event the subjectivity of the human subject precludes the possibility of science discovering objective truth. Second, since objectivity is an illusion, science according to the ideological argument, subverts oppressed groups, females, ethnics, third-world peoples.

Postmodernism and science

I detest postmodernism.

Well, it’s not really postmodernism per se that I detest. In the humanities, I don’t mind it so much, although reading postmodernist texts in college did make my head hurt. I suppose that in the humanities postmodernism provides a sometimes useful methodology for providing insights into interpretation of a wide variety of subjects in literature and the arts, although much of the time it seems to exist mainly to try to make texts mean exactly the opposite of what the words on the page say. Relying as it does on deconstruction, which is primarily a form of literary analysis, postmodern analysis is built on questioning the assumptions underlying any text, “deconstructing” its meaning. The problem is, it’s rare that a postmodernist critique of anything doesn’t consist of some of the densest, most impenetrable verbiage in existence.

Since I don’t claim to be a philosopher, and I haven’t studied postmodernism since college, I don’t intend to embarrass myself by trying to do a detailed–ahem–deconstruction of what postmodernism is. Many are the trees that have been killed to write books trying to explain what postmodernism is and how to apply it to various subjects. I do know, however, that postmodern philosphy is skeptical–even nihilistic–when it comes to the values of what is considered “modernity.” Unfortunately, to some, science is one of these modern values that is viewed with extreme skepticism, even to the point of representing the very essence of science as nothing more than one narrative among many. True, Spiro was writing primarily about anthropological science, but medicine is a “soft” enough science to be just as easily attacked in such a manner, and postmodernists don’t limit themselves to the “soft” sciences, anyway. Even worse, these sorts of arguments often claim that science (or, in this case, evidence-based medicine) is nothing more than a sort of hegemony of the power structure being imposed upon the very definition of “data” or “reality,” the implication that it’s us white males whose hegemony is being served (and whose hegemony, presumably, must be resisted) doing the imposing, as if there are no inherent characteristics in science that make it a more reliable means of assessing reality as it exists than, for example, personal anecdote and “experience.”

No wonder woo-meisters and those who hate the very concept of evidence-based medicine (as opposed to the deficiencies in how EBM ranks evidence, which in fact were the reason why this blog is called Science-Based Medicine and not Evidence-based Medcine) love postmodernism so much. It’s the perfect tool for them to appeal to other ways of knowing and try to make it seem as though scientific medicine is no more valid a construct to describe reality than that of the shaman who invokes incantations and prayers to heal, the homeopath who postulates “healing mechanisms” that blatantly contradict everything we know about multiple areas of science, or reiki practitioners who think they can redirect “life energy” (or qi) for therapeutic effect. In the postmodernist realm all are equally valid, as there is no solid reason to make distinctions between these competing “narratives” and the “narrative” of scientific or evidence-based medicine.

Perhaps the best quick explanation of how postmodernism is used to attack science comes from Rob Helpy-Chalk:

Knowledge was always in some way relativized to culture, so that it was possible to talk about many “equally valid ways of knowing” of which enlightenment science was only one. For instance, contemporary biologists say that the cassowary (an ostrich-like creature) is a bird, albeit one that cannot fly. The Karam people of New Guinea, who live alongside the cassowary, say that the cassowary does not belong in the same category as the birds (which they call yakt) but bats do belong to that category. So who’s to say that the biologists are right and the Karam are wrong? Knowledge is all relative.

Claims to knowledge were also always in some way “constructed” or “socially constructed” in the postmodernist movements. This meant that they had less to do with grasping the way the world actually works and more to do with creating social structures that advanced the interests of the people who claimed to have knowledge. The science of thermodynamics was not really a description of the properties of heat. It was about convincing people to buy steam engines and arranging society so that they would be happy when they bought one.

Thus, one of the key tenets of some strains postmodernism is that knowledge is relative and “socially constructed,” usually for the purpose of reinforcing the existing power structure or furthering the interests of the “elite” who have the knowledge. It is therefore not surprising that critics of evidence-based and science-based medicine would find postmodernism to be a very attractive philosophical mantle in which to wrap their objections to the science that does not support their favored understanding of how disease works or what treatments are effective. After all, if all knowledge is relative, then why shouldn’t their way of knowing be just as valid as that of science, given that in the postmodernist view as used (or, as many philosophers would characterize it, abused) by “postmodernist” critics, science is just “another narrative.”
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The New England Journal of Medicine Disappoints

On July 31 of this year, a collective groan could be heard emanating from critics of pseudomedicine. The causative factors (which is medical bombast for “the cause”) were two book reviews published in the usually staid New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM):

Integrative Oncology: Incorporating Complementary Medicine into Conventional Cancer Care

Edited by Lorenzo Cohen and Maurie Markman. 216 pp., illustrated. Totowa, NJ, Humana Press, 2008. $79.95. ISBN 978-1-58829-869-0.
Reviewed by Donald I. Abrams

Alternative Medicine? A History

By Roberta Bivins. 238 pp., illustrated. New York, Oxford University Press, 2008. $35. ISBN 978-0-19-921887-5.
Reviewed by Teresa L. Schraeder

The Wooification of Medical Journals

I’ll review the reviews, but first let’s consider why their presence in the NEJM is so disturbing. The NEJM is the most widely read and cited medical journal in the world. Among American journals, the top three are usually reckoned to be the NEJM, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and, at least for internists, the Annals of Internal Medicine (Ann Int Med). The extent to which each journal has sacrificed its integrity for the promotion of the recent wave of pseudomedicine has varied among the three: the NEJM rarely and, for the most part, unwittingly; JAMA famously in 1998 and occasionally since; and the Ann Int Med repeatedly and embarrassingly, most notably with a series of puff pieces on “CAM” that spanned several years and violated the Annals’ own policies regarding funding disclosures by authors and editors.

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

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Animal rights terrorists endanger science-based medicine

I’m a bit ticked off right now, enough that I thought I’d break with tradition and do an extra post today. Don’t worry; it’ll be brief. It will also be angry, more so than you are perhaps used to hearing on this blog. However, I think my anger is justified, and I hope that Steve Novella–and you–will understand. I view the problem that I am about to discuss to be at least as serious a threat to science-based medicine as any infiltration of woo into medical schools or residency programs.

Remember back in February, when I discussed how animal rights terrorists had been harassing a researcher at the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC)? At the time, protesters attempted a home invasion of a researcher, leading to a police response where a home was searched by the police. This time around, however, these animal rights thugs have turned violent–again:

SANTA CRUZ — The FBI today is expected to take over the investigation of the Saturday morning firebombings of a car and of a Westside home belonging to two UC Santa Cruz biomedical researchers who conduct experiments on animals.

Santa Cruz police officials said Sunday the case will be handed to the FBI to investigate as domestic terrorism while local authorities explore additional security measures for the 13 UCSC researchers listed in a threatening animal-rights pamphlet found in a downtown coffee shop last week.

“The FBI has additional resources and intelligence into groups and individuals that might have the proclivity to carry out this kind of activity,” police Capt. Steve Clark said. “The FBI has a whole other toolbox of tools for this kind of investigation.”

The front porch of a faculty member’s home on Village Circle off High Street was hit with a firebomb about 5:40 a.m. Saturday, police said. The bomb ignited the front door of the home and filled the house with smoke, police said. About the same time, a Volvo station wagon parked in a faculty member’s on-campus driveway on Dickens Way was destroyed by a firebomb, police said.

Clark described the bombs as devices, which he said investigators have seen used by animals rights activists in the past, as “Molotov cocktail on steroids.”

That no one was seriously injured or died, especially the researcher’s children, is incredibly fortunate. As in previous cases, these two firebombing attacks were the culmination of a campaign of intimidation:

This appears to be the latest in a string of incidents targeting UCSC researchers and others in Santa Cruz.

Fliers identifying 13 UCSC scientists, some of whom use mice, fruit flies and other nonprimate creatures in their research, were discovered at a downtown coffee shop Tuesday. The fliers say, “Animal abusers everywhere beware; we know where you live; we know where you work; we will never back down until you end your abuse.” The names, home addresses, home phone numbers and photos of researchers were published on the fliers.

Fruit flies? Drosophila? How messed up do you have to be to threaten violence over Drosophila experiments? Why aren’t they threatening violence over the trillions upon trillions of E. coli or yeast that die in the name of science in molecular biology labs every day?
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Posted in: Basic Science, Medical Academia, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Resistance is futile? Hell, no! (A call to arms)

Well, I won’t back down
No, I won’t back down
You can stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won’t back down

Gonna stand my ground
Won’t be turned around
And I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me down
Gonna stand my ground
And I won’t back down

From “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty, 1989

This week, in a little bit of a departure, I have a minor bone to pick with our fearless leader and his podcast partner in crime Rebecca Watson (a.k.a. the Skepchick), who both managed to annoy me a bit the other day. (Don’t worry, Steve and Rebecca, I still love you guys…)

I’ll explain. You see, I had originally had a much different topic in mind for this week. Indeed, I even had my post mostly written by Saturday morning, when I had to take care of some mundane personal business, namely getting an oil change and some minor work done on my car. Since I need my car to commute to work and the maintenance needed was relatively minor, I decided to wait for the work to be done. As is my wont when sitting in waiting rooms with nothing much else to do, I decided to plug my earphones into my iPhone and catch up on some podcasts. Since the dealer also had free wifi, I brought my laptop along as well, the better to finish up my originally intended post.

The first thing I realized as I perused the list of unlistened-to podcasts was that I had fallen far behind in listening to one of my favorite podcasts, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. To begin catching up, I decided to start with what was at the time the most recently available episode, specifically the July 9 podcast, figuring I could work my way back to through the earlier ones and thereby catch up with at least two episodes before my car was ready. In the second segment (beginning around 14:31 minutes into the podcast), Steve Novella and crew discussed a bit the recent news that the National Institute of Mental Health was trying to resurrect a dubious and highly unethical clinical trial proposed to test chelation therapy as a treatment for autism, referencing his excellent post on this very blog about why the trial is scientifically dubious (at best) and totally unethical. So far, so good.

Then the conversation veered into another area that I agree with, namely the utter uselessness of National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and how its main purpose is more proselytization for “alternative” and “complementary” medicine than actual rigorous scientific research, as I pointed out before in one of my earliest posts for SBM. As Steve pointed out that, for all the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by NCCAM, not a single new medicine or treatment has been added to the armamentarium of modern medicine, nor, even more importantly, have CAM practitioners abandoned a single bit of unscientific medicine due to any of the negative studies. Indeed, their enthusiasm hasn’t been dampened in the least. This line of discussion led to the question of whether we, as skeptics and advocates of science- and evidence-based medicine need to rethink and refocus our efforts.
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Posted in: Medical Academia, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Science, Reason, Ethics, and Modern Medicine, Part 2: the Tortured Logic of David Katz

In Part 1 of this series* I asserted that a physician’s primary ethical responsibility is to honesty and integrity, which in turn must be largely based on science and reason (I apologize if that sounded preachy; if there had been more time I might have couched it in more congenial terms). I mentioned the fallacious reasoning whereby proponents of implausible medical claims (IMC) point to real and imagined weaknesses of modern medicine to justify their own agenda. I offered, as a favorite example of such proponents, science-based medicine’s having not yet solved every health problem. This week I’ll show how this version of the tu quoque fallacy has led a prestigious medical school to advocate pseudoscience-based medicine.

Modern Medicine: a Brief, Fragile Commitment to Science

First, a few more words about the title of this series. Modern medicine is not science, even if it draws upon science for its knowledge: it is an applied science similar, in that sense, to engineering. Modern medicine is also not synonymous with the “medical profession,” if the term means the collection of all people with MD degrees. That is true for the obvious reason that medicine is more than people, but also because a small but loud minority of MDs rejects modern medicine and science.

Modern medicine has made an uneven commitment to science and reason. At its best, it has formally embraced them in the faculties and curricula of medical schools, in its codes of ethics, and in its contributions to knowledge, both basic and applied, over the past 150 years or so. As discussed last week, it is because of science and reason that modern medicine has made dramatic, revolutionary advances in a very short time. That is what distinguishes it from every other “healing tradition,” and why there is no legitimate competition. The only valid medicine in the modern world is science-based medicine—not “allopathic,” “Western,” “conventional,” “regular,” “integrative,” “complementary and alternative,” or any of the so-called “whole medical systems.” The pre-scientific (and, ironically, “post-modern”) designation of “schools” or “systems” of medicine, so stridently trumpeted by quacks, is an anachronism—even if it persists in archaic, governmental edicts.

Compared to the actual sciences, however, modern medicine’s commitment to science is fragile. Its recent confusion of error-prone clinical trials with science itself—the project called “evidence-based medicine”—has been a mixed blessing. Its growing tolerance of charlatans and crackpots, at times elevating them to celebrity status, would be unthinkable in physics or biology. Its dalliances with quackery, so depressingly recounted in recent posts here, here, here, and here, are why your SBM bloggers do what we do. Biologists, other scientists, and intellectuals in general have joined the battle against the pseudoscientific travesty known as “intelligent design.” Many physicians, however, even of the brainy, academic variety, act as though the equally pseudoscientific but more dangerous travesty known as “integrative medicine” is either a good thing or, at least, is a necessary addition to medical school curricula.

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Posted in: Health Fraud, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Resistance is futile

Dr. Sampson’s droll post on Thursday written from the point of view of an advocate of unscientific “alternative” medicine modalites (these days known as “complementary and alternative medicine”–abbreviated “CAM”–or “integrative” medicine), coupled with Dr. Atwood’s most recent contribution to his ongoing series on how the mish-mash of a little valid herbal medicine mixed with a whole lot of woo otherwise known as the “profession” of naturopathy is pushing for greater legal legitimacy, depressed me mightily. The posts depressed me because they are but more evidence of just how effective advocates of non-science-based medicine have been over the last several years at twisting the linguistic landscape to their advantage and winning. Indeed, I’ve written about this before on this very blog, including my (in)famous list of medical schools that have embraced CAM and my lament about a medical school that has even gone so far as to “integrate” so-called “integrative” medicine into every aspect of its curriculum from day one of the first year. These disheartening trends accompany and draw succor from the $120 million a year budget of that center of woo in the heart of the National Institutes of Health, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, the equal amount of money coming yearly from, alas, the National Cancer Institute, and, of course, the financial clout of the Bravewell Collaborative.

Things are not looking good for science-based medicine in academia right now. I say this in particular because I just learned of a press release issued three weeks ago by Andrew Weil and his University of Arizona Program in Integrative Medicine that, as Emeril Lagasse would say, “Kicks it up a notch,” but not for the better.

The press release begins:
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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The Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons: Ideology trumps science-based medicine

I approach this week’s topic with a bit of trepidation, even though I’ve been meaning to discuss it ever since this blog started. Over the weekend, I decided I had put it off long enough.

Why, you might ask, would I approach this topic with trepidation? A reasonable question, and I will give what I hope to be a reasonable answer. For one thing, this topic forces me to drift to areas more political than I normally like and is likely to provoke some angry reactions. More importantly, though, I’m about to discuss a medical organization that is steeped in an utterly toxic brew of bad science and extreme ideology. So what? you might ask. Well, there are some fairly prominent physicians that belong to this organization, including Ron Paul, among others, and you never know who in my own place of employment or referral base might also belong. For all I know, one of my bosses might belong. I sincerely hope this isn’t the case (or if it is they just don’t know about the organization’s extreme views), but you never know, and what I’m about to write is going to be harsh indeed because articles from the journal published by this organization are often cited by cranks and pseudoscientists. Sometimes they even make their way into the mainstream press as though they were legitimate scientific studies. Make no mistake, though, when it comes to medical science, this organization deserves every harsh word that I am about to write because it is a major booster of antivaccinationism, HIV/AIDS denialism, and the now discredited hypothesis that abortion causes breast cancer, while on its pages it regularly attacks the very concept of evidence-based medicine and peer-review. That it is an organization of physicians is all the more appalling.

The group to which I refer is the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS), and its journal is the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons (abbreviated JPANDS, because “JAPS” has some rather obvious negative connotations). It is not an exaggeration to say that the AAPS, through its journal JPANDS, is waging a war on science- and evidence-based medicine in the name of its politics.
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Posted in: Medical Academia, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Forks in the road

It’s been decades since the onslaught of organized quackery began against science and reason. Although most physicians are still capable of reasoning, the percentage of medical graduates whose brains have been cleansed of that ability seems to have increased. Either the brains have been cleansed or they have learned to coexist with unreason and to use both functions simultaneously. The latter is quite an accomplishment and is a testament to the flexibility and fluidity of the human mind (shorthand for brain function.) Psychologists have names for that function such as compartmentalization, rationalization, denial, heuristic maintenance, and cognitive dissonance.

Physician advocates of quackery are particularly unsettling because they seem to be so rational at times and appear so to the press and the public. Even more unsettling to me are the medical school department heads and deans and others who loosen the restrictions on the irrational so that peaceful coexistence and polite tolerance seem to be the preferred mode of mental existence in faculties. The NCCAM’s example needs no introduction.

Thus the matter-of-fact tone in which was reported an article in this week’s JAMA. As reported in our local papers, the headlines read: “St. John’s Wort fails to help kids with ADHD [Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder] in study.” That stopped me for more than one reason. First, any headline about a sectarian or implausible claim is a stopper. But second, StJW for ADHD? I’d never seen the claim. But the article explained that the author felt such a trial was worth doing because someone else had found that StJW increased the level of nor-epinephrine-like compounds in rat brains, so that perhaps St JW would work instead of stimulants for hyperactivity.

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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Academia, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Touch – a Trojan Horse

Touch – Ouch. here they are again.

I had planned to post contents of a letter written a decade ago to a Washington Post reporter on why med schools would entertain associating with quacky methods and their advocates. But an article in the SF Chronicle intruded on May 25 on a research project at Stanford on “Healing Touch” (HT). The project is to test if HT affects symptoms of cancer and chemo- and radiotherapy. HT at Stanford?

I had sat down to write a letter to the editor when a call came through Center for Inquiry, where the reporter had called asking for someone to give her information on HT at Stanford. She called within a minute, apologetic for not having included critical comments from others. She had received emails already from irate scientists who told her about 11 year old Emily Rosa’s experiment published in the AMA Journal showing non-existence of human energy fields, which the HT practitioners claimed to be manipulating. And wasn’t HT different from Therapeutic Touch – (TT?) From the reporter’s description, I saw little difference except these HT people seemed to make more of fixing subjects’ chakras.

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