For the last four years I have served in a volunteer capacity among a panel of pharmacotherapy experts queried regularly by the ABC News Medical Unit about breaking or upcoming news involving the efficacy and safety of drugs and supplements. Where appropriate, I provide background information that informs the story.
My incentive is largely to put my time where my mouth is when I say that scientists need to take a more active role in making sure medical stories are reported accurately. An additional dividend is paid to my students who then benefit from my presentation of the science behind timely medical developments.
On occasion, perhaps once or twice a year, I’ll be asked for an on-camera interview. Even when this occurs, the resulting story will contain no more than 15 seconds of the interview and some summary by the reporter of other issues we discussed. I take this responsibility very seriously and prepare as much as I can given the deadlines of the press and my daily education and research schedule.
But given airtime constraints, much of what I prepare would normally end up in the abyss of my files and come out in the classroom when I lecture about that particular topic. Blogging, however, now allows us to expand further on stories where we are consulted, giving us an opportunity to air, albeit to a smaller audience, the information we found important from our perspective. Authoring a blog, therefore, takes away the excuse some scientists and physicians have in not wanting to talk to the press: “There’s never enough airtime to tell the whole story the way I would tell it.”
This post was informed by one of those brief appearances, this time on ABC World News Sunday with Dan Harris. The interview was solicited last weekend following the release of information obtained during the execution of a search warrant in lodging occupied by the self-help guru, James Arthur Ray, who led an Arizona sweat lodge ceremony last October where three people ultimately died and almost two dozen were hospitalized. The segment was not archived to the World News website but some ABC affiliates subsequently aired truncated versions of the story.
The following is a collaborative effort by Peter Lipson, MD, a usual contributor to Science-Based Medicine, and Ames Grawert, JD, a soon-to-be-sworn-in attorney working in New York City.
Proponents of science-based medicine have always had one major problem—human beings are natural scientists, but we are also very prone to cognitive mis-steps. When we follow the scientific method we have developed, we succeed very well in understanding and manipulating our environment. When we follow our instincts instead, we frequently fail to understand cause and effect. This is how people on the fringes of medicine and science survive—intentionally or otherwise, they exploit our natural tendency to have too much faith in our own non-systematic observations.
One of the most important examples of this is the anti-vaccination movement (hereafter called the “infectious disease promotion movement” or IDPM). There have always been those suspicious of medicine and science, but the IDPM has taken this a step farther. They encourage people to “go with the gut”, ignoring centuries of science and public health data in favor of superstition. It’s not hard to exploit a parent’s fears. But exploiting these fears leads to real harm as many of us in the blogosphere have documented (and documented, and documented).
The IDPM is so fixed on their false beliefs that vaccination causes some sort of serious harm that they cannot be swayed by evidence. As each piece of their hypothesis is disproved, they move on to the next. Thimerosal doesn’t lead to autism? Then maybe it’s “the toxins”. Once the idea is fixed, there is no way to dislodge it. It simply shifts around a bit.
Since there is no science to lend legitimacy to the infectious disease promoters, they must rely on appeals to emotion. Most of their websites are full of testimonials, misinformation, and outright hostility. And when they really get backed into a corner, rather than hunkering down to do some real science, they sue.
Dr. Paul Offit is a nationally known expert on vaccination. He was featured in an excellent article by WIRED reporter Amy Wallace in which he said, among other things:
Imagine if we could save lives from a dread and often fatal disease simply by performing a minor surgical procedure. People would hail this simple victory and rush to adopt it… Not exactly. The disease is HIV and the simple surgical procedure is circumcision and anti-circ activists oppose it under almost any circumstances.
In this month’s edition of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, Tobian, Gray and Quinn present a compelling case for neonatal circumcision. The paper is entitled Male Circumcision for the Prevention of Acquisition and Transmission of Sexually Transmitted Infections. The authors report:
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) male circumcision policy states that while there are potential medical benefits of newborn male circumcision, the data are insufficient to recommend routine neonatal circumcision. Since 2005, however, 3 randomized trials have evaluated male circumcision for prevention of sexually transmitted infections. The trials found that circumcision decreases human immunodeficiency virus acquisition by 53% to 60%, herpes simplex virus type 2 acquisition by 28% to 34%, and human papillomavirus prevalence by 32% to 35% in men. Among female partners of circumcised men, bacterial vaginosis was reduced by 40%, and Trichomonas vaginalis infection was reduced by 48%. Genital ulcer disease was also reduced among males and their female partners. These findings are also supported by observational studies conducted in the United States. The AAP policy has a major impact on neonatal circumcision in the United States. This review evaluates the recent data that support revision of the AAP policy to fully reflect the evidence of long-term health benefits of male circumcision.
The AAP had long recommended male circumcision for prevention of urinary tract infections in young boys, but backed down in 1999, partly in response to pressure from anti-circumcision activists. According to circumcision.org:
Based on a review of medical and psychological literature and our own research and experience, we conclude that circumcision causes serious, generally unrecognized harm and is not advisable.
In the most recent issue of The Journal of clinical Oncology is a study comparing acupuncture to Effexor in the treatment of vasomotor symptoms (hot flashes) in women with breast cancer who cannot take hormone replacement therapy. The study found that the two treatments are equivalent, with longer duration and fewer side effects from acupuncture. However, the study is designed as a pilot study (very preliminary) and therefore the conclusions are highly unreliable – given prior research, this raises the question as to why the study was performed at all.
The study included only 50 women, which is a small number for a clinical trial and alone means this is at best a preliminary study. There were 25 women randomized to one of two arms – either acupuncture or Effexor (which is standard treatment for vasomotor symptoms in women with breast cancer). However, the two arms were not blinded in any way, and there was no acupuncture control group – no sham or placebo acupuncture.
It is unclear why the researchers undertook a small unblinded study such as this, given that previous studies were better designed.
A recent story on NPR accused the drug manufacturer Merck of inventing a disease, osteopenia, in order to sell its drug Fosamax. It showed how the definition of what constitutes a disease evolves, and the role that drug companies can play in that evolution.
Osteoporosis is a reduction in bone mineral density that leads to fractures. The most serious are hip fractures, which require surgery, have complications like blood clots, and carry a high mortality. Many of those who survive never walk again. Vertebral fractures are common in the osteoporotic elderly and are responsible for dowager’s hump and loss of height. There is also an increased risk of wrist and rib fractures.
Bone density tends to decrease with age. Postmenopausal women are particularly susceptible to osteoporosis when their production of estrogen declines. The risk is increased in people taking corticosteroids and in people with certain diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. Other risk factors are European or Asian ancestry, smoking, excess alcohol, a family history of fractures, vitamin D deficiency, too much or too little exercise, malnutrition, and low body weight.
When a measurement like bone density varies widely in a population and decreases with age, how can we decide where to draw the line and call it abnormal? When does it become a disease requiring treatment? (more…)
In my five years in the blogosphere, two years blogging for SBM, and over a decade in Internet discussion forums about medicine and “alternative” medicine, I’ve learned a few things. One thing that I’ve learned is that one of the biggest differences between those whose world view is based on science and who therefore promote science-based medicine and those promoting pseudoscience, quackery, and anti-science is that science inculcates in its adherents a culture of free, open, and vigorous debate. Indeed, to outsiders, this debate can seem (and sometimes is) vicious. In other words, if you’re going to be a scientist, you need to have a thick skin because you will have to defend your hypotheses and conclusions, sometimes against some very hostile other scientists. That same attitude of a Darwinian struggle between scientific ideas, with only those best supported by evidence and with the most explanatory power surviving, is a world view that those not steeped in science have a hard time understanding.
Among those who don’t understand science, few have a harder time with the rough-and-tumble debate over evidence and science that routinely goes on among scientists than those advocating pseudoscience. Indeed, in marked contrast to scientists, they tend to cultivate cultures of the echo chamber. Examples abound and include discussion forums devoted to “alternative” medicine like CureZone, where never is heard a discouraging word — because anyone expressing too much skepticism about the prevailing view on such forums invariably finds himself first shunned by other members of the discussion forums and then, if he persists, booted from the forum by the moderators. In marked contrast, on skeptical forums, most of the time almost anything goes. True, the occasional supporter of woo who finds his way onto a skeptical forum will face a lot of criticism, some of it brutal. However, rarely will such a person be banned, unless he commits offenses unrelated to his questioning of scientific dogma, such as insulting or abusive behavior towards other forum participants or trolling. Such people may annoy the heck out of us skeptics sometimes, but on the other hand, they do actually from time to time challenge us to defend our science and prevent us from becoming too complacent. Indeed, that’s what I like about skeptics and being a scientist. Nothing or no one is sacred.
I’m a translational researcher. To those of you who aren’t familiar with what that means, it means (I hope) that I study potential therapies in the lab and try to translate them into actual therapies that will cure patients of breast cancer — or, at the very least, improve their odds of survival or prolong survival when cure is not possible. Translational research is extremely important; indeed, it is the life blood of science-based medicine, with basic science producing the discoveries and clinical research the applications of these discoveries. When it works, it’s the way that science leads medicine to advance. However, sometimes I think that it’s a bit oversold. For one thing, it’s not easy, and it’s not always obvious what basic science findings can be translated into useful therapies, be it for cancer (my specialty) or any other disease. For another thing, it takes a long time. The problem is that the hype about how much we as a nation invest in translational research all too often leads to a not unreasonable expectation that there will be a rapid return on that investment. Such an expectation is often not realized, at least not as fast and frequently as we would like, and the reason has little to do with the quality of the science being funded. It has arguably more to do with how long it takes for a basic science observation to follow the long and winding road to producing a viable therapy. But how long is that long and winding road?
A lot longer than many, even many scientists, realize. At least, that’s the case if a paper from about a year ago by John Ioannidis in Science is any indication. The article appeared in the Policy Forum in the September 5 issue and is entitled Life Cycle of Translational Research for Medical Interventions. As you may recall, Dr. Ioannidis made a name for himself a couple of years ago by publishing a pair of articles provocatively entitled Contradicted and Initially Stronger Effects in Highly Cited Clinical Research and Why Most Published Research Findings Are False, which Steve Novella blogged about a couple of years ago.
Dr. Ioannidis lays it out right in the first paragraph:
Causation is not so simple to determine as one would think. A mantra at SBM is ‘association is not causation’ and much of the belief in the efficacy of a variety of quack nostrums occurs because improvement occurs after use of a nostrum, therefore improvement occurs because of use of a nostrum. It is why vaccines as a cause of autism are so compelling to some. Vaccines are given at the same time autism starts to manifest. It would require more intellectual power than I have not to conclude, wrongly, that vaccines caused the autism. Concluding causation from sequential events is how the human mind works, and reality, as we know and ignore, constantly conspires to fool us into making false causal connections. In Infectious Diseases I see the error almost daily. The patient had a fever, patient was given antibiotics, fever went away. Therefore the antibiotics treated an infection. Well, maybe, maybe not. One of my mantras is ‘antibiotics are not antipyretics’ and you must be very careful before concluding that the fever went away because of the penacephalone. (more…)
We survived almost all of human history without it. Yet in the last 100 years people have allowed themselves to be hoodwinked by a huge corporate conspiracy into believing that we “need” their products. They cite studies and claim we don’t understand science; they ignore ancient folk wisdom and have no respect for our intuition. They peddle their products without regard to the dramatic increase in chronic diseases and weakened immune systems of recent decades. I’m speaking, of course, of “Big Floss.”
It’s time to take our mouths back from corporate domination. It’s time for alternative dentistry.
Another one bites the dust.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) is generally a waste of taxpayer money, but they have sponsored several well-designed large trials of popular herbal supplements. And one by one these studies have shown these popular products, such as echinacea for the common cold, to be ineffective.
To add to the list, published in JAMA this week are the results of the largest and longest trial to date of Gingko biloba for the improvement of cognitive function and to treat, prevent, or reduce the effects of Alzheimers disease or other dementia. The results of the study are completely negative.
The study was very rigorous – a consensus trial designed to address all the criticisms of prior smaller studies. It was a direct comparison of Gingko biloba at 120mg twice a day, double blind, randomized, multi-center trial involving 3019 subjects aged 72-96 for a median of 6.1 years. Subjects were followed with standardized tests of cognitive function.