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What’s past is prologue

Today marks the five year anniversary of the blog. I was not part of the initial stable of writers, my first entry published Jan 31. As I remember it shortly thereafter they browbeat me into writing twice a month. I had a lot of hesitancy participating as I was uncertain I could keep up with the twice monthly writing requirements. I am a slow writer and a slower typer, but it has been one of the most intellectually rewarding experiences of my life.

I have become a better writer, but more importantly a vastly better thinker, as a result of interactions with SBM. I have also been convinced I have some sort of language processing disorder as I still can’t see how those pesky typo’s disappear during my countless rewriting only to reappear in the final draft. Either WordPress inserts them automatically or it is magic most foul.

Five years on, and a new year, are as good an arbitrary time as any to reflect on both the past and future of SBM. As I age the more I am of the opinion that I have the carte blanche of the elderly to say whatever I want. It’s all about wearing the purple. (more…)

Posted in: Announcements, Science and Medicine

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780.6

You can tell what a doctor does for a living by the ICD-9 codes they have memorized. There is an ICD-9 code for nearly every medical condition. Weightlessness is 994.9. Must be there for NASA, I have yet to see a weightless patient. Decapitation by guillotine is E978. There, I suppose, in case Marat returns from the dead. There is an ICD-9 code for the initial visit after being sucked into jet engine (V9733XA) and one for subsequent visits (V9733XD). Why do I suspect V9733XD has yet to be used?

780.6 is my personal favorite. Fever. All my patients have fever and 780.6 was certainly the first ICD-9 code I committed to memory. I have an endless interest in fever and after last Fridays post I thought I would toss in my two cents worth. I will remind my readers that I am an adult ID doctor (who I treat, not necessarily how I behave) and unless specifically mentioned, all that follows applies to those who can legally drink, vote and serve in the military.

98.6 F. It is not normal body temperature. Well it is. But it is not. 98.6 F as average body temperature is an enduring medical myth. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Evolution, History, Science and Medicine

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Why Do People turn to Alternative Medicine

Any sociological question is likely going to have a complex answer with many variables that are not easy to tease apart. We should therefore resist the temptation to make simplistic statements about X being the cause of Y. We can still, however, identify correlations that will at least inform our thinking. Sometimes correlations can be triangulated to fairly reliable conclusions.

When the data is complex and difficult to interpret, however, evidence tends to be overwhelmed by narrative. The recent Sandy Hook tragedy is an excellent example. No one knows exactly why the shooter did what he did, so it is easy to insert your own preferred narrative as the explanation.

Another example is the phenomenon of so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Why has it been increasing in popularity (and is it, really?). Is it slick marketing, relaxed regulations, scientific illiteracy, a gullible media,  or the failures of mainstream medicine? You can probably guess I think it’s all of these things to some degree. The most common narrative I hear by far, however, is the latter – if people are turning to CAM it must be because mainstream medicine has failed them. This version of reality is often promoted by CAM marketing.

The evidence that we have, however, simply does not support this narrative. Studies show that satisfaction with mainstream medicine is not an important factor in deciding to use CAM, that CAM users are generally satisfied with their mainstream care, and they use CAM because it aligns with their philosophy, and they simply want to expand their options.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Fever Phobia

Fever is a mighty engine which Nature brings into the world for conquest of her enemies.”

— Thomas Sydenham

 

The occasional abnormal elevation in body temperature associated with infection is as much a part of the human condition as abstract thought or the desire to lose weight without exercise or cutting calories. Commonly known as fever, this powerful yet misunderstood physiologic response has been documented in a variety of animal species including fish, reptiles and of course humans. We have all had fever at least once in our lives, and probably several times. And many of us have undoubtedly spent a few anxious nights cradling febrile little ones, afraid more of the repercussions of the fever itself than the potential sequelae of the underlying cause.

Along those lines, fever is one of the most common reasons for parents to seek medical care for their children, with roughly a third of pediatric acute care visits related to it, as well as a frequent impetus for late night nursing calls to sleepy hospitalists. Actually only about half of after-hours calls are about fever but who’s counting. Unfortunately most medical professionals, including many pediatricians, have a poor understanding of the pathophysiology of fever, and their panicked approach to its management in many children involves unnecessary laboratory tests, imaging studies, and doses of broad spectrum antibiotics. It also adds to parental anxiety and helps to establish a vicious cycle as patients of over worried caregivers tend to undergo more aggressive evaluation and treatment.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Disingenuous: Deconstruction of a naturopathic white paper

Science is the Concept by which
we measure our reality
I don’t believe in magic
I don’t believe in I-ching…
I just believe in science…and that reality.

John Lennon. Sort of.

As regular readers of the blog are aware, I am science/reality based.  I think the physical and basic sciences provide an excellent understanding of reality at the level of human experience.  Physics, chemistry, biology, anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, evolution etc. provide a reliable and reproducible framework within which to understand health and disease.  My pesky science may not know everything about reality, but day to day it works well.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. – Hamlet (1.5.166-7).”  

Perhaps, but all the medical advances in my lifetime have been not yielded new science, just (amazing) variations and extensions of known processes.  I sometimes think the blog should have been called reality based medicine, but science is the tool by which we understand reality, and while the tool is constant, our understanding of reality is prone to changing.  An understanding of the rules of the universe combined with an awareness of the innumerable ways whereby we can fool ourselves into believing that those rules do not apply to us is part of what makes a science and reality based doctor.

We are often told of the need to keep an open mind, but I like to keep it open to reality.  Not that I do not like fantasy and magic, it is a common category for my reading.  I just finished Red Country by Joe Abercrombie, and while I love the world he has created, I would not want to apply the rules of that imaginary world to my patients.   Well, one exception.  As Logen Ninefingers  would say, “You have to realistic about these things.” Fictional worlds should be limited to the practice of art, not the practice of medicine.
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Posted in: Humor, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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Energy Medicine – Noise-Based Pseudoscience

So-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is largely philosophy-based medicine rather than science based. There are a few core concepts that are endlessly recycled in various forms, but it is mythology and culture, not grounded in the rigorous methods of science that allow us to tell the difference between our satisfying fantasies and hard reality. Sometimes proponents of such philosophies try to cloak their beliefs in the appearance of science, resulting in what we simply call pseudoscience.

Harriet Hall coined an excellent term to refer to such pseudoscience –” Tooth Fairy science.” In her metaphor, pseudoscientists sometimes act like scientists by describing the details and statistics of their claimed phenomenon (such as examining all the details of the Tooth Fairy phenomenon) without ever testing the reality of the phenomenon itself. The fundamental concept at the core of their belief is never challenged, or only superficially so, and they proceed prematurely from their faulty premise.

Another term that I find extremely apt is “Cargo Cult science,” a term coined by Richard Feynman. This is a reference to the cargo cults of New Guinea – the pre-industrial tribes were observed building straw mock-ups of control towers, planes, and runways in hopes that the planes they observed flying over head would deliver their cargo to them. In other words – the cargo cults mimicked the superficial appearance of an aviation infrastructure but had none of the real essence or function (because of lack of understanding). This is a perfect analogy to much of what passes for science within the world of CAM.

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Posted in: Energy Medicine, Science and Medicine

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Support Science-Based Medicine

Next month is the 5 year anniversary of  Science-Based Medicine. We have published 1575 articles so far, with 72,400 comments. We are getting about 475,000 views per month, and SBM has attracted the attention of the mainstream media, government agencies, peer-reviewed journals, and even television and movie producers. Over the last five years we have endeavored to be a valuable resource for anyone interested in the science of medicine, targeting our articles at both a professional and general audience simultaneously.

We are trying to engage with future and current health care professionals with articles about how to evaluate the medical literature, the pros and cons of various approaches to data, and the pitfalls of clinical decision making. We have also tried to serve a consumer protection function by targeting many false and misleading claims for health products. Further we have advocated strongly for effective regulation of health care products and practices to maintain a single, fair, and effective science-based standard of care across all health care.

It seems that we have met our initial goal of creating a successful blog promoting science-based medicine. But there is so much more to do. And we need your support.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Fun With Statistics

Statistics is the essential foundation for science-based medicine.  Unfortunately, it’s a confusing subject that invites errors and misunderstandings.  We non-statisticians could all benefit from learning more about statistics as well as trying to get a better understanding of just how much we don’t know. Most of us are not going to read a statistics textbook, but the book Dicing with Death: Chance, Risk, and Health by Stephen Senn is an excellent place to start or continue our education. Statistics can be misused to lie with numbers, but when used properly it is the indispensable discipline that allows scientists:

 …to translate information into knowledge. It tells us how to evaluate evidence, how to design experiments, how to turn data into decisions, how much credence should be given to whom to what and why, how to reckon chances and when to take them.

Senn covers the whole field of statistics, including Bayesian vs. frequentist approaches, significance tests, life tables, survival analysis, the problematic but still useful meta-analysis, prior probability, likelihood, coefficients of correlation, the generalizability of results, multivariate analysis, ethics, equipoise, and a multitude of other useful topics. He includes biographical notes about the often rather curious statisticians who developed the discipline. And while he includes some mathematics out of necessity, he helpfully stars the more technical sections and chapters so they can be skipped by readers who find mathematics painful. The book is full of examples from real-life medical applications, and it is funny enough to hold the reader’s interest. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Science and Medicine

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Anecdotes: Cheaper by the Dozen

A loan officer sets up a meeting with an aspiring entrepreneur to inform him that his application has been denied. “Mr Smith, we have reviewed your application and found a fatal flaw in your business plan. You say that you will be selling your donuts for 60 cents apiece. “Yes” says Mr. Smith, “that is significantly less than any other baker in town. This will give my business a significant competitive advantage!” The loan officer replies, “According to your budget, at peak efficiency the cost of supplies to make each donut is 75 cents, you will lose 15 cents on every donut you sell. A look of relief comes over Mr. Smith’s face as he realizes the loan officer’s misunderstanding. He leans in closer, and whispers to the loan officer “But don’t you see, I’ll make it up in volume.”

If you find this narrative at all amusing, it is likely because Mr. Smith is oblivious to what seems like an obvious flaw in his logic.

A similar error in logic is made by those who rely on anecdote and other intrinsically biased information to understand the natural world. If one anecdote is biased, a collection of 12 or 1000 anecdotes multiplies the bias, and will likely reinforces an errant conclusion. When it comes to bias, you can’t make it up in volume. Volume makes it worse!

Unfortunately human beings are intrinsically vulnerable to bias. In most day to day decisions, like choosing which brand of toothpaste to buy, or which route to drive to work, these biases are of little importance. In making critical decisions, like assessing the effectiveness of a new treatment for cancer, these biases may make the difference between life and death. The scientific method is defined by a system of practices that aim to minimize bias from the assessment of a problem.

Bias, in general, is tendency that prevents unpredjudiced consideration of a question (paraphrased from dictionary.com). Researchers describe sources of bias as systematic errors. A few words about random and systematic errors will make this description clearer.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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Blonde Blood

Two scientists walk into a bar
The first one says “I’ll have some H2O.”
The second one says, “I’ll have some H2O too.”
Then he dies.

I have come to believe in my own version of The Secret.

The Secret describes the law of attraction as a natural law that determines the complete order of the universe and of our personal lives through the process of “like attracts like. The author claims that as we think and feel, a corresponding frequency is sent out into the universe that attracts back to us events and circumstances on that same frequency.

Obviously not true as I have yet to win Powerball. But a variant of the Secret is kind of creepy. As soon as I learn about a new concept, in medicine or life, I start to see it. All the time. Perhaps my learning a new concept causes it to spring forth like Athena. I would have said instantiate, but I got all sorts of grief when I used that word last time. For example, shortly after reading a review of infections in patients with Osler-Weber-Rendu,  I saw a case. Creepy. As I drive from hospital to hospital I listen to Audible books and it is equally creepy how often I see a word in my visual field that is identical to the word I am listening to. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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