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Kudos to Steven Novella

It has just been announced, in the July/August issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, that our own Steven Novella has been awarded the 2010 Robert P. Balles Annual Prize in Critical Thinking. It will be formally presented at the CSIcon conference in New Orleans on October 28, 2011. The Prize is a $1500 award given to the author of the published work or body of work that best exemplifies healthy skepticism, logical analysis, or empirical science. The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) selects the publication that, in its judgment, has the greatest potential to create positive reader awareness of currently important scientific concerns. Previous awards starting in 2005 were for individual publications. In Dr. Novella’s case, the award was for his entire body of work. In the letter informing him of his selection, CSI Executive Director Barry Karr said,

…you are being honored for your tremendous body of work including The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, Science-Based Medicine, Neurologica, your SKEPTICAL INQUIRER column “The Science of Medicine,” as well as your tireless travel and lecture schedule on behalf of skepticism. You may well be the hardest worker in all of skepticism today. And to me, the truly amazing thing is you do all of this on a volunteer basis.

He is also the president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society, a fellow of CSI, a founding fellow of the Institute for Science in Medicine, a medical advisor to Quackwatch, a contributor to other blogs, has produced a course for The Teaching Company on “Medical Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths,” and is Senior Fellow and Director of the James Randi Educational Foundation’s (JREF) new Science-Based Medicine project. And I have undoubtedly omitted several of his other accomplishments.

It is hard to believe he hasn’t cloned himself, since all of these achievements are in addition to his demanding day job as a clinical neurologist, assistant professor, and director of general neurology at Yale University School of Medicine.

Congratulations, Steve! The award couldn’t have gone to a better candidate. I want to add my personal thanks for all you do and say how proud I am to be associated with you. You da man!

 

 

 

Posted in: Announcements

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Acupuncturist’s Unconvincing Attempt at Damage Control

Acupuncture has been in the news recently. A former President of South Korea had to undergo major surgery to remove an acupuncture needle that had somehow lodged in his lung.  A recent study in Pain compiled a list of 95 published reports of serious complications of acupuncture including 5 deaths. Meanwhile, acupuncturists continue to insist that their procedures are “safe.”

Edzard Ernst et al.’s article Acupuncture: Does it alleviate pain and are there serious risks? A review of reviews was published in the journal Pain in April 2011. It had two parts: (1) it was a systematic review of 57 systematic reviews showing that there was “little truly convincing evidence that acupuncture is effective in reducing pain,” and (2) it tabulated published reports of 5 deaths and 90 other serious complications of acupuncture treatments. I wrote an accompanying commentary, “Acupuncture’s claims punctured: Not proven effective for pain, not harmless.”

William Morris chastised me for not declaring a conflict of interest (!?) in my commentary. Now, in Acupuncture Today, he has criticized the Ernst et al. study itself.
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Posted in: Acupuncture

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Blatant pro-alternative medicine propaganda in The Atlantic

Some of my fellow Science-Based Medicine (SBM) bloggers and I have been wondering lately what’s up with The Atlantic. It used to be one of my favorite magazines, so much so that I subscribed to it for roughly 25 years (and before that I used to read my mother’s copy). In general I enjoyed its mix of politics, culture, science, and other topics. Unfortunately, my opinion changed back in the fall of 2009, when, on the rising crest of the H1N1 pandemic, The Atlantic published what can only be described as an terrible bit of journalism lionizing the “brave maverick doctor” Tom Jefferson of the Cochrane Collaboration. The article, written by Shannon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer, argued, in essence, that vaccinating against H1N1 at the time was a horrendous waste of time and effort because the vaccine didn’t work. So bad was the cherry picking of data and framing of the issue as a narrative that consisted primarily of the classic lazy journalistic device of a “lone maverick” against the entire medical establishment that it earned the lovely sarcasm of our very own Mark Crislip, who wrote a complete annotated rebuttal, while I referred to the methodology presented in the article as “methodolatry.” Even public health epidemiologist Revere (who is, alas, no longer blogging but in his day provided a very balanced, science-based perspective on vaccination for influenza, complete with its shortcomings) was most definitely not pleased.

I let my subscription to The Atlantic lapse and have not to this day renewed it.

Be that as it may, last year The Atlantic published an article that wasn’t nearly as bad as the H1N1 piece but was nonetheless pretty darned annoying to us at SBM. Entitled Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science, by David Freedman, it was an article lionizing John Ioannidis (whom I, too, greatly admire) while largely missing the point of his work, turning it into an argument for why we shouldn’t believe most medical science. Now, Freedman’s back again, this time with a much, much, much worse story in The Atlantic in the July/August 2011 issue under the heading “Ideas” and entitled The Triumph of New Age Medicine, complete with a picture of a doctor in a lab coat in the lotus position. It appears to be the logical follow up to Freedman’s article about Ioannidis in that Freedman apparently seems to think that, if we can’t trust medical science, then there’s no reason why we shouldn’t embrace medical pseudoscience.

Basically, the whole idea behind the article appears to be that, even if most of alternative medicine is quackery (which it is, by the way, as we’ve documented ad nauseam on this very blog), it’s making patients better because of placebo effects and because its practitioners take the time to talk to patients and doctors do not. In other words, Freedman’s thesis appears to be a massive “What’s the harm?” argument coupled with a false dichotomy; that is, if real doctors don’t have the time to listen to patients and provide the human touch, then let’s let the quacks do it. Tacked on to that bad idea is a massive argumentum ad populum portraying alternative medicine as the wave of the future, in contrast to what Freedman calls the “failure” of conventional medicine.

Let’s dig in, shall we? I’ll start with the article itself, after which I’ll examine a few of the responses. I’ll also note that our very own Steve Novella, who was interviewed for Freedman’s article, has written a response to Freedman’s article that is very much worth reading as well.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Nutrition, Science and the Media

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The Dow of Accutane

At home the kids current TV show of choice is How I Met Your Mother, supplanting Scrubs as the veg out show in the evening. Both shows are always on a cable channel somewhere and are often broadcast late at night. Late night commercials can be curious, and as I work on projects, I watch the shows and commercials out of the corner of my eye.

Law firms trolling for business seem common. If you or a family member has had a serious stroke, heart attack or death from Avandia, call now. The non-serious deaths? I suppose do not bother. One ad in particular caught my eye: anyone who developed ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease (collectively referred to inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD) after using Accutane, call now. Millions have been awarded.

My eye may have been caught because of my new progressive lenses, but I will admit to an interest in inflammatory bowel disease, having had ulcerative colitis for years until I took the steel cure. It also piqued my interest as these were three conditions among which I could not seen any connections. Accutane, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s. One of these is not like the other.

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Posted in: Legal, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Exorcism and Sorcery as Health Benefits?!

Luis Fernando Verissimo, a Brazilian writer, once proposed “voodoopuncture”. Instead of going to the acupuncturist, you would be treated without leaving home. The voodoopuncturist would stick acupuncture needles in the voodoo dolls of you! I add that voodoopuncture could be outsourced to Haiti and/or China. It is a win-win-win situation!

— Leonardo Monasteri, Brazilian economist

As unbelievable as this might sound, “voodoopuncture” is no fiction at all.

The practice is called “Tong Ren healing,” and involves needling or hammering an acupuncture mannequin, as if it were a voodoo doll. The main Tong Ren “Master” in the US is an acupuncturist in the Boston area by the name of Tom Tam. He treats groups of terminally ill and debilitated patients in a deliverance ceremony that is noting but a revamped Taoist exorcism — only the clay or straw doll is replaced by a plastic mannequin:

Unfortunately, Tom Tam is not the only licensed healthcare provider who is treating patients with hocus pocus and crackpottery. There are over 30,000 other adepts of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in the US who practice medicine based on notions of health and disease that are rooted in paranormal and magical beliefs. Some of these practitioners take their delusions to the outer limits of absurdity: consider, for instance, “acutonics” and “colorpuncture” as described in these videos:

In anthropology of religion, the principles that underline the above practices are called “imitation” (e.g. using a doll to affect a person), and “correspondence” (e.g. using a sound to affect an object). They are the hallmarks of what is called “sympathetic magic,” meaning the belief that a person, or a thing, can be affected through something that represents it, or that has similar attributes.1 The principle of magical correspondence in TCM is called wu xing (五行) in Chinese, and is known as the Five Phases/Elements Theory in English. It can be summarized as follows:
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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The Value of Replication

Daryl Bem is a respected psychology researcher who decided to try his hand at parapsychology. Last year he published a series of studies in which he claimed evidence for precognition — for test subjects being influenced in their choices by future events. The studies were published in a peer-reviewed psychology journal, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. This created somewhat of a controversy, and was deemed by some to be a failure of peer-review.

While the study designs were clever (he simply reversed the direction of some standard psychology experiments, putting the influencing factor after the effect it was supposed to have), and the studies looked fine on paper, the research raised many red flags — particularly in Bem’s conclusions.

The episode has created the opportunity to debate some important aspects of the scientific literature. Eric-Jan Wagenmakers and others questioned the p-value approach to statistical analysis, arguing that it tends to over-call a positive result. They argue for a Bayesian analysis, and in their re-analysis of the Bem data they found the evidence for psi to be “weak to non-existent.” This is essentially the same approach to the data that we support as science-based medicine, and the Bem study is a good example of why. If the standard techniques are finding evidence for the impossible, then it is more likely that the techniques are flawed rather than the entire body of physical science is wrong.

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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Autism and Prenatal Vitamins

Science has found no evidence that vaccines cause autism; but the true cause(s) of autism have not yet been determined. So far the available evidence has pointed towards a largely genetic cause with possible interaction with environmental factors. A new study supports that interpretation. It also supports previous evidence that autism is triggered prior to birth, rather than at the time of vaccinations.

Schmidt et al. published a study in Epidemiology on May 23, 2011, entitled “Prenatal Vitamins, One-carbon Metabolism Gene Variants, and Risk for Autism.” It was a population-based case control study of 566 subjects comparing a group of autistic children to a matched control group of children with normal development. They looked at maternal intake of prenatal vitamins in the 3 months before conception and the first month of pregnancy, and they looked for genotypes associated with autism. They found that mothers who didn’t take prenatal vitamins were at greater risk of having an autistic child, and certain genetic markers markedly increased the risk. There was a dose/response relationship: the more prenatal vitamins a woman took, the less likely she would have an autistic child. There was no association with other types of multivitamins, and no association with prenatal vitamin intake during months 2-9 of pregnancy. (more…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Nutrition

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Science-based medicine, skepticism, and the scientific consensus

Editor’s note: This weekend was a big grant writing weekend for me. I’m resubmitting my R01, which means that between now and July 1 or so, my life is insanity, as I try to rewrite it into a form that has a fighting chance of being in the top 7%, which is about the level the NCI is funding at right now. This weekend, I buried myself in my Sanctum Sanctorum and tried like heck to try to pound the revision into a really good draft that I can distribute to my colleagues for feedback. Fortunately, I have some old posts that I can pull out, tart up (i.e., update a bit, as in correcting the parts that led me to groan as I reread them, thereby hopefully making them better). I think they’re quite good, if I do say so myself; so hopefully you will too.

There are some arguments made in blogs, articles, or books that strike me so hard that I remember them, even three and a half years later. Sometimes I even file them away for later use or response if the issue raised by them is interesting, relevant or compelling enough to me. Although this topic is a bit broader than many of the topics I write about for this blog, I think it also goes to the heart of science-based medicine and communicating scientific skepticism about medicine to the masses. A few years back, a Swedish blogger named Martin Rundkvist made a rather provocative observation about skepticism. Specifically, he argued that a “real skeptic always sides with scientific consensus.” Among his reasons was this one:

Science presupposes that all participants have a skeptical frame of mind and arrive at conclusions through rational deliberation. If a large group of knowledgeable people working in this way arrive at a consensus opinion, then there is really no good reason for anybody with less knowledge of the subject to question it. Informed consensus is how scientific truth is established. It’s always provisional and open to reevaluation, but as long as there’s informed consensus, then that’s our best knowledge. Humanity’s best knowledge.

Although at the time I saw where Martin was coming from, I found this viewpoint somewhat disturbing, leading me to echo Martin’s own words in response to his own rhetorical question asking whether accepting a scientific consensus is nothing more than “kowtowing to white-coated authority”: Well, yes and no.
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Posted in: History, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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The impact of antivaccination lobbying

Here’s an excellent news report from Australia on the human costs of the anti-vaccine movement:

The video features Viera Scheibner, who has nothing good to say about vaccines and thinks that vaccines are dangerous and infectious diseases in childhood are good. It also features the stories of children who caught vaccine-preventable diseases. This is how it’s done.

Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Failed Flaxseed and Bad News Brownies

Well, it’s been a tough month for herbs since my last monthly soiree here at SBM.

Just last week at the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting, a group out of the Mayo Clinic presented data from a study showing that a well-characterized flaxseed extract was ineffective against hot flashes in postmenopausal women. But as Steve Novella noted here earlier this week, negative clinical trials data on supplements rarely influence the behavior of those who continue to advocate for their herbal use.

Flaxseed, known to contain phytoestrogen compounds such as secoisolariciresinol diglucoside (SDG) and enterolactone, has been purported to relieve hot flashes.

But I think the hypothesis was flawed in the first place: while these compounds bind the estrogen receptor, they have largely been shown to be estrogen receptor modulators that act in a negative manner. Work from the group of Dr. Lillian Thompson at the University of Toronto has repeatedly shown in an estrogen-dependent animal model of human breast cancer that flaxseed components act in a predominantly anti-estrogenic manner. One might suspect that hot flashes would be made worse by flaxseed, although this was not the case in the study presented as ASCO.

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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Herbs & Supplements

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