Archive for Medical Ethics

To debate or not to debate: The strange bedfellows of Andrew Weil

Andrew Weil

To debate or not to debate, that is the question.
Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous quackery
Or to take arms against a sea of quackademia,
And, by opposing end them.

Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1, paraphrased badly.


The question of whether it is worthwhile to debate cranks, quacks, and advocates of pseudoscience has long been a contentious issue in the skeptic community. Those of you who’ve been reading my posts for a while know that I’ve always come down on the side that it is not a good idea One thing I’ve learned in my more than a decade of blogging, both here and at my not-so-super-secret other blog, is that advocates of pseudoscience love public debates. Indeed, whenever you see a skeptic agree to a public debate with an advocate of pseudoscience, it’s a damned sure bet that it wasn’t the skeptic who proposed it. I suppose it’s possible that there have been such instances that I’m unaware of, but I do know of a lot of instances where it was the other way around. I’ve even witnessed one myself, when our fearless founder Steve Novella debated antivaccine quack Julian Whitaker about vaccine safety at FreedomFest in Las Vegas while we were at TAM three years ago. Steve mopped the floor with Dr. Whitaker so dramatically that it almost changed my mind about the value of debates with quacks because, witnessing the debate, I saw that the arguments Dr. Whitaker marshaled were such hackneyed antivaccine talking points that I knew I could also have demolished them. Still, in the end, no minds were likely to be changed, and the question of vaccine safety was clearly being used as a tool to oppose school vaccine mandates or, as antivaccinationists like to call them deceptively, “forced vaccination.” Whether vaccines are safe and effective or not is a separate question from whether the government should mandate certain vaccines as a precondition for attending school or being in day care.

Over the years, I myself have been “challenged” to similar debates myself. Perhaps the most bizarre example occurred when someone claiming to represent HIV/AIDS denialist Christine Maggiore contacted me claiming that she wanted to arrange a debate between us. Maggiore, unfortunately, died a mere two years later of—you guessed it—AIDS-related complications. Although occasionally the ego gratification of being asked to participate in such events vied with my longstanding belief that debating cranks doesn’t sway anyone, sharing the stage with a real scientist does unduly elevate the crank in the eyes of the public. Besides, whatever the seeming outcome of the debate, you can count on the crank to declare victory and his believers to agree. In any event, science isn’t decided by the metrics used to judge who “wins” a public debate, which rely more on rhetoric and cleverness rather than science to decide the outcome. Finally, such debates are not without risks. Although Julian Whitaker, for example, was terrible at it, other cranks are adept at the Gish Gallop, and an unprepared skeptic or scientist can be made to appear clueless in front of a crowd that is almost always packed with supporters of the crank, not the skeptic.

Just last week, there was another “debate” challenge that led me to question my resolve not to debate cranks. It came from a most unexpected source.

Posted in: Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Science and the Media

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Learning quackery for Continuing Medical Education credit



The Integrative Addiction Conference 2015 (“A New Era in Natural Treatment”) starts tomorrow in Myrtle Beach, SC. Medical doctors, doctors of osteopathy, naturopaths and other health care providers will hear lectures on such subjects as “IV Therapies and Addiction Solutions,” given by Kenneth Proefrock, a naturopath whose Arizona Stem Cell Center specializes in autologous stem cell transplants derived from adipose tissue. Proefrock, who was disciplined for using prolotherapy in the cervical spine without proper credentialing in 2008, claims that stem cells treatments are an “incredibly versatile therapy” and uses them for variety of conditions, such as MS and viral diseases. At the same time, he admits that they are not FDA approved and he is not claiming they are effective for anything (and he’s right), which leads one to wonder why he employs them.

Proefrock also offers a typical naturopathic mish-mash of services, from oncology to urology to “naturopathic endocrinology,” and claims he specializes in treating influenza, high blood pressure and kidney stones, as well as addiction. In other words, he doesn’t seem to be the sort of expert you’d find speaking at a science-based conference on addiction medicine.

You’ll find similarly troubling bios of some of the other speakers, as well as dubious treatments for addiction, on the conference website. Here, for example, are speaker Giordano’s and Eidelman’s websites.

Dalal Akoury, MD, is the “Title Sponsor” of the conference and appears to be running the show. Although she is listed by the S.C. Board of Medicine as board certified in pediatrics, she is the founder of the “Integrative Addiction Institute” and runs the “AwareMed Health and Wellness Resource Center” in Myrtle Beach. Like the Arizona Stem Cell Center, it offers a range of treatments that defy categorization as any particular specialty: addiction recovery, “adrenal fatigue” treatment, stem cells, “anti-aging,” weight loss, “functional medicine” and “integrative cancer care“. Yet, only Akoury and one licensed practical nurse are on the staff of the Center. Again, it is questionable whether she is has sufficient qualifications in addiction medicine to run a conference on the subject. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Cancer, Chiropractic, Dentistry, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Energy Medicine, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy

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Is Homeopathy Unethical?

Homeopathy is full of crap!  Click to embiggen.

Homeopathy is full of crap! Click to embiggen.
Borrowed with loving attribution from Hell’s News Stand. Go to He…go there!

“A gentle ethical defence of homeopathy” by Levy et al. was recently published in an ethics journal. A full-text preprint is available online. They say:

Utilitarian critiques of homeopathy that are founded on unsophisticated notions of evidence, that adopt narrow perspectives on healthcare assessment, and that overstate the personal, social and ontological harms of homeopathy, add little to our understanding of the epistemology of medicine. But when they are used to denounce the ethics of homeopathy – they are not only ill-considered and counterproductive, but philosophically and socially perverse.

I found their arguments unconvincing. (more…)

Posted in: Homeopathy, Medical Ethics

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Placebo by Conditioning

power-of-placebo-effectTruly understanding placebo effects (note the plural) is critical to science-based medicine. Misconceptions about placebo effects are perhaps the common problem I encounter among otherwise-scientific professionals and science communicators.

The persistence of these misconceptions is due partly to the fact that false beliefs about placebos, namely that “the” placebo effect is mainly an expectation mind-over-matter effect, is deeply embedded in the culture. It is further exacerbated by recent attempts by CAM proponents to promote placebo-medicine, as their preferred treatments are increasingly being demonstrated to be nothing but placebos.

One idea that proponents of placebo medicine have tried to put forth is that you can have a placebo effect without deception. The study most often pointed to in order to support this claim is Ted Kaptchuk’s irritable bowel syndrome study. However, this study was flawed in that it told participants that placebos can heal, so it wasn’t exactly without deception. (more…)

Posted in: Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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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.


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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Cancer Centers and Advertising Practices

Video advertisement for the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, hosted on their website. Note at the bottom the statement “No case is typical. You should not expect to experience these results” (click to embiggen).

You have probably seen the TV commercials or other ads for Cancer Treatment Centers of America. They make it sound like “the place to go” if you have cancer. They claim to be “different,” to combine the best cancer technologies with natural therapies in a humane, patient-centered approach that helps you fight the disease and maintain your quality of life. They offer a kinder, gentler, more effective oncology. Those ads are misleading.

Dr. Gorski has written about the practices of Cancer Treatment Centers of America here and here. He has shown how they “integrate” real medicine with nonsense like homeopathy and how they misrepresent components of science-based medicine like exercise and diet, re-branding them as “alternative.”

A recent study by Vater et al. published in the Annals of Internal Medicine asked “What are cancer centers advertising to the public?” They found that the ads appealed to emotion, failed to provide important information, falsely portrayed testimonials as typical, and should be viewed as critically as any other advertising. (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Medical Ethics, Science and the Media

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The Wild West: Tales of a Naturopathic Ethical Review Board

Two recent SBM posts have used the “Wild West” metaphor for poor health care regulation. Arizona may be the wildest: a worst-case scenario of a state licensing pseudoscience as medicine, under the cover of so-called naturopathy “research.” (Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives, some rights reserved).

Right before I left the naturopathic profession, an Arizona naturopath told me that “all NDs are doing something borderline illegal.” Alarmed, I began looking around me.

Arizona naturopathic cancer clinics promote illegal substances, advertise results that are too good to be true, and use compounds that have yet to be proven effective in humans. Many clinics focus on intravenous therapies using ozone, hydrogen peroxide, sodium bicarbonate, vitamin C, and blood UV irradiation; some drugs and herbal preparations for injection are claimed to be imported from Europe.

In Arizona, current regulation enables naturopaths to craft hollow research projects under the cover of a private naturopathic institutional review board (an IRB, also often called an ethical review board). This allows them to legitimize experimentation on patients in private clinics and expand the naturopathic scope of practice in the name of so-called research. The IRB appears to influence the state’s naturopathic board, which seems reluctant to do its job properly.

Naturopathic regulation in Arizona may be the worst-case scenario of any state licensing pseudoscience as medicine. The ramifications are grave. Patients, especially those with cancer or other serious conditions, are easily duped and can be severely harmed by medical practitioners who seem kind, charismatic, and confident, but are actually inept and experimenting without the oversight of an ethical review board.


Posted in: Health Fraud, Legal, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Science and Medicine

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Pseudoscience North: What’s happening to the University of Toronto?

Trojan Rabbit


Today’s post is a reluctant challenge. I’m nominating my own alma mater, the University of Toronto, as the new pseudoscience leader among large universities – not just in Canada, but all of North America. If you can identify a large university promoting or embracing more scientifically questionable activities, I’ll happily buy you a coffee. Yes, it’s personal to me, as I have two degrees from U of T. But I’m more concerned about the precedent. If Canada’s largest university is making decisions that appear to lack a careful consideration of the scientific evidence, then what does that suggest about the scientific standards for universities in Canada? (more…)

Posted in: Chiropractic, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Vaccines

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Significant Ruling Against Conversion Therapy


The standard features of quackery are all there. Proponents of this particular therapy claim that a normal condition is a disease. They make false claims about the cause of this disease. They then charge thousands of dollars for their fake treatment to cure the fake disease, and claim success rates that are not backed by any statistics.

In this case the fake disease is homosexuality, for which there is now a solid consensus that it is a normal variation of human sexuality. The fake treatment is conversion therapy. Recently a New Jersey judge ruled that conversion therapists cannot claim that homosexuality is a disease or disorder. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports:

Superior Court Judge Peter F. Barsio Jr. found that it “is a misrepresentation in violation of [New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act], in advertising or selling conversion therapy services, to describe homosexuality, not as being a normal variation of human sexuality, but as being a mental illness, disease, disorder, or equivalent thereof.”


The judge also ruled that [New Jersey conversion therapy provider Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH)] is in violation of the Consumer Fraud Act if it offers specific success statistics for its services when “client outcomes are not tracked and no records of client outcomes are maintained” because “there is no factual basis for calculating such statistics.”


Posted in: Legal, Medical Ethics

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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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