In January, a study published in Pediatrics, the American Academy of Pediatrics’ flagship peer-reviewed journal, presented evidence in support of Kangaroo Mother Care (KMC) and its primary intervention: prolonged skin-to-skin contact (SSC) between a mother and her newborn child. I was originally asked to discuss this report at the time by the editors of The Scientific Parent, which is a great resource by the way, but I wanted to expand on my initial thoughts after letting them simmer for a bit over the past few weeks. Please check out the great work done by Leslie and Julia over at TSP after you finish this post.
Archive for Science and the Media
Well, we’re back.
Yes, after having our WordPress database somehow borked to the point where no new posts could be added and no existing posts could be edited since Friday, Science-Based Medicine is back in business—finally! As a result, some of you might have seen this post elsewhere, as it was considered to be somewhat time-sensitive, and I didn’t want to delay, particularly given that I didn’t know how long SBM would be down. Fortunately, we’re back a bit sooner than I thought; so let’s look at something that was in the news over the weekend.
Katie May was a model, and by all accounts a very successful one, having appeared in Playboy, Sports Illustrated, and other magazines and websites. Self-proclaimed the “Queen of Snapchat,” she also had nearly two million Instagram followers and was a major social media force, having recently parlayed her modeling and social media career into entrepreneurship. She also died unexpectedly on Thursday night at the too-young age of 34, leaving behind a seven-year-old daughter. What makes May’s tragic death an appropriate topic for SBM is not so much her young age but rather the circumstances surrounding her death, particularly the cause. Basically, May died of complications due to stroke, as her family confirmed in a statement issued on Friday:
“It is with heavy hearts that we confirm the passing today of Katie May – mother, daughter, sister, friend, businesswoman, model and social media star – after suffering a catastrophic stroke caused by a blocked carotid artery on Monday,” the statement reads.
“Known as MsKatieMay on the Internet and the “Queen of Snapchat,” she leaves behind millions of fans and followers, and a heartbroken family. We respectfully ask for privacy in this this difficult time. Those wishing to contribute to the living trust being set up for the care of her young daughter may do so at her GoFundMe page.”
We frequently write about placebo effects here on Science-Based Medicine. The reason is simple. They are an important topic in medicine and, at least as importantly, understanding placebo effects is critical to understanding the exaggerated claims of advocates of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), now more frequently called “integrative medicine” (i.e., integrating pseudoscience with science). Over the years, I (and, of course, others) have documented how CAM advocates have consistently moved the goalposts with respect to the efficacy of their pseudoscientific interventions. As larger and better-designed clinical trials have been done demonstrating that various CAM therapies without a basis in science—I’m distinguishing these from science-based modalities that have been co-opted and “rebranded” as CAM, such as exercise and nutrition—have no specific effects detectable above placebo effects, CAM advocates move the goalposts and claim that CAM works through the “power of placebo” and do their best to claim that “harnessing” that “power of placebo” is a justification to use their treatments. It turns out, however, that when placebo effects are examined rigorously there’s just not a lot of there there, so to speak. Results are underwhelming, and trying to “harness the power of placebo” without an intervention that actually impacts the pathophysiology of disease can even be dangerous. That’s not to say that learning to maximize placebo responses (whatever they are) while administering effective medical treatments isn’t important; rather, it’s to point out that, by themselves, placebo effects are not of much value.
Unfortunately, none of this has stopped what Steve Novella refers to as the “placebo narrative” from insinuating itself into lay discussions of medicine. That narrative proclaims in breathless terms (as Steve put it) the “surprising power of the placebo effect” without putting it into reasonable perspective or even really defining what is meant by “placebo effect.” First, as we have tried to explain time and time again here, there is no single “placebo effect.” There are placebo effects. Second, the only really correct reference to “the placebo response” or “placebo effect” is the outcome measured in the placebo arm of a clinical trial. The problem is that, all too often, discussions of placebo responses conflate the placebo effect measured in a clinical trial with all the other various placebo effects that add up to the response that is measured in that trial. Those effects include reporting biases, researcher biases, regression to the mean, conditioning, and many other components that contribute to what is measured in the outcome of a clinical trial. Another common misconception about placebo effects is that they are somehow “mind over matter,” that we can heal ourselves (or at least reduce our symptoms) through the power of will and mind. This is not true. Placebo effects are not the power of positive thinking.
The evidence is clear: statin drugs are effective in reducing the rate of heart attacks and death in people who have already had a heart attack as well as in people who are at high risk of having one. Some people refuse to believe that evidence; they are statin deniers, similar to the climate change deniers and AIDS deniers (and there are even germ theory deniers!) who manage to disregard the strong evidence that proves their opinions wrong. The deniers demonize statins, cherry-picking studies to minimize the benefits and exaggerate the side effects.
A new study found that negative media reports about statins were correlated with patients discontinuing statin therapy. It also found that discontinuing statin therapy was correlated with an increase in heart attacks and death.
American charlatan Brian Clement made another trip to Canada recently and was caught on audiotape claiming multiple sclerosis could be “reversed” at the Hippocrates Health Institute (HHI), where he serves as Director. This is yet another in a series of his misrepresentations about the effectiveness of the quack treatments offered at HHI. Indeed, Clement calls to mind the old joke about inveterate liars:
Q: Know how can you tell this guy is lying?
A: His lips are moving.
Once again, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), which has done an outstanding job exposing Clement and his mendacity, caught him in this particular fabrication. (The American media, by contrast, has largely ignored the story, even to the point of printing credulous puff pieces about Clement.) According to the CBC, it:
obtained a recording of a lecture Clement gave in September in Montreal where he said, “Last week, we had somebody at the institute that reversed multiple sclerosis.”
He went on to claim that many other people who visited his Florida spa, the Hippocrates Health Institute, saw similar results.
“A nurse that came to us two years ago was crippled, had braces on. By the time she left Hippocrates, she reversed the multiple sclerosis.
“And mainstream medicine, they think it’s remarkable. I’ve seen lots and lots of people over the years did that.”
To debate or not to debate, that is the question.
Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous quackery
Or to take arms against a sea of quackademia,
And, by opposing end them.
The question of whether it is worthwhile to debate cranks, quacks, and advocates of pseudoscience has long been a contentious issue in the skeptic community. Those of you who’ve been reading my posts for a while know that I’ve always come down on the side that it is not a good idea One thing I’ve learned in my more than a decade of blogging, both here and at my not-so-super-secret other blog, is that advocates of pseudoscience love public debates. Indeed, whenever you see a skeptic agree to a public debate with an advocate of pseudoscience, it’s a damned sure bet that it wasn’t the skeptic who proposed it. I suppose it’s possible that there have been such instances that I’m unaware of, but I do know of a lot of instances where it was the other way around. I’ve even witnessed one myself, when our fearless founder Steve Novella debated antivaccine quack Julian Whitaker about vaccine safety at FreedomFest in Las Vegas while we were at TAM three years ago. Steve mopped the floor with Dr. Whitaker so dramatically that it almost changed my mind about the value of debates with quacks because, witnessing the debate, I saw that the arguments Dr. Whitaker marshaled were such hackneyed antivaccine talking points that I knew I could also have demolished them. Still, in the end, no minds were likely to be changed, and the question of vaccine safety was clearly being used as a tool to oppose school vaccine mandates or, as antivaccinationists like to call them deceptively, “forced vaccination.” Whether vaccines are safe and effective or not is a separate question from whether the government should mandate certain vaccines as a precondition for attending school or being in day care.
Over the years, I myself have been “challenged” to similar debates myself. Perhaps the most bizarre example occurred when someone claiming to represent HIV/AIDS denialist Christine Maggiore contacted me claiming that she wanted to arrange a debate between us. Maggiore, unfortunately, died a mere two years later of—you guessed it—AIDS-related complications. Although occasionally the ego gratification of being asked to participate in such events vied with my longstanding belief that debating cranks doesn’t sway anyone, sharing the stage with a real scientist does unduly elevate the crank in the eyes of the public. Besides, whatever the seeming outcome of the debate, you can count on the crank to declare victory and his believers to agree. In any event, science isn’t decided by the metrics used to judge who “wins” a public debate, which rely more on rhetoric and cleverness rather than science to decide the outcome. Finally, such debates are not without risks. Although Julian Whitaker, for example, was terrible at it, other cranks are adept at the Gish Gallop, and an unprepared skeptic or scientist can be made to appear clueless in front of a crowd that is almost always packed with supporters of the crank, not the skeptic.
Just last week, there was another “debate” challenge that led me to question my resolve not to debate cranks. It came from a most unexpected source.
Increasingly people are accessing healthcare information in order to make decisions for their own health. A 2010 Pew poll found that 80% of internet users will do so for health care information. This presents a huge potential benefit, but also a significant risk.
Daniel Levitin talks about the need for public information literacy, something we also discuss frequently here on SBM. If you are accessing the internet to inform your health care decisions, then you need to know how to determine the legitimacy and trustworthiness of the websites you are visiting. There is a big difference between NaturalNews (a crank site full of misinformation and conspiracy theories) and Nature News (an outlet for one of the most prestigious science journals in the world).
Even when you can discriminate between good and bad health information websites, the challenge remains to properly interpret the scientific information to which you now have access.
Katherine Ellison won a Pulitzer Prize in 1985, not for science journalism but for coverage of the monetary mayhem perpetrated by Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos on the people of the Philippines. I was nine at the time and have little recollection of the impact of her work, but I will assume that it was meaningful in light of the award. And she went on to win numerous additional accolades for her writing on politics, economics, and human rights.
Her most recent work, “Chiropractic Care Grows, and Gains Acceptance“, will likely not be considered for any journalism awards. The article, published on the New York Times Health and Wellness blog, reveals a terribly flawed understanding of chiropractic practice and philosophy and a preternatural ability to interpret fleecing at the hands of an obvious quack as a positive experience. She displays few if any signs of an ability to think critically when it comes to medicine and gives no indication of having done more than cursory research on the subject of chiropractic.
Sometimes the apple does fall far from the tree
The inspiration for Ellison’s article was a trip to the chiropractor after having injured her tail bone during a spin class. She does this despite having grown up with a surgeon father who apparently did not think highly of “alternative healers,” particularly chiropractors. Right off the bat she brings up the history of the AMA’s stance on the chiropractic profession:
Of course, this was in the 1960s, when the American Medical Association was still waging war on the profession via its Committee on Quackery, which labeled chiropractors as an “unscientific cult.”
The A.M.A.’s Committee on Quackery is long defunct, having gone out of existence after a lawsuit by chiropractors led to a 1987 federal district judge’s ruling that the medical association had tried to destroy the chiropractic profession.
Well, not exactly. The AMA absolutely was vehemently opposed to chiropractic and its practitioners and, as Dr. Harriet Hall describes, they are far from beyond reproach in the methods they used. In fact, I think you would be hard pressed to find anyone that would defend their tactics today. But the Committee on Quackery actually disbanded in 1974, two years prior to the filing of the infamous Wilk v. AMA antitrust lawsuit and at a time when all 50 states were licensing chiropractors. Louisiana, as backwards as my home state can be when it comes to science and medicine, was the last to give in that same year.
A recent segment on NPR is an excellent representation of some of the mischief that promotion of unscientific medical treatments can create. The title is a good summary of the problem: “To Curb Pain Without Opioids, Oregon Looks To Alternative Treatments.“
The entire segment is premised around a false dichotomy, between excess use of opioids and unproven alternative treatments. It is clear that the reporters didn’t even speak to a pain specialist who relies upon science-based treatments, or if they did the specialist was completely ignored because a SBM approach did not fit into the narrative of the report.
Non-opioid options for pain control
The problem addressed by the segment is real – the current technology of pain control is limited. I don’t want to sell pain management short, we have an array of powerful and effective treatments. There are limitations, however, and many patients are inadequately treated.
I am fortunate to have become a physician in a time of great scientific progress. Back when I was in college and medical school, the thought that we would one day be able to sequence the human genome (and now sequence hundreds of cancer genomes), to measure the expression of every gene in the genome simultaneously on a single “gene chip,” and to assess the relative abundance of every RNA transcript, coding and noncoding (such as microRNAs) simultaneously through next generation sequencing (NGS) techniques was considered, if not science fiction, so far off in the future as to be unlikely to impact medicine in my career. Yet here I am, mid-career, and all of these are a reality. The cost of rapidly sequencing a genome has plummeted. Basically, the first human genome cost nearly $3 billion to sequence, while recent developments in sequencing technology have brought that cost down to the point where the “$1,000 genome” is within sight, if not already here, as illustrated in the graph above published by the National Human Genome Research Institute. Whether the “$1,000 genome” is truly here or not, the price is down to a few thousand dollars. Compare that to the cost of, for instance, the OncoType DX 21-gene assay for estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer, which costs nearly $4,000 and is paid for by insurance because its results can spare many women from even more expensive chemotherapy.
So, ready or not, genomic medicine is here, whether we know enough or not to interpret the results in individual patients and use it to benefit them, so much so that President Obama announced a $215 million plan for research in genomic mapping and precision medicine known as the Precision Medicine Initiative. Meanwhile, the deeply flawed yet popular 21st Century Cures bill, which passed the House of Representatives, bets heavily on genomic research and precision medicine. As I mentioned when I discussed the bill, it’s not so much the genomic medicine funding that is the major flaw in the bill but rather its underlying assumption that encouraging the FDA to decrease the burden of evidence to approve new drugs and devices will magically lead to an explosion in “21st century cures,” the same old antiregulatory wine in a slightly new bottle. Be that as it may, one way or the other, the federal government is poised to spend lots of money on precision medicine.
Because I’m a cancer doctor, and, if there’s one area in medicine in which precision medicine is being hyped the hardest, it’s hard for me not to think that the sea change that is going on in medicine really hit the national consciousness four years ago. That was when Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs revealed that after his cancer had recurred as metastatic disease in 2010. Jobs had consulted with research teams at Stanford, Johns Hopkins, and the Broad Institute to have the genome of his cancer and normal tissue sequenced, one of the first twenty people in the world to have this information. At the time (2010-2011), each genome sequence cost $100,000, which Jobs could easily afford. Scientists and oncologists looked at this information and used it to choose various targeted therapies for Jobs throughout the remainder of his life, and Jobs met with all his doctors and researchers from the three institutions working on the DNA from his cancer at the Four Seasons Hotel in Palo Alto to discuss the genetic signatures found in Jobs’ cancer and how best to target them. Jobs’ case, as we now know, was a failure. However much Jobs’ team tried to stay one step ahead of his cancer, the cancer caught up and passed whatever they could do. (more…)