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Reviewing Andrew Wakefield’s VAXXED: Antivaccine propaganda at its most pernicious

VAXXED

I’ve finally seen it. I’ve finally seen Andrew Wakefield and Del Bigtree’s “documentary” VAXXED: From Cover-up to Catastrophe, and I didn’t even have to pay to see it! Now, having watched Wakefield and Bigtree’s “masterpiece,” I can quite confidently say that it’s every bit as accurate and balanced a picture of vaccine benefits and risks as Eric Merola’s two movies about the quack Stanislaw Burzynski and his Second Opinion: Laetrile at Sloan-Kettering are about cancer and cancer research, The Beautiful Truth is about the Gerson protocol for cancer, Simply Raw: Reversing Diabetes in 30 Days is about diet and diabetes, Expelled! No Intelligence Allowed is about evolution, and The Greater Good is about…vaccines! Of course, based on what I knew of the story, saw of the VAXXED trailer (which deceptively edited together statements by William Thompson), and have discussed about the efforts of Andrew Wakefield, Del Bigtree, and Polly Tommey to use VAXXED as a tool in a publicity campaign to try to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) about vaccines using the “CDC whistleblowerconspiracy theory (about which a primer can be found here), I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was actually surprised (slightly) at the manipulative depths to which this film sinks.

On the plus side, its production values are better than those Eric Merola’s films (although I, with no experience, could probably make a film with better production values than Merola), but that just makes it somewhat more effective propaganda. In my review and discussion of the movie and its claims, I will discuss the claims made by Bigtree and Wakefield as well as the movie as a movie. Unfortunately, there is so much misinformation in this 91 minute documentary that I will only be able to hit the “high” points without going far, far beyond even a Gorski level of logorrhea in this post. Worse, there is a considerable amount of dishonest framing, in which actual facts and events are presented in a deceptive manner to tell a distorted narrative. Before that, though, let’s meet the key players.
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Baby Translating Technology: Revolutionary Parenting Tool or Confirmation Bias Bonanza

stupidbaby
Caring for a young infant, although a potentially rewarding means of producing a labor force for chores and minor home repairs, can be a trying ordeal for both new and experienced parents. The peaks and valleys of parental experience can leave a caregiver both exhilarated and agonizingly frustrated during a single hour of childcare, let alone the first few months. It is not an uncommon experience for a parent to rapidly alternate between extreme states of emotional arousal, one minute gazing down at their sleeping baby with seemingly limitless feelings of joy and love, and the next panicking at the perception that it has been too long since their baby’s last breath.

Babies, especially stupid ones, require near constant attention during the first several weeks of life, and that’s if it is going well. There is no user manual for the care of the newborn human that could possibly describe every situation and how to effectively respond to it in each individual child. A trial and error approach is always necessary to some degree, and it tends to result in a lot of sleepless nights, with many parents finding themselves more exhausted than they ever dreamed possible. So it shouldn’t be surprising that parents are a particularly vulnerable population when it comes to the marketing claims of bogus technology aimed at making their lives even the slightest bit easier. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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How not to debate a “pro-vaxer”

When people debating against vaccines win, children lose.

When people debating against vaccines win, children lose.

To say that the relationship that antivaccine activists have with science and fact is a tenuous, twisted one is a major understatement. Despite mountains of science that says otherwise, antivaccinationists still cling to the three core tenets of their faith, namely that (1) vaccines are ineffective (or at least nowhere near as effective as health officials claim; (2) vaccines are dangerous, causing autism, autoimmune disease, neurodevelopmental disorders, diabetes, sudden infant death syndrome, and a syndrome that is misdiagnosed as shaken baby syndrome; and, of course, (3) the Truth (capital-T, of course!) is being covered up by a nefarious combination of big pharma, the medical profession, and the government (in the US, primarily the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which works with pediatricians to produce the recommended schedule of vaccines). Because vaccine rejectors don’t have science on their side, they have to resort strategies common to science denialists like those who reject the scientific consensus about evolution or human-caused global climate change. These fallacious strategies include (but are not limited to) selective citation of evidence (i.e., cherry picking), misrepresentation and logical fallacies, impossible expectations about what science can deliver (e.g., vaccine denialists expecting 100% efficacy and 100% safety from vaccines or cancer quacks expecting 100% cure rates and no side effects from chemotherapy); fake experts (e.g., Andrew Wakefield); and, of course, conspiracy theories. Add to that appeals to personal freedom and “health choiceüber alles and painting any form of vaccine mandate as incipient totalitarianism, with those rejecting vaccines taking on the role of the Jews in Hitler’s Germany, and you have a pretty good idea of the sorts of arguments antivaccine activists resort to.

Not surprisingly, even the most diehard antivaccine advocate can get frustrated. After all, it must be very frustrating to have one’s posterior handed to one in arguments on the science of vaccines time and time again. Of course, for that purpose, like most science denialists, antivaccine activists have the Internet. In particular, they’ve taken full advantage of Facebook, and, more recently, Twitter. One such online gathering place is the public group known as Vaccine Resistance Movement (VRM). I encourage pro-science advocates to peruse this group, just to see that when I refer to people being anti-vaccine, there is no doubt that that is what they are. It was there that I found a rather telling document posted, for the benefit of antivaccine advocates everywhere.
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Posted in: Critical Thinking, Vaccines

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SCAM Cell Therapies

Surprisingly, the best youth is in the chump.

Pictured: Stem cells.  Surprisingly, the best youth is in the chump.

Injecting animal cells into humans for therapeutic reasons has a long history. The most infamous was John Brinkley who injected goat testicles into 16,000 men in the 1920s and 30s to treat impotence. Harriet wrote a review of Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam, which covers the topic. I wonder who would get the title today. Chopra…Gesundheit.

I had thought this therapy was consigned to the sharps container of history. Of course not. No SCAM ever fades away.

As part of my ID reading I came across the headline “Q Fever Outbreak Among Travelers to Germany Who Received Live Cell Therapy — United States and Canada, 2014.”

It surpasses the classic “Notes from the Field: Campylobacter jejuni Infections Associated with Sheep Castration — Wyoming, 2011” for foolishness, where:

…men reported having used their teeth to castrate some of the lambs.

Really. A most curious way to acquire Campylobacter. But at least the castrators were doing practical, albeit eeewwwwwwww, work. And there is an alternative to teeth, including the Burdizzo Emasculatone, which is:

an elegant little tool especially suited to crushing the spermatic cords of a variety of male mammals. It really helps to make a neat job of what would otherwise be an unpleasantly messy endeavor, and the Burdizzo achieves the goal of bloodless castration admirably.

But I digress and leave to the commenters to make completely inappropriate remarks. Only the SCAM universe can be odder than infectious diseases. (more…)

Posted in: Homeopathy, Humor

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Acupuncture/TCPM Crapfest

Acupuncture needling

Look Ma! No gloves!

As I get older I get more grumpy. Issues that at one time I was rather sanguine about, now irritate the hell out of me. It is not like it was when I started practice. Information was hard to come by. Going through the Index Medicus, with the world’s tiniest font, wandering the stacks looking for papers, sending off for reprints, getting a precious Xerox (or even a mimeograph) of a classic paper from an attending.

You understood the value of eminence-based medicine, as it took a career to acquire and master the literature. You relied on the wisdom of old geezers like me who had decades of experience and reading.

That was then. Now? The world’s information is available almost instantaneously. You may not be able to master a new topic spending a day on Google and Pubmed, but you can acquire a reasonable understanding, especially of you have some background.

Because of Google and Pubmed, the only reasons for ignorance of your area of expertise in medicine are time, laziness, or stupidity. As a specialist, only time is an excuse. It is my job to keep up with infectious diseases, although with over 10,000 articles a year in ID, it is impossible to read everything. But if I have a question concerning patient care, I need to look it up. I have another blog whose raison d’être is looking up answers to the daily questions that arise in practice.

On the characteristics of a useful clinical trial

So the characteristics of a useful clinical trial are not hard to determine: Randomized, double blind, placebo controlled, adequately powered. Because you want to avoid spending time and money on a study only to end up with no useful conclusions. This is especially important with acupuncture where it not does matter what kind of acupuncture is used, if needles are used, where the needles are placed or even if you mime acupuncture or perform acupuncture on a rubber hand. The key features for success in acupuncture are belief that the patient is receiving acupuncture and that the patient believes the acupuncture will be effective. And the stronger the belief, the better the subjective response. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Clinical Trials, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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A liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. On Naturopathy.

A coffee enema - almost, but not quite, totally unlike tea.

A coffee enema – almost, but not quite, totally unlike tea…and some sort of complex analogy involving naturopathy and science.

Those of you in the know recognize the title from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, among the funniest and most quotable books of all time. If you have not read the five books in the trilogy, get to work. Consider it a homework assignment.

I bit off more than I can chew for this entry. I usually plan on about 8–10 hours over 4 –5 days to write these entries. So I had this idea. Now that naturopaths have been declared primary care providers by the Oregon legislature I thought it would be good to look over all the websites in Portland to see, in their own words, what naturopaths were offering. I figured there would not be that many sites to review. How many naturopaths could be in Portland?

So I went to the Oregon Board of Naturopathic Medicine Licensee Directory and entered Portland into the search box. And?

578 hits.

There is not enough beer time in the world

Holy Cannoli. I thought there would be 30, which is the number infesting Eugene, the second most naturopathed city in Oregon. There is no way that I could do a comprehensive review of that many websites in the limited time I have to devote to the blog. But my brain is not unlike an oil tanker with blog entries, it takes a long time to change direction and I had nothing else mentally lined up to write about. (more…)

Posted in: Naturopathy

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“Magic Socks?” Alternative Medicine’s Obsession With Your Feet.

earthing

Inappropriate earthing technique?

I recently received an email from none other than Jann Bellamy pointing out a particular flavor of naturopathic nonsense that I had missed up until this point: “magic socks.” A quick search revealed that our own Scott Gavura had briefly mentioned this remedy in a 2013 post, but I plan on going into much greater detail. The claim contained in the newsletter attached to Jann’s email involved the use of said magic socks to “alleviate congestion.” Three links were thoughtfully provided for more information and I took the bait. Thanks Jann.

That’s right, magic socks!

The first link took me to the website of Bastyr University, where Britt Hermes matriculated to the tune of $300,000 and a leader in “innovation in natural health education” that offers numerous degrees in “science-based natural medicine.” According to the experts at Bastyr, wet sock treatment, apparently synonymous with “magic socks”, is “a natural method of stimulating the immune system and zapping a cold or flu” that involves forcing a child to don ice-cold socks overnight. They even admit that this is a treatment approach recommended regularly by the naturopathic physicians at Bastyr Center for Natural Health.

According to the chief medical officer at BCNH (seems like there should be an asterisk there or something), we shouldn’t be thrown by how much this sounds like complete and utter nonsense, because it works. He reassures us that magic socks “rally the body’s defenses” using the healing power of nature. And it’s free! All you need is water, socks, a freezer, and some electricity. Okay, so it isn’t free but it’s pretty darn cheap. (more…)

Posted in: Naturopathy, Science and Medicine

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An Industry of Worthless Acupuncture Studies

Electro-AcupunctureEven more interesting to me than the question of whether or not acupuncture is effective for any particular symptom is the meta-question of how acupuncture proponents have managed to promote a treatment with systematically terrible scientific data. A new study provides a fresh example of this, which I will discuss below.

I think the behavior of acupuncturists reflects the fact that there are subcultures within science, where each community has its own standards, culture, and typical practices. You see this reflected in how they conduct their research and support their claims. Chiropractors, for example, have what is in my opinion a very unscientific culture. Their treatments are not science-based; science is an afterthought cherry-picked to support what is ultimately their philosophy.

The culture of acupuncture

The world of acupuncture has its own culture as well. Within this world there are special, very permissive rules of science that allow acupuncture to work for almost anything. One trend is to look for anything that happens locally in the skin when you stick a needle into it and then declare that a “mechanism for acupuncture.” The rules of the acupuncture culture also allow for a shifting definition of what acupuncture actually is, allowing the definition to conform to whatever the evidence shows. It’s a neat and subtle trick that allows acupuncture proponents to completely subvert the purpose of science.

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Posted in: Acupuncture

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Don’t just stand there, do nothing! The difference between science-based medicine and quackery

Tree of Life - the first-known sketch by Charles Darwin of an evolutionary tree describing the relationships among groups of organisms (Cambridge University Library).

Tree of Life – the first-known sketch by Charles Darwin of an evolutionary tree describing the relationships among groups of organisms (Cambridge University Library).

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines science as:

Knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation.

And:

Knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding.

While this should distinguish science from pseudoscience, those who practice the latter often lay claim to the same definition. But one of the major differences between science and pseudoscience is that science advances through constant rejection and revision of prior models and hypotheses as new evidence is produced; it evolves. This is the antithesis of pseudoscience. At the heart of pseudoscience-based medicine (PBM) is dogma and belief. It clings to its preconceptions and never changes in order to improve. It thrives on the intransigence of its belief system, and rejects threats to its dogma. Despite the constant claims by peddlers of pseudoscience that SBM practitioners are closed-minded, we know that, in fact, PBM is the ultimate in closed-minded belief. Of course, those of us who claim to practice SBM aren’t always quick to adopt new evidence. We sometimes continue practices that may once have been the standard of care but are no longer supported by the best available evidence, or perhaps may even be contradicted by the latest evidence. Often this is a byproduct of habituated practice and a failure to keep current with the literature. While this is certainly a failure of modern medicine, it is not an inevitable outcome. It is not emblematic of the practice of medicine, as it is with PBM. When medicine is science-based, it strives for continual improvement based on modifications around emerging evidence. (more…)

Posted in: Critical Thinking, Medical Ethics, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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Separating Fact from Fiction: The “Magic” of Epigenetics?

Watch as I pull a rabbit out of my hat using the power of epigenetics!

Watch as I pull a rabbit out of my hat using the power of epigenetics!

Every few years, it seems, a new concept emerges as the favorite go-to means of marketing unproven and highly implausible approaches to health care. Explanations of the proposed healing properties of homeopathic remedies incorporating quantum mechanics immediately comes to mind as an example of this phenomenon. Or how proponents of the most absurd treatments will just add “Nano” to anything and claim scientific miracles of healing.

From the Nano SRT website:

Q: What Is Stress Reduction Therapy?
A: SRT is a remarkable new procedure that combines the disciplines of Acupuncture, Biofeedback and Homeopathy with Laser Light technology. A computerized scan or test is done to see what your body is sensitive to, and how it is out of balance, then help it learn not to be.

Q: What does the Nano SRT do?

A: Substance specific frequencies converted to a digital format, and presented in the form of sound and light, are what allow for patient assessment and therapy down to the molecular level. The frequencies are what make it possible to assess thousands of substance sensitivities in mere minutes, then allow the brain and nervous system to record a new association that is positive or neutral instead of the inappropriate ones that were previously stored in memory. This breaks the link between the stimulus and response, makes symptoms unnecessary, creates balance and harmony, from dis-ease and disharmony, and allows the body to function better.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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