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James Reston’s Tooth of Gold

One of the fathers of critical thinking and skeptical inquiry, the French philosopher Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657–1757) recounts in 1687 in his Histoire des oracles–a debunking book on popular beliefs, myths and superstitions that caused tremendous stir in theological and philosophical circles of his time–a colorful story that could very well illustrate the flurry of interest and research in acupuncture that followed a 1971 anecdotal account of its use in China, and the plethora of verbiage and publications that ensued. If the story of the Tooth of Gold is comical, colorful and amusing, its applicability to acupuncture is not.

In 1593, the rumor ran that a seven year old in Silesia grew a tooth of gold in place of one of the cheek tooth he lost. Horatius, professor of medicine at the University of Helmstad, wrote a history of this tooth in 1595 and alleged that it was partially natural, partially miraculous, and that it was sent by God to this child to console the Christians that were oppressed by the Turks. Just imagine what consolation and what concern this tooth might bring to the Christians or to the Turks. For this tooth not to lack historians, Rullandus rewrote its history in the same year. Two years later, Ingolsteterus, another learned man, wrote against the views of Rullandus on the tooth of gold; to which Rullandus immediately wrote a fine and wise reply. Another great man named Libavius gathered all that had been written on this tooth and added his own views. Nothing lacked to these many fine books, other than the tooth were truly of gold. When the goldsmith examined it, he found that it was made of a leaf of gold skillfully applied to the tooth; but they began by writing books and then they consulted the goldsmith.1

Translated from French by the author

Besides the glut of popular publications on Chinese acupuncture and medicine by wishful authors without any training in biomedical sciences and healthcare, the NIH, the NCCAM, and some of our most prodigious medical universities also have official and academic publications on the subject that too well resemble the fine and wise publications of Horatius and his contemporaries. They also began by writing books and articles on the theories that could explain the purported indications of acupuncture, and then they assessed the veracity these indications in clinical trials and according to the principles of evidence-based medicine.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, History, Science and the Media

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Science versus pseudoscience

I know this one’s been floating around the blogosphere for a while, but it finally made its way to me at a time when I needed something lighthearted and amusing (warning: some profanity and at least one use of the “F” word):

Best quotes:

“Well, science doesn’t know everything.” Well, science knows it doesn’t know anything, otherwise it would stop … But just because science doesn’t know everything doesn’t mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairytale most appeals to you.”

…”nutritionist” isn’t a protected term. Anyone can call themselves a nutritionist. “Dietitician” is the legally protected term. “Dietician” is like dentist, and “nutritionist” is like tootheologist.”

“I’m sorry if you’re into homeopathy. It’s water. How often does it need to be said? It’s just water. You’re healing yourself. Why don’t you give yourself the credit?

I just wish more comics did routines like this. Sometimes humor can get the message through where analysis can’t.

Posted in: Health Fraud, Homeopathy, Humor, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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WooMD

Consider this list:

  • Sex Matters: tuning in to what turns you on.
  • Ticker tune-up tips for guys.
  • Manatomy explained.
  • Burning down under? It’s time to fess up.
  • Pumped Up: ED meds aren’t working? An implant could be the solution.
  • When your hoo-ha’s burning, don’t use this common cure!
  • Go Om: Meditation can be the healthy answer for type A’s.
  • Sexy Seniors: The age-old pleasures and challenges of getting it on.
  • Pain: Are your knees at ease?
  • Retail Therapy: Four proven ways to battle the call of the mall.
  • Detox Diets: The Scary New Skinny

Readers acquainted with popular culture know that such inane, annoying phrases are typical of American women’s magazines. Thus it may be surprising to learn that only three entries were quoted from sources clearly recognizable as such: numbers 3 and 6 from Cosmopolitan, and number 11 from Glamour. The rest were found in WebMD: the Magazine:

The magazine appears to have been introduced in 2005. According to its masthead page,

WebMD’s mission is to provide objective, trustworthy, and timely health information. Our website and magazine provide credible content, tools, and in-depth reference material about health subjects that matter to you. We are committed to providing information on a wide variety of health topics, all of which are reviewed by our board-certified physicians.

Every physician I know receives a “COMPLIMENTARY WAITING ROOM COPY” each month; the 3 or 4 waiting rooms that I’ve perused have been amply stocked. I suspect that most office managers are happy to be provided with free reading material that seems appropriate for patients, and that most physicians haven’t given the magazine more than a passing glance. The problem is that the magazine, like the consumer website of the same name, offers a mixture of accurate-if-mundane information, misleading health claims, exaggerated nutritional advice, unwarranted fear-mongering, and pseudoscientific nonsense. I’ll limit examples and comments to the final four categories. (more…)

Posted in: Science and the Media

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Science-Based Medicine 101: Reproducibility

So far I have explained why most research (if not carefully designed) will lead to a false positive result. This inherent bias is responsible for many of the illusionary treatment benefits that we hear about so commonly through the media (whether they’re reporting about CAM or Western medicine), because it is their job to relay information in an entertaining way more so than an accurate manner (i.e. good science makes bad television).Then I explained a three step process for determining the trustworthiness of health news and research. We can remember these steps with a simple mnemonic: C-P-R.

The C stands for credibility– in other words, “consider the source” – is the research published in a top tier medical journal with a scientifically rigorous review process?

The P stands for plausibility– is the proposed finding consistent with known principles of physics, chemistry, and physiology or would accepting the result require us to suspend belief in everything we’ve learned about science to date?

And finally we arrive at R – reproducibility. If the research study were repeated, would similar results be obtained? (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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New SBM Resource – and a Word on Vaccines

We frequently receive requests from readers, our colleagues in medicine or fellow science bloggers for the best reference site that has all the information they need on a specific topic. There are many excellent resources on the net, but nothing I know of that quite puts it all together in that way – one-stop shopping for up-to-date information on the topics we are most concerned with.

So we decided to create just such a resource.

You will now see at the top of this page a new link for SBM Topic-Based Reference which leads to our new section by that name. There you will see the list of topics we are currently working on, and once they are complete more will be added. As of today only one topic is reasonably complete, Vaccines and Autism.

The format (which is subject to change as we build and use the resource) is as follows: We start with a brief topic overview. This is not meant to be a thorough discussion of the topic, but a quick summary to get people started. This is followed by an index of all SBM posts on that topic and then links to outside resources that we recommend.

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Posted in: Announcements, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Needles in the skin cause changes in the brain, but acupuncture still doesn’t work

ResearchBlogging.orgI don’t recall if I’ve mentioned it on SBM before, but I went to the University of Michigan. In fact, I didn’t go there just for undergraduate studies or medical school, but rather for both, graduating with a B.S. in Chemistry with Honors in 1984 and from medical school in 1988. In my eight years in Ann Arbor, I came to love the place, and I still have an affinity for it, even though it’s been over 20 years since I last walked about the campus as a student, although I have been back from time to time for various functions, most recently to see Brian Deer speak last winter. True, I’m not fanatical about it, as some of my contemporaries and friends who attened U. of M. with me back in the 1980s (and, sadly, the string of losses to Ohio State and the definitively mediocre last season Michigan had last year make it very hard to be a Michigan football fan these days). However, I do have considerable affection for the place. It molded me, trained me in science, taught me medicine, and provided me the basis for everything I do professionally today.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Clinical Trials, Medical Academia, Science and the Media

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Science-Based Medicine 101: How To Establish A Source’s Credibility

I thought I’d do a little SBM 101 series for our lay readers. Forgive me if this information is too basic… at least it’s a place to start for those who are budding scientists and critical thinkers. 🙂

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Which news source do you trust more: The New York Times or The National Enquirer? Which news reporter would you trust more: Charlie Gibson or Jerry Springer? As it turns out, medical journals and science researchers run the gamut from highly credible and respected to dishonest and untrustworthy. So as we continue down this road of learning how to evaluate health news, let’s now turn our attention to pillar number one of trustworthy science: credibility.

In medical research, I like to think of credibility in three categories:

1. The credibility of the researcher: does the researcher have a track record of excellence in research methodology? Is he or she well-trained and/or have access to mentors who can shepherd along the research project and avoid the pitfalls of false positive “artifacts?” Has the researcher published previously in highly respected, peer reviewed journals?

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Posted in: Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Beware the Spinal Trap

Last year Simon Singh wrote a piece for the Guardian that was critical of the modern practice of chiropractic. The core of his complaint was that chiropractors provide services and make claims that are not adequately backed by evidence – they are not evidence-based practitioners. In response to his criticism the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) sued Simon personally for libel. They refused offers to publish a rebuttal to his criticism, or to provide the evidence Simon said was lacking. After they were further criticized for this, the BCA eventually produced an anemic list of studies purported to support the questionable treatments, but really just demonstrating the truth of Simon’s criticism (as I discuss at length here).

In England suing for libel is an effective strategy for silencing critics. The burden of proof is on the one accused (guilty until proven innnocent) and the costs are ruinous. Simon has persisted, however, at great personal expense.

This is an issue of vital importance to science-based medicine. A very necessary feature of science is public debate and criticism – absolute transparency.This is also not an isolated incident. Some in the alternative medicine community are attempting to assert that criticism is unprofessional, and they have used accusations of both unprofessionalism and libel as a method of silencing criticism of their claims and practices. This has happened to David Colquhoun and Ben Goldacre, and others less prominent but who have communicated to me directly attempts at silencing their criticism.

This behavior is intolerable and is itself unprofessional, an assault on academic freedom and free speech, and anathema to science as science is dependent upon open and vigorous critical debate.

What those who will attempt to silence their critics through this type of bullying must understand is that such attempts will only result in the magnification of the criticism by several orders of magnitude. That is why we are reproducing Simon Singh’s original article (with a couple of minor alterations) on this site and many others. Enjoy.

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Posted in: Chiropractic, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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‘Acupuncture Anesthesia’ Redux: another Skeptic and an Unfortunate Misportrayal at the NCCAM

A neglected skeptic

Near the end of my series* on ‘Acupuncture Anesthesia’, I wrote this:

Most Westerners—Michael DeBakey and John Bonica being exceptions—who observed ‘acupuncture anesthesia’ in China during the Cultural Revolution seem to have failed to recognize what was going on right under their noses.

I should have added—and I now have—Arthur Taub’s name to that tiny, exceptional group. Taub, a neurologist and neurophysiologist at Yale, was a member of a delegation of Americans sent to China to observe ‘acupuncture anesthesia’ in May of 1974, about a year after Dr. Bonica‘s visit. The delegation included several prominent anesthesiologists. Their report,  Acupuncture Anesthesia in the People’s Republic of China: A Trip Report of the American Acupuncture Anesthesia Study Group, was published in 1976 and is available in its entirety here. Excerpts follow (emphasis added):

Pain is a subjective experience. Judging whether an individual is in a state of pain depends on observations of the subject’s behavior, including verbal reports to the observer…When there is no evidence of pain, the observer can adopt one of three positions: (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Why False Positive Results Are So Common In Medicine

Have you ever been surprised and confused by what seem to be conflicting results from scientific research? Have you ever secretly wondered if the medical profession is comprised of neurotic individuals who change their mind more frequently than you change your clothes? Well, I can understand why you’d feel that way because the public is constantly barraged with mixed health messages. But why is this happening?

The answer is complex, and I’d like to take a closer look at a few of the reasons in a series of blog posts. First, the human body is so incredibly complicated that we are constantly learning new things about it – how medicines, foods, and the environment impact it from the chemical to cellular to organ system level. There will always be new information, some of which may contradict previous thinking, and some that furthers it or ads a new facet to what we have already learned. Because human behavior is also so intricate, it’s far more difficult to prove a clear cause and effect relationship with certain treatments and interventions, due to the power of the human mind to perceive benefit when there is none (placebo effect).

Second, the media, by its very nature, seeks to present data with less ambiguity than is warranted. R. Barker Bausell, PhD, explains this tendency:

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Posted in: Science and the Media

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