Search Results for "homeopathy"

Apr 15 2014

Why We Need a Skeptical Movement

Published by under Skepticism

Skeptics tend (as they should) to question everything, even the need for a movement of self-identified skeptics. It is an interesting question – what is the net cultural effect of organized scientific skepticism?

Of course, we can’t really ever know the answer to this question. There are too many moving parts. We could point to cultural trends, but this is probably the worst line of evidence. There is no way to control for skepticism as an isolated variable. We have no way of knowing what the world would be like without organized skepticism.

We can point to individuals whose lives have been changed, they believe for the better. I am heartened by every e-mail I receive from a reader or listener who says their life has been changed for the better because of skeptical outreach. Perhaps they were steered away from a career in pseudoscience, learned how to think more critically about everything, or just found a community to which they could connect.

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Mar 24 2014

Homeopathic Products Recalled for Containing Actual Drugs

Homeopathy is bunk. It is 100% pure unadulterated pseudoscience. That is – unless it is adulterated with actual working medicine.

The FDA recently put out a safety alert warning the public that certain homeopathic products may contain measurable amount of penicillin, enough to cause an allergic reaction in those who are sensitive:

Terra-Medica, Inc. is voluntarily recalling 56 lots of Pleo-FORT, Pleo-QUENT, Pleo-NOT, Pleo-STOLO, Pleo-NOTA-QUENT, and Pleo-EX homeopathic drug products in liquid, tablet, capsule, ointment, and suppository forms to the consumer level. FDA has determined that these products have the potential to contain penicillin or derivatives of penicillin, which may be produced during the fermentation process. In patients who are allergic to beta-lactam antibiotics, even at low levels, exposure to penicillin can result in a range of allergic reactions from mild rashes to severe and life-threatening anaphylactic reactions. See the press release for a complete listing of products affected by this recall.

One has to wonder if the company was aware that their product contained penicillin.  That’s a pretty good scam. In the US homeopathic products do not require testing or any FDA approval process. They are essentially pre-approved by law. While this is a shameful scam, at least homeopathic remedies are completely inactive – nothing but water placed on sugar pills. However, some specific products have been found to have functional levels of active ingredients, so they are not truly homeopathic. For example, some Zicam products were found to contain active levels of zinc, and was linked to anosmia (a loss of smell) in some cases.

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Feb 13 2014

P-Hacking and Other Statistical Sins

Published by under General Science

I love learning new terms that precisely capture important concepts. A recent article in Nature magazine by Regina Nuzzo reviews all the current woes with statistical analysis in scientific papers. I have covered most of the topics here over the years, but the Nature article in an excellent review. It also taught be a new term – P-hacking, which is essentially working the data until you reach the goal of a P-value of 0.05. .

The Problem

In a word, the big problem with the way statistical analysis is often done today is the dreaded P-value. The P-value is just one way to look at scientific data. It first assumes a specific null-hypothesis (such as, there is no correlation between these two variables) and then asks, what is the probability that the data would be at least as extreme as it is if the null-hypothesis were true? A P-value of 0.05 (a typical threshold for being considered “significant”) indicates a 5% probability that the data is due to chance, rather than a real effect.

Except – that’s not actually true. That is how most people interpret the P-value, but that is not what it says. The reason is that P-values do not consider many other important variables, like prior probability, effect size, confidence intervals, and alternative hypotheses. For example, if we ask – what is the probability of a new fresh set of data replicating the results of a study with a P-value of 0.05, we get a very different answer. Nuzzo reports:
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Nov 14 2013

Is There a Pseudoscience Event Horizon?

Earlier this week Massimo Pigliucci over at Rationally Speaking wrote an intriguing blog post asking whether or not there is a pseudoscience black hole – a point beyond which a pseudoscience gets sucked in and can never escape? Asked from the other direction – are there any historical examples of a pseudoscience that became legitimate, essentially turned out to be true?

I thought this was an interesting enough question to pick up the ball and explore the question further.

First, the question requires a discussion of what is pseudoscience. This is a common topic of discussion among skeptics. Any definition must contend with the demarcation problem – there is no bright line between legitimate science and pseudoscience. Rather, there is a smooth continuum, although I do think the distribution along that continuum is bimodal.

The differences between science and pseudoscience have to do with process, not subject matter. Pseudoscientists display a number of typical behaviors  (I will quickly list some of them here, but I am overdo for an updated post just on this topic):

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Oct 04 2013

CAM Research – Be Careful What You Wish For

Edzard Ernst is the first professor of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). He began 20 years ago as a CAM enthusiast, and a trained homeopath, and genuinely wanted to point the critical eye of science onto CAM. Many CAM proponents claim this, but Ernst was different in a key respect – he wanted to use rigorous scientific research to find out if CAM worked, not to prove that it does.

He recently wrote about his 20 years of CAM research, and eloquently makes this point. He writes:

Unfortunately, we also had a few co-workers who, despite of our best efforts, proved to be unable of critical thinking, and more than once this created unrest, tension and trouble. When I analyse these cases in retrospect, I realise how quasi-religious belief  must inevitably get in the way of good science. If a person is deeply convinced about the value of his/her particular alternative therapy and thus decides to become a researcher in order to prove his/her point, serious problems are unavoidable.

Problems are indeed unavoidable. There is a problem with researcher bias and publication bias in medical research. Science magazine also reports on a “sting” operation in which an author submitted a hopelessly flawed paper to 304 open access journals, with more than half accepting the paper for publication. There are plenty of places to publish terrible research that proves whatever point you wish to make.

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Sep 26 2013

The Pharma Shill Gambit and Other Nonsense

Those of us who have been writing about science and medicine for a few years or more quickly experience the fact that there is a subculture of people who are greatly hostile to our message. In addition, they tend to use the same fallacious arguments against us over and over again, as if they are reading from the same script.

As a result we answer the same bad arguments repeatedly, at least so that those who are paying attention will be more prepared to deal with such arguments themselves. Earlier this week Harriet Hall wrote an excellent post over at Science-Based Medicine in which she answers 30 common fallacious arguments against SBM.  The next day I received a comment here that parroted some of the same arguments yet again.

I have addressed these common anti-SBM arguments multiple times, mostly in piecemeal, so it’s good to have Harriet’s post as a sort-of SBM FAQ. Before you leave a critical comment, read the FAQ.

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Sep 24 2013

Misinformation from Mayo Clinic

The Mayo Clinic is a recognized center for excellence in both clinical medicine and research. They also maintain one of the best medical information websites on the net. I often find myself there when searching for information on a topic with which I am not familiar.

The Mayo Clinic also represents the current problem with academic medicine and the current fad of so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) – they just don’t get it. They do not seem to understand what CAM really is, its history,  its current practice, and the state of the evidence. But they know it’s out there and people are interested in it (because they are told they should be) and so they feel the need to address it.

When they do address CAM, however, they have apparently done what most academic centers have done in my experience – they turn it over to “CAM experts,” which ends up being CAM proponents. The result is that CAM propaganda and shameless promotion becomes endorsed by an academic institution (what my colleagues and I have come to call “quackademic medicine”).

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Sep 20 2013

Health Canada Misses the Point

This is an unintended follow up to my post yesterday about holding the line against pseudoscience – this time with regard to regulations. It is one thing to lend an organization’s reputation to pseudoscience, and another when outright unscientific practices are given official sanction by a government or regulatory body. It continues to amaze me how naive (or perhaps it’s just politically expedient) such regulators can be.

On September 6th Nathan Kunzler and Arthur Caplan published an excellent editorial in The Star in which they called out Canada’s public health agency for hypocrisy. They pointed out that, according to Health Canada’s own website:

“To be licensed in Canada, natural health products must be safe, effective, of high quality and carry detailed label information to let people make safe and informed choices.”

Therefore, if they license a product they are proclaiming it safe and effective. Health Canada licenses homeopathic products, which are not effective. They are nothing but placebos, magic potions based on prescientific notions and with “active ingredients” that are often diluted beyond the point where any original substance is likely to remain. Homeopathic products are therefore literally nothing. Further, clinical trials have consistently shown that they do not, in fact, work.

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Jun 17 2013

A Homeopathy Debate

On two occasions I was invited to UCONN to debate the scientific legitimacy of homeopathy - in 2007, and again in March of this year. I often directly confront or debate those who hold an unscientific belief. Sometimes this is criticized as being pointless, but that claim is premised on the assumption that the only point to such a debate is convincing the person on the other side, but that is not the case.

I have several goals in direct confrontation: to better understand the claims and logic of those holding that view, to explore my own position and improve my ability to explain it, and to demonstrate scientific and critical thinking with respect to this issue to the audience.

The more recent homeopathy debate was between me an Andre Saine, a Canadian naturopath and homeopath. During the debate we barely scratched the surface of this complex topic, so we both agreed to continue our discussion in writing, moderated by Peter Gold who organized the debate.

Here is Andre’s first question to me, and my answer.

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May 23 2013

The Younger Dryas

Published by under General Science

I love raging scientific controversies. I am not talking about vaccines and autism, global warming, evolution, or homeopathy – these are not actual scientific controversies. They are political controversies intruding onto science.

I prefer nerdy scientific debates that have insignificant political implications. I like to see two groups of scientists arguing about the evidence over some narrow scientific question.  That way you get pure science without all the distortion and nonsense of politics and ideology. That is when you see how science really works.

Take for example the Younger Dryas. The last glacial maximum ended about 20,000 years ago. That glacial period was followed by interstadial (warm) periods and stadial (cold) periods. The term Dryas refers to the indicator genus (Dryas octopetali) which is a tundra flower that was much more widely distributed during cold periods. Its pollen in core samples is therefore a good indicator of an stadial period.

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