Archive for Science and Medicine

Caution vs Alarmism

Peer review, a flawed but vital part of the scientific process.

Peer review, a flawed but vital part of the scientific process.

When I lecture about the need for science-based medicine (SBM), I have to pause about half-way through my list of all the things wrong with the current practice of medical science, and I balance my discussion by emphasizing what I am not saying: I am not saying that medical science is completely broken. It is just really challenging, we need to raise the threshold for what we consider reliable higher than most people think, and there are some practical fixes we can do, some of which are already in the works.

It is easy, however, to “demonize” any person, institution, or philosophy by taking all the negative aspects that are inevitably present and wrapping them up in a frightening package, perhaps throwing in some conspiracy thinking or sensational alarmism.

Take, for example, a recent article by F. William Engdahl, “Shocking Report from Medical Insiders“. The headline alone warns you that you may be in for some sensationalism.


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Trying to Impose Religion on Medicine

soul-leaving-bodyyOne of the major themes of science-based medicine (unsurprisingly) is that medicine should be based on science. We consider ourselves specialists in a larger movement defending science in general from mysticism, superstition, and spiritualism. We are not against anyone’s personal belief, and are officially agnostic toward any faith (as is science itself), but will vigorously defend science from any intrusion into its proper realm.

The so-called alternative medicine movement (CAM) is largely an attempt to insert religious beliefs into the practice and profession of medicine. CAM is also an attempt to create a double standard or even eliminate the standard of care so that any nonsense can flourish and con-artists and charlatans can practice their craft freely without being hounded by pesky regulations designed to protect the public. These are both insidious aspects of CAM that need to be exposed and vigorously opposed.

A recent article by Dr. Michel Accad demonstrates how brazenly some are trying to insert faith healing and spiritualism back into medicine. He does so by couching his arguments in philosophy and marketing terms, but in the end he is essentially saying that doctors should practice his faith. He doesn’t really make any arguments for this position, but rather simply gives a history of progress in Western thought as if that is sufficient. (more…)

Posted in: Faith Healing & Spirituality, Science and Medicine

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In which I steal a title: Is medicine a scientific enterprise?

Abraham Flexner (left) and Richard Dawkins (right): Enemies of medicine?

Abraham Flexner (left) and Richard Dawkins (right): Enemies of medicine?

A week ago, I attended the Center For Inquiry Reason for Change Conference, where I participated in a panel on—what else?—alternative medicine with—who else?—Harriet Hall and our fearless leader Steve Novella. Before the panel, we all gave brief talks on areas that we consider important. As you might expect, I chose to give a brief introduction to what I like to call “quackademic medicine,” defined as the pseudoscientific medicine being practiced and studied in academic medical centers. As I like to do in order to drive the point home about just how bad it’s become, I chose a couple of truly egregious examples of just how much quackery has infiltrated medical academia. First, I mentioned how the Cleveland Clinic has embraced reiki, which, as I’ve described many times before, is in reality faith healing that substitutes Eastern mysticism for Christian beliefs. Although I could have buried the audience in examples, the other example I happened to choose was this:

Yes, that is exactly what you think it is. It’s the official Twitter account of the Mayo Clinic promoting “energy therapies,” of which reiki is one of the most popular varieties. Basically, these are “therapies” in which it is claimed that the practitioner can either (1) manipulate the “life energy” fields of the patient (e.g., healing touch) or (2) channel “healing energy” into the patient from a source (e.g., reiki). And here was the Mayo Clinic promoting this magical mystical nonsense, linking to an article on its official website entitled “Energy Therapies Offer Support in Healing for Cancer Survivors“:

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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The Windi: Revolutionary Relief for Colic or a Pain in the Butt


Stand back.

We tend to cover some very serious topics here on Science-Based Medicine. In fact, most of our posts are downright depressing. This will hopefully not be one of them.

In just the past few weeks we have written about the public health menace of anti-vaccine pseudoscience, autistic children being subjected to dangerous bleach enemas, and chiropractic-induced stroke in children. Unsurprisingly, there is typically no shortage of rage and heartache on the pages of this blog. But not today. Today will be a reprieve from the misery.

I’ll be discussing two products that were recently brought to my attention by colleagues. The last product I skeptically evaluated was the Buzzy, a device designed to reduce procedural pain in kids that is little more than a clever distraction technique. That product, however, was considerably more complex in concept and design than the ones I’ve chosen for this post. But the NoseFrida and the Windi are marketed to parents using equally dubious claims of efficacy, and use of one of them has an unfavorable risk-benefit analysis in my opinion. At least they’re funny…kind of.

The NoseFrida and the Windi come from the Miami-based FridaBaby LLC. The company website provides a succinct mission statement:

FridaBaby specializes in baby products you actually need! Our products are for the important stuff, you know, like breathing. Instead of using harsh chemicals to relieve your baby of discomfort, we opt for more natural solutions. Our focus on pragmatic and “gross” products (their words, not ours, nothing grosses us out!) that really work has garnered us a cult like following of ENTs, pediatric GIs nurses, doulas, midwives, lactation consultants, bloggers, and parents.

Okay, they help promote a needless anxiety over chemicals in baby products, and yes, that statement contains a straw man implication that all other options require the use of “harsh chemicals”, but they seem like decent enough folks. Who doesn’t like breathing? I do it daily and recommend it to all my patients. (more…)

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David Tredinnick – Quack Candidate for Health Select Committee Chair

DAVID-TREDINICK-large570Today the UK Parliament will have a vote for the chair of the Health Select Committee. The two choices could not be more starkly different, so much so that this vote might be seen as a referendum on two world views, one that respects science and another that confuses pseudoscience and spirituality for medicine.

On one side we have Sarah Wollaston, the previous chair, who is a former general practitioner and has taken a solid stand against pseudoscience in medicine. She has previously tweeted, for example, “Homeopathy can also have serious harms when masquerading as a ‘vaccine’.”

Tredinnick, on the other hand, has previously argued that the NHS should incorporate astrology into the healthcare system. I have previously argued that homeopathy is the most absurd and easily debunked major form of alternative medicine. Astrology, however, is arguably more absurd, I had just never heard it offered as a basis for healthcare. Tredinnick has at least accomplished setting a new low bar for alternative medicine nonsense.

Tredinnick appears to be a true-believer, fully steeped in the propaganda that is CAM (so-called complementary and alternative medicine). He has said:

Ninety per cent of pregnant French women use homeopathy. Astrology is a useful diagnostic tool enabling us to see strengths and weaknesses via the birth chart.

And, yes, I have helped fellow MPs. I do foresee that one day astrology will have a role to play in healthcare.


Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Leaky Bowel

Pictured: Something you might need if you actually had a leaky gut.  Click to embiggen.  Weirdo.

Pictured: Something you might need if you actually had a leaky gut. Click to embiggen. Weirdo.

We are at a disadvantage. We have to rely on reality to validate the practice of medicine. Anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, chemistry, the basic sciences that made up the first two years of medical school education and a huge chunk of pre-med. And we have to rely on the truth, as slippery a concept as that can be. I can’t just make up a disease or a therapy.

It would be so much easier to not have to worry about reality in deciding on a disease and treatment for people with symptoms.

I came across “Healthy Life: Leaky Gut Syndrome” in my feeds. I am always attracted to exclamation marks! They must mean something important! Or surprising to the author!

It’s called “leaky gut syndrome” and patients say it can wreak havoc on everyday life, but some doctors say there’s no such thing!

Some doctors. Must be that pesky 10% percent or so of obstructionist doctors who don’t recommend Tylenol or Advil. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Naturopathy, Nutrition, Science and Medicine

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Chiropractic Manipulation of the Neck Linked to Stroke in a 6-Year-Old Child…


The risk of suffering a stroke when undergoing aggressive chiropractic manipulation of the neck is not a new concern. We’ve discussed it several times on the pages of Science-Based Medicine over the years, most recently in November of 2014 when Steven Novella covered the death by chiropractor of 30-year-old Jeremy Youngblood, whose fatal brain injury occurred while seeking treatment for a sore neck. For a nice review of cervical manipulation in general, the evidence against its inappropriate use, and an assessment of the literature on this subject, check out prior posts by Dr. Hall and chiropractor Samuel Homola.

I believe that my take on the issue is in line with my fellow SBM authors. There is no role for high velocity, low amplitude (HVLA) thrust-type maneuvers that cause sudden and intense rotation of the neck in any patient, for any reason. It is not effective for neck pain, headache or any other complaint, and it is a proven risk factor for injury to the vertebral arteries and subsequent stroke. Some patients are at higher risk, such as the elderly or those with atherosclerosis or connective tissue disorders, but this type of injury can occur at any age and even in a perfectly healthy individual. (more…)

Posted in: Chiropractic, Science and Medicine

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Medicine doesn’t come from the hardware store: Don’t drink turpentine

This is not a health food. Don't drink it.

This is not a health food. Don’t drink it.

I enjoy feedback from readers. Yes, there’s the regular hate mail accusing me of being a Big Pharma Shill. But there’s the occasional appreciative comment from someone that found a post helpful or informative. The most gratifying feedback is when someone tells me that something I wrote led to a more informed health decision. Often it’s because I was able to answer a question that they couldn’t find a science-based answer to. I’ve answered thousands of questions in my pharmacy career, and have only blogged a handful of them (so far). One of my most fascinating experiences was a stint working evenings in a pharmacy that happened to have a large “natural” health focus. It’s there I began to scrutinize alternative medicine more closely, because it was virtually all the store sold. Homeopathy, ear candles, copper bracelets and salt lamps were all for sale. If it was unproven, proven ineffective, or defied some law of physics or chemistry, this pharmacy probably sold it. But the customers loved these products. I was dumbfounded. Some would buy dozens of supplements, costing hundreds dollars per month, on the advice of their naturopath, treating some vague or non-specific complaints. Others swore by homeopathic remedies, for themselves and their pets. It was common to meet people who were treating conditions that either didn’t exist, or hadn’t been properly diagnosed, like naturopath-diagnosed “food intolerances” or “hormone imbalances”. There were also the occasional “pH balancing” advocates that insisted I was misguided and uneducated for reassuring them that their body’s pH was just fine, despite what their urine test strips were telling them. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Naturopathy, Science and Medicine

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Attitudes Predict CAM Use

 From the US Food and Drug Association article "6 Tip-offs to Rip-offs: Don’t Fall for Health Fraud Scams

CAM: More branding than medicine.

One of the persistent themes of SBM is that CAM (complementary and alternative medicine, or integrative medicine) is nothing more than a marketing brand. Its recent popularity is not based upon new evidence or a changing paradigm of medicine as its proponents claim. Its popularity is increasing despite the lack of evidence for specific CAM treatments and despite a dedication to evidence-based medicine within the medical profession.

CAM is also modern mythology, which I guess all really effective advertising and branding is. It floats atop a number of demonstrably false marketing claims. One is that the popularity and use of CAM is surging. This is partly a self-fulfilling prophesy, and no doubt it is increasing, but the degree to which CAM is popular has been consistently exaggerated by proponents (largely as a way to justify its existence).

This myth is largely perpetuated by redefining CAM as needed, including things like prayer, massage, and taking vitamins. I suspect that praying for a sick loved-one has always been popular and doesn’t represent a trend toward CAM. When unequivocal alternative modalities are considered, their use is still tiny and not increasing. The most recent NIH survey found:

Use of acupuncture (1.1%), homeopathic treatment (1.7%) naturopathy (0.2%), and energy healing (0.5%) was miniscule.


Posted in: Medical Academia, 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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