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The hijacking of evidence-based medicine

One of our heroes at SBM: John Ioannidis.

One of our heroes at SBM: John Ioannidis.

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of John Ioannidis. So, I daresay, are pretty much all of the editors and regular contributors to this blog. (If you don’t believe me, just type Ioannidis’ name into the blog search box and see how many posts you find.) Over the last couple of decades, Ioannidis has arguably done more to reveal the shortcomings of the medical research enterprise that undergirds our treatments, revealing the weaknesses in the evidence base and how easily clinical trials can mislead, than any other researcher. Indeed, after reading what is Ioannidis’ most famous article, “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False“, back in 2005, I was hooked. I even used it for our surgical oncology journal club at the cancer center where I was faculty back then. This was long before I appreciated the difference between science-based medicine (SBM) and evidence-based medicine (EBM). So it was with much interest that I read an article by him published last week and framed as an open letter to David Sackett, the father of evidence-based medicine, entitled “Evidence-based medicine has been hijacked: a report to David Sackett.” Ioannidis is also quoted in a follow-up interview with Retraction Watch.

Before I get to Ioannidis’ latest, I can’t help but point out that, not surprisingly, quacks and proponents of pseudoscientific and unscientific medicine often latch on to Ioannidis’ work to support their quackery and pseudoscience. They’ve been doing it for years. Certainly, they’re already latching on to this article as vindication of their beliefs. After all, their reasoning—if you can call it that—seems to boil down to: If “conventional” medicine is built on such shaky science, then their pseudoscience isn’t wrong after all, given that the same scientific enterprise upon which conventional medicine is based produces the findings that reject their dubious claims and treatments. Of course, whenever I hear this line of argument, I’m reminded of Ben Goldacre’s famous adage, seen in one form on Twitter here:

The adage can be generalized to all EBM and SBM as well. Just because big pharma misbehaves, EBM has flaws, and conventional medicine practitioners don’t always use the most rigorous evidence does not mean that, for example, homeopathy, acupuncture, or energy medicine works.

Still, when Ioannidis publishes an article with a title provocatively declaring that EBM has been “hijacked,” we at SBM take notice. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Medical Academia, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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What naturopaths say to each other when they think no one’s listening, part 2

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When last I visited this topic, I started out by making a simple observation, namely by quoting John Wooden’s famous adage, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” What I was referring to was a private discussion forum for naturopaths known as Naturopathic Chat, or NatChat for short, and how a leak from the group had revealed the sort of pure quackery that naturopaths talk about when they are among themselves and think that no one else is listening. Basically, NatChat revealed just how quacky naturopaths are, based on the advice they gave each other about patients and their general discussions of what passes for “naturopathic medicine.” I found examples of naturopaths recommending intravenous peroxide, homeopathic drainage therapy, black salve (for a huge protruding breast cancer), and even ozone to treat a postsurgical J-pouch abscess that clearly required the attention of a colorectal surgeon. After naturopaths on NatChat became widely aware that someone on the list had revealed discussions on the list, apparently the moderators, instead of moving to another platform, stayed on Yahoo! Groups.

None of what I’ve described in this brief recap of my first post about NatChat should be surprising to regular readers of this blog, who would also know that we are not particularly fond of naturopaths, even the nice ones, who might be perfectly fine as people. Of course, it is naturopathy we don’t like, mainly because it is, as I like to describe it, a cornucopia of quackery based on prescientific vitalism mixed with a Chinese restaurant menu “one from column A, two from column B” approach to picking quackery and pseudoscience to apply to patients. Indeed, whenever the topic of naturopathy comes up, I like to refer readers to Scott Gavura’s excellent recurring series “Naturopathy vs. Science,” which has included editions such as the Facts Edition, Prenatal Vitamins, Vaccination Edition, Allergy Edition, Diabetes Edition, Autism Edition, Fake Diseases, and, of course, the Infertility Edition. We’ve also described just what happens when a naturopath tries to treat a real disease like whooping cough. The results are, to put it very mildly, not pretty.

Of course, as I’ve pointed out, any “discipline” that counts homeopathy as an integral part of it, as naturopathy does to the point of requiring many hours of homeopathy instruction in naturopathy school and including it as part of its licensing examination, cannot ever be considered to be science-based, and this blog is, after all, Science-based Medicine. Not surprisingly, we oppose any licensing or expansion of the scope of practice of naturopaths, because, as we’ve explained time and time again, naturopathy is pseudoscience and quackery.

Interestingly, what led the Reddit user and naturopathy critic NaturoWhat (who inspired my earlier post regarding NatChat) to give me the heads up as to what’s going on in NatChat again is an incident on the discussion board involving a naturopath who featured in the previous edition of my coverage of NatChat, Eric Yarnell. He’s a naturopath who tried to point out to his fellow naturopaths how black salve is a really nasty treatment because of the way it fries normal tissue just as badly as it fries abnormal tissue. He also appears to be one of those rarest of beasts, a seemingly pro-vaccine naturopath. I say “seemingly,” because whenever I encounter a naturopath billing herself as pro-vaccine (e.g., Erika Krumbeck), a closer examination of his or her views almost always reveals he or she believes in at least some antivaccine misinformation. Surprisingly, Yarnell is the naturopath who comes closest to actually being pro-vaccine that I’ve seen.
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Posted in: Naturopathy, Vaccines

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On “integrative medicine” and walking and chewing gum at the same time

Walk and chew gum at the same time

I didn’t think I’d be discussing Dr. David Katz again so soon. In fact, when Mark Crislip (who clearly hates me, given how often he sends me links to articles like this) sent me a link to Dr. Katz’s latest article, “Cleaning the House of Medicine“, published—where else?—in The Huffington Post, that home for “reputable” quack-friendly bloviation since 2005, when I first read the article, my first reaction was that Katz must surely be trolling us here at SBM. At first, I wasn’t going to respond to him again. However, Katz’s article represents a very common misconception about science-based medicine that is worth refuting. It is not my intention to be arguing back and forth with Dr. Katz every couple of weeks, but I did think it worth one more round. I think you’ll understand why by the end of this post.

First, however, a brief recap is in order for readers who might not have been following the discussion over the last month or so. It all started a couple of weeks ago, when Jann Bellamy, in response to a special issue of the American Journal of Preventative Medicine edited by Katz and dedicated to making the case for integrative medicine in preventive medicine training, quite correctly discussed how “integrative medicine” is always all about the “potential.” Indeed, after having spent considerable sums of federal grant money studying the “integration” of pseudoscience into medicine with respect to preventive care, the journal couldn’t come up with any concrete examples how integrative medicine adds anything (other than quackery) to medicine. Dr. Katz, who is well-known in the world of quackademic medicine for his infamous 2008 speech in which he asserted that physicians need to use a “more fluid concept of evidence” in evaluating treatments, particularly “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), responded with another HuffPo article entitled “Science and Medicine, Fools and Fanatics: The ‘Fluidity’ of Woo“. In lieu of reasonable, science-based arguments, Dr. Katz’ article was little more than a rant that consisted mainly of outrage that mere mortals lacking his awesome academic credentials had had the temerity to question his awesomeness and dedication to science coupled with an accusation that we are just too rigid and simplistic in our thinking to understand the subtle complexities of how different standards of evidence must be applied to complex patients. Steve Novella and I both responded that we understand just fine, explained how doctors do this all the time without using quackery like naturopathy and homeopathy (both of which Katz has advocated), and pointed out his argumentum ad ignorantiam with respect to energy medicine.

There’s where I thought it would end. Unfortunately, I was mistaken. On Friday, Katz launched another broadside at us, couched in the form of an argument that medicine must “clean its own house” before worrying about his quackademic medicine. It’s something I hear often enough that I thought it would be worth responding to, even if Dr. Katz was indeed trolling us.
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Posted in: Critical Thinking, Medical Academia, Quality Improvement, Surgical Procedures

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Choosing Wisely: Changing medical practice is hard

OK, so Choosing Wisely isn't quite like this, but it's still very important.

OK, so Choosing Wisely isn’t quite like this, but it’s still very important.

We here at Science-Based Medicine like to point out that arguably the most striking difference between science-based medicine (and the evidence-based medicine from which we distinguish it) and alternative medicine, “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), or (as it’s called now) “integrative medicine” is a concerted effort to change for the better. In other words, in SBM, we are continually doing studies to improve practice. These studies take on two general forms: Comparing new treatments with old to determine if the new treatments work better and, as has become an imperative over the last several years supported by more research dollars, comparing existing treatments in order to determine which ones work better. In the case of the former, we are trying to add to our knowledge and thereby add more effective treatments, while in the case of the latter we are trying to weed out treatments that are less effective and/or less safe or that cost more money to produce the same results. Indeed, the rise of an explicit framework, evidence-based medicine, is a result of the desire of medicine as a profession to improve what it is doing. (Yes, I know this blog frequently criticizes EBM, but in the case of treatments that have science behind them EBM and SBM should be—and usually are—synonymous.) This is in marked contrast to CAM, where treatments based on prescientific vitalism never, ever go away, no matter how many clinical trials show them to be no better than placebo and basic science shows them to be ludicrously disconnected from reality.

An example of this imperative to make things better is Choosing Wisely. This is an initiative launched in 2012 in which the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) Foundation challenged specialty societies to produce lists of tests and interventions that doctors in their specialty routinely use but that are not supported by evidence. The explicit goal of Choosing Wisely was to identify and promote care that is (1) supported by evidence; (2) not duplicative of other tests or procedures already received; (3) free from harm; and (4) truly necessary. In response to this challenge, medical specialty societies asked their members to “choose wisely” by identifying tests or procedures commonly used in their field whose necessity should be questioned and discussed. The resulting lists of “Things Providers and Patients Should Question” was designed to spark discussion about the need—or lack thereof—for many frequently ordered tests or treatments.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation, Quality Improvement

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We Should Abandon the Concept of “Alternative Medicine”

FALSE-DICHOTOMY-copyIn a recent editorial for the New York Times, Aaron E. Carroll argues, “Labels Like ‘Alternative Medicine’ Don’t Matter. The Science Does.” I agree with this headline thesis, but the details of his argument ironically show the harm that the so-called CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) movement has done.

Carroll starts out well, essentially pointing out that the division between “conventional” and “alternative” medicine, and the division between “Western” and “Eastern” medicine are false dichotomies. Despite this strong start, he muddles his way through the rest of his editorial.

The primary error he commits is to swing from a false dichotomy to a false equivalency, essentially saying that there is no difference between conventional and alternative practice or practitioners. In order to support this contention, however, he has to distort the facts beyond recognition.

In other words, Carroll commits the less-well-known false continuum logical fallacy. Let me explain.

The real differences between SBM and CAM

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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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“: (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Remembering Wallace Sampson

Wally Sampson, MD March 29, 1930 – May 25, 2015

Wally Sampson, MD
March 29, 1930 – May 25, 2015

I’m sad to report that Dr. Wallace (Wally) Sampson, one of the original authors at Science-Based Medicine, passed away on May 25th at the age of 85. Wally was a valued member of the SBM community, a mentor to many of us, and a tireless crusader against health fraud and pseudoscience in medicine. He carried the banner of defending science and reason within medicine for a generation, and his is one of the giant shoulders on which SBM currently rests. His contributions to this website can be found here.

Wally was fighting against health fraud back when it was still called health fraud, rather than “alternative medicine” or whatever the latest marketing term they have adopted is. I would often go to him for perspective on the long range trends in our struggle to promote science in medicine. He had put in the decades of service necessary to have such perspective.

I personally owe Wally a great deal for my own career battling medical pseudoscience. Wally was keen to identify and nurture new people interested in promoting science in medicine. As a much younger skeptic, prior to social media, when I was only running a new and obscure local skeptic group, Wally invited me to speak at conferences, and eventually to be one of the assistant editors for The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, a print journal of which he was the first editor (available online here). Such nurturing was not common in my experience. He gave me the experience and platform upon which I eventually built Science-Based Medicine.

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Posted in: Announcements, Health Fraud

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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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Integrative medicine, naturopathy, and David Katz’s “more fluid concept of evidence”

The Integrative Medicine Wheel

The Integrative Medicine Wheel

Dr. David Katz is undoubtedly a heavy hitter in the brave new world of “integrative medicine,” a specialty that seeks to “integrate” pseudoscience with science, nonsense, with sense, and quackery with real medicine. In fairness, that’s not the way physicians like Dr. Katz see it. Rather, they see it as “integrating” the “best of both worlds” to the benefit of patients. However, as we’ve documented extensively here, on our personal blogs, and even in the biomedical literature (plug, plug), what “integrative” medicine means in practice is indeed what I characterized, the infiltration of woo into medicine. This infiltration seems to have started mainly in academia—hence the term “quackademic medicine” and “quackademia”—with the steady infiltration of nonsense into medical schools and academic medical centers, but has since metastasized to the world of community hospitals. This “integration” (or, as I like to refer to it, “infiltration”) has become so pronounced that a few years ago The Atlantic published an article entitled “The Triumph of New Age Medicine“, and just last December the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (JNCI) published a monograph full of articles touting “integrative oncology,” including guidelines recommended by the Society of Integrative Oncology (SIO) for the “integrative” treatment of breast cancer symptoms.

I mention Dr. Katz for two reasons. First, he’s taken another broadside at us at Science-Based Medicine in blog entry at The Huffington Postwhere else?—entitled “Holism, Holes and Poles” that I’ve been meaning to address for a while. But before I address Dr. Katz’s most recent complaint against science-based medicine (SBM), it’s necessary to step back and look at some history.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Naturopathy

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Medicine past, present, and future: Star Trek versus Dr. Kildare and The Knick

mccoyvs20thcen

I’ve been a big Star Trek fan ever since I first discovered reruns of the original Star Trek episodes in the 1970s, having been too young (but not by much!) to have caught the show during its original 1966-1969 run. True, my interest waxed and waned through the years—for instance, I loved Star Trek: The Next Generation, while Star Trek: Enterprise and Star Trek: Voyager pretty much left me cold—but even now I still find myself liking the rebooted movie series. In the original series, my favorite characters tended to alternate between Spock, the Vulcan first officer and science officer on the Enterprise, and Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, the ship’s chief medical officer. I sometimes wonder if my love of these two characters had anything to do with my becoming a doctor and researcher myself. It probably did.

One aspect of all the Trek shows that always interested me was its portrayal of medicine in the 23rd and 24th centuries. After all, what doctor wouldn’t like to have a device like the tricorder that he could wave over the patient and come up with an instant diagnosis and course of treatment? Who knew, of course, that nearly 50 years after the first Trek episode first aired, we would have technology that makes the communicators on the original series (TOS, for those Trek non-fans) look primitive and large by comparison and that we’d be well on the way to developing devices that can do some of what tricorders did on the show. Throughout all the shows and movies, the medical technology of a few hundred years in the future is portrayed as vastly superior to what we have now, with 20th century medicine at times denigrated by “Bones” McCoy and other Star Fleet medical personnel as barbaric quackery.

A confluence of events and media led me to want to explore a couple of questions. First, which procedures that we consider state-of-the-art science-based medicine will be considered “barbaric” 50 or 100 years from now? Second, is the contempt expressed for the medicine of the past (e.g., by “Bones” McCoy) justified? These are questions that I’ll explore a bit with the help of the Star Trek universe, a recent new cable television drama series, and a couple of articles that appeared on medical sites as a result of the premier of that series.
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Posted in: Cancer, History, Science and the Media, Surgical Procedures

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