Archive for Science and Medicine

Important Security Notice: SBM Hacked

UPDATE 2013-04-04 1:25 PM EDT: All passwords have been reset. Users will have to use the “Forgot password” function to set a new password.

UPDATE 2013-04-04 6:06 PM EDT: Those interested in knowing if one of their passwords was one of the less secure may use this tool to check their email address. No matter the result with that tool, the only way to be 100% secure is to change your password on other sites if you also used it here. (SBM) was recently hacked, and user account information may have been stolen: usernames, passwords, and email addresses. Most of the potentially stolen passwords were strongly encrypted — that is, extremely difficult to read. About 2000 random accounts, roughly 5% of the total, were not protected as effectively and may be at greater risk.

If your SBM password was used for any other service, website, or account, you should change that duplicate password as soon as possible. (For example: if your SBM password is the same as your password for Gmail, you should immediately go to Gmail and change your password there.)

When hackers get your password from one place, they often try to use the same password with other services and websites. Unfortunately, this is a fairly effective strategy, because many people use the same password for many of their logins. This is why all security experts strongly recommend using unique passwords for all critical services.

What exactly happened to

On Sunday, March 10, hackers successfully gained access to the SBM server, and attempted to use it to attack other servers. Eventually it gave itself away by using too much computing power.

On Monday, April 1, our hijacked server was shut down by the service provider. We remained offline for a full day as we repaired the damage and strengthened our protections against hackers. SBM is now back online but all users will have to reset their passwords before commenting again.

There is no way to know if the attacker actually took any data from itself, but the safest course is to act on the assumption that they did. However, most of that data was strongly protected by encryption — standard practice for user account information on WordPress blogs for exactly this reason. (You can find details on this encryption here.)

Nevertheless, we know that some of the passwords (again, only about 5%) were less protected. (Specifically, they used an older MD5-based encryption.) Therefore, we strongly urge all SBM users to make sure they are not using their SBM password anywhere else.

SBM login is now available, and will require you to reset your password.

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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More shameless self-promotion that is, I hope, at least entertaining

Three weeks ago, I gave a talk to the National Capital Area Skeptics at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, VA. The topic was one near and dear to my heart, namely quackademic medicine.

I was informed the other day that the video had finally been posted. Unfortunately, there were some problems with the sound in a couple of places, which our intrepid NCAS video editor did his best to fix. Overall, however, the sound quality seems decent. The video even includes the Q&A session. In case you’re interested, the guy who asks the question about mercury in vaccines and autism is Paul Offit’s very own stalker Jake Crosby. I feel honored to think that Jake now apparently lumps me in the same category as Paul Offit, whom I admire greatly. Enjoy.

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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Behold the spin! What a new survey of placebo prescribing really tells us

One of the recurring topics here at SBM is the idea of the placebo: What it is, what it isn’t, and how it complicates our evaluation of the scientific evidence. One my earliest lessons after I started following this blog (I was a reader long before I was a writer) was that I didn’t understand placebos well enough to even describe them correctly. Importantly, there is no single “placebo effect”. They are “placebo effects”, a range of variables that can include natural variation in the condition being studied, psychological factors and subjective effects reported by patients, as well as observer bias by researchers studying a condition. All of these, when evaluated in clinical trials, produce non-specific background noise that needs to be removed from the analysis. Consequently, we compare between the active treatment and the placebo to determine if there are an incremental benefits, to which we apply statistical tests to determine the likelihood that the differences between the intervention and the placebo groups are real. Removed from the observational nature of the clinical trial, we can’t expect the observed “placebo effects” to persist, as they’re partially a consequence of the trial itself. A more detailed review of placebos is a post in and of itself, so I’ll refer you to resources that describe why placebo effects are plural, that placebo effects are subjective rather than objective and there is no persuasive evidence to suggest that placebo effects offer any health benefits. What’s most important is the understanding that placebo effects are a measurement artifact, not a therapeutic effect.

Placebo effects are regular topics within in SBM posts because an understanding of placebo effects is essential to evaluating the evidence supporting (so-called) complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM. As better quality research increasingly confirms that the effects from CAM are largely, if not completely, attributable to placebo effects, we’ve seen the promoters of CAM shifting tactics. No longer able to honestly claim that CAM has therapeutic effects, “treatments” such as acupuncture or homeopathy are increasingly promoted as strategies that”harness the power of placebo” without all the pesky costs or side effects of real medical interventions. But this is simply special pleading from purveyors and promoters. Unable to wish away the well-conducted trials that show them to be indistinguishable from placebos, they instead are spinning placebo effects as meaningful and worthy of pursuit – ideally with your favourite CAM therapy. Again, I’ll refer you to posts by David Gorski and Steven Novella who offer a more detailed description of how negative results can be spun to look positive. Because CAM’s effects are indistinguishable from placebo, we should not invest time and resources into pursuing them – we should instead focus on finding treatments that are demonstrably superior to placebo.

But what if physicians are already using placebos widely in practice? Setting aside the ethical issues for now, widespread placebo usage might suggest that physicians believe that placebos are effective treatments. And that’s the impression you may have had if you skimmed the medical headlines last week:


Posted in: Clinical Trials, Epidemiology, Science and Medicine

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Evidence Thresholds

Defenders of science-based medicine are often confronted with the question (challenged, really): what would it take to convince you that “my sacred cow treatment” works? The challenge contains a thinly veiled accusation — no amount of evidence would convince you because you are a nasty skeptic.

There is a threshold of evidence that would convince me of just about anything, however. In fact, I have been convinced that many scientific claims are likely to be true — sufficiently convinced to act upon the conclusion that they are true. In medicine this means that I am convinced enough to use them as a basis for medical practice.

There are many functional differences between practitioners of SBM and those who accept claims and practices that we would consider to be pseudoscience or fraud, but I was recently struck by one particular such difference — where we set the threshold of evidence before accepting a claim.


Posted in: Homeopathy, Science and Medicine

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Clinical Decision-Making Part III

In part I of this series I discussed clinical pathways – how clinicians approach problems and the role of diagnosis in this approach. In part II I discussed the thought processes involved in deciding which diagnostic tests are worth ordering.

In this post I will discuss some of the logical fallacies and heuristics that tend to bias and distort clinical reasoning. Many of these cognitive pitfalls apply to patients as well as clinicians.

Pattern recognition and data mining

Science, including the particular manifestation we like to call science-based medicine, is about using objective methods to determine which patterns in the world are really real, vs. those that just seem to be real. The dire need for scientific methodology partly results from the fact that humans have an overwhelming tendency to automatically sift through large amounts of data looking for patterns, and we are very good at detecting patterns, even those that are just random fluctuations in that data.


Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Clinical Decision-Making: Part II

This is the second in a brief series of posts about how clinicians think. My purpose here is to elucidate how skeptical principles apply to clinical decision-making, but also as background to provide context to many of the articles we publish here.  In this installment I will review the factors that clinicians consider when deciding what tests to order for screening and when conducting a diagnostic workup.

The gunshot approach

Last week I discussed the “Dr. House” approach to medicine, using that particular TV character as an example of how medicine is often portrayed in fiction. Another aspect of the Dr. House image that is very misleading is his approach to diagnosis, which tends to be very linear. He decides what the most likely diagnosis is, then proceeds to either treat that entity or order a confirmatory diagnostic test. When that diagnosis fails, he then proceeds onto diagnosis B. A string of such failures then culminates in a flash of brilliance that allows him to make the actual obscure diagnosis and cure the patient. This approach is optimized for storytelling and drama, but is not how actual clinicians operate.

At the other end of the spectrum is what doctors often refer to as “the gunshot approach” – test for everything in hopes that you hit something. Another derogatory term that doctors throw around is “a fishing expedition,” referring to a diagnostic approach that amounts to hunting around for any possible diagnosis without having a real justification.


Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Acupuncture and Allergic Rhinitis: Another Opportunity for Intellectual Sterility

You need to keep an open mind.

A common suggestion offered to naysayers of nonsense.

The usual retort concerns not letting one’s brain fall out.

Evaluating SCAM’s is less about having an open mind and more about having standards, a conceptual framework that is used to interpret and analyze new information. One of the benefits of writing and reading topics covered by science-based medicine (SBM) is it has clarified and sharpened the ideas by which I understand the world. Those concepts were nicely summed up by Steve Novella at Neurologica, and I reproduce them here, slightly modified. They should be on stone tablets, not quite commandants, but strong suggestions. The 8 strong suggestions somehow doesn’t cut it however. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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Clinical Decision Making: Part I

I practice in a university clinic which functions partly as a tertiary referral center, which means we get referrals from other specialists. I also get many referrals for second opinions. Sometimes the entire cause for the patient’s desire for a second opinion, it seems to me, is the simple fact that they did not understand the reasoning of the previous specialist. They were given a diagnosis and a course of treatment, but not an explanation of how their doctor arrived at those conclusions.

I am not being judgmental – different practices are under different pressures and time constraints, and it can be very difficult to gauge a patient’s understanding. Often the physician and the patient are proceeding based upon differing assumptions and narratives that are not expressly stated. The doctor may think they have explained the situation entirely, but simply did not confront misleading assumptions they were not aware their patient had.

This is part of the advantage of engaging the public about health issues and confronting pseudoscience, myths, and misconceptions – you develop a deep awareness of how the general public thinks about medicine.


Posted in: Science and Medicine

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A Final Word: On T-Shirts and Teapot Tempests

I wore a T-shirt at The Amazing Meeting 2012 that generated a lot of controversy. You can see a picture of it on my Wikipedia article.  I didn’t want to talk about the T-shirt, but I’ve been repeatedly challenged to explain myself, and I’m afraid I can no longer avoid it. Steven Novella has recommended that we try to give other people’s arguments the most charitable interpretation. I hope my critics will do that, but I’m not optimistic. If past experience is any guide, they will misinterpret my explanation and put it in the worst possible light, which is why I haven’t offered it before. So be it; I have a tough skin. Once this T-shirt explanation is out of the way, I will have done my duty and had my say and will feel free to ignore all these divisive and nonproductive arguments. I don’t plan to write about gender or feminism or the squabbles in the skeptic movement again.

First, a brief digression about charitable interpretations and the whole “queer” discussion. I said “most” people in the LGBT community find the term offensive. Instead of attacking me as totally clueless, a charitable reader might have gently corrected me by providing quantitative evidence that the majority of people in the LGBT community do not find the word offensive (so far, no one has provided such evidence). When shown quantitative evidence, I would gladly have changed the word “most” to “many” or “some” or even “a few,” depending on the actual numbers, and we would all have learned something. What actually happened served as a perfect illustration of the points I made in my “Enemies” article. The ensuing discussion was bizarre, nit-picking, surreal, divisive, unproductive, and failed to emphasize the one thing we ought to all agree on: we don’t want to use labels that others find offensive.  The silly quibbling about my use of the one word “most” just derailed the discussion from the more important issues, and from all the other words in my post.

To set the scene for the T-shirt incident, there was a complex backstory involving Elevatorgate, Richards Dawkins, insults and threats directed at women, a perception that TAM’s anti-harassment policy was not being enforced, objections to a statement JREF President DJ Grothe made, accusations that Grothe had lied about reports of harassment, and numerous other incidents, many of which were blown way out of proportion. All this had left big chips firmly glued to shoulders. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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I Am Not Your Enemy: An Open Letter to My Feminist Critics

Note: The previous post is my usual weekly contribution to SBM. I am taking the liberty of posting this additional entry today on an issue that is peripheral to Science Based Medicine. If you are not interested in the recent squabbles within the skeptical movement, you will probably want to skip it. But it does respond to a detailed critique of an article I posted here two weeks ago, and some might find that of interest. We have seen the same kind of behavior on this blog, where commenters have responded not to what we said, but to what they wanted to believe we said.



I have been falsely identified as an enemy of feminism (not in so many words, but the intent is clear). My words have been misrepresented as sexist and misinterpreted beyond recognition. I find this particularly disturbing and hard to understand, because I’m convinced that my harshest critics and I are basically arguing for exactly the same things. I wish my critics could set aside their resentments and realize that I am not the enemy.

Two weeks ago I published an article on gender differences and the recent divisions in the skeptical community.  Ophelia Benson showed up in the comments. Not unsurprisingly, she disagreed with me about the Shermer incident, but then she said “I like the rest of this article a lot. I particularly like the point about averages and individuals, which is one I make all the time.”

I took that as a hopeful sign that friendly communication might be achieved, but my bubble was quickly burst by a hostile takedown of my article on Skepchick by “Will.”  His critique is demonstrably unfair. He attacks me for things I never said and tries to make it look like I believe the exact opposite of what I believe.


Posted in: Science and Medicine

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