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The Good Rewards of Bad Science

All the world sees us
In grand style wherever we are;
The big and the small
Are infatuated with us:
They run to our remedies
And regard us as gods
And to our prescriptions
Principles and regimens, they submit themselves.

Molière, The Imaginary Invalid (1673)1

The passage above is part of a burlesque doctoral conferment ceremony, where the French playwright Molière (1622-1673) mocks the unscrupulous physicians of his time. “All the excellency of their art consists in pompous gibberish, in a specious babbling, which gives you words instead of reasons, and promises instead of results,” he writes. In Moliere’s plays doctors never cure anyone; they are put on stage just to display their own vanity and ignorance.2 The Spanish painter Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) also took on the same issue by painting in 1799 a well attired jackass taking the pulse of a dying man, in a pose that accentuates the large gem on his hoof.


Image 1. De qué mal morirá (Of what illness will he die?) by Francisco de Goya is held at the Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

But if the asinine doctors of Molière and de Goya’s time never cured anyone, it is because they held prescientific views, and believed that disease was caused by imbalances in “humors,” and by malefic influences of the Heavens. Even the most educated among them treated illnesses in good faith by purging, bloodletting and enema at astrologically auspicious times. In contrast, current physicians who for the sake of funding embrace and endorse unscientific views and practices under the guise of CAM or integrative medicine, do so knowing that they often contradict the established principles of physics, chemistry, and biology. Therefore, in addition to promoting “snake oil science”3 (as R. Barker Bausell calls it), these physicians are also guilty of bad faith. Most of this takes place at large academic centers, where funding seems to outweigh the concern for science. As Val Jones, MD, writes in 2009′s Top 5 Threats To Science In Medicine:

Often referred to by David Gorski as “Quackademic” Medical Centers – there is a growing trend among these centers to accept endowments for “integrative” approaches to medical care. Because of the economic realities of decreasing healthcare reimbursements – these once proud defenders of science are now accepting money to “study” implausible and often disproven medical treatments because they’re trendy. Scientists at these centers are forced to look the other way while patients (who trust the center’s reputation that took tens of decades to build) are exposed to placebo medicine under the guise of “holistic” healthcare.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Medical Academia

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1023 2011

The 1023 campaign is a UK based organization whose purpose is to raise awareness of the actual claims of homeopathy. The name is a reference to Avogadro’s number (6.02214179×10^23), which is the number of atoms or molecules of a substance in one unit called a mole. This is an important basic concept in chemistry, for it means that there are a finite number of bits of a substance in any solution, which further means that solutions cannot be infinitely diluted. You cannot have fractions of a molecule of any substance. There is therefore a dilutional limit – a point beyond which if you further dilute a solution you are increasingly likely to have removed all of the original substance.

Homeopathic preparations frequently use serial dilutions that vastly exceed this dilutional limit. This is a central fallacy of homeopathy (what homeopaths call a “law” of homeopathy). Samuel Hahnemann, who invented the fiction of homeopathy, knew about the dilutional limit but believed that substances gave their magical essence to water when diluted. Modern homeopaths believe this too, but in order to make their nonsense more marketable to a 21st century culture a tad more used to science (or at least scientific jargon) than Hahnemann’s, they have desperately tried to wrap “magical essence” in sciencey technobabble.

The 1023 campaign’s main purpose is public awareness. It appears that the best tool defenders of science-based medicine have against homeopathy is simply to make the public aware of what it actually is. I have not found any good surveys that quantify public beliefs on the subject (sounds like a good project) but it is my subjective experience (and that of many of my colleagues) from talking to countless patients and acquaintances that many if not most people are simply not aware of what homeopathy actually is. The term is often conflated with herbal or “natural” remedies. Shock and disbelief is a common reaction to explanations of what homeopaths actually claim.

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Posted in: Homeopathy

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The Meaning of Secondary Prevention

A November letter to the editor in American Family Physician chastises that publication for misusing the term “secondary prevention,” even using it in the title of an article that was actually about tertiary prevention.

I am guilty of the same sin. I had been influenced by simplistic explanations that distinguished only two kinds of prevention: primary and secondary. I thought primary prevention was for those who didn’t yet have a disease, and secondary prevention was for those who already had the disease, to prevent recurrence or exacerbation. For example, vaccinations would be primary prevention and treatment of risk factors to prevent a second myocardial infarct would be secondary prevention.

No, there are three kinds of prevention: primary, secondary and tertiary. Primary prevention aims to prevent disease from developing in the first place. Secondary prevention aims to detect and treat disease that has not yet become symptomatic. Tertiary prevention is directed at those who already have symptomatic disease, in an attempt to prevent further deterioration, recurrent symptoms and subsequent events. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Mothering magazine: Peddling dangerous health misinformation to new mothers

Last week, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published an expose by investigative journalist Brian Deer that enumerated in detail the specifics of how a British gastroenterologist turned hero of the anti-vaccine movement had committed scientific fraud by falsifying key aspects of case reports that he used as the basis of his now infamous 1998 Lancet article suggesting a link between the MMR vaccine and a syndrome consisting of regressive autism and enterocolitis. Indeed, Deer even went so far as to describe Wakefield’s fraud as “Piltdown medicine,” comparing it explicitly to the infamous “Piltdown man” hoax, and in an accompanying editorial the editors of the BMJ agreed. These revelations were not by any means new. Scientists had suspected that something wasn’t quite right about Wakefield’s work almost as soon as it had been published, and by 2004 Brian Deer had uncovered clear evidence of major undisclosed conflicts of interest on Wakefield’s part. Unfortunately, by that time the proverbial cat was out of the proverbial bag, and Wakefield’s fraudulent research, aided and abetted by his flair for self-promotion in the media and some truly execrable, credulous, and sensationalistic coverage by the British press, had ignited a major scare over the MMR vaccine. MMR uptake rates plummeted below levels necessary for herd immunity, and measles came roaring back with a vengeance in the U.K. By the time the British General Medical Council finally ruled about a year ago that Wakefield had committed research fraud and violated research ethics in the work reported in his 1998 Lancet article and recommended that he be “struck off” (i.e., have his license to practice medicine in the U.K. revoked), the damage had been done.

As important as Wakefield is to the genesis of the modern anti-vaccine movement, however, there is another force that acts far more “where the rubber hits the road,” so to speak. This force comes in the form of publications and online discussion forums that cater to new mothers, offering all manner of advice and support. Some of these are very good, but all too many of them are hotbeds of anti-vaccine pseudoscience, confidently proclaimed by “elder statesman” members of these forums and included in articles published in glossy, attractive magazines. As a rather ironic coincidence, just as news of Andrew Wakefield’s latest humiliation was finding its way out into multiple news outlets last week, the first issue of 2011 of just such a glossy publication hit the shelves. I’m referring to Mothering, whose tagline is “Inspiring Natural Families Since 1976.” In reality, it should read: “Inspiring quackery and anti-vaccine views since 1976.” Of course, in the world of “alt-med,” the two often go hand-in-hand. In any case, one of our readers sent me a link to the latest issue of Mothering. Unfortunately, I can’t supply you with that link, because it’s for subscribers. I will, however, describe and quote articles and passages that demonstrate just what a wretched hive of scum and quackery Mothering is, particularly with respect to vaccines but not limited to vaccines. Taking into account its large and vigorous online forums, Mothering is major force for the promotion of anti-vaccine views and quackery among new mothers.
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Posted in: Health Fraud, Homeopathy, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Of SBM and EBM Redux. Part III: Parapsychology is the Role Model for “CAM” Research

This is the third post in this series*; please see Part II for a review. Part II offered several arguments against the assertion that it is a good idea to perform efficacy trials of medical claims that have been refuted by basic science or by other, pre-trial evidence. This post will add to those arguments, continuing to identify the inadequacies of the tools of Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM) as applied to such claims.

Prof. Simon Replies

Prior to the posting of Part II, statistician Steve Simon, whose views had been the impetus for this series, posted another article on his blog, responding to Part I of this series. He agreed with some of what both Dr. Gorski and I had written:

The blog post by Dr. Atwood points out a critical distinction between “biologically implausible” and “no known mechanism of action” and I must concede this point. There are certain therapies in CAM that take the claim of biological plausibility to an extreme. It’s not as if those therapies are just implausible. It is that those therapies must posit a mechanism that “would necessarily violate scientific principles that rest on far more solid ground than any number of equivocal, bias-and-error-prone clinical trials could hope to overturn.” Examples of such therapies are homeopathy, energy medicine, chiropractic subluxations, craniosacral rhythms, and coffee enemas.

The Science Based Medicine site would argue that randomized trials for these therapies are never justified. And it bothers Dr. Atwood when a systematic review from the Cochrane Collaboration states that no conclusions can be drawn about homeopathy as a treatment for asthma because of a lack of evidence from well conducted clinical trials. There’s plenty of evidence from basic physics and chemistry that can allow you to draw strong conclusions about whether homeopathy is an effective treatment for asthma. So the Cochrane Collaboration is ignoring this evidence, and worse still, is implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) calling for more research in this area.

On the other hand:

There are a host of issues worth discussing here, but let me limit myself for now to one very basic issue. Is any research justified for a therapy like homeopathy when basic physics and chemistry will provide more than enough evidence by itself to suggest that such research is futile(?) Worse still, the randomized trial is subject to numerous biases that can lead to erroneous conclusions.

I disagree for a variety of reasons.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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“Piltdown medicine” and Andrew Wakefield’s MMR vaccine fraud

Pity poor Andrew Wakefield. Well, not really. I tend to view what’s happening to him yet again as the chickens coming home to roost.

Let’s put it this way. 2010 was a terrible year for him, and 2011 is starting out almost as bad. In February 2010, the General Medical Council in the U.K. recommended that Wakefield be stripped of his license to practice medicine in the U.K. because of scientific misconduct related to his infamous 1998 case series published in The Lancet, even going so far as to refer to him as irresponsible and dishonest, and in May 2010 he was. This case series, thanks to Wakefield’s scientific incompetence and fraud, coupled with his flair for self-promotion and enabled by the sensationalistic credulity of the British press, ignited a scare about the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine in which, afraid that the MMR vaccine causes autism, parents in the U.K. eschewed vaccinating their children in droves. As a result, vaccination rates plummeted far below the level necessary for herd immunity, with the entirely predictable result of massive measles outbreaks in the U.K. Measles, which as of the mid-1990s had been declared under control by British and European health authorities, came roaring back to the point where in 2008 it was declared once again endemic in the British Isles. In a mere decade and a half, several decades of progress in controlling this scourge had been unravelled like a thread hanging off a cheap dress, all thanks to Andrew Wakefield and scandal mongers in the British press.

True, Wakefield had long since moved to Texas, the better to be the founding “scientific director” of a house of autism woo known as Thoughtful House. Thus, the removal of his license to practice had little practical import (or effect on his ability to earn a living), or so it seemed at the time, given that Wakefield did not treat patients and hauled in quite the hefty salary for his promotion of anti-vaccine pseudoscience. Fortunately, karma’s a bitch, and, as a result of the GMC’s action, in short order The Lancet retracted Wakefield’s 1998 paper; Wakefield was pushed out of Thoughtful House; and his latest attempt to “prove” that vaccines cause autism in an animal study was also retracted. Investigative reporter Brian Deer’s investigation finding that Andrew Wakefield had committed scientific fraud in carrying out his Lancet study joined prior findings that Wakefield had been in the pocket of trial lawyers (to the tune of £435 643, plus expenses) seeking to sue the vaccine industry at the time he carried out his “research” and the allegations by renowned PCR expert Stephen Bustin during the Autism Omnibus as to how shoddily Wakefield’s other research was carried out. Finally, the mainstream media started to back away from its previous embrace of Wakefield and his claims. As a result, for a while at least, Wakefield was reduced to lame appearances at sparsely attended anti-vaccine rallies last spring.
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Posted in: Health Fraud, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Vaccines

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Energy Drinks

My stimulant of choice is coffee. I started drinking it in first-year university, and never looked back. A tiny four-cup coffee maker became my reliable companion right through graduate school. But since I stopped needing to drink a pot at a time, an entirely new category of products has appeared — the energy drink. Targeting students, athletes, and others seeking a mental or physical boost, energy drinks are now an enormous industry: from the first U.S. product sale in 1997, the market size was $4.8 billion by 2008, and continues to grow. (1)

My precious coffee effectively has a single therapeutic ingredient, caffeine. Its pharmacology is well documented, and the physiologic effects are understood. The safety data isn’t too shabby either: it’s probably not harmful and possibly is even beneficial. (I’m talking about oral consumption — no coffee enemas. Please.) In comparison, energy drinks are a bewildering category of products with an array of ingredients including caffeine, amino acids, vitamins, and other “natural” substances and assorted “nutraceuticals,” usually in a sugar-laden vehicle (though sugar-free versions exist). Given many products contain chemicals with pharmacologic effects, understanding the risks, signs of adverse events, and potential implications on drug therapy, are important.

So are energy drinks just candied caffeine delivery systems? Or are these syrupy supplements skirting drug regulations?

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Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Nutrition, Politics and Regulation

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Obesity Denial

It seems that for every established science there is an ideological group who is motivated to deny it. Denialism is a thriving pseudoscience and affects any issue with the slightest political or social implications. Sometimes, even easily verifiable facts can be denied, as people seem willing to make up their own facts as needed.

Denialists have an easy job – to spread doubt and confusion. It is far easier to muddy the waters with subtle distortions and logical fallacies than it is to set the record straight. Even when every bit of misinformation is countered, the general public is often left with the sense that the topic is controversial or uncertain. If denial is in line with a group’s ideology, then even the suggestion of doubt may be enough to reject solid science.

We see this when it comes to the effectiveness of vaccines, the evolution of life on earth, and anthropogenic global warming. A recent Pew poll shows that the campaign of global warming denial has been fairly successful – while the science becomes more solid around the consensus that the earth is warming and humans are contributing to this, the public is becoming less convinced.

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Posted in: Epidemiology, Public Health

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Followup: More Evidence against the XMRV Virus as a Cause of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

A mouse leukemia retrovirus, xenotropic murine leukemia virus-related virus (XMRV retrovirus), has been under consideration as a possible cause of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS, and also prostate cancer). In a study published in Science in October 2009, Lombardi et al. found XMRV in 67% of CFS patients and 3.7% of controls. Several subsequent studies in the UK, the Netherlands, and the US — by lead authors Erlwein, van Kuppleveld, Groom , Switzer and Henrich — failed to find XMRV at all.

Now a new study published in Retrovirology by Hue et al. shows that the original positive findings were likely erroneous and due to contamination in the lab. The complete article is available online.

We provide several independent lines of evidence that XMRV detected by sensitive PCR methods in patient samples is the likely result of PCR contamination with mouse DNA and that the described clones of XMRV arose from the tumour cell line 22Rv1, which was probably infected with XMRV during xenografting in mice. We propose that XMRV might not be a genuine human pathogen.

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Posted in: Basic Science

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Deadly Choices about vaccination

appThe year 2011 is starting out rather promisingly, at least from the point of view of science-based medicine. Its beginning coincides with the release of two — count ’em, two! — books taking a skeptical, science-based look at vaccines and, in particular, the anti-vaccine movement. First off the mark is a new book by a man whom the anti-vaccine movement views as the Dark Lord of Vaccination, sitting up in Barad-dûr (apparently the University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia), a man utterly reviled by anti-vaccine quacks everywhere, Dr. Paul Offit. He has been subjected to considerable bile and harassment due to his simply standing up for the science behind vaccines. The book is entitled, appropriately enough, Deadly Choices: How the Anti-vaccine Movement Threatens Us All. Also being released is a new book by Seth Mnookin entitled The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear. Mnookin is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and whose work has appeared in numerous publications. Because I got a copy of Deadly Choices before my copy of The Panic Virus arrived, I decided to review Deadly Choices first; after I’ve managed to read The Panic Virus, I’ll write a review of it as well. Both books are arrows shot at the heart of the pseudoscience and fear at the heart of the vaccine manufactroversy, and it might well be useful to compare and contrast the two once I’ve finished The Panic Virus.

In the meantime, let’s take a look at Deadly Choices, an excellent, well-researched book with which I have relatively few disagreements. It is a followup to Dr. Offit’s last book, Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure, which I reviewed back when it first came out. In contrast to Autism’s False Prophets, which concentrated primarily on the manufactroversy that claims that vaccines are responsible for the “autism epidemic,” Deadly Choices steps back to take a broader look at the anti-vaccine movement. Regular readers of SBM hardly need to be reminded how pervasive and dangerous the modern-day anti-vaccine movement has become. Indeed, it is a frequently discussed theme of this blog, given that the anti-vaccine movement is such a major force among the forces that deny the efficacy of scientific medicine and seek either to replace it with unscientific or pseudoscientific “alternatives” or to “integrate” pseudoscience into science-based medicine. Indeed, anti-vaccine sentiment infuses large swaths of what we refer to as “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), be it chiropractic, homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, or a wide variety of other modalities and systems.

In examining the modern anti-vaccine movement, Dr. Offit structures his book into three major sections. First, beginning in a chapter entitled The Birth of Fear, Dr. Offit begins with a description of the birth of the modern anti-vaccine movement, which in the U.S. Dr. Offit traces, in large part, to the broadcast of an irresponsible and anecdote-driven news documentary about the diptheria-pertussis-tetanus (DPT) vaccine in 1982, and in the U.K. to a scare about the DPT triggered by a presentation by Dr. John Wilson to the Royal Society of Medicine about horrific complications thought to be due to the pertussis vaccine in the DPT. Next, Dr. Offit goes back into history to describe the development of the anti-vaccine movement in the 1800s in England and notes parallels with the modern day anti-vaccine movement. Finally, the story shifts back to today, where he describes the situation now, how demands for vaccines turned into fear of vaccines, and what we might do about it.
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Vaccines

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