Tag Archives: Science-Based Medicine

Galvanic Skin Response Pseudoscience

steven_novellaby via Science-Based Medicine

Selling snake oil is all about marketing, which means that a good snake oil product needs to have a great angle or a hook. Popular snake oil hooks include being “natural,” the product of ancient wisdom, or “holistic.”
Perhaps my favorite snake oil marketing ploy, however, is claiming the product represents the latest cutting-edge technology. This invariably leads to humorous sciencey technobabble. med_xray_specs_300pxThere are also recurrent themes to this technobabble, which often involve “energy,” vibrations and frequencies, or scientific concepts poorly understood by the public, such as magnetism and (of course) quantum effects. Historically, even radioactivity was marketed as a cure-all.
One category of technical pseudoscientific snake oil measures some physiological property of the body and then claims that this measurement can be used for diagnosis and determining optimal treatment. For example, machines might measure brain waves, heart rate variability, thermal energy or (the subject of today’s article) the galvanic skin response.
These are all noisy systems – they are highly variable and produce a lot of random results that can be used to give the impression that something meaningful is being measured. Systems that rely on these measurements to make highly specific determinations are no different than phrenology or reading tea leaves, but they look scientific.

How_Zyto_works_600px

The galvanic skin response

I was recently asked to look into a product called Zyto technology. This is an electronic device that you place your palm on top of so that it can read your “galvanic skin response” (GSR) to specific stimuli. It then uses your responses to prescribe a specific treatment.

The GSR is actually an older term for what is now called electrodermal activity (EDA), which is simply the electrical conductance of your skin (Harriet Hall has written about such devices before). Skin conductance is primarily affected by sweat, as salty water is an excellent conductor. So essentially the machine is measuring how sweaty your palms are.

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Glyphosate – The New Bogeyman

steven_novellaby Steven Novella via Science-Based Medicine

There is an ideological subculture that is motivated to blame all the perceived ills of the world on environmental factors and corporate/government malfeasance. Often this serves a deeper ideological drive, which can be anti-vaccine, extreme environmentalism, or anti-GMO. Screen Shot 2015-01-06 at 6.09.56 PMThe latest environmental bogeyman making the rounds is glyphosate, which is being blamed for (you guessed it) autism.

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup. It has been widely used for about 40 years, and with the introduction of GM crops that are Roundup resistant, its use has increased significantly in the last 20 years. It has therefore become a popular target for anti-GMO fearmongering.

round upGlyphosate is one of the least toxic herbicides used. It inhibits the enzyme 5-enolpyruvylshikimic acid-3-phosphate synthase which interferes with the shikimic pathway in plants, resulting in the accumulation of shikimic acid in plant tissues and ultimately plant death. The enzyme and pathway do not exist in animals, which is why toxicity is so low. Still, chemicals can have multiple effects and so toxicity needs to be directly measured and its epidemiology studied.

A systematic review published on 2000 found:

Experimental evidence has shown that neither glyphosate nor AMPA bioaccumulates in any animal tissue. No significant toxicity occurred in acute, subchronic, and chronic studies.

and

Therefore, it is concluded that the use of Roundup herbicide does not result in adverse effects on development, reproduction, or endocrine systems in humans and other mammals. For purposes of risk assessment, no-observed-adverse-effect levels (NOAELs) were identified for all subchronic, chronic, developmental, and reproduction studies with glyphosate, AMPA, and POEA.

As pesticides go, glyphosate has very low toxicity, and any dose a person is likely to get exposed to is well below the safety limits.

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False Memory Syndrome Alive and Well

steven_novellaby Steven Novella via Science-Based Medicine

It is disheartening that we have to return to pseudosciences that have been debunked decades ago, because they continue to linger despite being eviscerated by scientific scrutiny. Belief systems and myths have incredible cultural inertia, and they are difficult to eradicate completely. That is why belief in astrology, while in the minority, persists.

Professions, however, should be different. A healing profession should be held to a certain minimum standard of care, and that standard should be based upon something real, which means that scientific evidence needs to be brought to bear. Professionals are not excused for persisting in false beliefs that have long been discredited.

The Courage to Heal, the source of many beliefs about false memory syndrome

The Courage to Heal, the source of many beliefs about false memory syndrome

The 1980s saw the peak of an idea that was never based on science, the notion that people can suppress memories of traumatic events, and those repressed memories can manifest as seemingly unconnected mental health issues, such as anxiety or eating disorders. The idea was popularized mostly by the book The Courage to Heal (the 20th anniversary edition was published in 2008), in which the authors took the position that clients, especially women, who have any problem should be encouraged to recover memories of abuse, and if such memories can be dredged up, they are real.

The notion of repressed memories led in part to the satanic panic of the 1980s, and many of those subjected to recovering techniques not only “remembered” being abused, but being part of satanic ritual abuse.

Recovered memory syndrome was a massive failure on the part of the mental health profession. The ideas, which were extraordinary, were never empirically demonstrated. Further, basic questions were insufficiently asked – is there any empirical evidence to support the amazing events emerging from therapy, for example? Is it possible that the recovered memories are an artifact of therapy and are not real?

Now, with three decades of hindsight, we can say a few things with a high degree of confidence.

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Yahoo News spews NaturalNews anti-vaccine and other propaganda

By via Science-Based Medicine

Yahoo News appears to have confused NaturalNews with actual news. It’s not. NaturalNews is the in-house propaganda organ for Mike Adams, whom I’ll introduce in a minute (although he needs no introduction for most readers here). A couple of recent examples:

A recycled story, over a year old, from NaturalNews, appearing on Yahoo News last week. It starts out as a fairly straightforward report of the Japanese’s governments suspending its recommendation if favor of the HPV vaccine pending further research, although government health officials were still standing by the vaccine’s safety. Actually, Medscape reported that the actual rate was 12.8 serious adverse side effects reported per 1 million doses, a fact not revealed in the NaturalNews story. These effects were correlated with the vaccine; there is no evidence of causation.

After this rather tame start, NaturalNews cranks it up to 11 and beyond, as David Gorski would say. Governments which still recommend HPV vaccinations “remain under the thumb of Merck’s vaccinations spell” even though Merck is “an organization of murderers and thieves.” A scary list of adverse events are described as “side effects of Guardasil” even though causation has not been shown.

Two days ago there was an “ongoing debate”? There is no ongoing debate about “whether or not vaccines cause autism” because there never was any credible evidence that vaccines cause autism and there still isn’t.

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Drinkable Sunscreen Snakeoil

steven_novellaBy Steven Novella via Science-Based Medicine

In May, prompted by an uncritical article in the Daily Mail, the internet was buzzing about a company that was offering drinkable sunscreen. This is one of those game-changer health products that immediately garners a great deal of attention.

At first the claim seems extraordinary, but it is not impossible. It is theoretically possible to drink a substance that becomes deposited in the skin and absorbs or reflects UV radiation providing protection. Sunscreen_250pxHowever, upon reading the details it becomes immediately apparent that the product in question is pure snake oil.

The product is Harmonized Water by Osmosis Skin Care. In fact, UV protection is just one claim among many for the harmonized water line of products. The website claims:

  • Remarkable technology that imprints frequencies (as standing waves) onto water molecules.
  • Advances in the ability to “stack” thousands of frequencies onto one molecule.
  • Revolutionary formula allows us to reverse engineer the frequencies of substances found in nature and/or the human body.
  • Newly identified frequencies that have beneficial effects on the body.

The website does include the “quack Miranda warning:”

Disclaimer: These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

The product list also includes this further disclaimer: “Recommended for (but not meant to replace effective medications):”

And is then followed by a long list of harmonized water products with the conditions they are “recommended for,” including arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, eczema, asthma, depression, and many others.

SnakeOil_200pxDespite the aggressive disclaimers, I do believe that mentioning specific diseases by name violates FDA regulations. I did file a complaint with the FDA but never heard back.

This is a common snake-oil scam – selling “magic” water for one thing or another. The basic idea is that you can give special properties to ordinary water, and that somehow the water will retain these properties. Homeopathy, of course, is the grandfather of all such water woo. Ionized water, imprinted water, and energized water are all variations on this common theme.

The harmonized water is also playing off another common snake oil theme  .  .  .

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Food Fears

steven_novellaby Steven Novella via Science-Based Medicine

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A new Cornell University study examines the origins of food fears, and possible remedies. It’s a survey of 1,008 mothers asking about foods they avoid and why.

Food fears are a common topic on SBM (Science-Based Medicine), likely for several reasons. Humans have an inherent emotion of disgust, which is likely an adaptation to help avoid contaminated or spoiled food. In our modern society this reflex can be tricky, because we do not always have control over the chain of events that leads to food on our plates. Other people grow the food, transport it, process it, and perhaps even cook it

Modern food technology can also involve many scary sounding substances and unusual processes. As the saying goes, you may not want to know how the sausage is made, as long as the end result is wholesome.

This leads to a second reason for modern food fears – we are living in an age of increasing transparency, partly brought about by the dramatic increase in access to information on the internet. I think ultimately this is a good thing – people are seeing how the sausage is made, which makes it more difficult to hide shady practices. This introduces a new problem, however. If you’re going to inspect the process of making sausage, then you need to know something about sausage-making.

chemicals_185pxIn other words – people are obtaining a great deal of information about food, food ingredients, and manufacturing processes, which is a good thing. However, much of this information is coming from dubious sources – non-professional or academic sources that have not been peer reviewed in any meaningful way and may have ulterior agendas or ideological biases.

Further, it is not easy to understand any complex science, including chemistry and food science, which includes medical studies on ingredient safety. The Food Babe has essentially made a career out of provoking irrational fear of ingredients with unsavory sources and with scary-sounding, long chemical names. Neither of these factors have anything to do with actual food safety, but they make it easy to scare the non-expert.

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Specifically this includes so-called “chemophobia” – which is the fear of chemicals. The problem with this “Food Babe”, chemophobic approach is that everything is chemicals. As the banana graphic above demonstrates, the formal chemical names even for everyday food molecules are long and unfamiliar to non-chemists.

The end result is that many people use shortcuts or heuristics to determine what food they trust and what food to avoid. One heuristic is the “natural” false dichotomy – if something seems natural it is healthful, and if it seems synthetic it should be avoided. This heuristic rapidly breaks down on two main counts. The first is that there is no good operational definition of “natural.” All food is altered by humans or processed in some way. Where do you draw the line? The second is that something occurring in nature is no guarantee of safety. Most things in nature will harm or even kill you. Many plants and animals have evolved toxins specifically to harm anything that tries to eat it.

Another food heuristic (one explicitly endorsed by the Food Babe) is the chemophobia heuristic – if it has a long chemical name that is difficult to pronounce, then it’s scary.

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5 Things I’ve noticed about… vaccines

VACCINE 147 CROPPED
The LockeBy The Locke via The Soap Box

Vaccines are a medical invention that has been around for a very long time, the very first one being invented by Edward Jenner in 1796 for small pox.

There are alot of things that have been said about vaccines, and taking a look at these claims, as well as the facts about vaccines, I’ve come up with fives things about them.

So here are five things I’ve noticed about vaccines:

5. They cause extinctions.

Measles_incidence-cdc_300pxMost people probably don’t know this, or do but rarely if ever think about it is that vaccines kill things and can very easily lead to the extinction of some species. Infact vaccines have already caused the extinction of one species, small pox.

Vaccines are also very well on their way to causing the extinction of polio, and could in due time and with enough people getting vaccinated, measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, and a variety of other well known diseases that can kill people, particularly young children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems.

Don’t these viruses deserve to exist? I mean true these viruses have caused the deaths of millions, plus have left countless others disfigured and disabled, and other than to do all of that have no real purpose to exist, and are still debated over whether or not they are lifeforms, but regardless of all that you have to ask yourself, don’t these useless and dangerous lifeforms/not lifeforms have a right to exist?

4. They prevent our children from having the childhood memories of our parents and grandparents.

vaccine small pox 133My parents and grandparents didn’t have the vaccines like my generation and my generation’s children have, and I can’t help but think of what kind of childhood memories might have been taken away because of vaccines.

Some of those memories I imagine would include attending the funeral of a classmate or family member that died from an infectious disease, or having to help another fellow classmate get around because they have trouble walking or are in a wheelchair due to polio, and even having to be rushed to the hospital because I contracted measles and my temperature got really high.

Yes, because of vaccines I have none of these childhood memories, nor does most of the people in my generation as well, but thanks to people like Andrew Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy, as well as numerous anti-vaccination websites, those childhood memories of the past generations are making a comeback.

3. They make people paranoid.

Vaccines make people paranoid, this is a fact.

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Medical Conspiracies

steven_novellaconspiracy medical health_100pxBy via Science-Based Medicine

Anyone publicly writing about issues of science and medicine from a pro-science perspective likely gets many e-mails similar to the ones I see every week. Here’s just one recent example:

Im sorry the medical community has become decadent and lazy as most that follow your stance could care less to study the real truth. I have also seen it much more deviant as many professionals know the risks and harm vaccination cause but continue to push it through there practices because of pure greed. Many are also scared of loosing there practices for not following the corrupt industry. Im sorry but the medical industry has become drug pushing decadent slobs that only care about there bottom line.

The e-mailer clearly has a particular narrative that he is following (in addition to the amusingly common poor grammar and spelling). He even writes at one point in our exchange, ProfessorHugoStrange“the details really don’t matter at this point what matters is what the bigger picture…” He is certain of his big picture conspiracy narrative. The details are unimportant.

Being on the receiving end of an almost constant barrage of such medical conspiracy theories it might seem that such beliefs are extremely common. Of course, such e-mails are self-selective and therefore not representative of the general population. I was therefore interested to see a published survey polling the general population about such beliefs. The survey is published in JAMA Internal Medicine, authored by Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood.

Here are the six survey questions and the percentage who agree or disagree (the rest indicating that they do not know).

The Food and Drug Administration is deliberately preventing the public from getting natural cures for cancer and other diseases because of pressure from drug companies. (37% agree, 32% disagree)

needle_175pxHealth officials know that cell phones cause cancer but are doing nothing to stop it because large corporations won’t let them. (20% agree, 40% disagree)

The CIA deliberately infected large numbers of African Americans with HIV under the guise of a hepatitis inoculation program. (12% agree, 51% disagree)

The global dissemination of genetically modified foods by Monsanto Inc is part of a secret program, called Agenda 21, launched by the Rockefeller and Ford foundations to shrink the world’s population. (12% agree, 42% disagree)

Doctors and the government still want to vaccinate children even though they know these vaccines cause autism and other psychological disorders. (20% agree, 44% disagree)

Public water fluoridation is really just a secret way for chemical companies to dump the dangerous byproducts of phosphate mines into the environment. (12% agree, 46% disagree)

The numbers are not surprising, in fact I would have guessed they were a bit higher, but again that perception is likely distorted by my e-mail inbox. They found that 49% of Americans agreed with at least one conspiracy, and 18% agreed with three or more. This is in line with the level of belief in non-medical conspiracies. They did not publish, but I would be interested, in the percentage of people who said they disagreed with all of the conspiracies. Many of the respondents indicated that they did not know if a particular conspiracy were true, likely because they had not heard of it before, but were unwilling to disagree on plausibility grounds alone.

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5 Things I’ve noticed about… Homeopathic Medicine

By via The Soap Box

homeopathyHomeopathic medicine is probably one of the oldest forms of alternative medicine there is. Infact it was invented in the late 1700’s by German physician Samuel Hahnemann, and has been with ever since.

Now there are lots of claims about homeopathy and what it does, and after looking into them I’ve noticed several different things about homeopathic medicine.

So here are five things I’ve noticed about homeopathic medicine:

5. You can make it at home.

Homeopathic medicine is very easy to make. You don’t even need a complex chemistry lab inorder to make it. You can make it right in your kitchen!

Got a headache and you want to make some homeopathic aspirin inorder to get rid of it? Well here’s what you do:

Step 1: Get one tablet of aspirin and about ten bottles of water.Step 2: Crush aspirin and put it into one of the bottles of water.

Step 3: Shake up bottle.

Step 4: Take one drop from said bottle and put it into the next bottle.

Step 5: Repeat steps 3 and 4 until done doing so with all bottles.

Now if you do all of this you will have homeopathic aspirin and your headache should go away in a few hours… same as any other normal headache would if you were to take nothing at all.

Actually this might not work, and this is because…

4. You’re suppose to use something that can cause the problems that you currently have inorder to cure them.

homeopathy 803_250pxInorder for homeopathic medicine to actually work (atleast according to people who make and deal with homeopathic medicine) you don’t use heavily diluted medicine that would cure whatever it is that you have. What you actually are suppose to use is something that could cause the symptoms that you’re having rather than actually cure them. Think of it as a kind of like a vaccine, minus any backing from the scientific and medical communities.

So if you want to cure that headache of yours using heavily diluted aspirin isn’t going to work. What you actually want to use is something that can cause a headache if you take it in it’s pure form, like beer, only it has to be heavily diluted.

So using homeopathy logic the best thing to take when you have a headache is a ball park beer, because those things are watered down all to hell.

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67 claims about Coconut Oil: Which ones are true, and which ones are BS?

by via The Soap Box

coconut oil uses

Recently I came across this picture that were making all of these claims about coconut oil (67 claims to be exact).

Now normal when I see something like this and it has the word “Proven” in the title, I automatically assume that most or all of it is just a bunch of BS.

But I decided to give these claims the benefit of the doubt and examine all of them to see if there is any truth behind them.

1. To cook with instead of vegetable or seed oils.

This one is true. You can cook with it, but it’s advised by many health organizations not to, or not to use to much due to it’s high amount of saturated fat.

coco-milk-creamer-original2. In your coffee/tea instead of creamer.

Sure. Infact non-dairy creamers are often made out of coconut oil.

3. To wash your face with instead of soap.

Yes, this is true. Also most hard soaps are made with coconut oils.

4. To brush your teeth with.

You could. There’s nothing dangerous about coconut oil (except maybe increasing your chance of having a heart attack if you eat to much of it) but I would stick with good old fashion (and proven) toothpaste.

My advice is that you should ask your dentist first before using coconut oil toothpaste and see what they have to say.

5. For oil pulling.

Yes, you can use coconut oil for this, although oil pulling itself hardly does anything and only really decreases the amount of tooth decaying bacteria in your mouth. Mouthwash is far more effective to use, and takes less time. Vodka also works to, and unlike mouthwash, you can actually swallow it!

IMG_2636_200px6. As a body moisturizer.

Yes, this is true.

7. As a sun-screen.

Lets go back to #1 on the list, shall we. It’s used as a cooking oil. What do you think it’s going to do to you?

For those who answered incorrectly, it’s going to cook you!

8. As a hair conditioner.

It does reduce protein loss in hair, so yes you could use it as a hair conditioner.

9. As a supplement.

For what? That’s kind of vague. Plus considering how high coconut oil is in saturated fat, I wouldn’t use it as a food supplement.

massage1_250px10. As a massage oil.

You can use it for that.

11. To reduce scars.

It helps with dry skin, and it might help acne scars, but scars from a cut it’s not going to help.

12. To treat for lice.

Yes, you can, but you have to use a lot of it to work, and you have to leave on for 12 to 18 hours, and it probably won’t kill the eggs.

hair-growth.-Coconut-milk1_250px13. To soften cracked heels.

Yes, you can use it for this.

14. As a hair serum.

Yes, this is another thing you can use it for.

15. As a buttery spread.

Sure you can… if you don’t mind increasing your risk of having a heart attack in a few years.

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5 Things I’ve noticed about… Alternative Cancer Cures

By via The Soap Box

cancer_quacks_250pxAlternative cancer cures.

These so called cures have been around with us for as long as science based cancer treatments have been around with us. In fact some of them have been around even longer than that.

These so called cures, while different, also have many things in common, which I have narrowed down to five different things.

So here are five things I’ve noticed about alternative cancer cures:

5. There’s a lot of them.

One of the biggest things that I’ve noticed about alternative cancer cures is that there are a lot of different types of “cures” floating around the internet and alternative medicine communities, and that there seems to be a new one that comes out every few weeks.

I’ve seen claims that balancing your ph levels, vitamins, organic foods, “detoxing” your body of chemicals, breathing in pure oxygen, and soursop can cure cancer, and in ways and speeds that would make conventional treatments obsolete.

The most recent claims I’ve seen concern cannabis oil. Along with doing all sorts of other stuff, the rumors spreading around the internet is that either cannabis oil can cure or at least stop the growth of cancer cells.

While there are a lot of different alternative medical treatments that are claimed to cure cancer, there are a few things that they all have in common, such as the fact that…

4. Many of the claims are exaggerated and dubious.

snake oil_300pxOf all the alternative cancer cures that I have seen floating around the internet they all just sound blatantly exaggerated, and when I do some research into these claims I find out that they are often times full of half truths, or are outright false. Examples of this would be Soursop which is claimed to be 10,000 times more effective than chemo (both exaggerated and false), and vitamins are often claimed to kill cancer cells because it can kill them in a petri dish (that doesn’t mean it can kill them in the human body).

Many people who promote these so called alternative cancer cures also claim that there is a “conspiracy” by “big pharma” to suppress these so called “cures” (which they have done a terrible job at) and is the reason why doctors won’t even mention these alternative “cures”. This is ofcourse made up nonsense and BS conspiracy theories. The real reason why doctors don’t recommend alternative cancer cures is because…

3. They don’t work and are dangerous.

As the old saying goes “You know what they call an alternative medicine that works? Medicine.”

The fact is that these so called alternative cancer cures don’t work. They have been tested in scientific laboratories, and have been shown . . .

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Also See:

Reiki

steven_novellaby via Science-Based Medicine

Reiki (pronounced raykey) is a form of “energy healing,” essentially the Asian version of faith healing or laying on of hands. Practitioners believe they are transferring life energy to the patient, increasing their well-being. The practice is popular among nurses, and in fact is practiced by nurses at my own institution (Yale).

From reiki.org, we get this description:

Reiki is a Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation that also promotes healing. It is administered by “laying on hands” and is based on the idea that an unseen “life force energy” flows through us and is what causes us to be alive. If one’s “life force energy” is low, then we are more likely to get sick or feel stress, and if it is high, we are more capable of being happy and healthy.

reiki-healing-the-world_250pxReiki is therefore a form of vitalism – the pre-scientific belief that some spiritual energy animates the living, and is what separates living things from non-living things. The notion of vitalism was always an intellectual place-holder, responsible for whatever aspects of biology were not currently understood. But as science progressed, eventually we figured out all of the basic functions of life and there was simply nothing left for the vital force to do. It therefore faded from scientific thinking. We can add to that the fact that no one has been able to provide positive evidence for the existence of a vital force – it remains entirely unknown to science.

But the discarded science and superstition of the past is the “alternative medicine” of today. There are many so-called “CAM” modalities that are based on vitalism, including Reiki. Reiki, in fact, is very similar to therapeutic touch, reiki-cat 1104_300pxanother energy healing modality that was popular among nurses, and although it continues to be used it is much less popular after 9 year old girl (Emily Rosa) performed an elegant experiment to show that it was nothing but self-deception. Reiki nicely moved in to fill the void.

The research on Reiki, and energy healing in general, is similar to that of many similar modalities – those with very low scientific plausibility that are not taken very seriously by medical scientists. The research is of generally low quality, poorly controlled small studies that seem designed to justify Reiki rather than see if it actually works. The most recently published study, for example, looks at anxiety levels and self-reported well being in cancer patient and finds, unsurprisingly, that patients feel better when they receive the kind attention of a nurse. The study is completely uncontrolled, and therefore of dubious value. One might consider such a study a complete waste of time and effort, as the results were never in doubt.

A 2011 review of reiki studies concluded:

The existing research does not allow conclusions regarding the efficacy or effectiveness of energy healing. Future studies should adhere to existing standards of research on the efficacy and effectiveness of a treatment, and given the complex character of potential outcomes, cross-disciplinary methodologies may be relevant. To extend the scope of clinical trials, psychosocial processes should be taken into account and explored, rather than dismissed as placebo.

In other words – existing research is a such poor quality we cannot draw any useful conclusion from it. I disagree, however, that this necessarily means that more research is needed. The low plausibility of using magical energy that has never been demonstrated to exist by medical science argues otherwise. Further, the last sentence is odd – it suggests the authors are trying to spin placebo effects into real effects. This is increasingly the strategy of alternative medicine advocates as it becomes clear that most of the modalities they favor do not work any better than placebo (which means they don’t work).

Reiki is now squarely in that camp.

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Also See: Full of Energy « Science-Based Medicine

The Seralini GMO Study – Retraction and Response to Critics

steven_novellaby via Science-Based Medicine

Elsevier has announced that they are retracting the infamous Seralini study which claimed to show that GMO corn causes cancer in laboratory rats. The retraction comes one year after the paper was published, and seems to be a response to the avalanche of criticism the study has faced. GMOs 822_300pxThis retraction is to the anti-GMO world what the retraction of the infamous Wakefield Lancet paper was to the anti-vaccine world.

The Seralini paper was published in November 2012 in Food and Chemical Toxicology. It was immediately embraced by anti-GMO activists, and continues to be often cited as evidence that GMO foods are unhealthy. It was also immediately skewered by skeptics and more objective scientists as a fatally flawed study.

The study looked at male and female rats of the Sprague-Dawley strain of rat – a strain with a known high baseline incidence of tumors. These rats were fed regular corn mixed with various percentages of GMO corn: zero (the control groups), 11, 22, and 33%. Another group was fed GMO corn plus glyphosate (Round-Up) in their water, and a third was given just glyphosate. The authors concluded:

The results of the study presented here clearly demonstrate that lower levels of complete agricultural glyphosate herbicide formulations, at concentrations well below officially set safety limits, induce severe hormone-dependent mammary, hepatic and kidney disturbances. Similarly, disruption of biosynthetic pathways that may result from overexpression of the EPSPS transgene in the GM NK603 maize can give rise to comparable pathologies that may be linked to abnormal or unbalanced phenolic acids metabolites, or related compounds. Other mutagenic and metabolic effects of the edible GMO cannot be excluded.

Sounds pretty scary. Now let’s look at the multiple criticisms:

The biggest criticism of the study is the combination of two features – the small sample size and lack of statistical analysis. The entire study is premised on comparing various dose groups with control groups that were not exposed to GMO or glyphosate. And yet, the authors provide no statistical analysis of this comparison. Given the small number of rats in each group, it is likely that this lack of statistical analysis is due to the fact that statistical significance could not be reached.

In other words – the results of the study are uninterpretable. In the retraction statement Elsevier wrote:

Ultimately, the results presented (while not incorrect) are inconclusive, and therefore do not reach the threshold of publication for Food and Chemical Toxicology.

The retraction reads like a long excuse for the editorial failure of the journal, and is disappointing. But at least they ultimately reached the correct conclusion – this paper should never have been published. It slipped through the cracks of peer review.

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9 Reasons why people use Alternative Medicine

By via The Soap Box

Why do some people continue to use alternative medicine?

Despite all the information there is about alternative medicine and how not only does it not work, but that infact it can even be harmful, people still use it and believe that it really does work.

So why is it that people still use alternative medicine? Well, I’ve been thinking about that, and I’ve come up with quite a few reasons why:

Desperation

alternative-medicine-for-dummiesScience based medicine is an incredible thing and can cure many diseases and fix a lot of things that can go wrong with the human body, but unfortunately it can’t cure every disease, or fix everything that goes wrong with our bodies (not yet atleast). So when science based medicine can’t fix or cure what ever is wrong with us (or atleast not doing so in a way that is fast enough for us) some people, even rational people, might become desperate enough to use alternative medicine.

This sort of situation especially happens when someone has a terminal disease and they are told by their doctor that there is nothing they can do to cure what ever it is that is killing them. Some people will not accept this and will seek out anything that is claimed to be able to cure them (even if all the evidence says otherwise).

They think it’s cheaper

Because alternative medicine isn’t manufactured by the pharmaceutical companies (who are for profit businesses) it is assumed by some people that alternative medicine must be cheaper than science based medicine because they believe that the people who are manufacturing these alternative medical products are not doing it for a profit, plus when a person is told about a product that is suppose to be cheaper and work better than the conventional product, people tend to buy the supposedly cheaper product.

Now if you seriously believe that alternative medicine is cheaper than science based medicine, and that people who make these alternative medical products are not doing so for a profit, then I know a Nigerian prince that wants to give you $15,000,000.

A friend told them it works

alternative cam6_250pxProbably the best form of advertising there is is word of mouth. You don’t do have to pay for anything, and people tend to trust the opinion of a friend or family member over a creative ad in a newspaper or a TV commercial. Same thing holds true with alternative medicine.

Lets say you’ve been sick for a while and you have been taking some medicine for what ever has been ailing you, but so far it has had little to no affect. You tell a friend or a family member about your health issues and they might recommend that you take some herbs, or to go see this “doctor” that they recommend (who turns out to be an alternative medicine practitioner and not a real doctor) because they claim that it helped them, or it helped someone they know. Because you trust the person whom is recommending this “doctor” or this product, you might be more willing to see this “doctor” or try this product than you would if some stranger had told you.

Science based medicine can be harsh

Science based medicine (or modern medicine, or real medicine as some people like to call it) is a great thing. It has cured a lot of stuff, and has extended our average life expectancy by years, but it can also be pretty harsh at times as well. Because of this some people might either choose to stop using a science based medical treatment because they feel that it has become to harsh on them and that they believe that it might kill them if they continue to use, and so they decided to use alternative medicine instead because they believe it will help them without any side effects, or they might already know (or atleast believe) that the medical treatment that they’ve been recommend that they do could or will be harsh on them, and they decide to forgo it and use alternative medicine instead.

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Candida and Fake Illnesses

steven_novellaBy via Science-Based Medicine

Savvy consumers have learned over the years that the primary goal of marketing is to create demand for a product or service. This has risen to the point of inventing problems that do not really exist just to sell a product that addresses the fake problem. Who knew that my social status could be destroyed by spotty glassware.

Osteopenia is a relative decrease in bone density, but not enough to qualify for osteoporosis.

Osteopenia is a relative decrease in bone density, but not enough to qualify for osteoporosis.

Better yet, if you can make people worry about a nonexistent problem, something that they were not previously aware of and don’t understand, they might buy your solution just to relieve their worry.

This type of “artificial demand” marketing can be very insidious when it occurs with medical products and services. The pharmaceutical industry has been accused of generating artificial demand for some of their drugs. For example, osteopenia is a relative decrease in bone density, but not enough to qualify for osteoporosis. Osteopenia is not really a disease, or even necessarily a mild version of osteoporosis, although it is a risk factor. Merck, however, was happy to broaden the market for its drug for osteoporosis and argue that patients with osteopenia should be treated also, even though the evidence really did not support this.

Sometimes the accusations are flat-out wrong. GSK has been accused of inventing restless leg syndrome (RLS) to sell a failed Parkinson’s drug. In fact the drugs used for RLS are successful Parkinson’s drugs. Further, I found references to RLS in neurology texts going back over 50 years, and there were even older references although not using the same name.

I don’t think the pharmaceutical industry invents new diseases. It seems that they do try to extend the market for their drugs into milder and milder indications, spreading into the gray zone of evidence, but they don’t get to invent their own diseases.

Those who practice medicine outside the constraints imposed by science (and ethics), however, are not above inventing imaginary diseases and conditions out of whole cloth.

Candida

Could it be Candida?

Could it be Candida?

One popular fake illness is chronic candidiasis. Candida albicans is a fungus that colonizes about 90% of the population (meaning it is present in the body but not causing an infection or any problems). It can, however, become an infection, usually at times of stress or immunocompromise. The most common manifestations are thrush (a superficial Candida infection in the mouth) and vaginitis, also commonly referred to as a yeast infection.

Candida can also rarely cause serious systemic infection, but this is mostly restricted to those with compromised immune systems, such as patients undergoing chemotherapy or with advanced AIDS.

Candida became the focus of a fake illness beginning in 1986 with the publication of . . .

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Improperly Performed Acupuncture Linked to Spontaneous Human Combustion

Experts in traditional Chinese medicine are warning patients to avoid unlicensed acupuncture practitioners after an apparent case of spontaneous human combustion.

by via Science-Based Medicine

spontaneous human combustion 1122Baton Rouge, LA-When investigators climbed from out of the smoldering debris that was the home of Hank Thomas, the looks on their faces told the gathering crowd what these hardened veterans of the Baton Rouge Fire Department couldn’t put into words. Thomas, a yoga instructor and avid fisherman who had lived in Baton Rouge his entire life, had exploded. And as the grisly details slowly emerge, people are asking questions about what might be to blame and how they can prevent being the next Baton Rougian to erupt into a massive fireball of body parts and Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning.

Some local medical professionals have proposed a controversial theory. Based on reports that Thomas has undergone acupuncture treatments for sciatica several times in the weeks preceding his untimely fulmination, a group of local experts are speaking out. They are warning the community to beware of discount acupuncture clinics.

“We aren’t saying that every incidence of spontaneous human combustion is linked to the incorrect placement of acupuncture needles,” Kuang Zhu LAC, Chief of Pragmatic Acupuncture in the Health and Wellness division of Vic’s Day Spa and Pet Grooming Center, explained during a recent press conference. “But in some cases, there is a relationship that is hard to explain otherwise.”

Zhu, a legally licensed acupuncturist in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for over thirty years and founder of the “Know Your Needler!” campaign, is reaching out to the Baton Rouge community because of concerns that there are patients seeking care from unlicensed and poorly trained practitioners that don’t charge as much per session. “These rogue needle-wielding impersonators don’t fully grasp the power of acupuncture, acupressure, sonopuncture, electroacupuncture, cold laser therapy, or any of the other ancient techniques of stimulating specific acupoints. With great ability to heal, comes an equal ability to harm.”

acupuncture_250pxAcupuncture, a component of Traditional Chinese Medicine developed sometime in the past 5,000 years, involves the insertion of small needles into specific points on the body in order to improve the flow of life energy or Qi. These points are found along meridians, major pathways in the body through which our life energy courses that are different from blood vessels, nerves and lymphatics in that Western science has been unable to locate them during anatomical investigation or with modern imaging techniques. When Qi is obstructed, it becomes stagnant and illness develops. Properly placed needles relieve this obstruction and improve our health in a number of ways. Needles placed haphazardly can, according to Zhu, lead to further obstruction, a worsening of one’s health, and perhaps even a fiery death.

Zhu states that the phenomenon of injury by inappropriate acupuncture is not new. He has seen countless milder cases over his three decades of practice in the United States. But the worst occurred during his childhood in China. “Neighborhood gangs and even local police forces would use purposefully incorrect acupuncture as punishment or as an interrogation enhancer,” Zhu revealed. “Once I saw a body with the hao zhen needles still inserted in acupoints I did not even know existed. Oh, the disharmony! My childhood ended that day. I’ve heard that the American military is even using acupuncture on the battlefield now.”

acupuncture-needles-smoke_250pxBut not every local acupuncturist supports Zhu’s theory that excessive and erroneous needle placement is to blame for unexplained explosions of American citizens. Frank Grimes, a Baton Rouge chiropractor who incorporates acupuncture into his armamentarium of healing modalities, reminds us that correlation doesn’t always equal causation. “Yes, some of the remaining body parts have been found with needles still in them,” He admits. “But my concern is that linking acupuncture to spontaneous human combustion is akin to the claim that chiropractic manipulation of the neck causes strokes. Perhaps people who are already about to explode seek out acupuncture for symptomatic relief.”

At the heart of this issue for Zhu and his colleagues is the health of their community. He admits that acupuncture-induced detonation is likely rare despite the recent occurrence, and that most people who receive acupuncture from improperly trained practitioners will at most only experience mild stagnation of Qi.

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Homeopathy Ramblings

by via Science-Based Medicine

ScamAlertThere needs to be a SCAM index, some quantitative tool, a formula for ranking the SCAMs, so one SCAM could reign supreme, to be definitely declared the the goofiest of all SCAMs. Perhaps (number of adherents)x(number of Pubmed publications)x(age of SCAM) all divided by a plausibility factor.

Homeopathy would win and any SCAM index that did not rank homeopathy at number one would have to put up a very convincing argument indeed that their formula was not somehow fundamentally flawed.1

For first time readers, homeopathy is based on several fictions, totally divorced from reality, made up in the 1800′s.

The first law,2 with less reality than Joe Abercrombie’s, is, “similia similibus curentur,” or “let like be cured by like”. Substances which cause specific symptoms can be used to cure diseases which cause the same symptoms.  If like cures like, I am uncertain what moonlight, one of many fanciful homeopathic nostrums, would cure. Lycanthropy?

homeopathic-remedy-lol_250pxSay you have a headache. What causes a headache? Being smacked on the head by a hammer. So in homeopathic thinking, being hit on the head with a hammer would cure your headache.

But you would not want to give known poisons like arsenic or belladonna to people in attempt for like to cure like, unless one would classify death as cure. Even the otherwise chemistry-challenged homeopaths know that would be a bad idea.

So there is the second law, that of infinitesimal dilutions, where the substances are sequentially diluted in either water or alcohol, and the potency increases with each dilution. And dilute it they do.

Take the hammer for the migraine. Take 100th of it. Thump the remainder against a Bible to activate it, the succussion of homeopathy. Then take 100th of that. Thump it against a Bible. Then 100th of that. Thump it against a Bible. And so on. Do that 6, or 15, or 30 or even 200 times. When finished you will have the an extremely small, perhaps nonexistent, but potentized hammer with power exceeding Mjölnir. Use that to hit the skull to relieve the headache.

It doesn’t get goofier than that. Homeopathy is one of those topics which demonstrates that I am not a true skeptic. A true skeptic would say that homeopathy is highly implausible. I tend to say it is wackaloon impossible on basic principles. Zero plausibility would make homeopathy infinite on the SCAM index.

Homeopathy and adverse effects

Given that homeopathy is nothing that does nothing, not only would I expect any homeopathic preparation to have no efficacy but also no toxicity. With the caveat that it is the dose that makes the poison. Any product with . . .

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More bad science in the service of anti-GMO activism

by via Science-Based Medicine

GMO_rice_250pxI never used to write much about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) before. I still don’t do it that often. For whatever reason, it just hasn’t been on my radar very much. That seems to be changing, however. It’s not because I went seeking this issue out (although I must admit that I first became interested in genetic engineering when I was in junior high and read a TIME Magazine cover article about it back in the 1970s), but rather because in my reading I keep seeing it more and more in the context of anti-GMO activists using bad science and bad reasoning to justify a campaign to demonize GMOs. Now, I don’t have a dog in this hunt, (Forgive me, I have no idea why I like that expression, given that I don’t hunt.) I really don’t. I was, not too long ago, fairly agnostic on the issue of GMOs and their safety, although, truth be told, because I have PhD in a biomedical science and because my lab work has involved molecular biology and genetics since I was a graduate student in the early 1990s, I found the claims of horrific harm attributable to GMOs not particularly convincing, but hadn’t bothered to take that deep a look into them. It was not unlike my attitude towards the the claims that cell phones cause cancer a few years ago, before I looked into them and noted the utter lack of a remotely-plausible mechanism and uniformly negative studies except for a group in Sweden with a definite ax to grind on the issue. Back then, I realized that there wasn’t really a plausible mechanism by which radio waves from cell phones could cause cancer in that the classic mechanisms by which ionizing radiation can break DNA molecular bonds and cause mutations don’t apply, but I didn’t rule out a tiny possibility that there might be an as-yet unappreciated mechanism by which long term exposure to radio waves might contribute to cancer. I still don’t, by the way, which has gotten me into the odd kerfuffle with some skeptics and one physicist, but I still view the likelihood that cell phone radiation can cause cancer as being just a bit more plausible than homeopathy.

As was the case for the nonexistent cell phone-cancer link, there has now been a steady drip-drip-drip of bad studies touted by anti-GMO activists as “evidence” that GMOs are the work of Satan that will corrupt or kill us all (and make us fat, to boot). Not too long ago, I came across one such study, a truly execrable excuse for science by Gilles-Eric Séralini at the University of Caen purporting to demonstrate that Roundup-resistant genetically modified maize can cause horrific tumors in rats. I looked at the methods and conclusions and what I found was . . .

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Acupuncture Doesn’t Work

steven_novellaPosted by via Science-Based Medicine

About a year ago the editors of Anesthesia & Analgesia solicited a written debate on whether or not acupuncture is effective or simply an elaborate placebo. Four experienced acupuncture researchers agreed to write the pro-acupuncture article, Wang, Harris, Lin and Gan.

"In layman’s terms, acupuncture does not work – for anything."

“In layman’s terms, acupuncture does not work – for anything.”

They asked David Colquhoun to write the con position, and David asked me to write it with him (which, of course, I enthusiastically agreed to do).

The article is fortunately published in open access, and so I can reprint it here (full article is below). What I think David and I convincingly demonstrated is that, according to the usual standards of medicine, acupuncture does not work.

Let me explain what I mean by that. Clinical research can never prove that an intervention has an effect size of zero. Rather, clinical research assumes the null hypothesis, that the treatment does not work, and the burden of proof lies with demonstrating adequate evidence to reject the null hypothesis. So, when being technical, researchers will conclude that a negative study “fails to reject the null hypothesis.”

Further, negative studies do not demonstrate an effect size of zero, but rather that any possible effect is likely to be smaller than the power of existing research to detect. The greater the number and power of such studies, however, the closer this remaining possible effect size gets to zero. At some point the remaining possible effect becomes clinically insignificant.

In other words, clinical research may not be able to detect the difference between zero effect and a tiny effect, but at some point it becomes irrelevant.

What David and I have convincingly argued, in my opinion, is that after decades of research and more than 3000 trials, acupuncture researchers have failed to reject the null hypothesis, and any remaining possible specific effect from acupuncture is so tiny as to be clinically insignificant.

In layman’s terms, acupuncture does not work – for anything.

This has profound clinical, ethical, scientific, and practical implications. In my opinion humanity should not waste another penny, another moment, another patient – any further resources on this dead end. We should consider this a lesson learned, cut our losses, and move on.

I suspect, however, human nature being what it is, that this will not happen anytime soon.

Read the entire article Acupuncture Is Theatrical Placebo (Anesthesia & Analgesia).

A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind

brains gears_600px
by via Science-Based Medicine

In his first book, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Wrong, neurologist Robert Burton showed that our certainty that we are right has nothing to do with how right we are. He explained how brain mechanisms can make us feel even more confident about false beliefs than about true ones. Now, in a new book, A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves, he investigates the larger question of how a brain creates a mind. There is no alternative to the scientific method for studying the physical world, but Burton thinks there are essential limitations to science’s ability to investigate conundrums like consciousness and free will. Brain scientists fall into error because:

…our brains possess involuntary mechanisms that make unbiased thought impossible yet create the illusion that we are rational creatures capable of fully understanding the mind created by these same mechanisms.

He has a bone to pick with neuroscientists. They are discovering fascinating information, but their interpretations often go beyond what the data can really tell us. They often draw questionable conclusions from imaging studies that could have other explanations.

understanding-the-brain 02_200pxThere is a lot going on in our brains that we’re not aware of.  Subconscious brain mechanisms are like a gigantic committee. Everything from your DNA to your past experiences to your political leanings to your emotions is given a vote, and only the result is passed on to your conscious awareness. If all the raw input to the committee were accessible to consciousness, it would be too much information and would hopelessly impair our ability to act. For the mind to function, mental sensations have to override contradictory evidence to create certainty and motivation.

The brain tries to make our experiences meaningful by tricks like re-ordering the temporal sequence of events. When the batter swings, he thinks he is seeing the ball and then reacting; but he initiates his swing before he could possibly be consciously aware of the ball’s trajectory.

Our minds are not truly individual and independent.

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A closer look at vitamin injections

by via Science-Based Medicine

Vitamin-B-InjectionsVitamins are magic. Especially when they’re injected. Roll up the sleeve, find a vein, insert a needle and watch that colourful concoction flow directly into the bloodstream. It may sound somewhat illicit, but that person infusing it is wearing a white coat, and you’re sitting in a chic clinic. There must be something to it, right? Intravenous vitamin injections are popular with celebrities and have even been described by Dr. Oz as “cutting edge”. Advocates claim vitamin injections can benefit serious conditions like cancer, Parkinson’s disease, macular degeneration, fibromyalgia, depression, and that modern-day obsession, “detoxification”. And vitamin infusions aren’t just for the ill. They’re also touted as helpful for preventing illness, too. A search for vitamin injections brings up millions of hits and dozens of advertisements. There is no question that vitamin injections are popular. But despite all the hype and all the endorsements, there is no credible evidence to suggest that routine vitamin infusions are necessary or offer any meaningful health benefit. Vitamin infusions are a marketing creation, giving the illusion you’re doing something for your health, but lacking any demonstrable efficacy. What’s more concerning, providers of vitamin therapies target their marketing at those fighting life-threatening illnesses like cancer, selling unproven treatments in the absence of good scientific evidence that they are beneficial.

The intravenous vitamin industry is a sideshow to science-based health care. Yes, there is an established medical role for injectable vitamins, though it’s no energy-boosting cure-all – they’re used to replace what we should obtain in our diet. As a hospital-based pharmacist I used to prepare sterile bags of total parenteral nutrition (TPN), a mixture of vitamins, carbohydrate, protein and fat that completely replaced the requirement to eat. TPN is effective, but not without risks, and far less preferable than getting your nutrients the old fashioned way – by eating them. There’s also the routine use of injectable vitamins like B12, or iron, all of which can be science-based when used to address true deficiencies, or to manage specific drug toxicities. And there is the therapeutic use of high-dose minerals like intravenous magnesium for acute asthma attacks. But there is no medical justification to infuse vitamins into a vein when you can more appropriately obtain those nutrients in your diet.

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Energy Medicine – Noise-Based Pseudoscience

by via Science-Based Medicine

energyhealingSo-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is largely philosophy-based medicine rather than science based. There are a few core concepts that are endlessly recycled in various forms, but it is mythology and culture, not grounded in the rigorous methods of science that allow us to tell the difference between our satisfying fantasies and hard reality. Sometimes proponents of such philosophies try to cloak their beliefs in the appearance of science, resulting in what we simply call pseudoscience.

Harriet Hall coined an excellent term to refer to such pseudoscience –” Tooth Fairy science.” In her metaphor, pseudoscientists sometimes act like scientists by describing the details and statistics of their claimed phenomenon (such as examining all the details of the Tooth Fairy phenomenon) without ever testing the reality of the phenomenon itself. The fundamental concept at the core of their belief is never challenged, or only superficially so, and they proceed prematurely from their faulty premise.

Another term that I find extremely apt is “Cargo Cult science,” a term coined by Richard Feynman. This is a reference to the cargo cults of New Guinea – the pre-industrial tribes were observed building straw mock-ups of control towers, planes, and runways in hopes that the planes they observed flying over head would deliver their cargo to them. In other words – the cargo cults mimicked the superficial appearance of an aviation infrastructure but had none of the real essence or function (because of lack of understanding). This is a perfect analogy to much of what passes for science within the world of CAM.

reiki-hand_200pxNot that we need another analogy, but I have often described such pseudoscience as being lost in the noise. In any endeavor to detect something there is the issue of the signal to noise ratio.  Often the core challenge of scientific research is pulling the signal out from the background noise, or (more to the point) deciding if there is a signal in the noise, or if the information represents pure noise. In this analogy “noise” refers to any randomness in the data or interference from effects other than the alleged signal of interest. What I find is that pseudoscientific investigations of tooth fairy phenomena are completely lost in the noise of data, seeing whatever phantom “signals” support their philosophy. Elaborate but entirely illusory constructs are often crafted (or retrofitted to) these phantom signals.

Energy medicine is a perfect example of cargo-cult, Tooth Fairy, noise-based pseudoscience.

Energy medicine began its life as a philosophy-based notion, and is still philosophy-based, but many of its modern practitioners are desperate for the respectability that science has to offer. Some have therefore erected a pseudoscientific facade for this pre-scientific superstition.

One example I was recently asked to investigate is the Heartmath institute., which promotes an energy-medicine based claim that the heart sends out “energy” waves that regulate the body, including the brain.

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Are You Ready For the Oz Manifesto?

dr_oz_1
by via Science-Based Medicine

“Medicine is a very religious experience. I have my religion and you have yours. It becomes difficult for us to agree on what we think works, since so much of it is in the eye of the beholder. Data is rarely clean. You find the arguments that support your data, and it’s my fact versus your fact.”

Mehmet Oz

pilla809_250pxThe above quote is from a recent article for the New Yorker by Michael Specter about Dr. Oz, the most currently popular TV doctor. Specter described this sentiment as “chilling.” To me it sounds like a manifesto – a postmodernist attack on the scientific basic of modern medicine.

In my experience, this sentiment is often at the core of belief in so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). In order to seem respectable and infiltrate the institutions of medical academia, proponents of CAM will say that their treatments are evidence-based and that they are scientific. They have a serious problem, however – their treatments are not evidence-based and are often grossly unscientific. Whenever someone bothers to look at their evidence and examine their science, therefore, they start to backtrack, eventually arriving at their true position, a postmodernist dismissal of science resembling Oz’s statement above. I have heard a hundred versions of the Oz manifesto from CAM supporters.

dr-oz-john-edward1_250pxAs with the postmodernist critique of science itself, there is a kernel of truth to the notion that science has its limits (which makes the sentiment more insidious). Scientists are humans, they have their biases and flaws, scientific studies are imperfect and often conflict, and there are often multiple opinions on specific clinical practices. Where postmodernists fall off the cliff, however, is in concluding from this that science has no legitimacy, that it is entirely a culturally-determined narrative with no special relationship to external reality.

This view, while flirted with by philosophers of science, has been rejected because it neglects the fact that science uses a valid method of justification. The process may be messy, but over time scientific evidence can objectively resolve differences of opinion. Experts can eventually agree on what works and what doesn’t, and from that a standard of care emerges. High quality evidence can become so overwhelming that there is no room left for personal opinion.

Short of a solid consensus, science-based practitioners can follow a hierarchy of evidence – we can base our practices on the best evidence currently available. CAM practitioners also fail to follow such a hierarchy of evidence.

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red-palm-oil-dr-oz

Recommended Reading: Top Ten Things You Should Know About Alternative Medicine – Harriet Hall,M.D. (PDF)

Why Do People turn to Alternative Medicine?

2011_quackery
via Science-Based Medicine

Any sociological question is likely going to have a complex answer with many variables that are not easy to tease apart. We should therefore resist the temptation to make simplistic statements about X being the cause of Y. We can still, however, identify correlations that will at least inform our thinking. Sometimes correlations can be triangulated to fairly reliable conclusions.

When the data is complex and difficult to interpret, however, evidence tends to be overwhelmed by narrative. The recent Sandy Hook tragedy is an excellent example. No one knows exactly why the shooter did what he did, so it is easy to insert your own preferred narrative as the explanation.

miracle-hat_300pxAnother example is the phenomenon of so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Why has it been increasing in popularity (and is it, really?). Is it slick marketing, relaxed regulations, scientific illiteracy, a gullible media,  or the failures of mainstream medicine? You can probably guess I think it’s all of these things to some degree. The most common narrative I hear by far, however, is the latter – if people are turning to CAM it must be because mainstream medicine has failed them. This version of reality is often promoted by CAM marketing.

The evidence that we have, however, simply does not support this narrative. Studies show that satisfaction with mainstream medicine is not an important factor in deciding to use CAM, that CAM users are generally satisfied with their mainstream care, and they use CAM because it aligns with their philosophy, and they simply want to expand their options.

None of this is to imply that mainstream medicine has no problems or failings – it does. We should, however, be working toward keeping and improving what works and fixing what doesn’t, not discarding science and reason to embrace fantasy as an alternative. This is often the false choice presented by CAM proponents, and is analogous to creationists pointing out alleged weaknesses in the theory of evolution as an argument for creationism as an alternative.

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The Great and Powerful Oz versus science and research ethics

via Science-Based Medicine

That Dr. Mehmet Oz uses his show to promote quackery of the vilest sort is no longer in any doubt. I was reminded yet again of this last week when I caught a rerun of one of his shows from earlier this season, when he gazed in wonder at the tired old cold reading schtick used by all “psychic mediums” from time immemorial, long before the current crop of celebrity psychic mediums, such as John Edward, Sylvia Browne, and the “Long Island Medium” Theresa Caputo, discovered how much fame and fortune they could accrue by scamming the current generation of the credulous. LongIslandMedium_250pxSpeaking of Theresa Caputo, that’s exactly who was on The Dr. Oz Show last week (in reruns), and, instead of being presented as the scammer that she is, never was heard even a hint of a skeptical word from our erstwhile “America’s doctor,” who cheerily suggested that seeing a psychic medium scammer is a perfectly fine way to treat crippling anxiety because, well, Caputo claims that it is. Even worse, apparently it wasn’t even the first time that Dr. Oz had Caputo on his show, and Caputo wasn’t even the first psychic whose schtick he represented as somehow being a useful therapeutic modality for various psychological issues. “Crossing Over” psychic John Edward was there first in a segment Oz entitled Are Psychics the New Therapists? I could have saved him the embarrassment and simply told him no, but apparently Oz is too easily impressed. As I said before, if he’s impressed by clumsy cold readers like Browne, Caputo, and Edward, it doesn’t take much to impress him. Also, apparently his producers aren’t above editing science-based voices beyond recognition to support their quackery.

I was further reminded how Dr. Oz promotes quackery by an article in Slate yesterday entitled Dr. Oz’s Miraculous Medical Advice: Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. I suppose it would be mildly hypocritical of me to snark at the rather obvious “Wizard of Oz” jokes aimed at Dr. Oz. After all, I’ve used the same joke myself at one time or another and, in light of the Slate.com article, couldn’t resist using it in the title of my post. However, I wasn’t about to let that distract me from the article itself, which is very good. The reason is that there are two aspects to Dr. Oz’s offenses against medical science. psychic-john-edward-2012-events_02There is the pure quackery that he features and promotes, such as psychic scammers like John Edward and Theresa Caputo, faith healing scammers like Dr. Issam Nemeh, and “alternative health” scammers like reiki masters, practitioners of ayruveda, Dr. Joe Mercola, who was promoted as a “pioneer” that your doctor doesn’t want you to know about. Never was it mentioned that there are very good reasons why a competent science-based physician would prefer that his patients have nothing to do with Dr. Mercola, who runs what is arguably the most popular and lucrative alternative medicine website currently in existence and manages to present himself as reasonable simply because he is not as utterly loony as his main competition, Mike Adams if NaturalNews.com (who has of late let his New World Order, anti-government, “Obama’s coming to take away your guns” conspiracy theory freak flag fly) and Gary Null.

The second aspect is that Dr. Oz also does give some sensible medical advice.

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Aspartame – Truth vs Fiction

by

If you believe everything you read on the internet, then is seems that a chemical found in thousands of products is causing an epidemic of severe neurological and systemic diseases, like multiple sclerosis and lupus. The FDA, the companies that make the product, and the “medical industrial complex” all know about the dangers of this chemical but are hiding the truth from the public in order to protect corporate profits and avoid the pesky paper work that would accompany the truth being revealed. The only glimmer of hope is a dedicated band of bloggers and anonymous e-mail chain letter authors who aren’t afraid to speak the truth. Armed with the latest anecdotal evidence, unverified speculation, and scientifically implausible claims, they have been tirelessly ranting about the evils of this chemical for years. Undeterred by the countless published studies manufactured by the food cartel that show this chemical is safe, they continue to protect the public by spreading baseless fear and hysteria.

Hopefully, you don’t believe everything you read on the internet, and you don’t get your science news from e-mail SPAM, where the above scenario is a common theme. While there are many manifestations of this type of urban legend, I am speaking specifically about aspartame – an artificial sweetener used since the early 1980s. The notion that aspartame is unsafe has been circulating almost since it first appeared, and like rumors and misinformation have a tendency to do, fears surrounding aspartame have taken on a life of their own.

Keep Reading: Science-Based Medicine » Aspartame – Truth vs Fiction.

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