It’s been reported that Theranos is now under several federal investigations, this time for securities violations. It’s possible that the company could end up getting shut down. None of this is very surprising to people who have followed this story. The CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, was featured in some glowing mainstream press coverage last year but soon after questions started arising about the company. They claimed to have a method to do blood tests with a much smaller amount of blood than in traditional tests, but this has been called into question. It’s now widely thought that the claims were wildly overstated, if not outright false.
I would also mention that the CNBC clip shown is worse than useless. It seems as if they’re taking most of the company’s responses at face value, which is never a very good idea in this kind of scandal.
Well, we’ve survived Republican primary debate #2. Unfortunately, it was not a great day for science. Late in the debate, Trump went on a rant about how the vaccine schedule should be changed because it is causing autism. In fact, he’s even seen a small child with autism, which makes him an authority on its etiology. There were even two candidates who come from the medical field who were there: Rand Paul and Ben Carson, but neither gave a satisfactory response.
Carson correctly pointed out that there is no evidence of any link between vaccines and autism. The infamous Wakefield paper originally claiming this has been debunked and retracted by the journal, with Wakefield seen as a disgrace to his field by everyone with any credibility in medicine. Unfortunately, Carson also decided to pander to the anti-vaccine crowd by agreeing with Trump that the the vaccine schedule should be changed. He should have just stopped when he said that there is no evidence that vaccines cause autism. Trying to please everyone may be optimal for gaining supporters, but it’s also quite dangerous since it lends those with an unfounded claim far more credibility than they deserve. Rand Paul made a similar comment supporting delaying some vaccinations.
Surely one of the eleven candidates is knowledgable enough to know that Trump’s comments are quite dangerous and should be challenged. I suspect that at the very least both Carson and Paul know this but maybe were unwilling to give such a direct challenge as that might lose them some supporters (although it might gain some too). So, while Trump was the one to actually make anti-vaccine arguments, the silence or partial support from the other candidates means that no one really looks good here. Our immune systems can do many things, and there is basically no reason to think that a small number of vaccines would have any real affect on us considering how much bacteria we encounter every day. As the cliche goes, an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence, yet we don’t even have any ordinary evidence.
A number of prominent doctors have written a note calling for Dr. Oz to lose his position at Columbia-Presbyterian due to his constant peddling of pseudoscience to unsuspecting people. Supposedly, Dr. Oz is an amazing surgeon but many feel that his support of “alternative” treatments makes a lot of people think that he does more harm than good.
The Atlantic has a long article out this month about Alcoholics Anonymous. The main conclusion: Alcoholics Anonymous is, for the most part, quack medicine with little scientific backing that is supported for historical/cultural reasons even though better treatments for addiction potentially exist.
It seems that everyone just assumes that 12 step programs work because of how widespread they are, but such programs (and apparently many other rehab programs) often have abysmal success rates. Furthermore, many of their methods are reportedly based on completely unsupported assertions rather than the kind of evidence that is usually required for most medical treatments. This is apparently a case where popular opinion has overruled any actual scientific evidence or consensus and the result is that many people are made to suffer unnecessarily. Treatment should generally rely on what has been shown to work and not what people believe should work due to some preexisting ideology.
It’s being reported that Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council, a governmental agency that appears to be their equivalent of the NIH in the US, has put out a new analysis of hundreds of papers dealing with homeopathy. They find no evidence that homeopathy is effective at treating anything.
Given that homeopathic medicines are at best placebos and at worst unregulated, poorly documented chemicals, no one should be surprised at this finding. Homeopathy is quack medicine with a transparently pseudoscientific basis.
A study published earlier this week on fact-checking medical claims made on TV has been popping up all over the internet for the past few days. The authors watched a number of episodes of two different medical talk shows, compiled a list of various recommendations and then tried to find evidence supporting these recommendations. This is a pretty qualitative way to study this, but sounds like a reasonable way to fact check these programs. A well-supported medical claim ought to be easy to find in the literature. Claims that can’t be found in a short search through the literature probably lack enough evidence to make a serious recommendation.
The article makes Dr. Oz’s show look particularly bad (and Dr. Oz’s credibility has already suffered a number of blows this year). Less than half of the 80 recommendations from his show included in the study were found to have any serious supporting evidence. Furthermore, it was rather shocking to see that Dr. Oz’s show mostly gives dietary advice (over 1/3 of recommendations) or recommends “alternative therapies.” This suggests that Dr. Oz is really just telling viewers what they want to hear and not what they need to hear. The other show, The Doctors, wasn’t great either but seemed to have a much more balanced mix of recommendations and also did a far better job at suggesting that people consult their actual doctors rather than just blindly following what they saw on TV.
Having prominent shows with millions of viewers peddling quack medicine is very bad for all science fields and not just medicine. Medicine is probably the closest most people get to actual science, so when unsupported recommendations don’t work they could lead to eroding the public’s trust in science. Furthermore, medical professionals have a duty not to mislead the public. This paper suggests that prominent public figures in medicine are failing at one of their most basic duties.
You may have seen that the recent ebola outbreak has been eliminated from Nigeria and Senegal. Here is an article with some info on how this was achieved. The good news is that it looks like major uncontained outbreaks are unlikely in countries with functional healthcare systems. Also, unlike what’s being suggested by various politicians and media figures, it’s not necessary to close the borders to keep people from getting ebola.