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When antivaccine pseudoscience isn’t enough, Bill Maher fawns over Charlie Sheen’s HIV quack

Bill Maher (right) expresses admiration for HIV quack Samir Chachoua (right), who claims to be able to cure people of HIV and cancer using milk from arthritic goats.

Bill Maher (right) expresses admiration for HIV quack Samir Chachoua (left), who claims to be able to cure people of HIV and cancer using milk from arthritic goats.

I know I must be getting older because of Friday nights. After a long, hard week (and, during grant season, in anticipation of a long, hard weekend of grant writing), it’s not infrequent that my wife and I order pizza, plant ourselves in front of the TV, and end up asleep before 10 or 11 PM. Usually, a few hours later, between midnight and 3 AM one or both of us will wake up and head upstairs to bed, but not always. Sometimes it’s all Friday night on the couch.

Last Friday was a bit different. It wasn’t different in that I did fall asleep on the couch sometime around 10 PM. However, unlike the usual case, when I woke up around 1:30 or 2 AM to head upstairs I was stone cold wide awake, feeling like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, eyes held wide open. So I did what I do when insomnia strikes. I popped up the computer and checked my e-mail and Facebook. Immediately, I saw messages asking me if I had seen Real Time With Bill Maher that night and, oh boy, I really should watch Maher. Apprehensive but curious, I fired up the DVR and watched.

And, shortly after the monologue, was totally appalled by this;

Funny, how the segment hasn’t yet been posted to Bill Maher’s YouTube page, as many of his interviews are. If he ever does post it, I’ll switch out the video above for the “official” source. Somehow, though, I doubt that the video will ever be posted, the reason being that it contains an embarrassingly fawning 10 minute interview with “Dr.” Samir Chachoua, better known (at least to skeptics) as Charlie Sheen’s HIV quack. Somehow, when Charlie Sheen was on The Dr. Oz Show a couple of weeks ago, other things were going on and I didn’t blog about it. Fortunately, Steve Novella did. Now, with Sheen’s very own quack who failed him being fawned over by Bill Maher, it gives me a chance to take down three birds with one stone: Bill Maher, Dr. Oz, and, of course, Sam Chachoua. Sadly for Bill Maher, America’s Quack Dr. Mehmet Oz comes off looking a lot better than he does, and that’s saying something.
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“Electromagnetic hypersensitivity” and “wifi allergies”: Bogus diagnoses with tragic real world consequences

Is there such a thing as an "allergy to wifi"? Lots of people claim there is; science, not so much.

Is there such a thing as an “allergy to wifi”? Lots of people claim there is; science, not so much.

I debated about writing about this topic, given that I just wrote about it last week on my not-so-super-secret other blog. However, as I thought about it during the weekend, I realized that the tragic story that so saddened and disturbed me to prod me to discuss so-called “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” or “electro-hypersensitivity” (EHS) was so horrific that a more detailed, SBM-level discussion was indicated, particularly in light of a similar case electromagnetic hypersensitivity that didn’t end so tragically discussed by Harriet Hall in September. I’m referring, of course, to the case of Jenny Fry, a British teen who hanged herself in June and whose mother has been claiming that her “allergy to wifi” was what drove her to suicide. So, while there will be some overlap with my previous discussion, I will try to step back and take a broader view of the evidence regarding the fake diagnosis of EHS, interspersed with examples (hopefully) illustrating my point. Think of this as the post I wished I had written the first time around but, due to time constraints, couldn’t.

Bogus science and lawsuits over EHS

By way of background, it’s worth briefly revisiting the case that Harriet discussed. Indeed, if you Google “lawsuit” and “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” and “wifi” the first two pages of results consist mostly of articles discussing it. That’s probably because this is just the latest lawsuit that made the news. It happened in Massachusetts, where the parents of a 12-year-old boy (designated “G” in court records) who was attending Fay School in Massachusetts alleged that the school violated his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to make accommodations to protect G from electromagnetic radiation from the school’s wifi routers. From the complaint’s summary statement:
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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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Stanislaw Burzynski and Robert O. Young: How two quacks of a feather illustrate how poorly states regulate medical practice

Stanislaw Burzynski (upper panel) and Robert O. Young (lower panel), two quacks whose activities reveal the weaknesses in how the practice of medicine is regulated.

Stanislaw Burzynski (upper panel) and Robert O. Young (lower panel), two quacks whose activities reveal the weaknesses in how the practice of medicine is regulated.

One of the weaknesses in our system of regulating the practice of medicine in the United States is that, unlike most countries, we don’t have one system. We have 50 systems. That’s because the functions of licensing physicians and regulating the practice of medicine are not federal functions, but state functions. Each state sets its own laws and regulations governing the practice of medicine, making for wide variability from state to state. Some states are lax in their regulation (cough, cough, I’m talking to you, Texas), others are not so lax.

Given how often state medical boards and the other enforcement bodies states use to protect the public from professional misconduct and quackery, I thought I’d take this opportunity to update our readers on two men who have been frequent topics of discussion on this blog, Stanislaw Burzynski and Robert O. Young. The reason is that, through some bizarre confluence of events, both of them faced justice last week, in the form of a hearing due to action against Burzynski by the Texas Medical Board, and in the form of the trial of Robert O. Young in southern California.

What these two quacks share in common is that they’ve gotten away with their cancer quackery for a very long time, two decades in the case of Robert O. Young and nearly four decades in the case of Stanislaw Burzynski, with attempts by the law to bring them to heel having been largely ineffective. They are different in that one is a physician (Dr. Burzynski) and one is not (Young) and therefore different legal considerations come into play. Young, for instance, is a self-proclaimed naturopath known for his “pH Miracle Living” cure, which, he claims, can be used to cure basically any disease by “alkalinizing” the body. After two decades of running, he is being tried for practicing medicine without a license, and, of course, fraud. Burzynski, although not an oncologist, is a licensed physician in Texas and has been administering an unproven and almost certainly ineffective “natural” treatment consisting of substances derived from blood and urine that he dubbed “antineoplastons” (ANPs) back in the 1970s. He is also different in that he’s gotten away with this largely through abuse of the clinical trial process, which is regulated at the federal level through the FDA and the HHS. It is not, however, the federal government that is pursuing action against Burzynski, but rather the Texas Medical Board (TMB). Thus, while Young is on trial and could go to jail if he loses, if Burzynski loses he will only lose his license to practice medicine in the state of Texas.

Despite their differences, both Stanislaw Burzynski and Robert O. Young illuminate major shortcomings in how the legal system deals with quacks.
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Antivaccinationists and the Nation of Islam protest in front of the CDC, but don’t you dare call them “antivaccine”

Flyer for "CDC Truth" Rally. Apparently a bunch of antivaccine activists showed up in Atlanta on Saturday to annoy CDC employees and try to use the manufactured "scandal" of the so-called "CDC whistleblower" to attack vaccines. Same as it ever was.

Flyer for “CDC Truth” Rally. Apparently a bunch of antivaccine activists showed up in Atlanta on Saturday to annoy CDC employees and try to use the manufactured “scandal” of the so-called “CDC whistleblower” to attack vaccines. Same as it ever was.

If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to anger most antivaccine activists, it’s a skeptic calling them “antivaccine.” The reason, of course, is that (1) many of them actually believe they are “not antivaccine” but rather “pro-vaccine safety,” even though their words and actions proclaim otherwise and (2) they crave legitimacy. They want desperately to be taken seriously by the government and scientific community. The problem is that, again, by their very words and actions they make it almost impossible for anyone who knows anything about vaccines to take them seriously, except as a threat to public health. They have no one but themselves to blame, as a critical perusal of Age of Autism, The Thinking Moms’ Revolution, VacTruth (and VaxTruth), or any number of antivaccine websites and blogs will indicated to anyone of a scientific bent who has the intestinal fortitude to plunge down any or all of those rabbit holes of magical thinking and pseudoscience.

Another thing that I’ve come to understand over the more than a decade that I’ve been doing this is that there is a profound tension between what I like to call the two wings of the antivaccine movement. Basically, as is the case in most political or ideological movements, antivaccine activists gravitate towards one of two views. The first (and most prominent view) tends to be the pragmatic view. These are the antivaccinationists who deny vociferously that they are “antivaccine” and instead portray themselves as “pro-safe vaccine.” They want to appear reasonable and are willing to take partial victories on an incremental path towards achieving their ends. Then there are the “loud and proud” antivaccine activists. They don’t eschew or hide from the term “antivaccine.” They embrace it and proudly proclaim that they believe that vaccines are irredeemably toxic, that they don’t protect against disease, that big pharma is a criminal syndicate intent on poisoning their children and turning them autistic, and that the CDC is complicit in the whole plot. Of course, like all ideological movements, there is not a dichotomy; rather, there is a continuous spectrum between the two. Also, in this case, the two groups differ more on tactics than actual beliefs. As I’ve found many times, push a “reasonable” antivaccinationist, one who proclaims herself “not antivaccine” but “pro-vaccine safety,” and it’s usually not hard to get them to say things indistinguishable from the hard core antivaccinationists. They’ll basically cling to their self-perception as “pro-safe vaccine, while making the same evidence-free claims that vaccines cause autism, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), autoimmune diseases, diabetes, and all the other conditions on which antivaccinationists blame vaccines.
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Sarah Hershberger: “Health freedom” and parental rights vs. child welfare

Sarah Hershberger, pictured with her family in a 2014 Reason.tv video.

Sarah Hershberger, pictured with her family in a screenshot from a 2014 Reason.tv video.

One of the more depressing topics that I regularly write about on this blog includes of analyses of news stories of children with cancer whose parents decided to stop science-based treatment (usually the chemotherapy) and use quackery instead. There are, of course, variations on this theme, but these stories take form that generally resembles this outline: A child is diagnosed with a highly treatable cancer with an excellent cure rate. Standard science-based treatment is begun, but the child suffers severe side effects from the chemotherapy. After an incomplete course of chemotherapy, the parents, alarmed at their child’s suffering, start balking at further chemotherapy, either because the child refuses further treatment or because they do. At some point in this process the parents become aware of the claims of practitioners of this or that alternative medicine, who tell them that their child’s cancer can be cured without toxic chemotherapy, and, wooed by the siren song of a promise of a cure without suffering, the parents choose that instead. At this point, physicians, alarmed at the parents’ choice, call in their state’s child protective services team, and a court battle ensues. Sometimes the court battle results in an order that the child complete conventional therapy, as it did with, for example, Daniel Hauser or Cassandra Callender. Sometimes it ends with a compromise in which the child and/or parents can choose an unconventional practitioner, as in the case of Abraham Cherrix. All too often the courts utterly fail to protect children with cancer, as the Canadian courts did in the cases of Makayla Sault and JJ. Not infrequently, if the court rules against the parents, the parents flee with their child to avoid treatment, as happened with Daniel Hauser, Abraham Cherrix, and Sarah Hershberger. Usually, they ultimately come back.

However they turn out, over the years of looking into them I’ve found that these stories tend to bear a depressing similarity and predictability. For example, if the child does well, it is always attributed to the alternative treatment, even when the child received a significant amount of conventional therapy. This attribution derives from a fundamental misunderstanding of how the treatment of cancer works in that the problem with incomplete cancer treatment is not that it can’t cure the cancer but that it has less of a chance of doing so. As I’ve explained many times, the reason that treatment regimens for many pediatric cancers involve two years’ worth of chemotherapy is that over time pediatric oncologists learned the hard way that, although the first cycle of chemotherapy (usually called induction chemotherapy) can lead to remission, without the additional cycles the chances of recurrence are very high—unacceptably so. Consequently, children who stop chemotherapy early can be in remission; they’ve just been put at a high risk of recurrence.
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The Federal Trade Commission takes on homeopathy—maybe

FTC vs. homeopathy: Cage match?

FTC vs. homeopathy: Cage match?

Well, I’m back.

OK, returning from London isn’t nearly as epic as Sam Gamgee’s final words in The Lord of the Rings returning to his wife and daughter after having accompanied Frodo, Gandalf, Bilbo, and key elves of Middle-Earth to the Grey Havens, there to say goodbye to them as they boarded a ship to the undying lands. I just love the quote. It says something to me returning home after a long journey, even if it was just a vacation to J.R.R. Tolkien’s native land. It also suggests a bit of the exhaustion after a long day of traveling, complete with a long-delayed flight, a late arrival, and a state of utter exhaustion that accompanied it, plus an unfortunate lower gastrointestinal issue.

All of this is a way of saying that this post might actually be relatively brief for a post by me…no epics this week. [Addendum: Nope. Even lower GI annoyances and exhaustion couldn’t keep me from going over 2,000 words. At least I didn’t hit 3,000.] In its nearly eight year history, I’ve never missed more than one week at SBM, and I don’t intend to start now. Specifically, with the FTC workshop on homeopathy rapidly approaching, one week from today, I couldn’t resist adding my 2 pence to the mix, now that the agenda and list of participants have been announced.
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Should physicians and managed care organizations offer homeopathy?

Homeopathy is water

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.
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A journey to alternative and integrative medicine apostasy

Julian the Apostate presiding at a conference of sectarians, by Edward Armitage, 1875

Julian the Apostate presiding at a conference of sectarians, by Edward Armitage, 1875

I’ve been blogging for over a decade now, a fact that I find really hard to believe looking back on it right now. I’ve told the story before, but it’s worth briefly recounting again because doing so will explain why the story I’m about to discuss caught my attention. My “gateway drug,” if you will, into skepticism was discovering Holocaust denial in the late 1990s on Usenet, a vast and sprawling conglomeration of thousands of discussion forums that began to fade away at the turn of the century with the rise of web-based forums and Google providing an interface to it to make it Google Groups. The forum where I first discovered Holocaust denial and learned to combat it, alt.revisionism, still exists, but long ago degenerated into a cesspool of racism, spam, and trolling. A couple of years later, around 2000 or so, I discovered quackery and the antivaccine movement, thanks to a Usenet newsgroup known as misc.health.alternative, which is where I honed my early skills applying science to medical claims. It’s also where I first encountered Peter Moran, a regular commenter here who greatly inspired me back then with his full-throated criticism of cancer quackery and his website that taught me reasons why cancer quackery could appear to work even when it did nothing to impact the progression of the cancer.

In December 2004, intrigued by all the news stories about blogging and having discovered a number of good blogs, I decided on one dark, gray Saturday afternoon to dip my toe in the blogosphere. On the spur of the moment I created the first iteration of my not-so-super-secret other blog on—what else?—Blogger. Much to my own amazement, over the course of a year I got my little hobby noticed, to the point where I was invited to join a blog collective; by late 2007 I had become prominent enough to be invited by Steve Novella to join this very blog at its founding, where I have remained for seven years, with no plans to move on any time soon. During my early days, though, there was one person who also inspired me, helping me to learn about the pseudoscience that undergirds the antivaccine movement and, in particular, the quackery making up what is known these days as the “autism biomed” movement. His name is James Laidler, and he was one of the ones who introduced me to this topic which I’ve written about many times both at my not-so-super-secret other blog and, of course, right here on SBM. In doing so, over the years I’ve catalogued why “autism biomed” seems compelling to many parents with children with autism, how antivaccine groups use fake “medical conferences” to sell autism biomed by giving a patina of medical respectability to rank quackery like bleach enemas, and providing a place where those selling unscientific treatments can find willing customers and where disreputable discredited “scientists” like Andrew Wakefield and Mark Geier can find adoring fans who believe their quackery.

I bring this up because last week WIRED published an excellent article about Jim Laidler, “An Alternative-Medicine Believer’s Journey Back to Science.” Appropriately enough, it’s by Alan Levinovitz, an assistant professor of religion at James Madison University. I say “appropriately enough” because, as has been noted here on a number of occasions, there are many religion-like aspects to alternative medicine in general but to the autism biomed movement in particular. Indeed, the two are often tied together, with the motivation for some alt-med being explicitly religious and belief in alt-med sharing some major characteristics with religion, particularly belief in miracles against evidence, charismatic leaders (like Andrew Wakefield) who can do no wrong, and mutually-supportive communities of believers who reinforce each others’ beliefs and ward off skepticism. Add to that the magical thinking, and it’s not for nothing that I’ve referred to the central dogma of alternative medicine as being that wishing makes it so. Indeed, it’s for good reason that I frequently point out that most “energy medicine” (particularly reiki) is basically faith healing that substitutes Eastern mysticism for Judeo-Christian religious beliefs.

In Levinovitz’s profile of Jim Laidler, we see a lot of this, and I learned some details that I didn’t know about Laidler before. Levinovitz also grasps the religion-like nature of alt-med by starting the article bluntly saying:

Jim and Louise Laidler lost their faith on a trip to Disneyland in 2002, while having breakfast in Goofy’s Kitchen.

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A brief bit of shameless self-promotion…The Prince of Wales edition

PrinceCharles-590x350

In an effort to expand the Gorski empire almost to the level of the Crislip empire and to try to make it to somewhere within two or three orders of magnitude of the Novella empire, I’ve published an article on Slate.com about Prince Charles’ visit to our fine country entitled “Prince of Pseudoscience“. Consider this the mandatory shameless self-promotion that all SBM bloggers take advantage of from time to time to publicize their activities elsewhere.

Enjoy! (I hope.)

I’m told that Dana Ullman has made an appearance in the comments. I might have to head on over after work tonight…

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