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Caution vs Alarmism

Peer review, a flawed but vital part of the scientific process.

Peer review, a flawed but vital part of the scientific process.

When I lecture about the need for science-based medicine (SBM), I have to pause about half-way through my list of all the things wrong with the current practice of medical science, and I balance my discussion by emphasizing what I am not saying: I am not saying that medical science is completely broken. It is just really challenging, we need to raise the threshold for what we consider reliable higher than most people think, and there are some practical fixes we can do, some of which are already in the works.

It is easy, however, to “demonize” any person, institution, or philosophy by taking all the negative aspects that are inevitably present and wrapping them up in a frightening package, perhaps throwing in some conspiracy thinking or sensational alarmism.

Take, for example, a recent article by F. William Engdahl, “Shocking Report from Medical Insiders“. The headline alone warns you that you may be in for some sensationalism.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Answering Cancer Quackery: The Sophisticated Approach to True Believers

 You can lead a true believer to facts, but can you make him think?

You can lead a true believer to facts, but can you make him think?

I got an e-mail with a link to a video featuring “Dr.” Leonard Coldwell, a naturopath who has been characterized on RationalWiki as a scammer and all-round mountebank. Here are just a few examples of his claims in that video:

  • Every cancer can be cured in 2-16 weeks.
  • The second you are alkaline, the cancer already stops. A pH of 7.36 is ideal; 7.5 is best during the healing phase. [We are all alkaline. Normal pH is 7.35-7.45.]
  • IV vitamin C makes tumors disappear in a couple of days.
  • Very often table salt is 1/3 glass, 1/3 sand, and 1/3 salt. The glass and sand scratch the lining of the arteries, they bleed, and cholesterol is deposited there to stop the bleeding.
  • Patients in burn units get 20-25 hard-boiled eggs a day because only cholesterol can rebuild healthy cells; 87% of a cell is built on cholesterol.
  • Medical doctors have the shortest lifespan: 56. [Actually they live longer than average.]

My correspondent recognized that this video was dangerous charlatanism that could lead to harm for vulnerable patients. He called it a “train wreck, with fantasy piled upon idiocy.” His question was about the best way to convince someone that it was insane. He said, “If you could rely on someone to follow and understand basic information about the relevant claims, it would be a gimme. But to the casual disinterested observer, who can interpret the whole video as ‘Well, he just wants people to eat right,’ pointing out the individual bits of lunacy just looks like so much negativity.”

He asked, “How do I best represent what’s happening to someone who is either a) emotionally invested in this and/or b) casually approving of it? … I just want to be patient, not shout anyone down, not make anyone defensive, and then win. Very surprised I don’t already know how. But I feel like I don’t. What is the psychologically sophisticated approach to this?” (more…)

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

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NCCIH and the true evolution of integrative medicine

NCCIH and the true evolution of integrative medicine

There can be no doubt that, when it comes to medicine, The Atlantic has an enormous blind spot. Under the guise of being seemingly “skeptical,” the magazine has, over the last few years, published some truly atrocious articles about medicine. I first noticed this during the H1N1 pandemic, when The Atlantic published an article lionizing flu vaccine “skeptic” Tom Jefferson, who, unfortunately, happens to be head of the Vaccines Field at the Cochrane Collaboration, entitled “Does the Vaccine Matter?” It was so bad that Mark Crislip did a paragraph-by-paragraph fisking of the article, while Revere also explained just where the article went so very, very wrong. Over at a blog known to many here, the question was asked whether The Atlantic (among other things) matters. It didn’t take The Atlantic long to cement its lack of judgment over medical stories by publishing, for example, a misguided defense of chelation therapy, a rather poor article by Megan McArdle on the relationship between health insurance status and mortality, and an article in which John Ioannidis’ work was represented as meaning we can’t believe anything in science-based medicine. Topping it all off was the most notorious article of all, the most blatant apologetics for alternative medicine in general and quackademic medicine in particular that Steve Novella or I have seen in a long time. The article was even entitled “The Triumph of New Age Medicine.”

Now The Atlantic has published an article that is, in essence, The Triumph of New Age Medicine, Part Deux. In this case, the article is by Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, a senior editor at The Atlantic, and entitled “The Evolution of Alternative Medicine.” It is, in essence, pure propaganda for the paired phenomena of “integrative” medicine and quackademic medicine, without which integrative medicine would likely not exist. The central message? It’s the same central (and false) message that advocates of quackademic medicine have been promoting for at least 25 years: “Hey, this stuff isn’t quackery any more! We’re scientific, ma-an!” You can even tell that’s going to be the central message from the tag line under the title:

When it comes to treating pain and chronic disease, many doctors are turning to treatments like acupuncture and meditation—but using them as part of a larger, integrative approach to health.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, History, Medical Academia, Naturopathy, Science and the Media

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Chiropractic and Stroke: The question is not answered

Extreme rotation of the atlas on the axis (at the atlantoaxial joint) stretches the vertebral artery.  In layman's terms, 40% of a hanging.

Extreme rotation of the atlas on the axis (at the atlantoaxial joint) stretches the vertebral artery. In layman’s terms, 40% of a hanging.

I am off to Chicago for 5 days to wow the SMACC crowd with my ID/SBM acumen. I hope. Given that most of my multiple-personalities do not seem to be able to get any work done, I am forced to write a brief post this week, limited by the battery life on my MacBook Air. Whatever I get down on paper? pixels? RAM? before the battery dies as I fly over the Rockies will be the post. It is times like this I wish I had Gorskian typing skills.

SBM has discussed the many limitations of chiropractic: the low grades for entry into chiropractic school, the inadequate training, their reason d’être, subluxations and their adjustments being divorced from reality, the lack of efficacy of chiropractic for any process beyond low back pain (and even that is no better than safer interventions), the fondness of chiropractors for other useless pseudo-medicines, and their opposition to vaccines.

Hm. When I put it like that chiropractic does appear a little sketchy. But is chiropractic safe? It is a hands-on intervention, for a brief period of time applying the same force to the neck as about 40% of hanging from the neck until dead. So there is certainly the potential for chiropractic to cause harm. (more…)

Posted in: Chiropractic, Clinical Trials

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FDA & CDC find raw pet food unpalatable

Awww!

Awww!

The FDA recently announced it would send field staff out to collect samples of commercially-manufactured raw dog and cat food. The samples will be analyzed for Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes and E. coli, all of which have been found in raw pet food, in the animals who eat it, in their feces, on their bodies after eating it, in the areas they inhabit, and on their owner’s bodies. Not surprisingly, this has led to both pet and human infection and illness. If the FDA finds pathogens, it could result in a recall, a press release and Reportable Food Registry Submission. The next day, the CDC joined the effort to curb illness caused by pathogens in raw pet food by posting information on safe handling.

Because of the risk to public health, and the lack of any proven benefit of raw pet food diets, the FDA does not recommend them.

However, we understand that some people prefer to feed these types of diets to their pets.

And why is that? For some of the same reasons humans follow absurd diet fads: the “lone genius” discovery, it’s “natural,” anecdotal evidence, appeal to antiquity, anti-corporate sentiment, and “holistic” practitioner recommendations.

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Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Nutrition, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Veterinary medicine

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Trying to Impose Religion on Medicine

soul-leaving-bodyyOne of the major themes of science-based medicine (unsurprisingly) is that medicine should be based on science. We consider ourselves specialists in a larger movement defending science in general from mysticism, superstition, and spiritualism. We are not against anyone’s personal belief, and are officially agnostic toward any faith (as is science itself), but will vigorously defend science from any intrusion into its proper realm.

The so-called alternative medicine movement (CAM) is largely an attempt to insert religious beliefs into the practice and profession of medicine. CAM is also an attempt to create a double standard or even eliminate the standard of care so that any nonsense can flourish and con-artists and charlatans can practice their craft freely without being hounded by pesky regulations designed to protect the public. These are both insidious aspects of CAM that need to be exposed and vigorously opposed.

A recent article by Dr. Michel Accad demonstrates how brazenly some are trying to insert faith healing and spiritualism back into medicine. He does so by couching his arguments in philosophy and marketing terms, but in the end he is essentially saying that doctors should practice his faith. He doesn’t really make any arguments for this position, but rather simply gives a history of progress in Western thought as if that is sufficient. (more…)

Posted in: Faith Healing & Spirituality, Science and Medicine

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Functional Disc Rehydration for Chronic Back Pain

A chiropractor in Illinois named Jeff Winternheimer claims to have discovered an effective way to heal herniated discs by rehydrating them. He calls it Functional Disc Rehydration and he offers it through a network of four offices in the Chicago area called the Illinois Back Clinic. He has lots of testimonials and one sorry amateurish attempt at a scientific study that claimed to show 100% improvement; but there is no published evidence, no controlled observations, and no comparison of his methods with other methods.

Degenerative disc disease

Between the spinal vertebrae there are soft, jelly-like compressible discs that act as shock absorbers. They are “corralled” by a fibrous annulus. As we get older, the disc material loses water and becomes less flexible; the disc thins, and the space between the vertebrae narrows, so in old age we are not quite as tall as we once were. Cracks in the annulus develop with age or with trauma, allowing the disc material to bulge out or rupture. Herniated discs don’t necessarily cause pain; disc degeneration can be seen on MRI in 37% of asymptomatic people over the age of 60.

by “debivort,” licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

by “debivort,” licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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Posted in: Chiropractic

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In which I steal a title: Is medicine a scientific enterprise?

Abraham Flexner (left) and Richard Dawkins (right): Enemies of medicine?

Abraham Flexner (left) and Richard Dawkins (right): Enemies of medicine?

A week ago, I attended the Center For Inquiry Reason for Change Conference, where I participated in a panel on—what else?—alternative medicine with—who else?—Harriet Hall and our fearless leader Steve Novella. Before the panel, we all gave brief talks on areas that we consider important. As you might expect, I chose to give a brief introduction to what I like to call “quackademic medicine,” defined as the pseudoscientific medicine being practiced and studied in academic medical centers. As I like to do in order to drive the point home about just how bad it’s become, I chose a couple of truly egregious examples of just how much quackery has infiltrated medical academia. First, I mentioned how the Cleveland Clinic has embraced reiki, which, as I’ve described many times before, is in reality faith healing that substitutes Eastern mysticism for Christian beliefs. Although I could have buried the audience in examples, the other example I happened to choose was this:

Yes, that is exactly what you think it is. It’s the official Twitter account of the Mayo Clinic promoting “energy therapies,” of which reiki is one of the most popular varieties. Basically, these are “therapies” in which it is claimed that the practitioner can either (1) manipulate the “life energy” fields of the patient (e.g., healing touch) or (2) channel “healing energy” into the patient from a source (e.g., reiki). And here was the Mayo Clinic promoting this magical mystical nonsense, linking to an article on its official website entitled “Energy Therapies Offer Support in Healing for Cancer Survivors“:
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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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The Windi: Revolutionary Relief for Colic or a Pain in the Butt

windi

Stand back.

We tend to cover some very serious topics here on Science-Based Medicine. In fact, most of our posts are downright depressing. This will hopefully not be one of them.

In just the past few weeks we have written about the public health menace of anti-vaccine pseudoscience, autistic children being subjected to dangerous bleach enemas, and chiropractic-induced stroke in children. Unsurprisingly, there is typically no shortage of rage and heartache on the pages of this blog. But not today. Today will be a reprieve from the misery.

I’ll be discussing two products that were recently brought to my attention by colleagues. The last product I skeptically evaluated was the Buzzy, a device designed to reduce procedural pain in kids that is little more than a clever distraction technique. That product, however, was considerably more complex in concept and design than the ones I’ve chosen for this post. But the NoseFrida and the Windi are marketed to parents using equally dubious claims of efficacy, and use of one of them has an unfavorable risk-benefit analysis in my opinion. At least they’re funny…kind of.

The NoseFrida and the Windi come from the Miami-based FridaBaby LLC. The company website provides a succinct mission statement:

FridaBaby specializes in baby products you actually need! Our products are for the important stuff, you know, like breathing. Instead of using harsh chemicals to relieve your baby of discomfort, we opt for more natural solutions. Our focus on pragmatic and “gross” products (their words, not ours, nothing grosses us out!) that really work has garnered us a cult like following of ENTs, pediatric GIs nurses, doulas, midwives, lactation consultants, bloggers, and parents.

Okay, they help promote a needless anxiety over chemicals in baby products, and yes, that statement contains a straw man implication that all other options require the use of “harsh chemicals”, but they seem like decent enough folks. Who doesn’t like breathing? I do it daily and recommend it to all my patients. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Homeopathic industry and its acolytes make poor showing before FDA

Ask your pharmacist if nothing is right for you. (HT @leachkathleen)

Ask your pharmacist if nothing is right for you. (HT @leachkathleen)

On April 21 and 22, the FDA held a public hearing:

to obtain information and comments from stakeholders about the current use of human drug and biological products labeled as homeopathic, as well as the Agency’s regulatory framework for such products. . . . FDA is seeking participants for the public hearing and written comments from all interested parties, including, but not limited to, consumers, patients, caregivers, health care professionals, patient groups, and industry.

The FTC recently announced that it, too, is wading into the homeopathic waters. The FTC, which regulates advertising of homeopathic products, will hold a public workshop on September 21 in Washington, DC, “to examine advertising for over-the-counter (OTC) homeopathic products.” Like the FDA, it will also accept public comments online.

All of this regulatory buzz caused the FDA Law Blog to take notice. (The blog is hosted by a law firm specializing in food and drug regulation law.) A post titled “Will FTC Kill Homeopathic Products – or Will FDA?” gave this assessment:

Bottom line, if the FTC holds homeopathic products to the same scientific standards that are applied to claims for other OTC products like dietary supplements, as the FTC appears inclined to do . . . few if any homeopathic products will pass the test.

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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Health Fraud, Homeopathy, Legal, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation

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