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A review of Do You Believe in Magic, by Paul Offit. And a fine piece of timidity from Nature Medicine

August 27th, 2013 · 5 Comments

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Despite the First Amendment in the US and a new Defamation Act in the UK, fear of legal threats continue to suppress the expression of honest scientific opinion.

I was asked by Nature Medicine (which is published in the USA) to write a review of Paul Offit’s new book. He’s something of a hero, so of course I agreed. The editor asked me to make some changes to the first draft, which I did. Then the editor concerned sent me this letter.

Thank you for the revised version of the book review.

The chief editor of the journal took a look at your piece, and he thought that it would be a good idea to run it past our legal counsel owing to the strong opinions expressed in the piece in relation to specific individuals. I regret to say that the lawyers have advised us against publishing the review.

After that I tried the UK Conversation. They had done a pretty good job with my post on the baleful influence of royals on medicine. They were more helpful then Nature Medicine, but for some reason that I can’t begin to understand, they insisted that I should not name Nature Medicine, but to refer only to "a leading journal". And they wanted me not to name Harvard in the last paragraph. I’m still baffled about why. But it seemed to me that editorial interference had gone too far, so rather than have an editor re-write my review, I withdrew it.

It is precisely this sort of timidity that allows purveyors of quackery such success with their bait and switch tactics. The fact that people seem so terrified to be frank must be part of the reason why Harvard, Yale and the rest have shrugged their shoulders and allowed nonsense medicine to penetrate so deeply into their medical schools. It’s also why blogs now are often better sources of information than established journals.

Here is the review. I see nothing defamatory in it.


 

Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine

Paul A. Offit
Harper, 2013
336 pp., hardcover $26.99
ISBN: 0062222961

Reviewed by David Colquhoun Research Professor of Pharmacology, UCL.

cover

Here’s an odd thing. There is a group of people who advocate the silly idea that you can cure all ills by stuffing yourself with expensive pills, made by large and unscrupulous Pharma companies.  No, I’m not talking about pharmacologists or doctors or dietitians.  They mostly say that stuffing yourself with pills is often useless and sometimes harmful, because that’s what the evidence says . 

Rather, the pill pushers are the true believers in the alternative realities of the “supplement” industry. They seem blithely unaware that the manufacturers are mostly the same big pharma companies that they blame for trying to suppress “natural remedies”.  Far from trying to suppress them, pharma companies love the supplement industry because little research is needed and there are few restrictions on the claims that can be made.

 Paul Offit’s excellent book concentrates on alternative medicine in the USA, with little mention of the rest of the world. He describes how American pork barrel politics have given supplement hucksters an almost unrestricted right to make stuff up. 

Following the thalidomide tragedy, which led to birth defects in babies in the 1950s and 60s, many countries passed laws that required evidence that a drug was both effective and safe before it could be sold.  This was mandate by the Kefauver-Harris amendment (1961) in the USA and the Medicines Act (1968) in the UK.  Laws like that upset the quacks, and in the UK the quacks got a free pass, a ‘licence of right‘, largely still in existence. 

In order to sell a herbal concoction in the UK you need to present no evidence at all that it works, just evidence of safety, in return for which you get a reassuring certification mark and freedom to use misleading brand names and labels.

THR mark
Tradional herbal mark

In the USA the restrictions didn’t last long.  Offit describes how a lobby group for vitamin sellers, the National Health Federation, had a board made up of quacks, some of whom, according to Offit (page 73) had convictions.  They found an ally in Senator William Proxmire who introduced in 1975 an amendment that banned the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) from regulating the safety of megavitamins.  Tragically, this bill was even supported by the previously-respected scientist Linus Pauling.  Offit tells us that “to Proxmire” became a verb meaning to obstruct science for political gain.

The author then relates  how the situation got worse with the passage of the  Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) in 1994. It was passed with the help of ex-vitamin salesman Senator Orin Hatch and lots of money from the supplement industry. 

This act iniquitously defined a “supplement” as “a product intended to supplement the diet that bears or contains one or more of the following ingredients: a vitamin, a mineral, an herb or other botanical, or an amino acid”.  At a stroke, herbs were redefined as foods.  There was no need to submit any evidence of either efficacy or even of safety, before marketing anything. All a manufacturer had to do to sell almost any herbal drug or megadose vitamin was to describe it as a “dietary supplement”.  The lobbying to get this law through was based on appealing to the Tea Party tendency –get the government’s hands off our vitamins. And it was helped by ‘celebrities’ such as Sissy Spacek and Mel Gibson (it’s impossible to tell whether they really believed in the magic of vitamins, or whether they were paid, or had Tea Party sympathies).

Offit’s discussion of vaccination is a heartbreaking story of venom and misinformation. As co-inventor of the first rotavirus vaccine he’s responsible for saving many lives around the world.  But he, perhaps more than anyone, suffered from the autism myth started by the falsified work of Andrew Wakefield.  

The scientific community took the question seriously and soon many studies showed absolutely no link between vaccination and autism.  But evidence did not seem to interest the alternative world.  Rather than Offit being lauded as a saver of children’s lives, he describes how he was subjected to death threats and resorted to having armed guards at meetings. 

Again, Offit tells us how celebrities were able to sway public opinion   For example (chapter 6), the actress Jenny McCarthy and talk-show hostess Oprah Winfrey promoted, only too successfully, the vaccine-autism link despite abundant evidence that it didn’t exist, and promoted a number of theories that were not supported by any evidence, such as the idea that autism can be “cured” by mega-doses of vitamins and supplements.

Of course vaccines like the one for rotavirus can’t be developed without pharmaceutical companies because, as Offit says, only they "have the resources and expertise to make a vaccine. We can’t make it in our garage".  When the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia sold its royalty stake in the rotavirus vaccine for $182 million, Offit received an undisclosed share of the intellectual property, “in the millions ”. 

That’s exactly what universities love. We are encouraged constantly to collaborate with industry, and, in the process, make money for the university. It’s also what Wakefield, and the Royal Free Hospital where he worked, hoped to do.  But sadly, these events led to Offit being called names such as “Dr Proffit” and “Biostitute” (to rhyme with “prostitute”) by people like Jenny McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.  The conspiritorialist public lapped up this abuse, but appeared not to notice that many quacks have become far richer by peddling cures that do not work.  

One lesson from this sad story is that we need to think more about the potential for money to lead to good science being disbelieved, and sometimes to corrupt science.

Everyone should buy this book, and weep for the gullibility and corruption that it describes.

I recommend it especially to the deans of US Medical schools, from Harvard downwards, who have embraced “integrative medicine” departments. In doing so they have betrayed both science and their patients.

Abraham Flexner, whose 1910 report first put US medicine on a sound scientific footing, must be turning in his grave.

Fkexnwr
Flexner

Follow-up

30 August 2013

Quack lobby groups got a clause inserted into Obamacare that will make any attempt to evaluate whether a treatment actually works will leave insurance companies open to legal action for "discrimination".

"Discrimination? Yes! We must not allow the government to exclude health care providers just because those providers don’t cure anything."

The latest piece of well-organised corporate corruption by well-funded lobbyists is revealed by Steven Salzberg, in Forbes Magazine. The chaos in the US health system makes one even more grateful for the NHS and for the evaluation of effectiveness of treatments by NICE.

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Tags: badscience · Bait and switch · herbal medicine · herbalism · regulation · supplements

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 zeno // Aug 27, 2013 at 13:43

    David said:

    “In order to sell a herbal concoction in the UK you need to present no evidence at all that it works, just evidence of safety, in return for which you get a reassuring certification mark and freedom to use misleading brand names and labels.”

    Indeed, but a herbal product that already has some evidence of efficacy cannot be granted a THR authorisation at all:

    “For some herbal medicines there is sufficient evidence in the public domain for an applicant to be able to obtain a marketing authorisation under the provision for products containing active substances with ‘well established use’ by referring to appropriate scientific literature. Where this is the case the MHRA will not grant a traditional use application but will instead ask the applicant to apply for a marketing authorisation.” Source

  • 2 David Colquhoun // Aug 27, 2013 at 15:52

    @zeno

    Indeed, That’s as good an example of any of the ludicrous contradictions that arise when you try to regulate activities for which there is little or no evidence.  

  • 3 thompsonja // Aug 27, 2013 at 20:49

    Sadly, there will always be a market for magic medicine. For some it is a fashion accessory: an extra something which will do no harm, and might do some good, at a bearable cost. What is astounding is how the purveyors have used the law to avoid informed criticism. 

  • 4 Mephistopheles O'Brien // Sep 2, 2013 at 13:17

    Perhaps you’re using Tea Party in an allegorical sense, but taking your comments above literally suggests that the Tea Party movement was not only instrumental in making sure dietary supplements aren’t regulated, but that this was done 10 years before the actual Tea Party existed.

    While this movement’s stated goals are in limiting/reducing taxes and reducing the size and scope of central government, I can’t find they’ve taken any particular position on dietary supplements.

  • 5 David Colquhoun // Sep 2, 2013 at 13:39

    You are taking me too literally.  Tea Party beliefs have been rampant, especially in the US south, long before the invention of Sarah Palin.  The anti-science tendency of the extreme right has always been there, and seems to have become progressively stronger in the era of George W Bush.  

    It’s baffling to me why belief in low tax and small government should be accompanied by a strong bias against science.  I guess one reason might be a stupidly literal interpretation of the bible.  Another reason might be that when you are unthinkingly contrarian, a sufficient reason to believe anything is that most educated people don’t believe it.

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