Archive for Science and Medicine

Research, Minus Science, Equals Gossip

“A person is smart. People are stupid.”

– Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), Men In Black

Regular readers of my blog know how passionate I am about protecting the public from misleading health information. I have witnessed first-hand many well-meaning attempts to “empower consumers” with Web 2.0 tools. Unfortunately, they were designed without a clear understanding of the scientific method, basic statistics, or in some cases, common sense.

Let me first say that I desperately want my patients to be knowledgeable about their disease or condition. The quality of their self-care depends on that, and I regularly point each of them to trusted sources of health information so that they can be fully informed about all aspects of their health. Informed decisions are founded upon good information. But when the foundation is corrupt – consumer empowerment collapses like a house of cards.

There is growing support in the consumer-driven healthcare movement for a phenomenon known as “the wisdom of crowds.” The idea is that the collective input of a large number of consumers can be a driving force for change – and is a powerful avenue for the advancement of science. It was further suggested (in a recent lecture on Health 2.0), that websites that enable patients to “conduct their own clinical trials” are the bold new frontier of research. This assertion betrays a lack of understanding of basic scientific principles. In healthcare we often say, “the plural of anecdote is not data” and I would translate that to “research minus science equals gossip.” Let me give you some examples of Health 2.0 gone wild:


Posted in: Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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More evidence that CAM/IM advocates see health care reform as an opportunity to claim legitimacy

Four weeks ago (was it really that long?), I wrote one of my usual lengthy essays for this blog in which I analyzed two editorials published by some very famous advocates of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM)/”integrative medicine” (IM). They included one in that credulous repository of all things antivaccine The Huffington Post (no, this isn’t about vaccines, but I can’t resist pointing out at every turn the antivaccine slant of that rather famous political blog) and in the Wall Street Journal. The first, published in HuffPo and written by Deepak Chopra, Andrew Weil, and Rustum Roy, was entitled Leaving the Sinking Ship, while the second added Dean Ornish to its team, switched from the highly liberal venue of hte previous article to the conservative WSJ, and was entitled “Alternative” Medicine Is Mainstream: The evidence is mounting that diet and lifestyle are the best cures for our worst afflictions. In doing so, advocates of unscientific and even pseudoscientific faith-based medical treatments seemingly covered the entire span of political thought, from highly liberal to highly conservative, with their message.

That message, as I have argued, along with Wally Sampson, Kimball Atwood, Val Jones, and Peter Lipson, is, to boil it down to its essence, this: The new Obama Administration has promised to make health care reform one of its top priorities, and CAM/IM advocates want to take advantage of this movement for reform as the “foot in the door” behind which they try to muscle their way in to be treated by the government as co-equal with established, science- and evidence-based medicine. How do they plan on doing this? As I have discussed before, they plan on doing this by coopting disease “prevention” strategies as being CAM/IM and using them as a Trojan horse. When the government brings the giant wooden horse into the fortress of government health care, along with the bona fide prevention strategies of diet and exercise a whole lot of woo will jump out of the belly of that horse and open the fortress doors to let in its comrades. Indeed, the same strategy can be seen in how CAM/IM advocates have coopted the Institute of Medicine with a joint conference.

In other words, because CAM/IM advocates have succeeded so well in tying the perfectly acceptable science- and evidence-based modalities of diet and exercise, as well as ghettoizing the respected pharmacology discipline of pharmacognosy by associating it with herbalism and, in essence, bringing it under the CAM umbrella, where it became unfairly and incorrectly tainted with its association with all the other woo that falls under the CAM/IM mantle, they expect that renewing an emphasis on diet and exercise by their definition and on their terms will lead to the opening of the door into the promised land of having their modalities be funded by the government. It’s a very conscious strategy, which is why Chopra et al’s articles so clearly tried to convince readers that diet and exercise are CAM/IM. Unfortunately, that they are able to do this with such success is in part because science- and evidence-based practitioners arguably underemphasize such health prevention strategies.

I learned of another salvo fired off by CAM/IM advocates through my somehow finding myself on the mailing list for The Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. family of medical journals. Unfortunately, one of the journals published by the Liebert group is the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. This particular e-mail was advertising an editorial written by a chiropractor named Daniel Redwood that spells out in the most detailed manner exactly how CAM/IM advocates plan on hijacking any health care reform that the Obama Administration might come up in order to persuade the government to fund what Wally frequently terms “sectarian medicine” and I simply like to call unscientific. The editorial is freely available to all (unlike the contents of JACM) and entitled Alternative and Complementary Medicine Should Have Role in New Era of Health Care Reform. It’s about as blatant a description of the goals of the CAM/IM movement as I have ever seen.

Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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Yes We Can! We Can Abolish the NCCAM! Part III

A Reminder…

…of why we keep harping on this. A couple of days ago The Scientist reported that the “economic stimulus package” may include a windfall for the NIH:

Senate OKs big NIH bump

Posted by Bob Grant

[Entry posted at 4th February 2009 04:12 PM GMT]

The US Senate, which is furiously debating the details of the economic stimulus package making its way through Congress, passed an amendment yesterday (Feb. 3) to add $6.5 billion in National Institutes of Health funding on top of the $3.5 billion already allotted to the agency in the bill…

Exactly how an NIH funding increase will be spent remains to be determined.

You can bet that if this happens, the NCCAM will be licking its chops for some of that lettuce. Let’s continue to explore why it shouldn’t get any…


Posted in: Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Keeping ’em alive

ResearchBlogging.orgOne of the frequent complaints I hear about science-based medicine is that it is dangerous.  Of course, it’s true—so is riding in a train, but it sure beats walking.  And that’s the danger of this particular fallacy—yes, medicine is a sharp tool, but it’s also an effective tool, so we must use it properly.  And this is where the tools of evidence- and science-based medicine can give us a hand.

The potential harms of modern medicine must be approached carefully.  If they are ignored or approached in an ineffective way, we’ll miss an opportunity to save lives.  This comment from my other blog is typical:

You asked if so-called traditional Chinese medicine has ever eradicated any diseases. Well, yes. It pretty much eradicated one that is in epidemic numbers in the U.S. and most of the developed world: Iatrogenic disease.

This is wrong is so many ways.  The definition of “iatrogenic” is difficult.  The traditional definition is “adverse effects of medical treatment or advice.”  I suppose one could broaden this to include failure to give proper advice, as inaction by a physician has similar consequences to action, but perhaps that is a discussion for another day.

The way in which this is truly wrong is the false dichotomy. Yes, medical errors would be reduced to zero if we didn’t treat people, but the consequences would be rather dramatic.  Our goal should not be to abandon modern medicine because it sometimes causes harm.  Our goal is to reduce iatrogenic illness in a science-based way.

Strangely enough, this is being done.  A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine (effectively discussed here) described a study in which surgical checklists reduced errors.  This study was based on earlier work by Peter Provonost of Johns Hopkins, the subject of a terrific piece in the New Yorker.  (Related commentary here.)

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Yes We Can! We Can Abolish the NCCAM! Part II

Pseudoscience and Dishonesty, continued: “Reliable Information”?

In the previous post, we examined misrepresentations by the late National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) Director Stephen Straus and Margaret Chesney, written in 2006 as a rebuttal to a critical article by Donald Marcus and Arthur Grollman in Science magazine. Here, we continue. According to Straus and Chesney:

Before the establishment of NCCAM, there was no central source of CAM information. NCCAM brings evidence-based information on CAM to the public, practitioners, and researchers. NCCAM disseminates research findings and provides reliable information about commonly used CAM practices through numerous channels, including…its award-winning Web site… NCCAM’s communications program deals with a field that is controversial, that has many critics, and that reaches a public that wants reliable information.

Before the establishment of the NCCAM, there was an excellent source of reliable information about “CAM”: Quackwatch. It continues to be the most comprehensive source of such information.

The NCCAM itself does not provide “reliable information about commonly used ‘CAM’ practices.” Rather, it bends over backward—in some instances making categorically false statements—to portray absurd, dangerous, implausible, or disproved practices as safer and more promising than they are.

Examples follow, but first please consider an implicit yet abundant and compelling piece of evidence that has left several of us (1, 2, 3) scratching our heads since the NCCAM began: each year the Center bestows numerous grants for the purpose of teaching “CAM” (not “CAM research”) to health professionals or for “integrating CAM” into various programs, or for establishing “integrative medicine” centers. For examples, look here. Isn’t this putting the cart before the horse? How can this be viewed as anything other than promoting “CAM”? Consider that Straus and Chesney also wrote:

In the early years of NCCAM, there was a sense of urgency to scientifically assess a range of CAM therapies that had been in long use by the public in the absence of proof of safety or efficacy.

In the subsequent 8 years, there has not been a burgeoning list of “CAM therapies” that have been proven safe and effective. The number of treatments that would qualify for that list, or for a comparable list before the creation of the NCCAM is, if you’ll excuse the rudeness of reliable information,…zero. In other words, the NCCAM admits that the treatments that characterize its “CAM integration” projects have not been shown safe and effective.

But back to a few explicit examples of unreliable information.


Posted in: Acupuncture, Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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Reality Deniers

“You have an irrational belief in rational thought.” ~Dr David Scholes, directed towards me.

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” ~T.S. Eliot

I just finished the book Mathematical Cranks by Underwood Dudley, part of a trifecta of skeptical mathematics books.

Doctor Dudley is a professor of mathematics at Depau University and a connoisseur of cranks with a mathematical bent.

What is a mathematical crank?

Mathematics is a peculiar field. Whether or not some aspects of mathematics exist independent of humans is an ongoing debate, but within its axioms and proofs is a consistent body of well defined, internally consistent knowledge.

Within that knowledge, ideas can, under the rules of mathematics and logic, can be proved or disproved, to be absolutely true or false or to be impossible.

No prior plausibility that pester the world of scientific medicine and the evaluation of woo. No borderline p values that hint at effects. No biologic variability. No placebo effect. No investigator or patient bias. No placebo effect. No N rays. No unproven water memory or meridians or subluxations.

Just clean, beautiful, mathematics. True or false. Possible or impossible. I simplify a bit, but mathematics, especially at the lower levels, is an internally consistent field of study. What happens in the math of 11 dimension string theory is beyond my puny intellect.

In mathematics there are things that are impossible. Absolutely impossible. No ifs, ands, or buts. Impossible. Can’t be done no how no way. In the world of mathematics, things are not only impossible, they are proven truly impossible within the boundaries of the mathematical discipline.

An example of mathematical impossibility is the quadrature of the circle, also called squaring the circle.

It is impossible, using only a straight edge ruler and a compass, to construct a square with the same area as a given circle. It was proved to be impossible in 1882 by Lindeman. Not improbable or unlikely or very, very, very difficult. With in mathematical reality, it is impossible.

Just because it is impossible does not prevent people from attempting to square the circle. They send these ‘proofs’ to mathematicians for comment.

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Science and Medicine

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Psychiatry is arguably the least science-based of the medical specialties. Because of that, it comes in for a lot of criticism. Much of the criticism is justified, but some critics make the mistake of dismissing even the possibility that psychiatry could be scientific. They throw the baby out with the bathwater. I agree that psychiatry has a lot of very dirty bathwater, but there is also a very healthy baby in there that should be kept, cherished, nourished, and helped to grow – scientifically.

Common criticisms in the media

  • We are over-medicating our children, producing a generation of drugged zombies.
  • We are using medication indiscriminately for people who don’t fit the diagnosis (i.e. antidepressants for people who only have normal mood fluctuations and life problems).
  • Antidepressants lead to violence and suicide.
  • Psychotropic medications all have terrible side effects.
  • Antidepressants are no better than placebo.
  • Psychotherapies are no better than talking to a friend.
  • Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a barbaric, damaging assault with no redeeming value.
  • And we all remember how Tom Cruise attacked Brooke Shields on the issue of postpartum depression.

Thomas Szasz: Mental Illness is a Myth

Thomas Szasz goes even further: he rejects the whole concept of mental illness and considers it a plot to interfere with people’s human rights. He says:

  • Psychiatric diagnoses are not valid because they are based on symptoms rather than on objective tests. (Steve Novella has pointed out that there are other well-established diagnoses like migraine that cannot be verified by any objective tests.)
  • Mental illness is a myth: unusual behavior does not constitute a disease.
  • Psychiatric diagnoses are an arbitrary construct of society to facilitate control of individuals whose behavior does not conform.
  • Involuntary commitment is never justified even for the protection of the patient: patients always have the right to refuse treatment even if that means they will die. (more…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Historic College of Pharmacy to Honor Homeopathy Leader

I am a graduate of the institution known formerly as the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science (PCP&S) – the first college of pharmacy in North America, established in 1821.  The college, now called University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, counts among its alumni John Wyeth, Silas M. Burroughs, Sir Henry Wellcome, several members of the Eli Lilly and McNeil families, and other historical figures in pharmacy among founders of what have now become large pharmaceutical companies.

Although I was among the 35% of students in the “and Science” side of PCP&S, earning a BS in Toxicology, I was there at a time before Big Pharma had acquired much of the bad name it often carries today and we took great pride in our college’s rich history and contributions to modern medicine.  In particular PCP&S graduates were critical players in combating snake oil hucksters in the early 1900s and establishing chemical standards, safety, and efficacy guidelines for therapeutic agents.

So it is with disbelief that I learned my alma mater plans to award an Honorary Doctorate of Science to a major leader in homeopathy – on Founders’ Day, no less.  The press release is here.

I’ve just sent the following e-mail to University President, Philip P. Gerbino, Pharm.D., and Provost Russell J. DiGate, Ph.D.:


Posted in: Homeopathy, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine

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Dismantling NCCAM: A How-To Primer

Two of the earliest posts I wrote for Science-Based Medicine were entitled The infiltration of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and “integrative medicine” into academia and The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM): Your tax dollars hard at work. Both were intended as a lament over how not only is pseudoscientific quackery, much of it based on a prescientific understanding of how the human body works and disease occurs, finding its way into some of the most prestigious academic medical centers in the U.S. (for example, Georgetown and Beth Israel) but it’s even finding its way into the heart of the U.S. military.

Worse, aiding and abetting this infiltration is the federal government itself in the form of NCCAM. As I discussed in my usual excruciating detail in my original post and as Steve Novella, Kimball Atwood, and I have subsequently discussed many times on this very blog, particularly recently (so much so that I’m thinking of giving NCCAM its very own category here on SBM), NCCAM not only funds studies of dubious “alternative” therapies, such as reiki and homeopathy, that estimates of prior probability alone would argue to be so close to impossible as to be not worth spending millions, much less thousands, of dollars upon, but it also promotes quackery by funding “fellowships” at various institutions to teach “complementary and alterantive medicine” (CAM) sometimes also called “integrative medicine” (IM). Given that it spends over $120 million a year on mostly dubious studies and CAM promotion, we all have called for NCCAM to be defunded and disbanded.

Nearly a year has passed since I wrote those two posts. Ironically enough, at the time I wrote my first post about NCCAM for this blog, I pointed out that at first I had disagreed with my co-blogger Wally Sampson and his call to “defund” the NCCAM in an article published on Quackwatch nearly five years ago. My original reason was that I thought that there was value in studying these therapies to find out once and for all whether these therapies do anything greater than placebo or not. I now admit that I was very naive, and this was how I admitted it:

Two developments over the last several years have led me to sour on NCCAM and move towards an opinion more like Dr. Sampson’s. First, after its doubling from FY 1998-2003, the NIH budget stopped growing. In fact, adjusting for inflation, the NIH budget is now contracting. NCCAM’s yearly budget remains in the range of $121 million a year, for well over $1 billion spent since its inception as the Office of Alternative Medicine in 1993. Its yearly budget contains enough money to fund around 75 to 100 new five year R01 grants, give or take. In tight budgetary times my view is that it is a grossly irresponsible use of taxpayer money not to prioritize funding for projects that have hypotheses behind them that have a reasonable chance of being true. Scarce NIH funds should not be for projects that have as their basis hypotheses that are outlandishly implausible from a scientific standpoint. Second, I’ve seen over the last few years how NCCAM is not only funding research (most of which is of the sort that wouldn’t stand a chance in a study section from other Institutes or Centers)) but it’s funding training programs. Indeed, that was the core complaint against NCCAM: that it facilitates and promotes the infiltration of nonscience- and nonevidence-based treatments falling under the rubric of so-called “complementary and alternative” or “integrative” medicine into academic medicine.

Nothing has changed since I wrote those words–except for one thing. We now have a new President who stated in his inaugural address:

We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.

As Kimball Atwood put it, Yes We Can! We Can Abolish the NCCAM! The big and as yet unasked (and unanswered) question is: How? Neither defunding nor dismantling NCCAM will be easy, and we have to think about how to preserve the functions of NCCAM that might be worth saving.

Posted in: Medical Academia, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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Yes We Can! We Can Abolish the NCCAM!

…and in so doing, President Obama, you and we would abolish the NIH’s second most prodigious squanderer of precious research funds! Surprise: The National Cancer Institute (NCI) spends slightly more on humbug than does the Center created for that purpose. All told, the NIH squanders almost 1/3 of a billion dollars per year promoting pseudoscience.

I’ve decided to add my two cents to the recent groundswell of demand to stop this sordid and embarrassing chapter in NIH history—even more sordid and embarrassing, in its way, than NIH researchers being on the take: pseudoscience is exactly antithetical to the mission of the NIH, which sponsors it repeatedly, officially, overtly, unethically, and dangerously. At least, in the case of Big Pharma greasing the palms of NIH researchers, those involved generally prefer to obscure the transactions, as good sense and traditional mores dictate.

My comments will be somewhat different from others’, not because I disagree with theirs but because it’s worthwhile to stress points that have not been stressed or even mentioned. I won’t bother to justify the assertion that “promoting pseudoscience” is an accurate description of what the NCCAM and the OCCAM do, because I’ve done that several times in the past, beginning here and here, and more recently here. I will plagiarize myself a bit, but only to introduce certain points.


Posted in: Health Fraud, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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