Skeptical Raptor's Blog hunting pseudoscience in the internet jungle

Alternative medicine

Amy Farrah Fowler is going to talk to teachers about science

Next week, the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), an organization devoted “to promoting excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all,” is having their annual meeting in Boston, MA. Normally, I would not write much about this group, because they do good stuff for science, and I tend to focus on those individuals and groups that do bad stuff for science. 

One of the guest speakers at this year’s NSTA conference is Mayim Bialik, who plays a neuroscientist on CBS-TV’s The Big Bang Theory (TBBT). In case you’re not a fan of the show, it is one of the better written shows on TV (a moderate standard, indeed). It follows the lives of four main male characters, who are all researchers at the California Institute of Technology, Cal Tech, one of the premier science institutions in the USA. The show continues to make obscure, but funny, references to scientific ideas, Star Trek, comics, and just about anything geeky. 

Bialik plays not only a neuroscientist by the name of Amy Farrah Fowler, but the girlfriend (kind of, sort of, who knows) of one the main characters, Dr. Sheldon Cooper, a quirky theoretical physicist. But what is particularly amazing is that Bialik actually does have a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from UCLA (as does the famous atheist and science philosopher, Sam Harris), and wrote her doctoral dissertation about a rare genetic disease, Prader-Willi Syndrome, which manifests itself with various neurological and neuromuscular deficits. Frankly, it’s brilliant work.
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Do you believe in treating cancer with alternative medicine?

Recently, I saw a question on Quora, in which the author asked, “Do you believe in treating cancer with natural regimens?” In a landslide, the best answer, which is chosen by the readers, was one written by a UCLA medical school graduate and Fellow in Oncology at Stanford University School of Medicine, Dr. David Chan. In other words, Dr. Chan is a cancer expert who actually spent 10-12 years of his life gaining an education in treating cancers (instead of like 30 minutes Googling junk medicine).
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Treating depression with acupuncture-evidence is lacking

hellraiser-pinheadLet’s start out with a basic point–acupuncture does not work. For anything in medicine. And because there is a small, but significant, risk associated with the “procedure,” the risk to benefit ratio is huge (if not infinity, since there is no benefit). 

Just in case you don’t believe me, Steven Novella, MD, of the Science Based Medicine blog, clarifies why acupuncture does not work:

Clinical research can never prove that an intervention has an effect size of zero. Rather, clinical research assumes the null hypothesis, that the treatment does not work, and the burden of proof lies with demonstrating adequate evidence to reject the null hypothesis. So, when being technical, researchers will conclude that a negative study “fails to reject the null hypothesis.”

Further, negative studies do not demonstrate an effect size of zero, but rather that any possible effect is likely to be smaller than the power of existing research to detect. The greater the number and power of such studies, however, the closer this remaining possible effect size gets to zero. At some point the remaining possible effect becomes clinically insignificant.

In other words, clinical research may not be able to detect the difference between zero effect and a tiny effect, but at some point it becomes irrelevant.
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Ginkgo biloba and the brain–myth vs. science

ginkgo-health-benefits-bullshitGinkgo biloba is actually an interesting plant because it has been relatively unchanged for nearly 270 million years. It is considered a living fossil, an informal term used for species like G. biloba that appear to be the same as a species otherwise only known from fossils and which has no close living relatives. The genus Ginkgo was fairly widely distributed until about 100 million years ago. It slowly disappeared from the fossil record until it was found only in one small part of China about 5 million years ago, where it is found today.  

The tree is native to China and is known to have been widely cultivated early in human history. It is used as a food source by various Asian cultures, with the Chinese eating the meaty gametophytes and the Japanese the whole seed. Unfortunately, the seed also contains a chemical, 4′-O-methylpyridoxine, that can be poisonous if consumed in a sufficiently large enough quantity. 
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Supplements to treat the common cold–myth vs science

cold-cureIt’s getting colder outside, and if you go into any pharmacy, grocery store, chemist, or superstore, you will find literally a dozen or more homeopathic, herbal, or other unproven lotions and potions to prevent or treat the common cold, or rhinovirus. These supplements are a significant part of the annual US$108 billion dollar supplement/nutraceutical industry. 

These alternative medicine (so named because there is no scientific evidence supporting their efficacy, let alone safety) products make claims that are so wonderful, many people take them. Then they themselves tell their friends how fast they got rid of their cold. Or that their cold wasn’t as bad after taking the supplement.

The problem is that determine the length and severity of the course of the common cold is entirely subjective. Since the disease is rather mild with few serious complications, it’s hard to determine when it exactly stopped and started, and how bad it was.  The common cold tends to resolve itself without external help, but there really isn’t much you can do to make your immune system attack that cold faster.

 

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How pseudoscience tries to fool you

Pseudoscience-smellsI always get suspicious when someone makes an argument with the statement of “it’s been proven to work”, “the link is proven”, or, alternatively, they state some negative about scientifically supported therapies. Typically, I hear these kinds of statements from the pseudoscience pushing crowd. For example, real science has debunked the “there is a proven link between vaccines and autism,” a common and popular pseudoscientific belief.  Or that most alternative medicine (CAM) therapies work based on numerous logical fallacies that suspends reason, and accepts “belief” in the therapy, something that evidence-based medicine just doesn’t do.

So, I decided to put together a rather substantial treatise on science vs. pseudoscience. We’ll explore what exactly makes an idea scientific (and spoiler alert, it isn’t magic), and contrary to real science, what makes an idea “pseudoscientific.” So sit down, grab your favorite reading beverage, because this isn’t going to be a quick internet meme. I intend to show you exactly how pseudoscience, whether it’s creationism, vaccine denialism, alternative medicine, or whatever you want to debunk, lies. Yes, lies.
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Herbal supplements–unproven, unregulated, unsafe

One of the more ironic memes on the internet is how pharmaceutical companies make so much money (and they do), with the false conclusion that somehow all that money means that they’re not really interested in providing drugs that are safe and efficacious. Then, those same memes will claim that “natural supplements” are healthier and better, while they ignore the profit motive of supplement pushers (henceforth called Big Herbal).

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), an abomination that pushes fraudulent science, reported that in 2007, US adults spent $33.9 billion on visits to complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) providers and for purchases of CAM products, classes, and materials. About $14.8 billion of that spending was on non-vitamin, non-mineral, natural products, such as fish oil, glucosamine (no evidence of effectiveness), and Echinacea (no evidence of effectiveness). What is surprising is that this $14.8 billion is about ⅓ of what is spent on prescription drugs. Finally, about $4.4 billion was spent on herbal supplements, which are supplements that use botanical products based on some historical or current belief that the products have some ability to treat some disease or symptom. Of course, sometimes these beliefs are myths, or even errors, like when a Swiss CAM products company misunderstood someone and believed that Native Americans used Echninacea for treating colds. They didn’t.
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Colon cleansing–myth vs. science

sick colonListen to the radio for a few minutes. Or watch late night television for a bit. Through the commercials hawking insurance with talking geckos, promoting treatments for erectile dysfunction, and, exhibiting the coolest, fastest, most fuel efficient car, you will run across the reason for all that ails you: your improperly cleaned colon. The treatment is called colon cleansing, and sometimes, detoxifying. It’s one of those silly alternative medicine ideas that hangs around without one single bit of evidence supporting it.

Myth 

The belief in this junk medicine started with “death begins in the colon“, which has over 4 million google hits, an idea started by the Bernard Jensen, chiropractor and pusher of the whole breadth of woo, including hydrotherapyfastingreflexology, color therapy, polarity, glandular balancing, homeopathyherbologyacupuncturecraniopathy and personology. The basic idea is that the colon has years of built up “toxins” which are the cause of all disease; the cure for all illnesses then is to cleanse all the “toxins” from one’s body. There’s a whole bunch of pseudoscience built into this belief, such as, “the management of constipation is one of the most important steps you can take to protect your health.  The consequences of colon toxins, from the accumulating, rotting debris, colon parasites, attached to the wall of a sluggish colon, damaging your body, stealing your food, poisoning your body with their wastes are going to make you sick before it kills you.
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Cancer Treatment Centers of America advertising

cancerYou’ve probably seen their commercials spread over all of the major TV networks. Beautiful scenes. Well-kept hospitals which often to appear to be near empty. And an anecdote or two or three from presumably real patients who describe their experience at Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA), a private, for-profit operator of cancer treatment hospitals and outpatient clinics which provide both conventional and alternative medical treatments. Included in their treatment plans are chiropractic and naturopathy, neither of which have any evidence whatsoever in providing any healthcare benefit to patients, let alone those suffering from cancer.

Reuters recently published an in-depth report on the validity of the claims that are made by CTCA in its advertising. Here are some of the ones specifically mentioned:

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Acupuncture for treating Bell’s palsy–myth vs. science

4acupunctureOf all of the alternative medicine therapies, acupuncture is the one that seems to get the most research money, and gets the most claims of effectiveness. Emphasize “claim”, because as of yet, there are no studies that show anything beyond a placebo effect, and some have shown results worse than placebo. Most of the studies are poorly designed, with poor control groups, with poor results.

Here are just some of the Cochrane reviews of acupuncture research that conclude that acupuncture lacks any clinical efficacy:

That’s just a few of many negative studies. 

So what is acupuncture? Its theoretical basis is that health and sickness are caused by the good or bad flow of Qi through the body, in particular along the twelve major meridians of the body (though some authorities list fourteen or even more) which run from head to toe along the body, and which are associated with the bladder, gallbladder, heart, large intestine, small intestine, kidneys, liver, lungs, spleen, stomach, pericardium, and other things. It is a form of woo medical procedure based on sticking needles into the dermis at precise points to affect the Qi. Except there is no evidence at all that this Qi exists. It’s pseudoscience.
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Dr. Oz falls for the overhyped and debunked GMO corn study

A few weeks ago, Gilles-Eric Séralini and his homeopathy loving coauthor published an article in Food and Chemical Toxicology that concluded that glyphosate (known as Roundup)-resistant NK603 GMO corn, developed by Monsanto, causes severe diseases such as tumors in rats. That study was quickly picked up by many anti-science groups and broadcast widely as “GMO corn cause cancer.”

But like I wrote here and here, the scientific and skeptical community has blasted the study. Here is just a small excerpt of the critics:

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Echinacea and the common cold–Myth vs. Science

It’s getting close to winter once again, so people always recommend their various lotions and potions to either prevent the common cold or, at least, to reduce the course of the disease. Alternative medicine’s favorite disease to treat is the common cold, mainly because it’s an easy disease to handle without too many serious problems. Also, from the patient’s perspective, the length and seriousness of the cold is usually very subjective, since the patient has a difficult time making an accurate determination when the cold started or ended, and making a quantitative assessment of the seriousness of the disease. Moreover,  confirmation bias is usually the reason one hears that something worked for the cold–the person who reports some product works forgets all the times it doesn’t. Or completely misjudges the actual effects of any treatment.

The list of products that you might run across in your local pharmacy that claim to have an effect on the common cold are many. Zinc, oscillococcinum, garlic, and vitamin C. I wrote about these products last winter, and they mostly don’t work. The strangest cold remedy you might find is oscillococcinum, which is a homeopathic preparation derived from duck liver and heart, diluted to 200C, or 200 1:100 dilutions.  In other words, in a liter of water there are precisely no molecules of duck guts. And there isn’t any logical explanation of a possible mechanism that would allow one to conclude that duck offal has an effect on cold viruses. Though Oscillococcinum is supposed to be used for flus, many use it for colds, but it doesn’t matter, why would a diluted potion of duck guts cure any virus? Well, Cochrane Reviews concluded that ”current evidence does not support a preventative effect of Oscillococcinum-like homeopathic medicines in influenza and influenza-like syndromes.
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The Placebo Effect–Myth vs. Science

Background

There has been a large uptick in interest about the so-called placebo effect, mostly from the complementary and alternative junk medicine (CAM) crowd. Evidently, they feel that being equivalent to doing nothing is good enough to be real. A recent article in the Wall Street JournalWhy Placebos Work Wonders, is indicative of this recent pro-placebo point-of-view.  

What exactly is the placebo effect? The definition is often misused, implying some beneficial effect from a sugar pill or sham treatment. But in medicine, a placebo is actually a failure. If a new pharmaceutical, procedure or medical device shows no difference in efficacy compared to a placebo, then it is rejected.  But the CAM-pushing herd thinks that proves its a success when one of its potions and lotions is equivalent to a placebo. What? A failure of a modality in evidence-based medicine is somehow converted into a successful product in the CAM world?

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Ginkgo biloba and neurological disorders–Myth vs. Science

I’m trying out a new series, looking at some popular myths (mostly in medicine, but maybe we’ll wander outside of it when something interesting shows up) and determining if there’s any support or not in science. I’m going to link mostly to science articles and high-quality blogs, just so you have all the back-up evidence that you need. One way or another.

Background

Ginkgo biloba is actually an interesting plant because it has been relatively unchanged for nearly 270 million years. It is considered a living fossil, an informal term used for species like G. biloba that appear to be the same as a species otherwise only known from fossils and which has no close living relatives. The genus Ginkgo was fairly widely distributed until about 100 million years ago. It slowly disappeared from the fossil record until it was found only in one small part of China about 5 million years ago, where it is found today.  

The tree is native to China and is known to have been widely cultivated early in human history. It is used as a food source by various Asian cultures, with the Chinese eating the meaty gametophytes and the Japanese the whole seed. Unfortunately, the seed contains a chemical, 4′-O-methylpyridoxine, that can be poisonous if consumed in enough quantity. 
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Chiropractic fails to do anything for lower back pain

I usually don’t dwell too much on chiropractic, because so many other bloggers deal with it so well. Basically, it is the belief in the “vertebral subluxation processes” that is used to treat and cure a purported vast range of diseases that no scientifically verified connection to vertebrate anatomy. Modern chiropractic has tried to divorce itself from the vertebral subluxation, and evolved to the the main chiropractic treatment technique that involves manual therapy, including manipulation of the spine, other joints, and soft tissues. Chiropractic treatment also includes exercises and health and lifestyle counseling.

So, what does real science say about chiropractic? Not much.

One of the areas that has always had some clinical evidence, and lots of anecdotal evidence of success with chiropractic has been lower back pain. However, a recent publication in the Cochrane Reviews even eliminates that last bastion. According to the article, Spinal manipulative therapy for acute low-back pain, which reviewed 20 randomized clinical trials (with a total of 2674 participants), spinal manipulative therapy is no more effective in participants with acute low-back pain than inert interventions. In other words, chiropractic is no more effective than any other recommended therapy for lower back pain, like taking a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug.

Basically, chiropractic evidence is barely more than placebo. Which means that it has barely any clinical significance.

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Humor: The Red Flags of Quackery

Stolen from:  The Red Flags of Quackery v2 | Sci-ence.

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Homeopathy companies pay journalist to attack anti-homeopathy academic

As I’ve discussed previously about homeopathy, there is absolutely no evidence that it does anything but quench thirst, since the basic principles of homeopathy is that. And even then, there are much cheaper methods to quench thirst, like getting water from your tap.

Not that it should surprise anyone, but it’s been reported that a consortium of homeopathy companies in Germany have been paying a “journalist” over $50,000 to set up and run a set of websites to criticize a UK academic, Professor Edzard Ernst, one of the world’s leading scientific skeptics of the lack of scientific viability of alternative medicine, specifically homeopathy. The original article, Schmutzige Methoden der sanften Medizin (or the Dirty Tricks of Alternative Medicine) was published in a German newspaper, described how the these companies, who manufacture homeopathic sugar pills, funded a journalist named Claus Fritzsche to denigrate any critics of homeopathy. He focused on Professor Ernst, by attacking him for being partisan, biased and incompetent, on several of these websites. He then linked them together in order to raise their Google ranking, so that any search for Professor Ernst and homeopathy would put these websites high on any list of Google hits.
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Whenever someone uses “Allopathy”, turn on the skeptical radar

While catching up on my favorite blogs (and nearly giving up after reading the 300th one regarding the recent Supreme Court ruling on Obamacare), I ran across Liz Ditz’s short and to-the-point Why I Dislike the Term “Allopathy” on I Speak of Dreams. Allopathy is an invented word that, according to Kimball Atwood at Science Based Medicine (Homeopathy & Evidence-Based Medicine),

…was the term coined by (Samuel) Hahnemann (founder of homeopathy) to dramatize the contrast between homeopathy and its competition. According to Hahnemann, “allopathic” medicine sought to give only medicines that suppressed symptoms.

You’ll find allopathy being used by just about any woo-meister in alternative medicine universe. Joe Mercola, anti-vaccine quack and promoter (and when I say promoter, I mean seller of all things alternative medicine) uses the term “allopathic” in 53 articles on his website to attack sound, evidence-based medicine. That’s basically proof that the word is a pejorative like “Western medicine” or “traditional medicine.” It tries to make it sound like evidence-based medicine is closed minded, stuck on tradition, when, in fact, it’s open-minded to new theories and techniques. 

In Wikipedia’s article on allopathy, “the meaning (as) implied by the label has never been accepted by conventional medicine, and is still considered pejorative by some.” However, in Wikipedia, the resource for all things woo, allopathy is often used by anti-science pushers to make their articles fit their pseudoscientific view of the world, and it is almost always used in a pejorative fashion to make alternative medicine appear to be somewhat more “open minded”. For example, here’s a discussion amongst the well-known pseudoscience pushers on Wikipedia claiming that allopathic medicine is not science based. Or Dana Ullman, the biggest promoter of homeopathy in the world, spending huge amounts of bandwidth trying to get Wikipedia to use allopathy to describe science based medicine. Of course, Dana was permanently banned from editing anything to do with homeopathy on Wikipedia based on his horrible behavior issues. If you see “allopathy” in a Wikipedia article, be prepared for pseudoscience.

Or as Liz Ditz puts it:

The chiroquacktors use the word allopathy a lot to disparage medicine (as opposed to their fantasy world).

Yup. They do.

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Colon detoxification is full of…it

Listen to the radio for a few minutes. Or watch late night television for a bit. Through the commercials hawking insurance with talking geckos, promoting treatments for erectile dysfunction, and, exhibiting the coolest, fastest, most fuel efficient car, you will run across the reason for all that ails you: your improperly cleaned colon. The treatment is called colon cleansing, and sometimes, detoxifying. It’s one of those silly alternative medicine ideas that hangs around without one single bit of evidence supporting it.
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Naturopathy and diabetes–pure pseudoscience

Let’s be blunt. Naturopathy is pure, unmitigated, undiluted junk medicine (or what many call “woo”). What is naturopathy? It is a form of alternative medicine based on a belief in vitalism, which posits that life has a quality independent of physical and chemical laws. In other words, it is no different than homeopathy (one of the core competencies of naturopathy), both of which rely upon denying the basic laws of physics and chemistry. Life may have some quality independent of physical or chemical laws and theories, but treating anything from a viral infection to a fractured femur to any of the 200 or so types of cancer requires medicines and techniques that depend upon real science, whether physics, chemistry or biology.
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