Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Prayer Therapy? Are you freakin' kidding me?

Snake oil comes in various forms and shapes, and its salesmen (perhaps I should use the PC term, 'salespersons') are of various hues and creeds. The commonalty between many of them lies in their relentless push to gain mainstream acceptance, which, of course, would mean more funds and more followers. They are not hampered or thwarted by the inconvenient fact that their brands of quackery, often founded on religious/mystical beliefs, are not supported by hard empirical evidence, or indeed, rationality. Undeterred, they plod on, championing superstitions, promoting lies, feasting on the fears, uncertainties and vulnerabilities of disadvantaged people.

Take, for example, the Church of Christ, Scientist, founded by Mary Baker Eddy in 1879 in Boston, which purports to tend to the sick using "Christian Science", a hodge-podge of elements of the Christian faith and severely evidence-challenged practices that combine airy hand-waving and crazy superstitions. According to an article published in the New York Times today, the faith's central scripture, written by Eddy who claimed an inspired understanding of the “science” behind Jesus’ healing method, expressly forbids medical care, and relies instead on Christian Science healing - a form of spiritual healing, based on Eddy's understanding of the Bible. Disappointed that existing Christian churches would not embrace her discovery of the "science" of healing, Mary Eddy created her own church, which trains its practitioners to "help" patients with "transcendental prayer intended to realign the patient's soul with God".

This is wrong on so many different levels.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Does acupuncture work in depression control? Nope.

This past weekend, the New York Times published an article on a study from Stanford University, where the authors apparently found benefit from acupuncture in pregnant women with Major depression. Given the track record of acupuncture (which features a resounding lack of evidence that it works), my skeptical antennae started twitching. I ferreted out the original study in the Obstetrics and Gynecology journal (link to full text here), and read it through thoroughly. This report - of a single randomized clinical trial (RCT) study with less than 150 subjects - claimed that an acupuncture regimen, specifically designed for a particular individual, could significantly reduce depression in that individual. As I suspected, the paper made a whole lot of science-y sounding, but nonetheless vacuous, arguments; their predominant talking point seemed to be that multiple exploratory analyses were done on the observed outcome. This assertion is always suspect; for an RCT, it shouldn't need so many exploratory analyses at the study stage, and the outcome measures should have been determined prior to the initiation of the study. As a friend of mine pointed out, "exploratory analyses" frequency means "fishing expedition", which is what this paper seems to have done in plenty. Unfortunately, the mainstream media coverage of this single study has been far from ideal; the news report has been worded to make it seem like a breakthrough or a major milestone in research, which is the impression the general public is left with - eventually to their detriment.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

NIGMS soliciting comments on research training

As a part of its commitment towards research training, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the NIH is seeking comments from predocs, postdocs and other interested parties on a strategic planning process focusing exclusively on training and career development. The NIGMS recognizes that as science, the conduct of research, and biomedical workforce needs evolve, it is essential to ensure that the training activities meet current needs effectively and anticipate emerging opportunities, and that they contribute to building a highly capable, diverse biomedical research workforce.

Between March 2 and April 21, you can provide your input at:

Many of their important and coveted training and research awards, such as the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards for postdocs and senior fellows, are highly competitive and geared towards promotion of their mission of generating a scientific workforce in biomedical research. Unfortunately (from my perspective), these awards are often restricted to citizens or non-citizen nationals of the United States or permanent residents. To me, this restriction seems counter-productive, because it excludes a wide group of talented, young and motivated individuals who are from other countries on a visa, but are nonetheless engaged in cutting edge research work in this country. Perhaps merit of the research proposals and research credentials should be the criteria for selection.

I encourage you to put forth your constructive comments at the above website.