Science and Medicine

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Yes, Jacqueline: EBM ought to be Synonymous with SBM

“Ridiculing RCTs and EBM”

Last week Val Jones posted a short piece on her BetterHealth blog in which she expressed her appreciation for a well-known spoof that had appeared in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in 2003:

Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma related to gravitational challenge: systematic review of randomised controlled trials

Dr. Val included the spoof’s abstract in her post linked above. The parachute article was intended to be humorous, and it was. It was a satire, of course. Its point was to call attention to excesses associated with the Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM) movement, especially the claim that in the absence of randomized, controlled trials (RCTs), it is not possible to comment upon the safety or efficacy of a treatment—other than to declare the treatment unproven.

A thoughtful blogger who goes by the pseudonym Laika Spoetnik took issue both with Val’s short post and with the parachute article itself, in a post entitled #NotSoFunny – Ridiculing RCTs and EBM.

Laika, whose real name is Jacqueline, identifies herself as a PhD biologist whose “work is split 75%-25% between two jobs: one as a clinical librarian in the Medical Library and one as a Trial Search Coordinator (TSC) for the Dutch Cochrane Centre.” In her post she recalled an experience that would make anyone’s blood boil:

I remember it well. As a young researcher I presented my findings in one of my first talks, at the end of which the chair killed my work with a remark that made the whole room of scientists laugh, but was really beside the point…

This was not my only encounter with scientists who try to win the debate by making fun of a theory, a finding or …people. But it is not only the witty scientist who is to *blame*, it is also the uncritical audience that just swallows it.

I have similar feelings with some journal articles or blog posts that try to ridicule EBM – or any other theory or approach. Funny, perhaps, but often misunderstood and misused by “the audience”.

Jacqueline had this to say about the parachute article:

I found the article only mildly amusing. It is so unrealistic, that it becomes absurd. Not that I don’t enjoy absurdities at times, but absurdities should not assume a life of their own.  In this way it doesn’t evoke a true discussion, but only worsens the prejudice some people already have.


Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Study shows antidepressants useless for mild to moderate depression? Not exactly.

As Harriet Hall has written (, psychiatry bashing is a popular media sport. There seems to be a bias against treatment of psychiatric disabilities, and a common claim is that antidepressants are no better than placebo. The New York Times illustrated both the perpetuation of the myth that antidepressants are ineffective, and the increasing and disturbing tendency of major media organizations to confuse the wholesale acceptance of medical press releases with medical journalism.

In Popular Drugs May Help Only Severe Depression The New York Times credulously publicized the findings of a recent study that claimed to show that antidepressants are ineffective in treating mild and moderate depression. Yes, that’s what the study showed, but the study itself is so limited, so fraught with problems, and the conclusions are so misleading that the article is a terrible disservice.

Before we consider what the study showed, let’s think about what kind of evidence we’d need to conclude that antidepressants don’t work.

First, although there are different types of antidepressants, the term used colloquially refers to antidepressants of a specific type, SSRI’s or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. There are other, older types of antidepressants that are rarely used today because of their unpleasant side effects. Hence any study that claims to show that “antidepressants” are ineffective, must look at SSRIs.

Second, there are literally thousands of studies of SSRIs, and it would be helpful to aggregate the results. Aggregating results can be done in a type of paper known as metaanalysis. Metaanlysis adds the results of multiple similar studies to find trends that might not be apparent in individual small studies. But a metaanlysis is subject to several important limitations that must always be considered. The most important limitation is that the authors of the metaanalysis choose the papers to be included. Bias can be introduced by examining only papers that have a desired outcome; that can be accomplished by restricting the inclusion criteria in arbitrary ways.

Let’s look at the study, Antidepressant Drug Effects and Depression Severity. According to the abstract:

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The Lancet retracts Andrew Wakefield’s article

In 1998 Andrew Wakefield and 11 other co-authors published a study with the unremarkable title: Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. Such a title would hardly grab a science journalist’s attention, but the small study sparked widespread hysteria about a possible connection between the mumps-measles-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The study itself has not stood the test of time. The results could not be replicated by other labs. A decade of subsequent research has sufficiently cleared the MMR vaccine of any connection to ASD. The lab used to search for measles virus in the guts of the study subjects has been shown to have used flawed techniques, resulting in false positives (from the Autism Omnibus testimony, and here is a quick summary). There does not appear to be any association between autism and a GI disorder.

But it’s OK to be wrong in science. There is no expectation that every potential finding will turn out to be true – in fact it is expected that most new finding will eventually be found to be false. That’s the nature of investigating the unknown. No harm no foul.


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Success in the fight against childhood diarrhea

Rotavirus is the world’s most common cause of severe childhood diarrhea.  In the U.S. alone, rotavirus disease leads to around 70,000 hospitalizations, 3/4 million ER visits, and nearly half-a-million doctor office visits yearly.  But it rarely causes death.

The same is not true for the developing world.  Rotavirus disease is estimated to kill around a half-million children a year world wide.   Finding a way to mitigate this is an active public health concern, with the World Health Organization specifically recommending rotavirus vaccinations in areas where the virus has a significant public health impact.

Rotavirus causes a severe diarrheal illness. It is passed via a fecal-oral route, meaning that contaminated food, surfaces, and water can all be sources.   In developed countries like the US, rotavirus disease is unpleasant and inconvenient.  Since rotavirus spreads more readily in areas without access to clean water and medical care, it takes a greater toll in these areas, and children afflicted are at risk of death due to dehydration.  The US has seen a decline in rotavirus disease in the last few years, an effect that appears to be due to increased vaccination and a herd immunity effect.

Given the large number of pediatric rotavirus deaths in developing countries, the World Health Organization (WHO) has made vaccination a priority. Two articles in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine report on the progress of the fight against rotavirus.


Posted in: Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Reflexive doubt

Those of us who study, practice and write about medicine cherish the hope that explaining the science behind medicine (or the lack of science behind “alternative” treatments) will promote a better understanding of medicine. Certainly, I would not bother to write about medical topics if I did not believe that promoting science based medicine would lead to increased understanding of medical recommendations and decreased gullibility in regard to “alternative” remedies. Nonetheless, lack of scientific knowledge is not the only reason for the current popularity of “alternative health. Indeed, many advocates and purveyors of “alternative” health are impervious to the scientific evidence. What else might be going on?

Belief in “alternative” medicine is a complex social phenomenon. Like any complex social phenomenon, the explanation cannot be reduced to a simple answer. But I would argue that there is an important philosophical component, developed by and promoted by advocates of “alternative” health. That philosophical component is the rise of reflexive doubt. Simply put, among a significant segment of society, it has become a badge of honor to question authority.

As an obstetrician, I am most familiar with its expression among childbirth activists. They recognize that many people hold the common sense belief that modern obstetrical practice has made birth safer, and have worked ceaseless at undermining this common sense view. Craig Thompson, a professor of marketing, has examines this tactic in his paper What Happens to Health Risk Perceptions When Consumers Really Do Question Authority?:

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Evolution in Medicine

A recent series of article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) discusses the role of evolutionary biology in modern medicine. The authors collectively make a forceful point – medicine is an applied science. It is based upon a number of basic sciences, and one of those basic sciences is evolution.

The most obvious example is bacterial antibiotic resistance. Antibiotics place a selective pressure on a bacterial population, often resulting in the emergence of resistant strains. Understanding this “evolutionary arms race” between bacteria and antibiotics allows us to develop strategies for minimizing resistance.

But there are less obvious ways in which evolutionary principles apply to infectious diseases. It has been known for a long time that sickle-cell trait provides resistance to malaria (the blood cells are less hospitable to the P. falciparum protozoan parasite that is one cause of malaria). This explains the persistence of sickle cell disease in populations where malaria is endemic.


Posted in: Evolution, Science and Medicine

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On the “individualization” of treatments in “alternative medicine”

One of the claims most frequently made by “alternative medicine” advocates regarding why alt-med is supposedly superior (or at least equal) to “conventional” medicine and should not be dismissed, regardless of how scientifically improbable any individual alt-med modality may be, is that the treatments are, if you believe many of the practitioners touting them, highly “individualized.” In other words, the “entire patient” is taken into account with what is frequently referred to as a “holistic approach” that looks at “every aspect” of the patient, with the result that every patient requires a different treatment, sometimes even for the exact same disease of very close to the same severity. Indeed, as I have described before, a variant of this claim, often laden with meaningless pseudoscientific babble about “emergent systems,” is sometimes used to claim that the standard methods of science- and evidence-based medicine are not appropriate to studying the efficacy of alternative medicine. Of course, this is, in nearly all cases, simply an excuse to dismiss scientific studies that fail to find efficacy for various “alt-med” modalities, but, even so, it is a claim that irritates me to no end, because it is so clearly nonsense. As Harriet Hall pointed out, alt-med “practitioners” frequently ascribe One True Cause to All Disease, which is about as far from “individualization” as you can get, when you come right down to it. More on that later.

A couple of years ago, before I became involved with this blog, I was surprised to learn that even some advocates of alt-med have their doubts that “individualization” is such a great strength. I had never realized that this might be the case until I came across a post by naturopath Travis Elliott, who runs a pro-alt-med blog, Dr. Travis Elliott and the Two-Sided Coin, entitled The Single Most Frustrating Thing About (Most) Alternative Medicine. In this article, Elliott referred to a case written up by a fellow naturopath, who used an anecdote about the evaluation and treatment plan by a naturopath of a pregnant woman with nausea to show what is supposedly the “unique power of our medicine.” Unexpectedly (to me at least at the time), Elliott did not quite see it that way:

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

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You can’t hide in the herd

Can you hide in the herd?  Well, I suppose the title has given away the punch line.

Herd immunity is a fascinating effect, and one of the mainstays of a public vaccination effort.  The idea is that if enough people in the community are immune to a particular disease, then those who are susceptible will rarely come into contact with a person who is contagious, and the disease will be unable (or find it difficult) to spread.  This results in a greatly reduced risk of infection for the entire population regardless of their individual immunity.

This has lead to the belief that because of the protection of the herd’s immunity, individuals now have the option to avoid even the minimal cost and risk of vaccination while having the same reduced risk of infection as if they had vaccinated.

Let’s set aside the fact that that there are people who have no choice but to rely upon herd immunity as their sole line of protection against these infections.  Forget that there is a threshold below which herd immunity collapses, and that our current vaccination rates tend to be right on the cusp of that threshold.  Pay no attention to the fact that the personal decision to not vaccinate deprives others of their sole protection from these infections.  Finally, ignore the ethics and self-defeating nature of benefiting from the sacrifice of others while simultaneously eroding the efficacy of the herd immunity being exploited.  On a small enough scale, doesn’t the tactic of hiding in the herd provide the same protection as getting vaccinated without incurring the minimal risk of vaccination?

Not so much. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Big Placebo says Medicine never cures anything

Kudos to Lindsay Beyerstein of Majikthise for coining a new appellation “Big Placebo.” Big Placebo is the alternative health counterpart to Big Pharma. Both are special interest groups designed to promote their products, whether they are worthy of promotion or not. There is one big difference between them: Big Pharma makes products that usually work (though not always, and sometimes not safely). Big Placebo hawks books and products that never work.

Big Placebo is unsatisfied with the $40 billion it takes in every year on treatments that don’t even work. They’re aiming for a much larger piece of the healthcare pie and to do so they are criticizing modern medicine.

To hear Big Placebo tell it, virtually all illness can be prevented and anyone who gets sick deserves it because of poor lifestyle choices. If only that were so. Unfortunately, most illness and disease is caused by factors beyond people’s control, including infectious agents, genetic defects and inherited predispositions.

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The Mythology of Larry Dossey

A “Double Standard”?

Last week I had planned to write a comprehensive critique of a recent comment by Larry Dossey. He had posted it on Val Jones’s betterhealth website in response to Dr. Val’s essay, “The Decade’s Top 5 Threats To Science In Medicine,” originally posted here on SBM. Much of what Dr. Val had identified as the top threats involved recent dalliances, by government, medical schools, and the media, with the collection of implausible and mostly nonsensical health claims that advocates have dubbed “CAM.” As uncontroversial as Dr. Val’s assertions ought to have been—similar to suggesting that closing one’s eyes and “using the force” would be a threat to safe driving (even if some might quibble over the top threats to science in medicine)—Dr. Dossey demurred by distraction:

Your article implies that conventional medicine is grounded in evidence-based research and that CAM is not. This is grossly overstated, and suggests that a double standard is being applied to these fields.

Dossey trotted out familiar arguments: “Much, if not most, of contemporary medical practice still lacks a scientific foundation”; “the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) found that only an estimated 10 to 20% of the techniques that physicians use are empirically proven”; hospital care is “the third leading cause of death in the United States,” accounting for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year.

He concluded with an appeal to fairness, rationality, and collegiality:

Overwhelming evidence reveals that conventional medicine is, on the whole, woefully unscientific. It’s fashionable and easy to deny this, but the facts say otherwise. So, by all means, Dr. Val, be critical of CAM – but do not fall into a double standard. Let us ruthlessly apply science to ALL we do as physicians. Let us challenge ALL areas of medicine to a higher standard. On that, I’m pretty sure we can agree.

Keep up the good work.

Sincerely yours,
Larry Dossey, MD

I procrastinated with my own rebuttal, and in the meantime David Gorski responded to similar language found in an article by Dossey (and two other magical thinkers) titled “The Mythology of Science-Based Medicine,” published by the Huffington Post. I’ll not repeat Dr. Gorski’s able rebuttal in any detail, and I’ve already written about much of what this matter brings to mind. Examples are here, here, and here on the perils of conflating science-based medicine and Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM); here on the false dichotomy of modern medicine vs. “CAM”; here on a concise definition of “CAM”; here and here on the mischief spawned by demands to “ruthlessly apply science,” in the narrow, EBM sense of the word, to implausible health claims; here (point #7) and here regarding the tu quoque fallacy, the “10-20% empirically proven” claim, and the risks of modern health care; here (scroll down to “this week’s entry”) and here, regarding some of Dossey’s own opinions about science and the future of medicine.

For now I’ll elaborate on a few points. These pertain not only to Dr. Dossey but also to myths common to the advocacy of pseudomedicine, so I hope to provide some useful information.


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