When Dr. Novella recently wrote about plausibility in science-based medicine, one of our most assiduous commenters, Daedalus2u, added a very important point. The data are always right, but the explanations may be wrong. The idea of treating ulcers with antibiotics was not incompatible with any of the data about ulcers; it was only incompatible with the idea that ulcers were caused by too much acid. Even scientists tend to think on the level of the explanations rather than on the level of the data that led to those explanations.
A valuable new book elaborates on this concept: Diagnosis, Therapy and Evidence: Conundrums in Modern American Medicine, by medical historian Gerald N. Grob and sociologist Allan V. Horwitz. They point out that
many claims about the causes of disease, therapeutic practices, and even diagnoses are shaped by beliefs that are unscientific, unproven, or completely wrong. (more…)
The core information supporting science-based medicine resides in the scientific literature. There, scientists and physicians publish the results of experiments and clinical trials that seek to understand the biological mechanisms by which the human body functions and through which disease forms and to apply this understanding to test new treatments for diease. Consequently, the quality and integrity of the biomedical literature are topics of utmost importance to supporters of science-based medicine. We’ve discussed problems with the scientific literature before here, ranging from how pseudoscientific “complementary and alternative medicine” journals have insinuated themselves into the medical literature and how drug companies have managed exercise undue influence over clinical trials and journals.
One question that perhaps we have not dealt with so much is the question of the very nature of a good scientific journal, particularly what is suitable material for such a journal. For purposes of this discussion, I will focus mainly on the biomedical literature, which spans a range from basic science journals dealing with biomedical science to clinical journals, which mainly report the results of clinical trials and clinical research. Of these journals, there are in general two types, journals that primarily report original research and those that present reviews of existing research. Most journals do a mix of the two, the majority tending towards a form where most of the articles are reports of orginal research mixed in with a much smaller number of review articles.
There is one journal, however, that is different. It is a journal known as Medical Hypotheses. It is a journal that (or so it claims) exists to present radical scientific ideas, the more radical the better. Here is how the journal is described on its website:
Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.
There is an educational approach to becoming a doctor. It involves learning massive amounts of basic science, followed by massive amounts of pathophysiology, which barely prepares you for the clinical years of the last half of medical school and subsequent residency, with the massive knowledge dump you will have to absorb. Much of the information is given by experts in the field, usually MDs or PhDs (or both), who lecture formally and informally. Being considered an expert in infectious disease (ID) at a teaching hospital, I now spend hours a day yammering on about infections to anyone who will listen, students in all the medical fields who rotate through our hospitals. I value the facts I have learned in my field and respect those who have worked to provide me with the information. I greatly value facts and the people who provide them.
Most of the information I get in medicine is from those in the field. It is rare for people to write about aspects of medicine that I will take seriously. Yes, there are a lot of people who write on the web about medicine, but given what it takes to achieve even a solid knowledge in medicine, much less develop expertise, I usually can’t take them too seriously. Call me arrogant, but if you want to be a legitimate source of information there are dues that have to be paid.
My previous posts have described guest lecturers at my medical school campus, invited by a student interest group in CAM. Those events continue; currently ongoing is an 8-weekend certification course in Ayurveda for the subsidized cost of $1500 (includes “tuition, syllabus, and personal guru”). I could pick on this student group, but what’s the point? There will always be medical students who organize to promote ideas that you or I disagree with, whether it be political, religious, or personal. The fact that Tim Kreider disagrees with a particular student group is not terribly interesting.
The more important issue is how CAM is treated by faculty in the curriculum. Particularly during the preclinical years, medical students are in the habit of transcribing and commiting to memory everything uttered by the professors who grade them. A lack of rigorous skepticism is frankly necessary given how much information we are required to master. Where would CAM fit in among the lectures on anatomy, physiology, and pathology?
A question that arises often when discussing the optimal role of science in medicine is the precise role of plausibility, or prior probability. This is, in fact, the central concept that separates (for practical if not philosophical reasons) science-based medicine (SBM) from evidence-based medicine (EBM).
The concept featured prominently in the debate between myself and Dr. Katz at the recent Yale symposium that Kimball Atwood recently discussed. Dr. Katz’s treatment of the topic was fairly typical of CAM proponents, and consisted of a number of straw man derived from a false dichotomy, which I will describe in detail below.
I also recently received (I think by coincidence) the following question from an interested SBM reader:
What would Science Based Medicine do if H. pylori was not known, but a study showed that antibiotics given to patients with stomach ulcers eliminated symptoms? I assume that SBM wouldn’t dismiss it outright saying that it couldn’t possibly be helping because antibiotics don’t reduce stomach acid. I assume a SBM approach would do further studies trying to discover why antibiotics work. But, in the meantime, would a SBM practitioner refuse to give antibiotics to patients because he doesn’t have a scientific explanation as to why it works?
This is the exact type of scenario raised by David Katz during our discussion. He claimed that strict adherence to the principles of SBM would deprive patients of effective treatments, simply because we did not understand how they work. This is a pernicious straw man that significantly misconstrues the nature of plausibility and its relationship to the practice of medicine.
The Main Event: Novella vs. Katz
The remainder of the Symposium comprised two panels. The first was what I had come to see: a Moderated Discussion on Evidence and Plausibility in the Context of CAM Research and Clinical Practice, featuring our Founder, Steve Novella, who is also Assistant Professor of Neurology at Yale; and David Katz, the speaker who had borne the brunt of the criticism after the 2008 conference (as I wrote in Part I). According to the Symposium syllabus, he is:
David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, an internationally renowned authority on nutrition, weight management, and the prevention of chronic disease, and an internationally recognized leader in integrative medicine and patient-centered care. He is a board certified specialist in both Internal Medicine, and Preventive Medicine/Public Health, and Associate Professor (adjunct) in Public Health Practice at the Yale University School of Medicine. Katz is the Director and founder (1998) of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center; Director and founder of the Integrative Medicine Center at Griffin Hospital (2000) in Derby, CT; founder and president of the non-profit Turn the Tide Foundation; and formerly the Director of Medical Studies in Public Health at the Yale School of Medicine for eight years. He currently serves as Chair of the Connecticut Chapter of the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease and represents Yale University on the Steering Committee of the Consortium of Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine.
The syllabus had excerpted that statement from a much larger, remarkable document, which I urge you to review.
I will attempt to report the Moderated Discussion as neutrally as possible, as though I were a disinterested journalist (don’t worry: later I’ll rail).
One (dark and stormy?) night in 1882, a critically ill 70 year old woman was at the verge of death at her daughter’s home, suffering from fever, crippling pain, nausea, and an inflamed abdominal mass. At 2 AM, a courageous surgeon put her on the kitchen table and performed the first known operation to remove gallstones. The patient recovered uneventfully. The patient was the surgeon’s own mother.
This compelling story is the beginning of an excellent new biography of William Halsted, the father of modern surgery, Genius on the Edge: The Bizarre Double Life of Dr. William Stewart Halsted, by Gerald Imber, MD.
When Halsted went to medical school, surgeons still operated in street clothes, with bare hands, and major surgical procedures carried a mortality rate of nearly 50 percent. Suppuration of wounds was called laudable pus. Lister had recently introduced carbolic acid dips and sprays (that were irritating and toxic), but hand washing was discouraged because it was thought to force germs into skin crevices. (more…)
I get all sorts of mail. I get mail from whining Scientologists, suffering patients, angry quacks—and I get lots of promotional material. I get letters from publishers wanting me to review books, letters from pseudo-bloggers wanting me to plug their advertiblog—really, just about anything you can imagine.
Most of the time I just hit “delete”; it’s obvious that they’ve never read my blog and they’re just casting a wide net for some link love. But a recent email from a PR firm piqued my interest: (it’s a long letter, and I won’t be offended if you simply reference it rather than read the whole thing now):
A few months ago, I wrote about a particularly nasty form of cancer quackery known as the “German New Medicine” or Die Germanische Neue Medizin in German. As you may recall, the German New Medicine is based on the nonsensical idea that cancer arises from an internal emotional conflict. This conflict then results in what is called the “Dirk Hamer Syndrome” (DHS) or “Dirk Hamer focus” in the brain, named after Dr. Ryke Geerd Hamer‘s son Dirk, who was tragically shot in his sleep by Vittorio Emanuel, the last crown prince of Italy. After a prolonged course requiring multiple operations, Dirk succumbed to his wounds and died. Three years later, Dr. Hamer developed testicular cancer, and, in a perfect case of post hoc ergo propter hoc, Hamer decided that it was the psychic shock of his son’s death that had caused his cancer. Thus was born Die Germanische Neue Medizin, which, according to Hamer, promises a 95% or more chance of curing any cancer, no matter how advanced. Never mind that Hamer apparently underwent a combination of surgery and other “conventional therapies for his testicular cancer. Also never mind that these “Dirk Hamer Focus” to which Hamer pointed on CT scans of the brain appeared, more than anything else, to be artifacts of the imaging process and nothing real.
As I described in my previous post in October, the German New Medicine is a seriously dangerous form of cancer quackery that is not only worthless but in many cases blames the patient for having developed cancer. Evidence can be found in this video, where a proponent of German New Medicine gives as examples of psychic stress a “cancer blow” that comes from menopause, in which loss of estrogen supposedly leads women to feel that they “aren’t the woman they used to be” and that that conflict is manifest in the bone or an athlete’s anger because of an injury that screws up his ability to perform leading to an osteosarcoma of extremity.
Unfortunately, cancer quackery frequently evolves under the selective pressure of competition with other cancer quackeries and based on the unique environments in which various forms of quackery come to land. Since I first wrote my post about Die Germanische Neue Medizin, I’ve been meaning to address one of its offshoots. The particular offshoot that I plan to address is, in essence, the French cousin of Die Germanische Neue Medizin, and it’s called Biologie Totale, or Total Biology (Claude Sabbah’s official site is here, but it’s all in French). I first became aware of Biologie Totale about a year and a half ago through this news story:
March 4, 2010
Today I went to the one-day, 2nd Yale Research Symposium on Complementary and Integrative Medicine. Many of you will recall that the first version of this conference occurred in April, 2008. According to Yale’s Continuing Medical Education website, the first conference “featured presentations from experts in CAM/IM from Yale and other leading medical institutions and drew national and international attention.” That is true: some of the national attention can be reviewed here, here, here, and here; the international attention is here. (Sorry about the flippancy; it was irresistible)
I’ve not been to a conference promising similar content since about 2001, and in general I’ve no particular wish to do so. This one was different: Steve Novella, in his day job a Yale neurologist, had been invited to be part of a Moderated Discussion on Evidence and Plausibility in the Context of CAM Research and Clinical Practice. This was not to be missed.