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Homeocracy 3

The previous post of this series analyzed the results of the 1994 Pediatrics paper purporting to show a statistically significant effect of homeopathic preparations on acute childhood diarrhea in a population in Nicaragua. That clinical trial followed a pilot study that also had shown a small but statistically significant effect of homeopathic remedies.

A moment here for explanation as to why I am going through these old studies. Reports like the four or five in this series made headlines. They are also so well cloaked in manipulated data and overdrawn conclusions that press and even academicians accept their conclusions – and even overdraw more. This is still going on.

Over the past thirty years some of us informally and gradually developed semi-systematic ways of analyzing these increasingly scientific-appearing claims of sectarians (sCAMmers.) Errors, inconsistencies and falsifications we recognize now were not so obvious decades ago. SCAMmers developed imaginatively new methods as their fields progressed. We in the science-based or knowledge based medicine field have been trailing along, detecting their tricks and twists as they developed, and like street sweepers behind horses, picking up their excrement (metaphor to force attention.)  Yesterday’s lucid post on the latest acupuncture study by Steve Novella exemplifies this expertise (no offense intended.)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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Being Right Versus Being Influential

On May 9th I had the pleasure of lecturing to an audience of critical thinkers at the NYC Skeptics meeting. The topic of discussion was pseudoscience on the Internet – and I spent about 50 minutes talking about all the misleading health information and websites available to (and frequented by) patients. The common denominator for most of these well-intentioned but misguided efforts is a fundamental lack of understanding of the scientific method, and the myriad ways that humans can fool ourselves into perceiving a cause and effect relationship between unrelated phenomena.

But most importantly, we had the chance to touch upon a theme that has been troubling me greatly over the past couple of years: the rise in influence of those untrained in science on matters of medicine. I have been astonished by the ability of “thought leaders” like Jenny McCarthy to gain a broad platform of influence (i.e. Oprah Winfrey’s TV network) despite her obviously flawed beliefs about the pathophysiology of autism. Why is it so hard to find a medical voice of reason in mainstream media?

The answer is probably related to two issues: first, good science makes bad television, and second, physicians are going about PR and communications in the wrong way. We are taught to put emotions aside as we carefully weigh evidence to get to the bottom of things. But we are not taught to reinfuse the subject with emotion once we’ve come to an impartial consensus. Instead, we tend to bicker about statistical analyses, and alienate John Q. Public with what appears to him as academic minutiae and hair-splitting.

I’m not sure what we can or should offer in place of our “business as usual” behavior – but I’ve noticed that being right isn’t the same as being influential. I wonder how we can better advance the cause of science (for the sake of public health at a minimum) to an audience drawn more to passion than to substance?

I would really enjoy your input, dear readers of Science Based Medicine, because I’m at a loss as to what we should do next to reach people in our current culture, and with new communications platforms. What would you recommend?

Posted in: Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Acupuncture Does Not Work for Back Pain

ResearchBlogging.orgA new study which randomized 638 adults to either standard acupuncture, individualized acupuncture, placebo acupuncture using tooth picks that did not penetrate the skin, and standard therapy found exactly what previous evidence has also suggested – it does not seem to matter where you stick the needles or even if you stick the needles through the skin. The only reasonable scientific conclusion to draw from this is that acupuncture does not work.

But let me back up a minute. Imagine if we were evaluating the efficacy of a new pain drug. This drug, when tested in open trials (no blinding or control) has an effect on reducing pain – it is superior to no treatment. When compared to a placebo, however, the drug is no more effective than the placebo, although both are more effective than no treatment.

Now imagine that the pharmaceutical company who manufactures this drug sends out a press release declaring that their drug is effective for pain, but that their research shows that a placebo of their drug is also effective (FDA applications are pending). Therefore more research is needed to determine how their drug works.  Would you buy it?

That is the exact situation we are facing with acupuncture research.


Posted in: Acupuncture, Science and Medicine

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Re-evaluating Home Monitoring for Diabetes: Science-Based Medicine at Work

There is no question that patients on insulin benefit from home monitoring. They need to adjust their insulin dose based on their blood glucose readings to avoid ketoacidosis or insulin shock. But what about patients with non-insulin dependent diabetes, those who are being treated with diet and lifestyle changes or oral medication? Do they benefit from home monitoring? Does it improve their blood glucose levels? Does it make them feel more in control of their disease?

This has been an area of considerable controversy. Various studies have given conflicting results. Those studies have been criticized for various flaws: some were retrospective, non-randomized, not designed to rule out confounding factors, high drop-out rate, subjects already had well-controlled diabetes, etc. A systematic review showed no benefit from monitoring. So a new prospective, randomized, controlled, community based study was designed to help resolve the conflict. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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Define the disease first

My first post on this blog addressed the problem of what I have called “fake diseases” (a problem which needs a more neutral moniker). As I wrote at the time, people suffering from vague ailments are often twice victimized: the medical establishment cannot satisfy them, and quacks prey on them. There’s a certain sense of satisfaction and validation to having your symptoms clearly labeled. While it isn’t a good thing to have heart disease, no one tells you you’re not sick. Not so with people with more vague and protean symptoms. It’s human nature to want answers, to try to understand patterns, and when we, as physicians, cannot help someone understand their symptoms, they’re going to reach out to others for answers.

The Lyme disease community is like that. The internet has helped them to form communities and to share information. This whole idea of “chronic Lyme disease” (CLD) has become a way for people who don’t feel they have a medical home to come together. I understand that impulse. Any human being should be able to understand it.

But the other side of me, the analytic side, has a problem with it. No, not a problem with people supporting each other, but if you read these websites, message boards, etc., you can see a certain commonality—people aren’t getting any better. They are still suffering. Much of that suffering is blamed on a heartless medical community, and when they find a “Lyme literate” doctor, there is a huge sense of relief. But the symptoms often continue.

The very idea of CLD is not implausible (as opposed to Morgellons and other such fake diseases). Other spirochetes give us models for diseases with extended, multi-system effects, syphilis being the most studied. One of the key concepts in science-based medicine is plausibility, because, as Dr. Harriet Hall puts it, no matter how much you study the characteristics of the tooth fairly, you still haven’t proven her existence. But CLD certainly has a plausibility to it, and if an idea is plausible, then it is certainly worth studying and gathering evidence.

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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The British Chiropractic Association versus Simon Singh

Simon SinghIf there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years promoting skepticism and science in medicine and writing critically about various forms of unscientific medical practices and outright quackery, it’s that there will always be pushback. Much, if not most, of the time, it’s just insults online. However, occasionally, the pushback enters into the realm of real life. I can remember the very first time this happened to me. It was in 2005, and a man by the name of William P. O’Neill of the Canadian Cancer Research Group sent legal threats to my Department Chairman, my Division Chief, and my Cancer Center Director. The legal threat was clearly vacuous, as Mr. O’Neill seemed upset mainly that I had praised his arch-nemesis, Australian skeptic Peter Bowditch (who even keeps a running tally of threats he receives from Mr. O’Neill under the heading The GAL Chronicles, where GAL stands for “gutless anonymous liar”). I must admit, at the time it scared the crap out of me, but the reaction of my Chairman at the time, Dr. Stephen Lowry, was classic in that he said he did not care what I did in my spare time and referred to Mr. O’Neill as a “cowardly bully.” From then on, every time Mr. O’Neill tried something similar, I simply replied that I was forwarding his e-mail to Dr. Lowry (who was amused by all this) and thanked him for his concern.

More recently, J.B. Handley wrote a rather ugly screed (one of two, actually) about me. Somehow, this screed was e-mailed to my cancer center director. Whether Mr. Handley, one of the crew at Age of Autism, or an AoA reader did it, I don’t know. However, it is typical behavior of the anti-vaccine movement. Based on this history, I’ve concluded that, if you’re going to be a skeptic you’d better be prepared for this sort of thing, and if you’re going to blog under a pseudonym you’d better expect that sooner or later someone will try very, very hard indeed to “out” you and use that against you–which is of course blogging at SBM is in a way liberating in that it removes that threat.

However, whatever obnoxiousness or attempts to harass me at my job I may on occasion have to worry about, one thing I don’t have to worry about (much) is legal threats, at least as long as I keep all my ducks in a row, so to speak. In the U.S., libel is a very difficult charge to prove. The First Amendment gives wide latitude to free speech, and that places the burden of proof on the plaintiff to show that a statement is defamatory, with libel being in essence written defamation. In general, this is what constitutes defamation in the U.S.:

In order for the person about whom a statement is made to recover for libel, the false statement must be defamatory, meaning that it actually harms the reputation of the other person, as opposed to being merely insulting or offensive.

The statement(s) alleged to be defamatory must also have been published to at least one other person (other than the subject of the statement) and must be “of and concerning” the plaintiff. That is, those hearing or reading the statement must identify it specifically with the plaintiff.

The statement(s) alleged to be defamatory must also be a false statement of fact. That which is name-calling, hyperbole, or, however characterized, cannot be proven true or false, cannot be the subject of a libel or slander claim.

The defamatory statement must also have been made with fault. The extent of the fault depends primarily on the status of the plaintiff. Public figures, such as government officials, celebrities, well-known individuals, and people involved in specific public controversies, are required to prove actual malice, a legal term which means the defendant knew his statement was false or recklessly disregarded the truth or falsity of his statement. In most jurisdictions, private individuals must show only that the defendant was negligent: that he failed to act with due care in the situation.

A defamation claim — at least one based upon statements about issues that are matters of public interest — will likely fail if any of these elements are not met.

As you can see, it is a high bar of evidence to overcome to prove libel. Of course, that is a two-edged sword in that it allows J.B. Handley to slime me whenever he wishes, with little I can do about it, but I am also allowed, as I see fit, to respond or not to such attacks. I can also continue to criticize anti-vaccine propagandists like Mr. Handley as I see fit. Unfortunately, for my U.K. colleagues, the same is most assuredly not true in British courts, where the rules are very much weighted against the defendant. Witness this travesty of a ruling on the libel case against Simon Singh, coauthor with Edzard Ernst of Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine (which Harriet Hall reviewed last year) by the British Chiropractic Association, as related by Jack of Kent. This ruling came about because the BCA did not like an article that Singh wrote for The Guardian entitled Beware the spinal trap.

Posted in: Chiropractic, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media

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How I would run the CAM club

During the past academic year, I have written about CAM on campus for my student newspaper and fancy myself now somewhat notorious among the students who care about the issue. My article in the fall issue was a review of a homeopathy lecture that I described in detail for my first SBM post. In the winter issue I discussed two dueling WSJ opinions and the silliness of the “4 in 10 Americans use CAM” argument, channeling Drs. Gorsky and Crislip. I had a piece planned to wrap up the series, but sadly the spring issue has been canceled because the rest of the editorial staff is studying for USMLE Step 1. This is life at medical school, probably not just mine but universally: huge stresses and time obligations often crowd out extracurricular activities.

I began imagining this essay, an open letter to the campus CAM advocates about how I would direct their programming, just before my run-in with a pair of students unhappy about an SBM post. Before the accusations of unprofessionalism began flying around, I was thinking about how we could find common ground. Are there aspects of CAM that even a self-described skeptic can support? Clearly everyone on campus cares firstly about providing the best possible care for patients. Could the CAM advocates and I be collaborative rather than antagonistic? Some disagreement is inevitable given that I have classmates who have taken coursework in homeopathy and integrative nutrition, but I wondered if I could offer constructive advice on improving the CAM club rather than simply dismissing it as having no place on campus. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Flu Woo Hodge Podge

Perhaps you have discovered for yourself that I am always the last to write a post on a ‘hot’ topic. I am definitely the slowest writer (and thinker?) on this blog, starting each post at least a week before it is up. So the faster writers weigh in first and I am left with clean up.

As I finish writing on Thursday, there have been 892 cases of H1N1 aka Swine flu and 2 deaths in the US. Looks like the world has avoided a disastrous pandemic like the 1919 flu that killed off 2 to 5% of the world. For now. Maybe. I hope.

However, the flood of nonsense about the flu far exceeds the infection rates from H1N1. This entry will be the limited by necessity. The quantity of quackery (9) far exceeds my ability to type. I thought that influenza virus replicated and spread fast. It pales next to the flu woo.

Posted in: Health Fraud, Homeopathy, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Risks Associated With Complementary And Alternative Medicine (CAM): A Brief Overview

Having grown up on a dairy farm, I am one of the least likely people to object to the deification of yogurt. However, as a critical thinker, I cannot help but resist the idea (promoted by some health sites) that probiotics are a reasonable alternative to chemotherapy in the treatment of colon cancer. And there are many other equally unhelpful claims being made all the time. Fish oil for ALS anyone?

What amazes me about the “cherry yoga” camp (as my friend Bob Stern likes to call it), is that they aggressively market CAM as “harmless” and “natural.” They point to the warning labels and informed consents associated with science-based medicines as evidence that the alternative must be safer. In reality, many alternative practices are less effective, and can carry serious risks (usually undisclosed to the patient). For your interest, I’ve gathered some examples of risks associated with common alternative practices that have been described by the CDC and in the medical literature:

Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy

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Georgia on my mind


My inaugural post was about vaccines, and I promised that I wouldn’t write exclusively on this topic. But something rotten is brewing in the state of Georgia and this story is just too important to ignore.

The first successful challenge to the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Compensation Act (NCVICA) has taken place in Georgia, and we all should be just a little bit worried. In Ferrari v. American Home Products Corp., the plaintiffs, Marcello and Carolyn Ferrari of Atlanta, have sued American Home Products Corp. (otherwise known as Wyeth) and the co-defendant GlaxoSmithKline, claiming that the vaccine preservative thimerosal led to their son’s autism. The consequences of this ruling could effect the health of the entire nation. To understand why, we need to delve a bit into what the NCVICA is exactly, and why it was created in the first place.

Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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