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A Skeptical Triumph Over Medical Flim-Flam

by Michael Shermer, Nov 03 2009

Skeptic Bruce Flamm, M.D. is vindicated in his drawn-out court case

On Friday, October 24, 2009, a California Court of Appeals vindicated Dr. Bruce Flamm, an OBGYN physician and professor at the University of California, Riverside, and member of the Skeptics Society, by throwing out a defamation lawsuit filed against him by a man who claimed to have proven that prayer can increase pregnancy rates in women trying to conceive.

Back in 2001, the Journal of Reproductive Medicine published a study by three Columbia University researchers claiming that prayer for women undergoing in-vitro fertilization resulted in a pregnancy rate of 50 percent, double that of women who did not receive prayer (i.e., a 100% increase in pregnancy rates!). Media coverage was extensive. ABC News medical correspondent Dr. Timothy Johnson, for example, reported, “A new study on the power of prayer over pregnancy reports surprising results; but many physicians remain skeptical.” One of those skeptics was a University of California Clinical Professor of Gynecology and Obstetrics named Bruce Flamm, who not only found numerous methodological errors in the experiment, but also discovered that one of the study’s authors, Daniel Wirth (AKA “John Wayne Truelove”), is not an M.D., but an M.S. in parapsychology who has since been indicted on felony charges for mail fraud and theft, for which he pled guilty. The other two authors have refused comment, and after three years of inquires from Flamm the journal removed the study from its website and Columbia University launched an investigation.

What they discovered, thanks to the vigilance of Dr. Flamm, was that Cha’s other co-author, Columbia University’s Rogerio Lobo, later revealed that he had not participated in the research and withdrew his name from the published findings. Even with one of his co-authors in federal prison and the other disgraced, Korean fertility specialist Kwang Yul Cha stood by the results of was is essentially a supernatural claim in that the presumption is that the deity intervened on behalf of infertile women to help them conceive. One wonders why the prayers do not seem to work in the other direction; that is, all those women who, due to alcohol or other external influences, engaged in sexual activity with no intention of conceiving and thus, over the course of the next several days, prayed like mad for pregnancy prevention, to no avail. But I digress…

Angered by Dr. Flamm’s skeptical persistence, Cha eventually filed a defamation lawsuit against Flamm, especially after he published several articles questioning the validity of the original pregnancy study. The lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court in August 2007, was thrown out of court in April, 2008. However, in June, 2008 Cha took the case to the California Appellate Court. Finally, on October 24, 2009, the Court of Appeals, “affirmed in full” the Superior Court decision and thus ruled that Superior Court Judge James Dunn had acted appropriately in tossing out the lawsuit.

In response to the ruling, Dr. Flamm issued the following statement:

Today’s ruling is a victory for science and evidence-based medicine. Scientists must be allowed to question bizarre claims. Cha’s mysterious study was designed and allegedly conducted by a man who turned out to be a criminal with a 20-year history of fraud. A criminal who steals the identities of dead children to obtain bank loans and passports is not a trustworthy source of research data. Cha could have simply admitted this obvious fact but instead he hired a team of lawyers to punish me for voicing my opinions. Physicians should debate their opinions in medical journals, not in courts of law. Judges have better things to do with their time and taxpayers have better things to do with their money.

Amen, brother! And congratulations Dr. Flamm, on a cause well chosen and a battle well fought. Your stamina, persistence, and skeptical vigilance are to be commended. We honor you.

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53 Responses to “A Skeptical Triumph Over Medical Flim-Flam”

  1. DevoutCatalyst says:

    This is a great way to start the day, thanks for posting this! Thanks Dr. Flamm!

  2. tmac57 says:

    Way to go Dr. Flamm! I do wonder how much money and time that this has cost the good Dr. though. Mark one in the win column for the good guys.

  3. Chip says:

    Will this garner anywhere near the hype with media outlets (blogs not withstanding) that the original crap study received…doubtful. Crap is easier to produce than clean up unfortunately.

    But one step forward…I “pray” there will be more

  4. Max says:

    Judging from Dr. Flamm’s statement, the defamation lawsuit was not about his criticism of the study’s methodological errors, but about his ad hominem attack on Daniel Wirth, the criminal. Was the lawsuit thrown out because his allegations were true, or because of some technicality?

  5. Max says:

    Dr. Lobo doesn’t look too disgraced.
    http://www.cumc.columbia.edu/dept/obgyn/services/infertility/research_teaching.html

    Rogerio A. Lobo, M.D.
    Professor, OB/GYN
    Director of Fellowship Program

    “He frequently serves as editor for peer-review journals and has authored over 300 articles and 16 books.”

    I wonder how many articles he really authored.

  6. rustle says:

    Perhaps I am alone in my skeptical reaction to the title of the post and the skeptical doctor’s name. Or is that just cosmic comedy?

  7. Kitapsiz says:

    To start off the response:

    “Wow?”, “WTF?”, and “huh?”

    This actually had to go to court? Where is the rest of the medical community to support one of their own who is obviously doing his ethical best to maintain the integrity of actual medical research v. bogus BS?

    A victory in one sense, abject failure in the other.

    As stated by Chip, where is that most pathetic non-journalistic segment of our society, “the media”, to recind their erroneous coverage of a non-medical study, promoted by a charlatan and a felon?

    I love America … American society on the other hand, not at all.

    Ignominious and pernicious on all counts, ineffable stupidity all around; except where this site is concerned. At least “someone” is attempting to take the correct direction. Well done to Dr. Flamm and the Skeptic Society.

    • Tim says:

      You love America, but not American society? So what exactly do you like about America, the land?

      Why do so many skeptics have to bad mouth the country? Why do everyone outside of “our group” have to be a bunch of toothless, baby making, NASCAR fans or gangster rapping, church going, drug dealers? Why do so many on this site insist on assuming America is some backwater hillbilly-land when we are the most secular, technologically advanced, and the freest large country in the world? I mean here we have American society calling this charlatan out, an American judge throwing the case out, and an American website mocking the man and STILL we get some jerk to say “American society on the other hand…”, or to describe the above poster more accurately:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MRVz8mtwNtE&feature=related

      Go Dr. Flamm, up yours you American hating tools.

      • Kitapsiz says:

        Thank you for validating my position. You certify the reasoning that drives the antipathy.

      • Tim says:

        Of course, sorry for where the short skirt. I guess we have it coming us Americans.

        Apparently you define anyone who disagrees with your attitude as being an “outsider” and an “agitator.” So even though I am an atheist, anti-flim flam, freedom supporting skeptic I am still a toothless, backwater, NASCAR watching, beer drinking (I don’t drink), redneck because I don’t share your contempt for America. Of course America is the only country which defines itself by an idea which is probably why it can draw such hatred. Italy, England, France, Germany, Canada, Mexico, and every other country is defined by a series of wars and monarchies that gradually formed arbitrary borders and their government are run by whoever. In America, we define ourselves by the idea of liberty and have fortified that idea in a Constitution. Here is a case where that Constitution is upheld and the freedom of speech protected, but that isn’t enough for you. No, unless Americans join you in your hatred of us then it doesn’t matter if every conclusion from rejecting flim-flam to laughing at religion line up with what you purport to believe because it is not about conclusion with you, it is about the hatred. So up yours pal, the burden of proof lies on those that make the proposition and I can say or believe anything I wish with or without your permission or in spite of your condemnation objectively speaking, therefore the proposition cannot be “me bringing it on myself.” No my friend, if you choose to hate or attack or shut down somebody else then the burden of proof is on you. To say that somebody asks for something is to reverse the process of reason.

        Tool.

      • Tim says:

        Excuse me, sorry for wearing a short skirt.

      • cabbo says:

        Surely you didn’t mean to make it seem that you think all foreign governments are bad? Them’s fightin’ words. Our problem isn’t our goverment. There’s plenty of opportunity for a good government, but it’s the voters who stop progression.
        Unlike yours. Change! I love Obama’s policy for a different, maybe not better, but different America. Well, different-ish.

      • Tim says:

        Do I think the US is better than Saudi Arabia? Yes. China? Yes. North Korea? Yes. Russia? Yes. America is an exceptional place which is exceptional precisely because of the ideas of freedom enshrined in our Constitution. There is nothing inherently superior about the people here. People are people. What makes America stand out as a shining city on a hill is our liberty, which is to say our tolerance. We do not silence people for speaking ill of religion or on its behalf. We do not silence people who speak ill of government officials, we protect them. We do not silence people who condemn the very notion of freedom itself, we debate them. America is special because people cannot force other people to do their will either directly or indirectly through the state.

        “There’s plenty of opportunity for a good government, but it’s the voters who stop progression.”

        America would be a great place if it weren’t for all those Americans. Intolerance at its highest height. I don’t know if you are being sarcastic about Obama or not, it seems completely out of place to bring up Obama. I am opposed to Obama. He capitulates to enemies and actively seeks to tear down the freedom that makes this nation great, BOTH political and economic (as can be seen with his appointees overseeing the FCC among other agencies on the political side, not to mention all the fear mongering about “tea baggers” and other rif raff trouble makers). I don’t see what Obama has to do with the discussion though?

      • Kitapsiz says:

        Astounding, all that from my two sentences. You are quite the literati. La Dotta, perhaps?

        Just as a rather incidental and trivial byline, you might want to reread my post, as with this entry, consistent with the greatest majority of instances, I’m not in the habit of disagreeing with Mr. Shermer. At least not on matters of science.

        P.S. I’m a stark raving Constitutionalist, that’s why I despise American society. Carry on, nothing to see here.

      • Kudden says:

        “the most secular, technologically advanced, and the freest large country in the world” – “large” being a nontrivial word in the context.

        I know, I know: up mine.

      • Tim says:

        Not at all, the word large is very important. Believe you me I have my criticisms of American government and society, but my resentment as expressed in this reply is an expression of my contempt of outright condemnations of the country as a whole; that is, anti-Americanism. There is no specific criticism of America to make here. The flim-flammer was exposed, the judge ruled against the flim-flammer, and the judge ruled in favor of the freedom of speech. Here we have a case of American freedom being preserved and skepticism making inroads AND STILL the original poster has to insult the country. Call me old fashion but I just don’t like to see Americans running our country down. There is nothing fundamentally (again, another carefully chosen word) wrong with the country. We traverse the country and world by sitting in a chair in the sky, moving at hundreds of miles per hour, and we complain if we lose the ability to access a live webcam in China over the internet while flying over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. We have microwaves, televisions, automobiles, heat, air conditioning, and 24 hour always stocked supermarkets. We have telephones, cameras, video cameras, computers, internet, GPS, music devices, video games, video conferencing…all in one device widely available to the public. You can make movies about the assassination of the president or have children singing about the greatness of the president. You can believe in any denomination of any religion believing in God, you can believe in gods, or no god at all (and not just profess these beliefs in public, but have bestselling books and websites). This country is a great one with freedom and its natural corollary prosperity, even now with unemployment hitting 10.2%.

        Why did I say large country? Because we have lost many of our freedoms. Monaco has no income tax, Hong Kong and Estonia have flat taxes with little regulation, and in the United States we seem to increasingly move away from equal taxation, equal treatment under the law, and many of our freedoms seem to decay regardless of the administration (although there is a difference between the parties even if both have been guilty of moving away from the Constitution). However these problems in our country have not yet compromised any fundamental principle in America. You and I can still freely speak out, choose our profession, petition the courts during disputes, lobby our legislators, and keep the products of our labor (although this right is the closest to being threatened in a fundamental way). There are a few countries with greater freedoms than ours, but there is no place I would rather live than the United States of America. Monaco is freer economically, but it is a principality without real political freedom. Hong Kong also has more economic freedom, but freedom of speech does not exist as it once did under the British and even then it was not complete. America is the first republic which protected freedom as an absolute with her few original sins such as slavery being defined as evil precisely because they deviated from that principle of freedom. When all is taken into account, social, sexual, political, and economic freedom, we are still the freest country in the world and being the freest large country in the world give our liberty a protection that Monaco, Hong Kong, and Estonia just don’t have.

        So when people get down on America I defend her passionately and even fanatically. I am an atheist who wishes the lifting of prohibition of drugs, prostitution, and gays in the military as well as the elimination of the income tax, regulations, state licensing (of marriage or doctors for that matter), welfare, and many other key elements of what our government has become, but when people start attacking the country I break out my American flag and start waving it. This country is special and to criticize it part of it, but to run it down even when you agree with what it is doing (as was the case with this post) is something I react to because while I am always contrarian, I am always patriotic.

        P.S. Kudden, I don’t swear for the hell of it or condemn people just for disagreeing with me. I don’t say up yours to you, your post was spot on. “Large” in that context was no trivial word. The nuances and subtleties of argument are often the most important parts of those arguments.

      • James Thomas says:

        Go Tim. Couldn’t agree more. The skeptical movement needs to build a bigger tent or consign itself to patting itself on the back and not worrying too much about changing the way woo-buyers look at the world. Call someone a dumb-sh*t enough times and they’ll stop listening. Keeping the movement as a carefully circumscribed priesthood is stupid and self-defeating.

  8. Tim says:

    Dr. Flamm? Get out of here. Come on, Dr. Flamm?

    Well then, go Dr. Flamm!

  9. gwen says:

    …One wonders why the prayers do not seem to work in the other direction; that is, all those women who, due to alcohol or other external influences, engaged in sexual activity with no intention of conceiving and thus, over the course of the next several days, prayed like mad for pregnancy prevention, to no avail. But I digress… LOL!
    I suppose the religious will say that this is because we were ordered to ‘be fruitful and multiply’.
    Way to go Dr.Flamm, thanks for the report Dr Shermer!

    • Max says:

      Or they could ask whether any studies have been done to show that prayer doesn’t work in the other direction.

  10. Ian says:

    I’m told we need to pray to different gods for infertility so maybe the trial protocol should be redesigned with different deities to pray to. Cha obviously didn’t pray to the right god to help him with his lawsuit.
    I hope Dr. Flamm was awarded legal fees.

  11. Cabbo says:

    Wow, they just won’t let this prayer healing thing go, will they? Well, seeing as ‘they’ refers to people who are caught up in the idea that God will save them if they ask him to, and that this is a fundimental part of their religion, then no, I suppose. Unfortunately I don’t think this is the last of the attacks on medicine thanks to this ‘prayer healing’ theory.

  12. Cabbo says:

    P.s. Amerika Rlz. We have this woowoo type of thing over here in Britian, too, and your America has bigger, more high-def TVs. And you’re crawling out of recession.

  13. Jeannette says:

    I am reminded of JBS Haldane’s description of Galton’s statistical analysis of the effect of prayer. ‘He considered that of all classes of society in England those most prayed for were the sovereigns and the children of the clergy. If prayer is effective they should live appreciably longer than other persons exposed to similar risks of death. So kings were compared with lords, and the children of clergy with those of other professionals. The conclusion to which his numbers led was that these much-prayed-for persons had slightly shorter lives than those with whom he compared them. The difference was not, however, great enough to make it probable that prayers had any harmful effect.’ (Science and Theology as Art Forms in Possible Worlds 1928). Another explanation, of course, is that those much-prayed-for were gathered into heaven early. The lesson, perhaps, is be careful what you pray for!

  14. Rinanthus says:

    Interesting sociology, but only tangentally related to the sceptical analysis itself. We are told that one author is a convicted fraudster and that another did not contribute to the study. These points certainly make the claimed result suspect but what we really need to know is what methodological errors invalidate the result or what evidence points to fraudulant data in this specific case.
    Not one of your best sceptical articles!

    • cabbo says:

      Agreed. I would’ve liked to have seen the study itself. Actually, it’s probably detailed on the web somewhere. I think I’ll do that now.

  15. JohnM says:

    “..all those women who, due to alcohol or other external influences, engaged in sexual activity with no intention of conceiving…”

    Does this mean that the only reason women should engage in sex is to become pregnant and those who do so for other reasons — purely for pleasure, say — must be under the influence or some other external pressures?

    Obviously, what Michael must have meant is that the only reason women have “unprotected sex”…..

    • cabbo says:

      I think he was just emphasising extreme cases, where it is just a ‘drunken mistake’, which, for some reason, seems worse than a sober one.

  16. Robert Neary says:

    I find it amazing that the Journal of Reproductive Medicine would have published the article without raising an eyebrow in the first place. Secondly that the case would have even made it as far as the appeals court. It seems that, just like the ID proponents, some of these nut jobs hope earnestly to win in the court of public opinion by prevailing in a court of law. Praise to Dr. Flamm for enduring what was probably a very costly lawsuit in pursuit of truth and science.

  17. leguru says:

    This decision by the Appeals Court becomes a second indictment of the power of prayer. Imagine how many True Believers™ were praying for Cha’s case to prevail, but were defeated by reasoning and integrity. GO DR FLAMM!

  18. Mark M. says:

    Congratulations, Dr. Flamm. Thank you, Michael, for providing this forum.

  19. opinionated old fart says:

    Look out Dr. Flamm; many people are praying for ill to befall you! Boogey! Boogey!

  20. Max says:

    http://www.reuters.com/article/pressRelease/idUS10592+25-Jan-2008+BW20080125

    The lawsuit stems from an article Dr. Flamm wrote in the
    March/April 2007 edition of OB/GYN News in which Dr. Flamm claimed
    that Dr. Cha has been “found guilty of fraud, deception and/or
    plagiarism.”

    Dr. Cha’s lawsuit, filed in August 2007 states: “Dr. Flamm knew at
    the time of the publication of the 2007 Article that Dr. Cha had never been found guilty of fraud, deception and/or plagiarism. Therefore, the Offending Statement was made with knowledge of its falsity and/or reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity. Thus Dr. Flamm acted willfully, maliciously and with the intent to injure Dr. Cha and destroy his reputation…”

  21. Max says:

    Has anyone considered the possibility that Dr. Flamm really did defame Dr. Cha, and that the court’s decision was unjust? I won’t congratulate Dr. Flamm until I see some evidence that he did not defame Dr. Cha.

    • tmac57 says:

      Max, here is a link to the California Court of Appeals decision ha V Flamm. Judge for yourself: http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/opinions/nonpub/B206387.DOC
      What did you decide?

      • tmac57 says:

        That should have read: Cha V Flamm.

      • Max says:

        Now we’re getting somewhere.

        “In 2007, Flamm authored an article in the March/April edition of OB/GYN News (the 2007 article). It is this article by Flamm that gave rise to the instant litigation. The 2007 article was headlined “Prayer Study Author Charged With Plagiarism.”
        The article stated in relevant part: “Dr. Cha, first author of the prayer study, has now been charged with plagiarism involving a more recent study. According to a Feb. 18 Los Angeles Times article, Dr. Alan DeCherney, editor-in-chief of Fertility and Sterility, concluded that a 2005 article by Dr. Cha and associates was a word-for-word, chart-for-chart copy of a paper previously published by a different author in a Korean medical journal. ‘I’m sure that it’s plagiarism,’ Dr. DeCherney told the L.A. Times.”

        Dr. DeCherney later stated that this was really a case of duplicate publication.

        The offending statement in Dr. Flamm’s 2007 article was:
        This may be the first time in history that all three authors of a randomized, controlled study have been found guilty of fraud, deception, and/or plagiarism.

        “Cha pled the offending statement was false and defamatory in that it asserted he ‘had been found guilty by a court or professional disciplin[ary] body of fraud, deception and/or plagiarism.’”

        Then, the ruling goes into the semantics of “found guilty”, and whether Cha is a public figure, whether Flamm’s intent was malicious, and other boring legalities.

  22. Gourav says:

    Dr. Cha’s lawsuit, filed in August 2007 states: “Dr. Flamm knew at
    the time of the publication of the 2007 Article that Dr. Cha had never been found guilty of fraud, deception and/or plagiarism. Therefore, the Offending Statement was made with knowledge of its falsity and/or reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity. Thus Dr. Flamm acted willfully, maliciously and with the intent to injure Dr. Cha and destroy his reputation…”

  23. Nathan Phillips says:

    I would have liked to have seen what errors of metodology had been used in the research. Regardless, it is important to be able to question the validity of findings. Science is not a court of law with case outcomes dependent on previous results.

    • Max says:

      Criticizing the methodology won’t get you sued for defamation. Leveling charges of fraud and plagiarism might, so you better be able to defend them.

  24. Nathan Phillips says:

    Did the legal authorities in question put as much emphasis on Dr. Flamm’s use of the word “may”? The “may” in “This may be the first time in history,” could put the assertion of the statement into question.

    • Max says:

      Dr. Flamm disingenuously argued that the “may” speculates that Dr. Cha may or may not be found guilty, so Dr. Cha had an expert linguist explain that the statement asserts that all three authors were indeed found guilty, and it only speculates whether this has happened before in history.

      • tmac57 says:

        So, do you feel that the California Court of Appeals was in error with their decision?

      • Max says:

        From what I’ve seen so far, I agree with their decision.
        The offending statement would be misleading out of context, but its meaning was clear from the article.
        So congratulations Dr. Flamm.

        It seemed like everyone here assumed that Dr. Cha sued Dr. Flamm just for criticizing his study, but the reality wasn’t so simple.

      • Max says:

        And the reason everyone assumed this is because Michael Shermer wrote, “Angered by Dr. Flamm’s skeptical persistence, Cha eventually filed a defamation lawsuit against Flamm, especially after he published several articles questioning the validity of the original pregnancy study.”

        No, Dr. Cha was especially angered by an article charging him with plagiarism of an unrelated study.

      • Shahar Lubin says:

        And was found not guilty of it.

  25. Nathan Phillips says:

    This has been a grand lesson in why it is important to treat one’s journalism with no less care than one’s research. We cannot know the true motivations of the people involved, but we can at least be more careful in explaining the intricate details of the events.

  26. Jay says:

    Actually, the gist of this article is absolutely appalling. I am also skeptical of the research, but to attack it based upon the credentials of those who did the research is nothing short of an ad hominem. According to the logic given in this article, no research could EVER be accepted by any convict. That would include Copernicus, by the way.

    If an experiment cannot be duplicated, then it must be discounted. This is the basis on which to legitimately question the findings. Not by questioning the reputation of those who did the study. Is this science or a witch trial?

    Shame on Mr. Shermer for this bit of sophistry – he should know better.

    • Max says:

      Reputation matters. One reason the study got so much attention in the first place is that its authors seemed reputable.