Science and the Media

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A Rolling Stone gathers no science-based medicine—but does gather a lot of quackery

What is it with causes like alternative medicine and getting naked except for body paint?

What is it with causes like alternative medicine and getting naked except for body paint?

Old fart that I am, I’ve been a fan of The Rolling Stones since the mid-1970s, when I was in junior high school. Over the years, I’ve accumulated pretty close to all of their studio albums—and even bought multiple remastered versions of classics like Exile on Main Street and Beggar’s Banquet—and got access to the rest when I discovered the joy of streaming through Apple Music. Granted, the Stones went through a rough patch, creatively speaking, in the 1980s (the less said about Under Cover and Dirty Work, for instance, the better) and nothing they’ve done since the late 1970s has lived up to their glory days, but, damn, if I wasn’t surprised that their latest album of blues covers Blue & Lonesome released on Friday is really good.
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Posted in: Cancer, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Science and the Media

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“Donald Trump’s presidential election win stuns scientists”

Trump is OK with pseudoscience

Trump is OK with pseudoscience

Scientists in the U.S. and from around the world are weighing in on Donald Trump’s election as the next president of the most powerful country on earth:

Trump will be the first anti-science president we have ever had . . . The consequences are going to be very, very severe.

Michael Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society in Washington, DC:

I am simply stunned. . . Trump’s election does not bode well for science or most anything else of value.

Neal Lane, a Democrat who led the National Science Foundation and served as White House science adviser under President Bill Clinton, now a physicist and university professor at Rice University in Houston, Texas:

It’s going to be critically important for researchers to stand up for science.

Jennifer Zeitzer, director of legislative Relations at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland:

I do breast cancer research for my PhD . . . Scared not only for my future but for the future of research and next years @NIH budget.

Sarah Hengel, a graduate student at the University of Iowa in Iowa City:

This is terrifying for science, research, education, and the future of our planet . . . I guess it’s time for me to go back to Europe.

María Escudero Escribano, a postdoc studying electrochemistry and sustainable energy at Stanford University in California:

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Posted in: Critical Thinking, Herbs & Supplements, Legal, Obstetrics & gynecology, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Positive Psychology and Health

[Editor’s Note: Dr. Gorski is on a brief vacation this week; in his place we offer new guest contributor Michael Booth’s inaugural post. Enjoy!]

Will this help me live longer?

Will this help me live longer?

The belief that positivity can prolong life or improve health seems ubiquitous. It is a claim that is repeated often in popular media, and fills countless pages of self-help books on happiness, thriving, optimism, and so on. But is there evidence to support optimism and the right attitude being positively correlated with health and longevity? Do personal beliefs actually matter in determining whether or not a chronic disease progresses or remits?

Popular generalizations

Consider this statement by Dr. Oz and Dr. Roizen in the Healthy Living section of the Huffington Post:

Having the right attitude is even more important for your body than daily sunscreen and a weekend spa getaway, every other week — yes, that important. Humor improves immune cell function, helps you ward off illness and decreases your chances of cancer — and apparently also increases your chance of living after heart disease hits. Not bad!

This latter conclusion is drawn from a study of 607 heart disease patients in Denmark that according to Dr. Oz and Dr. Roizen “found that patients whose moods were overall more positive were 58 percent more likely to live at least another five years.” Dr. Oz and Dr. Roizen continue, “the scientists can’t say for sure if positivity led to exercise or if exercise improved mood, but we say that the important message is the same either way: Positive thinking and regular physical activity are really important for life (and beauty, too).”

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Posted in: Commentary, Science and the Media

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The stem cell hard sell, Stemedica edition

The stem cell hard sell returns.

The stem cell hard sell returns.

I first became more interested in dubious stem cell clinics nearly two years ago, when I learned that hockey legend Gordie Howe was undergoing stem cell therapy in Mexico to treat his stroke. Prominent in stories about Howe were two companies: Stemedica Cell Technologies, a San Diego company marketing stem cell treatments for all manner of ailments, and Novastem a partner company in Mexico that uses Stemedica products. Also prominent in the stories was Clínica Santa Clarita, the Tijuana-based clinic where Howe received his stem cell infusion. As far as I was able to glean, it’s a clinic to which Novastem supplies Stemedica stem cells. Basically, what happened is that Stemedica CEO Dr. Maynard Howe (no relation to Gordie Howe’s family) and VP Dave McGuigan contacted the Howe family late 2014, after having seen news stories about how poorly Gordie Howe was doing, to offer Howe its stem cell therapy.

Unfortunately, Gordie Howe was not eligible for Stemedica’s US-based clinical trial of its stem cell product for stroke because it had not yet been over six months since his last neurologic event and he was not yet neurologically stable. So Maynard Howe and McGuigan steered the Howe family to Novastem, one of Stemedica’s international partners. As a result, under the auspices of a highly dubious “clinical trial” conducted by physicians utterly unqualified to run a decent clinical trial under Mexican regulations that basically allowed “approved” clinics to do anything they want with stem cells, (whose details I discussed at the time), Gordie Howe received Stemedica stem cell infusions at Clínica Santa Clarita.

Because of Gordie Howe’s celebrity and the admiration Howe and McGuigan had for him, Novastem even waived the normal $30,000 per infusion charged to typical patients. From my viewpoint, they used Gordie Howe as a marketing tool, with the waived $30,000 an investment in publicity. Unfortunately Gordie Howe’s son Murray Howe, who happens to be a radiologist, was all too happy to go along, expressing an extreme sense of obliviousness and entitlement in response to questions about whether Clinica Santa Maria treated his father Gordie for free, responding, “You betcha. They were thrilled and honored to treat a legend. Would you charge Gordie Howe for treating him? None of his doctors ever do. I certainly am not going to criticize them for being generous.” Let’s just put it this way. I doubt that Gordie Howe’s other physicians refrained from charging Medicare and whatever insurance Howe had at the time for their services or collecting their copays.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media

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The stem cell hard sell

It's generally not a good indication that their treatments work when doctors use the same hard sell techniques as used car salesmen.

It’s generally not a good indication that their treatments work when doctors use the same hard sell techniques as used car salesmen.

Stem cells are magical. Stem cells are all-powerful. Stem cells cure everything. Stroke? No problem! Paralysis? Stem cells’ll fix it. Autism? Yes, even autism.

That’s the narrative one frequently hears about stem cells in the press and courtesy of offshore stem cell clinics and direct-to-consumer marketing of stem cells in the US. Of course, stem cells aren’t mystical and magical, although they are very promising as a treatment for some degenerative conditions. As promising as they are, though, they don’t cure everything. In fact, we don’t even know for sure that they cure anything because for the vast majority of conditions for which stem cells are used in these clinics, they are still at best experimental and at worst completely unproven. In fact, at their worst, they can do great harm.

I learned about the unrelentingly positive spin the media tend to place on stem cell treatments when I first started blogging about Gordie Howe’s stroke and Dr. Maynard Howe (CEO) and Dave McGuigan (VP) of Stemedica Cell Technologies reached out to the Howe family to see if it could help him with its products. When Howe and McGuigan discovered that Howe was not eligible for any of their US clinical trials, they facilitated Howe’s receiving an unproven stem cell therapy through one of its partners in Mexico, Novastem, which uses Stemedica stem cell products to treat patients in its clinic, Clínica Santa Clarita. In the ultimate bit of privilege for a sports hero (or, as I saw it at the time and as it ultimately turned out, an excellent investment for marketing and advertising of Stemedica products) Gordie Howe even received the treatment for free, even though Clínica Santa Clarita charges everyone else around $30,000. Let’s just say that I didn’t find the explanations for waiving this rather massive fee in Gordie Howe’s case to be persuasive, and I was rather disturbed at the entitlement expressed by Howe’s son over it, who didn’t see the ethical problem at all. Nor did I find the excuses given by Stemedica and Novastem for why their clinical trial protocol in Mexico was so substandard.

It turns out that this new, poorly regulated industry operates a lot like the many quack cancer clinics that I’ve blogged about over the years and like a lot of other dubious businesses, such as multilevel marketing scams. This comes in the form of a recent paper in Stem Cells Translational Research by Paul Knoepfler, who describes attending a marketing seminar.
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Posted in: Health Fraud, Science and the Media

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Deconstructing Homeopathy Propaganda

homeopathy1
The definition of “propaganda,” like so many things, is a bit fuzzy. The dictionary definition is: “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.” There is no sharp demarcation line, however.

Speech occurs on a spectrum from obsessively objective, fair, balanced, and scholarly at one end, to deliberately deceptive and manipulative propaganda at the other. Most speech is somewhere in the middle. We are all coming from a certain narrative, one which we believe is valid and important, and often speech is meant to be persuasive.

Persuasive speech promoting a point of view or certain conclusion is fine – it does not necessarily deserve the label of propaganda. The fuzzy line gets crossed, however, the more logic and evidence are compromised for the sake of the narrative. (more…)

Posted in: Homeopathy, Science and the Media

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Reviewing Andrew Wakefield’s VAXXED: Antivaccine propaganda at its most pernicious

VAXXED

I’ve finally seen it. I’ve finally seen Andrew Wakefield and Del Bigtree’s “documentary” VAXXED: From Cover-up to Catastrophe, and I didn’t even have to pay to see it! Now, having watched Wakefield and Bigtree’s “masterpiece,” I can quite confidently say that it’s every bit as accurate and balanced a picture of vaccine benefits and risks as Eric Merola’s two movies about the quack Stanislaw Burzynski and his Second Opinion: Laetrile at Sloan-Kettering are about cancer and cancer research, The Beautiful Truth is about the Gerson protocol for cancer, Simply Raw: Reversing Diabetes in 30 Days is about diet and diabetes, Expelled! No Intelligence Allowed is about evolution, and The Greater Good is about…vaccines! Of course, based on what I knew of the story, saw of the VAXXED trailer (which deceptively edited together statements by William Thompson), and have discussed about the efforts of Andrew Wakefield, Del Bigtree, and Polly Tommey to use VAXXED as a tool in a publicity campaign to try to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) about vaccines using the “CDC whistleblowerconspiracy theory (about which a primer can be found here), I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was actually surprised (slightly) at the manipulative depths to which this film sinks.

On the plus side, its production values are better than those Eric Merola’s films (although I, with no experience, could probably make a film with better production values than Merola), but that just makes it somewhat more effective propaganda. In my review and discussion of the movie and its claims, I will discuss the claims made by Bigtree and Wakefield as well as the movie as a movie. Unfortunately, there is so much misinformation in this 91 minute documentary that I will only be able to hit the “high” points without going far, far beyond even a Gorski level of logorrhea in this post. Worse, there is a considerable amount of dishonest framing, in which actual facts and events are presented in a deceptive manner to tell a distorted narrative. Before that, though, let’s meet the key players.
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Forget stem cell tourism: Stem cell clinics in the US are plentiful

Snake Oil Salesman & Wagon
I had planned on writing about something else this week, but late last week another story caught my eye, because it served as a perfect follow-up to what I wrote about last week. To recap, I wrote about a man named Jim Gass, a former chief legal counsel for Sylvania, who had suffered a debilitating stroke in 2009 that left him without the use of his left arm, and weak left leg. He could still walk with a cane, but was understandably desperate to try anything to be able to function more normally in life. Mr. Gass was both driven enough, credulous enough, and wealthy enough to spend $300,000 pursuing stem cell tourism in China, Mexico, and Argentina over the course of four years. The result is that he now has a tumor growing in his spinal column, as reported in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) and The New York Times (NYT). Genetic analysis has demonstrated that the cells in this tumor mass did not come from Jim Gass, and the mass has left him paralyzed from the neck down, except for his right arm, incontinent, and with severe chronic back pain. Worse, although radiation temporarily stopped the tumor from growing, apparently it’s growing again, and no one seems to know how to stop it. Given that the traits that make stem cells so desirable as a regenerative treatment, their plasticity and immortality (ability to divide indefinitely), are shared with cancer, scientists doing legitimate stem cell research have always tried to take precautions to stop just this sort of thing from happening in clinical trials. Clearly, “stem cell tourist” clinics, which intentionally operate in countries where the regulatory environment is—shall we say?—less than rigorous are nowhere near as cautious, as they charge tens of thousands of dollars a pop for stem cell treatments that might or might not actually have real stem cells in them.

At the time I wrote that article, I emphasized primarily clinics outside of the US, where shady operators locate in order to be able to operate largely unhindered by local governments. You’d think that such a thing couldn’t possibly be going on in the US. You’d be wrong. Last week, Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell scientist who has previously contributed to Science-Based Medicine, teamed up with Leigh Turner to publish a paper in Cell Stem Cell estimating the number of stem cell clinics in the US. The number they came up with astonished me. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media

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What’s the harm? Stem cell tourism edition

What's the harm? Stroke victim Jim Gass went from requiring a cane and leg brace to walk to being confined to a wheelchair, thanks to dubious stem cell treatments. There's the harm.

What’s the harm? Stroke victim Jim Gass went from requiring a cane and leg brace to walk to being confined to a wheelchair, thanks to dubious stem cell treatments. There’s the harm.

It’s been over two weeks now since hockey legend Gordie Howe died at the age of 88. Detroit, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, is a serious hockey town, as hockey-crazy as any town in Canada (just look at the fancy new hockey arena named after crappy pizza being built downtown only a mile from where I work), and it worshiped Gordie Howe for as long as I can remember growing up here.

The reason I mentioned this is because in late 2014, Howe suffered a series of debilitating strokes that brought him close to death. He survived, but with major neurologic deficits. As a result of Gordie Howe’s fame, representatives of a company known as Stemedica who were also fans of Gordie Howe and whose company is developing stem cell treatments for a variety of illnesses, approached the family and persuaded them to take Gordie Howe to the Novastem Clinic in Tijuana, a clinic that to me appeared to exist mainly as a means for patients not eligible for Stemedica’s clinical trials in the US to receive Stemedica’s stem cells outside of a clinical trial, cash on the barrelhead, no questions asked. In a rather ethically dubious move that could only be viewed as paying for publicity (which it got in abundance), Stemedica administered its stem cells to Gordie Howe for free. If you’re not Gordie Howe, however, it’ll cost you about $32,000.

As is the case for most anecdotes like this, Gordie Howe did improve. That is not surprising, because, as Steve Novella, who is a neurologist and thus takes care of stroke patients as part of his practice, told me at the time, the natural history of stroke is neurologic recovery that eventually plateaus several months after the stroke. This occurs as the inflammation from the initial stroke abates and as much regeneration as the body can muster occurs. Also, as I noted before, Howe had a hemorrhagic stroke, which is more dangerous and likely to kill early but, if the victim survives, he is more likely to experience better functional recovery than in the case of the much more common ischemic stroke, in which a blood clot clogs a blood vessel, resulting in the death of brain tissue supplied by that vessel. In any case, as I described in a three part series of posts (part one, part two, part three), it’s impossible to know whether the stem cell infusion that Howe underwent had anything whatsoever with his partial recovery that allowed him to make a few public appearances in 2015 and 2016.

Unfortunately, the offer by Dr. Maynard Howe (CEO) and Dave McGuigan (VP) of Stemedica Cell Technologies to treat Gordie Howe at Novastem worked brilliantly. Gordie Howe quickly became the poster child for dubious stem cell therapies. Local and national news aired credulous, feel-good human interest stories about his seemingly miraculous recovery, while Keith Olbermann practically served as a pitch man for Stemedica and didn’t take kindly at all to any criticism of his—shall we say?—enthusiastic coverage. The predominant angle taken in stories about Gordie Howe was he had undergone Stemedica’s stem cell therapy and, as result, enjoyed a “miraculous recovery” from his stroke. The vast majority of news coverage also tended to present the magic of stem cell therapies credulously, as all benefit and no risk, as a qualitative analysis published last year clearly showed, finding that the “efficacy of stem cell treatments is often assumed in news coverage and readers’ comments” and that media coverage “that presents uncritical perspectives on unproven stem cell therapies may create patient expectations, may have an affect [sic] on policy discussions, and help to feed the marketing of unproven therapies.”

No kidding.

Why, you might ask, am I reminding you of Gordie Howe’s use of stem cells to treat his strokes? Simple, it became part of a marketing blitz, credulously swallowed whole by Keith Olbermann and many reporters, for unproven stem cell therapies, which have been portrayed as very promising (which is likely true, although that promise hasn’t yet been proven or realized) and harmless, which is definitely not true, as evidenced by the story of Jim Gass, as published last week in The New England Journal of Medicine, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and a variety of other media. Before I discuss Mr. Gass in more detail, however, let’s recap a bit about stem cells. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Ethics, Health Fraud, Science and the Media

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False balance about Stanislaw Burzynski and his disproven cancer therapy, courtesy of STAT News

Stanislaw Burzynski: 40 years of failure to prove that his antineoplastons are effective against cancer.

Stanislaw Burzynski: 40 years of failure to prove that his antineoplastons are effective against cancer.

One common theme that has been revisited time and time again on this blog since its very founding is the problem of how science and medicine are reported. For example, back when I first started blogging, years before I joined Science-Based Medicine in 2008, one thing that used to drive me absolutely nuts was the tendency of the press to include in any story about vaccines an antivaccine activist to “tell the other side” or to “balance” the story. So in a story on vaccines, on one side you would have Paul Offit, a bona fide, legitimate vaccine expert, and on the other side you would have J.B. Handley, Jenny McCarthy, Andrew Wakefield, or a lesser light of the antivaccine movement. This same trope included stories about autistic children in which a reporter does a human interest story about a family struggling with raising an autistic child in which he lets the parents spout antivaccine misinformation, providing only a brief token quote by a scientist for “balance.” Thus, whether they intended it or not, the reporter would let the emotional impact of the story serve as persuasion to believe the parents’ antivaccine views. So, even though there was not (and hasn’t been at least since 2001 or probably much earlier) anything resembling legitimate scientific controversy over the question of whether vaccines cause or contribute to autism, the press aided the antivaccine movement in keeping alive the appearance of a controversy. It was, as I like to call these things, a manufactroversy, a controversy manufactured by the antivaccine movement to give the appearance of an actual scientific controversy. It’s a time-dishonored journalistic failing that is still a major problem with reporting on, for example, anthropogenic global climate change and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Sometimes, however, the press is teachable. A few years ago, after already having blogged about vaccines and autism for several years, I started noticing fewer stories with false “balance” and more stories that simply treated the antivaccine movement like the fringe movement it was, either not bothering to mention it or, if it had to mention it, basically letting scientists explain why it’s bad science and dangerous to public health. These days, false balance and stories that are antivaccine propaganda are relatively rare, aside from stories by fringe journalists like Sharyl Attkisson and Ben Swann. That’s a good thing. Unfortunately, I wish I could say that I really believe it was due to the efforts of skeptics and science advocates more than it was due to the discrediting of a major antivaccine figure, Andrew Wakefield, but even six years after Wakefield lost his medical license and saw his infamous 1998 Lancet paper linking the MMR vaccine to bowel disease in autistic children (the one that ignited the MMR scare in the UK) retracted, I’m not entirely sure. Be that as it may, there still remain blind spots in the press. (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Science and the Media

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