Articles

Parabiosis – The Next Snakeoil

parabiosisThe pattern has repeated so many times that it is truly predictable. Scientists turn their eyes to one type of treatment that has theoretical potential. However, proper research from theory to proven treatment can take 10-20 years, if all goes well. Most such treatments will not work out – they will fail somewhere along the way from the petri dish to the clinic.

However, the media likes a good story, and one of their favorite narratives is the “new miracle cure.” They will often take preliminary basic science research and present it with headlines promising a cure for some horrible disease (sometimes they will add a question mark).

When we see these headlines, we know what will happen next – hucksters will ride the hype with a wave of snake oil products promising the same cure, and claiming to be based in science. Dr. Oz will probably promote it on his show, and Mike Adams will rant about the government conspiracy to keep this cure from the public (but he will sell it to you).

We have seen this pattern with antioxidants, stem cells, resveratrol, and countless others. Sometimes the hucksters manufacture their own hype, as with green coffee beans. They don’t wait for actual scientists, they corner the market on some worthless bean or berry, then invent health claims for it and try to hype demand through the usual channels. This sadly works. (more…)

Posted in: Medical devices, Medical Ethics

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Statistics Done Wrong, And How To Do Better

Statistics done wrong Alex Reinhart
Statistics is hard, often counterintuitive, and burdened with esoteric mathematical equations. Statistics classes can be boring and demanding; students might be tempted to call it “Sadistics.” Good statistics are essential to good research; unfortunately many scientists and even some statisticians are doing statistics wrong. Statistician Alex Reinhart has written a helpful book, Statistics Done Wrong: The Woefully Complete Guide, that every researcher and everyone who reads research would benefit from reading. The book contains a few graphs but is blissfully equation-free. It doesn’t teach how to calculate anything; it explains blunders in recent research and how to avoid them.

Inadequate education and self-deception

Most of us have little or no formal education in statistics and have picked up some knowledge in a haphazard fashion as we went along. Reinhart offers some discouraging facts. He says a doctor who takes one introductory statistics course would only be able to understand about a fifth of the articles in The New England Journal of Medicine. On a test of statistical methods commonly used in medicine, medical residents averaged less than 50% correct, medical school faculty averaged less than 75% correct, and even the experts who designed the study goofed: one question offered only a choice of four incorrect definitions.

There are plenty of examples of people deliberately lying with statistics, but that’s not what this book is about. It is about researchers who have fooled themselves by making errors they didn’t realize they were making. He cites Hanlon’s razor: “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” He says even conclusions based on properly done statistics can’t always be trusted, because it is trivially easy to “torture the data until it confesses.” (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Critical Thinking

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Dealing with vaccine hesitancy and refusal

How do we deal with parents who would rather their babies face diseases than vaccines?

How do we deal with parents who would rather their babies face diseases than vaccines?

As long as there have been vaccinations, there has been an antivaccine movement, and as long as there has been an antivaccine movement, there have been parents who refuse to vaccinate. In a past that encompasses the childhood of my parents, polio was paralyzing and killing children in large numbers in yearly epidemics, the fear of which led to the closure of public pools every summer. In such an environment, the new polio vaccine introduced by Jonas Salk in the mid-1950s wasn’t a hard sell. In fact, satisfying the initial demand for it was the problem, not parents refusing to vaccinate their children. Since then, more and more vaccines have been developed to protect more and more children from more and more diseases, to the point where the incidences of most vaccine-preventable diseases is so low that, unlike 60 years ago, most parents today have never seen a case or even known other parents whose child suffered from a case. Even as recently as the 1980s, Haemophilus influenza type B was a dread disease that could cause meningitis, pneumonia, sepsis, and death. Since the introduction of the the Hib vaccine a mere quarter century ago, Hib has been virtually eliminated. Most pediatricians in residency now have never seen a case.

As much of a cliché as it is to say so, unfortunately vaccination has been a victim of its own success, at least in developed countries. Parents no longer fear the diseases childhood vaccines protect against, which makes it easy for antivaccine activists to provide what I like to call “misinformed consent,” by spreading misinformation that vastly exaggerates the risk of vaccines compared to the benefit of vaccinating. Parents who believe the misinformation conclude, based on a warped view of the risk-benefit ratio of vaccines, that not vaccinating is safer. Add to the mix fear mongering against the MMR based on Andrew Wakefield and his dubious 1998 case series that popularized the then-recent idea that vaccines cause autism, and it’s no wonder that parents decide that not vaccinating is safer than vaccinating. If you believe the misinformation, it’s not an entirely unreasonable conclusion. Then add to that the easy availability of “personal belief exemptions” to school vaccine mandates in many states, which include anything from religious exemptions to parents just signing a form that says they are “personally opposed” to vaccination, and it isn’t a huge surprise that vaccine uptake has fallen in some areas to the point where outbreaks can occur. It was happening in California and my own state of Michigan. (more…)

Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Vaccines

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Deconstructing the Conspiracy of Deliberate Poisoning of US Municipal Water

Mass spectrometer

It takes more than a mass spectrometer, more than even a mass spectrometer and an ISO certification, to make you a scientist. Honesty helps too!

Heavy metals here, there, everywhere…

One of the key narratives among the supporters and practitioners of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), particularly those with a conspiratorial world-view, is the claim that vast portions of the US general populous is being deliberately poisoned by certain corporations, special-interest groups, invested individuals, and the US government. Some of these supporters and practitioners go as far as to claim that this conspiracy is global in scope and not restricted solely to the USA. Among the supposed vectors of this poisoning is the claim of elevated and/or toxic levels of heavy-metals in such items as foods, vaccines, as well as municipal drinking water supplies; I will address the latter in this article.

One prolific web-based publication supporting this narrative is Natural News. Many of its writers, including its editor-in-chief Mr. Mike Adams (The Health Ranger), have added outspoken support to these claims of…someone…deliberately poisoning the drinking water. A brief search on Google using the appropriate keywords produces a large number of hits, with many of these hits being found on the Natural News website, and many have heavy-metal “detoxing” as a central theme. Titles of these Natural News articles include: (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Public Health

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Separating Fact from Fiction in Pediatric Medicine: Facial Nerve Palsy

An infant with a left facial nerve palsy

An infant with a left facial nerve palsy

There are numerous medical conditions that are seemingly designed to allow proponents of “irregular medicine” to proclaim their treatments to be effective. These conditions tend to be chronic and subjective in nature, or to have waxing and waning courses such that a parent or patient might easily be fooled into assigning a causal relationship between a bogus intervention and a clinical improvement. Brief, self-limited maladies are also quite convenient for people with nothing to offer but false information and false hope. After a recent encounter with a patient, I’ve added a new one to the list: idiopathic facial nerve palsy.

What is idiopathic facial nerve palsy?

Although not the first to do so, facial nerve dysfunction resulting in the sudden and unexplained weakness of all muscles on one side of the face was most famously described by Scottish neurophysiologist Sir Charles Bell in 1830. Hence it is commonly, if not always accurately, referred to as “Bell’s palsy.” Since then our understanding of the condition has progressed considerably, thanks to scientific investigation and improved diagnostic testing. In particular, we have learned that many cases are the result of infection, with ear infections, various human herpes viruses, and the spirochete responsible for Lyme disease being the most common culprits in children. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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CARA: Integrating even more pseudoscience into veterans’ healthcare

VA logo
The pixels were barely dry on David Gorski’s lament over the expansive integration of pseudoscience into the care of veterans when President Obama signed legislation that will exacerbate this very problem. The “Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016” (“CARA”) contains provisions that will undoubtedly keep Tracy Gaudet, MD, and her merry band of integrative medicine aficionados at the VA busy for the next few years integrating even more quackery into veterans’ medical care.

CARA is intended to address the serious prescription drug abuse problem in the U.S. It provides grants for local communities dealing with drug abuse crises and for drug abuse programs, improves access to overdose reversal medication and medication-assisted treatment for drug addiction, and assists in training first responders, among other things. It also includes provisions related to pain management, such as development of best practices to treat pain. None of that is the problem.

Deep in the Act, almost at the end, is “Subtitle C – Complementary and Integrative Health,” which begins with “Expansion of research and education on and delivery of complementary and integrative health to veterans.” I am not sure who stuck this into the new law, but it is only tangentially related to addiction and recovery. It establishes the “Creating Options for Veterans’ Expedited Recovery” Commission or, in the acronym-rich language of government, “COVER.” (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation

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The Public’s Love-Hate Relationship with Technology

medical-technology1

There are many complex factors driving up the cost of healthcare, but one major factor is increasing medical technology. Often new expensive technologies provide incremental, or even questionable, additional benefits but can dramatically increase the cost of health care. This is especially true of in-hospital treatments.

There are also, of course, medical technologies that provide significant benefits, and others that improve our ability to make diagnoses. The public clearly wants and expects the latest and greatest medical technology when it comes to their health care or that of their loved-ones.

From this perspective the culture is definitely very pro-medical technology. Nothing is too invasive or heroic if it might save a loved-one. In fact, access to the latest medical miracles is considered a right, and even the suggestion that such technology might be futile is often met with hostility and anger.

(more…)

Posted in: Commentary

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Past Life Regression Therapy: Encouraging Fantasy

Buddhists believe in reincarnation. Some psychotherapists do too.

Buddhists believe in reincarnation. Some psychotherapists do too.

I recently got an e-mail from a PR firm about an “internationally certified regression therapist,” Ann Barham, who has written a book and who claims to help patients to “heal enduring challenges, release unhealthy patterns and beliefs, and find their way to more happiness and success.” They offered me the opportunity to review her book and/or interview her; I declined, but I was interested in learning more about past life regression therapy, so I elected to “interview Dr. Google” instead.

In past life regression therapy, therapists use hypnosis, leading questions, and strong suggestions to encourage patients to imagine that reincarnation is real and to imagine their past lives. Events and people from past lives are blamed for symptoms and problems in the patient’s current life. Finding a past life cause for current problems supposedly helps patients deal with them. The technique is also used in healthy people to promote spiritual advancement and self-understanding. There is no such thing as reincarnation, and the memories of past lives are nothing but fantasy. (more…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health

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On the pointlessness of acupuncture in the emergency room…or anywhere else

"This patient's qi isn't flowing the way it should. Consult Acupuncture, STAT!!"

“This patient’s qi isn’t flowing the way it should. Consult Acupuncture, STAT!!”

Sometimes there is a strange confluence of events that dictate what I feel that I need to write about when my turn here at SBM rolls around each Monday. Last week, a reader sent me a rather bizarre acupuncture study, and I thought I might write about that. Then I saw Mark Crislip’s (as usual) excellent deconstruction of the frequent claim by acupuncture apologists that acupuncture “works” by releasing endorphins and thought, “Maybe another topic.” But then, over the weekend, the Friends of Science in Medicine sent me a link to their latest article, a review of acupuncture entitled “Is there any place for acupuncture in 21st century medical practice?” Not surprisingly, the FSM (Friends of Science in Medicine, not the Flying Spaghetti Monster) concludes that the answer is no. However, in stark contrast to that conclusions are studies like the one mentioned above, studies so ridiculous that, when I discuss it, you will hardly believe that anyone thought it was a good idea to utilize the money, time, and precious, precious human subjects to answer such a ridiculous question. After that discussion, I’ll come back to the FSM’s statement and discuss the evidence base (or rather, lack thereof) for acupuncture for pretty much anything.
(more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Clinical Trials

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Acupuncture and Endorphins: Not all that Impressive

Acupuncture needling

Pictured: A great way to get a staph infection, not a great way to get an endorphin rush.  Try jogging.  Or heroin.*

I was reading, and deconstructing, a particularly awful bit of advice for acupuncture by Consumer Reports. It was the same old same old, but it was the source that made it particularly awful. I expect more from Consumer Reports than the uncritical regurgitation of the standard mythical acupuncture narrative. The report included the quote

One possible reason for the benefits of acupuncture: Studies show that it causes us to release feel-good hormones, called endorphins, that suppress pain.

I have never bothered to go back and see what the original literature was to support endorphins as a potential mechanism for a beneficial effect of acupuncture on pain.

That endorphins are released as a result of a noxious stimulus didn’t surprise me; that is what endorphins are for. And endorphins are unlikely to be the mechanism for all the other diseases for which the WHO suggests acupuncture benefits.

To my surprise, my brief search that day came up with very little information on the endorphins and acupuncture.

What I wanted to know was the evidence behind the universal meme that acupuncture releases feel-good hormones. If Consumer Reports says it is so, it must be true, right? So I plugged ‘acupuncture endorphin’ into PubMed and went to work. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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