The pseudoscience of immune system boosting

immune system boosting

One of the most ridiculous pseudoscientific claims that I keep hearing from the junk medicine crowd is that this supplement or that food is critical to immune system boosting – this myth is so prevalent, I had to debunk it with lots of real science.

These type of claims ignore one basic physiological fact: the immune system is a complex interconnected network of organs, cells, tissues and biomolecules that prevent invasion of the body by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of pathogens every day.

And no matter how much individuals try to trivialize the complexity of the immune system by claiming that downing a few tablets of echinacea will boost the immune system to prevent colds (it doesn’t), it still doesn’t make it a scientific fact.

So let’s take a look at why “immune system boosting” can be considered a pseudoscience. And to discuss pseudoscience, we will have lots of real science.

Continue reading “The pseudoscience of immune system boosting”

Anti-vaccine lunacy–more lies about Gardasil

One of the hallmarks of pseudoscience is an over-reliance on confirmation rather than refutation of a hypothesis. The antivaccine crowd are well-known for this particular violation of the scientific method. As discussed previously, science works on refutation–creating experiments that might actually disprove a hypothesis as a method to develop evidence in support of it. The anti-vaccination crowd actually hypothesizes (but not in a scientific sense) that a vaccine or set of vaccines was the causal factor in some side effect (autism, death, or whatever else), then they should establish an experiment (double-blinded of course) that would refute that hypothesis. If at some point, the data cannot refute it, then the anti-vaccinationists would have supporting data for their particular supposition. 

But instead of actually performing experiments (which cost money, which may show that they are wrong, or which might not be ethical), they resort to mining data to prove their point. Data mining is dangerous, because confirmation bias, that is, finding information or data that supports a belief while ignoring all other data that does not, makes the data suspect or even useless.

So, in that vein, the anti-vaccinationists often mine data from any database they can find, such as the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS),  which is a program for vaccine safety, managed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). VAERS functions as a post-marketing safety surveillance program (similar to other programs for almost every regulated medical device and pharmaceutical) which collects information about adverse events (whether related or unrelated to the vaccine) that occur after administration of vaccines.

VAERS has numerous limitations, including lack of scientifically designed questions, unverified reports, underreporting, inconsistent data quality, and absence of an unvaccinated control group. VAERS is basically a collector of information, but has limited value in making conclusions since it does not provide information that is obtained in a controlled manner.  However, it does have some usefulness, in that certain trends may be spotted given enough time and data points. Continue reading “Anti-vaccine lunacy–more lies about Gardasil”

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?

Continue reading “The Placebo Effect–Myth vs. Science”

How pseudoscience makes its case-Part 1. Revised and repost.

This is a two-part article that partially describes how the science-denialist makes their case, not necessarily why humans accept it so easily.  I’m not a psychiatrist, and I certainly don’t play one on TV.  I thought we should start with the scientific method, or how real science works.

I 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. Continue reading “How pseudoscience makes its case-Part 1. Revised and repost.”

How pseudoscience makes its case. Part 1.

I decided to write a three-part article here that partially describes how they make their case, not necessarily why humans accept it so easily.  I’m not a psychiatrist, and I certainly don’t play one on TV.  I thought we should start with the scientific method, or how real science works.

I 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.

In fact, science rarely uses the term “proven”, because the scientific method is not a system to make a definitive answer on any question–scientists always leave open the possibility of an alternative hypothesis that can be tested. If the alternate hypothesis can be supported through experimentation, then it can replace the original one. When an alternative medicine or junk science supporter states “it has been proven,” ask where is the evidence.  What is more troubling is that someone who believes in these therapies cannot imagine that they don’t work, what is called falsification, which is a hallmark of good science.  Whenever I hear that a scientist say, “we were wrong, it doesn’t work,” my retort is “excellent, good science.”

The scientific method is an unbiased systematic approach to answer questions about the natural world, including medicine. It has several basic steps:

  1. Define the question–this could be anything from “does this compound have an effect on this disease?” or “how does this disease progress?”
  2. Observations–this is the subjective part of science. Do we observe trends or anomalies? Does a physician notice that every patient from a town or neighborhood exhibit the same disease? A lot of science arises from observations of the natural world. One of the most famous stories in the early history of medicine is when Edward Jenner observed that milkmaids rarely were infected by smallpox because they were exposed to cowpox, a less virulent disease.
  3. Hypothesis–taking the observations, create a hypothesis that can be tested. In Jenner’s case, he hypothesized that exposure to cowpox immunized individuals to small pox.
  4. Experiment–simply, the scientist then tests the hypothesis with experiments and collect the data. The experiments are not designed to solely validate the hypothesis but may also attempt to contradict it.
  5. Analyze–this requires statistics to determine the significance or results.
  6. Interpret–sometimes the data leads to a revision of the hypothesis, which means the scientist has to return to steps 3-6. Or it confirms or supports the hypothesis, which means the researcher can move to Step 7.
  7. Publish results–in today’s scientific community, the results require peer-review, which subjects the data, analysis and interpretation to the scrutiny of other scientists before publication. This is a critical step that ensures that the results can stand up to criticism. It does not prove anything, but it does support the hypothesis.
  8. Retesting–Many times the research is repeated by others, or the hypothesis may be slightly revised with additional data. Science is not static, it constantly revises theories as more data is gathered. For this reason alone, science is not an absolute, it is constantly seeking new data.

Science is an evidence-based systematic analysis without inherent opinion or emotion. In other words, it is a method to cut through opinions and anecdotal observations, so that one can have some reasonable expectation that a medicine or device will work as planned. CAM fails to utilize scientific method. Supporters of CAM usually perform experiments to confirm the hypothesis, never to contradict it. It is the fundamental principle of falsifiability, that is, that if a hypothesis is false, it can be shown in experimentation that allows science to have an open mind about the world. When you speak to a believer of CAM, they almost never assume that their treatment cannot work.

It’s interesting that CAM and pseudoscience start out with observations of the real world. For example, CAM therapies sometimes work, not because of the therapies themselves, but because humans just get better from many diseases. So, these CAM therapies rely upon confirmation bias, that is, the tendency to accept information that supports your beliefs, or even post hoc ergo propter hoc, a logical fallacy which says “since that event followed this one, that event must have been caused by this one.”  Humans too often conflate correlation and causation.  Just because events follow one another, that doesn’t mean one causes the other.  I suppose that’s how superstitions arise.

Part 2 of this discussion will be out as soon as I write it. It will discuss how to tell what is “proven” or what is science.  Stay tuned.