Archive for the 'Science and Medicine' Category

Apr 18 2014

OMG – The Chemicalz

The Foodbabe is at it again – well, she never stopped being at it. She is apparently trying to make a career out of a combination of the naturalistic fallacy and chemical illiteracy.

I wrote previously about her campaign to scaremonger about completely safe ingredients in food. She called azodicarbonamide, an ingredient to make bread fluffier, the yoga mat chemical because it also has a variety of industrial uses, including making yoga mats. Soy also has a variety of uses, including making yoga mats.

She successfully marshaled her scientific illiteracy to pressure Subway into removing the ingredient from their bread.

Her modus operandi is simple – look at ingredient lists for names that sound like chemicals or are difficult to pronounce, bypass any scientific analysis or evidence and go straight to hyperbolic fearmongering. Then just hope that companies cave in order to avoid negative press before anyone can ask too many questions.

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Apr 07 2014

Crowdfunding Pseudoscience

Indiegogo is rapidly earning a reputation for not caring whether or not they fund pure pseudoscience. This, in my opinion, is a bad business model, not to mention morally dubious.

I wrote previously about an Indiegogo campaign to fund a free energy device – a “home quantum energy generator.”  Indiegogo claims to have a process to weed out fraud from their campaigns, but this one apparently slipped through their process. When I e-mailed Indiegogo to question them about this campaign, I received nothing but a generic response.

Now pandodaily has been covering a new Indiegogo campaign for a “miracle” device – the GoBe by Healbe. The company claims on their Indiegogo page:

GoBe is the only way to automatically measure calorie intake—through your skin. Simply wear it to see calories consumed and burned, activity, hydration, sleep, stress levels, and more, delivered effortlessly to your smartphone.

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Apr 01 2014

Food Dyes and ADHD

There has been a recent increase in attention paid to the old question about food dyes and behavior in children. The idea that food coloring causes hyperactivity in children started with Ben Feingold in the 1970s. He popularized his “Feingold diet” for ADHD, which is still being promoted by some today.

Initial research showed a possible connection between certain food dyes, especially synthetic dyes, and hyperactive behavior in children. However, the next 20 years produced better controlled studies that did not show the alleged effect. It seemed like just another case of preliminary positive evidence that did not hold up to later more rigorous replication. Serious scientific interest in the question waned with this negative data.

However, recent popular interest in such issues has caused another wave of research. Dr. Oz’s website, for example, discusses the issue, giving it credence. Unfortunately, while it has renewed interest in the food dye question, the more recent research has not definitively answered the core question.

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Mar 31 2014

Acupuncture – Science as Promotion

Almost weekly I see a new press release about an acupuncture study claiming benefits. While I have written extensively about acupuncture previously, and will continue to cover the topic, I can’t cover every little study that comes out. Most of the studies are utterly useless – they contain no control group, they are effectively pilot studies, they are of “electroacupuncture” (which is really just transdermal electrical nerve stimulation pretending to be acupuncture), or they are looking at some dubious biomarker rather than objective clinical outcomes.

Occasionally, however, an acupuncture study deserves a mention, in this case because it is particularly abusive.

Rachael Dunlop, my skeptical colleague from down under, sent me a report of an acupuncture study performed in Melbourne. News outlets are reporting the study at face value, in typical gushing terms, stating that “acupuncture is just as effective as drugs in treating back pain and migraine.”

It seems to me that this is the actual purpose of such studies – to produce positive news coverage. They are not designed to actually answer the question of efficacy.

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Mar 27 2014

When Does Autism Begin?

One common feature of unscientific belief systems is that they do not change in the face of new evidence. They tend to evolve like cultural beliefs or marketing campaigns, but do not appear to be affected by scientific evidence in any meaningful way.

One great example of this is the idea the autism is linked to vaccines (to be clear up front, it isn’t) This idea had a few important factors in its origin. The first was simply the existing anti-vaccine movement searching for anything to blame on vaccines. The second, and perhaps decisive, factor was the now discredited and withdrawn study by Andrew Wakefield linking autism to the MMR vaccine.

Even as the MMR claim was dying, the anti-vaccine community was moving onto the next target – mercury (specifically the preservative Thimerosal). This was the target of the book Evidence of Harm by David Kirby. This also created common cause between the anti-vaccine movement, and separate “mercury militia” blaming many modern ills on mercury, and some environmentalists (most prominently Robert Kennedy Jr.) who are keen to blame medical problems on any environmental exposure, including mercury and/or vaccines.

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Mar 24 2014

Homeopathic Products Recalled for Containing Actual Drugs

Homeopathy is bunk. It is 100% pure unadulterated pseudoscience. That is – unless it is adulterated with actual working medicine.

The FDA recently put out a safety alert warning the public that certain homeopathic products may contain measurable amount of penicillin, enough to cause an allergic reaction in those who are sensitive:

Terra-Medica, Inc. is voluntarily recalling 56 lots of Pleo-FORT, Pleo-QUENT, Pleo-NOT, Pleo-STOLO, Pleo-NOTA-QUENT, and Pleo-EX homeopathic drug products in liquid, tablet, capsule, ointment, and suppository forms to the consumer level. FDA has determined that these products have the potential to contain penicillin or derivatives of penicillin, which may be produced during the fermentation process. In patients who are allergic to beta-lactam antibiotics, even at low levels, exposure to penicillin can result in a range of allergic reactions from mild rashes to severe and life-threatening anaphylactic reactions. See the press release for a complete listing of products affected by this recall.

One has to wonder if the company was aware that their product contained penicillin.  That’s a pretty good scam. In the US homeopathic products do not require testing or any FDA approval process. They are essentially pre-approved by law. While this is a shameful scam, at least homeopathic remedies are completely inactive – nothing but water placed on sugar pills. However, some specific products have been found to have functional levels of active ingredients, so they are not truly homeopathic. For example, some Zicam products were found to contain active levels of zinc, and was linked to anosmia (a loss of smell) in some cases.

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Mar 20 2014

Electrical Nerve Stimulation for Migraine

The recent announcement that the FDA has approved the first medical device for the prevention of migraines has already led to a flood of patient questions about the device. Migraines are a type of primary headache (meaning that headaches are the disorder, not a symptom of another underlying problem), and there are many patients who have severe migraine, frequent even daily migraines, and/or migraines that are refractory to current treatment methods. Such patients are considered an “unmet medical need” and therefore any new options are very welcome.

The device does trigger some warning bells for skeptics, however, so it would be helpful to sort through the evidence and plausibility of the claims. There are so many pseudoscientific medical devices on the market it can be difficult to separate the minority of legitimate treatments from the ocean of worthless nonsense.

The specific device that was recently approved by the FDA is the Cefaly. The device is worn on the forehead, and does have cool science-fictiony look to it. You can definitely see someone wearing this on the bridge of the Enterprise. It is battery operated and delivers small electrical shocks to the middle of the forehead above the eyes. This is meant to stimulate trigeminal nerve endings. The trigeminal nerve is involved in the migraine phenomenon, and there is good reason to think that inhibiting trigeminal activity can make it less likely for a migraine attack to be trigger – raise the threshold at which a migraine headache occurs.

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Mar 18 2014

Australian Anti-Vaccination Group Loses Charity Status

The group previously known as the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN) has been getting a lot of heat recently, in large part thanks to the Australian Skeptics who have been exposing their dangerous misinformation. The AVN is an anti-vaccination group that actively campaigns against vaccination. They are (or at least were until recently) also a registered charity, which means they can take tax-deductible donations.

The Australian Skeptics pointed out that the name of the AVN is misleading, as it might make the public think they are giving fair and balanced information about vaccines. In reality the information they dispense amounts to anti-vaccine propaganda.

Recently the New South Wales Department of Fair Trading ruled that the AVN is a misleading name, and ordered the group to change their name. That’s the good new. The bad news is that they decided to change their name to the Australian Vaccination Skeptics Network.

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Mar 07 2014

Health of Vaccinated vs Unvaccinated

One of the new realities of social media is that old news can be dredged up and spread around. In this way old memes can keep coming back to life like the Terminator, and we have to kill them over and over again.

The antivaccine crowd, for example, has their narrative of conspiracy and evil and their cherry-picked factoids to support their narrative. In their world vaccines don’t work and are all bad all the time, and only corporate evil and public malfeasance can support them. They scour the internet for anything to support their beliefs, and then splash it around as if it’s news.

In this case, they have resurrected a terrible survey from 1992. The survey was conducted in New Zealand by the Immunization Awareness Society. Unsurprisingly, when this anti-vaccine group surveyed their own anti-vaccine members, they found a higher incidence of disease among vaccinated children compared to unvaccinated children.

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Mar 06 2014

Raising Shields Against HIV

I have argued that HIV treatment is one of the shining examples of the success of reductionist modern medicine. In three decades we went from knowing nothing about a new disease that was almost universally fatal over a few years, to having an extensive understanding of the disease and reducing it to a manageable chronic illness. We still have not created an effective vaccine, nor have we figured out how to cure the disease entirely, but those are both active research programs with promising results.

Recent developments show how sophisticated our technology is becoming. Researchers just published a safety study in the NEJM in which they took the white cells from patients with HIV, treated them to make them resistant to the virus, and then transfused them back into the patients. There was one serious infusion reaction, but otherwise the procedure seemed safe.

HIV enters T-cells (part of the immune system) by attaching to a coreceptor called CCR5. There are rare individuals who have a mutation in the CCR5 gene which makes them resistant to HIV, demonstrating how important the receptor is to the life cycle of HIV. Researchers at the Clinical Cell and Vaccine Production Facility at the University of Pennsylvania used used a zinc-finger nuclease (ZFN) to render the CCR5 gene permanently dysfunctional in the T-cells taken from the patients, and then transfused the cells (about 10 billion of them) back into the patients.

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