Archive for August, 2007

Aug 30 2007

Mike Huckabee on Healthcare and Skeptics on Huckabee

A reader pointed me to this recent blog entry over at EvolutionBlog by Jason Rosenhouse. The blog entry itself is short, and discusses Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s statements on Hardball concerning healthcare. What caught my interest more than Huckabee’s statements were the response of skeptics to them.

Here is the quoted statement of Huckabee’s from the Hardball transcript: (I include a more complete statement than in the original blog entry)

“Specifically, we know that a third of the cancer deaths in this country could be eliminated with nutrition and exercise alone, because bad nutrition and the lack of exercise breaks down a body‘s capacity to throw off bad cells, bad internal workings, that our – our bodies are a masterfully created and designed piece of work.

“I believe God created these wonderful bodies of ours. And they are a masterpiece, but they were designed to be used in a way that were fueled properly and then were exercised properly. And, when we don‘t fuel them properly or exercise them properly, it is like having a car in which you pour mud into the tank and never run it. Well, guess what? The car is not going anywhere.

“And we wonder why our bodies break down. The truth is, if we don‘t use these bodies in the manner in which they were intended to be properly fueled, with the foods that are a natural part of our world, and with the exercise for which we were created—we were created to be active and—and energetic, not sloughing about—it will eliminate a third of the cancers in this country.”

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Aug 29 2007

More Fun with Brain Chemistry

Published by under Neuroscience

Reader Blake Stacey asked me to comment on this article about the development of new antidepressants. It is a very interesting development in the pursuit of more effective and selective antidepressants and reveals a great deal about the state of this neuroscience.

For background, current pharmacotherapy for many neurological disorders, including mood disorders like depression, focus on altering the activity of neurotransmitters – the chemical signals by which neurons communicate with each other. Some of the more important neurotransmitters include dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, GABA, and glutamate. As we would expect from a messy evolved system, these neurotransmitters are used in various parts of the brain for different purposes. There is a great deal of overlap – the same neurotransmitter may be used by several different subsystems in the brain.

Neurotransmitters carry their signal by binding to a receptor. So neuron 1 will secrete dopamine, for example, which will then cross the synapse to neuron 2 where it will bind to dopamine receptors which in turn then trigger neuron 2 to fire at some frequency. To make things more complex there are several types of dopamine (and other) receptors. These receptor subtypes may have different effects in the same synapse, or may exist in different concentrations in different parts of the brain.
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Aug 27 2007

HIV Denial on the Internet

Last week Tara Smith and I had our paper on HIV Denial in the Internet Era published in PLoS Medicine, an open access online peer-reviewed journal. The article combined Tara’s knowledge (as an infectious disease specialist) of HIV, AIDS and the denial thereof, with my long term interest in denial as a particular type of pseudoscience. Tara asked me to collaborate on the paper, in fact, after reading this article I had published for the NESS.

The point of the paper was not to rehash all the scientific arguments that establish HIV as the cause of AIDS or to rebut all the claims of HIV deniers. This has already been done quite thoroughly. Rather, it was to focus on the intellectual strategies employed by HIV deniers and how they are propagated in the modern internet era.

The original version of the paper we submitted, in fact, drew specific corollaries to creationism/intelligent design as evolution denial. However, the resulting paper was quite long and the PLoS editors asked us to remove the specific evolution denial references to both maintain a narrower focus for the paper and to shorten the length.
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Aug 20 2007

Perry DeAngelis: 8/22/1963 8/19/2007

Published by under Skepticism

Last night my dear friend Perry DeAngelis died after a long struggle with several serious chronic illnesses. I am still processing this personal loss and it is difficult for me write about it. Perry has been with me since the beginning of my skeptical career. He was the inspiration for the formation of the New England Skeptical Society and has served as its executive director. He is probably best known by readers of this blog as one of the skeptical rogues on the Skeptics Guide podcast – and I know that he has many fans who will be stunned and devastated by the loss of their favorite rogue.

Perry’s popularity was easy to understand – Perry had presence. The power of his personality went into everything he did, and every relationship he had. He made his opinions known and actually delighted in not sugar-coating them. Truth and reason were very important to him, so much so that he felt the truth had to be brutal. He would not diminish it with mere social nicety. This also means that when he expressed friendship, you knew he meant it.

As big as Perry’s presence was in our lives, that is the size of the hole he will leave by his absence.

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Aug 16 2007

Is NCCAM A Waste of Money?

I have long been a critic of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the main organ of the federal government that funds medical research. The NCCAM, originally the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM), was created by political fiat – forced through congress by advocates of CAM. It has since had a very uneasy relationship with the research community.

The acting director, Ruth L. Kirschstein, M.D., has recently submitted her request for the NCCAM 2008 budget – $121,699,000. The briefing is yet another fine piece of pro-CAM propaganda This one http://nccam.nih.gov/about/offices/od/directortestimony/0607.htm, but this is to be expected from someone who is asking Congress for more money. Government entities do have to constantly justify their own existence. So while we cannot expect Dr. Kirschstein to give an objective assessment, we can at least snipe at her from the science blogosphere.
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Aug 14 2007

Pseudoscience at MSN

This one comes from SGU listener, David Tyler (Thanks, David) who alerted me to this article posted on the MSN Health and Fitness website in the Women’s Health section. There is nothing special about this article, and that it why it worth dissecting – because it is all too typical.

The first paragraph says it all:

“These courageous pioneers faced extreme disability or death. But when they exhausted the best traditional treatments for their diseases, their hope endured.”

Almost everything in this statement (and the whole article) is flawed. Overall, it is a fine piece of pro-CAM propaganda – and that is how the whole article reads. There was no balance or even the pretense of objectivity, just manipulative cheerleading for an ideology.
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Aug 09 2007

Good Media, Bad Media, and the Vaccine-Autism Controversy

The prominent British magazine, the Observer, on July 8th published a front page story called “New Health Fears over Big Surge in Autism.” (At this time I cannot find an active link to the original article.) The article was a terrible piece of journalism. The headline is clear fear-mongering. The bottom-line message of the article was that the final results of a new study show that autism rates in the UK are 1 in 58 and that experts are concerned that there may be a link to the MMR vaccine.

It turns out that the study is not final – the results have yet to be analyzed. It further turns out that the director of the study, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, does not think there is a surge in autism (he agrees with the consensus opinion that apparent increases in autism are due to increased diagnostic efforts and an expanding definition) nor that there is any link to the MMR vaccine. One “expert” quoted in the study is not an expert but an activist, and the other was misrepresented and does not think there is a link.
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Aug 08 2007

Using Unproven Therapies

An SGU listener sent me the following question;

“My question is this: might it not be reasonable for a skeptical, rational-thinking individual to turn to an herbal remedy or other medication which has not made it through this rigorous vetting process, and which has only anecdotal or preliminary evidence supporting its use, if they are desperate for some treatment (any treatment), and if evidence-based medicine has nothing to offer them?”

The short answer is yes, but this deserves a detailed explanation. The piece that is missing from the question above (a piece that is missing from evidence-based medicine) is plausibility. Both evidence and scientific plausibility should determine the hierarchy of treatments that are offered by ethical practitioners.
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Aug 06 2007

It’s A Miracle

I admit I am always bugged when I hear a news report to the effect that, “Doctors say the patient’s recovery is nothing short of miraculous.” I don’t know if more commonly reporters are introducing the term “miracle,” if they are suckering the doctors they are interviewing into using or endorsing it, or if the doctors are using the term on their own. Either way, it inaccurate and fosters misunderstanding and superstition.

Just today I received the following question from a long time NESS member, Fred Cunningham:

“The other day someone stated in letter to some publication that one proof of God was the 65 miracles at Lourdes. I have heard of medical miracles such as spontaneous remission of advanced cancer, etc. Has anyone compared the probability of a miracle at Lourdes with the natural rate of such events. I doubt that it would be higher than the natural rate and suspect that it is lower. An awful lot of people go to the place so only 65 cures seems a pretty poor result. The term ‘medical miracle’ may be a bit fuzzy, but there must be some standard set by Lourdes that can be used elsewhere. Have you ever encountered a situation that might be considered a miracle? At the college I went to, the term ‘miracle’ was defined as an event that had probability of less than one in a thousand.”

The term “miracle” implies a supernatural event, one that cannot be explained scientifically or naturalistically. It also carries a definite religious connotation, more so than “supernatural” or “paranormal.” Sometimes the term is used to refer to a low probability event. This is an unfortunate alternate definition, and I discourage its use, because it carries the implication that low probability events are inherently difficult or impossible to explain and therefore may be, or are likely to be, supernatural.
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Aug 02 2007

Waking the Comatose

Published by under Neuroscience

A research team lead by Dr. Nicholas Schiff recently reported very encouraging results from their treatment of a 38 year old man who had been in a minimally conscious state (MCS) for six years. The patient was the victim of assault with severe brain injury. Two years ago he was given a new experimental treatment involving the implantation of electrodes for brain stimulation. In the past two years the patient has made a significant recovering, gaining the ability to eat, to perform simple tasks, and to engage in limited speech.

Stories of people “waking from coma” are always dramatic and emotional, and also need to be placed into a rather complex and evolving medical context. With coma, doctors walk the line cautiously between hope and realism. On the one side they risk the peril of giving false hope to grieving loved ones who need to accept the situation and cope with it. On the other they risk “therapeutic nihilism,” giving up too soon and relegating a patient prematurely to custodial care. Whenever such cases of remarkable recoveries come up there is much wringing of hands and even accusations of how this line was not treaded optimally.

In reality, doctors have a large body of statistical evidence behind them and can make very accurate predictions of who is likely to recover and who is not. But even with a high degree of accuracy, there are still going to be surprises.
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