Science and Medicine

Archive for Science and Medicine

Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Snake Oil

noel edmonds
Noel Edmonds is a game show host, famous for Britain’s version of Deal or No Deal. As far as I can tell, he has no medical or scientific qualifications at all. This unfortunately has not stopped him from using his celebrity status to offer dubious medical advice via his Twitter feed. Such is the world in which we live.

Edmonds tweeted, referring to the EMP Pad:

A simple box that slows ageing, reduces pain, lifts depression and stress and tackles cancer. Yep tackles cancer!

This Twitter-brief statement packs in many red flags for quackery and snake oil: such as a simple device that can tack a wide range of medical conditions that do not appear to share a common cause or mechanism. The word “tackle” is vague, but implies either a cure or at least a significant treatment. Anyone claiming to treat or cure cancer deserves close scrutiny.

In response, cancer patient Vaun Earl tweeted:

I think Noel Edmonds should stick to what he’s good at. Presenting quiz shows and beard trimming, rather than curing cancer.

To which Edmonds responded:

Scientific fact-disease is caused by negative energy. Is it possible your ill health is caused by your negative attitude? #explore.


Posted in: Cancer, Medical devices, Science and Medicine

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Is there a reproducibility “crisis” in biomedical science? No, but there is a reproducibility problem

NOTE: Anyone who has seen several derogatory articles about me on the web and is curious about what the real story is, please read this and this.

Journal of Irreproducible ResultsMost scientists I know get a chuckle out of the Journal of Irreproducible Results (JIR), a humor journal that often parodies scientific papers. Back in the day, we used to chuckle at articles like “Any Eye for an Eye for an Arm and a Leg: Applied Dysfunctional Measurement” and “A Double Blind Efficacy Trial of Placebos, Extra Strength Placebos and Generic Placebos.” Unfortunately, these days, reporting on science is giving the impression that the JIR is a little too close to the truth, at least when it comes to reproduciblity, so much so that the issue even has its own name and Wikipedia entry: Replication (or reproducibility) crisis. It’s a topic I had been meaning to write about again for a while. Fortunately, A recent survey published in Nature under the somewhat clickbaity title “1,500 scientists lift the lid on reproducibility” finally prodded me to look into this question again. Before I get to the survey itself, though, I can’t help but do my usual pontificating to provide a bit of background.

Posted in: Basic Science, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Does your antivax doctor have another agenda?

A witch placing a scorpion into a potSeveral weeks back, I wrote a piece in praise of Michigan’s Fresh Air Camp’s decision to admit only properly vaccinated children. Predictably, there was a bit of a backlash from people who, despite the obvious benefits, oppose vaccinations.

I can’t fault a parent for the decisions they make for their kids. We all work from the gut when it comes to our children, and this can make us see risks incorrectly. But I cannot forgive people who should know better. Medical professionals should all support basic public health such as vaccination, just as they should support healthy eating, physical activity, and clean water. I feel strongly enough about this that I have called for pulling the licenses of doctors who oppose vaccination.

As usual when I write about vaccines, I got plenty of hate mail and disturbing blog comments – no biggie. That’s part of standing up for the truth. What really disturbed me was a local doctor, here in the same community that the camps serve, coming out publicly against the new policy. When a medical professional weighs in on a matter of public health, people listen. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Newborn Phototherapy and Cancer: Cutting Edge Research or “Big Data” Failure?


Photo by Mike Blyth

While social media and news outlets were reacting, or in some cases overreacting, to a new rodent-based medical study on the unlikely link between cell phone use and brain cancer last month, two studies and an accompanying commentary were quietly published in Pediatrics that raised similar concerns. Rather than cell phone use, the proposed potential cause of pediatric cancer in these newly published papers was phototherapy, a common treatment for newborn jaundice that I use regularly and have written about before. My previous post has a full review of jaundice in the newborn, how it can potentially cause permanent brain damage, and why phototherapy is a safe and effective treatment in most cases.

But is phototherapy truly safe? Can exposure to a narrow spectrum of blue light increase the risk of cancer in young children? And if so, what type or types of cancer? This is exactly what the study authors set out to investigate using the power of “Big Data.” Time will eventually tell us if the authors’ conclusions are justified or if they will end up only serving as excellent future examples of the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Fooling Myself

They may have different packages, but these products are all the same inside.

Nothing says opportunistic like selling water for pain control.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.

Richard Feynman

I like to think of myself as a rational person, but I’ve been fooled by my own experience again and again. I’ve made bad decisions and wasted time and money believing what I was seeing, instead of being objective and looking at the evidence. One of my most memorable lessons has come over the past 14 years with my Labrador Retriever, Casey.

First the personal

We acquired Casey as a puppy, and she was less than a year old when she started limping. Investigations confirmed dysplasia, a genetic condition that leads to degenerative joints, arthritis, and pain. We were devastated. After considering the few treatment options that existed, we decided to skip surgery and treat it conservatively. I had no desire to start her on a lifetime of anti-inflammatory drugs, being very familiar with their side effect profile. I was familiar with a supplement used widely in humans that had some weak but somewhat promising evidence: We started giving her glucosamine and chondroitin supplements regularly. And we watched and waited.

It took some time, but Casey did appear to improve. We were thrilled. Life went on, and other than the occasional rough play session, Casey’s limping was mild, and she thrived. We continued the supplements, confident that we were doing good. But eventually I started paying attention to the emerging evidence on glucosamine and chondroitin. Once touted as a panacea for arthritis and joint pain, there had finally been some high-quality trials conducted – and the results were disappointing. Even this blog covered the issue, and contributors like Harriet were skeptical of glucosamine. Its supposed mechanism of action really wasn’t even that plausible. I started to wonder if the supplements were really doing anything for my dog’s pain. Eventually I decided on a trial – so I stopped the supplements about seven years after I started them. Neither my wife nor I could notice any difference at all in her mobility. Nor did the veterinarian. We’d been fooling ourselves, spending hundreds of dollars in the process. (more…)

Posted in: Critical Thinking, Herbs & Supplements, Science and Medicine

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Uncertainty in Medicine

Medicine is an uncertain business. It is an applied science, applying the results of basic science knowledge and clinical studies to patients who are individuals with differing heredity, environment, and history. It is commonly assumed that modern science-based doctors know what they are doing, but quite often they don’t know for certain. Different doctors interpret the same evidence differently; there is uncertainty about how valid the studies’ conclusions are and there is still considerable uncertainty and disagreement about things like guidelines for screening mammography and statin prescriptions.

Snowball in a Blizzard by Steven Hatch, MD, is a book about uncertainty in medicine. The title refers to the difficulty of interpreting a mammogram, trying to pick out the shadows that signify cancer from a veritable blizzard of similar shadows. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Science and Medicine

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Australian Chiropractor Ian Rossborough Promises to Stop Treating Children…for Twenty Days


An Australian chiropractor treating a baby kangaroo makes as much sense as treating a human child

Before I begin this brief update to my recent post on Australian baby chiropractor Ian Rossborough’s “crack heard round the world,” I want to give a quick thanks to Jann Bellamy for organizing our day of Science-Based Medicine at NECSS last week. It was an amazing experience sharing the stage with the SBM crew for my first public presentation, and finally getting to meet Scott, John, and Saul. I’ve given hundreds of lectures to residents and students, and even a grand rounds or two, but this was orders of magnitude more exciting and stressful. I may be biased, but I think we nailed it.

With NECSS prep taking up a significant percentage of my time and a rough current work week making up for days off, my post today is a little shorter than usual. My overall average word count still gives Gorski a run for his money however. Well, that’s not actually true. Gorski is in another league.

Rossborough provides an undertaking?

Chiropractor Ian Rossborough, who I recently discussed in a post on the backlash against pediatric chiropractic in Australia, has received the slap on the wrist I sadly expected. According to the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency website, which has jurisdiction over the Chiropractic Board of Australia when it comes to “professional conduct, performance or health of registered health practitioners,” Rossborough has promised to leave them kids alone:

Posted in: Chiropractic, Science and Medicine

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Are medical errors really the third most common cause of death in the U.S.?

NOTE: Anyone who has seen several derogatory articles about me on the web and is curious about what the real story is, please read this and this.

Dr. Martin Makary claims that medical errors are now the third leading cause of death in the US. Is he correct?

Dr. Martin Makary claims that medical errors are now the third leading cause of death in the US. Is he correct?

It is an unquestioned belief among believers in alternative medicine and even just among many people who do not trust conventional medicine that conventional medicine kills. Not only does exaggerating the number of people who die due to medical complications or errors fit in with the world view of people like Mike Adams and Joe Mercola, but it’s good for business. After all, if conventional medicine is as dangerous as claimed, then alternative medicine starts looking better in comparison.

In contrast, real physicians and real medical scientists are very much interested in making medicine safer and more efficacious. One way we work to achieve that end is by using science to learn more about disease and develop new treatments that are as efficacious or more so than existing treatments with fewer adverse reactions (clinical equipoise). Another strategy is to use what we know to develop quality metrics against which we measure our practice. Indeed, I am heavily involved in just such an effort for breast cancer patients. Then, of course, we try to estimate how frequent medical errors are and how often they cause harm or even death. All of these efforts are very difficult, of course, but perhaps the most difficult of all is the last one. Estimates of medical errors depend very much on how medical errors are defined, and whether a given death can be attributed to a medical error depends very much on how it is determined whether a death was preventable and whether a given medical error led to that death.

Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Quality Improvement, Science and Medicine

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The Crack Heard Round the World

Chiropractor Ian Rossborough mid-rationalization

Chiropractor Ian Rossborough shown here mid-rationalization

In January, Melbourne chiropractor Ian Rossborough uploaded a video to YouTube of himself treating a 4-day-old premature infant. The video, one of many that can be found on his “Chiropractic Excellence” channel, is for educational purposes only, intended to teach the world about the miraculous benefits of chiropractic care for a wide variety of conditions. Although the cynical among us may proclaim that his videos are just more examples of chiropractic practice building shenanigans, Rossborough claims that he simply wants to “enable natural healthy living, without resorting to drugs or surgery.”

Australian physicians respond

Well, there are apparently a lot of angry and cynical Australians, particularly journalists and physicians. In late April, the video, which features Rossborough manipulating the newborn’s thoracic spine hard enough to cause a loud cracking sound and a cry of pain went viral after it was featured in a story on Australian Broadcasting Corporation Radio National. Rossborough, and the treatment of children by chiropractors, has since come under intense scrutiny.

According to the Australian press, “doctors have declared war on chiropractors” in response to the realization that newborns and young infants are undergoing unnecessary spinal manipulation for problems such as colic, acid reflux, and excessive crying as well as for nebulous benefits like boosting the immune system and improved growth and development. The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, the largest medical college in Australia with a membership of over 30,000 rural and urban primary care physicians, has even requested that members refrain from referring patients to chiropractors. They want the federal government and private insurers to stop paying for nonsense such as infant chiropractic.

Frank Jones MD, president of the RACGP, has made the media rounds, describing infant and toddler adjustments as “seemingly almost cruel” and lacking any supporting evidence. He has also called for the Chiropractic Board of Australia to shape up in order to have any chance of being accepted as a legitimate scientific discipline. Jones thinks that chiropractors like Rossborough and his ilk don’t know what they are doing and are putting patients at risk. He reminds the public that a physician’s job is to advocate for patients and to try to reduce exposure to practices where the risk far exceeds any potential benefit. I like this guy.


Posted in: Chiropractic, Science and Medicine

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Is there a naturopathic standard of care?

Public outcry over the death of Ezekiel Stephan, the 19-month-old Alberta toddler who died of bacterial meningitis in 2012, continues to grow following last’s weeks court decision, which found both of his parents guilty of failing to provide the necessaries of life. David and Collet Stephan failed to seek appropriate medical care for their obviously-ill child, instead relying on a variety of vitamins, supplements, and remedies from the family’s own home business, Truehope Nutritional Support. While sentencing will not take place until later this year, David Stephan hasn’t hesitated to lash out with an open letter to the jury that suggests he remains unrepentant for the series of decisions that led to the death of his son:

I only wish that you could’ve seen how you were being played by the Crown’s deception, drama and trickery that not only led to our key witnesses being muzzled, but has also now led to a dangerous precedent being set in Canada.

The precedent referred by Stephan seems to his perceived “right” to prioritize his beliefs in what is demonstrable pseudoscience and quackery over the “right” for his child to receive appropriate medical care. Ezekiel had never seen a physician. He had received no vaccinations, including vaccination against Haemophilus influenza type b (Hib), a vaccine which protects against bacterial meningitis. And as he lay dying, the parents chose to use an Echinacea tincture recommended by a naturopath, Tracey Tannis, who never even examined Ezekiel. Given the involvement of Tannis in this tragedy, there are renewed questions about naturopathy in Canada, whether naturopaths are capable of self-regulation, and the standard of care they provide. (more…)

Posted in: Naturopathy, Science and Medicine

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