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Posts Tagged ‘Alternative medicine

British Chiropractic Association follows in the footsteps of David Irving, Robert Maxwell and Matthias Rath

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UK author Simon Singh is being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association. Singh had written an article suggesting that the BCA claimed, without evidence, that chiropractic (aka chiropracty) was effective in treating children for “colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying”.

I haven’t yet read Simon Singh’s acclaimed book, “Trick or Treatment”, in which he looks in detail at the scientific evidence behind chiropractic. Nor, until recently, did I know very much about this particular branch of pseudo-medicine. But by bringing this case, the BCA has ensured that thousands of people now know that this is an organisation whose response to public criticism is to seek to prosecute a well-respected writer under the UK’s notoriously one-sided libel laws. And I suspect that a great many observers will, like me, draw their own conclusions as to what this says about the BCA’s confidence in the evidence for their methods.

People say all sorts of things about all sorts of scientific claims all the time. AIDS denialists, for example, will routinely assert that anti-retroviral drugs are not effective against HIV. Sometimes these claims have even made it into the mainstream media. But I’ve yet to come across a case of a pharmaceutical company responding to such claims by suing an AIDS denialist for libel. Why would you need to sue anyone when the evidence speaks for itself?

The BCA, frankly, is not in good company. During the 1980s, the millionaire tycoon Robert Maxwell famously used UK libel law to suppress media coverage of his dubious business practices. At the beginning of this decade, pseudo-historian David Irving, perhaps even more famously, brought a case against the writer Deborah Lipstadt after she had accused him of denying the holocaust and falsifying history. Last year, the AIDS denialist vitamin salesman Matthias Rath sued the Guardian and Ben Goldacre over two articles which exposed his nefarious activities in South Africa.

But even under UK libel law – which is so draconian that a number of US states have passed statutes protecting their citizens from malicious suits initiated in this country – the bad guys can still sometimes lose. David Irving lost his case against Lipstadt, and was bankrupted as a result. Matthias Rath was forced to drop his case after the Guardian produced overwhelming evidence to back their story – and is now in the process of paying back half a million pounds worth of costs.

Libel suits are a messy and expensive way of settling simple matters of fact and evidence. Those who react to criticism by seeking to suppress freedom of speech surely risk tainting their reputations even further. I’ve joined the Facebook group in support of Simon Singh (2,500 members and counting) and am now very much looking forward to reading his book.

Time to start calling “alternative medicine” by its proper name?

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Via Ben Goldacre’s Twitter feed comes this story from the Sydney Morning Herald:

THE parents of a nine-month-old girl who died from septicemia were responsible for their baby’s death because they shunned conventional medical treatment for her eczema in favour of homeopathic remedies, a court heard yesterday.

A homeopath, Thomas Sam, 42, and his wife, Manju Sam, 36, are standing trial in the NSW Supreme Court charged with manslaughter by gross criminal negligence after they allegedly resisted the advice of nurses and a doctor to send her to a skin specialist.

Instead Gloria Thomas, who was born in perfect health in July 2001, allegedly died with malnutrition and eczema so severe that her skin broke every time her parents removed her clothes and nappy.

It strikes me that “alternative medicine” is a rather generous term for practices, like homeopathy, which, despite the claims of adherents, have no sound basis in science and no proven benefit beyond the placebo effect.

My dictionary defines medicine as “the science of treating illness”. Dictionary.com gives us “any substance or substances used in treating disease or illness…” and “the art or science of restoring or preserving health or due physical condition, as by means of drugs, surgical operations or appliances, or manipulations”. To apply the term “medicine” to practices such as homeopathy which are neither scientific nor have any impact on illness,  therefore seems both inaccurate and misleading.

Within the natural sciences more widely, ideas which claim to be scientific but which rest on deception, dodgy methodology and exaggerated claims, are typically described not as “alternative science” but as “pseudo-science”. In referring to such ideas within medicine, it seems to me that a more useful and descriptive phrase than “alternative medicine” would simply be “pseudo-medicine”

“Alternative medicine” may sound like a neutral term, but implicit within it are a set of assumptions which skew the argument in favour of quackery from the outset. The very use of the term “medicine” lends credence to the notion that practices such as homeopathy are a) scientific and b) effective. By describing homeopathy as “alternative medicine” we are helping to couch the discussion in terms of either/or, and with it the idea that to accept an unproven quack remedy over the entire canon of evidence-based-medicine is simply another consumer choice, like selecting a different brand of breakfast cereal.

The supposed dichotomy between “alternative” and “mainstream” medicine can skew the debate even further. For many people – perhaps especially those on the left-wing of politics – these are anything but neutral terms. The term “mainstream” carries very negative connotations, suggesting conformity, mediocrity, and compliance with authority, while the term “alternative” represents the polar opposite. Thus we have the contrast between “alternative” and “mainstream” music (eg. Nirvana vs Britney Spears), “alternative” and “mainstream” media (Indymedia vs the Daily Mail), and “alternative” and “mainstream” politics (eg. Greens vs Conservatives).

Anecdotal evidence can obviously only get you so far, but among the people I know who embrace “alternative medicine” and take it seriously, I’ve been struck by the extent to which they see it as a lifestyle choice, fitting in seamlessly with their political views, musical tastes, and media preferences.  It seems to me that one way to tackle this problem at its root would be to start challenging the very terms on which the debate is  being conducted, and stop accepting “alternative medicine” as a valid description of toxic, pseudo-medicinal ideas like homeopathy.

Written by Richard Wilson

May 5, 2009 at 10:44 am

“Children must never play with matches”: Ophelia Benson on the folly of amateur medicine

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From Butterflies and Wheels

It’s good to question conventional wisdom, except when it isn’t. Conventional wisdom holds that a bridge designed by engineers and built by reputable builders is safer to drive across than one designed by shamans and built by hairdressers. Questioning that conventional wisdom is not really all that productive, and if anyone listens to the questioning, it’s downright lethal.

So with Christine Maggiore.

Until the end, Christine Maggiore remained defiant.On national television and in a blistering book, she denounced research showing that HIV causes AIDS. She refused to take medications to treat her own virus. She gave birth to two children and breast fed them, denying any risk to their health. And when her 3-year-old child, Eliza Jane, died of what the coroner determined to be AIDS-related pneumonia, she protested the findings and sued the county.

That’s the risky kind of questioning conventional wisdom – and it risks other people as well as oneself. That’s why Prince Charles makes me angry when he indulges his passion for denouncing non-alternative medicine, and it’s why Juliet Stevenson made me angry when she used her celebrity to denounce the conventional wisdom about the MMR vaccine and autism, and it’s why Christine Maggiore makes me angry even though she’s now dead. It makes me angry that she breast-fed her children and it makes me angry that she went on television to denounce research showing that HIV causes AIDS. People shouldn’t do that. People shouldn’t take on life and death medical issues when they have no training or expertise in the subject. People shouldn’t trust their own judgment that completely.

For years, the South African government joined with Maggiore in denying that HIV is responsible for AIDS and resisting antiretroviral treatment. According to a new analysis by a group of Harvard public health researchers, 330,000 people died as a consequence of the government’s denial and 35,000 babies were born with the disease.

It’s not a subject for hobbyists or cranks or princes or actors. Children must never play with matches.

See also: The parallels between AIDS denial and Holocaust negationism

David Gorski on the insidious myth of “balance” in science reporting

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From Science-based medicine

I believe that most reporters in the media do really want to get it right. However, they are hobbled by three things. First, many, if not most, of them have little training in science or the scientific method and are not particularly valued by their employers. For example, witness how CNN shut down their science division. Second, the only medical or science stories that seem to be valued are one of three types. The first type is the new breakthrough, the cool new discovery that might result in a new treatment or cure. Of course, this type doesn’t distinguish between science-based and non-science-based “breakthroughs.” They are both treated equally, which is why “alternative medicine” stories are so popular. The second type is the human interest story, which is inherently interesting to readers, listeners, or viewers because, well, it’s full of human interest. This sort of story involves the child fighting against long odds to get a needed transplant, for example, especially if the insurance company is refusing to pay for it. The third type, unfortunately, often coopts the second type and, to a lesser extent, the first type. I’m referring to the “medical controversy” story. Unfortunately, the “controversy” is usually more of a manufactroversy. In other words, it’s a fake controversy. No scientific controversy exists, but ideologues desperately try to make it appear as though a real scientific controversy exists. Non-medical examples include creationism versus evolution and the “9/11 Truth” movement versus history. Medical examples include the so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” movement versus science-based medicine and, of course, the anti-vaccine movement.

Max Dunbar reviews Don’t Get Fooled Again

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From Max Dunbar

If you’re new to the explosion in investigative scepticism then Richard Wilson’s book on bullshit past and present serves as an excellent primer. You’ll find excellent chapters on the AIDS denial epidemic that’s killing Africa, the rise and fall of the Holocaust denier and fake historian David Irving, the socially acceptable lunacy of alternative medicine. For critics like Dan Hind who feel that sceptics take on too soft targets, there are savage explorations of America’s internment policies, the cover-up of the link between smoking and cancer and the profligate corruption of the Enron corporation.

But there are also revelations for the seasoned sceptic. Wilson has a fascinating chapter on Trofim Lysenko, Stalin’s pet agronomist who denounced Darwinism as ‘bourgeois’ (so much for the rational atheist superstate) and claimed that ‘wheat could be trained to thrive in a cold climate by being soaked in freezing water’. There’s also the asbestos charlatan John Bridle, who claimed for years and despite massive evidence to the contrary that white asbestos was harmless: his assertions were plugged throughout the 2000s by the ludicrous Sunday Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker.

As Wilson points out, we must now be sceptical even of sceptics: deniers of the Holocaust and Srebrenica and climate change and 9/11 and 7/7. These are people who use the language of evidence and objectivity in a scramble for the moral high ground. Yet their florid and bizarre claims are only ever backed up with plaintive cries of ‘Open your mind’ or ‘How do we know?’ The pitiful trajectory of David Shayler will serve for all these cases: a former MI5 agent jailed for exposing very real conspiracies, Shayler was reduced to babbling in a Somerset town hall that he was ‘God incarnated as spirit and man… Journalists are asked to arrive with an open mind.’

Wilson draws a firm line between scepticism and denial in a paragraph that should be spraypainted in ten-foot letters on the houses of every smug 9/11 lunatic and apologist for fascism:

Sceptics form their beliefs on the basis of concrete facts, and evaluate each piece of evidence on its own merits. Denialists select their facts on the basis of their pre-existing beliefs, and reject evidence that they dislike, or find inconvenient.

There’s so much gold in Wilson’s book it’s hard to pick out specific examples. Wilson explains in a wonderful aside that the brain regenerates itself every seven years – meaning in effect that you will be a completely different person by November 30 2015. He shatters the postmodern paradigm of a Western imperial Enlightenment forced upon complaining natives by discussing the developing world’s substantial contributions to science.

But somehow Wilson loses his nerve in his chapter on the millennial con-trick of religion. He doesn’t defend its claims about the world (although there was a time when religious apologists did exactly that) rather, he approves of faith as ‘wishful thinking, strategically deployed.’ Theism is ‘a decision to take on, in the apparent absence of compelling evidence either for or against, a set of beliefs that cheer some people up.’ All very comforting, but this is just the Straussianism of the neoconservatives that Wilson rails against in his chapters on Iraq. Only Strauss advocated delusion as a means of keeping the masses under control, rather than a positive lifestyle choice.

‘If religion is the opium of the people,’ Wilson chuckles, ‘then most recreational users I know seem to manage their habit fairly comfortably.’ There’s nothing wrong with lying to yourself to be happy, we all do that from time to time, but there’s something shitty and depressing about the argument that we need to keep these noble lies around to prevent us from killing ourselves. It’s not true, in any case, and for the life of me I don’t understand why advocates of this fashionable pessimism ignore the very real sources of comfort and transcendence in our mortal realm: the appreciation of art and creativity and sport, starting a family, falling in love (which is the defining transcendence for most people).

Wilson also says that ‘It’s not so much faith in God that is the problem – it’s faith in human beings.’ Nope: humanity is more worthy of worship than anything. Ideas, as Wilson has shown in his otherwise essential book, are fair game.

AIDS quack Matthias Rath’s Guardian libel suit backfires badly

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In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I highlight the case of Matthias Rath, the German vitamin salesman who has urged HIV sufferers, most notoriously in South Africa, to stop taking real medicines and use ‘nutritional supplements’ instead. Rath has faced increasing international criticism for his activities, including from the Guardian’s Ben Goldacre, who ran a series of articles discussing Rath’s extraordinary claims. In response, Rath launched a libel suit – but this has now backfired disastrously. The evidence against Rath is so clear that he had no real chance of success, even under the UK’s notoriously plaintiff-friendly libel laws. Yesterday it was announced that he had abandoned the suit, with costs awarded of at least £200,000.

Today’s Guardian gives wall-to-wall coverage to Rath and his nefarious activities, with a damning video which discusses several cases of people who have died after being taken in by his bogus claims.

On the value of peer review…

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Previously this post read:

Earlier this week I blogged about the extraordinary transformation of Radovan Karadzic, war criminal, into Dragan Dabic, alternative medicine practicioner. While I’d seen the website of the clinic where he’d been working, what I didn’t know was that Dragan himself actually has his own website, which bears the intriguing title “Healing from Within: The Ever Increasing Need for Alternative Viewpoints in the Modern World”… Odd though it may seem on one level, in a way it makes a kind of sense that Karadzic could so easily switch from one type of cynical psychological manipulation to another… Thanks to Ty for the link.

*UPDATE* – Here’s the rough English translation of DD’s homepage from Google.

Many thanks to JEF for pointing out that the ‘Dragan Dabic’ website looks to have been set up the day after Dabic (aka Karadzic) was arrested! According to www.allwhois.com, the site was created on July 22nd, and is registered to an address in Wisconsin, USA…

An illustration, once again, of the indispensible value of ‘peer review’

See also “Poe’s law”, over at rationalwiki: 

“Poe’s Law relates to fundamentalism, and the difficulty of identifying actual parodies of it. It suggests that, in general, it is hard to tell fake fundamentalism from the real thing, since they both sound equally ridiculous. The law also works in reverse: real fundamentalism can also be indistinguishable from parody fundamentalism.”

Written by Richard Wilson

July 25, 2008 at 10:01 am