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This Book Won’t Cure Your Cancer, But It Will Help You Think More Clearly About It

cancerGideon Burrows has an inoperable brain cancer that is slow growing but is inevitably going to kill him. He has written a remarkable book about his experience, This Book Won’t Cure Your Cancer. A professional wordsmith, he is able to describe his experience of illness so vividly that the reader enters into his life, feels what he feels, and shares his suspense about what the next scan or doctor’s visit will reveal. Along with him, we suffer through the panic and fear, the chaos, the agonies of delays and uncertainty, the unpleasant hospital environment, and specialists with poor bedside manners. We follow him through difficult decisions about how to share the bad news with friends, relatives, and his young children; and we understand why this engenders guilt feelings. The story is as engaging as a detective story; we can hardly wait to see what the next scan will show and how the story of his illness will play out. It puts a human face on the cancer experience, and it would be valuable for that alone, but it is much more. The gradually unfolding episodes of his personal story are interwoven with what amounts to a primer on how to think critically about science-based medicine vs. alternative treatments. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Cancer, Critical Thinking

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To debate or not to debate: The strange bedfellows of Andrew Weil

Andrew Weil

To debate or not to debate, that is the question.
Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous quackery
Or to take arms against a sea of quackademia,
And, by opposing end them.

Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1, paraphrased badly.


The question of whether it is worthwhile to debate cranks, quacks, and advocates of pseudoscience has long been a contentious issue in the skeptic community. Those of you who’ve been reading my posts for a while know that I’ve always come down on the side that it is not a good idea One thing I’ve learned in my more than a decade of blogging, both here and at my not-so-super-secret other blog, is that advocates of pseudoscience love public debates. Indeed, whenever you see a skeptic agree to a public debate with an advocate of pseudoscience, it’s a damned sure bet that it wasn’t the skeptic who proposed it. I suppose it’s possible that there have been such instances that I’m unaware of, but I do know of a lot of instances where it was the other way around. I’ve even witnessed one myself, when our fearless founder Steve Novella debated antivaccine quack Julian Whitaker about vaccine safety at FreedomFest in Las Vegas while we were at TAM three years ago. Steve mopped the floor with Dr. Whitaker so dramatically that it almost changed my mind about the value of debates with quacks because, witnessing the debate, I saw that the arguments Dr. Whitaker marshaled were such hackneyed antivaccine talking points that I knew I could also have demolished them. Still, in the end, no minds were likely to be changed, and the question of vaccine safety was clearly being used as a tool to oppose school vaccine mandates or, as antivaccinationists like to call them deceptively, “forced vaccination.” Whether vaccines are safe and effective or not is a separate question from whether the government should mandate certain vaccines as a precondition for attending school or being in day care.

Over the years, I myself have been “challenged” to similar debates myself. Perhaps the most bizarre example occurred when someone claiming to represent HIV/AIDS denialist Christine Maggiore contacted me claiming that she wanted to arrange a debate between us. Maggiore, unfortunately, died a mere two years later of—you guessed it—AIDS-related complications. Although occasionally the ego gratification of being asked to participate in such events vied with my longstanding belief that debating cranks doesn’t sway anyone, sharing the stage with a real scientist does unduly elevate the crank in the eyes of the public. Besides, whatever the seeming outcome of the debate, you can count on the crank to declare victory and his believers to agree. In any event, science isn’t decided by the metrics used to judge who “wins” a public debate, which rely more on rhetoric and cleverness rather than science to decide the outcome. Finally, such debates are not without risks. Although Julian Whitaker, for example, was terrible at it, other cranks are adept at the Gish Gallop, and an unprepared skeptic or scientist can be made to appear clueless in front of a crowd that is almost always packed with supporters of the crank, not the skeptic.

Just last week, there was another “debate” challenge that led me to question my resolve not to debate cranks. It came from a most unexpected source.

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

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The suffering the search for “natural immunity” inflicts on children

Yes, there are people out there who believe that there are "natural" remedies for pertussis and willing to let their children suffer the consequences.

Yes, as hard as it is to believe, there are actually people out there who believe that there are “natural” remedies for pertussis and willing to let their children suffer the consequences.

I realize that Scott Gavura has already covered this particular case (and quite well), but it’s so egregious that I couldn’t resist discussing it myself because it is one of the most horrifying examples I’ve seen in a long time of the consequences of the sorts of beliefs that fall under the rubric of naturopathy. Quite frankly, reading the story angered me to the point that I didn’t feel it would be unduly repetitious to discuss it again. The result in this case was the prolonged and unnecessary suffering of three children, while the mother believed she was helping them.

Naturopathy is a cornucopia packed to the brim with virtually every quackery known to humankind, be it homeopathy, much of traditional Chinese medicine, vitamin C for cancer, or basically any other pseudoscientific or prescientific treatment for disease that you can imagine. I feel obligated to start most of my posts about naturopathy with a statement like this not just because it’s true but because I want to remind my readers that it’s true. I particularly want to remind my readers when I see naturopaths revealing their true quack selves when they think no one’s watching, but I want to remind them even more when I see a post like the one by a naturopath named Heather Dexter entitled Natural Remedies for Whooping Cough: Getting Through It IS Possible. The post has been disappearing and reappearing with new edits for the last few days, but it seems to have disappeared for good. Fortunately the Internet never forgets, and in addition to the versions captured by Scott, the original text can still be found on Reddit, although it takes some scrolling to find it, and, for now, a Google cache version still exists.

If you want anecdotal evidence of the depths of quackery to which naturopaths can descend, read this post now. Because the link to the original post was removed once, I saved the text and will quote it liberally, but, for whatever reason, the post appears to be up again at Like-Minded Mamas, which promises “easy, natural answers for every mama’s journey.” What Dexter sees as natural treatment of her children with whooping cough, I see as child abuse. Worse, Dexter is practicing in my own state in Grand Rapids, MI.
Dexter describes herself thusly:

Heather Dexter is a Board Certified Naturopathic Doctor, Certified Affiliated Bradley Method Instructor, Certified Holistic Doula, Certified Usui Reiki Master Practitioner.

Here’s an indication: If you believe in reiki enough to practice reiki, you are a quack.

More importantly, if you treat your children the way Dexter describes, you are a child-abusing quack, in my not-so-humble opinion. Why do I say this? Because in her post Dexter describes how she tortured her children by letting them “get through” pertussis. Let me repeat that again in a different way. She let her children suffer through the natural course of a pertussis infection in order to acquire “natural” immunity. She even brags about it near the end of her post:

Posted in: Naturopathy, Vaccines

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May the Floss be with you?

Toothbrush...lightsaber...toothbrush...lightsaber...which removes more plaque?

Toothbrush…lightsaber…toothbrush…lightsaber…which removes more plaque?

I’m beginning this blog post under the assumption that the average Science Based Medicine reader is more intelligent, more motivated, and more health conscious than your typical Jane or Joe Blow. As such, most of you probably visit your friendly neighborhood dentist for cleanings and checkups twice a year just like the toothpaste manufacturers American Dental Association recommends. And if you’re like 99% of the patients my dental hygienists and I see in my practice, you get encouraged/chided/scolded to floss more. Because we all know no one flosses like they’re supposed to and that flossing is absolutely the best thing a person can do for his or her oral health, right? We even have posters that have witty quips like “Only Floss Those Teeth You Want To Keep!” Pretty clever, huh? You have to get up pretty early in the morning to be funnier than a dentist. (more…)

Posted in: Dentistry

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The horrible consequences of seeking “natural” immunity: Naturopathy and Whooping Cough

Whooping cough isn't pretty

This is what whooping cough looks like. It sounds even worse.

If there’s one area of “alternative” medicine that saddens (and angers) me, it’s the antivaccine movement. Most alternative medicine only risks harm to the user. But antivaccinationists threaten public health. Their actions can harm the most vulnerable in our society – often children, and others who depend on the herd immunity that vaccination provides. After my last few naturopathy vs. science posts I thought I’d take a bit of a break with another subject. However, last week ex-naturopath (and friend of the blog) Britt Hermes flagged a post from a naturopath that stunned me. Here was antivaccinationism and naturopathy, all rolled into a blog post about three children with a parent that doesn’t vaccinate. Heather Dexter, who claims to be a “Board Certified Naturopathic Doctor” in Michigan, blogs at She recently used her blog to describe, in astonishing, horrific, gut-wrenching detail, how she let three of her children suffer with whooping cough without seeking proper medical attention. The post was pulled down after a few days, but has recently reappeared with some modifications. (The original post, which I am quoting from below, has been archived and can be found here or here). I strongly encourage you to read the entire post in its entirety. Because amazingly, not only did Heather Dexter let her three children suffer through weeks of pain with whooping cough, she also subjected them repeatedly to invasive (and useless) alternative medicine. Yet she claims to have no regrets. (more…)

Posted in: Naturopathy, Vaccines

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Information Literacy and the Number Needed to Treat

NNTIncreasingly people are accessing healthcare information in order to make decisions for their own health. A 2010 Pew poll found that 80% of internet users will do so for health care information. This presents a huge potential benefit, but also a significant risk.

Information literacy

Daniel Levitin talks about the need for public information literacy, something we also discuss frequently here on SBM. If you are accessing the internet to inform your health care decisions, then you need to know how to determine the legitimacy and trustworthiness of the websites you are visiting. There is a big difference between NaturalNews (a crank site full of misinformation and conspiracy theories) and Nature News (an outlet for one of the most prestigious science journals in the world).

Even when you can discriminate between good and bad health information websites, the challenge remains to properly interpret the scientific information to which you now have access.


Posted in: Science and the Media

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Breast Milk Testing: Scaremongering, Not Science

New mothers, especially first-time mothers, tend to worry about whether they are doing what is best for their babies. A new service, Happy Vitals, will only add to those worries. We know that breast is best, but these folks make women question whether their breast milk is good enough. They say:

Happy Vitals provides families with the tools they need to monitor and improve the long-term health of their children. With our simple and easy-to-use tests, mothers can learn for the first time about the nutrient make-up of their breast milk, improve their diet and nutrition, and safeguard against exposure to heavy metals and other toxins that are harmful to a child’s growth and development.

After a crowdfunding/pre-sale campaign, they plan to start shipping kits this month. They offer various packages. For $149.95, they will analyze a sample of breast milk for four key nutrients: glucose, lactose, protein, and fat. For $559.95, they will also test for:

  • Four “indicators of immunity”: cortisol, IgA antibodies, IgG antibodies, IgM antibodies.
  • Eleven micronutrients: calcium, folate, iron, vitamin D, vitamin A, ferritin, magnesium, phosphorous, sodium, potassium, and vitamin B12.
  • Four heavy metal toxins: arsenic, lead, mercury, and cadmium (based on samples of infant’s hair and nails.)


Posted in: Diagnostic tests & procedures, Nutrition

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Authority versus science on integrative medicine

Should we respect David Katz's authority?

Should we respect David Katz’s authority?


David Katz doesn’t much like us here at Science-Based Medicine. In fairness, I can’t say that I much blame him. We have been very critical of his writings and talks over the years, dating back as far as Steve Novella’s deconstruction of one of Dr. Katz’s more infamous statements about using a “more fluid concept of evidence” to Kimball Atwood’s characterization of his tortured logic to my pointing out that his arguments frequently boil down to a false dichotomy of either abandoning science or abandoning patients.

Last week, Jann Bellamy did her usual great job discussing an unfortunate special supplement of the American Journal of Preventative Medicine (AJPM) entitled Integrative Medicine in Preventive Medicine Education. This supplement included articles summarizing the results of project called IMPriME (Integrative Medicine in Preventive Medicine Education), funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), to advance the inclusion of “integrative medicine” in Preventive Medicine residency programs. Not surprisingly, this project was led by Dr. Katz. Jann used this special issue as a jumping off point to show, quite correctly, how, when it comes to so-called “integrative medicine,” it is always about the “potential,” which has always been elusive and has never been realized. Unfortunately, the elusiveness of the amazing potential attributed to “integrative medicine” (formerly referred to as “complementary and alternative medicine” or “CAM”) has done almost nothing to dampen the ardor of its cheerleaders for “integrating” as much woo as they can into medicine, which is why a major journal would allow someone like David Katz to edit a special issue dedicated to articles discussing IMPriME’s findings.

Thanks to Jann’s post, it appears that Dr. Katz is most displeased with us again here at SBM. To express his displeasure, he has rattled off a little rant over at his usual non-academic hangout and quack-friendly Internet outlet, The Huffington Post. There, he castigates us with a post entitled Science and Medicine, Fools and Fanatics: The ‘Fluidity’ of Woo. Yes, right off the bat, it’s the same old strategy, to paint advocates of “integrative medicine” as the “reasonable” ones while those of us who object to integrating prescientific quackery into medicine are clearly the “fanatics” (or, if you prefer, the fools). In it, as usual, Dr. Katz lays down some real howlers in defense of his integration of woo with medicine.

Posted in: Basic Science, Critical Thinking, Medical Academia

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Matt Ridley’s not-so-mythical “myth” of basic science

Matt Ridley: Specious arguments against government research funding.

Matt Ridley: Specious arguments against government research funding.

I’m a clinician, but I’m actually also a translational scientist. It’s not uncommon for those of us in medicine involved in some combination of basic and clinical research to argue about exactly what that means. The idea is translational science is supposed to be the process of “translating” basic science discoveries in the laboratory into medicine, be it in the form of drugs, treatments, surgical procedures, laboratory tests, diagnostic tests, or anything else that physicians use to diagnose and treat human disease. Trying to straddle the two worlds, to turn discoveries in basic science into usable medicine, is more difficult than it sounds. Many are the examples of promising discoveries that appeared as though they should have led to useful medical treatments or tests, but, for whatever reason, didn’t work when attempted in humans.

Of course, if there’s one thing that the NIH and other funding agencies have been emphasizing, it’s been “translational research,” or, as I like to call it, translation über alles. Here’s the problem. If you don’t have basic science discoveries to translate, then translational science becomes problematic, virtually impossible even. Translational research depends upon a pipeline of basic science discoveries to form the basis for translational scientists to use as the starting point for developing new treatments and tests. Indeed, like many others who appreciate this, I’ve been concerned that in recent years, particularly with tight budgets, the NIH has been overemphasizing translational research at the expense of basic research.

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

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Everything you always wanted to know about fermented foods 

Delicious homemade Kimchi (fermented cabbage). It's alive!

Delicious homemade Kimchi (fermented cabbage). It’s alive! Click for a closer look.

Fermented foods, such as sauerkraut and kombucha, have become popular for health reasons. I have made my own sauerkraut in the past and have recently made the tasty, fermented Korean side dish, kimchi. I did it not only for the taste but also for the hope that the bacteria responsible for the fermentation of the cabbage — lactic acid bacteria (LAB) — would contribute to the diversity of my gut microbiota.

As a research scientist in the field of bacterial pathogenesis, this made sense to me. Now that I have started blogging about health and fitness and have been writing more in depth articles about health related topics, I started wondering what research has been done on the health benefits of fermented foods. Can the bacteria in fermented foods even survive the harsh conditions of the human gastrointestinal (GI) tract, particularly the stomach?

I was amazed to learn that the fermentation of food has been used by humans for thousands of years as a way to preserve foods, and that the health benefits go beyond their microorganisms (don’t worry, citations are provided below). The fermentation process enhances the nutritional quality of food by contributing beneficial compounds such as vitamins, and by increasing the bioavailability of minerals. Probiotics, including those found in kimchi, have a range of positive effects on health, including the improvement of various intestinal inflammatory conditions, positive impacts on the immune system and even weight loss, and can alter the composition of the gut microbiome.

However, these effects mostly depend on whether the bacteria actually make it in sufficient numbers to the colon. And let me tell you, the journey to the colon is one harsh and dangerous ride!


Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Nutrition, Science and Medicine

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