Archive for the 'Science and Medicine' Category

Jul 26 2016

Marketing Conspiracies and Conspiracy Marketing

selling pseudoscience6_nA recent article by Spenser Davis details how Alex Jones uses his conspiracy mongering to sell conspiracy-themed supplements and products. This phenomenon goes way past Alex Jones. This meme from Destroyed by Science lists a few of the more popular websites that combine conspiracy theories and dubious supplements and other products.

In my opinion, Jones pales in comparison to Natural News. This online empire closely connects conspiracies about medicine and the government with specific alternative health products and supplements.

The marriage of conspiracy theories and selling snake oil and pseudoscience is an obvious one. My question, however, is in which direction does the arrow of causation go?

Springtime for Charlatans

Pseudoscience, scientific illiteracy in general, and conspiracy thinking are goldmines for the sellers of dubious products. Think about it – what better potential customer is there than someone who is willing to believe fantastical claims, does not require claims to be scientifically plausible, let alone supported by solid science, and is skeptical of the regulatory system designed to protect consumers from fraud?

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Jul 12 2016

Vitamin Supplements in Pregnancy

vitamins pregnancyFor a moment, imagine that you did not read the title of this article. What if I told you that a drug manufacturer was trying to get the public to use more of their drug, arguing it was necessary when the evidence shows that it isn’t? One trick that they use is to conduct studies in developing countries with a sicker population, and then apply that data to the developed world.

Even in the face of a thorough expert review of the published evidence, that concludes that the public is overusing their product and wasting money, the drug company argues that people still need their drug “just in case.”

Of course, in such a case, there would be cries of “Big Pharma” and the company would be rightly criticized for deceptive marketing and pushing their drug despite the published evidence.

For some reason, when the “drug” is a multivitamin, many people have a different reaction.

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Jul 11 2016

Former FDA Directors Criticize Supplement Regulation

fda1Recently six former directors of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) met in Aspen to talk about the FDA. According to reports much of their criticism for their former agency was focused on lax regulations for supplements.

I, too, have been a consistent critic of how supplement are regulated in the US and elsewhere. Currently the regulation is determines by the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA). This law passed while David Kessler was commissioner of the FDA, a law he vigorous opposed.

The Atlantic reports:

Jane Henney, commissioner from 1998 to 2001, recalled that the DSHEA law actually passed in the wake of the FDA “really trying to get their arms around stronger regulatory authority with dietary supplements.” This attempt at requiring supplement producers to guarantee the quality and safety of their product was countered by one of the most intense lobbying campaigns in history, in which TV commercials warned citizens that the government was coming for their vitamins. “I believe that the amount the Congress heard about this whole issue was greater than what they received about the Vietnam war,” she said. ‘I mean, it was tremendous.”

By all accounts this was a clear case of an industry lobbying the government in order to pass regulation friendly to industry and against the interests of the public. They were successful for a few reasons.

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Jul 08 2016

Should We Ban Homeopathy for Animals?

homeopathy-veterinarianYes. Yes we should.

This is an interesting idea I had not previously considered. Danny Chambers is a UK veterinarian from Devon who started a petition to ban the veterinary use of homeopathy in the UK. He has 1,000 signatures from UK vets so far (out of the 22,000 total UK vets).

Chambers said:

“We think vets these days should be offering 21st Century medicine,” he told BBC News.

“It’s been shown that homeopathy doesn’t work, so it probably shouldn’t be offered any more even if it is offered with good intentions.”

It is absolutely clear that homeopathy is worthless. This is among the most solid conclusions in all of medical science. First, there is no possible way according to our current understanding of physics, chemistry, and physiology that homeopathic potions can have any biological effect. It’s not just unknown – we have very good reasons to conclude that homeopathy cannot work (follow the link above for more details if you are unfamiliar with these reasons).

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Jul 05 2016

A Psychiatrist Falls for Exorcism

demon_1John Mack was a Harvard psychiatrist who famously fell for his patient’s own delusions. He came to believe that some of his patients were actually abducted by aliens. He was never able to provide any compelling evidence of this, just their testimony. Despite being a professional in mental health, he lacked the skeptical skill set necessary to see his errors.

We now have another very similar case – a Yale trained psychiatrist, Richard Gallagher, who has fallen for his patients delusions that they are possessed by demons. His editorial in the Washington Post is stunning for its utter lack of skeptical awareness.

I am sometimes questioned by well-meaning but confused scientists who do not understand the role that scientific skepticism plays in society. Isn’t science itself enough? Aren’t all scientists skeptical, or at least they should be?

What they miss is that skepticism is a real and deep intellectual skill set that works with science. It includes specialized knowledge that is not necessarily acquired during scientific training. There are frequent examples of this, and Gallagher’s article is now a prime example as well. He hits almost every true-believer trope there is. Ironically he has created a classic case study in the need for scientific skepticism.

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Jul 01 2016

TIME Gets It Wrong on Acupuncture

AcupunctureA recent Time Magazine article tries to answer the question: Does Acupunture Work? Their answer:

For certain conditions—particularly pain—there’s evidence it works. Exactly how it works is an open question.

This answer is wrong. Granted, this is a deceptively complex question and there is a tremendous amount of authoritative misinformation out there, so it is hard to blame a journalist for getting this one wrong.

Perhaps the biggest pitfall in science journalism is the problem of outlier or non-representative experts. A journalist talks to someone who has appropriate credentials, but whose opinion on a topic is either a minority opinion, or just one side of a legitimate controversy. The journalist then mistakes this one person’s opinion for the consensus scientific opinion.

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Jun 30 2016

Mummies and Cancer

egyptian-mummy-3Often there are several layers to my skeptical articles – there is the science story itself, and then there is the reporting of the science and the underlying neuropsychological factors that led to the disconnect between the two.

Here we have another classic example, surrounding the claim that cancer (and sometimes extended to other “modern” diseases) were rare in pre-industrial societies based on evidence from mummies.

The Narrative

The psychological and media story here is that people tend to organize their knowledge around thematic narratives (which I am doing right here – so meta). We like stories, especially stories that have meaning, and especially when that meaning is emotionally satisfying or surprising in some way.

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Jun 28 2016

Caffeine and Sleep

caffeine-chemical-structureCaffeine is a drug. I think most people know that, but perhaps they don’t really think about it. Caffeine is essentially a legal unregulated drug (much like alcohol and nicotine, but with no age restriction).

Coffee, tea, cola, and chocolate are all common sources of caffeine. Many people use this drug on a regular basis, often daily. They become addicted to this drug, and suffer withdrawal symptoms when they don’t take their regular dose. If caffeine were not readily available in commonly consumed food and drink, and say it were being introduced as a new drug, I wonder how it would be viewed and regulated.

A new study looks at the effects of caffeine on mental performance in those who are sleep deprived (a common application). Caffeine is a stimulant, it therefore does increase alertness and mental function. However, like all stimulants, its effects are a double-edged sword.

The study looked involved only 48 subjects, and had them restricted to 5 hours of sleep per night. Half were then given caffeine at 8 am and 12 noon while the other half were given placebos. For the first three days those taking caffeine performed better on mental tasks than those getting placebo. On days four and five, however, there was no difference.

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Jun 23 2016

Update on Use of Alternative Medicine

cam-pageThe CDC conducts an ongoing National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) to track various aspects of American’s use of health care. Since 2002 they have been tracking use of so-called alternative medicine services as part of the survey. The most recent results of this survey are available, including data through 2012.

The headline is that Americans spent $30.2 billion (out of pocket) on “alternative medicine” in 2012. That figure is alarming to anyone who cares about having a science-based standard in health care, and about consumers being scammed, but it is also highly misleading.

The core problem is that the category “alternative” (whether you call in complementary, integrative, functional, or whatever) is vague, poorly defined, and nonsensical. It is nothing but a marketing term meant to give an impression of hip acceptability to what was previously known simply (and more accurately) as health fraud.

To increase the apparent popularity of the false category, proponents have always inflated the numbers by including things that are not, by any reasonable definition, alternative. This survey is not exception.

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Jun 20 2016

Massachusetts Senate Passes Naturopathic Practice Act

quackOne of the biggest challenges with trying to hold the line against pseudoscience in medicine is that the proponents of pseudoscience are relentless. Since they have a large financial stake in the outcome, they dedicate the time and resources to lobbying state legislatures to get the laws they want.

They lobby for health care freedom laws to weaken the standard of care, to carve out exemptions for particular kinds of quackery (like chronic Lyme quackery), to mandate coverage of worthless treatments through insurance, they fight for licensure of dubious professions, and then to expand their scope of practice. If they fail, they are back the following year, and they have the money to support their efforts.

Often such laws are passed before we even know they exist. There are just too many legislatures to watch, and often the efforts are deliberately under the radar. Every time the side of science wins, the victory is temporary. Every time the side of pseudoscience wins, their victory is permanent, and they slowly ratchet up the laws favorable to quacks and erode the standard of care.

The organizations that should be dedicating time and resources to fighting the advance of pseudoscience in medicine (like the AMA and state professional organizations) usually don’t. They are either gun shy or ideologically soft on pseudoscience. They are being placated with propaganda about how such treatments are harmless, just the soft and fuzzy part of medicine. Nothing to worry about.  Continue Reading »

78 responses so far

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