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Oriental Medicine: a Tall Tale of Outdated Lore

Editor’s Note: Dr. Gorski was on a rare vacation last week, recharging his batteries. As a result, there is no new material by him this week. Fortunately, Ben Kavoussi was ready with another in his series of posts on traditional Chinese medicine. Dr. Gorski will return next week; that is, if he doesn’t return even sooner because he can’t stand to be away from SBM for two whole weeks.

The established laws of nature do not support Oriental Medicine’s claim of Yin and Yang and Five-Phases Theory. Oriental Medicine’s main theory was constructed when our civilization had limited methods to understand our surroundings, and as such, it is only an ancient illusion.1

— Yong-Sang Yoo, MD, PhD, Chairman of the Committee for Medical Unification, Korean Medical Association, 2010

Yong-Sang Yoo is one of the strong and growing voices in Korea that is calling for an end to the national insurance coverage for Oriental Medicine.

Similarly, Professor Zhang Gongyao of the Central South China University petitioned the central government of China in 2006 to abolish support for Oriental Medicine because it has “no clear understanding of the human body, of the functions of medicines and their links to disease. It is more like a boat without a compass: it may reach the shore finally but it’s all up to luck.”2 Zhang Gongyao and fellow critics have consequently blasted China’s traditional medicine as an often ineffective, even dangerous derivative of witchcraft that relies on untested concoctions and obscure ingredients to trick patients, and employs a host of excuses if the treatments do not work.3


Bloodletting is used in Oriental Medicine to relieve excess “heat,” meaning fever, sore throat, joint pain, muscle sprain, as well as inflammation. It is often practiced in unsanitary conditions.

A Product of Archaic Thinking

The arguments of Yong-Sang Yoo and Zhang Gongyao are reminiscent of those of William R. Morse, Dean of Medical School at West China Union University, who wrote in 1934 that China’s traditional medicine was a “weird medley of philosophy, religion, superstition, magic, alchemy, astrology, feng shui, divination, sorcery, demonology and quackery.” Morse added that Chinese diagnostic methods “border on the ridiculous and possibly cross the line into absurdity.” Harvey J. Howard — a Dean at the Peking Union Medical College — also wrote in 1934 that “the great majority of these Chinese medicines reminds one of the list of remedies suggested by the third witch in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.”4

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Health Fraud, History

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Steve Jobs’ medical reality distortion field

As I pointed out in my previous post about Steve Jobs, I’m a bit of an Apple fan boy. A housemate of mine got the very first Mac way back in 1984, and ever since I bought my first computer that was mine and mine alone back in 1991 (a Mac LC), I’ve used nothing but Macintosh computers, except when compelled to use Windows machines by work—and even then under protest. Indeed, as I searched for jobs at various times in my life, I asked myself whether I could accept a job at an institution that didn’t permit me to have a Mac in my office, such as the V.A. Fortunately, I never had to make that choice. All of this explains why I paid a lot of attention to Steve Jobs and also why his death saddened me and, relevant to this blog, the clinical history of the cancer that killed him fascinates me.

It’s often been said that there was a sort of “reality distortion field” around Steve Jobs. It was a part joking, part derogatory, part admiring term applied to Jobs’ talent for persuasion in which, through a combination of personal charisma, bravado, hyperbole, marketing, and persistence, Jobs was able to persuade almost anyone, even developers and engineers, of almost anything. In particular, it referred to his ability to convince so many people that each new Apple product was the greatest thing ever, even when that product had obvious flaws. Unfortunately, as more news comes out about how Steve Jobs initially dealt with his diagnosis of a neuroendocrine tumor of the pancreas (specifically, an insulinoma) back in 2003 and 2004, it’s become apparent that Jobs had his own medical reality distortion field, at least in the beginning right after his diagnosis of a rare form of pancreatic cancer, that allowed him to come to think that he might be able to reverse his cancer with diet plus various “alternative” modalities.

In the immediate aftermath of Steve Jobs’ death, I summarized the facts about Jobs’ case that were known at the time. In particular, I took issue with the claims of a skeptic that “alternative medicine killed Steve Jobs.” At the time, I pointed out that, although it was very clear that Steve Jobs did himself no favors by delaying his initial surgery for nine months after his initial diagnosis, we do not have sufficient information to know what his clinical situation was and therefore how much, if at all, he decreased his odds of survival by not undergoing surgery expeditiously. To recap: Did Steve Jobs harm himself by trying diet and alternative medicine first? Quite possibly. Did alternative medicine kill him? As I’ve argued before, that’s impossible to say, and any skeptic who dogmatically makes such an argument has taken what we known beyond what can be supported. Regular readers know that when I see a story that looks as though “alternative medicine” directly contributed to the death of someone, I usually pull no punches, but in this case I had a hard time being so definitive because the unknowns are too many, with all due respect to Ramzi Amri, a Research Associate at Harvard Medical School who in my opinion also went too far. I did, however, point out that I’m always open to changing my opinion if new evidence comes in. Jobs was always incredibly secretive about his medical condition, so much so that it didn’t even come out in the press until after it had happened that he had undergone a liver transplant in 2008 for metastatic insulinoma in his liver, just as his cancer diagnosis in 2003 remained secret for 9 months, not being revealed until he sent an e-mail to Apple employees announcing that he had undergone surgery.

It turns out that, with the imminent release of a major biography of Steve Jobs, more information is finally trickling out about his medical history. For instance, Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson is going to appear on 60 Minutes this Sunday, and apparently he is going to say this:
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Posted in: Cancer, Nutrition, Science and the Media

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Dummy Medicine, Dummy Doctors, and a Dummy Degree, Part 2.2: Harvard Medical School and the Curious Case of Ted Kaptchuk, OMD (cont. again)

“Strong Medicine”: Ted Kaptchuk and the Powerful Placebo

At the beginning of the first edition of The Web that has no Weaver, published in 1983, author Ted Kaptchuk portended his eventual academic interest in the placebo:

A story is told in China about a peasant who had worked as a maintenance man in a newly established Western missionary hospital. When he retired to his remote home village, he took with him some hypodermic needles and lots of antibiotics. He put up a shingle, and whenever someone came to him with a fever, he injected the patient with the wonder drugs. A remarkable percentage of these people got well, despite the fact that this practitioner of Western medicine knew next to nothing about what he was doing. In the West today, much of what passes for Chinese medicine is not very different from the so-called Western medicine practiced by this Chinese peasant. Out of a complex medical system, only the bare essentials of acupuncture technique have reached the West. Patients often get well from such treatment because acupuncture, like Western antibiotics, is strong medicine.

Other than to wonder if Kaptchuk had watched too many cowboy ‘n’ Native American movies as a kid, when I first read that passage I barely blinked. Although the Chinese peasant may have occasionally treated someone infected with a bacterium susceptible to his antibiotic, most people will get well no matter what you do, because most illnesses are self-limited. Most people feel better even sooner if they think that someone with special expertise is taking care of them. If you want to call those phenomena the “placebo effect,” in the colloquial sense of the term, fine. That, I supposed, was what Kaptchuk meant by “strong medicine.”

Turns out I was mistaken. Let’s briefly follow Kaptchuk’s career path after 1983. In the 2000 edition of The Web, he wrote:

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Basic Science, Book & movie reviews, Chiropractic, Clinical Trials, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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What to Expect When You’re Expecting

A correspondent asked me to review the book What to Expect When You’re Expecting by Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel. She wrote “I’m very worried about this book.”

She had just seen an NPR article about the book and was alarmed because it provided an excerpt from the book recommending that patients with morning sickness “Try Sea-Bands” and “Go CAM Crazy.” She knew from reading SBM and other science blogs that “going CAM crazy” is not a good idea. She was savvy enough to search Google Books with the title and “CAM” and found more alarming advice(more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Obstetrics & gynecology

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Consumer Reports drops the ball on alternative medicine

Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve intermittently read Consumer Reports, relying on it for guidance in all manner of purchase decisions. CR has been known for rigorous testing of all manner of consumer products and the rating of various services, arriving at its rankings through a systematic testing method that, while not necessarily bulletproof, has been far more organized and consistent than most other ranking systems. True, I haven’t always agreed with CR’s rankings of products and services about which I know a lot, but at the very least CR has often made me think about how much of my assessments are based on objective measures and how much on subjective measures.

Until now.

I just saw something yesterday on the CR website that has made me wonder just how scientific CR’s testing methods are, as CR has apparently decided to promote alternative medicine modalities by “assessing” them in an utterly scientifically ignorant manner. Maybe I just haven’t been following CR regularly for a while, but if there’s an article that demonstrates exactly why consumer product testing organizations should not be testing medical treatments; they are ill-equipped to do so and lack the expertise and knowledge. The first red flag was the title, namely Hands-on, mind-body therapies beat supplements. The second red flag was the introduction to the article:

A new survey of subscribers to Consumer Reports found that prescription drugs generally performed better than alternative therapies for 12 common health problems. But hands-on treatments such as chiropractic care and deep-tissue massage, as well as mind-body therapies such as yoga and meditation, held their own, especially for certain conditions. Far fewer said that dietary supplements helped a lot.

Prescription drugs helped the most for nine of the conditions we asked about: allergies, anxiety, colds and flu, depression, digestive problems, headache and migraine, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, and osteoarthritis.

But chiropractic care performed better than drugs for back pain, and deep-tissue massage beat drugs for neck pain. Massage was as also as good as drugs for fibromyalgia. Those hands-on therapies also scored near the top for osteoarthritis as well as for headaches and migraines.

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Posted in: Science and the Media

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A Skeptic In Oz

UPDATE 4/27/2011: Here’s the online video of Dr. Novella’s appearance on The Dr. Oz Show:

  1. Controversial Medicine: Alternative Health, Part 1
  2. Controversial Medicine: Alternative Health, Part 2
  3. Controversial Medicine: Alternative Health, Part 3

I must say I was a bit shocked two weeks ago when I was contacted by a producer for The Dr. Oz Show inviting me on to discuss alternative medicine. We have been quite critical of Dr. Mehmet Oz over his promotion of dubious medical treatments and practitioners, and I wondered if they were aware of the extent of our criticism (they were, it turns out).

Despite the many cautions I received from friends and colleagues (along with support as well) – I am always willing to engage those with whom I disagree. I knew it was a risk going into a forum completely controlled by someone who does not appear to look kindly upon my point of view, but a risk worth taking. I could only hope I was given the opportunity to make my case (and that it would survive the editing process).

The Process

Of course, everyone was extremely friendly throughout the entire process, including Dr. Oz himself (of that I never had any doubt). The taping itself went reasonably well. I was given what seemed a good opportunity to make my points. However, Dr. Oz did reserve for himself the privilege of getting in the last word—including a rather long finale, to which I had no opportunity to respond. Fine—it’s his show, and I knew what I was getting into. It would have been classy for him to give an adversarial guest the last word, or at least an opportunity to respond, but I can’t say I expected it.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Science and the Media

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The Forefather of Acupuncture Energetics, a Charlatan?

Not only his name and his titles of nobility were forged, but parts of the teachings of the man who introduced acupuncture to Europe were also invented. Even today, treatments are provided based on his fantasies.

— Hanjo Lehmann1

Decades before President Nixon’s visit to communist China, and before the articles in the Western popular press on the use of acupuncture in surgery, a Frenchman by the name of George Soulié de Morant (1878-1955), published a series of colorful accounts of the use of acupuncture in early 20th-century China. His work led to the creation of a school of thought known as “French energetics,” which has become the theoretical foundation for many proponents of acupuncture in the West, including Joseph Helms, MD, the founder and former director of the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture (AAMA), and the founder of the acupuncture certification course for physicians.

But just as the medical community gradually learned that the reports of the use of acupuncture in surgery in communist China were inaccurate, exaggerated, or even fraudulent, we are now learning that the reports on the use and efficacy of acupuncture by Soulié de Morant were also fabricated.

According to a 2010 article published in Germany by Hanjo Lehmann in the Deutsches Ärzteblatt (a short version was published in Süddeutsche Zeitung), there is no real evidence that the Frenchman who is considered the father of Western acupuncture ever stuck a needle in anyone in China, and he probably never witnessed a needling.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Energy Medicine, Health Fraud

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Vaccine Wars: the NCCAM Drops the Ball

If you go to the website of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), you’ll find that one of its self-identified roles is to “provide information about CAM.” NCCAM Director Josephine Briggs is proud to assert that the website fulfills this expectation. As many readers will recall, three of your bloggers visited the NCCAM last April, after having received an invitation from Dr. Briggs. We differed from her in our opinion of the website: one of our suggestions was that the NCCAM could do a better job providing American citizens with useful and accurate information about “CAM.”

We cited, among several examples, the website offering little response to the dangerous problem of widespread misinformation about childhood immunizations. As Dr. Novella subsequently reported, it seemed that we’d scored a point on that one:

…Dr. Briggs did agree that anti-vaccine sentiments are common in the world of CAM and that the NCCAM can do more to combat this. Information countering anti-vaccine propaganda would be a welcome addition to the NCCAM site.

In anticipation of SBM’s Vaccine Awareness Week, I decided to find out whether such a welcome addition has come to fruition. The short answer: nope.

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Posted in: Chiropractic, Health Fraud, Homeopathy, Legal, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media

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Nine Breakthroughs and a Breakdown

In his new book Breakthrough! How the 10 Greatest Discoveries in Medicine Saved Millions and Changed Our View of the World Jon Queijo describes what he believes are the 10 greatest discoveries. 9 of them are uncontroversial discoveries that have been on other top-10 lists, but his 10th choice is one that no other list of top discoveries has ever included. He realizes that, and even admits in his introduction that a former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine refused to review his book because there is no such thing as alternative medicine, only treatments that work and treatments that don’t. But he “respectfully disagrees.”

Hippocrates’ discovery that disease had natural causes, sanitation, germ theory, anesthesia, X-rays, vaccines, antibiotics, genetics, and treatments for mental disorders are all worthy candidates for the list. But Queijo ludicrously lists the “rediscovery of alternative medicine” as the tenth “great discovery.” He presents no evidence (because there is no evidence) that alternative medicine has “saved millions” or that it has saved anyone. He doesn’t realize that alternative medicine represents a betrayal of exactly the kind of rigorous scientific thinking and testing that led to all the other discoveries. His list of ten breakthroughs is actually a list of 9 breakthroughs and one breakdown. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, History, Science and Medicine

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Be careful what you wish for, Dr. Dossey, you just might get it

If there’s one thing about the so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) movement that I’ve emphasized time and time again, it’s that its adherents have a definite love-hate relationship with science. They hate it because it is the single greatest threat to their beliefs system and the pseudoscience that underlies it. At the same time, they crave the legitimacy that science confers. They crave it not because they have any great love for science. Quite the contrary. It is simply that they recognize that science actually delivers the goods. Of course, they believe that they deliver the goods too, but they come to this belief not through science but rather through all the cognitive shortcomings and biases to which humans are prone, such as confusing correlation with causation, confirmation bias, not recognizing regression to the mean, and being fooled by the placebo effect. Whether it’s through a misunderstanding of science or less innocent reasons, they go to great lengths to torture it into superficially appearing to support their claims through a combination of cherry-picking of studies that seem to support them and misrepresenting ones that don’t, discussions of which abound right here in this very blog.

The other thing I’ve emphasized about the CAM movement is that, even more than scientific credibility, they crave legitimacy. To them, however, science is but one pathway to legitimacy, because, unlike practitioners of science-based medicine, they are more than willing to bypass science to obtain the legitimacy–or at least the appearance of the legitimacy–they so crave. If it means doing an end run around science by trying to hijack the Obama health insurance reform bill that is currently being negotiated to resolve the differences between the Senate and House versions, so be it. Indeed, earlier this year, I described how Senator Tom Harkin has tried to promote CAM through the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and trying to insert provisions into the bill that would mandate that government-subsidized insurance exchanges pay for CAM. Meanwhile, prominent CAM advocates have been carpet-bombing the media with dubious arguments in support of CAM, as in when Deepak Chopra, Rustum Roy, Dean Ornish, and Andrew Weil teamed up in different combinations to promote the idea that CAM is all about “prevention” and that science-based medicine, in all its reductionistic evil, is nothing more than pushing pills.

They’re at it again.
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Posted in: Energy Medicine, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Politics and Regulation

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