Tuesday, May 26, 2015

#1376: Mark Bertolini

Quackery has gradually been infecting teaching institutions and hospitals all across the US as a result of deliberate marketing strategies and wealthy donors, and the developments are a cause for concern. Now quackery has found an unexpected ally. Mark Bertolini is gushing over a range of dieatary woo, acupuncture, naturopathy and craniosacral therapy, and he’s got the usual anecdotes to back up his claims: “We know this stuff works. We believe in this, it’s just building the evidence base,” says Bertolini. That’s right. Even though the evidence is missing he knows what the correct conclusion is going to be; now the question is just one of shoehorning and carefully selecting the data into serving the dogma. How committed is he? Well, Bertolini is a true believer in naturopathy, to the extent that he was the keynote speaker at the New York Association of Naturopathic Physicians’ annual conference.

Why does it matter? The thing, of course, is that Bertolini is CEO of Aetna. One wonders how his commitment to sheer pseudoscience will be treated by its stakeholder; health insurance companies have not exactly been rushing to cover magical cures based on medieval metaphysics. Let’s just say that if Bertolini is going to use his position to alter the policies of the major health insurance companies, he could have found a more praiseworthy target.

Diagnosis: I suppose Bertolini well represents the kind of conclusions people may draw if they have no understanding of science or critical thinking. But if you are going to use your powers as a CEO of a major health insurance company to improve the world I can hardly imagine a less worthy area of focus.

Monday, May 25, 2015

#1375: Sallie Bernard

SafeMinds is an advocacy group dedicated (to a large extent) to antivaxx lobbying and, in particular, to the utterly discredited hypothesis that mercury causes autism. And, for people with little aptitude for scientific evidence, little time for critical thinking, and a stake in the outcome, no study, however rigorous, is going to change their minds (as the name suggests, the group is entirely impervious to evidence).

Sallie Bernard is the executive director of SafeMinds, and a committed promoter of denialism and pseudoscience. A fine case in point is her comments on an article concerning a seven-year study of 1,047 children who received mercury-containing vaccines as infants funded by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention – which, of course, found no indication of developmental delays. As the authors of the study pointed out, “[a] majority of the selected families declined to participate or could not be located, and we were able to enroll only 30% of the subjects included for recruitment. Therefore, our findings may have been influenced by selection bias.” Bernard interpreted this as meaning that the study was biased and worthless. Of course, as the authors point out, the selection bias would almost certainly have biased the study in favor of harm, but Bernard missed that. And Bernard was, in fact, a consultant for the study and helped contribute to its design; but you know: when it nevertheless failed to show what she had already determined that it ought to show, what can she do?

Most of her errors are, however, even more obvious. When a major report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), entitled “Adverse Effects of Vaccines: Evidence and Causality” showed that vaccines are safe, she went full Orwellian (including conspiracy mongering), once again demonstrating that no evidence, study or science will ever, no matter what, make her and her organization change their mind about the alleged causal links between mercury and autism. After all, Bernard herself published a rather infamous paper supporting a link in the pseudojournal (yes!) Medical Hypotheses back in 2001. And yes, her tactics are the same as always: conspiracies, shifting goalposts and pharma shill gambits abound. An illuminating discussion of her and SafeMinds’ techniques can be found here.

Diagnosis: A major player in the anti-vaccine movement, Bernard makes sure to employ all the familiar canards, all the obfuscation, and a complete lack of criticial thinking skills to dismiss any evidence (i.e. all evidence) against what she very zealously believes for reasons that have little to do with evidence. Dangerous mumpsimus.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

#1374: Brian Berman

Though far from the loudest or most colorful, Brian Berman is, in fact, one of the movers and shakers of the medical quackery movement in the US. Berman is a Professor of Family Medicine and director of the University of Maryland School of Medicine Center for Integrative Medicine, a place to avoid at all costs that offers a range of absolute cargo cult-like, faith-based nonsense such as homeopathy, reflexology, and reiki. Though he has real medical training, Berman is also trained in a variety of bullshit – he is for instance trained in homeopathy and has a membership in the Faculty of Homeopathy, has a diploma from the London School of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and is a licensed acupuncturist,” and his career has been dedicated to “evaluating the efficacy, safety and cost-effectiveness of complementary and alternative medicine” – that is, to pseudoscientific validations of techniques and treatment regimes that demonstrably do not work (there is an excellent discussion of his career in this report on an interview he did with fawning chiropractor Daniel Redwood). Berman is the principal investigator of a NIH specialized center grant for the study of complementary medicine in the treatment of arthritis and related disorders, principal investigator on a number of large NIH and Department of Defense-funded clinical trials on modalities such as acupuncture and mind/body therapies, and has also been on the advisory committee of NCCAM, board member of the Institute of Medicine’s panel on woo, founder and field coordinator for the complementary medicine field of the Cochrane Collaboration, and chair of the Consortium of Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine, the mission of which is “moving the boundaries of the existing field of medicine to include the wisdom inherent in healing the ‘whole person’ – mind, body and spirit.”

Lots of worthless credentials, in other words, but they amply illustrate what Berman is up to – he is not the kind of pseudoscientist who comes up with new treatments or anecdotes, but the kind who works behind the scenes to boost the reputation and influence of bullshit, and to influence policy makers. One of his most noteworthy techniques is to describe diet, exercise, counseling, psychotherapy, and hypnotherapy as “alternative practices”. There is, of course, nothing “alternative” in any of them, but by including them among “alternative practices” Berman can argue that mainstream MDs already accept many “alternative” practices, which will again serve to legitimize the true woo he’s peddling – in particular homeopathy, which Berman will happily promote in particular, despite the fact that it is demonstrably useless for anything as well as grounded in the kind of incoherent metaphysics usually associated with cartoon witchcraft.

Berman has, in fact, managed to get a credulous, pseudoscientific article published in the New England Journal of Medicine, no less, promoting acupuncture and deeply steeped in ancient mythology; Berman even agrees that the ideas are based on religious dogma rather than sensitivity to evidence and reality. Given the protocol, the study is utterly worthless from a scientific point of view, of course, but it does, once again, serve Berman’s efforts to boost the apparent credibility of quackery. Another worthless acupuncture meta-analysis, by Berman and research associate Eric Manheimer, may not have been published in such a respected venue, but is very telling when it comes to the “value” of acupuncture as a medical technique.

As for other achievments, Berman must for instance be held largely responsible for getting Congress to recognize October 7-13, 2013, as Quackery Week (not their term), after a resolution submitted by Barbara Mikulski (D-MD).

Diagnosis: One of the biggest threats to health and well-being in the US; enormously influential and completely delusional.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

#1373: Jerry Bergevin

Jerry Bergevin enjoyed a brief stint in the New Hampshire House of Representatives from 2010 to 2012, and although he managed to do only a limited amount of actual damage, he sure tried to present himself as the dumbest wingnut in any state house in the US. In 2011, for instance, he submitted to the NH legislature what may very well be the dumbest piece of legislation submitted the last 50 years; the proposed bill adds the following to the state law:

Theory of Evolution. Require evolution to be taught in the public schools of this state as a theory, including the theorists’ political and ideological viewpoints and their position on the concept of atheism.

The language is illuminating in quite a number of ways. First, Bergevin apparently think of it as some kind of gotcha, for in Bergevin’s mind biology is all about theology, and evolution = atheism. And Marxism. And probably radical Islam as well. Second, and this is a standard cognitive obstacle, wingnut (and moonbat) ideologists are often unable to perceive the difference between science and politics – acceptance of scientific theories and rejections of others is not a matter of evidence but tribalism, and which scientific theories should be included in science education should be determined in part by the scientists’ views on economy and social issues. Third, and relatedly, people like Bergevin have a tendency to view science as a leftist plot – especially when they don’t like the conclusions; and since they fail to understand the significance of evidence, the science can equally be dismissed on political grounds.

Indeed, Bergevin emphasized that he didn’t get it: “I want the full portrait of evolution and the people who came up with the ideas to be presented. It’s a worldview and it’s godless,” said Bergevin, and blamed the acceptance of evolution for the atrocities of Nazi Germany and the 1999 Columbine shooting.

He wasn’t alone in the NH legislature; another creationist bill, inspired by the Academic Freedom strategy and barely coherent, was introduced by Gary Hopper and John Burt, and is described here and here. “My taxpayer dollars pay science teachers to teach science, not philosophy. Let’s hope lawmakers don’t try to get in the way,” said the good New Hampshire legislators. Fortunately neither bill was successful.

In 2012 Bergevin introduced a bill that would mandate the teaching of the Bible in public schools. He didn’t appreciate the NH legislature’s approval of marriage equality either, declaring that they “just legalized the rectum as a sexual organ” (yes, you ought to think about how silly that statement is for a second) and warning “Christian citizens of the United States” that “Opposition to the Homosexual/Lesbian Political Agenda will be met with every and all conceivable actions be it criminal or even out and out murder to accomplish the complete suppression of your rights in our new world order. (P.S. Armageddon is the cure for the Homosexual/Lesbian pathology including every other vice & sin. – & may God bring it on‼!”

There’s gotta be something in the water in New Hampshire – their state legislature consistently appears to be (possibly) the most batshit crazy in the US, and that takes some effort.

Diagnosis: This will continue as long as certain people (apparently) view mindrot as a positive quality in the people they elect to legislative bodies. Bergevin never got a second term, but at least he used what he did get to show everyone his lack of reasoning abilities, critical thinking skills and aptitude for facts and evidence. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

#1372: Becky Berger

You remember the Texas Board of Education, of course. In their creationist heydays, various nationally famous denialists and local lunatics would both launch attacks on biology, physics and history in manners that would draw national and even international attention, but the side of science generally won out in the end. When the State Board of Education‘s public hearing on new science textbooks for Texas public schools finally began in 2013, the creationists were unable to mount any serious attacks anymore. So all looked well for a while – until it became clear that oil and gas industry interests had instead decided to attack the only environmental science textbook up for adoption by the state board.

So during the hearings Becky Berger, who identified herself a geologist and oil and gas professional, tried to argue that high schools shouldn’t teach environmental science classes at all. And during the hearings she launched a rabid attack on the environmental science textbook under consideration, claiming that it is filled with factual errors on topics like pollution potentially caused by fracking and the problem of carbon emissions. The attack was somewhat weakened by the fact that she provided no actual written documentation to back up her claims, and failed to even produce a list of the alleged errors so that the publisher could respond to her claims. Her attacks are discussed in some detail here.

The state’s official review teams had not identified any factual errors in the textbook. Nevertheless, some board members thought that Berger (who had not been part of the review process) was more credible. Of course, Berger somehow didn’t remember to tell the board that she is a Republican candidate for the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the state’s oil and gas industry, information that would have been strangely relevant.

She wasn’t alone. Throughout the day of the hearings, various wingnut activists and websites had been urging “grassroots” to call on the state board to reject the science textbooks up for adoption, especially the environmental science textbook. Honorable mention to Alice Linahan of the for-profit political outfit Voices Empower, who argued that the textbooks were a threat to Texas’ oil/natural gas industry.

Diagnosis: Denialist wingnut. Yes, another one, and Berger is not afraid to use subversion and trickery to get her way.