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Science-based medicine, skepticism, and the scientific consensus

Editor’s note: This weekend was a big grant writing weekend for me. I’m resubmitting my R01, which means that between now and July 1 or so, my life is insanity, as I try to rewrite it into a form that has a fighting chance of being in the top 7%, which is about the level the NCI is funding at right now. This weekend, I buried myself in my Sanctum Sanctorum and tried like heck to try to pound the revision into a really good draft that I can distribute to my colleagues for feedback. Fortunately, I have some old posts that I can pull out, tart up (i.e., update a bit, as in correcting the parts that led me to groan as I reread them, thereby hopefully making them better). I think they’re quite good, if I do say so myself; so hopefully you will too.

There are some arguments made in blogs, articles, or books that strike me so hard that I remember them, even three and a half years later. Sometimes I even file them away for later use or response if the issue raised by them is interesting, relevant or compelling enough to me. Although this topic is a bit broader than many of the topics I write about for this blog, I think it also goes to the heart of science-based medicine and communicating scientific skepticism about medicine to the masses. A few years back, a Swedish blogger named Martin Rundkvist made a rather provocative observation about skepticism. Specifically, he argued that a “real skeptic always sides with scientific consensus.” Among his reasons was this one:

Science presupposes that all participants have a skeptical frame of mind and arrive at conclusions through rational deliberation. If a large group of knowledgeable people working in this way arrive at a consensus opinion, then there is really no good reason for anybody with less knowledge of the subject to question it. Informed consensus is how scientific truth is established. It’s always provisional and open to reevaluation, but as long as there’s informed consensus, then that’s our best knowledge. Humanity’s best knowledge.

Although at the time I saw where Martin was coming from, I found this viewpoint somewhat disturbing, leading me to echo Martin’s own words in response to his own rhetorical question asking whether accepting a scientific consensus is nothing more than “kowtowing to white-coated authority”: Well, yes and no.
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Posted in: History, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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Surprise, surprise! Dr. Andrew Weil doesn’t like evidence-based medicine

ResearchBlogging.orgDr. Andrew Weil is a rock star in the “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) and “integrative medicine” (IM) movement. Indeed, it can be persuasively argued that he is one of its founders, at least a founder of the its most modern iteration, and I am hard-pressed to think of anyone who did more in the early days of the CAM/IM movement, back before it ever managed to achieve a modicum of unearned respectability, to popularize CAM. In fact, no physician that I can think of has over the course of his lifetime done more to promote the rise of quackademic medicine than Dr. Weil. The only forces greater than Dr. Weil in promoting the infiltration of pseudoscience into academic medicine have been the Bravewell Collaborative and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). Before there was Dr. Mehmet Oz, Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. Mark Hyman, or any of the other promoters of IM, there was Dr. Weil.

And why not? Dr. Weil looks like an aging 1960s rock star, and, operating from his redoubt at the University of Arizona, is quite charismatic. For all the world he has the appearance of a kindly, benevolent Arizona desert Santa Claus, an ex-hippie turned respectable dispensing advice about “natural” medicines, writing books, and making himself ubiquitous on television and radio whenever the topic of alternative medicine comes up. Before Dr. Oz told Steve Novella that “Western” science and medicine can’t study woo like acupuncture, Dr. Weil was there, paving the way for such arguments, previously considered ludicrous, to achieve a patina of respectability.

In fact, he’s still at it, doing it far better and far more subtly than the ham-handed Dr. Oz. Unfortunately, it’s the same anti-science message and the same appeal to other ways of knowing built upon tearing down straw men versions of evidence-based medicine (EBM) with gusto. This was brought home last week when Dr. Weil co-authored an opinion piece with Drs. Scott Shannon and Bonnie J. Kaplan for the journal Alternative and Complementary Therapies entitled Safety and Patient Preferences, Not Just Effectiveness, Should Guide Medical Treatment Decisions, an article that was noted at the blog Booster Shots in a credulous, fawning post entitled Dr. Weil says there’s a better approach to evaluating clinical drug trials. In contast, Steve Novella put it far more succinctly (and accurately) in the title of his post: Andrew Weil Attacks EBM. That’s exactly what Weil and company did in this article.

While Steve is absolutely correct, I also see it more as Dr. Weil demonstrating once again that, upstarts like Dr. Oz aside, he is still the master of CAM/IM apologia, much as, even though both were Sith Lords, Emperor Palpatine remained master over Darth Vader until just before the end. You’ll see why in terms of the arguments, both subtle and not-so-subtle, that Dr. Weil and his acolytes make. Moreover, even though his disciple Shannon is granted the coveted first author position, the arguments presented leave little doubt that it’s Weil who’s driving the bus.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Academia

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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 trouble with Dr. 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

Welcome, Dr. Oz viewers!

As managing editor of the Science-Based Medicine (SBM) blog, I am writing this post because our founder and exective editor Dr. Steven Novella was invited to be on The Doctor Oz Show. Later today, the episode in which he will appear will air in most of your local markets, and we wanted to make sure that any Dr. Oz viewer who sees the segment and as a result is intrigued (or angered) enough to wonder what it is that we are all about will have a convenient “primer,” so to speak, on the problem with Dr. Oz from a science-based perspective. In other words, who are these obnoxious upstart bloggers who are so critical of Dr. Oz are and, far more importantly, exactly why are we so critical? What is science-based medicine, anyway?

On to some of the answers!
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Posted in: Science and the Media

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Spreading the Word

Lest some of our readers imagine that the authors of this blog are mere armchair opinion-spouters and keyboard-tappers for one little blog, I’d like to point out some of the other things we do to spread the word about science and reason. Steven Novella’s new course about medical myths for “The Great Courses” of The Teaching Company is a prime example: more about that later.

First, some examples of the kinds of things we have been doing: (more…)

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Supreme Court Saves Nation’s Immunization Program

The Supreme Court of the United States made a ruling the other day that has profound implications for the health of millions of children. Since October 12, 2010, The Court has been quietly deliberating the case of Bruesewitz v. Wyeth, inc. The case centers on Russell and Robalee Bruesewitz’s allegation that their 18 year old daughter, Hannah, was irreversibly injured by a DTP vaccine she received when she was 6 months old. What is important about this case is not the allegation itself (I will discuss its merits, or lack thereof, in a moment), but the ramifications the ruling has for the future of childhood immunization in this country. The Supreme Court’s ruling against the Bruesewitz’s and in favor of the U.S. vaccination program was the right one, and safeguards our children from the irrationality of the anti-vaccine movement. Some important background is necessary here to understand why this is so.

Prior to the development of effective vaccines, diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis were common diseases, terrifyingly familiar to all parents. Death records from Massachusetts during the latter half of the 1800’s indicate that diphtheria caused 3-10% of all deaths. In the first part of the 20th century, these dreaded organisms still caused illness in hundreds of thousands of people each year in the United States. These are devastating diseases which, if not resulting in death, often produced severe and permanent damage to those afflicted. In the 1920’s, vaccines against each of these scourges were finally developed, and in the mid 1940’s the combined DTP vaccine was introduced. The vaccines were so effective that cases of these deadly infections were practically eliminated. Today, few parents know the terror once routinely wrought by these pathogens.

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Posted in: Legal, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Of SBM and EBM Redux. Part II: Is it a Good Idea to test Highly Implausible Health Claims?

Review

This is the second post in a series* prompted by an essay by statistician Stephen Simon, who argued that Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM) is not lacking in the ways that we at Science-Based Medicine have argued. David Gorski responded here, and Prof. Simon responded to Dr. Gorski here. Between that response and the comments following Dr. Gorski’s post it became clear to me that a new round of discussion would be worth the effort.

Part I of this series provided ample evidence for EBM’s “scientific blind spot”: the EBM Levels of Evidence scheme and EBM’s most conspicuous exponents consistently fail to consider all of the evidence relevant to efficacy claims, choosing instead to rely almost exclusively on randomized, controlled trials (RCTs). The several quoted Cochrane abstracts, regarding homeopathy and Laetrile, suggest that in the EBM lexicon, “evidence” and “RCTs” are almost synonymous. Yet basic science or preliminary clinical studies provide evidence sufficient to refute some health claims (e.g., homeopathy and Laetrile), particularly those emanating from the social movement known by the euphemism “CAM.”

It’s remarkable to consider just how unremarkable that last sentence ought to be. EBM’s founders understood the proper role of the rigorous clinical trial: to be the final arbiter of any claim that had already demonstrated promise by all other criteria—basic science, animal studies, legitimate case series, small controlled trials, “expert opinion,” whatever (but not inexpert opinion). EBM’s founders knew that such pieces of evidence, promising though they may be, are insufficient because they “routinely lead to false positive conclusions about efficacy.” They must have assumed, even if they felt no need to articulate it, that claims lacking such promise were not part of the discussion. Nevertheless, the obvious point was somehow lost in the subsequent formalization of EBM methods, and seems to have been entirely forgotten just when it ought to have resurfaced: during the conception of the Center for Evidence-Based Medicine’s Introduction to Evidence-Based Complementary Medicine.

Thus, in 2000, the American Heart Journal (AHJ) could publish an unchallenged editorial arguing that Na2EDTA chelation “therapy” could not be ruled out as efficacious for atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease because it hadn’t yet been subjected to any large RCTs—never mind that there had been several small ones, and abundant additional evidence from basic science, case studies, and legal documents, all demonstrating that the treatment is both useless and dangerous. The well-powered RCT had somehow been transformed, for practical purposes, from the final arbiter of efficacy to the only arbiter. If preliminary evidence was no longer to have practical consequences, why bother with it at all? This was surely an example of what Prof. Simon calls “Poorly Implemented Evidence Based Medicine,” but one that was also implemented by the very EBM experts who ought to have recognized the fallacy.

There will be more evidence for these assertions as we proceed, but the main thrust of Part II is to begin to respond to this statement from Prof. Simon: “There is some societal value in testing therapies that are in wide use, even though there is no scientifically valid reason to believe that those therapies work.”

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Posted in: Chiropractic, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Health Fraud, History, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Lies, damned lies, and…science-based medicine?

I realize that in the question-and-answer session after my talk at the Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium a week ago I suggested in response to a man named Leon Maliniak, who monopolized the first part of what was already a too-brief Q&A session by expounding on the supposed genius of Royal Rife, that I would be doing a post about the Rife Machine soon. And so I probably will; such a post is long overdue at this blog, and I’m surprised that no one’s done one after nearly three years. However, as I arrived back home in the Detroit area Tuesday evening, I was greeted by an article that, I believe, requires a timely response. (No, it wasn’t this article, although responding to it might be amusing even though it’s a rant against me based on a post that is two and a half years old.) Rather, this time around, the article is in the most recent issue of The Atlantic and on the surface appears to be yet another indictment of science-based medicine, this time in the form of a hagiography of Greek researcher John Ioannidis. The article, trumpeted by Tara Parker-Pope, comes under the heading of “Brave Thinkers” and is entitled Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science. It is being promoted in news stories like this, where the story is spun as indicating that medical science is so flawed that even the cell-phone cancer data can’t be trusted:

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Let me mention two things before I delve into the meat of the article. First, these days I’m not nearly as enamored of The Atlantic as I used to be. I was a long-time subscriber (at least 20 years) until last fall, when The Atlantic published an article so egregiously bad on the H1N1 vaccine that our very own Mark Crislip decided to annotate it in his own inimitable fashion. That article was so awful that I decided not to renew my subscription; it is to my shame that I didn’t find the time to write a letter to The Atlantic explaining why. Fortunately, this article isn’t as bad (it’s a mixed bag, actually, making some good points and then undermining some of them by overreaching), although it does lay on the praise for Ioannidis and the attacks on SBM a bit thick. Be that as it may, clearly The Atlantic has developed a penchant for “brave maverick doctors” and using them to cast doubt on science-based medicine. Second, I actually happen to love John Ioannidis’ work, so much so that I’ve written about it at least twice over the last three years, including The life cycle of translational research and Does popularity lead to unreliability in scientific research?, where I introduced the topic using Ioannidis’ work. Indeed, I find nothing at all threatening to me as an advocate of science-based medicine in Ioannidis’ two most famous papers, Contradicted and Initially Stronger Effects in Highly Cited Clinical Research and Why Most Published Research Findings Are False. The conclusions of these papers to me are akin to concluding that water is wet and everybody dies. It is, however, quite good that Ioannidis is there to spell out these difficulties with SBM, because he tries to keep us honest.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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Dr. Amy Tuteur has decided to leave Science-Based Medicine

The editors and crew at SBM have an announcement that needs to be made. This morning, Dr. Amy Tuteur tendered her resignation and will therefore no longer be a blogger at SBM. Some of you might already be aware of this development because Dr. Tuteur has already announced her decision on her own blog. That is why we considered it important to post an announcement here on SBM as soon as possible.

While we are sorry to see Dr. Tuteur go and wish her well in whatever future endeavors she decides to pursue, over the last several weeks it had become clear to both the editors of SBM and Dr. Tuteur herself that, although Dr. Tuteur had routinely been able to stimulate an unprecedented level of discussion regarding the issues we at SBM consider important, SBM has not been a good fit for her and she has not been a good fit for SBM. Over the last few days mutual efforts between the editors and Dr. Tuteur to resolve our differences came to an impasse. Unfortunately for all parties, that impasse appeared to be unresolvable and resulted in Dr. Tuteur’s decision to leave SBM.

As a result of Dr. Tuteur’s departure, we will be adjusting the posting schedule in order to cover her normal Thursday slot. Final decisions have not been made yet, but we expect that every weekday will continue to be covered, with at least one post per weekday. 

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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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