Skeptics Left Doubting Their Own Skepticism

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On June 14th, 2007 at Simon Fraser University, B.C. Skeptics Colloquium sponsored a lecture by Arthur Grollman, M.D., Professor of Pharmacological Sciences at the University of New York Stony Brook. Barry Beyerstein, PhD, a professor of Psychology at S.F.U. and head of the B.C. Skeptics Society, hosted the event entitled "The Pharmacology of Herbal Remedies and the Placebo Effect".

As we find out more we will update our recommendation.

On June 14th ,2007 at Simon Fraser University, B.C. Skeptics Colloquium sponsored a lecture by Arthur Grollman, M.D., Professor of Pharmacological Sciences at the University of New York Stony Brook. Barry Beyerstein, PhD, a professor of Psychology at S.F.U. and head of the B.C. Skeptics Society, hosted the event entitled "The Pharmacology of Herbal Remedies and the Placebo Effect".

With an audience of about 25 people, mostly students, Grollman presented a lecture and then fielded questions from the audience. He addressed science's growing awareness and validation of the tight mind/body connection, which he referred to as the placebo effect, the most powerful factor in pharmacology, at 30% efficacy. "Placebo is the most interesting and understudied factor," admitted Grollman. When asked specifically how placebo relates to prescription drug trials, he confessed that in prescription drug trials, with placebo being a known 30%, a drug is called "effective" if it demonstrates 31% efficacy. That fact in itself was amazing and made attending this event worth the price of admission: it was free, or at least sponsored by our taxes toward funding Universities in their quest for greater knowledge.

Dr. Grollman then tackled the idea that herbs can interfere with prescription drugs. When asked about prescription drug interactions with other prescription drugs he admitted that this is a concern, but physicians have a manual of drug interactions to handle this possibility. One click on the internet reveals the fact that this manual is not and couldn't possibly be inclusive of every possibility.

Pharmaceutical drug interactions are of particular concern with regard to our increasing population of senior citizens. According to Consumer Reports on Health, "Any new health problem in an older person should be considered drug induced until proven otherwise." Many seniors take several prescription drugs daily and are often given new prescription drugs without thoroughly assessing their other medications. Dangerous interactions and side affects -- some with disastrous consequences -- can result. It is conservatively estimated that 25% of hospital admissions of seniors result from medication problems, including prescription drugs interactions. Grollman failed to address this at all, preferring to comfort himself with the existence of a partial manual in the hands of physicians.

When asked about the efficacy of vitamin D as a cancer preventative supplement, Dr. Grollman voiced his disapproval of it. He was spared further embarrassment as he was stopped mid-sentence by Dr. Beyerstein and others in the group of skeptics. Grollman was quickly informed by the hosts of the event that there was an article published which highlighted significant research proving that vitamin D is the most effective supplement in cancer prevention. The research showed a dramatic 60 percent or greater reduction in cancer risk than those who did not get vitamin D. In fact, the Canadian Cancer Society now recommends that all Canadians take this inexpensive and harmless vitamin on a daily basis.

According to their own website; "The Canadian Cancer Society is recommending a specific amount of Vitamin D supplementation for Canadians to consider taking. This first-time recommendation is based on the growing body of evidence about the link between Vitamin D and reducing risk for colorectal, breast and prostate cancers.

"The evidence is still growing in this area, but we want to give guidance to Canadians about this emerging area of cancer prevention based on what we know now," says Heather Logan, Director, Cancer Control Policy, Canadian Cancer Society. "As we find out more we will update our recommendation."

A red-faced Grollman grumbled that the study must have been a small and insignificant one, suggesting that Canada could not afford to do a large study. With all due respect to Dr. Grollman, the research cited was a large randomized study of 1,179 women over a five-year period conducted at Creighton University School of Medicine in Nebraska. As noted on the Canadian Cancer Society's website: "Research findings announced today (June 8th ,2007) add to the mounting evidence in this area. A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that taking Vitamin D supplements and calcium substantially reduces all cancer risk".

This event was presented by university professors to impressionable students who might be inclined to agree with their views. Grollman stated in his presentation, "I give this lecture to fourth year medical students.' Now that's unfortunate indeed. An entire graduating class of medical doctors feeling pressure to agree with this skewed view of reality should be a call to action for anyone possessing rational thought.

Close-minded skeptics are not reliable leaders of change as they are adverse to modifying their thought patterns. It is beyond shameful that our universities, which should be at the cutting edge of progressive thought, are supporting and endorsing such a biased approach to knowledge and research. Students, intent on their objective of good grades, are faced with the choice of endorsing this dominant opinion or opting out of the system. SFU is one of thousands of institutes of higher learning and skeptics are abound in many, including the university's research centers. Society's authorities, such as universities and medical centers with the biggest investment in traditional thinking on science and medicine, can actually sabotage open-minded science when reacting from a position of perceived threat, as any approach which may jeopardize potential research grants is viewed as threatening.

If Grollman were to broaden his perspective, given his knowledge base in pharmacology, he could help so many people by focusing on prescription drug interactions, a significant problem in morbidity and mortality rates. A university's mandate is to enlighten the medical doctors of the future by updating them about valid research, such as the vitamin D study, rather presenting biased beliefs seemingly based on conflicts of interest and ego considerations. Future doctors are of interest to everyone, and confidence in them is essential to the integrative medical system of our future.

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JOHN MASON

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