Archive for the 'Science and Medicine' Category

Aug 11 2017

Alex Jones – Snake Oil Salesman

Patent-medicine5If Alex Jones lived 150 years ago he would have traveled around with a horse-drawn wagon selling his patent medicine with a medicine show featuring amazing stories about hacking his way through the jungle to find cures and sitting down with Indian medicine-men to learn their secrets.

Today he has his own TV show where he tells amazing stories of conspiracies in order to sell dubious supplements.

I have to admit, Jones had me fooled for a while. I was only paying slight attention to the nonsense he spewed on InfoWars, enough to know that he was a raving conspiracy theorist. I paid closer attention when he claimed that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a false flag operation. Anyone as popular and flamboyant as Jones is likely supplementing their true belief with showmanship. I now, however, think it’s more likely that Jones is pure showmanship.

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Aug 04 2017

Lectin – The New Food Bogeyman

red-kidney-beans-on-a-wooden-tableDo you want to get rich on the internet? Here is a simple formula. First, purge yourself of any ethics or scruples you may have. Suppress any urge for intellectual honesty.

Next, pretend you are an expert. Actual expertise is not necessary. In fact, you don’t even need a basic 5th grade level of knowledge. There are titles you can grant yourself to easily accomplish this step: life coach, nutritionist, health ranger, food chick, whatever.

Now you are almost there. All you have to do is create a demand for some useless snake oil that you can sell online for a ridiculous markup. At this point you might be thinking – why would anyone buy my useless snake oil? It’s actually a lot easier than you think, and marketers have been using some version of this strategy since the barter system was invented. In a word – fear.

Just make your marks (I mean customers) afraid of something and then sell them the solution. It’s easier than you might think, everything you need is already on the internet. Recently John Oliver showed how Alex Jones uses crazy conspiracy theories to stoke fear and rage in his audience then sell them water filters and supplements as a solution. He is also selling a conspiracy culture and convinces his gullible audience that they need to support him so that he can get the truth out there. Jones can even admit it’s all an act and it doesn’t matter, because he successfully created an environment in which facts and truth are whatever he says they are – a marketer’s dream.

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Aug 01 2017

Snake Oil 1970s Style

laetrileOn a recent post I repeated my long challenge to name any alternative medicine treatment that has been rejected by CAM proponents because of evidence of lack of efficacy. I am not aware of any. It doesn’t seem to ever happen – because alternative medicine is disconnected from evidence and reality.

As if to make my point, I came across this article on Buzzfeed about laetrile – yeah, laetrile. For those of you old enough to remember, laetrile is a fake cancer cure that was already being made fun of on Saturday Night Live in the 1970s (the original cast). I haven’t heard of this one for a while, but apparently it is making a comeback.

The story of laetrile, in addition to demonstrating yet again that snake oil peddlers are con artists, also showcases how the world has changed in the last forty years when it comes to health fraud (hint – not for the better). Continue Reading »

9 responses so far

Jul 28 2017

Should You Complete That Course of Antibiotics?

antibiotic-resistanceAs with most things, the answer is more complicated than it may at first seem.

Up to now the official answer was simple – always finish prescribed courses of antibiotics. Stopping early, it was argued, could increase the risk of antibiotic resistance. The idea is that bacteria which are a little resistant to the antibiotic will survive longer, and if they are not wiped out by completing the course, the partially resistant bugs will then reproduce, with random mutations leading to greater resistance. The antibiotics are essentially a selective pressure leading to resistance.

This makes sense, and is almost certainly true with certain chronic infections, such as tuberculosis.

A new review, however, suggests that we cannot apply this rule simplistically to all infections. It depends on the type of bacteria involved.

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Jul 27 2017

Computer-Assisted Diagnosis

It is very disheartening for me to listen to the political discussions surrounding health care. I can’t help thinking that the proposed changes amount to rearranging the furniture on the deck of the Titanic.

This is not to say that there aren’t important policy decisions at stake. It is important that everyone has health coverage, as a matter of efficiency and just compassion. However, the health care debate is often framed as an attempt to reduce health care costs. This is where the rearranging the deck furniture metaphor is apt.

There are some minor efficiencies to be gained in how we pay for health care, but that is not going to touch the real driver of rising health care costs – technology. Of course there are multiple factors, but the main one is the fact that we have the technology to deliver more care and more expensive care, and to keep people alive longer. This is combined with a culture that demands expensive care. We want MRI scans for every ailment, and the most aggressive procedures to keep our loved ones going for as long as possible.

More care and higher tech care costs more money.

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25 responses so far

Jul 21 2017

Homeopathy Takes a Hit in the UK and Australia

dilutionI have long considered homeopathy to be the softest of targets for skeptics, especially in the area of alternative medicine. Homeopathy is 100% pure nonsense. It is a pre-scientific magical form of medicine that has no legitimate place in the modern world.

Further, homeopathy is particularly vulnerable because most people do not know how silly it is. They think it is natural or herbal medicine, but it’s not. Homeopathy involves taking fanciful treatments and then diluting them out of existence, based on the notion that the essence of the substance will be left behind and magically cure whatever ails you.

This means that simply educating the public about what homeopathy actually is can be an effective way to reduce its popularity. Knowledge is not sufficient, however, because there is no limit to what people are capable of believing. Nonsense is rarely eradicated entirely, but we can certainly restrict it to the fringe where it belongs.

Homeopathy in Australia

In 2015 the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) concluding that homeopathic treatments were worthless, and that the scientific evidence has not shown that they work for any single indication.

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Jul 17 2017

The Return of Dr. Gunter

goop screen-shot-2017-07-14-at-10-31-34-amIn my last post I discussed how Paltrow and her people over at goop launched a personal attack against Dr. Jen Gunter, an OB/GYN blogger who has taken the time to point out a lot of the nonsense that goop sells. Goop has been criticized by many science bloggers and mainstream outlets for fearmongering to women in order to sell dubious products.

For some reason “team goop” did not go after Science-Based Medicine, or Tim Caulfield, or Steven Colbert – they went after one humble medical science blogger. This is particularly ironic because Gunter’s blogging career is all about empowering women with science-based information, about advocating for women’s health and autonomy. I can only suppose that goop went after her because they felt particularly stung by her on-target criticism, or perhaps they thought she was an easy target for bullying.

The irony is thickened by including a response from Dr. Steven Gundry, who takes a particularly condescending tone and actually earns the often overused description of “mansplaining.”

The result was the typical litany of alternative medicine tropes, bad logic, and bad science, wrapped in a personal attack against Gunter. But they did leave themselves wide open for poking some additional fun at them, in order to point out how intellectually vacuous and dishonest they are. Dr. Gunter just drove a Mack truck through that opening.

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Jul 14 2017

Goop Strikes Back

goop-kimmelGwyneth Paltrow has been using her celebrity to promote a “lifestyle brand” she calls “Goop.” The site recommends all sorts of medical nonsense, like detox, earthing, putting stuff up your vagina, and the usual scaremongering about “toxins” or whatever. Recently I wrote about Goop’s promotion of magical stickers that are alleged to align and balance your vibrations.

Deservedly she has received push back from science communicators who are trying to raise the level of scientific literacy and critical thinking in the world. The concern is that she is spreading misinformation and pseudoscience, which is increasingly harmful in our modern technological world.

One highly vocal critic has been Dr. Jen Gunter, an OB who is particularly offended by the fact that Paltrow wraps her pseudoscientific misinformation in “female empowerment.” I’m sorry, but taking advantage of women by scaring them and selling them nonsense is not empowering – it’s exploitation. Apparently Goop has been stung by this criticism, and decided to hit back. The results are predictably awful, but do provide an opportunity to deconstruct some popular anti-intellectual nonsense.

“Team goop” begins:

As goop has grown, so has the attention we receive. We consistently find ourselves to be of interest to many—and for that, we are grateful—but we also find that there are third parties who critique goop to leverage that interest and bring attention to themselves.

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13 responses so far

Jul 13 2017

The Fragility of Truth

homeopathy5There is a lot to be horrified about regarding the alternative medicine (CAM) industry. The industry largely trades in fraud and misinformation at the expense of the public’s health. But I often find myself most dismayed by what the industry says about the relationship between humans and reality.

I have discussed over the years the many ways, mostly revealed through psychological research, but also with many specific examples, in which people build their narratives about the world and how these narratives trump reality and often even basic logic. If you ever doubt the ability of people to erect a false narrative and worship it as truth, remember that there are people who believe, in the 21st century, that the Earth is flat.

Humans, however, also have science, philosophy, logic, and reason. We have managed, especially in the last few centuries, to collectively crawl out of a deep pit of self-deception and slowly accumulate real knowledge about the universe and how it works. As a species we have this weird dual nature, at times rigorously rational, and at others hopelessly gullible and ideological.

What is perhaps most concerning about the CAM phenomenon is what it tells us about the balance between reason and deception. Sitting on top of the last few centuries of scientific progress, it certainly seems like science and reason are winning. But perhaps this vantage point gives us a biased perspective. Over this period we have largely shifted from a pre-scientific view of the world to a scientific one. Science then showcased its power by picking a lot of the low-hanging fruit – answering the easiest questions to answer.

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214 responses so far

Jun 20 2017

Acupuncture in the ED

acupuncture3Acupuncture still doesn’t work. We have thousands of studies collectively showing that it does not matter where you stick the needles or even if you stick the needles. Acupuncture is an elaborate placebo, and nothing else. It is not based on any sound scientific principles or knowledge about anatomy or neurophysiology. It is as much a scientific dead end as homeopathy, the ether, phrenology, and the four humors.

This, of course, creates a dilemma for acupuncture proponents. For a few decades they have been crying for scientific study of what they are sure (from their own anecdotal experience and philosophy) must work, but as the science came in it showed that their favorite treatment did not work. For a while you can get away with criticizing the studies – they are not doing it right. But then acupuncturists design and carry out more and more rigorous studies, accounting for all their criticisms, and acupuncture still doesn’t work.

We are definitely way past the point (thousands of studies over several decades) to conclude that acupuncture is a lost cause. Any intellectually honest scientist at this point would have to conclude they were wrong, and move on. Because this is medicine, and not just abstract science, there is also an ethical component. I could argue that it is now unethical to stick acupuncture needles into patients because we have sufficient evidence to conclude doing so is of zero benefit, and is also invasive and carries some risk.

That, of course, is not what happened. Instead acupuncturists ignored the research, or continued to nitpick and deny. Or they just cherry pick the studies that show what they want (even if they have to misinterpret them). But still they want to sell acupuncture as a modern science-based treatment, but pesky high quality studies keep getting in the way.

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