If you believe everything you read on the internet, then is seems that a chemical found in thousands of products is causing an epidemic of severe neurological and systemic diseases, like multiple sclerosis and lupus. The FDA, the companies that make the product, and the “medical industrial complex” all know about the dangers of this chemical but are hiding the truth from the public in order to protect corporate profits and avoid the pesky paper work that would accompany the truth being revealed. The only glimmer of hope is a dedicated band of bloggers and anonymous e-mail chain letter authors who aren’t afraid to speak the truth. Armed with the latest anecdotal evidence, unverified speculation, and scientifically implausible claims, they have been tirelessly ranting about the evils of this chemical for years. Undeterred by the countless published studies manufactured by the food cartel that show this chemical is safe, they continue to protect the public by spreading baseless fear and hysteria.
Hopefully, you don’t believe everything you read on the internet, and you don’t get your science news from e-mail SPAM, where the above scenario is a common theme. While there are many manifestations of this type of urban legend, I am speaking specifically about aspartame – an artificial sweetener used since the early 1980s. The notion that aspartame is unsafe has been circulating almost since it first appeared, and like rumors and misinformation have a tendency to do, fears surrounding aspartame have taken on a life of their own.
I am frequently asked my opinion about the safety of aspartame. Nutritionists often council to avoid the sweetener, citing unverified claims that it is unsafe. I was recently sent a chain letter warning that aspartame causes MS (which of course can be cured by simply avoiding aspartame), and Snopes informs me that this particular letter first appeared in 1998.
There are also hundreds of websites dedicated to smearing this much abused food additive. One site, run by Dr. Janet Starr Hull (she has a doctorate in Nutrition), responds to the latest report of aspartame’s safety by writing:
I will never accept the news of aspartame safety. I think it is a “business” decision to discredit/discount the research results that aspartame DOES cause cancer, major nerve disorders, birth defects, and brain imbalances. Think about it – can you imagine the chaos that will occur when the truth of aspartame dangers is accredited. The FDA has known about the dangers, the corporations have known about the dangers, and the medical community (if it is really worth anything) has known about the dangers.
The statement that “nothing will ever convince me” is a huge red flag that someone is defending an ideological position, one immune to evidence or reason. Admittedly, in context it could be a clumsy statement that something is very unlikely. It would be very difficult to convince me that the earth is flat – I’m really saying that the existence evidence is overwhelming that the earth is not flat. But that is not what Dr. Hull is saying. She is specifically saying that she will dismiss any evidence that is contrary to her belief that aspartame is not safe on the a-priori basis that such disconfirming evidence is part of a vast conspiracy.
Of course, Dr. Hull also sells an aspartame detox kit, which might lead a cynical person to conclude that she cares more about selling alternative health products and stoking her sales with some unreasonable fear than about scientific evidence.
What evidence does she have for such a conspiracy? The argument from final consequences logical fallacy – big industry wouldn’t want it. It’s also not very plausible. Products get pulled from the market all the time when new evidence suggests they are not safe. Also, the final safety net for the consumer is legal liability. Class action law suits have bankrupted companies, even when the underlying claims were false. Imagine if they were true. Look how much the tobacco industry has had to fork over.
Now I am not arguing that corporations are all good corporate citizens or wouldn’t dream of sweeping some inconvenient evidence under the carpet. But I am saying that a decades long conspiracy among industry, federal regulatory agencies, the medical community, and multiple research institutions and individual researchers – all under the nose of the press and lawyers looking for big class-action suits – is implausible in the extreme. I am also arguing that we should fairly assess all the evidence, not just cherry pick the evidence we like and dismiss the rest out of hand.
What does the evidence say about aspartame? A recent published review of all available evidence, including hundreds of studies, concluded:
The studies provide no evidence to support an association between aspartame and cancer in any tissue. The weight of existing evidence is that aspartame is safe at current levels of consumption as a nonnutritive sweetener.
Multiple reviews, going back to 1985, conclude the same thing. Since this latest review there have been more studies, in various countries (how big is this conspiracy?), showing no link between aspartame and brain cancer, and a lack of correlation between artificial sweeteners and gastric, pancreatic, and endometrial cancers.
There once was a time when all food was organic and no pesticides were used. Health problems were treated with folk wisdom and natural remedies. There was no obesity, and people got lots of exercise. And in that time gone by, the average lifespan was … 35!
That’s right. For most of human existence, according to fossil and anthropological data, the average human lifespan was 35 years. As recently as 1900, American average lifespan was only 48. Today, advocates of alternative health bemoan the current state of American health, the increasing numbers of obese people, the lack of exercise, the use of medications, the medicalization of childbirth. Yet lifespan has never been longer, currently 77.7 years in the US.
Advocates of alternative health have a romanticized and completely unrealistic notion of purported benefits of a “natural” lifestyle. Far from being a paradise, it was hell. The difference between an average lifespan of 48 and one of 77.7 can be accounted for by modern medicine and increased agricultural production brought about by industrial farming methods (including pesticides). Nothing fundamental has changed about human beings. They are still prey to the same illnesses and accidents, but now they can be effectively treated. Indeed, some diseases can be completely prevented by vaccination
Another one bites the dust.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) is generally a waste of taxpayer money, but they have sponsored several well-designed large trials of popular herbal supplements. And one by one these studies have shown these popular products, such as echinacea for the common cold, to be ineffective.
To add to the list, published in JAMA this week are the results of the largest and longest trial to date of Gingko biloba for the improvement of cognitive function and to treat, prevent, or reduce the effects of Alzheimers disease or other dementia. The results of the study are completely negative.
The study was very rigorous – a consensus trial designed to address all the criticisms of prior smaller studies. It was a direct comparison of Gingko biloba at 120mg twice a day, double blind, randomized, multi-center trial involving 3019 subjects aged 72-96 for a median of 6.1 years. Subjects were followed with standardized tests of cognitive function.
The results are easy to report – every measure showed no difference between G biloba and placebo. There was no difference in cognitive function, risk of developing dementia, rate of progression of dementia or normal cognitive decline with aging. Usually such studies involve some random noise in the results, especially when several outcomes are measured. But with such a large study, random fluctuations should average out, and that is exactly what happened.
Skepdude says – Excellent post. Simply excellent!
I realize that I’ve spent a fair amount of verbiage (to put it mildly) expressing my frustration with celebrities whose support for pseudoscience and even outright quackery endanger public health. The two most frequent targets of the wrath, sarcasm, frustration, and puzzlement of me and my partners in crime at SBM have been Jenny McCarthy and her boyfriend Jim Carrey for their having emerged over the last two years as the most vocal celebrity faces of the anti-vaccine movement in general and the anti-vaccine organization Generation Rescue in particular and Oprah Winfrey for her promotion of pseudoscience, quackery, and mysticism on her show. That doesn’t even count Oprah’s inking of a development deal with Jenny McCarthy to do her own weekday talk show, which has poised McCarthy to walk in the footsteps of previous Oprah proteges, such as Dr. Phil McGraw and Dr. Mehmet Oz. I’ve also lamented how celebrity physicians like Dr. Jay Gordon, Robert “Bob” Sears, and the hosts of the daytime TV show The Doctors have promoted, through the mantra of “balance,” anti-vaccine views in particular and pseudoscience about health in general.
As bad as celebrities such as Oprah, Jim Carrey, and Jenny McCarthy are, though, no one views them as skeptics, at least no one I know and no one in the skeptical movement. Even the reporters and newscasters who credulously interview them, I suspect, realize that Oprah, Jim, and Jenny are not exactly the most scientific of people. Unfortunately, if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years since I became more involved with the skeptical movement, it’s that being an agnostic, atheist, or skeptic is no guarantee against falling for pseudoscience. The problem is that when someone becomes associated with the skeptic movement for another reason, even if that person is a total woo-meister when it comes to medicine, they tend to be given a pass. I don’t give such people a pass because of their anti-religion views because I consider myself a skeptic and don’t really care much about religion, except when it intersects issues of science and health, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses refusing blood transfusions, faith healers offering prayer instead of medicine, and fundamentalists undermining the teaching of evolution. If someone who promotes pseudoscience is a prominent critic of religion, to me that makes it even worse when they spout nonsense.
I’m referring to Bill Maher, comedian and host of the HBO show Real Time With Bill Maher. Thanks to an anti-religion movie (Religulous) and his frequent stance as a “skeptic,” many of my fellow skeptics consider him one of our own, even to the point of giving him an award named after Richard Dawkins. Yet, when it comes to medicine, nothing could be further from the truth. Maher’s own words show that he has anti-vaccine views, flirts with germ theory denialism and HIV/AIDS denialism, buys into extreme conspiracy theories about big pharma, and promotes animal rights pseudoscience. That’s not a skeptic or a supporter of science-based medicine.
BILL MAHER AND VACCINES
Reuters recently reported on the raid of a stem-cell clinic in Hungary. This is welcome news, if the allegations are correct, but really is only scratching the surface of this problem – clinics offering dubious stem cell therapies to desperate patients. And in fact this is only one manifestation of a far greater problem – the quack clinic. They represent a serious problem for patients, doctors, and health care regulation.
Stem Cell Clinics
There is a very disturbing trend in the last few years – the proliferation of clinics offering stem cell therapy for a variety of serious, often incurable, diseases such as spinal cord injury, ALS, Parkinson’s disease, and other neurological disorders. These clinics claim to improve and even cure these diseases by injecting stem cells into the spinal cord or other parts of the body. Treatments typically cost 20-25,000 dollars, plus travel expenses, for a single treatment.
The problem is that these clinics do not have any published evidence that their treatments are valid. There is good reason to think that they are not – stem cell technology is simply not at the point yet where we can use them to cure such diseases. There are many technical hurdles to be overcome first – knowing how to control the stem cells, to get them to survive and become the types of cells necessary to have the desired therapeutic effect, and also figuring out how to keep them from growing into tumors. Basic issues of safety have not yet been sorted out.
So in essence what these clinics are claiming is that they are years, perhaps decades, ahead of the rest of the world. And yet they have no science to show for it. They should be able to produce dozens of studies demonstrating their technology, but they can’t.
Further, they should ethically be giving such treatments as part of clinical research, to establish their safety and efficacy, but they haven’t. What little information we have comes from outside observation. For example, Bruce Dobkin published a review of cases at one Chinese stem cell clinic. He concludes:
The phenotype and the fate of the transplanted cells, described as olfactory ensheathing cells, are unknown. Perioperative morbidity and lack of functional benefit were identified as the most serious clinical shortcomings. The procedures observed did not attempt to meet international standards for either a safety or efficacy trial. In the absence of a valid clinical trials protocol, physicians should not recommend this procedure to patients.
In other words – we don’t even know what the clinic doctors are injecting into patient and what happens to the cells, if any are even present. There are risks to the procedure without any evidence of benefit. And the clinic is not following standard ethical procedures for experimental treatments.
Alcoholics Anonymous is the most widely used treatment for alcoholism. It is mandated by the courts, accepted by mainstream medicine, and required by insurance companies. AA is generally assumed to be the most effective treatment for alcoholism, or at least “an” effective treatment. That assumption is wrong.
We hear about a few success stories, but not about the many failures. AA’s own statistics show that after 6 months, 93% of new attendees have left the program. The research on AA is handily summarized in a Wikipedia article. A recent Cochrane systematic review found no evidence that AA or other 12 step programs are effective.
Neither A.A. nor many other SATs [Substance Abuse Treatments] are based on science, nor do they seem interested in doing any scientific studies which might test whether the treatment they give is effective.
In the current issue of Free Inquiry, Steven Mohr has written a thorough and incisive article “Exposing the Myth of Alcoholics Anonymous.”
Mohr characterizes AA as a religious cult. The founder, Bill Wilson, had a religious experience while under the influence of strong psychotropic drugs.
He had a vision of a bright light and the revelation that he could be saved only by giving his life completely and fully to God – and that an important part of his recovery would be to bring the news of his epiphany and recovery to other suffering alcoholics.
The 12 steps of AA refer repeatedly to God. They require admitting you are powerless, accepting that only a Higher Power can help you, turning your will and your life over to God, taking a moral inventory, admitting your wrongs, being ready to let God remove your shortcomings, making amends to those you have harmed, improving your conscious contact with God through prayer and meditation, and spreading the word (proselytizing).
Criticism of the religious orientation led AA to switch emphasis from “God” to any “higher power.” One member allegedly designated a doorknob as his higher power and believed that praying to the doorknob helped him maintain sobriety.
A new study which randomized 638 adults to either standard acupuncture, individualized acupuncture, placebo acupuncture using tooth picks that did not penetrate the skin, and standard therapy found exactly what previous evidence has also suggested – it does not seem to matter where you stick the needles or even if you stick the needles through the skin. The only reasonable scientific conclusion to draw from this is that acupuncture does not work.
But let me back up a minute. Imagine if we were evaluating the efficacy of a new pain drug. This drug, when tested in open trials (no blinding or control) has an effect on reducing pain – it is superior to no treatment. When compared to a placebo, however, the drug is no more effective than the placebo, although both are more effective than no treatment.
Now imagine that the pharmaceutical company who manufactures this drug sends out a press release declaring that their drug is effective for pain, but that their research shows that a placebo of their drug is also effective (FDA applications are pending). Therefore more research is needed to determine how their drug works. Would you buy it?
That is the exact situation we are facing with acupuncture research.
Acupuncture is the traditional Chinese medicine practice of placing thin needles to a specific depth through the skin in specific acupuncture points in order to treat illness and relieve symptoms. Claims for acupuncture, including the number and location of acupuncture points, have changed greatly over the centuries, but there is no scientific evidence base for any of these claims. Acupuncture is philosophy-based medicine, not science-based medicine. The presumed mechanism for acupuncture, according to TCM, is that the needles unblock the flow of chi (life energy) through the body. Acupuncture points are supposed to corresponds to the pathways through which chi flow, correlating to specific organs or functions in the body.
Modern proponents of acupuncture come in two basic flavors – those who promote so-called medical acupuncture, and those who restrict their claims to symptomatic relief of pain, nausea, and other symptoms. Medical acupuncture is the claim that acupuncture can actually treat real medical diseases, like cancer. It is dependent entirely on the TCM philosophy of acupuncture, including the flow of chi. Medical acupuncture is pure pseudoscience without any basis in science or evidence and does not require further consideration.
Some proponents of symptomatic acupuncture have divorced their claims from the original philosophy of acupuncture, claiming that the needling works through more prosaic mechanisms, such as the release of pain-relieving endorphins or through nerve stimulation. While these explanations are plausible, they are post-hoc speculations and have not been demonstrated to occur to a clinically relevant degree.
But before we speculate about possible mechanism, we need to establish that acupuncture has an effect – that it works for some specific indication. This has not been established, despite rather robust clinical research efforts. If there were not a cultural inertia to the notion of acupuncture the existing research would have been sufficient to abandon this modality as a dead end.
I read this Reuters Health article on MedlinePlus, and then I read the study the article referred to (The impact of acupuncture on in vitro fertilization) and now my head hurts. The study found that acupuncture was not effective in increasing the pregnancy rate (PR) during in vitro fertilization (IVF). As quoted on MedlinePlus, the lead author, Alice Domar, seems to blame her patients (the presumably poor quality of their embryos) rather than acupuncture for the lack of success, and then she recommends using acupuncture even if it doesn’t work. That was bad enough, but “poor quality embryos” is a hypothesis that was actually tested and rejected in the study itself. Has Domar forgotten?
The headline of the MedlinePlus article says “acupuncture doesn’t boost IVF success for all” – suggesting that it boosts success for some? Then the first sentence says the study suggested that acupuncture doesn’t work, period. But wait…
The lead researcher says acupuncture may not have worked in her study because, unlike past research, her investigation wasn’t limited to women who had good quality embryos available for transfer. “I’m wondering if my sample was just not a good sample, in that most of the patients in my study were probably not the best-prognosis patients,”
Domar and her team say the most likely explanation for the lack of an acupuncture effect in their study was the fact that they included many women who didn’t have good quality embryos available for transfer. While acupuncture may help a woman become pregnant after the transfer of a healthy embryo, the researcher noted in an interview, it can’t repair an embryo with chromosomal defects or other abnormalities.
Hold the boat!! In the Discussion section of the paper itself, Domar et al point out that previous research has included mostly patients with good quality embryos. They ask if perhaps acupuncture only works for good quality embryos? They test that hypothesis by separately analyzing the subjects in this study who had good quality embryos. There was no increase in PR with acupuncture in this sub-group; the results were the same as for the entire sample.
This study not only had an objective endpoint (pregnancy) but it also had several subjective psychological endpoints (optimism, confidence, and anxiety as measured by perceived relaxation). The women who received acupuncture felt more relaxed and enjoyed the IVF procedure more, the researchers found. They were also more optimistic about getting pregnant, but not more confident that they would get pregnant.”
Despite the results of my own study, I still recommend acupuncture to women going through IVF because there’s no downside,” Domar added, aside from the $150 an acupuncturist would typically charge — a small fraction of the $12,000 to $14,000 couples typically spent on a single round of IVF.
It seems to me this translates as: Acupuncture works. It didn’t work in this study, but that can’t be the fault of acupuncture, because acupuncture works. So it must be the fault of the patients for producing poor quality embryos, (our data don’t support that hypothesis, but let’s just ignore that). Acupuncture is harmless and people like it, so let’s use it on every patient whether it works or not. Patients will have to pay $150 extra, but I’m willing to decide for them that the expense is worth it. What?!
The LA Times recently published their analysis of data provided them by the state of California and found that there are pockets of high rates of exemption from vaccines among kindergarteners. In the US public schools require that all children receive the recommended vaccines. However, states can allow exemptions for the religious beliefs of the parents.
Over the years anti-vaccine activists have been successful in many states in expanding the rules for exemption. In California, for example, parents may seek excemption if they have “philosophical” objections to vaccines – which means there really isn’t any criteria beyond the parent’s wishes. The anti-vaccine movement has been active not only in pushing for the weakening of vaccine requirements but also in teaching parents how to use the laws to evade vaccination for their children.
The LA Times found that, while state wide the exemption rate was only 2%, exemptions were largely clustered in certain schools. They report:
In all, more than 10,000 kindergartners started school last fall with vaccine exemptions, up from about 8,300 the previous school year. In 1997, when enrollment was higher, the number of exempted kindergartners was 4,318.
At Ocean Charter School in Del Rey, near Marina del Rey, 40% of kindergartners entering school last fall and 58% entering the previous year were exempted from vaccines, the highest rates in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
These numbers are concerning because they threaten herd immunity – when about 90% of the population is vaccinated then there are not enough vulnerable hosts to spread an infection efficiently, so outbreaks are uncommon. When vaccination rates drop significantly below 90% then herd immunity is lost and infectious diseases can spread, resulting in outbreaks.
This is not mere theory – it happens. In the UK fears that the MMR vaccine was linked to autism (even after the original research by Andrew Wakefield was exposed as wrong, subject to undisclosed conflicts of interest, and maybe even fraudulent, and later evidence confidently showed no link between MMR and autism), led to a precipitous drop in the rates of MMR compliance. The UK does not mandate vaccine for entry into public schools, so they lacked the buffer (for what it’s worth) that exists in the US. As a result there was, and continues to be, a resurgence of previously controlled diseases, like measles.
The later scare that the mercury-based preservative thimerosal could be linked to autism has had a similar effect, and such fears rapidly spread to the US. This link too has been shown to be false, and in any case thimerosal was removed from the childhood vaccine schedule by 2002, but the this has not stopped the anti-vaccine movement from spreading unwarranted fear.
This is a must read, a great entry from SBM.
No good deed goes unpunished.
The website whatstheharm.net is a depressing recitation of the harm that humans do to themselves and others from participating in various forms of nonsense in the attempt to do good. It my backfire, and instead pain and death result.
I would bet that most practitioners of medical woo are true believers. They do not intend to harm people, and believe they are doing good for their patients. Certainly the consumers of alternative therapies intend to have good benefits from their use of sCAM modalities. Most want to get better, and do not intend to hurt themselves or others.
Unfortunately, actions always have unintended consequences. Sometimes the harm is directly to the patient. Sometimes the harm in indirect, with collateral damage to people or the environment. My hospital system has an extensive recycling program to handle the huge amounts of waste generated by the need to insure that all manner of materials are sterile. Patients in isolation consume large amounts of paper and plastic to keep infection confined. My hospitals actively look for ways to decrease their environmental impact and carbon footprint and still deliver high quality medical care. Legacy Health System, where I work, is an award winning leader recycling medical waste, which is a lot more difficult to dispose of than the pop cans and paper bags in your house. Hopefully the trash in your house is not covered with pus, blood and other potentially hazardous medical waste. We try to be good global citizens.
I wonder if some branches of the alternative medical industrial complex are so environmentally conscious.
Natural products are at the greatest risk for being adversely affected by a demand for their use. If millions of people want a natural product that has limited supply, soon that product will be exhausted and the product extinct. Adverse effects from alternative therapies can come in many forms, and the alternative practice with the greatest adverse impact on the environment is probably traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). A billion or more people wanting a traditional herbal or animal product is going to have a detrimental effect on the herb or animal being consumed. There are numerous examples of the adverse effects on the environment from traditional Chinese medicine.
For years the Rhinoceros was hunted not for food or sport, but for the horn. There is a form of magical thinking that derives function from the structure of a natural product like a rhino horn. It looks like a penis. I guess. I must not have been paying close attention during in my urology rotation. Because it looks like a penis, it must have efficacy on impotence. So the rhino horn was ground up to treat impotence. For centuries it was the Enzyte of the world. But Rhino horn is more than an aphrodisiac. Although the rhino horn is no more than a fingernail with extra calcium and phosphorus, the horn has been used in Chinese medicine to treat damn near anything.