I toss about the term “pseudoscience” quite a bit because a lot of the anti-vaccine “information” that flows from their keyboards is, frankly, pseudoscience. Unfortunately for rational discussions, anti-vaccine forces tend to rely on the belief system that uses the trappings of science without the rigorous methodologies that value evidence — what is called pseudoscience. Those of us on the pro-vaccine side rely upon actual rational methodology, called science, to discover facts about vaccines.
Simply put, pseudoscience is pure, unfettered male bovine excrement, while science is rational knowledge. Too many times, anti-vaxxers, such as James Lyons-Weiler, Robert F Kennedy Jr, and Russel Blaylock employ pseudoscience that pushes false narratives and disinformation.
Pseudoscience is seductive to many people partially because it’s not only easy to comprehend, but also oversimplifies the understanding of the natural universe. Pseudoscience is the basis of alternative medicine, creationism, vaccine denialism, and other quackery that true believers try to claim is science.
Pseudoscience tries to make an argument with the statement of “it’s been proven to work,” “the link is proven”, or, alternatively, they state something negative about scientifically-supported ideas. It is appealing because it oversimplifies complex systems and ideas. I keep saying science is really hard work, that’s why most anti-vaxxers use their Google University degrees to proclaim that they’ve “done the research” while accusing pro-vaxxers of not doing the same. Ironically, the exact opposite is true.
Acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy, naturopathy, and many other “alternative medicine” beliefs are pseudoscience. They simply lack robust evidence to support their efficacy. Science has failed to establish the clinical usefulness of most alternative medicine (CAM) therapies. But there’s an old saying, once evidence shows that these “alternative medicines” work, they’re just called “medicine.”
If anti-vaxxers had robust and repeated evidence that vaccines did what they claim, every single pro-vaxxer would take notice and embrace it. However, the fact that vaccines are very safe and extremely effective is settled science. That’s not based on this old dinosaur’s belief, it is based on the vast wealth of scientific evidence.
Because I can’t help writing about vaccines, the pseudoscience vs science battle applies perfectly to the vaccine discourse. Pseudoscience uses logical fallacies, anecdotes, and misinformation to make it appear there is evidence supporting the anti-vaccine beliefs. Real science has debunked the claim that “there is a proven link between vaccines and autism,” a common and rather dangerous belief of the anti-vaccine world.
This article will explore the pseudoscience vs science debate (not a debate) by examining what exactly makes an idea scientific (and spoiler alert, it isn’t magic), and contrary to the logic of science, what makes an idea “pseudoscientific.” So sit down, and grab your favorite reading beverage, because this isn’t going to be a quick internet meme.
Just in case you didn’t know, cupping doesn’t mean the protective equipment some male athletes use to protect their groinal (invented word, deal with it) regions. Although, for those athletes, that’s the most important cupping they will ever do.
Apparently, the cupping craze was first noticed because several members US Men’s swim team had awful-looking welts and bruises all over their bodies. Michael Phelps, probably the greatest Olympian ever with over 20 gold medals, was sporting several of the cupping welts on his shoulder.
Like homeopathy and chiropractic, which have little scientific evidence supporting any related clinical value, cupping is a fad without any scientific value. None.
One of our favorite alternative medicine quacks, Dr. Joe Mercola, DO, has been warned by the FDA to cease promoting useless COVID-19 treatments. This is not the first time that Dr. Mercola has run afoul of the FDA, and given his past activities, I doubt it’s his last.
The FDA told Joe Mercola that three products he markets with COVID-19 treatment claims are are “unapproved new drugs” and “misbranded drugs” being sold in violation of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The three products are – Liposomal Vitamin C, Liposomal Vitamin D3, and Quercetin and Pterostilbene Advanced.
In case you don’t feel like reading what Joe Mercola has done this time, I’ll save you a bit of time. There is no evidence that any of these products do anything to treat COVID-19. But let’s take a look at Mercola and his quack treatments.
The old Skeptical Raptor is taking a bit of a break over the next few days to recharge his batteries for all of the pseudoscience that will be coming out in 2020. In lieu of new content, I will be republishing the top 10 most read articles on this blog during 2019. Here’s number 5 – debunking the Medical Medium quackery.
Every time I think I’ve read it all, apparently, I haven’t. I was pointed in the direction of someone – the Medical Medium – who pushes pseudoscience online. Worse yet, he mashes together alternative medicine and psychic readings.
Yes, you read that right. Using psychic readings, he then recommends alternative medicine.
Anthony William, who calls himself the Medical Medium, not because he’s right in the middle of medicine, but because he believes he’s a medium, that is, someone who can speak with spirits. I’m sure he has an Ouija Board.
The old Skeptical Raptor is taking a bit of a break over the next few days to recharge his batteries for all of the pseudoscience that will be coming out in 2020. In lieu of new content, I will be republishing the top 10 most read articles on this blog during 2019. Here’s number 6 – the colon detoxification myth.
In addition to the commercials hawking insurance with talking geckos, promoting treatments for erectile dysfunction, and, exhibiting the coolest, fastest, most fuel-efficient car, you will eventually hear or see the reason for all that ails you – your failure to use colon detoxification to fix your problems.
The claims for acupuncture have any clinical usefulness are vastly overblown with evidence ranging from weak to nonexistent to dangerous. As Steven Novella at Science-Based Medicine once wrote, acupuncture is nothing more than “theatrical placebo.” On the long list of ridiculous claims for this pseudoscience is using acupuncture for hypertension treatment – and once again, real biomedical science shows it is worthless.
Of course, many of the answers provide answers that are supported by scientific evidence – CAM cancer cures do not work. Of course, there are a few scam artists answering the questions who make outlandish claims about cancer cures. And the number of times someone claims that cannabis is one of the best cancer cures is ridiculous – the evidence is extremely weak (see Note 1).
A paper was recently published that examined the survivability of individuals with curable cancers that refused conventional cancer treatments and chose complementary and alternative medicine. We will get to that article, but spoiler alert – CAM doesn’t work and may be dangerous.
What is complementary and alternative medicine?
CAM is any “medical” treatment that is not supported by robust scientific evidence or incorporated into evidence-based medicine. Most complementary and alternative medicine have no clinical effects beyond placebo (see Note 2), and it cannot treat any serious medical condition. CAM is pure pseudoscience.
CAM is known by its other names – quackery, quackademic medicine, snake oil, woo, or junk medicine. CAM quacks invent absurd pejorative names for evidence-based medicine just to create a silly false balance – terms like allopathy, conventional medicine, or Western medicine. You science-based readers will see through this nonsense, and understand what they really mean is “evidence-based medicine, but we prefer our pseudoscientific medicine.”
CAM is popular because it provides false hope to those interested. These quacks can make outrageous claims about cancer cures because they can play to fears of cancer patients about surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy. These scammers promise cures that are easy, but these “therapies,” in fact, don’t work.
You know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work?
Cancer is a group of diseases characterized by abnormal cell growth which can invade or metastasize to other tissues and organs. Although people use tumor and cancer interchangeably, not all tumors are cancer. There are benign tumors that do not metastasize and are not cancers.
The variance in number results from the lack of precise definitions for some cancers. So researchers may group several different cancers into one heading. But clearly, there are up to 200 or more different cancers.
Furthermore, each of these cancers has a different etiology (cause), pathophysiology (development), treatment and prognosis. When someone is called a “cancer researcher,” they are rarely studying all cancers, but they’re studying one small part of the story of one of the 200 or so cancers.
Geneticist Bert Vogelstein and mathematician Cristian Tomasetti, at the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, conducted the study, a follow-up to an earlier one, which arrived at the same conclusion. The researchers wanted to know whether replications errors were behind most cancers, versus other factors, such as tobacco.
The researchers found, after examining 32 different kinds of cancer, that 66% of these cancers were a result of chance mutations in cells, 29% resulted from the environment, and 5% from inheriting a mutation.
These mutations aren’t “naturally” a part of the cell’s physiology. Moreover, these mutations can have a lot of different causes – environmental (like smoking or UV radiation), viral (hepatitis B and human papillomavirus are the most famous), heredity, and maybe other things. These mutations are more or less random, and they can’t be prevented by anything special–if only it were that easy.
There are a few things you can do to prevent cancer, such as quitting smoking, staying out of the sun, getting your hepatitis B and HPV vaccinations, not drinking alcohol, keeping a low body weight, and eating a balanced diet. But even if you are a paragon of healthy living, a random mutation in some cell in your body can lead to cancer.
The study, by Skyler B Johnson, MD, of the Yale School of Medicine, was published in JAMA Oncology in July 2018. The researchers examined a huge database of cancer patients over a 20-year period of time – it included an impressive 2 million individuals. They sorted to through the records to compare patients who used alternative medicine to treat their cancer to a matched sample of individuals who relied upon evidence-based cancer treatments.
I also want to emphasize that the researchers specifically selected for individuals who had easily treatable cancers.
Let’s cut to the chase – after controlling for confounding variables, that is, variables that can influence both the cause and the effect, individuals who utilized CAM for cancer treatment were statistically much worse off.
CAM users had a much lower chance of surviving 5 years after cancer diagnosis.
They were 2X more likely to die of cancer.
Less than 70% of CAM users were alive seven years after diagnosis. This compared to more than 82% of those who relied upon evidence-based medicine who survived seven years.
The mortality risk for those individuals who used CAM increased every year that they avoided standard cancer therapy.
Now, this doesn’t mean that the study found that CAM had a negative effect on cancer patients. CAM is worthless, it has no effect on health. However, what the researchers did state is that those individuals who preferred CAM were refusing or delaying conventional cancer treatments that actually work.
Because CAM is worthless, it probably doesn’t matter if the patient uses it along with conventional cancer therapy. It is amusing that many patients will give credit to the CAM therapy rather than the conventional one when their cancer goes into remission. Of course, most of us know the scientific facts about it.
If you have a cancer diagnosis, use real evidence-based medicine to treat it, not CAM quackery. Despite patient fears of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy, the evidence has shown us that they work and that the mortality rate for many cancers continues to drop every year. The trope that Big Pharma, Big Hospital, and Big Oncology are hiding the one cure to cure them would be amusing if it weren’t so dangerous.
Let’s be clear – complementary and alternative medicine is worthless. The evidence that it provides cancer cures just doesn’t exist – the best, most robust, highest-quality evidence shows the way we treat cancer is best done by real physicians with real backgrounds in oncology.
If any compound of the marijuana plant can actually treat cancer, it will be isolated by real medical researchers, they will create a method to deliver that component directly to the site of the cancer, they will test it for efficacy and toxicity, and then seek FDA approval. Anecdotes and weak pre-clinical studies for any of the claimed cancer cures are nearly valueless to real science-based medical treatments for cancer.
Many people overstate the value of placebos – officially, a placebo means that the effect is nothing more that can be found by giving the patient a sugar pill. The effect is almost always psychosomatic, so placebos effects are more prevalent with neurological conditions like pain, although the evidence that CAM can treat pain is laughably inconsistent. However, placebos have never been shown to treat cancer, mend a broken bone, cure an infectious disease, save a trauma victim, or do anything for other serious medical conditions. In science, anything with a “placebo effect” is considered a failure, and it would never receive FDA approval. The placebo effect is simply a myth.
I have railed against pseudoscientificcharlatans who claim that they have the easy way to prevent or cure cancer. Generally, these snake oil salesmen try to convince you that they have some miraculous food, supplement, spiritual energy, and on and on, that can either kill cancer in its tracks or keep them from even growing in your body. Of course, none of their claims are actually supported by robust science. On the other hand, real science has 12 evidence-based methods to actually prevent cancer.
But what about those memes that say that supplements prevent cancer? Nope, they don’t. And that’s been shown in study after study after study after study (yeah, I could go on for awhile).
Despite the absolute lack of evidence that supplements, kale, bananas, or drinking the pure waters of a glacial fed stream (which may not be an option with climate change), there are only a few things that can be done to manage your overall risk of cancer.
One of the most annoying subjects that catch my eye on a regular basis is an alternative medicine cancer treatment that pervades the internet. I find it disheartening when people risk their lives for unproven pseudoscience over treatments that are supported with real scientific evidence.
Moreover, it is not my opinion that an alternative medicine cancer treatment is less effective than conventional cancer treatments. There is solid evidence that alternative medicine is worse.
Alternative facts, what most of us would call outright lies or misinformation, are the new standard of truthfulness coming out of the Donald Trump administration. It started when Kellyanne Conway, one of the numerous Trump talking heads who think Americans are stupid, said, “You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving … alternative facts.”
Alternative facts seem to be pretty close to the Nazi propaganda technique, called the Big Lie. It is about the use of a lie so colossal that the public would not believe that someone would have the audacity to distort the truth so impressively. Except, I’m going to reiterate most Americans (an non-Americans) aren’t that stupid. And sorry for going Godwin so early in the article, but sometimes, it is necessary to point out the obvious.
I’ve been fighting alternative facts as skeptic for nearly three decades. It started when I got into an argument with a school board candidate in California who said that “evolution is just a theory.” Now, those of you with scientific understanding accept that a theory, at least in science, is approximately equal to a fact. What he should have said is, “evolution is just a fact,” but instead he was making “theory” a pejorative which implied evolution wasn’t a fact.
He and I must have argued for 20 minutes, when he finally claimed that science was a religion that required faith, which, of course, is the exact opposite of what science represents. I told him that he apparently lacked any education in science, so why should he be on the school board. He lost, though I take no credit for it.
Over the years, I have evolved (pun intended) into other areas of scientific skepticism, like GMOs, vaccines, and alternative medicine. See, even the junk medicine quacks grasped that “alternative” label long before Donald Trump walked into the national spotlight.
Let’s look at my favorite alternative facts of science.