Archive for the 'Science and Medicine' Category

Oct 30 2015


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Journalists frustrate me. Whenever they cover a topic about which I have a fair degree of knowledge, or even expertise, they seem to do a generally poor job. There are excellent journalists out there, but the average mediocre journalist tends to fall for the fallacy of false balance, indulge in hype and sensationalism, overly rely on individual experts who may have quirky opinions, and often fail to put topics into a proper context.

These failings are exacerbated whenever the topic at issue requires critical thinking and a high degree of skepticism.

Even generally high quality news outlets, like NPR, tend to fail when they deal with topics which require both expertise and skepticism, such as alternative medicine. A recent episode of Marketplace with Colin McEnroe is an excellent example of how a generally reasonable journalist can completely fail when dealing with such topics.

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32 responses so far

Oct 29 2015

Superbrain Yoga is BS

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Here is the latest fad to make you smarter with one easy trick – Superbrain Yoga. The technique is simple (and worthless, but we’ll get to that).

All you have to do is touch your left hand to your right earlobe, your right hand to your left earlobe, take a deep breath, and do a squat. Who knew it could be so easy to improve your brain function. There are a few more details, helpfully shared by Parenting Special Needs magazine:

– Connect your tongue to your palate.
– Face East
– The left arm must be inside and the right arm must be outside (over the left arm).
– Inhale while squatting down and exhale while standing up.
– You thumbs should be touching the front part of your earlobes, index fingers behind the earlobes.
– Perform the exercise 14-21 times, once or twice a day.

Facing East is very important, because magic.

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6 responses so far

Oct 16 2015

NZ Pharmacists Want to Sell Snakeoil

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A recent proposed change to the New Zealand code of conduct for pharmacists provides yet more evidence for my primary criticism of the alternative medicine phenomenon (CAM), that it is explicitly about creating a double standard, while convincing the public that it isn’t. What was considered health fraud 50 years ago has been transformed through deception and clever marketing (facilitated by a willful media and naive regulators and professionals) into an “alternative” that should be “integrated” into science-based health care.

Broadly speaking, there are systems in place to ensure a reasonable standard of safety and effectiveness for medical products and practices. These standards are based upon evidence, as they should be. There have always been operating in the fringes, however, those who are somewhere on the spectrum from true believers to con-artists who want to sell their treatments despite a lack of evidence.

Despite having an NIH office dedicated to finding evidence to support such treatments, and despite raking in literally billions of dollars which could be used to fund research, for the most part the evidence never materialized. Homeopathy, acupuncture, and energy healing continue to lack evidence of efficacy.

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20 responses so far

Oct 13 2015

The Nobel and Chinese Medicine

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The 2015 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine went to three scientists who discovered treatments for parasites. Tu Youyou shared half the prize for her discovery of artemisinin, an effective drug against malaria.

Youyou is a Chinese researcher and, as has been widely reported, she relied on traditional Chinese texts to search for candidate herbs to test for activity against malaria. This has sparked a public debate about what lessons we can derive from this fact. Promoters of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) argue that is shows the value of TCM. Amazingly (revealing their intellectual dishonesty) Naturopaths crowed that this was a vindication of naturopathic medicine.

Scott Gavura over at Science-Based Medicine gives a great analysis of what Youyou’s work really means. Meanwhile the New York Times struggles to give a “false balance” approach to the issue. There are a few interesting points worth highlighting.

The story itself is uncontroversial. Youyou set out specifically to find a drug that would be effective against malaria, which remains a serious medical problem for much of the world. Existing drugs, quinine and chloroquine, were developing resistance, and a replacement was needed. Her starting point was TCM texts, looking for any natural product that was used to treat fever. She came up with 2000 candidates.

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21 responses so far

Oct 08 2015

CRISPR and a Hypoallergenic Peanut

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Anyone with a child in school is probably aware of the need for peanut free zones. You get a notice when your child returns from school on the first day stating that at least one child in their class has a peanut allergy, which means nothing with peanuts gets sent to school for your child’s lunch. If you are a parent of a child with a peanut allergy you understand how important and serious this is – your child is literally one errant Snickers bar away from death.

The general consensus is that food allergies have been on the rise in developed countries, although studies show a wide range of estimates based upon study techniques. A US review found the prevalence of self-reported peanut allergies ranged from 0-2%. A European review found the average estimate to be 2.2% – around 2% is usually the figure quoted. In a direct challenge study, at age 4, 1.1% of the 1218 children were sensitized to peanuts, and 0.5% had had an allergic reaction to peanuts. That means there are millions of people with peanut allergies.

So far there is no cure for the allergies themselves. Acute attacks can be treated with epinephrine, but there are cases of children dying (through anaphylaxis) even after multiple shots. The only real treatment is to obsessively avoid contact with the food in question. Peanuts, tree nuts, and shellfish are the foods most likely to cause anaphylaxis.

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18 responses so far

Oct 06 2015

The Diabetes Treatment Your Doctor Won’t Tell You About

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Because it’s bogus.

It’s unfortunate that it’s so easy to convince many people that there is a vast medical conspiracy, and that a few brave mavericks are willing to bring you “the truth.” I was recently asked to look at this website, claiming that doctors who treat diabetes have all been lying to their patients and the world. They promise to reveal the secret of curing diabetes, but the long video, and the endless website, is all just one long commercial hyping their book which you can get for the “bargain basement reduced price of just $77 for the digital copy or $94.39 for the paperback copy with free worldwide shipping.”

The sales pitch is framed as an “Urgent diabetes health bulletin from the doctors at the International Council for Truth in Medicine.” (Quackwatch lists the ICTM as a “questionable organization.”) To backup their authority they claim they are in partnership with “Natural News.” Given that Natural News is, in my opinion, the most notorious crank, conspiracy mongering, health misinformation site on the web, that is all you need to know about the ICTM to make an informed judgement.

Their narrative is depressingly typical, and not even imaginative. The tropes are so common they are worth addressing in detail.

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12 responses so far

Sep 18 2015

Lobbying for Quackery

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The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians is lobbying Congress to pay naturopaths to treat vetarans, specifically for chronic pain. This, of course, goes beyond “health care freedom” (which itself is dubious) and is asking for taxpayer dollars to be spent on unproven and pseudoscientific treatments.

The open letter does not mention specific treatments that naturopaths would offer.  Instead it fearmongers about pharmacological treatments for pain. It is certainly true that opiates are a double-edged sword. They are powerful pain killers, but long term use causes dependence, tolerance, and may complicate pain management. Science-based physicians are well aware of this, and use a variety of approaches to minimize opiate use for chronic pain.

The letter claims that naturopaths have unique “natural” therapies that can effectively treat pain. This is one of the core myths of “alternative” medicine – if there were a treatment that objectively worked, it would be incorporated into mainstream medicine.

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84 responses so far

Sep 17 2015

Trump on Vaccines

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I generally don’t cover purely political issues on this blog, but the second Republican primary debate from last night ventured into the area of vaccines and autism. Donald Trump has said in the past that he thinks the current “epidemic” of autism is caused by vaccines. He was challenged on this position during the debate, and face palms ensued.

Orac, perhaps presciently, gave a good recap of Trump’s anti-vaccine nonsense just yesterday. In 2007 Trump said:

“When I was growing up, autism wasn’t really a factor,” Trump said. “And now all of a sudden, it’s an epidemic. Everybody has their theory. My theory, and I study it because I have young children, my theory is the shots. We’ve giving these massive injections at one time, and I really think it does something to the children.”

That is pretty much exactly what Trump said during the second debate, almost word-for-word. This demonstrates several things about Trump, in my opinion. First, he feels comfortable forming his own opinions, based on nothing but casual observation and anecdote, even on complex scientific issues, without adequate information. The fact that the scientific community has come to an opposite opinion does not even seem to give him pause. Finally, he has learned exactly nothing on this issue over the last 8 years – nothing. He has added no depth or nuance to his position, let alone correcting his factual errors.

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23 responses so far

Sep 14 2015

Is Fibromyalgia Real?

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The question of whether or not fibromyalgia is a real disease is deceptively complex. The answer, therefore, is not a simple yes or no. A thorough answer requires some background, which makes it challenging to discuss any issue related to fibromyalgia without going on a long tangent about its status as a diagnosis.

What’s In a Name?

Before we get to fibromyalgia specifically, I want to review how diagnostic labels are used in medicine. Health care providers, researchers, and also insurance companies and regulators need a common language to refer to what patients have. As our understanding of disease is incomplete, and also disease entities are often complex and fuzzy around the edges, a coherent and thorough diagnostic system is likewise complex.

For simplicity, however, we can divide diagnostic entities into two broad types. First there are discrete diseases, which are pathophysiological entities. This is a specific problem with a specific tissue or physiological process in the body. A disease diagnosis may refer to a specific genetic mutation, for example, or an alteration in a physiological parameter.

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100 responses so far

Sep 01 2015

Sleep and Health

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Getting sufficient sleep is very important to overall health. It is an often overlooked aspect of health. I frequently have patients with multiple complaints who inform me, only when asked, that they have terrible sleep. They did not make the connection between their sleep and their symptoms, however.

Good sleep has been tied to longevity. A review of studies found that getting <6 hours of sleep on average per night was associated with a 12% increased risk of death. The same review found that getting >9 hours of sleep a night was associated with a 30% increased risk of death.

It is difficult to determine cause and effects with these studies. Sleep may simply be a marker for other health variables. People who sleep over 9 hours, for example, may do so because they are unhealthy for other reasons.

Even still, it is plausible that lack of sleep is stressful to the system, especially brain function, and therefore sleep disorders should be identified and treated. Don’t overlook the importance of good sleep.

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19 responses so far

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