Archive for Science and the Media

Is cancer due mostly to “bad luck”?

One of the more difficult conversations to have with a patient as a cancer doctor occurs when a patient, recently informed of her diagnosis of, for example, breast cancer, asks me, “Why did I get this? What caused it?” What almost inevitably follows is an uncomfortable conversation in which explanations of the multiple known causes of breast cancer do not satisfy the patient. The reason, of course, is because when a patient asks, “What caused it?” she doesn’t mean what causes breast cancer in general or in statistical terms. Rather, she means, what caused my breast cancer? It’s a question that can only occasionally be answered. For instance, if it’s lung cancer and the patient is a smoker, then it was almost certainly smoking that caused the cancer, because lung cancer is a relatively rare cancer in the absence of smoking. In the case of breast cancer, contrary to the prevailing belief that leads women with breast cancer to be puzzled about how they could get it when there’s “no cancer” in their families, only around 5-10% of cases have a familial or genetic component. That means that around 90% of breast cancers are what we call “sporadic,” which means that we can’t identify a specific cause. Or, as I like to say, “We just don’t know.” Worse, in the case of breast cancer, the environmental factors we know about appear to contribute modestly at best to the risk of cancer. (More on this later.)

Understandably, patients hate hearing “We just don’t know,” some vague handwaving about genes, and that there is nothing that we know of that they did that caused their cancer. People—including oncologists—really don’t like the concept of “sporadic” cancer, mainly because humans crave explanation. The default assumption is that everything must happen for a reason and there must be a cause for every disease or cancer. Perhaps the most ridiculously emphatic statement of this that I’ve encountered thus far comes from (who else?) über-quack Mike Adams when he heaped contempt on the idea of sporadic disease as “spontaneous disease.” He did this in the context of a story describing how, after Dr. Mehmet Oz had followed recommended care and undergone screening colonoscopy to look for polyps, he was shocked that he actually had some. This led Adams, in his usual inimitable fashion, to construct a straw man so massive that it could be seen from space when he set it on fire, declaring that “colon polyps, in other words, appear without any cause!” and that “mainstream medicine…believes in the theory of ‘spontaneous disease’ that ‘strikes’ people at random.”

Not exactly.

On the other hand, there is a lot of randomness in disease, not just cancer, as hard as it is for Mike Adams, or anyone to accept. Just because there is a varying amount of randomness in who gets a disease does not mean that mainstream medicine claims there is no cause to these diseases. Rather, for diseases like cancer, it’s a stochastic process, meaning that chance can play a role—sometimes a big role—in determining who gets sick. Indeed, just last week there was more evidence supporting this idea published in Science. Unfortunately, much of the mainstream press coverage presented the message of the paper a bit too simplistically. Even more unfortunately, it was the authors who encouraged this, as did the Johns Hopkins University press release about the study, which was entitled “Bad Luck of Random Mutations Plays Predominant Role in Cancer, Study Shows“. Yes, I groaned when I read this title.

Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Epidemiology, Science and the Media

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Stem cells versus Gordie Howe’s stroke, part 2


Another Christmas has come and gone, surprisingly fast, as always. I had thought that it might make a good “last of 2014″ post—well, last of 2014 for me, anyway; Harriet and Steve, at least, will be posting before 2014 ends—to do an end of year list of the best and worst of the year. Unfortunately, there remains a pressing issue that doesn’t permit that, some unfinished business, if you will. I’m referring to a story I commented on last week, specifically the credulously-reported story of how 86-year-old hockey legend Gordie Howe is doing a lot better after having undergone an experimental stem cell therapy for his recent stroke. As you might recall at the time, I saw a lot of holes in the story. It turns out that over the last week there have been developments that allow me to fill in some of those holes. Unfortunately, other holes still remain.

First, a brief recap is in order (You can click here for a more detailed timeline). Gordie Howe suffered a massive stroke on October 26, leaving him hemiplegic and with serious speech impairment. Since then, judging from various media reports, he has been slowly improving, although not without significant setbacks. We also know that Howe suffers from significant dementia. Out of the blue, a press release issued on December 19 by the Howe family announced that on December 8 and 9, Gordie Howe “underwent a two-day, non-surgical treatment at Novastem’s medical facility. The treatment included neural stem cells injected into the spinal canal on Day 1 and mesenchymal stem cells by intravenous infusion on Day 2.” His response was described as “truly miraculous,” although, as I pointed out in my post, it’s not clear exactly what “miraculous” meant, given conflicting contemporaneous news accounts before the Howe family press release, particularly his hospitalization from December 1 to 3 for a suspected stroke that turned out to be dehydration.

I noted a number of problems with the story, the first of which is that Howe was clearly not eligible for the clinical trial offered by Stemedica, a company in San Diego that manufactured the stem cells used. Another glaring issue was my inability to locate any description of an actual clinical trial for stroke offered by Novastem. I could find no such trial listed in, and you, our intrepid readers, searched the registry maintained by the Mexican Federal Commission for the Protection Against Sanitary Risk (COFEPRIS) and were not able to find any registered clinical trials for stroke being carried out by Clínica Santa Clarita, the clinic Novastem operates. What you, our intrepid readers, did find were trials of stem cells for:

I did the search again over the weekend, and there were no further trials that I could find.

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

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TV Doctors Give Unreliable Recommendations

DrOzMiracleIt’s always preferable to have objective empirical evidence to inform an opinion, rather than just subjective impressions. Confirmation bias will make it seem as if the facts support your opinion, even when they don’t. Of course, when objective evidence (such as published studies) does seem to support your position, you still have to keep your critical shields up. Confirmation bias can still kick in, resulting in cherry-picking favorable evidence, finding fault with studies whose conclusions you don’t like, and too-easily accepting those that confirm your position.

I therefore had to be careful in evaluating the following study from the BMJ, because it nicely confirms what I and many others here at SBM have been saying for years – recommendations made by TV doctors, particularly Dr. Oz, are unreliable and insufficiently based on evidence.

This was a prospective study that:

…randomly selected 40 episodes of each of The Dr Oz Show and The Doctors from early 2013 and identified and evaluated all recommendations made on each program.


Posted in: Science and the Media

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Stem cells versus Gordie Howe’s stroke


Note: There is now a major update to this story published here, which explains a lot of the questions remaining in this blog post.

Seven years ago I returned to Michigan, where I was born and spent the first quarter century of my life, after an absence of more than 20 years. In the interim, I had done my surgical residency and earned my PhD in Cleveland, a surgical oncology fellowship in Chicago, and worked in New Jersey at my first academic job for eight and a half years. Then I was lured back with a job in Detroit. One of the odd things about this return after such a long absence was the culture shock, how much I had forgotten about the Detroit area. One of those things that I had forgotten is just how crazy about hockey Michigan, in particular Detroit (meaning the Detroit metropolitan area), is. Detroiters love their Red Wings—love them. Hockey is ingrained in the suburban culture from a very young age, so much so that many Canadians would feel right at home here. Memories of trying and failing to be halfway decent at street hockey and of not being anywhere good enough a skater even to try real hockey as a teen came flooding back to me. (It didn’t help that back then I was approaching six feet tall and weighed only 135 lbs.; “beanpole” didn’t even begin to describe me back then.) In fact, the “cultural center” of the town where I live consists of—I kid you not—a hockey rink and some classrooms that are used for various community functions. No, really, it’s named the city’s Cultural Center.

So it should be no surprise, given how much Detroiters love hockey in general and their Red Wings in particular that it was big news here in late October when Red Wing legend Gordie Howe at age 86 suffered a debilitating stroke that paralyzed the right side of his body, a condition known as hemiplegia. Understandably, there was an outpouring of good wishes for recovery, coupled with retrospectives of Howe’s stellar hockey career. Indeed, I remember that Howe’s condition sounded bad enough from the tenor of the news reports at the time that it seemed likely that he would not survive. But survive he did, and is apparently recovering slowly, with occasional setbacks, such as a recent hospitalization in early December for a suspected “mini-stroke” that turned out to be dehydration and several much smaller strokes before that. The most recent press report I saw before the announcements I’m going to discuss described Howe as on the upswing again.

Then, on Friday, I saw headlines all over the place that were basically similar to this Detroit Free Press headline, “Gordie Howe underwent stem cell clinical trial in Mexico.” The story consisted largely of a press release from Howe’s family that read:

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

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Communicating Health Science News

From the Wikimedia Commons.

Pictured: Test subjects probably not worth a press release.

A recent study addresses the problem of sensationalism in the communication of science news, an issue we deal with on a regular basis. The study was titled “The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study“. The results show two interesting things – that university press releases frequently overhype the results of studies, and that this has a dramatic effect on overall reporting about the research.

The authors reviewed “Press releases (n=462) on biomedical and health related science issued by 20 leading UK universities in 2011, alongside their associated peer reviewed research papers and news stories (n=668).” They found that 40% of the press releases contained exaggerated health advice, 33% overemphasized the causal connection, and 36% exaggerated the ability to extrapolate animal and cell data to humans.”


When press releases contained such exaggeration, 58%, 81%, and 86% of news stories, respectively, contained similar exaggeration, compared with exaggeration rates of 17%, 18%, and 10% in news when the press releases were not exaggerated.

This study points a finger directly at academic press offices as a significant source of bad science news reporting. This does not let other links in the news chain off the hook, however. (more…)

Posted in: Medical Academia, Science and the Media

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Vani Hari, a.k.a. “The Food Babe,” finally responds to critics


It’s no secret that we here at Science-Based Medicine (and many scientists and skeptics with a knowledge of basic chemistry and biology) have been very critical of Vani Hari, better known to her fans as The Food Babe. The reasons for our criticisms of her are legion. Basically, she is a seemingly-never-ending font of misinformation and fear mongering about food ingredients, particularly any ingredient with a scary, “chemically”-sounding name.

Not surprisingly, as the Food Babe has gained prominence her antics have attracted more and more criticism for her toxic combination of ignorance of chemistry coupled with fear mongering. The criticism started with science and medical bloggers and leaked into the mainstream press, most recently in the form of a recent NPR blog entry entitled “Is The Food Babe A Fearmonger? Scientists Are Speaking Out” that liberally quotes from yours truly and our fearless founder Steve Novella, as well the professor and chair of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, Kevin Folta, who in October complained about the Hari being invited to speak at his university, where she didn’t take questions after spewing her usual disinformation. Indeed, her most recent foray into fear mongering, an attempt to attack Starbucks for its pumpkin spice latte because it not only contains “no real pumpkin” but also contains a “toxic dose of sugar,” and—brace yourself—uses dairy from “Monsanto milk cows fed GMO,” failed.

With a book and media tour scheduled for early 2015, apparently the Food Babe is feeling the heat and has finally responded to criticism on Saturday in a rather long post entitled “Food Babe Scam: My Response To The Attacks On Me and Our Movement“. Utterly predictably, she started with a quote commonly attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Never mind that Gandhi almost certainly never actually said it. Rather, Nicholas Klein of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America did. It’s also a misquote of what Klein did say. What Klein actually said was, “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.”

Yes, they did build monuments to Gandhi, but I highly doubt anyone will be building monuments to The Food Babe, either now or many years from now. Her response to criticism is worth examining, however, because her defense itself reveals the many flaws in science and reasoning that led to the criticisms in the first place. (more…)

Posted in: Nutrition, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Lessons from the dubious rise and inevitable fall of green coffee beans


News this week that a randomized controlled trial of green coffee bean (GCB) has been officially retracted from the medical literature signals what is hopefully the end to one of the most questionable diet products to appear on the market in years. Plucked from obscurity and then subjected to bogus research, it’s now clear that the only people that actually benefited from GCB were those that profited from its sale. GCB had some powerful boosters, too. Once it became one of Dr. Oz’s “miracle” weight loss cures, sales exploded following two hype-filled episodes. Oz even did a made-for TV clinical trial with GCB, ignoring the requirements for researchers to obtain ethical approvals before conducting human subject research. Oz’s promotion of GCB was so breathless and detached from the actual evidence that his actions were subsequently eviscerated by Senator Clair McCaskill during televised hearings on weight loss scams. It’s a long, sordid, ugly and yet entirely predictable story. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Science and the Media

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Breast cancer myths: No, antiperspirants do not cause breast cancer


Four weeks ago, I wrote a post in which I explained why wearing a bra does not cause breast cancer. After I had finished the post, it occurred to me that I should have saved that post for now, given that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The reason is that, like clockwork, pretty much every year around this time articles touting various myths about breast cancer will go viral, circulating on social media like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Tumblr like so many giant spider-microbes on the moon on Saturday. Sometimes, they’re new articles. Sometimes they’re old articles that, like the killer at the end of a slasher film, seem to have died but always come back for another attack, if not immediately, then when the next movie comes out.

So I thought that this October I should take at least a couple of them on, although I can’t guarantee that I’ll stick to the topic of breast cancer myths for the whole month. After all, our “atavistic oncology” crank (you remember him, don’t you?) is agitating in the comments and e-mailing his latest “challenge” to my dean, other universities, and me. It was almost enough for me to put this post on hold for a week and respond to our insistent little friend’s latest “evidence,” but for now I’ll just tell Dr. Frank Arguello, “Be very careful what you ask for. You might just get it.” Maybe next week. Or maybe on my not-so-super-secret other blog. Or maybe never. Because Dr. Arguello has officially begun to bore me.

In the meantime, I’m going to stick with the original plan, at least for now.

So, first up this week is a myth that I can’t believe that I haven’t covered in depth sometime during the nearly seven years of this blog’s existence, other than in passing a couple of times, even though it’s a topic that deserves its own post. I’m referring to the claim that antiperspirants cause breast cancer. I bet you’ve seen articles like this oldie but not so goodie from über-quack Joe Mercola entitled “Are Aluminum-Containing Antiperspirants Contributing To Breast Cancer In Women?” or this older and even moldier article from seven years ago entitled “Why women should avoid using anti-perspirants that could cause breast cancer” or this one from last year entitled “Attention Deodorant Users: New Studies Link Aluminum To Breast Cancer“. Surprisingly, I haven’t found that many from this year yet. (Maybe the Ebola scare is distracting the usual suspects and diverting their efforts.) The same ones, however, keep reappearing every year, and they’re all based on the same sorts of claims and the same studies. So let’s dig in, shall we? (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Epidemiology, Public Health, Science and the Media

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Chaperones Needed

Dr. Oz, one half of the You Doctors.  And a professor.  A professor.

Dr. Oz, one half of the You Doctors. And a professor. A professor.

I receive a monthly newsletter from my medical board. Among other issues discussed are the results of disciplinary actions for physicians. Occasionally a physician who has boundary issues is required to have a chaperone present when doing exams.

I was thinking that the concept of a chaperone could be more widely applicable. Consider “You Docs: Amazing acupuncture,” the latest from Drs Oz and Roizen. Both are professors at their respective institutions. Professors. To judge from the ability to read and interpret the medical literature, both should not be allowed near a journal without a chaperone to remind them about cognitive biases, logical fallacies and what constitutes a good clinical study. Looking at their recent review of acupuncture suggests they lack an understanding of all three.

They start with the argument from antiquity, which is not only wrong as a logical fallacy, it is wrong historically when they say:

acupuncture has been a go-to therapy for 5,000 years.

Off by a factor of about 500. They are unaware that acupuncture as currently practiced is relatively new, having been a form of bloodletting until recently when the modern version with steel needlesbecame popular under Mao.

However, in the early 1930s a Chinese pediatrician by the name of Cheng Dan’an (承淡安, 1899-1957) proposed that needling therapy should be resurrected because its actions could potentially be explained by neurology. He therefore repositioned the points towards nerve pathways and away from blood vessels-where they were previously used for bloodletting.

They explain the mechanism of action as stimulating

points in the body that affect chi or qi, the life energy.

without noting that chi or qi is a fantasy. No life energy has ever been measured and virtually every point on the body is an acupoint in one of the multiplicity of styles that are acupunctures. Except, as mentioned in the past, the genitals.

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

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Yahoo News spews NaturalNews anti-vaccine (and other) propaganda

Yahoo News appears to have confused NaturalNews with actual news. It’s not. NaturalNews is the in-house propaganda organ for Mike Adams, whom I’ll introduce in a minute (although he needs no introduction for most readers here). A couple of recent examples:



A recycled story, over a year old, from NaturalNews, appearing on Yahoo News last week. It starts out as a fairly straightforward report of the Japanese’s governments suspending its recommendation if favor of the HPV vaccine pending further research, although government health officials were still standing by the vaccine’s safety. Actually, Medscape reported that the actual rate was 12.8 serious adverse side effects reported per 1 million doses, a fact not revealed in the NaturalNews story. These effects were correlated with the vaccine; there is no evidence of causation.

After this rather tame start, NaturalNews cranks it up to 11 and beyond, as David Gorski would say. Governments which still recommend HPV vaccinations “remain under the thumb of Merck’s vaccinations spell” even though Merck is “an organization of murderers and thieves.” A scary list of adverse events are described as “side effects of Guardasil” even though causation has not been shown.



Two days ago there was an “ongoing debate”? There is no ongoing debate about “whether or not vaccines cause autism” because there never was any credible evidence that vaccines cause autism and there still isn’t.


Posted in: Cancer, Critical Thinking, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Nutrition, Pharmaceuticals, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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