Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.
Richard P. Feynman
What would we do without it? It’s become so necessary, so pervasive, so utterly all-enveloping that it’s hard to imagine a world without it. Given how much it pervades everything these days, it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t that long ago that the Internet was primarily the domain of universities and large research groups. Indeed, the Internet hasn’t really been widely and easily available to the average citizen for very long at all. Go back 20 years, and most people didn’t have it. For example, Netscape Navigator, the popular browser that made the Internet accessible, wasn’t released until 1994. Amazon.com, an online store I can’t imagine living without now, didn’t sell its first book until 1995, and I didn’t discover it until 1996 or 1997. Google, that ubiquitous search engine that everyone uses, wasn’t incorporated until 1998. Now, less than 14 years after Google was incorporated most people have the Internet in their pockets with them in the form of mobile devices that have computing power undreamed-of in the 1990s and can access the Internet at speeds that increasingly blur the line between landline access and mobile computing. It’s been an amazingly fast social and technological revolution, and we don’t yet know where it will take us, but we do know that it’s not going away. If anything, the Internet will continue to become more and more pervasive.
A couple of months ago, a reader sent me an article that really disturbed me. In fact, I had originally been planning to write about it not long after I received it. It is, as you might imagine given my specialty and what disturbs me the most wehen I encounter quackery, a story of a cancer patient. Worse, it’s the story of a cancer patient in my neck of the woods. True, it’s not in the same country, but my cancer center is only around two or three miles from the Detroit River and the Canadian border; so it’s plenty close enough. Too close, in fact. Reading the story, in fact, I realized that it features a form of cancer quackery that, as far as my searches have been able to tell me, we haven’t covered before here at SBM, which alone makes it worth taking on, even though the story is two months old. The “cure” is called Cantron, and it is deeply rooted right here in my metropolitan area. Not only that, its siren song and false promises are attracting patients from across the boarder in Canada. Bernie Mulligan is one such patient:
One of the major themes of this blog has been to combat what I, borrowing a term coined (as far as I can tell) by Dr. R. W. Donnell, like to refer to as “quackademic medicine.” Quackademic medicine is a lovely term designed to summarize everything that is wrong with the increasing embrace of so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or, as it’s increasingly called now, “integrative medicine” (IM) into academic medical centers. CAM/IM now a required part of the curriculum in many medical schools, and increasingly medical schools and academic medical centers seem to be setting up IM centers and divisions and departments. Fueled by government sources, such as the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and private sources, such as the Bravewell Collaborative (which has been covered extensively recently not just by me but by Kimball Atwood, Steve Novella, and Mark Crislip), academic medical centers are increasingly “normalizing” what was once rightly considered quackery, hence the term “quackademic medicine.” The result over the last 20 years has been dramatic, so much so that even bastions of what were once completely hard-core in their insistence on basing medicine in science can embrace naturopathy, Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophic medicine, reiki and other forms of “energy healing,” traditional Chinese medicine, and even homeopathy, all apparently in a quest to keep the customer satisfied.
Of course, in a way, academia is rather late to the party. CAM has been showing up in clinics, shops, and malls for quite a while now. For example, when I recently traveled to Scottsdale to attend the annual meeting of the American Society of Breast Surgeons, I happened to stop in a mall looking for a quick meal at a food court and saw this:
Few awards in anything have the cachet and respect the Nobel Prizes in various disciplines possess. In my specialty, medicine, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is quite properly viewed as the height of achievement. In terms of prestige, particularly in the world of science, the Nobel Prize is without peer. To win the Nobel Prize in Medicine or another scientific field, a scientist must have made a discovery considered fundamentally important to the point that it changes the way we think about one aspect of science or medicine. Winning the Nobel Prize in a scientific field instantly elevates a scientist from whatever he or she was before to the upper echelons of world science.
So how, one might ask, is it that seemingly so frequently Nobel Laureates embrace crankery or pseudoscience in their later years? They call it the Nobel Disease, and, indeed, it’s a term listed in the Skeptics’ Dictionary (where the term is attributed to me based on this post about Linus Pauling from four years ago, but I can’t claim credit for coining the term; it existed before I wrote that post) and Rational Wiki, complete with examples. What inspired me to take on this topic, dusting off some old knowledge and writings, is that we apparently have a new victim of the Nobel Disease. Well, perhaps “new” is not the right word, but he is the most recent example. I’m referring to Luc Montagnier, who with Françoise Barré-Sinoussi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for the discovery of HIV in 2008.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take Montagnier very long to devolve into crankery. Until 2009, to be precise. Since then, Montagnier has embraced concepts like DNA teleportation and ideas very much like homeopathy. And then, just last month, his journey to the dark side was complete. Yes, Luc Montagnier presented at the yearly quackfest I discussed last week, the one in which there was much enthusiasm among the attendees for a treatment that involves administering bleach enemas to autistic children. He presented at Autism One, a coup that caused much rejoicing in the antivaccine movement.
While scanning through recent science press releases I came across an interesting study looking at the use of a pharmaceutical grade antioxidant, N-Acetylcysteine (NAC), in the treatment of certain symptoms of autism. This is a small pilot study, but it did have a double-blind placebo controlled design. The press release reports:
During the 12-week trial, NAC treatment decreased irritability scores from 13.1 to 7.2 on the Aberrant Behavior Checklist, a widely used clinical scale for assessing irritability. The change is not as large as that seen in children taking antipsychotics. “But this is still a potentially valuable tool to have before jumping on these big guns,” Hardan said.
“This was a pilot study,” Hardan said. “Final conclusions cannot be made before we do a larger trial.”
I also noticed that two of the authors list significant conflicts of interest – patents on the use of NAC, and one has equity in the company that makes it. It occurred to me that a larger question than the efficacy of NAC for these autism symptoms is this – if this is a pilot study only and we should not base any firm conclusions on the results, then why the press release?
Acupuncture has been a frequent topic on this blog because, of all the “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) modalities out there, it’s arguably the one that most people accept as potentially having some validity. The rationale behind acupuncture is, as we have explained many times before, little different than the rationale behind any “energy healing” method (like reiki, for example) in that it claims to redirect the flow of “life energy” (the ever-invoked qi). The only difference is that acupuncturists claim to bring this therapeutic qi rearrangement about by sticking thin needles into the pathways in the body through which this qi is fantasized to flow. These pathways, called meridians, are just as much a fantasy as qi itself or the “universal source” that reiki masters claim to be able to channel through themselves and into believers. Contributing to the popularity of acupuncture is its mythology as having been routinely practiced for over two thousand years, a myth that was the creation of Chairman Mao, who elevated what was a marginal practice at the time to a modality that the state supported and promoted (1,2,3,4).
In addition, because acupuncture involves sticking actual metal objects into the skin rather than simply laying on hands or making magical gestures over the patient, it retains some credibility, even among doctors. It doesn’t matter that, reviewing the totality of the research, one finds that it doesn’t matter where you stick the needles or even if you stick the needles in the skin. The results are the same and indistinguishable from placebo. The inescapable conclusion is that acupuncture is placebo medicine with needles. Personally, I’d prefer my placebo medicine without needles, but that’s just me.
Yet, the studies keep rolling in, trying desperately to demonstrate that acupuncture works or assuming that acupuncture works . Two more popped up within the last couple of weeks, and one of them, if you read the press releases, sounds really convincing. As is frequently the case, for this latter study, there is less to it than meets the eye. I’ll start, however, with a study that is a followup to a study I blogged about a couple of years ago that I characterized as another overhyped acupuncture study misinterpreted. This one, thankfully, is not nearly as hyped as the study from two years ago—or as the second study I will discussed, but it is very instructive how the original misinterpreted story is leading to a classic CAM “bait and switch” applied to acupuncture.
Fear sells, and the media loves it. If it’s scary, no matter how tenuous the link or inconclusive the study, you are going to see it on the news. How many times over the years have you heard that your cell phone might give you brain cancer, even though it never turns out to be true? Once such a claim is made, however, it becomes lodged into the public’s psyche and is accepted as true, even after refutations and retractions are published (see Wakefield, Andrew).
And so it is with x-rays. The latest scare du jour, a recent study out of Yale that claims to show a correlation between dental x-rays and intracranial meningioma — the most common brain tumor and usually benign — has been enjoying widespread attention in newspapers and on the evening news. We don’t know if it will be on Dr. Oz, because we can’t bring ourselves to watch that show, but we feel the chances are good. Other alt-medders will no doubt have collective woogasms over the story and will further incite fear and mistrust into the doctor-patient relationship. In fact, the Mercola website wasted no time in weighing in:
While this study does not necessarily establish causation between dental X-rays and tumors, previous research has also implicated dental X-rays in the development of thyroid cancer, and research clearly shows this type of radiation is not harmless…
Typical alarmist fear-mongering. When has any health care professional claimed that radiation is harmless? This is not cutting edge research; Wilhelm Röntgen, the discoverer of x-rays in 1895 and winner of the Nobel Prize in 1901 for his research in the field, advocated the use of lead aprons for protection from the ionizing radiation way back when. Further, trying to lump one study linking dental x-rays to meningioma to another study linking them to thyroid cancer is taking quite the kitchen sink approach. But if there are multiple alleged possible potential theoretical adverse effects from our dental death rays, it must be true, right?
Well, not so fast. We’re dentists, and unlike many knee-jerkers, we’ve actually read the study and would like to offer a little bit of insight into this before everyone panics. In fact, with respect to Letterman, we’d like to offer our Top Three Reasons Not To Panic:
Consumer Reports (CR) and its Health Newsletter provide sound advice about nutrition and medicine, with one exception: their recommendations concerning alternative therapies, especially dietary supplements. With regard to dietary supplements, part of the problem is the failure of CR to make a distinction between authentic dietary supplements, such as multivitamins and minerals, and non-vitamin, non-mineral medicinal products. For example, the September 2010 issue of CR contains a table listing “Eleven supplements to consider”. The list includes calcium and vitamin D supplements, and St. John’s wort and Pygeum herbals.
The nomenclatural confusion was created by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), which was termed “The Snake Oil Protection Act” by the New York Times. DSHEA, which was passed after a massive lobbying campaign by industry, arbitrarily designated herbals and other traditional medicinal products as dietary supplements. Herbals are used worldwide as medicines and in Europe some are available by prescription only.
The purpose of the Act was to prevent the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from effectively regulating those products, and it succeeded brilliantly. Sales of dietary supplements rose from $4 billion annually in 1994 to $28 billion in 2007, and reports of severe adverse events caused by those products rose in parallel (1). Another consequence of DSHEA is that designating herbals as dietary supplements misleads consumers about their medicinal nature and conceals their potential for causing severe adverse effects.
The selling points for herbals are that as “natural” products they are safer and gentler than the powerful “foreign” chemicals in purified medications, and they possess unique qualities not found in conventional medications. Dr. Varro Tyler, an expert in the medicinal use of plants, termed those unfounded claims “paraherbalism”, and described herbals as “crude drugs of vegetable origin” (2). In reality, the active ingredients of plants are chemicals that are similar or identical to conventional medications, and many of the latter were first identified in plant extracts. It is no more “natural” to swallow dozens of chemicals in a plant extract than to ingest a single purified chemical – a drug is a drug. Before discussing CR’s advice about supplements, it is necessary to consider briefly basic differences between herbals and conventional medications.
The U.S. is widely known to have the highest health care expenditures per capita in the world, and not just by a little, but by a lot. I’m not going to go into the reasons for this so much, other than to point out that how to rein in these costs has long been a flashpoint for debate. Indeed, most of the resistance to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), otherwise known in popular parlance as “Obamacare,” has been fueled by two things: (1) resistance to the mandate that everyone has to buy health insurance, and (2) the parts of the law designed to control the rise in health care costs. This later aspect of the PPACA has inspired cries of “Rationing!” and “Death panels!” Whenever science-based recommendations are made that suggest ways to decrease costs by reevaluating screening tests or decreasing various tests and interventions in situations where their use is not supported by scientific and clinical evidence, whether by the government or professional societies, you can count on it not being long before these cries go up, often from doctors themselves.
My perspective on this issue is that we already “ration” care. It’s just that government-controlled single payer plans and hybrid private-public universal health care plans use different criteria to ration care than our current system does. In the case of government-run health care systems, what will and will not be reimbursed is generally chosen based on evidence, politics, and cost, while in a system like the U.S. system what will and will not be reimbursed tends to be decided by insurance companies based on evidence leavened heavily with business considerations that involve appealing to the largest number of employers (who, let’s face it, are the primary customers of health insurance companies, not individuals insured by their health insurance plans). So what the debate is really about is, when boiled down to its essence, how to ration care and by how much, not whether care will be rationed. Ideally, how funding allocations are decided would be based on the best scientific evidence in a transparent fashion.
The study I’m about to discuss is anything but the best scientific evidence.
Last week I wrote about a regrettable piece on homeopathy that was published in Scientific American Brasil. There have been gratifying developments. Within hours, the editor in chief of Scientific American, Mariette DiChristina, appeared in the Comments. She said that Scientific American does not condone the pseudoscience of homeopathy, that the piece clearly should not have been published, that it would never have been published if Scientific American had been consulted beforehand, and that she had complained to the responsible parties. I was very grateful for her response to my article, for her intervention, and for her willingness to speak out in support of good science.
Lo and behold, two days later Ms. DiChristina reported that the editor of Scientific American Brasil had written a letter of apology and had published it on the website. Here is a full translation: