In a recent editorial for the New York Times, Aaron E. Carroll argues, “Labels Like ‘Alternative Medicine’ Don’t Matter. The Science Does.” I agree with this headline thesis, but the details of his argument ironically show the harm that the so-called CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) movement has done.
Carroll starts out well, essentially pointing out that the division between “conventional” and “alternative” medicine, and the division between “Western” and “Eastern” medicine are false dichotomies. Despite this strong start, he muddles his way through the rest of his editorial.
The primary error he commits is to swing from a false dichotomy to a false equivalency, essentially saying that there is no difference between conventional and alternative practice or practitioners. In order to support this contention, however, he has to distort the facts beyond recognition.
In other words, Carroll commits the less-well-known false continuum logical fallacy. Let me explain.
The real differences between SBM and CAM
Recently there was another round of scaremongering headlines and articles claiming that cell phones can cause brain cancer. The Daily News wrote: “The scientists were right — your cell phone can give you cancer.” Many online news sites declared: “SHOCK STUDY: CELLPHONES CAN CAUSE CANCER,” in all caps to make sure you understand that you should be alarmed. None of the mainstream reporting I saw looked past the press release.
Let’s take a look at the actual study: “Oxidative mechanisms of biological activity of low-intensity radiofrequency radiation” published in Electromagnetic Biology and Medicine.
The first thing to note as that this is a review article. It does not present any new data. It is not an experiment or observational study. It’s not even a meta-analysis. It is just a group of researchers looking at the literature and proclaiming that it confirms what they already believed.
[Editor’s note: Not enough Clay for one day? Check out this post on homeopathy over at The Scientific Parent!]
It was recently brought to my attention that a chiropractor was promoting his profession on Facebook by claiming to have treated and cured a potentially life-threatening cardiac arrhythmia. The condition in question, supraventricular tachycardia (SVT), can be very serious and even deadly in patients of all ages. Needless to say, the thought of anyone but a well-trained medical professional with access to appropriate medication and equipment to control the heart rate if necessary was unsettling to say the least.
After a deep breath, I followed the link and was sadly not surprised to find that it was true. In fact, after taking a minute for the rage to subside, and a few more to delve deeper into the case, I found that it was in reality much worse that I had initially imagined. The intervention, a stealthy adjustment of the child’s first cervical vertebrae, was performed by her father while she was being treated in a neonatal intensive care unit just hours after being born.
The events in question were posted by the chiropractor on a public account for his practice. Still, I feel hesitant to link to them directly as they reveal not only the name of the child but the identity of the cardiologist and intensive care doctor involved in her care (who naturally cannot respond because of privacy laws). If readers want to go to the trouble of locating the source of my outrage, they certainly can.
I will provide details of the child’s care as described by her father, but first a brief primer on SVT to set the stage a bit.
Ski faster with coconut water?
I don’t tend to worry too much about hydration, except when I exercise. I’ve been running regularly for over 15 years, and since I started I’ve usually carried water, or for longer runs, I drink old-school Gatorade. The formulation is basic: sugar, salt, and potassium. There are hundreds of electrolyte products marketed for athletics, but I’ve been faithful to the original: It’s cheap, I don’t mind the taste (even when it’s warm), you can buy it nearly anywhere, and it’s the usual liquid (besides water) offered at races. After exercise, I rehydrate with plain water, preferring to get my electrolytes and carbohydrates from food, rather than a specialty beverage, some of which are “designed” to support rehydration after exercise. The science of sports and hydration is constantly evolving, and so is the marketing. I’m apparently an outlier by still running with Gatorade. New hydration products criticize Gatorade for being artificial and inferior, arguing that natural sources of hydration are better. There’s been an explosion of rehydration beverages, marketed both for everyday hydration and sport purposes. Coconut water was the first natural product to find fairly wide popularity as a sports-oriented beverage. Now you can find maple water, cactus water, watermelon juice and even artichoke water. Is “natural” hydration better that substitutes, including plain old water? (more…)
Truly 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…)
Hmm, what could have happened in the early 90s to explain the significant decrease in incidence of acute hepatitis B? Urkel?
For those of you new to Science-Based Medicine, I am a pediatric hospitalist and spend the majority of my time caring for newborns. It’s an extremely rewarding experience on most days. The babies are usually healthy, the parents are usually happy and appreciative, and I get to give a lot of good news. I also get to dispel a lot of myths and misconceptions regarding the care of infants, which as you can probably imagine, I take great pleasure in.
Parents ask a lot of questions, which I appreciate and encourage, but they also make a lot of claims about the care of children based on their prior experience, advice from well-meaning friends and family, or their evaluation of the online “literature.” Some of these claims I will challenge, nicely of course, when they are demonstrably wrong or increase the risk for a bad outcome. (“We read that babies should sleep inverted like a bat in order to increase blood flow to the brain.”) Some of these claims I acknowledge as an acceptable approach, even if I don’t agree with them myself, if there is low risk or a lack of available quality evidence to guide me. (“We burped our last baby every five minutes during feeds to prevent colic.”) Sometimes I even learn a thing or two from parents.
Fluoridated water: Panacea or poison? Probably neither.
One of the overriding themes of the Science Based Medicine blog is to use rigorous science when evaluating any health claim – be it medical, dental, dietary, fitness, or any other assertion put forth with the intention of improving one’s health. Once the scientific evidence is evaluated as to efficacy, there are other criteria which must be taken into consideration, such as ease of administration, costs, possible adverse effects, and so on. Benefits have to be carefully weighed against risks to properly determine any appropriate course of action. For example, if a new pill is developed which is significantly better at , say, managing hypertension than existing medications, but it kills 10% of patients taking it, it obviously would not be the drug of choice. Conversely, if a proposed treatment, say homeopathy, is touted as being 100% safe with no side effects, but has absolutely zero benefits, it too would not be a recommended treatment. It’s a complicated and often ambiguous algorithm, and is imperfect due to the impossibility of attempting to quantify non-quantifiable values and qualities. (more…)
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.
One 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…)