Dr. Sidney Farber, shown here not believing in reiki or reflexology.
In June, an article in the Boston Globe covered yet another incursion of pseudoscience into a major academic medical center, this time at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Dana-Farber, located just a couple of miles from the library where I’m writing this post, has provided world-class care for children and adults with cancer since 1947. It’s kind of a big deal.
Sidney Farber, already known as the “father” of pediatric pathology, was the first person to induce remission in pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which had a 100% mortality rate up to that point. He then went on to earn the title of “father” of modern chemotherapy by also curing Wilm’s tumor, a rare pediatric cancer of the kidneys. Farber, who was featured in the phenomenal book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee, would almost certainly be opposed the double standard being employed to justify quackery in the facility bearing his name (or anywhere else).
To Farber, a scientific approach to treating pediatric cancer patients was paramount, even to the point where he at first refused to initiate the combination therapy that would open the age of modern chemotherapy because he wanted to protect children from a potentially haphazard rush to cure them. He wanted strict scientific protocols in place and assurances that the evidence would be followed regardless of the outcome, so that the intense desire to find a cure for children that otherwise faced only suffering and death would not add to that suffering. (more…)
Retail pharmacy is giving itself a credibility problem. While pharmacists are highly trusted health professionals, there are increasing questions about the products sold in pharmacies. Many of the non-prescription products that you can find aren’t backed by good evidence. And the number of dubious products seems to be growing. Homeopathy is an extreme example. Homeopathic “remedies” look like conventional medicine, but unlike actual medicine, homeopathic products don’t contain any active ingredients. They are effectively and sometimes literally sugar pills: placebos that are marketed to treat health concerns. Not surprisingly, there is zero convincing evidence to show that homeopathy has any value in medicine. Homeopathy is fundamentally incompatible with the current scientific understanding of the medicine, biochemistry, and even the basic physics that form the foundation of a pharmacist’s knowledge base about medicines. There is no medicinal benefit to homeopathy. Yet despite the obvious ethical issues of selling sugar pills to patients who may be led to believe these products may be beneficial, the profession of pharmacy hasn’t acted, or even seriously asked itself if selling these products is appropriate. And homeopathy has moved quickly from a fringe product to one that you can find in most retail pharmacies. Here’s a picture from a local pharmacy near me. Imagine you’re in a rush, searching for a cough and cold product. How easily can you identify the homeopathy? (more…)
Four years ago, while watching the 2012 Olympic Games, I noticed a lot of athletes wearing colored strips in various patterns on their body. I discovered that these strips were called kinesiotape, and they were used to enhance performance, reduce injury, and help muscles recover more quickly. I also discovered that these claims for kinesiotape were complete nonsense.
This year at the 2016 Rio Olympics, I (and many other people, judging by my e-mails) noticed that many athletes, especially the swimmers, had what appeared to be circular bruises on their backs, shoulders, and sometimes elsewhere on their body. I immediately recognized the telltale signs of cupping, a pseudoscientific treatment that is part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
Pseudoscience in sports
What both kinesiotape and cupping have in common, other than a lack of evidence that they work, is that they are immediately visible to the casual observer (another example would be the hologram bracelets that were once common). This led me to suspect that they represent only the tip of the nonsense iceberg at the Olympics. What other worthless treatments are athletes using that don’t leave visible marks on their skin?
Prevention has long been a priority of conventional medicine
One of the common criticisms we hear from alternative and integrative medicine proponents is that doctors don’t do anything to prevent illnesses and have no interest in prevention. They claim that doctors are only trained to hand out pills to treat existing illnesses. Sometimes they even accuse them of deliberately covering up cures and wanting to perpetuate illnesses like cancer so they can make more money by treating patients. Nothing could be more absurd. Every reputable doctor would rather prevent illnesses than treat them. In his book Heart 411, cardiologist Steven Nissen even said he would be glad to see his specialty become obsolete: “Don’t worry about us; we will gladly hang up our scalpel and stethoscope if we can find a better way to lead you to a heart-healthy life.”
Doctors own prevention. They invented it, from vaccines to clean water to preventive screening tests. Mainstream medicine was responsible for the greatest preventive achievement in history: the smallpox vaccine campaign succeeded in preventing anyone from ever getting smallpox again. I defy you to comb through historical records and find any doctor who ever said “Let’s stop vaccinating for smallpox so we can make more money treating its victims.”
Prevention is one of the six fundamental principles of naturopathy. Alternative practitioners pride themselves on prevention, but they don’t actually do a very good job of it. In fact, there is evidence that their patients are less likely to get immunizations and some of the standard preventive screening tests recommended by the USPSTF. Instead of rigorously implementing evidence-based preventive strategies, they tend to offer other speculative, untested recommendations.
[Editor’s note: With Dr. Gorski enjoying a vacation to recharge his batteries, we present a second offering from contributor James Thomas. Enjoy!]
Advocates of CAM* (Complementary and Alternative Medicine) have long argued that mainstream medicine is a dangerous undertaking using toxic drugs and invasive interventions that often do more harm than good, while the various quackeries huddled under the CAM umbrella are said to use natural interventions that aid the body in healing itself. A recent BMJ article naming medical errors as the third leading cause of death in the United States was trumpeted as proof of that claim and predictably enough unleashed a maelstrom of pearl-clutching commentary from the CAMsters. David Gorski has already deconstructed the ‘medical error is the third leading cause of death’ argument comprehensively. Rather than re-till that ground, I will use this essay to examine the allied accusation that medicine has little interest in the actual inherent dangers of medicnie, and less interest still in addressing those dangers. (more…)
And now if you excuse me, I’m going to get back to trying to hit Infernape with golf balls. That’s how Pokémon Go works, right?
I don’t have much to write about this week. Yeah, yeah, I know. How is that different than the last 50 blog entries? And I will have even less to say next time.
But nothing of real interest has crossed my screen the past two weeks, not that I have really been looking. One of my favorite stories as a kid was Ray Bradbury’s All Summer in a Day. It takes place in the Oregon of my memory.
It is summer in the great Pacific NW and the outdoors and sunshine beckon. Who wants to skim the SCAM when there is hiking, biking, and golf? Golf has become more interesting this year. I tend to hit the links late and we play until dark. It has been a challenge not no kill the Pokémon Go players who wander the course at sunset, roaming in the gloaming clueless as to the dangerous projectiles flying by. Fore! Those are Titleists, not Poké Balls.
Once the sun goes down it has been the conventions that have trumps my attention, so why not a short entry touching on a few aspects exploring issues and controversies in science, medicine, and politics? (more…)
Kratom (Mitragyna speciose) is a tropical tree from Southeast Asia whose leaves are traditionally chewed or prepared as a powder. Native populations chew the leaves to reduce fatigue when doing manual labor, such as working on rubber plantations. It is also used in cultural performances and consumed as a drink prepared from kratom powder. When the Second World War caused an increase in the price of opium, Thai addicts forced to cut back on opium consumption used kratom to ease their withdrawal symptoms. Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries have passed laws controlling its use and other countries have followed suit, including Australia and New Zealand where it is banned.
In the past several years, kratom consumption has spread beyond traditional uses and the confines of Southeast Asia. In the U.S., it is widely available in head shops, kava bars, and on the internet. It is touted as a legal, psychoactive alternative to other sedative and stimulant-type drugs, both legally and illegally obtained. It is marketed for opioid and alcohol withdrawal symptoms, chronic pain and appetite reduction, among other things. There is also anecdotal evidence of naturopaths prescribing it for opioid withdrawal and depression. (more…)
The pattern has repeated so many times that it is truly predictable. Scientists turn their eyes to one type of treatment that has theoretical potential. However, proper research from theory to proven treatment can take 10-20 years, if all goes well. Most such treatments will not work out – they will fail somewhere along the way from the petri dish to the clinic.
However, the media likes a good story, and one of their favorite narratives is the “new miracle cure.” They will often take preliminary basic science research and present it with headlines promising a cure for some horrible disease (sometimes they will add a question mark).
When we see these headlines, we know what will happen next – hucksters will ride the hype with a wave of snake oil products promising the same cure, and claiming to be based in science. Dr. Oz will probably promote it on his show, and Mike Adams will rant about the government conspiracy to keep this cure from the public (but he will sell it to you).
We have seen this pattern with antioxidants, stem cells, resveratrol, and countless others. Sometimes the hucksters manufacture their own hype, as with green coffee beans. They don’t wait for actual scientists, they corner the market on some worthless bean or berry, then invent health claims for it and try to hype demand through the usual channels. This sadly works. (more…)
Statistics is hard, often counterintuitive, and burdened with esoteric mathematical equations. Statistics classes can be boring and demanding; students might be tempted to call it “Sadistics.” Good statistics are essential to good research; unfortunately many scientists and even some statisticians are doing statistics wrong. Statistician Alex Reinhart has written a helpful book, Statistics Done Wrong: The Woefully Complete Guide, that every researcher and everyone who reads research would benefit from reading. The book contains a few graphs but is blissfully equation-free. It doesn’t teach how to calculate anything; it explains blunders in recent research and how to avoid them.
Inadequate education and self-deception
Most of us have little or no formal education in statistics and have picked up some knowledge in a haphazard fashion as we went along. Reinhart offers some discouraging facts. He says a doctor who takes one introductory statistics course would only be able to understand about a fifth of the articles in The New England Journal of Medicine. On a test of statistical methods commonly used in medicine, medical residents averaged less than 50% correct, medical school faculty averaged less than 75% correct, and even the experts who designed the study goofed: one question offered only a choice of four incorrect definitions.
There are plenty of examples of people deliberately lying with statistics, but that’s not what this book is about. It is about researchers who have fooled themselves by making errors they didn’t realize they were making. He cites Hanlon’s razor: “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” He says even conclusions based on properly done statistics can’t always be trusted, because it is trivially easy to “torture the data until it confesses.” (more…)
How do we deal with parents who would rather their babies face diseases than vaccines?
As long as there have been vaccinations, there has been an antivaccine movement, and as long as there has been an antivaccine movement, there have been parents who refuse to vaccinate. In a past that encompasses the childhood of my parents, polio was paralyzing and killing children in large numbers in yearly epidemics, the fear of which led to the closure of public pools every summer. In such an environment, the new polio vaccine introduced by Jonas Salk in the mid-1950s wasn’t a hard sell. In fact, satisfying the initial demand for it was the problem, not parents refusing to vaccinate their children. Since then, more and more vaccines have been developed to protect more and more children from more and more diseases, to the point where the incidences of most vaccine-preventable diseases is so low that, unlike 60 years ago, most parents today have never seen a case or even known other parents whose child suffered from a case. Even as recently as the 1980s, Haemophilus influenza type B was a dread disease that could cause meningitis, pneumonia, sepsis, and death. Since the introduction of the the Hib vaccine a mere quarter century ago, Hib has been virtually eliminated. Most pediatricians in residency now have never seen a case.
As much of a cliché as it is to say so, unfortunately vaccination has been a victim of its own success, at least in developed countries. Parents no longer fear the diseases childhood vaccines protect against, which makes it easy for antivaccine activists to provide what I like to call “misinformed consent,” by spreading misinformation that vastly exaggerates the risk of vaccines compared to the benefit of vaccinating. Parents who believe the misinformation conclude, based on a warped view of the risk-benefit ratio of vaccines, that not vaccinating is safer. Add to the mix fear mongering against the MMR based on Andrew Wakefield and his dubious 1998 case series that popularized the then-recent idea that vaccines cause autism, and it’s no wonder that parents decide that not vaccinating is safer than vaccinating. If you believe the misinformation, it’s not an entirely unreasonable conclusion. Then add to that the easy availability of “personal belief exemptions” to school vaccine mandates in many states, which include anything from religious exemptions to parents just signing a form that says they are “personally opposed” to vaccination, and it isn’t a huge surprise that vaccine uptake has fallen in some areas to the point where outbreaks can occur. It was happening in California and my own state of Michigan. (more…)