Data please: holding quackbusters to their own standards, Part I (Prometheus unhinged)


First up is Prometheus.

bq. Seeing how some people have turned these “renegade” physicians (e.g. “Joseph Mercola”:http://www.mercola.com/forms/testimonials.htm [also see “here”:http://www.casewatch.org/fdawarning/prod/2005/mercola.shtml%5D, “Jeff Bradstreet”:http://www.icdrc.org/Bradstreet.html, “Andrew Wakefield”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/3513365.stm, “Rashid Buttar”:http://antiagingconference.com/spring/speaker/bios/rashid_buttar/, “Andrew Weil”:http://www.drweil.com/u/Home/ and “Deepak Chopra”:http://www.chopra.com/) into saints (occasionally martyrs), gurus and even saviours has left me wondering. Clearly, these physicians have tapped into a unmet need in the people they……. I suppose the polite term would be “treat”.

Interesting twist. Because _some_ people turn aforementioned alternative medicine practicioners into elevated figures, it somehow must be the practitioner’s fault? However, perhaps unintentionally, this paragraph does point out that conventional medicine is lacking. (Good and often excellent, as was evidenced by the fact that I used conventional medicine practitioners last night to diagnose and treat a nasty case of pneumonia, but often lacking.)

bq. *These people have all had a scientific education – with at least a passing familiarity with scientific method – and should know that what they are saying is, at best, untested and, at worst, known to be false.* (his emphasis)

Here Prometheus is accusing “these people” (perhaps the ones mentioned above) of professional and scientific fraud, and provides NO DATA whatsoever to back up this claim. No links, no examples of claims made by each of these authors, no supporting data whatsoever. Now, I could probably Google his site and find such data (and I certainly whenever possible do research on my own when I visit _any_ new doctor), but if you’re going to question the personal and professional integrity of a large group of doctors, the very least he can do is link to previous discussions on the topic, preferably ones that have examples of false statements made by each of the practitioners along with a discussion of why it is false or untested. As a bonus, if he wanted to score bonus points, he could even link to discussions of the harm that this claim has caused. After all, it is the standard that quackbusters claim to apply to other’s claims.

bq. I’m not a lawyer and I have no pretensions about my legal knowledge, but it seems to me – humble biologist that I am – that there is at least a moral responsibility (if not a legal liability) for making authoritative, emphatic statements that you either know or should know – because of your education and training – aren’t well supported (or are, in fact, disproven) by the data.

I read from this that he wants to see aforementioned people legally punished. Still no data.

bq. One of the reasons that “alternative” medicine and “pseudoscience” appeal to the “average person” (i.e. people with little or no formal education in the sciences) is that they offer simple (some might say simplistic) answers to difficult and complex questions.

Data, please. Oh, don’t have any? Let me speculate why. This is a declarative statement, an assertion of fact. However, this is not a fact, it is an _opinion_ disguised as a fact. It may be true for some people, but not all.

Also hidden in this statement is an assumption, another _opinion_, that alternative medicine gives simple answers to complex questions. Again, in some cases alternative medicine practitioners give very simple answers to complex questions, and very often those answers are dead wrong. Sometimes a simple answer is all that’s needed. Why am I feeling crappy, with 103° fever, abdominal pain, unable to get out of bed. Oh, because I have a bacterial infection in my left lung. The issue of whether a simple or complex answer is needed is rather complex.

(Huh, this uncovers another issue: perhaps the _mechanism_ for how pneumonia is complex, but the correlation of infection to symptoms is pretty simple.)

bq. If you ask one of these “renegades” how to slow (or even stop!) aging, what causes autism or how to “cure what ails ye”, they almost always have very concrete, definite anwers.

An almost universal statement, requiring proof. And of course, not even the slightest bit of data given. Let’s up the ante, though, and visit one or two of these sites on the topic of aging.

First up, “Dr. Andrew Weil”:http://www.drweil.com/:

bq. Join the premium Dr. Weil on Healthy Aging Web site, a companion to Dr. Weil’s
new New York Times #1 best-selling book. The site offers the latest information on
healthy aging, the anti-inflammatory diet and recipes, community support, and the
tools you need to begin your journey toward graceful aging.

While Dr. Weil seems eager for my money (and, after the copay for an ER visit last night, I’m a little stingier), I don’t see a claim to slow/cure aging. Graceful aging seems to be an area of “active research”:http://www.purdue.edu/UNS/html4ever/0012.Flynn.seniors.html. What little I’ve found supports the opposite of Prometheus’s statement.

Next up, “Dr. Mercola”:http://www.mercola.com/2001/sep/15/diet_slows_aging.htm

bq. Severe calorie restriction is the only treatment that consistently has been shown to extend mammals’ lifespan, although its effectiveness in people is unproven.

This is “true”:http://calerie.dcri.duke.edu/about/index.html, by the way, and this statement is being put to the test in humans. Prometheus’s statement looks a little less promising.

Ok, one more that looks very promising: “Dr. Buttar”:http://drbuttar.com

Paging “Dr. Buttar”:http://antiagingconference.com/spring/speaker/bios/rashid_buttar/.

Has anyone seen Dr. Buttar’s anti-aging claims? He certainly seems to be the center of controversy with his skin cream chelation therapy for mercury poisoning, but I still can’t find any anti-aging claims.

Ok, you get the point. Prometheus set a very high bar for himself, and then refused to even get off the ground. Pretty piss-poor argument from a self-proclaimed scientist and skeptic.

Pretty much the rest of the post contains the same sweeping generalizations with about the same factual data content as before. But there is one interesting twist:

If what these “renegades” were doing (or advising you to do) was the “norm” in the medical community, then you would be at least no worse off for following advice that had not been scientifically tested. Quite a bit of medicine – even today – is based on the collective “clinical experience” of thousands of physicians. Periodically, one of these practices gets picked off by a scientific study, in which case the medical community adopts a new “norm”.

However, if your physician is one of the “renegades”, you have no such reassurance. Occasionally, the lone maverick who stands alone and refuses to follow the herd is the vanguard of a new breakthrough in medicine (or science). Most often, however, they are simply wandering aimlessly off the trail and into the wilderness. Taking you with them.

Fascinating. Here Prometheus differentiates between the clinical experience of the “vanguard” and the clinical experience of the “renegades.” Somehow, they’re different. The clinical experience of a “renegade” gives us no “reassurances,” but novel practices from a “vanguard” doesn’t. Again, an opinion clothed as a fact, and given the campaigns of “NCCAM”:http://nccam.nih.gov, not necessarily true.

By the way, erstwhile Dr. Stephen Barrett has taken this attitude a step farther and has sued a bunch of people. Most of the time, they settle. One chiropractor “fought back”:http://www.foundationforhealthchoice.com/bigger_picture.html and won. The ruling: Mr. Barrett didn’t have enough evidence to back up his libel claim. More “here”:http://www.chiro.org/LINKS/FULL/Quackwatch_Founder_Loses_Defamation_Case.shtml, just scroll down a little bit to remove the annoying blinking. Some more interesting revelations about “Dr.” Stephen Barrett on that page. Even more “here”:http://www.healthfreedomlaw.com/Welcome%20Major%20News.htm, with some interesting info on “Dr.” Barrett’s other losses.While I suppose it’s technically ok for Mr. Barrett to use his conferred title “Dr.” after giving up his last license over a decade ago to practice medicine it really seems to me that he’s been doing so in quite a disingenuous way. Some of the links I’ve included elaborate on this, including his legal “expert” testimony. So, it looks like Prometheus’s idea is being tried for real by Mr. Quackbuster himself, but when actual lawyers, judges, and juries examine the facts, the claims come up short.

Quite the hackjob, which is what I expect from an article referenced by “Orac”:http://oracknows.blogspot.com, the man who never met a quackbuster he didn’t like. Well, that’s because he “is one”:http://www.patsullivan.com/blog/2005/09/orac_unmasked_a.html, but we knew that already.

(To be continued)

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