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The “pharma shill” gambit

Editor’s note: Since I happen to be on vacation (sort of–in reality I plan on spending most of next week holed up in my Sanctum Sanctorum at home writing a grant that’s due in February) and because readership tends to be down during the week between Christmas and New Years’ Day, I thought I’d resurrect something from well over three years ago and revise it to fit this particular blog. In doing so, I hope to provide you with something amusing to read, as well as something to link to time and time again whenever you want to refer to a particular gambit beloved by promoters of quackery and pseudoscience. I present here….The “Pharma Shill” Gambit! Enjoy!

I’ve mentioned before on this blog at least once that I cut my skeptical teeth, so to speak, on Usenet, that vast untamed and largely unmoderated territory full of tens of thousands of discussion newsgroups which used to be a lot more active before the rise of the World Wide Web and then later blogs. These days, few ISPs even offer much in the way of Usenet access; it’s become pretty much irrelevant since Google archived Usenet in the form of Google Groups. My forays into skepticism started out with combatting Holocaust denial on a newsgroup known as alt.revisionism (as good an excuse as any to remind you that nearly all Holocaust “revisionism” isn’t historical revisionism but is actually denial) and then branched out into more general skepticism, particularly about the claims of creationists and, of course, promoters of “alternative” medicine, the latter of which ultimately led me to being the editor of this wild and woolly thing we call the Science-Based Medicine blog. After I began to participate in the debates in the main newsgroup where alternative medicine is discussed, misc.health.alternative, it didn’t take me long to encounter a favorite tactic of promoters of alt-med who were not happy with one who insists on evidence-based medicine and who therefore questions claims that are obviously not based in valid science: The “Pharma Shill” Gambit. This is a technique of ad hominem attack in which a defender of “alternative” medicine, offended by your questioning of, for instance, his/her favorite herb, colon or liver flush technique, zapper, or cancer “cure,” tries to “poison the well” by implying or outright stating you must be in the pay of a pharmaceutical company, hired for nefarious purposes.

Since I entered the blogosphere several years ago under another guise, I’ve only occasionally checked back at my old stomping ground, mainly because blogging is so much less constraining than posting to Usenet, where mostly I used to respond to the posts of others, rather than writing about what I wanted to write about. A while back, though, out of curiosity I checked back and found this interesting little tidbit from a poster calling himself PeterB that demonstrated such a perfect example of the “pharma shill” gambit that I thought it might serve as a perfect example of the sort of thing I’ve had to put up with ever since I started speaking out against quackery:
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Posted in: Humor, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Buteyko Breathing Technique – Nothing to Hyperventilate About

A reader recently sent in a link to a New York Times article that discussed an alternative breathing technique developed in Russia for the treatment of asthma called the Buteyko Method, or the Buteyko Breathing Technique (BBT), and asked for an evaluation of the claims on SBM.  This post will attempt to be a reasonably comprehensive evaluation of Buteyko and his therapy so that subsequent discussions, should they be necessary, may be more terse.

The NYT article is primarily an anecdote of a friend of the author who suffered from severe asthma, but who had improved since he began using the BBT.  The author briefly discusses asthma, the history and theory behind Buteyko and hyperventilation before wrapping up with an attempt to provide evidence to support the legitimacy of the story.  The friend’s pulmonologist is quoted to confirm that “based on objective data, his breathing has improved…”  She cites controlled clinical trials “in Australia and elsewhere” where patients have reduced their use of medications, including a purported British study of 384 patients where patients had a 90% reduction in rescue inhaler use and 50% reduction in steroids.  She ends by pointing out that the British Thoracic Society has given BBT a “B” rating, and an admonition to “the pharmaceutically supported American medical community to explore this nondrug technique.”

Never having heard of BBT before, the NYT article left me with several questions.  Who was Buteyko?  How did he develop the BBT?  What is BBT, what does it claim to do, and how does it claim to work?  Is the evidence as presented in the NYT article accurate? And finally, what evidence exists within the literature that BBT is an effective treatment for asthma?

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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2009’s Top 5 Threats To Science In Medicine

As 2009 comes to an end, it seems that everyone is creating year-in-review lists. I thought I’d jump on the list band wagon and offer my purely subjective top 5 threats to rational thought in healthcare and medicine.

Of course, it strikes me as rather ironic that we’re having this discussion – who knew that medicine could be divorced from science in the first place? I thought the two went hand-in-hand, like a nice antigen and its receptor… and yet, here we are, on the verge of tremendous technological breakthroughs (thanks to advances in our understanding of molecular genetics, immunology, and biochemistry, etc.), faced with a growing number of people who prefer to resort to placebo-based remedies (such as heavy-metal laced herbs or vigorously shaken water) and Christian Science Prayer.

And so, without further ado, here’s my list of the top 5 threats to science in medicine for 2009 and beyond:
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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“Toxins”: the new evil humours

They say that everything old is new again and that is certainly true in the world of “alternative” health. One of the axiomatic premises of contemporary “alternative” health puts its believers behind the times … by approximately 500 years.

A fundamental premise held by believers in “alternative” health is that we are swimming in a world of “toxins” and those “toxins” are causing disease. Like most premises in “alternative” health it has no basis in scientific fact; makes intuitive sense only if you are ignorant of medicine, science and statistics; and speaks to primitive fears and impulses.

The preoccupation with “toxins” is a direct lineal descendant of the obsession with evil humours and miasmas as causes of disease. It is hardly surprising that prior to the invention of the microscope the real causes of disease went undiscovered. The idea that disease is caused by tiny organisms that invade the body is not amenable to discovery in the absence of scientific instruments and scientific reasoning. And it goes without saying that the same people who were unaware that bacteria and viruses cause disease could not possibly imagine chromosomal defects, inborn errors of metabolism or genetic predispositions to disease.

Instead, people imagined that diseases were caused by excess evil humours, substances that were named, but never seen or identified in any way accessible to the senses. It was recognized that some diseases were contagious, and in that case, people invoked the idea of “miasmas” that somehow transmitted disease.
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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Lithium for ALS – Angioplasty for MS

Peter Lipson reported Monday about new research suggesting that Multiple Sclerosis may be caused by venous blockage. He correctly characterized some of the hype surrounding this story as “irrational exuberance.”

This is a phenomenon all too common in the media – taking the preliminary research of an individual or group (always presented as a maverick) and declaring it a “stunning breakthrough,” combined with the ubiquitous personal anecdote of someone “saved” by the new treatment.

The medical community, meanwhile, responds with appropriate caution and healthy skepticism. Looks interesting – let’s see some more research. There is a reason for such a response from experts – experience.

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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and the Media

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Medical Fun with Christmas Carols

Warning: If you are offended by humor that depends on psychiatric and medical diagnoses, read no further.

Disclaimer: Before anyone complains (and in this age of exaggerated political correctness, someone surely will), let me make it clear that I mean no disrespect to people suffering from the illnesses mentioned below. I have the greatest empathy for sick people, and I have encountered several of these conditions in my own family and have actually experienced four of them myself. Humor about them doesn’t offend me, and I hope it will not offend you. Also, my mention of Christmas and Hanukkah songs is not intended to endorse any religious belief.

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After a year of serious talk about mostly discouraging things, I thought it was time for a totally frivolous post to cheer us up with a little holiday humor. A friend sent me a list of “Christmas Carols for the Psych Ward.” I thought they were funny, and I’ve copied the best of them below. I’ve added a few of my own for other medical diagnoses, and then I added several about complementary and alternative medicine. (more…)

Posted in: Humor

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Multiple Sclerosis and Irrational Exuberance

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is fascinating illness that can range from mild annoyance to debilitating nightmare. The frightening nature and unclear cause of the disease makes it a magnet for questionable medical therapies (i.e. quackery). A piece published last week in (surprise!) the Huffington Post helps fuel the fires of suspicion and paranoia while failing to shed any light on the future of MS research.

Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the nervous system. Its victims develop symptoms based on what part of the nervous system is affected. For example, if MS attacks the optic nerve, a patient may experience blurry vision or blindness. If it affects the motor areas of the brain that controls the left leg, the patient will develop weakness in the left leg. Typically, the symptoms will last a certain period of time and then improve, but often not completely back to normal. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Radiation from medical imaging and cancer risk

ResearchBlogging.orgScience-based medicine consists of a balancing of risks and benefits for various interventions. This is sometimes a difficult topic for the lay public to understand, and sometimes physicians even forget it. My anecdotal experience suggests that probably surgeons are usually more aware of this basic fact because our interventions generally involve taking sharp objects to people’s bodies and using steel to remove or rearrange parts of people’s anatomy for (hopefully) therapeutic effect. Ditto oncologists, who prescribe highly toxic substances to treat cancer, the idea being that these substances are more toxic to the cancer than they are to the patient. Often they are only marginally more toxic to the cancer than to the patient. However, if there’s one area where even physicians tend to forget that there is potential risk involved, it’s the area of diagnostic tests, in particular radiological diagnostic tests, such as X-rays, fluoroscopy, computed tomography (CT) scans, and the variety of ever more powerful diagnostic studies that have proliferated over since CT scans first entered medical practice in the 1970s. Since then, the crude images that the first CT scans produced have evolved, thanks to technology and ever greater computing power, to breathtaking three dimensional-views of the internal organs. Indeed, just since I finished medical school back in the late 1980s, I’m continually amazed at what these new imaging modalities can accomplish.

The downside of these imaging modalities is that most of them require the use of X-rays to produce their images. True, over the last 15 years or so MRI, which uses very strong magnetic fields and radiofrequency radiation rather than ionizing radiation to produce its images, has become increasingly prevalent. MRI is great because it produces more contrast between different kinds of soft tissue than CT scans do. However, CT tends to be superior for examining calcified organs, such as bone. (The breast surgeon in me notes that breast MRI is pretty much useless for detecting microcalcifications, an important possible indicator for cancer.) Also, MRI scans require a prolonged period of laying still in a very tight tube, which is a problem for patients with any degree of claustrophobia, although “open” MRIs are becoming increasingly available. More importantly for the quality of images, because they require a patient to lie more still than a CT, MRIs tend to be prone to more motion artifacts, which is perhaps why CT is more frequently used to image the abdomen other than large solid organs such as the liver. The point is that, although MRI is becoming more prevalent, CT scans aren’t going away any time soon. They have different strengths and weaknesses as imaging modalities and are therefore best suited for different, albeit overlapping, sets of indications.
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Posted in: Cancer, Public Health

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Measles

It looks like the H1N1 pandemic is fading fast. I am amazed at how lucky we were, at least in the hospitals where I work. A month ago all the ICU beds were full, most of the ventilators were in use and we were wondering how we were going to triage the next batch of patients who needed advanced life support and we had none to offer. Then, right as we reached maximum capacity and had no more wiggle room, the rates plummeted. We skated right up to the edge of the precipice, looked down, and did not have to jump.

The pandemic has not been as bad as expected, but it was still no walk in the park. Nationwide H1N1 killed maybe 10,000, with 1,100 in children and 7,500 among young adults (ref). Oregon has had 1200 hospitalizations and 68 deaths. We had about 8 deaths from H1N1 in my hospital system. We would have had twice that number, but one of our hospitals is a trauma center and offers ECMO (Extra Corporeal Membrane Oxygenation) and we managed to save a number of people who would have died if they had been in a lesser hospital. The national statistics mirror our experience. None of the deaths were in the elderly. Pity the vaccine was slow to be produced as it could have prevented the majority of those deaths.

Are we done with H1N1? Will it become part of seasonal flu? Will it have a third comeback, fueled by holiday travel? Will it mutate and increase virulence? Will it recombine with avian flu to generate a new strain? Is this THE pandemic that comes every 30 years or so, and we will not see another until after I am long dead?

How am I supposed to know? I can’t see the future. Or can I? Mr. Randi, listen up: I am thinking I will be eligible for that million dollar prize. I am receiving future information from the Large Hadron Collider, curiously delivered inside a baguette. I think I can predict the next infection to sweep the US.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Are the benefits of breastfeeding oversold?

As a mother, I am a passionate advocate of breastfeeding and I breastfed my four children. As a clinician, though, I need to be mindful not to counsel patients based on my personal preferences, but rather based on the scientific evidence. While breastfeeding has indisputable advantages, the medical advantages are quite small. Many current efforts to promote breastfeeding, while well meaning, overstate the benefits of breastfeeding and distorts the risks of not breastfeeding, particularly in regard to longterm benefits.

As Joan Wolf explains in an article entitled Is Breast Really Best? Risk and Total Motherhood in the National Breastfeeding Awareness Campaign:

… Medical journals are replete with contradictory conclusions about the impact of breast-feeding: for every study linking it to better health, another finds it to be irrelevant, weakly significant, or inextricably tied to other unmeasured or unmeasurable factors. While many of these investigations describe a correlation between breast-feeding and more desirable outcomes, the notion that breast-feeding itself contributes to better health is far less certain, and this is a crucial distinction that breast-feeding proponents have consistently elided. If current research is a weak justification for public health recommendations, it is all the more so for a risk-based message that generates and then profits from the anxieties of soon-to-be and new mothers…

Wolf describes the problems with many studies of breastfeeding, particularly those that focus on long term outcomes:

In breast-feeding studies, potential confounding makes it difficult to isolate the protective powers of breast milk itself or to rule out the possibility that something associated with breast-feeding is responsible for the benefits attributed to breast milk. As the number of years between breastfeeding and the measured health outcome grows, so too does the list of possibly influential factors, which means that the challenge is magnifiedwhen trying to evaluate long-term benefits of breastfeeding… Breast-feeding, in other words, cannot be distinguished from the decision to breast-feed, which, irrespective of socioeconomic status or education,could represent an orientation toward parenting that is itself likely to have a positive impact on children’s health. In instances such as this, in which the exposure (breast-feeding) and confounder (behavior) are likely to be very highly correlated, confounding is especially difficult to detect. When behavior associated with breast-feeding has the potential to explain much of the statistical advantage attributed to breast milk, the scientific claim that breast-feeding confers health benefits … needs to be reexamined.

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Posted in: Nutrition, Obstetrics & gynecology

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