Posts Tagged “pseudo-medicine”

Mehmet Oz - World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2012I’ve blogged a time or two about Dr Mehmet Oz, aka “Dr Oz.” His friendship with Oprah Winfrey has given him his own TV show and small media empire. Some of his medical advice is fine, however, he occasionally waxes rhapsodic over spurious remedies which — as a physician who heads a program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and who’s on the faculty of Columbia University — he has to know have no meaningful scientific support.

What Dr Oz doesn’t seem to have been aware of previously, and which was the subject of a Senate hearing yesterday, is that his words are grist for the mills of scammers, liars, cheats and con artists. As NBC News reports, Sen. Claire McCaskill in particular confronted him about this problem (WebCite cached article):

Dr. Mehmet Oz, a celebrity doctor who frequently extols weight-loss products on his syndicated television show, got a harsh scolding from several senators on Tuesday at a hearing about bogus diet product ads.

Oz was held up as the power driving many of the fraudulent ads, even as he argued he was himself the victim of the scammers. The hearing is a follow-up to the Federal Trade Commission’s crackdown last January against fake diet products.

“I don’t get why you need to say this stuff because you know it’s not true,” Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat who chairs a Senate subcommittee on consumer protection, said at the hearing. “So why, when you have this amazing megaphone…why would you cheapen your show by saying things like that?”

Dr Oz’s defense is that he’s giving people “hope”:

Oz, a frequent guest on NBC’s TODAY show, admitted he uses “flowery” language on his shows, and said he realizes that the moment he recommends a product, the scammers use his words to sell spurious products. “I concede to my colleagues at the FTC that I am making their job more difficult,” he said.

But he said he has to be “passionate” to engage his audience. “When we write a script, we need to generate enthusiasm and engage the viewer,” Oz said.…

Oz said the products give people hope to keep trying to lose weight — something almost all experts agree is a very difficult thing to do. Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese.

Ah. So that makes it all better, I guess. Somehow. The Senator hit back on this point:

McCaskill asked why Oz didn’t use his show to promote what actually has been proven to help people lose weight — careful eating and exercise. “I want to see all that floweriness, all that passion, about the beauty of a walk at sunset,” she said.

“The scientific community is almost monolithic against you in terms of the efficacy of a few products that you have called miracles,” she added. “I just don’t understand why you need to go there … You are being made an example of today because of the power you have in this space.”

Of course, it’s not just green coffee bean extract which Dr Oz has touted. He’s pumped other things, too, such as magical pajamas. Yes, you read that right: Pajamas. Note, this recommendation wasn’t a general or generic one, like, “avoid salt” or “eat oranges.” It was a specific recommendation for a single, proprietary product known as “Goodnighties” (cached). Dr Oz also cooked up a weird, pseudo-scientific justification for believing in the claimed magical powers of Theresa Caputo, the so-called Long Island Medium. Pardon me while I laugh at the famed towering intellect of this academic-physician. I’m neither an academic nor a physician, yet I know there are no magical health-granting pajamas, and I also know that no one can talk with the dead.

Having said all of this, Dr Oz wasn’t the only one criticized at this Senate hearing, according to NBC News:

McCaskill also rebuked media companies that run the ads. “I find it troubling that broadcast and satellite radio witnesses who were asked to be here today were unwilling to appear. To me, this indicates that either there is something to hide or they don’t have a good story to tell,” she said.

The Senator has a good point. Media companies happily carry ads and promote shows that they, also, must know promote useless products. But they didn’t have the courage to appear before Congress and defend that practice. Hmm.

Although I’m gratified that the Senate held a hearing to expose this problem, I’d much rather they took meaningful action that would truly make things better. Perhaps the most important of those would be to repeal the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (aka the DSHEA). This act removed “dietary supplements” … which would include things like green coffee bean extract … from FDA oversight, thus creating a vast market for bogus products that are peddled behind cowardly little legalistic caveats like “not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” If any of these things actually did what their makers imply they do, it ought to be possible — if not trivial — to demonstrate it using the same sorts of studies which the FDA requires for pharmaceuticals. Sure, it’d cost money … but so what? We’re talking about people’s health here! Why is it so onerous or unreasonable to expect the makers of “herbal remedies” provide medical evidence for their claims, when we have no qualms about demanding the same in the case of pharmaceuticals? I don’t see how or why there should be any difference.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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Screen shot of preventable-disease map, by CFREven though the current anti-vax movement has been constructed upon a single demonstrably-fraudulent study (WebCite cached article) by Dr Andrew Wakefield — which he’d intended as the basis for a franchise selling “remedies” for something he called “austistic enterocolitis” (cached), it’s taken on a life of its own. It morphed originally from Wakefield’s (false) contention that the MMR vaccine causes autism, to the assumption that all vaccines, of any type, are toxic.

The mass media have done more than their share to perpetuate the lie that vaccines are dangerous, including this past December when Katie Couric spent an entire show parading sanctimonious mommies on her stage (cached) telling everyone that the HPV vaccine is lethal. Ms Couric later sort-of conceded she might have gone too far with that one (cached).

The truth of the anti-vax movement is much worse than just that it’s a big fat fucking lie with a fraudulent genesis; it’s actually hurting people in very real — and measurable — ways. The Council on Foreign Relations released a map showing the incidence of vaccine-preventable outbreaks around the world (cached). And the picture isn’t pretty:Screen shot of preventable-disease map, by CFROne expects to see such illnesses in developing countries, but as is evident in the map, even in highly industrialized nations, preventable childhood illnesses are also occurring in large numbers. Europe is plastered with measles, for instance, and the U.S. is spawning whooping cough from sea to sea.

I know I’ll be accused of having been paid by “Big Pharma” to point this out and condemn the anti-vax movement … but no matter how fervently the anti-vax crowd may believe otherwise, I haven’t. “Big Pharma” doesn’t even know who I am. I also don’t know anyone who works for, or who’s ever been paid any amount, by a “Big Pharma” firm. I’m just a guy who objects to irrationality and lies, and doesn’t think it’s a good idea for people to he harmed or killed by irrationality and lies. Call me crazy if you want — and many have! — but that’s just how I roll. <shrug>

Photo credit: CFR map screen-shot.

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NOVAMOXIN antibioticThere are lots of folks who think “conventional medicine” is evil, comprised of personnel who work to keep people sick rather than help them, and that pharmaceuticals are “poisons” which must be avoided at all cost. It’s easy to dismiss them as wingnuts and crackpots whose belief in herbal remedies, reiki, homeopathy, therapeutic touch, and other assorted forms of pseudomedicine isn’t all that bad … because, after all, most of these “treatments” don’t hurt them (except in their wallets).

The truth, however, is that a reliance on pseudomedicine can, in fact, lead to severe harm, up to and including needless death. A sterling example of this recently happened in Alberta. The Calgary Sun reports a mother in that city has been arrested for allowing her own son to die (WebCite cached article):

Police say a woman gave her bedridden seven-year-old son holistic treatment before he succumbed to what would have been a treatable illness.

Friday, 44-year-old Tamara Lovett was arrested, later charged with criminal negligence causing death and failing to provide the necessities of life in connection with the death of Ryan Lovett.…

Police allege the Grade 2 student was at home, bedridden for 10 days prior to that with what was later identified as a strep infection.

Strep infections are often treatable with medication such as penicillin.

Although it was not only the single mother who saw him deteriorating, no one contacted authorities.

So, although only the mother was arrested, we had other adults, too, who stood by and watched a child die, all in the name of avoiding normal medical treatment … which would certainly have worked. I’m sure they’re just so proud of themselves for having taken this determined stand against the evils of “conventional medicine”!

The sad but unavoidable truth is that pseudomedicine definitely can be harmful. That doesn’t mean “conventional medicine” isn’t without its faults … but it’s much better than the alternative, which has potentially-deadly consequences.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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Stay tuned ... for the next exciting episode of ... Jerks for Jesus! (PsiCop original graphic)A lot of the time, the things fervent Christianists say are merely amusing. Stupid, asinine, and irrational, yet entertaining nonetheless. Like when they tell people to beware of demons that might tag along with thrift-shop clothing. But other times they say things that are insulting, hurtful, and even counter-productive.

A prime example of the latter comes from the mouths of preacher Kenneth Copeland and Rightist-historian-who’s-no-historian David Barton, as reported by the Religion News Service (WebCite cached article):

On a Veterans Day broadcast program, televangelist Kenneth Copeland and controversial historian David Barton told listeners that soldiers should never experience guilt or post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from military service.

Reading from Numbers 32: 20-22, Copeland said, “So this is a promise — if you do this thing, if you arm yourselves before the Lord for the war … you shall return, you’re coming back, and be guiltless before the Lord and before the nation.”

“Any of you suffering from PTSD right now, you listen to me,” Copeland said as Barton affirmed him. ”You get rid of that right now. You don’t take drugs to get rid of it. It doesn’t take psychology. That promise right there will get rid of it.”

These two compound their “insulting morons for Jesus” talk by appealing to Old Testament-style language:

Barton added that many biblical warriors “took so many people out in battle,” but did so in the name of God.

“You’re on an elevated platform up here. You’re a hero, you’re put in the faith hall of fame,” Barton said. “… When you do it God’s way, not only are you guiltless for having done that, you’re esteemed.”

Yeah, that’s right guys, ramble on about the Lord of Hosts and all that ferocious drivel. That’s sure to clear up whatever ails returning soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines!

… Not!

The idea that mental illness doesn’t exist … or it does but is no big deal and can be overcome easily by a little appeal to God … is an old refrain among religionists, as I’ve commented previously. But just because people think these things, doesn’t make them so. Mental illness, which includes post-traumatic stress disorder, is very real and can’t just be waved off. It certainly can’t be cured by metaphysics, or by reveling in what a mighty warrior one’s deity is.

Video of this enlightening, pious exchange is available courtesy of Right Wing Watch, via Youtube:

The article quotes some other Christian experts who condemn what Barton and Copeland said, which I suppose is positive. And they’ve managed to stir up some outrage. Even so, Copeland’s television ministry remains on the air. If the majority of American Christians were truly angered by these dismissive, insulting remarks, his show would have been yanked already. But it hasn’t been. So pardon me while I point out that any Christian criticism of these two jerks for Jesus is — basically — non-existent, so long as these two vile creatures retain their voice and their influence.

Photo credit: PsiCop original graphic.

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E.W. Kemble's 'Deaths Laboratory' in Collier's Magazine in 1906, via Wikimedia Commons.A big component of the pseudomedicine movement is the belief that pharmaceuticals are “bad,” whereas “natural” remedies, including herbal supplements, are “good.” What a lot of folks don’t understand, is that it’s all relative. Some pharmaceuticals are extracted from natural sources, and some “natural” things can, indeed, be very harmful. So the whole “artificial=bad, natural=good” correlation is, quite simply, bullshit.

I’ve blogged a couple times before about toxic substances that are found in some alternative remedies, but as the New York Times reports, a recent review of some common herbal supplements, confirms there are problems in that industry (WebCite cached article):

Americans spend an estimated $5 billion a year on unproven herbal supplements that promise everything from fighting off colds to curbing hot flashes and boosting memory. But now there is a new reason for supplement buyers to beware: DNA tests show that many pills labeled as healing herbs are little more than powdered rice and weeds.

Using a test called DNA barcoding, a kind of genetic fingerprinting that has also been used to help uncover labeling fraud in the commercial seafood industry, Canadian researchers tested 44 bottles of popular supplements sold by 12 companies. They found that many were not what they claimed to be, and that pills labeled as popular herbs were often diluted — or replaced entirely — by cheap fillers like soybean, wheat and rice.…

Among their findings were bottles of echinacea supplements, used by millions of Americans to prevent and treat colds, that contained ground up bitter weed, Parthenium hysterophorus, an invasive plant found in India and Australia that has been linked to rashes, nausea and flatulence.

Two bottles labeled as St. John’s wort, which studies have shown may treat mild depression, contained none of the medicinal herb. Instead, the pills in one bottle were made of nothing but rice, and another bottle contained only Alexandrian senna, an Egyptian yellow shrub that is a powerful laxative. Gingko biloba supplements, promoted as memory enhancers, were mixed with fillers and black walnut, a potentially deadly hazard for people with nut allergies.

Of 44 herbal supplements tested, one-third showed outright substitution, meaning there was no trace of the plant advertised on the bottle — only another plant in its place.

Many were adulterated with ingredients not listed on the label, like rice, soybean and wheat, which are used as fillers.

In some cases, these fillers were the only plant detected in the bottle — a health concern for people with allergies or those seeking gluten-free products, said the study’s lead author, Steven G. Newmaster, a biology professor and botanical director of the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario at the University of Guelph.

The full text of this study is available online (cached).

One might wonder how and why, in the 21st century, this sort of thing could be happening on such a scale. But there’s a very good reason for it: In the U.S. at least, the herbal supplement industry is more or less unregulated. Thanks to the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (aka the DSHEA) enacted in 1994, as long as no explicit health claims are made about an herbal remedy, the FDA can do nothing at all about them. Not a damned thing. That’s right, it often is perfectly legal to sell “snake oil.”

Photo credit: Collier’s, via Wikimedia Commons.

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Smallpox vaccineStrangely, after the antivax movement has been demonstrated to be pseudomedicine, and after a number of outlets have formally retracted their prior involvement in it, CBS News has decided to weigh in on the putative link between childhood vaccinations and autism, and has gone over to the side of the quacks, cranks, pseudoscientists and sanctimonious mommies (WebCite cached article):

For all those who’ve declared the autism-vaccine debate over – a new scientific review begs to differ. It considers a host of peer-reviewed, published theories that show possible connections between vaccines and autism.

The article in the Journal of Immunotoxicology is entitled “Theoretical aspects of autism: Causes–A review.”

CBS News’ Sharyl Attkisson, this article’s author, uses a fallacious appeal to authority in order to grant this study greater weight and credibility:

The author is Helen Ratajczak, surprisingly herself a former senior scientist at a pharmaceutical firm.

Here, Atkisson implies that, since the author worked for a pharma company — thus, one would she’d support the use of vaccines — then if she’s decided otherwise, why, the evidence must be incredibly compelling, no? Unfortunately that’s not how these things work.

Attkisson further implies that no one has been scientifically reviewing the supposed link between vaccines and autism (“Ratajczak did what nobody else apparently has bothered to do …”) but that is absolutely not true. Of course other people have reviewed the matter! Atkisson also mischaracterizes the study as Ratajczak’s own original work, but it’s not … it’s merely her review of other people’s studies. (That, of course, does not in itself invalidate what she says, but it does mean that Atkisson is making the study seem to be something other than it truly is.)

Another way Atkisson tried to grant greater authority to this study, is by implying that the CDC … which has consistently said there is no connection between vaccines and autism … was stunned speechless by it:

We wanted to see if the CDC wished to challenge Ratajczak’s review, since many government officials and scientists have implied that theories linking vaccines to autism have been disproven, and Ratajczak states that research shows otherwise. CDC officials told us that “comprehensive review by CDC…would take quite a bit of time.”

All in all, I must give CBS News and Sharyl Attkisson credit. They certainly crafted a marvelous piece of yellow journalism. They must be so proud!

Hat tip: Skeptic’s Dictionary.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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Power BalanceMaybe you’ve heard of “Power Balance” bracelets … silicone bands with “hologram technology” that lots of prominent athletes have begun wearing. Advertising for the product claims “Power Balance is based on the idea of optimizing the body’s natural energy flow, similar to concepts behind many Eastern philosophies. The hologram in Power Balance is designed to resonate with and respond to the natural energy field of the body.” The problem is, there is no such thing as a “natural energy flow” within the body. No one has found it, no one has documented it, no one has measured it; it does not exist. These bracelets are, basically, bullshit.

Although the company has had little trouble selling its product in large numbers, based on celebrity examples and woo claims, officials in Australia investigated and ordered them off the market. In addition, the (New York) Daily News reports that, as part of its response to this injunction, the company has had to make a rather stunning, explicit admission (WebCite cached article):

Shaquille O’Neal and David Beckham may want their money back after the company behind the Power Balance bracelet admitted to an Australian court that there is no proof to back up its claims that it improves athletic performance.

“We admit that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims,” Power Balance, LLC said in a statement.

Of course, even after having made this admission to an Australian court, the company insists the contrary, that its product works:

Taking to its Twitter account, Power Balance, LLC defended its product and posted tweets from customers who still believe in the bracelet’s abilities.

“don’t believe what u hear. We stand by our products. (our trainers did test on us and we saw a difference in wearing them),” the company tweeted.

They can get away with this disingenuousness, because the buying masses are stupid enough to fall for it.

Congratulations to Australia for taking on these insidious peddlers of woo and nonsense.

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