From Abracadabra to Zombies
The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter
Volume 12 No. 9
"The plural of anecdote is not data, except in the social sciences." --R. Carroll
In memoriam: Dr. Narendra Achyut Dabholkar: Indian rationalist and relentless opponent of superstition and religious fraud is gunned down while on his morning walk.
Dr. Weil's Prescription for Making Integrative Medicine a Medical Specialty
In the last newsletter I wrote that "integrative medicine" is a brand, not a medical specialty. The term was created by Dr. Andrew Weil to describe his own practice of supporting some parts of science-based medicine and many treatments lacking any or much scientific support. Weil and others like him believe that what they do under the rubric of "integrative medicine" is superior to science-based medicine. What makes it superior in their eyes is that it is "holistic" and promotes what is "natural" and "organic." In last month's newsletter I explained why I don't think any of those things is special. In any case, knowing that someone practices integrative medicine does not provide you with information similar to, say, knowing someone is a surgeon, pediatrician, or psychiatrist.
Now I learn (from my trusted editor, John Renish) that Weil and a few like-minded MDs have come up with a ruse that, if successful, will not only make integrative medicine (IM) a medical specialty but will allow them to define it as they please. In 1996 (yes, I'm that far behind on this subject!), Weil and his pals created what they call the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine. They even have a Facebook page (so far they have about 400 likes). A couple of years ago, this group decided it was time to take action and get IM declared a medical specialty. At that time, John Weeks wrote on his Integrator Blog:
In a major strategic shift, the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine (ACIM) has announced that it will lead the creation of a formal specialty for medical doctors in integrative medicine. ACIM, founded by Andrew Weil, MD, and directed by Victoria Maizes, MD, is in dialogue with the American Board of Physician Specialties toward establishing an American Board of Integrative Medicine. They are collaborating with leaders of the American Board of Integrative and Holistic Medicine (ABIHM).
Weil and Maizes, in their announcement, wrote:
Our goal is to have all graduates of our 1000-hour fellowship become board certified. At the same time we have not relinquished our goal of bringing IM training to all physicians. The success of our Integrative Medicine in Residency makes us comfortable and confident that IM will become a part of all physicians' basic training. This 200-hour program is being used in 22 family medicine and two internal medicine residencies. In 2012 we will begin a pilot in two pediatrics residencies.
Orac covered this sham in a lengthy (surprise!) column called A board certification in woo is born? He wrote:
There is little doubt that Dr. Weil has realized that his specialty of IM is, despite his massive success in infiltrating quackademic medicine into medical academia, still not taken seriously where it matters, namely by certifying boards, state medical boards, and, of course, insurance companies. If he can succeed in creating a medical specialty that appears legitimate based on board certification, then recognition by state medical boards and, more importantly, third party payers might well follow.
No one ever said Weil wasn't clever.
Orac also wrote that what Weil and his pals were doing was claiming a specialty for themselves while pushing out the non-MDs: the naturopaths, homeopaths, chiropractors, acupuncturists and the like, who also claim to be practicing integrative medicine.
One potential result, if Weil and his merry band of woo-meisters are successful, is to marginalize non-MD practitioners, which might not be a bad thing from the point of view of science-based medicine. What would be a bad thing is that it would simultaneously allow MDs like Weil to lay claim to the woo inherent in IM in order to give it the patina of legitimacy that, despite 20 years of the best efforts of doctors like Weil, IM or CAM or whatever the pseudorespectable nom du jour is still doesn’t have and doesn’t deserve because much of it consists either of Trojan horses or pseudoscience.
A couple of months ago, Orac did a follow-up to Weil's effort to control certification for the "specialty" of "integrated medicine." Weil's group has responded to those who think their many years of calling what they do integrated medicine should be good enough for certification. Weil is making them a special offer: if they apply by December 1, 2016, they can get credit for their past work in such things as mind-body medicine, spirituality, dietary supplements, botanicals, and other natural products, etc.
I feel safer already.
"Choose a doctor certified by the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine" was the title of a recent article in Natural News (known in the skeptical community as the primary source of pseudoscience regarding health information). The ABIHM has succeeded in its quest to certify IM practitioners, though who will recognize it besides people like those at Natural News is yet to be seen. I say it's succeeded because the author of the article is Felicia Briones-Colman, MD, and she is described as "board certified in both Internal Medicine and the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine." Here's her final paragraph with my comments [in brackets]:
The practice of Integrative Medicine is not just a philosophy, but an extensive body of knowledge applied to the individual patient [not true; it's an extensive body of beliefs applied to patients in general]. It requires knowledge about alternative therapies that are scientifically proven to be effective and which can cause harm [misleading: if something is scientifically proven, it is not an alternative therapy]. There are possible interactions between herbal remedies and pharmaceutical medications. [True!] If your doctor does not have the expertise in this practice, you are at risk of negative outcomes. [True, but misleading. The claim implies that only someone in "integrative medicine" knows this, which is false.] As the practice of Integrative Medicine evolves and expands in the scope of practice, a doctor who is board certified provides assurance of excellence. [This last claim is what we call a whopper!]
A non-governmental advisory group in England called The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends EMDR (among other treatments) for PTSD, according to the NHS page. On my SD page for EMDR, I describe it as cognitive behavioral therapy with some added hocus-pocus, but this is the first I've heard that these folks claim that moving your eyes back and forth processes "distressing memories and flashbacks so that their influence over your mind is reduced." I'd like to see the evidence for that claim. The U.S. National Institutes of Mental Health has a very different explanation of fear-based disabling memories.
Mr. Carroll, I can not agree more with you about the lack of evidence in support of EMDR as a stand alone treatment for PTSD. It is the cognitive therapy that goes along with the eye fluttering treatment that helps those who claim to be helped by EMDR alone. However, the explanation provided by NIHM as the cause of PTSD is just as lacking in supportive evidence. I work as a trauma counselor, and have done so for 25 years. The only genes involved with the damage done to abuse and trauma survivors are those that make us human. There is no "gene" that is faulty causing one to have a predisposition to the effects of abuse. Where are the studies on these genes taking place and who is doing them? How solid is the science behind them? What person would be able to with stand years of repeated rape and torture and not suffer PTSD from it? NIHM is concerned with supporting the sale of psychotropic medications. Faulty genes require drugs to fix them. Thus the constant emphasis on "genes" as the cause of everything which makes us human. I have no issue with a drug being used as a temporary band aid to ease a persons psychic or physical pain, but I have a major issue with you siting this article as if it were somehow legit science at work. I reiterate, there is no known gene, series of genes, or guys named Gene which predispose anyone to the effects of trauma and the PTSD that results from it. There is drug research being done to see how certain drugs effect the damage to neurotransmitters caused from trauma, but it is drug research, not research showing genes that cause or predispose anyone to PTSD. If you believe otherwise, I insist you prove it by directing me to the individuals doing this research and the institutions funding it. You will mostly find pharmaceutical companies if you look hard enough. Thanks for your time, and thanks for being the great skeptic you are and publishing the things you do.
Sincerely, Jeff Hudec
reply: I don't believe otherwise and will admit to being more interested in the explanation in terms of the functioning of the amygdala by the NIHM, although after reading the NIHM piece again I see that it places too much hope on brain scans.
The Top Five anti-GMO Tropes
GMOs are “genetically modified organisms.” They are plants or animals created through gene-splicing techniques that insert DNA from one species into another species. For example, in 1994 scientists at Calgene inserted a reverse copy of a gene in the Flavr Savr tomato. The gene makes the fruit soften; the reverse copy extended the tomato’s shelf life. This was the first GMO sold to consumers but it proved too costly and is no longer available. Another example is "golden rice," a variety of rice modified with genes from maize and a common soil bacterium. The result is rice with beta carotene, which the human body needs to make vitamin A. Most corn used for processed foods and animal feed over the last decade has been modified with genes from bacillus thuringiensis, a common soil bacterium that produces proteins that kill insects. Not toxic to humans, such proteins have long been used by organic farmers as natural insecticides.* The genetically modified corn produces its own proteins that kill insects, thus reducing the need for added insecticide.
Anyway, most of you probably know that there is a strong anti-GMO army in the field doing its best to stop scientific research on genetic modification of plants and animals. Why? I've tried to find out, but the best I could come up with was a list of common tropes used by the anti-GMO folks. It is obvious that these folks are very serious in their fear of GMOs and in their desire to stop GMO research wherever they can and by whatever means necessary. On the one hand, these folks proclaim their high ethical standards and concern for humanity; on the other hand they seem to think nothing of making stuff up about corporations and farmers and crops. They also have a penchant for citing, doing, and supporting bad science and calling it sound science (see below for a few examples). A few are what might be called eco-terrorists. The most common trope the anti-GMO folks use is what we might call the Monsanto Card. (Monsanto=Satan & Hitler combined.) Anybody who writes anything that doesn't condemn anti-GMO research and products is identified as a shill for Monsanto. This inane charge will be levied at me for writing this piece, no matter what I say about my having no connection to Monsanto, not owning any stock in the company, and approaching this subject for selfish reasons: I'm an interested citizen who would like to know the truth about GMOs.
- GMOs cause allergic reactions and autoimmune disorders.
Pamela Ronald, internationally respected plant geneticist at the University of California, Davis: “Not likely. After 16 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of 2 billion acres planted, no documented adverse health or environmental effects have resulted from commercialization of genetically engineered crops.”*
Wait! That's not what Caitlin Shetterly wrote in Elle: “The Bad Seed: The Health Risks of Genetically Modified Corn.” What's Shetterly's evidence? She was told by Paris Mansman that she (Shetterly) showed signs of eosinophilic disorder that might be caused by eating genetically modified corn. Who is Paris Mansman? An allergist. What follow-up research did Shetterly do to verify Mansman's opinion? She contacted several people and claimed they supported Mansman's opinion. Jon Entine of Slate contacted several of her sources and each claimed that Shetterly distorted their views. More to the point, all of them agreed that there is no evidence linking eosinophilic disorder and corn allergies.
Entine notes: "Biology Fortified, a website devoted to plant genetics and sustainable agriculture, has posted more than 600 studies on its GENERA database—more than one-third of which were conducted by independent scientists who receive no funding from the industry—and none of the studies links GM corn to allergies."
Amy Harmon wrote in a recent article on GMO research that is being done to save Florida's orange orchards: Dozens of long-term animal feeding studies have concluded that existing GMOs are as safe as other crops, and the National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization and others have issued statements to the same effect. I cite and link to these organizations not as an appeal to authority but as a way for the reader to get more information about what the science says about GMOs. Other sources include the American Medical Association and the scientific advisor to the European Commission. The AMA opposes labeling GM products. At this time, I agree with Ramez Naam that resistance to labeling gives the impression that there is something to hide. Rather than resist labeling, Naam suggests that the label consist of being listed in the ingredient section of a product rather than as a glaring label designed to frighten people.
Wait! How do you know that some GMO sometime in the future won't contain a protein that evokes an allergic reaction in somebody? We don't know that any food, GMO or not, won't someday (or even now) cause an allergic reaction in somebody. We also don't know that a GMO (or some non-GMO food) might in the future contain something that fights cancer or prevents dementia. Genetic modification of soybeans with Brazil nut DNA stopped when testing showed the modification made the soybeans allergenic. Academic Review, which tests popular claims against peer-reviewed science, writes: "The soybean never made [it] out of early stages in development; it was never submitted to regulators nor was any attempt ever made to market it. This is exactly how the premarket safety assessment is supposed to help developers ensure that only products that are as safe as any other food reach the market. It is a fact that no GM product has ever caused a food allergy (Goodman and others 2008). Ironically, about 10 common foods cause over 95 percent of all food allergies (Bannon and Lehrer 2005). No premarket testing is required for non-GM foods and they are not taken off the market when they cause allergies." According to Academic Review, the bare facts are: "A gene from a Brazil nut was transferred into soybean and routine safety assessment found that serum from people with Brazil nut allergies gave a positive reaction." Why, some people might wonder, did scientists use Brazil nut DNA, since Brazil nuts are known to evoke allergic reactions in some people? There was no way to know for sure that the DNA used would evoke an allergic reaction (there are many proteins in Brazil nuts that might cause an allergic reaction). Soybeans are deficient in methionine. To improve their nutritional quality, methionine-rich 2S albumin from the Brazil nut (Betholletia excelsa) was introduced into transgenic soybeans. Hey. It was worth a try, even if it failed.
That said, can the current methods of testing GMOs be improved. Of course. Will they? You can bet on it, if only because of the pressure, whether based on facts or some vague fear of unknown unknowns, put on the industry by anti-GMO critics.
Wait! The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) reported that “Several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food,” including infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system. The AAEM asked physicians to advise patients to avoid GM foods."
The who? American Academy of Environmental Medicine? What is this academy? It, like Andrew Weil's American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine, is not recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties. The AAEM opposes fluoridation, any type of mercury in vaccines or dental work, and has been most active in promoting the idea of multiple chemical sensitivity. This organization and the notion of "clinical ecology" are largely ignored in the medical community.* The reason they are ignored is that multiple chemical sensitivity is not recognized as an organic, chemical-caused illness by most physicians and medical associations. If I wanted to support my fear of GMOs, I think I'd search for a better authority than the AAEM.
- GMOs are not tested properly; we're guinea pigs for the GMO manufacturers!
Ric Bessin, Extension Entomologist University of Kentucky College of Agriculture writes: "Federal food law requires premarket approval for food additives, whether or not they are the products of biotechnology. FDA treats substances added to food products through recombinant DNA techniques as food additives if they are significantly different in structure, function or amount than substances currently found in food. However, if a new food product developed through biotechnology does not contain substances that are significantly different from those already in the diet, it does not require premarket approval. Products that are genetically engineered to provide pesticide traits, such as resistance to the corn borer, are also subject to regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency. Currently, genetically modified foods in the United States do not require special labeling to notify consumers.
"....genetic engineering techniques allow scientists to precisely add genes of known structure and function to crops. Geneticists know how genes work and what kind of protein an individual gene will make. GMO foods are subject to much more rigorous testing than food produced the old-fashioned way—which has never been natural." Whenever a new product is introduced, "the presenter (a corporation or university, for example) must provide the FDA with information about what gene was incorporated and where in the plant’s genome order to receive approval. The agency must determine if the newly incorporated protein is similar to that of other proteins found in our foods, including checking it against the database of known allergens. If it is not, then the newly incorporated protein must be treated as a food additive before the FDA considers pre-market approval—which means it will be subjected to even more extensive studies."*
- The Monsanto Protection Act proves the government is in cahoots with Monsanto to poison our food supply.
There is no such thing as the "Monsanto Protection Act." Those who refer to it have distorted the law signed into effect by president Obama. The law was called the ‘‘Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2013.’ One section of this 240-page bill was inserted in response to anti-GMO litigants who sue or seek injunctions against anybody they think is planting genetically modified crops. The basis of the litigants' complaints is that the crops are dangerous and threaten the environment. The court actions are intended to stop GMO research. The bill prohibits federal courts from being able to halt the sale or planting of genetically modified or genetically engineered seeds. In short, the bill allows scientific research to continue.
- GMOs Will Harm the Environment.
The attempt to defend this claim has two aspects. One argument is the appeal to fear that GMO will unleash frankenmonsters throughout the environment that may cause famines, cancers, and, for all I know, earthquakes and solar flares. The appeal to fear is often attached at the hip to an argument from analogy that compares GMO crops to introducing foreign species like rabbits into a country where there are no rabbits, as was done in Australia. The analogy is too farfetched to take seriously. A species is not like a bit of DNA. DNA can't run wild. Crops with a gene that makes them impervious to a pesticide or that kills pests are not a threat to take over the countryside and reduce farmland to dust.
The other arm of this trope is to point to some specious example where the anti-GMO folks claim the environment has already been ruined. One of their more infamous cases here is the claim that GMOs harm monarch butterflies. This is not true, but propaganda.
Even so, do I trust the corporations investing in GMOs and the government agencies that are supposed to be monitoring and regulating the production of food? Not really. I actually welcome the anti-GMO forces, not because I think they're right but because they serve as watchdogs to make sure that the corporations and the government agencies regulating those corporations don't run amok. From what I have been able to learn about GMOs, I have concluded that at present there isn't much to fear and the possibility for good consequences from engineered foodstuffs is enormous. There is no way to combat all the ignorance out there (e.g., the belief that one gene from a virus is equivalent to the whole virus). There is probably no way to reduce the fear except to bring more GMO products to market with a continued record of safety and benefits. Will there be abuses and ethical breaches by genetic engineers? Most likely. They're human, after all, and subject to the same foibles as the rest of us. Is that a good enough reason to shut down this area of inquiry? I don't think so.
Some opponents of GMOs find solace in the so-called Institute of Responsible Technology and Yes! Books, which are actually fronts for the beliefs of Jeffrey Smith and funded by Organic Valley (George Simeon), Stonyfield Organic Yogurt (Gary Hirshfield), Natural News Insider (Mike Adams) and Mercola.com - alternative health and nutraceuticals (Joe Mercola). [/new]
- The work by Seralini et al. on the effects of GM corn on the cancer rates in rats;
- The work of Judy Carman et al. that claimed pigs fed a diet of only genetically modified grain showed markedly higher stomach inflammation than pigs who dined on conventional feed (David Gorski, M.D., also deconstructs this bit of shoddy science)
- The Aris and Leblanc study implying GM corn poses a special threat to pregnant women and fetuses. See also the report from Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). A few essentials are missing from this study. They may have been omitted intentionally to mislead journalists and the general public. The scientists compared 30 pregnant women with 39 non-pregnant women for the presence of pesticides associated with GM foods. They found traces of pesticide in 93% of the pregnant women and in 80% of their umbilical cords. The pesticide was detected in 69% of non-pregnant women. We need to know whether the amounts detected are known to be significant enough to be harmful. (Calling a pesticide "toxic," as the media often do, begs the question: a pesticide in extremely small doses will not be toxic to pests much less to humans.) We also need to know if this pesticide (Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt), often used by organic farmers, is found in people who don't eat GMOs or animals fed on GM food. If so, in what amounts is it found and how does that compare to the amounts in those who eat GMO products? In short, this study has no control group and it does not establish that the amounts of the pesticide present in people constitutes a health hazard.
GM crops: Promise and Reality from the journal Nature
GMO promoters winning as major opponent switches camp and Ghana digs heels Mark Lynas "was reported to have said at Makerere University in Uganda that he changed his mind to stop opposing GM when he realised that scientists, upon whom he depended for climate information, were united in supporting GM technology."
Genetically engineered food: Allergic to regulations? By Nathanael Johnson "It’s easy to get lost in the details when scrutinizing potential risks and miss the big picture. It’s important to remember that everything we know suggests the actual hazard here is very small."
More bad science in the service of anti-GMO activism by David Gorski "There might be questions about GMOs, but by and large they are not issues of safety. Rather, they are issues of intellectual property; i.e., how large companies developing GMOs behave. Hysteria of the like generated by the likes of Jack Heinemann and Judy Carman and parroted by useful idiots like Heidi Stevenson generate heat, but no light. Nor does the latest round of attempts to generate hysterical fear mongering based on Carman’s latest study. Both Heinemann’s speculations and Carman’s most recent bit of data mining are of a piece. They are not designed to provide a dispassionate analysis of the true potential risks and benefits of GMOs. They are designed to be propaganda to produce fear, uncertainty, and doubt about GMOs, just like Andrew Wakefield’s studies about the MMR vaccine, just like Mark and David Geier’s studies of thimerosal in vaccines, just like the studies of any variety of antivaccine cranks. It is the equivalent of shouting 'fire!' in a crowded theater....What’s next? Telling diabetics that they shouldn’t take insulin derived from genetic engineering because the protein is made in—gasp!—bacteria or yeast?"
Former Anti-GMO Activist Says Science Changed His Mind by NPR Staff: Mark Lynas apologized for helping "to start the anti-GMO movement" and told his former allies to "get out of the way, and let the rest of us get on with feeding the world sustainably."
The Evidence on GMO Safety by Ramez Naam: "First, a statement on my interests: I have no relationship whatsoever with Monsanto or any other ag or biotech company. I hold no Monsanto stock. I get no money from them. Nothing of the sort. My only interest is in advancing public knowledge of a technology that’s widely misunderstood and which, when well-managed, can benefit both humanity and the planet. All the research I presented was research I did when writing my book on innovating to save the planet, The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet." Unfortunately, anybody who defends GMOs should expect to be called a Monsanto shill by the anti-GMO folks. The mere mention of Monsanto is considered to be a death ray to any argument in support of GMOs. Of course, by denying that I have any interest in Monsanto I am providing more evidence in these folks' eyes that I must be a shill, can't be trusted, and should be banned from the Internet or made to watch Ray Comfort movies for all eternity.
Genetically Engineered Crops—What, How and Why By Pamela Ronald "After 14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of 2 billion acres planted, no adverse health or environmental effects have resulted from commercialization of genetically engineered crops...."
When Journalists Say Really Stupid Stuff About GMOs By Keith Kloor "Fear seems to be the greatest motivator. When a NYT investigative reporter reinforces the biggest myths and fears pushed by the anti-GMO movement, I don’t see how it’s possible to have a constructive, science-based discourse about genetically modified foods."
Glowing Bunny Born in Turkey Read the story before you dismiss this as another example of mad scientists.