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In which Dr. Gorski once again finds himself a target of the “pharma shill” gambit

EDITOR’S NOTICE: NOTE THE DISCLAIMER. Also note that there is a followup to this post entitled The price of opposing medical pseudoscience that is highly recommended after you read this post.

The “pharma shill gambit”: The quack’s favorite flavor of ad hominem argument

One of the very favorite and most commonly used tactics to attack criticism in the armamentarium of pseudoscientists, cranks, and quacks (not to mention politicians) is the ad hominem fallacy. In this fallacy, rather than addressing the actual evidence and science that demonstrate their favorite brand of woo to be nothing more than fairy dust, the idea is to preemptively attack and discredit the person. The ad hominem is not just insults or concluding that someone is ignorant because, well, they say ignorant things and make stupid arguments (in which case calling someone stupid or ignorant might just be drawing a valid, albeit impolitic, conclusion from observations of that person’s behavior), but rather arguing or insinuating that you shouldn’t accept someone’s arguments not because their arguments are weak but because they have this personal characteristic or that or belong to this group or that. Truly, the ad hominem is right up there with demanding public “debates” with skeptics as a favored defense strategy of cranks of all stripes.

Among the very favorite flavors of ad hominem attack used by quacks, cranks, and pseudoscientists is the fallacy of poisoning the well. This particular fallacy alludes to the medieval European myth that the Black Plague was caused by Jews poisoning town wells. Not surprisingly, this myth was used as a justification for pogroms and the persecution of the Jews. The idea is to poison how others view your opponent by preemptively attacking them. Well do I know this fallacy, having been at the receiving end of it many times! Basically, it involves invoking something bad or biased about a person’s situation or personality and then using a phrase something like, “Of course he (or she) would say that” to dismiss a person’s arguments, the implication being that the person receives such benefits from holding the position being attacked or has such a personality that he couldn’t argue otherwise regardless of the evidence. In my admittedly anecdotal experience, far and away the most common use of the ad hominem from quacks and pseudoscientists is what I once described as “the pharma shill gambit.” The idea behind this gambit when it comes to attacking those of us who promote science-based medicine is to tar one’s opponent as being a “shill” for big pharma or claiming that we have a conflict of interest so blatant that “of course we would say that.” In most cases, the bogey man is big pharma, in whose pockets we SBM bloggers are supposed to be safely (and profitably) ensconced, blogging away in our underwear for big bucks and, following the orders of our supposed paymasters, attacking anything that has even a whiff of being “alternative” or that “questions” the safety and/or efficacy of vaccines.

While I realize that there is such a thing as an “astroturf” campaign, in the vast majority of cases, the pharma shill gambit is nothing more than the variant of the ad hominem fallacy known as poisoning the well. I also realize that conflicts of interest (COIs) matter, particularly undisclosed COIs. Indeed, I wrote a rather lengthy post (I know, I know, do I write any other length of post?) about 8 months ago laying out my views regarding COIs in science-based medicine. The short version is that we all have COIs of some sort or another, be they financial, belief-based, or emotional, and more disclosure is usually better, to let the reader decide for himself. As far as COIs related to big pharma or finances, I think Mark Crislip put it quite well in his most recent Quackcast when he said that if a study is funded by big pharma, he decreases the strength of the evidence in his mind by a set amount. However, evidence is evidence, and, although it is reasonable to increase one’s level of skepticism if there is a major COI involving the authors, be it big pharma or otherwise, it is not reasonable to use that COI as the sole reason for rejecting its findings out of hand. That’s just an intellectually lazy excuse to dismiss the study, nothing more. Indeed, one prominent difference between a scientist and a pseudoscientist or quack is that in general scientists understand this and struggle to assign the correct degree of skepticism due to a COI when analyzing scientific studies, while quacks and pseudoscientists do not. It’s far easier for them just to put their fingers in their ears and scream “Conflict of interest! Conflict of interest!” and then use that to dismiss completely their opponent’s argument. It’s simple, neat, and it doesn’t require all that nasty thinking and weighing of evidence..
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Posted in: Medical Ethics, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Public Health, Vaccines

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Raw Meat and Bone Diets for Dogs: It’s Enough to Make You BARF

Some of the most rewarding interactions we have with our pets involve food. Most dogs respond with gratifying enthusiasm to being fed, and this activity is an important part of the human-animal bond. Providing food is also part of the parent/child dynamic that in many ways characterizes our relationships with our pets. Giving food is an expression of affection and a symbol of our duty of care to our pets.

Because of these emotional resonances, pet owners are often very concerned about giving their pets the “right” food to maintain health and, if possible, to prevent or treat disease. This has allowed the development of a large, and profitable commercial pet food industry that aggressively markets diets with health-related claims. This industry resembles in some ways the pharmaceutical industry. It is regulated by the FDA, and also by individual states, according to a somewhat Byzantine set of standards established by the FFDCA (the guiding document governing the FDA) and by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), a private organization made up primarily of state and federal feed control officials. Thanks to this regulatory structure, imperfect though it is, there is a good deal of solid science and research behind the products and claims the industry produces.
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Posted in: Nutrition, Veterinary medicine

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The Great Sunscreen Cover Up

If there’s one thing the media love, it’s a “bungling bureaucrats” story. Yep, the FDA, wrapped up with their science dogma, enslaved to Big Pharma, pushing toxic, unnatural chemicals and ignoring safety data. And that’s the story being told about sunscreens:

Study: Many Sunscreens May Be Accelerating Cancer
Did The FDA Ignore Proof That Sunscreens May Speed Up Cancer?
FDA Coverup Of Sunscreen Cancer Risk

What’s a consumer to do? If you only read the headlines, you may get the impression that sunscreens do more harm than good. The impetus was the release of the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) 2010 Sunscreen Guide. EWG is an environmental advocacy organization that focuses on consumer products, and has been conducting annual reviews of sunscreens since 2007. Of the 500 products it reviewed, it only recommends 8%, or 39 products in total. Why were so many products deemed “not recommended”? Reasons for negative ratings included the following:

  • any product containing retinyl palmitate (vitamin A), which is described as a photocarcinogen
  • any product containing oxybenzone, called a “potential hormone disrupter”
  • any sunscreen packaged as a spray or powder, due to inhalation concerns

EWG also raised concerns about nano-sized particles in sunscreens. But before we dive into the report, let’s consider what we’re trying to do with sunscreen.
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Posted in: Pharmaceuticals

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Speaking Skeptically About Vitamins

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The scientific understanding of vitamins has evolved over time, from the identification of frank deficiencies, to exploring the value of supplements to prevent chronic diseases. Among health professionals, taking a multivitamin “for insurance” has long been considered to be a reasonable strategy. But as more robust evidence has emerged about the benefits and possible harms of vitamins, even that advice is facing scrutiny.

This Friday, June 11, I’ll be appearing on the Skeptically Speaking radio show, giving a science-based perspective on vitamins. Call in, listen online, or submit your questions in advance. The show is live at 6pm MST (find your time here).

Posted in: Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine

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WHO, H1N1, and Conflicts of Interest

On June 11, 2009 Dr Margaret Chan, the director general of the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the H1N1 flu that was then spreading around the world was an official pandemic. This triggered a series of built-in responses in many countries, including stockpiling anti-viral medications and preparing for a mass H1N1 vaccination program. At the time the flu was still in its “first wave” and the fear was that subsequent waves, as the virus swept around the world, would become more virulent and/or contagious – similar to what happened in the 1918 pandemic.

This did not happen. At least our worst fears were not realized. The H1N1 pandemic, while serious, simmered through the winter of 2009-2010, producing a less than average flu season, although with some worrisome difference.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates:

  • CDC estimates that between 43 million and 89 million cases of 2009 H1N1 occurred between April 2009 and April 10, 2010. The mid-level in this range is about 61 million people infected with 2009 H1N1.
  • CDC estimates that between about 195,000 and 403,000 H1N1-related hospitalizations occurred between April 2009 and April 10, 2010. The mid-level in this range is about 274,000 2009 H1N1-related hospitalizations.
  • CDC estimates that between about 8,870 and 18,300 2009 H1N1-related deaths occurred between April 2009 and April 10, 2010. The mid-level in this range is about 12,470 2009 H1N1-related deaths.

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Posted in: Public Health

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Metabolic Syndrome: A Useless Construct?

Birds of a feather flock together. As they investigated the risk factors for cardiovascular disease and diabetes, medical detectives observed that the usual suspects liked to hang out together. Obesity, high blood pressure, abnormal blood lipids, and elevated blood sugars regularly appeared together in the same patient. It looked like a syndrome that might boil down to one underlying cause. They called it “metabolic syndrome” and started applying the concept to clinical practice.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, but now skeptical scientists are expressing their doubts. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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No Education? No Training? No License? No Problem!

When Daniel David Palmer, the inventor of chiropractic, and his acolytes first took up the practice of chiropractic, around the turn of the last century, they were jailed for the unlicensed practice of medicine. If history had left them there, we might not be fighting a continuing battle with the pseudoscience that is “alternative” medicine today.

Unfortunately, the Kansas legislature intervened on the chiropractors’ behalf and passed the first chiropractic practice act in 1913. Over the years, state by state, the notions that subluxations interfere with nerve flow, causing ill health, and that only chiropractors could “correct” these subluxations, thereby restoring health, were incorporated into state law. As well, chiropractors were given a broad scope of practice and allowed to call themselves “doctor.” In 1974, Louisiana’s passage of a chiropractic practice act made chiropractic legal in all 50 states.

Acupuncturists and naturopaths copied this successful formula by convincing state legislatures to incorporate their pseudoscientific ideas directly into practice acts, thereby managing to become licensed health care providers. Legislative fiat triumphed over scientific facts time after time.

Laws allowing the practice of “alternative” medicine did not totally eliminate resistance to pseudoscientific practices from some quarters. Insurance companies, for example, refused to pay for treatments they considered experimental. Medicare did not cover chiropractic. Labs and x-ray facilities wouldn’t allow use of their services. But for each roadblock science tried to put in the way, state and federal legislators were there to remove it, paving the way toward “acceptance.”
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Energy Medicine, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Politics and Regulation

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Certainty versus knowledge in medicine

I don’t want knowledge. I want certainty!

— David Bowie, from Law (Earthlings on Fire)

If there’s a trait among humans that seems universal, it appears to be an unquenchable thirst for certainty. It is likely to be a major force that drives people into the arms of religion, even radical religions that have clearly irrational views, such as the idea that flying planes into large buildings and killing thousands of people is a one-way ticket to heaven. However, this craving for certainty isn’t expressed only by religiosity. As anyone who accepts science as the basis of medical therapy knows, there’s a lot of the same psychology going on in medicine as well. This should come as no surprise to those committed to science-based medicine because there is a profound conflict between our human desire for certainty and the uncertainty that is always inherent in so much of our medical knowledge. The reason is that the conclusions of science are always provisional, and those of science-based medicine arguably even more so than many other branches of science.

In fact, one of the hardest things for many people to accept about science-based medicine is that the conclusions of science are always subject to change based on new evidence, sometimes so much so that even those of us “in the biz” can become a bit disconcerted at the rate at which knowledge we had thought to be secure changes. For example, think of how duodenal peptic ulcer disease was treated 25 years ago and then think about how it is treated now. Between 1984 and 1994, a revolution occurred on the basis of the discovery of H. pylori as the cause of most of the gastric and peptic ulcer disease we see. Where in 1985 we treated PUD with H2-blockers and other drugs designed to block gastric acid secretion, now antibiotics represent the mainstay of treatment and are curative at a much higher success rate than any treatment other than surgery and without the complications of surgery. I’m sure any other physician here could come up with multiple other examples. In my own field of breast cancer surgery, I look back at how we treated breast cancer 22 years ago, when I first started residency, and how we treat it now, and I marvel at the changes. If such changes can be disconcerting even to physicians dedicated to science-based medicine, imagine how much more disconcerting they are to lay people, particularly when they hear news reports of one study that produces one result, followed just months later by a report of a different study that gives a completely different result.
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Posted in: Diagnostic tests & procedures, Medical Academia, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Mumps

I write this post with a great deal of trepidation. The last time I perused the Medical Voices website I found nine questions that needed answering. So I answered them. One of the consequences of that blog entry was the promise that Medical Voices was poised to “tear my arguments to shreds.” Tear to shreds! Such a painful metaphor.

They specified that the shred tearing would be accomplished during a live debate, rather than a written response. While Dr. Gorski gave excellent reasons why such a debate is counterproductive, I am disinclined for more practical reasons. I am a slow thinker and a lousy debater and have never, ever, won a debate at home. If I cannot win pitted against my wife, what chance would I have against the combined might of the doctors and scientists at Medical Voices? My fragile psyche could not withstand the onslaught.

Still, there is much iron pyrite to be mined at Medical Voices and it may provide me for at least a years worth of entries. Please forgive me if I seem nervous or distracted. I have a Sword of Damocles hanging over my head and it may fall at any time. My writings may, without warning, be torn to pieces by the razor sharp logical sword of Medical Voices. Or maybe not. It is my understanding that Medical Voices will only answer with a debate, so maybe I am safe from total ego destruction.

This month, as I perused Medical Voices, I found it difficult to choose an article. So much opportunity and I have limited time to write. I finally decided on Why the New Mumps Outbreak Puts You At Risk by Robert J. Rowen, MD.
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Posted in: Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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What Do You Expect From Your Pharmacy?

What evidence standard should exist for health products sold in pharmacies? That’s today’s bleg, and I’m seeking your input.

In most countries, pharmacy is a registered, self-regulated health profession, with a responsibility to optimize the use of drugs. Pharmacist education consists of several years of university-level education and practical training in real-world health care settings. Pharmacists with advanced degrees and post-graduate residencies are common. Not all pharmacists work in community (retail) pharmacies, but that’s where many pharmacists end up, and it’s the public face of the profession.

In most countries, pharmacies are private businesses, either owned by a pharmacist or by a corporation. They are granted a privileged and exclusive right in the provision of health care: certain health products (both prescription and non-prescription) are only available in pharmacies, because pharmacist consultation and availability has been deemed necessary to maximize the safe use of these products. While it’s a setting for health care (and often the first point of contact into the system), retail pharmacy is a business. Pharmacies count on the retail sale of products for revenue and traffic. And in general, pharmacies have the legal right to stock and sell whatever products they want. Tobacco is one exception, where it is no longer sold in most Canadian pharmacies, but remains prevalent in American pharmacies. And as I discussed in a prior post, when we look internationally there can be considerable differences between which drugs are prescription, and these that can be sold over-the counter.

How Much Evidence?

The evidence standard for products sold in pharmacies is facing increasing scrutiny. Concerns have been raised in several countries that pharmacies may be taking advantage of their privileged status as provers of prescription drugs, and are selling products that aren’t supported by good scientific evidence. Some recent examples:
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Posted in: Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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