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Posts Tagged ‘alternative medicine’

Ben Goldacre has a new book out. You can read the foreword, and also watch a TED talk he gave on the subject which is the book’s focus: the systematic distortion of evidence and profit-driven manipulation of reality by the pharmaceutical industry and numerous related groups and individuals.

I’m really looking forward to reading it once I’ve got through some more of my intimidating literary backlog. I’m expecting to be appalled, judging by what I’ve learned about this general clusterfuck so far. Much about modern medical science has been integral to one of the greatest forces for good in human history, but Big Pharma clearly has its Orwellian nightmare side too.

Here’s one thing I’m interested to see: What do the alternative medicine fans think of all this?

Bad Science did, after all, rip the world of fake unmedicine to shreds with a blistering effectiveness rarely matched elsewhere. I can assure you from personal experience that simply blogging about it occasionally is enough to get you labelled as a bought-and-sold shill by some sections of the alt-med crowd, so you can imagine the kind of things he got accused of for writing a popular book and newspaper column about it.

If you listen to the extremists, practically everyone who’s ever dared question the value of drinking bleach to cure AIDS is obviously in the pay of greedy corporate propagandists trying to keep the populace in check (wake up, sheeple!) – so where does Ben Goldacre fit into that model? You can imagine the confusion:

He says our wonderful homeopathy is worthless bollocks… but he’s written and is eagerly promoting an entire book denouncing the pharmaceutical industry’s profit-driven distortions of medicine. Which is what we do! I don’t understand. Was there a clerical error somewhere in the Big Pharma finance department and his cheques stopped getting sent?

It seems rare that an alt-med advocate will credit their opponents with enough intellectual honesty to be expressing the views they do for any reason other than monetary gain (although, to be fair, this may be something of a two-way street). I wonder if the publication of this new book will persuade anyone that people like Ben Goldacre often spend so much time rebutting alternative medicine because they really think that, and that they can see the problems with Big Pharma for what they are as well.

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– Prejudice against individuals based on their religion is wrong. Pointing out the violence and abuse inherent to Islam is not prejudice.

Citation badly needed.

– People who want abortion to be illegal aren’t even opposed to abortion, if you actually look at the practical effects of their policies. They’re neither pro-life nor anti-abortion. Anti-choice is perhaps the only remaining label that fits.

– The state of “science” TV in the States isn’t looking so hot.

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The Burzynski Clinic have issued a press release, presumably in response to the recent unflattering media attention they’ve been getting.

The first thing I notice about this official statement is that the clinic’s motto on their letterhead reads: “First, Do Not [sic] Harm!”. Which is different from the one on their website, which uses the more common “Do No Harm”. This is funny.

More pertinently, they address the issue of Marc Stephens, the bizarre presumably-not-a-lawyer who’s been harassing Rhys Morgan and intimidating other bloggers while claiming to represent the Burzynski Clinic. They describe him as an “independent contractor”, and confirm that he was working on their behalf when he sent those emails.

He now “no longer has a professional relationship with the Burzynski Clinic”. But as far as mop-ups of terrible PR messes go, they seem to have turned the taps off and declared that everything’s fine, while ignoring the water sloshing about their ankles. They’re still planning on taking legal action against bloggers who they believe have made “false and defamatory” factual statements.

Also, as I write this, Marc Stephens is still listed as the “Marketing & Sponsorship” contact for the Burzynski Patient Group (a distinct organisation from the Burzynski Clinic). The extent to which the relationship has in fact been severed seems unclear.

Orac has some comments about the irrelevant or misleading nature of the purported factual misstatements that the Clinic are concerned by. But more fascinating is Jen McCreight’s analysis of the Burzynski Clinic’s publications, as cited in support of Burzynski’s antineoplaston therapy in the press release.

There’s a long list of very official-looking formal publications, which seem to be examples of solid evidence which Burzynski has found and published, despite the claims of some of his detractors. But, as Jen has uncovered, they’re little more than blustering noise.

The first paper listed was published in a journal with no impact factor at all, which bodes ill for its credibility within the overall scientific discipline. The next one was published in an alternative medical journal with poor standing among oncology journals as a whole. These aren’t grounds to discredit both papers entirely, but they highlight the need for controversial results to be reproduced and reviewed in a more mainstream journal before we put too much trust in them. The next is from a very odd journal whose role in the medical community seems hard to pin down, and whose reputation or reliability are entirely unknown.

The remainder of the list, and the majority of the “scientific articles” the Clinic chooses to offer in support of their therapy, are, according to Jen, not even from published papers. They’re all from research presentations, where any scientist has the chance to present preliminary results, before going through any kind of peer review process. So these citations all say absolutely nothing about the quackitude or otherwise of what Burzynski chose to present. They’re not of peer-reivewed studies.

Clearly, there still hasn’t been any convincing data released by Burzynski to support his claims for cancer treatment, despite clearly having a lot of data available which he’s choosing not to share in a scientifically rigorous manner.

The press release mentions Laura Hymas, who is currently on antineoplaston treatment with the clinic. They say that she’s doing well, and “her tumor is shrinking”. Whether or not there’s credible science buried somewhere in there, I hope they’re at least right about that.

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Remember that time some legitimate cancer researchers threatened to sue a 17-year-old kid who questioned the scientific credibility of their medical claims?

No, me neither.

But, after Rhys Morgan posted to his blog about the Burzynski Clinic a couple of months ago, he started getting bizarre, abusive, bullying, creepy, and borderline illiterate correspondence from the same self-professed representative of the clinic who I blogged about recently.

Partly because of Rhys’s involvement, this is no longer just a story of specialist interest. There was a minor fuss being kicked up by the skeptics who follow these things, and people like Ben Goldacre were trying to get it some wider coverage, but it was still fairly localised. It’s not anymore. It’s been retweeted by the likes of @stephenfry and @serafinowicz. It’s on BoingBoing. Thanks to Marc Stephens’s efforts to browbeat people into silence with utterly baseless talk of libel lawsuits, the internet’s pricked up its ears. The internet doesn’t take kindly to this sort of thing.

I was going to talk about the analysis of Burzynski’s published research, and the clever people who have watched and dissected the weird propaganda movie about his clinic, explaining why the very limited data available is entirely insufficient to justify the grandiose claims being made about cancer treatment.

But I don’t think I even need to go there. Given the way they’ve behaved lately, I consider myself entirely unburdened of any onus to sift through the history of their claims in a search for validity.

The guy in charge of the Burzynski Patient Group’s Marketing & Sponsorship (or someone pretending to be him) sent multiple emails to a 17-year-old blogger, harassing him into deleting from the internet every pertinent comment or remark he’d made, threatening to file a libel suit against him (despite every indication that he’s not actually a lawyer), and attached to one email photos of Rhys’s own house taken from Google Maps.

That is creepy to the point of fuck you in the ear. There is no plausible reason for acting like Marc Stephens has done if he had any coherent legal point to make, let alone a shred of scientific standing. Nothing that’s come out of the Burzynski Clinic this week – heck, nothing I’ve seen any evidence of from the last thirty years – supports the idea that there’s anything legitimate or ethically sound about the way they operate. They’re acting like morally deranged maniacs.

There’s more at the Quackometer, the Twenty-First Floor, the Sceptical Letter Writer, and the Skeptical Nurse.

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A man named Dr Burzynski believes he can treat cancer through an entirely new form of therapy.

I don’t know if this is true, but other people have been trying to find out.

Orac has previously reported on some of the reasons why most physicians doubt that Burzynski’s method is as effective as he claims. The evidence supporting his claims appears to be mostly anecdotal, and the only results he’s published are ones which nobody else has yet been able to replicate.

When someone makes a world-changing assertion like this, good scientists will want it to be checked carefully to make sure there isn’t some mistake, before they accept that it’s true. This becomes an especially acute concern when, for instance, mainstream newspapers run full-page stories about a four-year-old girl with a rare and inoperable brain cancer, for whom a multiple-celebrity-endorsed fund has been set up to get her the help she needs.

This should not be a controversial opinion: When the parents of a young girl with cancer are trying to raise hundreds of thousands of pounds to make their daughter healthy, it is the profound responsibility of everyone involved to make sure that that money’s not going to be wasted.

Sadly, Andy Lewis thinks it might be.

Even sadlier, he’s being sent obnoxious and inane libel threats as a result of his trying to help.

Someone claiming to “represent” the Burzynski Clinic (although in what capacity is unclear, as he doesn’t seem to be a lawyer) has demanded that Andy stop “defaming and libeling” his client with “factually incorrect” information. Weirdly, he doesn’t want to say what the information is.

Andy wrote back a number of times, expressing every desire to correct and amend any such errors of fact he might have made, and asking exactly what part of the blogpost in question is at issue, pointing out that anyone wishing to sue for defamation will need to express the exact wording they find objectionable. The not-lawyer responded with more threats, and a continued lack of any specifics, as well as a number of phrases like “Quackwatch, Ratbags, and the rest of you Skeptics [sic] days are numbered”, and “when I present to the juror that my client and his cancer treatment has went [sic] up against 5 Grand Juries”, which are weird and unprofessional on several levels.

This apparent representative of Burzynski appears grammatically and legally incompetent, and has received the famed “misconceived and illiberal” label from Jack of Kent. And he’s sure as hell not improving the scientific credibility of this purportedly legitimate medical facility.

Andy Lewis wrote an article, because he was concerned about the welfare of a girl, whose parents have raised considerable funds from many generous sources, and whose proposed treatment is unproved by any scientific standard and has been undergoing “trials” (in which people can be enrolled for a vast fee) since 1977 with no significant progress in publishing positive results.

The Burzynski Clinic still aren’t publishing any results for peer review in a respectable journal. But they’re making legal threats toward people who are concerned by the lack of evidence for their grandiose claims. Andy sums up the problem with this approach:

Dr Burzynski presents himself as a man of science. But, I would say to him and his associates, a man of science would welcome critical appraisal, would publish all the data he has, and allow the world to come to conclusions based on how good that evidence is. A man of science would not threaten critics and try to silence them. That is a sure and certain way that you will end up harming patients.

Such actions are typically not those of someone concerned with scientific truth but of someone concerned with protecting a multi-million pound income stream.

I’d be surprised if Burzynski takes his advice. I think we’ve already got enough representative data of how this particular clinic operates.

Also worth reading: The Twenty-First Floor, and Josephine Jones.

Edit: Something I just saw before posting this. Keir Liddle points us toward a petition for the Burzynski clinic to release their trial data. It can only help the cause of truth and public health for them to do so. It can only obfuscate the truth, and protect a profitable business that’s failing to deliver on its claims, if they keep it hidden.

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Side effects may include congenitalia, feet of clay, and robotulism.

If you listen to some supporters of alternative medicine, it will soon become clear that there are people who are in the pay of “Big Pharma”, who take money from pharmaceutical companies to publicly make statements supporting mainstream medicine.

These people, according to the alt-med fanatics, include absolutely everyone else in the world.

Seriously, it’s bizarre how vast a conspiracy against alternative medicine these people seem to hallucinate is out there. And I don’t know why anyone with a dissenting opinion in this field has to have some kind of sinister agenda. It’s pretty much a one-way thing. Skeptics don’t assume anything so despicably orchestrated about the alt-meds, we just think they’re wrong.

Rhys Morgan, for instance, regularly gets accused of being a “shill” in the pocket of big sinister corporate greed. Now, Rhys’s origin myth isn’t exactly up there with Spiderman’s, in terms of comic-book implausibility. He was diagnosed with a pretty icky condition called Crohn’s disease last year, started talking to other sufferers online, and heard plenty of stories about how other people are attempting to treat it. Some of these stories were further from the mainstream than others, and some just seemed crazy. He called out one particular idea for being dangerous and unfounded, and thus a hero was born.

Is it really so hard to imagine that he might’ve managed all this himself, and come to the conclusions he did through, y’know, thinking, rather than simply obeying his paymasters? Even if you think his conclusions are wrong, why not assume he just made a mistake? Why the need to fantasise about a dastardly plot?

But another question about the whole idea of pharmaceutical companies paying random bloggers to fake an opinion is: When has that ever happened?

I mean, are there any verified instances in any other field, of someone with a big financial interest individually paying off a whole bunch of little guys to so persistently and repetitively spout these opinions? If the only reason people like Rhys and Orac ever say anything negative about alternative medicine is for the regular paychecks, then they must be making some nice earnings on this nearly full-time job. And I know of nobody but “Big Pharma” who could possibly find such a thing worthwhile.

Also, Rhys was fifteen years old at the time of the infamous Bleachgate post. What the hell kind of corporate executive would sign off on a PR project like this? Think about how much shit they’d be in if any proof of these numerous alleged financial transactions ever turned up, even when they don’t involve minors.

Until someone can produce the receipts for all this pharma-whoring that’s supposed to be going on, the tedious “Big Pharma shill” accusation continues to be a lame distraction from the legitimate criticisms against alternative medicine, to which its proponents have no substantial response.

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Jamie Bernstein has a two-part report of her recent experience at an AutismOne conference, over at Skepchick and Friendly Atheist. Both parts are really worth a read.

The first part is mostly a write-up of the rather unsettling package of speakers and other happenings lined up for the event, including a speech from fraudulent non-doctor Andrew Wakefield about how cruel the rest of the world is to conspire against them by, y’know, pointing out they’re endangering countless lives by distorting science. There was also some pretty kooky self-help psychobabble, and some booths offering a variety of wacky stuff like homeopathy, which you might think should be wholly unrelated to either autism or vaccines, but which probably all tend to appeal to people of a certain frame of mind for the same sorts of reasons.

Part Two is sad in a whole other way. Jamie went along to this thing with a guy called Ken Reibel, who’s an active and somewhat well known part of the reality-based side of the online autism community. At some point in the day, it seems like someone on the staff organising the conference realised who he was – and things suddenly start getting tense.

In short: they were thrown out, despite not really doing anything wrong or being disruptive in any way, and it was pretty clear that the only reason for it was that they knew that Jamie and Ken were not reliable followers who could be trusted to toe the line and stick to the mandated set of beliefs.

Now, these people don’t have to be thrilled to have someone around who they know has written extremely antagonistic things about them in the past. And it seems to be within their accepted policy to be able to refund a visitor’s entrance fee and ask them to leave the premises at any time. But even if they’re legally within their rights, it displays an impressively determined closed-mindedness, to evict someone on no other grounds than that they are known to hold a contrary opinion. These visitors weren’t kicking up any kind of a fuss, and had given no indication that they would do so.

You do only tend to find this fragile, defensive, and rather pathetic attitude in isolated pockets of woo. I’m not aware of any skeptical or rationalist event where somebody has been thrown out on such tenuous grounds. In fact, when believers turn up at skeptical events, it can lead to some interesting conversation – the first instance that springs to mind is when Hayley Stevens and Rose Shapiro were questioned about homeopathy during a Q&A session following an interview. The guy was a little insistent, and eventually they had to just move the discussion on, but he was never deemed unwelcome simply for holding alternative views.

On the other hand, anti-science campaigners have something of a track record of this kind of thing, such as when a student was kicked out of the Creation “Museum”, or when PZ Myers was pulled out of the line to see a film that he was in.

It seems to say something about whose aims include open debate, and whose are more focused on self-confirmation and ignoring dissent.

There’s more on this from Orac and Ken Reibel himself.

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