The cover of Georgetown Medicine Spring/Summer 2015 issue. This image will drive Mark Crislip crazy, as it features yet another acupuncturist not using gloves while sticking needles into people. Dr. Gorski loves watching Dr. Crislip’s reactions to such photos.
We frequently discuss a disturbing phenomenon known as quackademic medicine. Basically, quackademic medicine is a phenomenon that has taken hold over the last two decades in medical academia in which once ostensibly science-based medical schools and academic medical centers embrace quackery. This embrace was once called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) but among quackademics the preferred term is now “integrative medicine.” Of course, when looked at objectively, integrative medicine is far more a brand than a specialty. Specifically, it’s a combination of rebranding some science-based modalities, such as nutrition and exercise, as somehow being “alternative” or “integrative” with the integration of outright quackery, such as reiki and “energy healing,” acupuncture, and naturopathy, into conventional medicine. As my good bud and fellow Science-Based Medicine (SBM) blogger Mark Crislip put it, mixing cow pie with apple pie does not make the cow pie better, but we seem to be “integrating” the cow pie of quackery with the apple pie of science-based medicine thinking that somehow it will improve the smell, taste, and texture of the cow pie.
I remember how, when I first discovered how prevalent outright pseudoscience and quackery had become in medical academia (which was before I became one of the founding SBM bloggers), I was in denial. I couldn’t believe it. Then I tracked this phenomenon with something I called the Academic Woo Aggregator. It turned out to be a hopeless endeavor because, as I soon discovered, the phenomenon was so pervasive that it was really hard to keep the Aggregator up to date. Since then, I’ve generally only focused on particularly egregious examples, naming names when institutions like my alma mater embrace anthroposophic medicine; “respectable” journals publish “integrative medicine” guidelines for breast cancer patients; cancer organizations include “integrative oncology” in their professional meetings; NCI-designated comprehensive cancer centers promote reiki to pediatric cancer patients or offer high dose unproven vitamin C treatment to patients; or respected academic institutions embrace traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and the quackery that is function medicine. You get the idea. It’s depressing just how far medical academia has fallen in terms of being “open-minded” to the point of brains falling out when it comes to medical pseudoscience.
Me and my lovely wife Phyllis Schlafly, amazed at what naturopaths will believe.
From the Wikimedia Commons, because we’re that famous.
As regular readers know, I live in the great Pacific Northwest, specifically Portland, Oregon. I am at home in the organic/hippy/environmental mind-set. It is what I grew up with. It is a relaxed, informal place to live. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that formal attire is tucking your tee shirt into your jeans. At least the metro area, and perhaps much of the state, is relatively tolerant of the actions of others. A real what’s the harm/shruggie approach to life, the universe and everything.
I will admit that the irrational/shruggie/emotional/Oregonian/goateed part of my brain is often at odds with my more rational brain, which wants me to give a rat’s ass about issues I think are just wrong. It showed up strongly with fluoridation in Portland, where my rational brain knew adding fluoride to the water was a great idea and my Oregonian nature said water should be pure, man, like nature intended. I keep my inner Oregonian under tight control as his approach often sounds good until you carefully examine how his ideas are implemented. Except at the pub of course. Bring on the hops, man, like nature intended beer to be.
Naturopathy is well tolerated in Oregon, with two schools in the NW producing NDs. We have a Board of Naturopathic Medicine, whose vision is to:
To protect the health, safety and welfare of the public in the matters of care provided by Naturopathic physicians in Oregon.
Owing to summer vacation, today’s post updates a 2011 post and a 2013 post with some new information.
Anti-inflammatory drugs are among the most well-loved products in the modern medicine cabinet. They can provide good pain control, reduce inflammation, and eliminate fever. We give non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) in infancy, continuing through childhood and then adulthood for the aches and pains of modern living. It’s the later stages of life where NSAIDs are used most frequently, usually in the treatment of joint disease like osteoarthritis, which eventually affects pretty much everyone. Over 17 million Americans use NSAIDs on a daily basis, and this number will grow as the population ages. While they’re widely used, they also have a long list of side effects. Not only can they cause stomach ulcers and bleeding by damaging the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, cardiovascular risks are also significant.
It was the arrival (and withdrawal) of the drugs Bextra (valdecoxib) and Vioxx (rofecoxib) that led to a much better understanding of the potential for these drugs to increase the risks of heart attacks and strokes. And it’s now well-documented that these effects are not limited to the “COX-2″ drugs – almost all NSAIDs, including the old standbys we have used for years, raise the risk of heart attacks and strokes. (more…)
Selling snake oil is all about marketing, which means that a good snake oil product needs to have a great angle or a hook. Popular snake oil hooks include being “natural,” the product of ancient wisdom, or “holistic.”
Perhaps my favorite snake oil marketing ploy, however, is claiming the product represents the latest cutting-edge technology. This invariably leads to humorous sciencey technobabble. There are also recurrent themes to this technobabble, which often involve “energy,” vibrations and frequencies, or scientific concepts poorly understood by the public, such as magnetism and (of course) quantum effects. Historically, even radioactivity was marketed as a cure-all.
One category of technical pseudoscientific snake oil measures some physiological property of the body and then claims that this measurement can be used for diagnosis and determining optimal treatment. For example, machines might measure brain waves, heart rate variability, thermal energy or (the subject of today’s article) the galvanic skin response.
Get started…for as little as $14,000!
Hands On Learning Solutions, a business in Gig Harbor, Washington, evaluates and treats children for learning disabilities and claims to identify the underlying causes and help eliminate the symptoms. Much of what they do is questionable, and at least one of their methods is clearly bogus. Their program is reminiscent of the Brain Balance program that I wrote about in 2010. I’ll describe one child’s encounter with Hands On Learning Solutions and let you decide for yourself whether it sounds like a legitimate, helpful service.
Billy (not his real name) is an 11-year-old boy who is in the fifth grade at a Catholic school. He didn’t learn to talk until age 3, but he got speech therapy and is currently doing well in school, with a GPA of 86%. On his last report card, the section on “Successful Learner” rated him above average on working cooperatively with others, and satisfactory in all other categories, such as organizational skills, using time well, listening attentively, following directions, and completing work on time. His mother took him to Hands On Learning Solutions on the recommendation of a friend. On the intake questionnaire she expressed concerns about his written/oral expression, organization, study skills, attention focus, and motivation/behavior. She did not check the boxes for concerns about reading, spelling, comprehension, letter reversals, graphomotor skills, math, memory, poor grades, or slow work. (more…)
Anyone who reads Science-Based Medicine on even a semi-regular basis will know our collective opinion of homeopathy. Basically, at its core, homeopathy is pure quackery.
I don’t care if it’s repetitive to say this yet again because it can’t be emphasized enough times that homeopathy is The One Quackery To Rule Them All. OK, there are others that compete for that title, such as reiki and other magical “energy therapies” like therapeutic touch, both of which, unfortunately, can be found in many academic medical centers where the faculty really should know better. Any “medicine” whose very precepts break multiple laws of physics and chemistry, laws that would have to be proven not just wrong but spectacularly wrong for homeopathy to work, deserves only ridicule.
The “laws” of homeopathy
Think of it this way. There are two “laws” of homeopathy, neither of which has any basis in reality. First, there is the law that states “like cures like” and asserts that, to relieve a symptom, you need to use a substance that causes that same symptom in healthy adults. There is, of course, no evidence that this is a general principle of medicine. For instance, we don’t generally treat fever by administering something that causes fever or treat vomiting with something that causes vomiting. The second law, however, is the one that’s completely ridiculous. Basically, it’s the law of infinitesimals. This law states that a homeopathic remedy is made stronger with dilution, specifically serial dilutions with vigorous shaking between each dilution step to “potentize” the remedy. That’s ridiculous enough, but homeopaths, never satisfied with the merely ridiculous have to turn the ridiculous up to 11 and beyond by using this principle to assert that dilutions far beyond the point where there is likely even to be a single molecule of the original remedy left are effective and become more so with more dilution. For instance, a 30C dilution is 30 one hundred-fold dilutions (C=100, get it?), or a 1060 dilution. Avogadro’s number is only on the order of 6 x 1023, or more than 1036-fold less than the dilution. The simple mathematics of homeopathy just doesn’t work, although this doesn’t stop homeopaths from coming up with some truly spectacular flights of pseudoscience (like the “memory of water”) to try to “explain” how it can work.
[Editor’s note: This is an extra bonus post that has appeared elsewhere. This week’s post will appear in several hours.]
A mysterious apparent suicide and conspiracy theories
Three weeks ago, those of us who combat the antivaccine movement noted the then-very recent death of an autism quack and antivaccinationist (but I repeat myself) who’s been big in the “autism biomed” movement for a long time and was a regular fixture at autism quackfests like Autism ONE for many years. I’m referring, of course, to Jeff Bradstreet, whose body was found in a river on June 19, dead from a gunshot wound to the chest that appeared to have been self-inflicted. It didn’t take long (less than a week) for the antivaccine movement to start speculating about conspiracies in which Bradstreet had been “bumped off” by big pharma, as represented by comments like these:
- “It’s obvious that he was deliberately killed off because he spoke out against federal deceit, CDC, etc and was a life-saver for many like myself.”
- “He did NOT kill himself! He was murdered for who he was speaking against, what he knew, and what he was doing about it. He was brilliant kind compassionate doctor with amazing abilities to heal. He was taken. Stopped. Silenced.”
- “If this does not stink to high heaven I don’t know what does. A fisherman finds his body with a gunshot wound that appears to be a self inflicted. Just how the hell would they know that. Amazingly they happen to find the gun in the river. Wow that is some amazing detective work.”
- “What a tragic loss of a beloved doctor. I pray the authorities get to the bottom of this story…it seems highly unlikely that a Christian man would shoot himself in thy chest and conveniently fall into a river.”
You get the idea. Meanwhile, others insinuated the existence of, basically, pharma hit squads. Not long afterward, Bradstreet’s family started a GoFundMe page to “find the truth.”
Let me just say one thing. I understand, to some extent, what the Bradstreet family is going through. My family has not escaped without having had one of its members commit suicide. Although it was someone I wasn’t particularly close to, he was very close to family members I am close to. So I understand better than most the pain they are going through. They do have my sympathy. I’ve been there.
That being said, it appears that more information is coming out about what happened in the days leading to Bradstreet’s death. It’s even started to filter out to major media outlets, as in this story published yesterday in the Washington Post, “The mysterious death of a doctor who peddled autism ‘cures’ to thousands“:
Hmm, what could have happened in the early 90s to explain the significant decrease in incidence of acute hepatitis B? Urkel?
For those of you new to Science-Based Medicine, I am a pediatric hospitalist and spend the majority of my time caring for newborns. It’s an extremely rewarding experience on most days. The babies are usually healthy, the parents are usually happy and appreciative, and I get to give a lot of good news. I also get to dispel a lot of myths and misconceptions regarding the care of infants, which as you can probably imagine, I take great pleasure in.
Parents ask a lot of questions, which I appreciate and encourage, but they also make a lot of claims about the care of children based on their prior experience, advice from well-meaning friends and family, or their evaluation of the online “literature.” Some of these claims I will challenge, nicely of course, when they are demonstrably wrong or increase the risk for a bad outcome. (“We read that babies should sleep inverted like a bat in order to increase blood flow to the brain.”) Some of these claims I acknowledge as an acceptable approach, even if I don’t agree with them myself, if there is low risk or a lack of available quality evidence to guide me. (“We burped our last baby every five minutes during feeds to prevent colic.”) Sometimes I even learn a thing or two from parents.
Some of these products contain no medicine at all.
Retail pharmacies have a sugar pill problem. Homeopathic “remedies” may look like conventional medicine when they’re stocked on pharmacy shelves, like the photo above. But unlike conventional medicine, homeopathic products don’t contain any “medicine” at all. They are effectively sugar pills – placebos. Not surprisingly, there is convincing evidence to show that homeopathy is useless as a medical treatment, and fundamentally incompatible with a scientific understanding of medicine, biochemistry and even physics. Questions have been raised about the ethics of selling homeopathy in pharmacies to consumers who may not realize what they’re buying. This growing practice is attracting sharp criticism from other health professions. So why do pharmacies sell them? And what will it take for pharmacies to change? (more…)
The BMJ is a prestigious medical journal, which just goes to show that prestigious journals can sometimes make awful decisions. They recently published a pro vs con article on homeopathy. Peter Fisher dragged out the current repertoire of pro-homeopathy tropes, while Edzard Ernst did a fine job of summarizing why homeopathy is nonsense.
I also think the article is an excellent example of the difference between evidence-based medicine and science-based medicine. While EBM is led by a misguided notion of “scientific equipoise” or fairness, SBM endeavors to use all scientific knowledge to make the best judgments we can about treatments.
An SBM approach to homeopathy leads only to scathing condemnation, because it is among the purest of pseudosciences. (more…)