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Homeopathy and the UK’s National Health Service

Homeopathy in the UK, flag, small

Homeopathy is arguably the silliest form of alternative medicine: the published studies show no evidence of anything beyond nonspecific contextual effects, and the underlying premise is incompatible with the existing body of scientific knowledge. Homeopathy has increasingly been questioned or denounced by organizations in several countries, most recently in FDA hearings in the US.

I recently spoke at the QED conference (Question, Explore, Discover) in Manchester, England. Another speaker, Michael Marshall, gave a talk on homeopathy and the National Health Service. He presented information that was new to me and that I thought was worthy of sharing with SBM readers. (more…)

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“Science.” You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Science

I’ve discussed on many occasions over the years how antivaccine activists really, really don’t want to be known as “antivaccine.” However, if there’s one thing that rivals how much antivaccinationists detest being called “antivaccine,” it’s how much they detest being called antiscience. To try to deny that they are antiscience, they will frequently invoke ridiculous analogies such as claiming that being for better car safety does not make one “anti-car” and the like. It is here that the Dunning-Kruger effect comes to the fore, wherein antivaccine activists think that they understand as much or more than actual scientists because of their education and self-taught Google University courses on vaccines, that their pronouncements on vaccines should be taken seriously. If there are two antivaccine blogs that epitomize the Dunning-Kruger effect, they are Age of Autism and, of course, the most hilariously inappropriately named The Thinking Moms’ Revolution (TMR). It is the latter of these two that late last week produced a tour de force of Dunning-Kruger, coming, as the most hilariously off-base posts on TMR usually do, from the “Thinking Mom” known as “The Professor.” I shouldn’t be surprised, given her history, but nonetheless it’s worth taking a look at her latest post, Anti-science: “You Keep Using That Word. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means.”

Actually, it does. And if The Professor is going to spend nearly 7,000 words riffing on a bit of dialogue from The Princess Bride, surpassing in verbiage all but a small minority of my posts, it almost makes me want to make this post 8,000 words.

Fortunately, for you, I resisted that temptation and instead merely retort: “Science. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Then I demonstrate why.
(more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Separating Fact from Fiction: The “Magic” of Epigenetics?

Watch as I pull a rabbit out of my hat using the power of epigenetics!

Watch as I pull a rabbit out of my hat using the power of epigenetics!

Every few years, it seems, a new concept emerges as the favorite go-to means of marketing unproven and highly implausible approaches to health care. Explanations of the proposed healing properties of homeopathic remedies incorporating quantum mechanics immediately comes to mind as an example of this phenomenon. Or how proponents of the most absurd treatments will just add “Nano” to anything and claim scientific miracles of healing.

From the Nano SRT website:

Q: What Is Stress Reduction Therapy?
A: SRT is a remarkable new procedure that combines the disciplines of Acupuncture, Biofeedback and Homeopathy with Laser Light technology. A computerized scan or test is done to see what your body is sensitive to, and how it is out of balance, then help it learn not to be.

Q: What does the Nano SRT do?

A: Substance specific frequencies converted to a digital format, and presented in the form of sound and light, are what allow for patient assessment and therapy down to the molecular level. The frequencies are what make it possible to assess thousands of substance sensitivities in mere minutes, then allow the brain and nervous system to record a new association that is positive or neutral instead of the inappropriate ones that were previously stored in memory. This breaks the link between the stimulus and response, makes symptoms unnecessary, creates balance and harmony, from dis-ease and disharmony, and allows the body to function better.

(more…)

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Activated charcoal: The latest detox fad in an obsessive food culture

charcoal lemonade2Our diet is either the cause of, or solution to, all of life’s problems. I’m paraphrasing a great philosopher. We just can’t seem to let food be food. Today each ingredient we eat seems to be demonized or glorified. Gluten is the latest evil. It used to be fat. At some point in the past, it was MSG. Or it’s a superfood, preferably local, organic and GMO-free. Even on the healthiest diet, however, we’re apparently still ingesting too many harmful chemicals. After all, this is apparently a toxic environment we live in. Gwyneth Paltrow says so. So does the Food Babe. In an era of daily television quackery and loony internet health conspiracy websites, one might think that bizarre food ideas are a recent phenomena. But worries that we’re being poisoned from within are probably innate. One of the oldest surviving written documents is an Egyptian papyrus from the 16th century BCE that linked the cause of disease to digestive wastes in our colon. Since that time, our scientific knowledge about the cause of disease has advanced, but the underlying obsession with diet and elimination hasn’t waned. Anecdotally, it seems to be growing. The idea that our bodies need to “detox” is thriving, despite the fact that it has no scientific basis or validity. Part of the modern appeal of “detox” may be that detoxification is a legitimate medical term and treatment. However, in the alternative-to-health perspective, the word has been co-opted, but the science part has been ignored. Fake “detox” is easy. And now proponents of “detox” have taken it one step further. They’re using real medicine for a fake “detox” with. That’s how activated charcoal has become the latest health fad. (more…)

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What Should We Do in the Absence of Evidence?

Pictured: Smarter than you.

Pictured: Smarter than you.

For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple—and wrong.

– H.L. Mencken

Despite my multiple personalities, it seems that only the OCD doctor gets anything done. The Goth cowgirl persona? Lazy. And the NBA playoffs are sucking up an inordinate amount of time. Go Blazers. Just not very far. Sigh. But what are you going to do. Work needs doing and someone has to do it.

This week was one of deadlines. In June I am giving a series of talks at the SMACC conference in Chicago and I have to have all my talks ready to go today. So sometimes to meet all my deadlines I need to re-purpose other material.

Spoiler alert: if you are going to be at SMACC and hear my lectures, stop reading here. Everything I am going say in 6 weeks will follow. And really even if you are going to SMACC, it is a content-free post. You might be better off spending your time elsewhere. (more…)

Posted in: Critical Thinking, Humor, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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Pepsi Removing Aspartame

pepsi-logo

Pepsi has announced that it will remove aspartame from its formulation of diet Pepsi products in the US this year. Apparently this is a reaction to a 5% drop in the sales of Pepsi. Seth Kaufman, vice-president of Pepsi, said “Aspartame is the number one reason consumers are dropping diet soda.”

This move comes in the same week that Chipotle announced it is removing GMO food from its food chain. Unlike Pepsi, who cited only public opinion, Chipotle went one step further and directly cited pseudoscientific fears of GMOs as their justification. (But that’s another story.)

Like GMOs, aspartame has been widely studied and found to be safe, but remains the target of fear-mongering and conspiracy theories. It is not clear why this one food additive has continued to be the target of a fake controversy, other than that fears and conspiracies can take on a life of their own. The best example of anti-aspartame conspiracy theories comes from Janet Starr Hull, who wrote:

I will never accept the news of aspartame safety. I think it is a “business” decision to discredit/discount the research results that aspartame DOES cause cancer, major nerve disorders, birth defects, and brain imbalances. Think about it – can you imagine the chaos that will occur when the truth of aspartame dangers is accredited. The FDA has known about the dangers, the corporations have known about the dangers, and the medical community (if it is really worth anything) has known about the dangers.

That is a common claim of conspiracy theorists – the truth is being suppressed out of fears that it will bring chaos if revealed. I think our society will survive Pepsi moving over to a different sweetener. (more…)

Posted in: Nutrition, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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Ancient Origins of Modern Dietary Demons

glutenlie
There are few aspects of daily existence, particularly in modern society, that are more pervasive than advice on what we should eat. Everyone, including friends, family, strangers on Twitter and self-proclaimed experts in nutrition and health, seems to have an opinion on how to eat in order to improve and prolong our lives. Even legitimate organizations dedicated to the health and well-being of the population add to the cacophony of recommendations on diet.

Readers of Science-Based Medicine should be well aware of the current popularity of avoiding gluten, even absent the diagnosis of celiac disease or thoughtful evaluation for another related condition. Gluten, we are told by gurus and authors of books like Wheat Belly and Grain Brain, is the one true cause of a host of medical complaints, even autism. Avoid gluten at all costs, they say, and watch the pounds melt away or experience the clearing of your “brain fog.” (more…)

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Less benefit, more risk. Our assumptions about health treatments are probably wrong.

Patient discussing treatment options with a pharmacist.

Patient discussing treatment options with a pharmacist.

I’m a health professional, but sometimes a patient as well. And like most patients, I generally don’t want health decisions being made without my input. Yes, I want the best medical information, and the advice of medical professionals, but ultimately I want to make my own decisions about my care. That’s the norm in health care today, but relatively new in the history of medicine.

Medical paternalism, where patient preferences are secondary (or even ignored), is disappearing. Even informed consent, where patients are given information on risks and benefits, doesn’t adequately describe the drive towards a two-way exchange, with an empowered, engaged patient. Today the goal is shared decision making, which describes a mutual decision that is informed by a health professional’s medical knowledge and advice, but also incorporates a patient’s own preferences and wishes. Truly shared decision-making includes an explicit consideration of a treatment’s expected benefits and potential harms, yet reflects patient values.

Screening is a textbook example of why shared decision-making should be our goal. Given the benefits of a disease screening program may be modest, and not without harms, understanding and incorporating individual preference is essential. Some may value the small but incremental benefits of screening, and choose to be screened despite the risks of false positives, investigations, and possible overtreatment. Given the exact same circumstances, another individual may opt to forgo screening, making a different, yet equally acceptable decision. While there are some health interventions for which the benefits are unequivocal, and others for which the harms are just as clear, most health treatments (and interventions like screening) have both benefits and potential harms that must be carefully assessed within the context of patient preferences. Research published earlier this year has identified a significant barrier to truly effective shared decision-making and risk assessment: Across a wide range of interventions, we routinely overestimate the benefits of health treatments, and underestimate their risks. (more…)

Posted in: Diagnostic tests & procedures, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Mediocre Expectations

Pictured: Relevant.  Oh yeah, it's going to get weird. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Trust Image Library via the Wikimedia Commons.

Pictured: Relevant. Oh yeah, it’s going to get weird.

I had a dickens of a time writing this entry. The last week has been spent in New York for NECSS. It is safe to say that New York has plenty of distractions for us Dug the Dog types. Reality may be a honey badger, but New York is a squirrel. I say that when I travel I usually do not come across food better than I can find in Portland. Nope. Not true of New York. It joins Paris and New Orleans in the holy trinity of good eats, although I will stick with Pacific Northwest beer. And the rule is that for every day you are gone, three days’ worth of work piles up. I really need to stop taking time off.

I spoke at NECSS on a favorite topic of mine, how acupuncture works. It doesn’t. But I discussed a few studies that I found interesting. Like all studies, no single paper is definitive. The third law of the medical literature states that for every study, there is an equal and opposite study. A bit of an exaggeration perhaps but I do find the direction that the following studies point interesting both as to acupuncture’s mechanism of inaction and how the mind functions, making them worth collecting in an essay. (more…)

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WHO Statement on Reporting Clinical Trials

Flag of the World Health Organization (WHO)

Flag of the World Health Organization (WHO)

The World Health Organization (WHO) has recently released a new position statement on mandatory reporting of all interventional clinical trials. This is a positive step in the trend towards higher quality and greater transparency in clinical trials.

The underlying ethical concept here is that the public has a right to data that results from experimentation on humans. The researchers do not ethically own that data. They have been granted the privilege of performing research on humans as part of a social contract that includes the timely public reporting of the data.

The WHO statement calls for all registered clinical trial results to be made public in an open-access public forum in a searchable format within 12 months, and publication in the peer-reviewed literature within 24 months. They urge more rapid dissemination, but state that the 12/24 month time frame is the upper limit of when results should be reported.

The WHO statement is part of a larger trend toward greater transparency but also quality in scientific research. It is part of a recognition that we cannot understand how to best practice medicine and allocate resources based upon individual studies. We need to look at the entire scientific literature as a whole. Even when individual studies may be of high quality, there are many potential factors that can distort the scientific literature and therefore misinform doctors, scientists, and regulatory agencies. (more…)

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