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Gordie Howe: How not to report about dubious stem cell therapies

WDIVHowe

And now for something completely different… (Yes, there’s been enough vaccine blogging for the moment.)

The date of the Kinsman Sports Celebrity Dinner in Saskatoon is fast approaching on February 6. It reminded me of my discussion of how Gordie Howe was flown to Tijuana to undertake a dubious stem cell therapy for his serious stroke that involved the intravenous and intrathecal (into the cerebrospinal fluid) injection of “stem cells,” a treatment that was followed by glowing reports from the family and credulous reporters in the press describing Howe’s “miraculous” recovery from his stroke. Sadly, with only one exception, there has been precious little skepticism about the claims of Howe’s family of an astounding recovery. Even more sadly, no one other than I appears to have dug particularly deeply into the dubious clinical trial being run by Novastem in Tijuana, in which patients are charged $20,000 to $30,000 per treatment and Gordie Howe was not because he’s famous. Indeed, in retrospect the whole thing comes across as a publicity stunt by Dr. Maynard Howe (CEO) and Dave McGuigan (VP) of Stemedica Cell Technologies, the company that supplies stem cell products to Novastem and its Clínica Santa Clarita. After all, they were the ones who contacted the Howes first with an offer to facilitate Gordie’s receiving stem cell therapy, not the other way around.

Before I go on, let me just mention that I wish Gordie Howe nothing but good. He is a genuine sports hero and Detroit sports icon. I’m not really a hockey fan, but I live in a hockey-crazed area. Just to get an idea of how much Detroiters love their Red Wings, consider this. My next door neighbors sons all play hockey. They even named their dog “Gordie” (yes, after Gordie Howe). One of them makes a mockup of the Stanley Cup every year out of garbage cans and shines a red light on it at night. They are not atypical of high school-aged boys in southeast Michigan. So, imagining Gordie Howe felled by a serious stroke and dying of it is a sad thing to contemplate here in Detroit and among hockey fans everywhere. I mean, I grew up watching Gordie Howe, and even though I never developed that much of an interest in hockey (sacrilege in southeast Michigan!) I still admired his skill and gentlemanly manner.

To be honest, I can’t remember a time when I’ve seen a medical story presented so many times in a manner so devoid of basic fact checking. Part of it, I think, has to do with the fact that most stories about Howe’s stem cell treatment were done by sports reporters and home town local news teams, rather than reporters who might have the background to tackle the case properly. As I explained (and so did Paul Knoepfler, who also described Stemedica’s unconvincing response), it’s incredibly unlikely that that injecting mesenchymal stem cells into Gordie Howe’s blood and cerebrospinal fluid would result in such a rapid and significant recovery. Certainly the rapidity of the reported improvement does not fit with a plausible mechanism by which stem cells, even if they were doing what advocates claim they were doing, were rebuilding neurological pathways shattered by the death of large swaths of neural tissue. From what we know, it would take longer. Indeed, the only reports showing a modicum of proper scientific skepticism came from Bradley Fikes in late December and Jesse Singal at NYMAG.com:

“This seems to be a lot about hype for the company, and it’s an anecdotal sample size of one story, which is really hard to interpret,” said Dr. Jack Parent, a professor of neurology at the University of Michigan Medical Center and staff physician at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System. Parent, who has a decade’s worth of experience researching the role of adult stem cells in epilepsy and stroke, said that neither of the two days of treatment consisted of anything that has been shown to be effective in stroke patients.

On the first day, neural stem cells were injected into Howe’s spinal canal, the idea being that those cells would then be delivered to the site of the injury to Howe’s brain. Injecting the cells directly into the spinal fluid would allow them to bypass the blood-brain barrier, which would otherwise prevent them from getting into the brain, but Parent doubted that would be enough for them to actually perform the regenerative work Novastem is claiming. “I am skeptical that enough of the cells make it to the brain from the bottom of the spinal column, penetrate into the substance of the brain itself. and survive for any significant length of time,” he said.

And:

There’s a lurking possibility here that isn’t fun to think about. Maybe the improvement Murray and his family are seeing doesn’t have anything to do with the stem cells but is rather the result of a combination of the natural recovery some people experience after a stroke and the by all accounts very good, very comprehensive care Howe’s family is providing for him (as Murray explained, Gordie has regular appointments with a speech therapist, a physical therapist, and an occupational therapist).

To Parent, the University of Michigan neurologist, this theory makes sense. “There are other reasons for people to get better,” he said. “There are placebo effects, there is concurrent medical care where when you’re treating someone you’re making sure they’re hydrated and they’re taking their other medicines appropriately and things like that. So you really need a control to be able to tell whether the effect you see is really from the treatment or not.”

Exactly. Almost certainly this is what’s going on. Yet none of this has stopped stories like this from appearing in the media:

The whole interview is embarrassing. Keith Olbermann, indeed, should hang his head in shame for this. It’s pathetic, a PR video for Stemedica. Olbermann shows no glimmer of that famous skepticism that he used to direct against conservative opponents. Of course, as I noted before, Olbermann has been taken in before by quacks. Specifically, he was played for a fool by the antivaccine movement back in 2009 when he attacked Brian Deer based on misinformation fed to his staff about him. This is just as bad, if not worse, as Maynard Howe (no relation to the Howe family) is allowed to spout off talking points without even the mildest followup question. For instance, early in the interview, Howe says that Stemedica has an FDA-approved trial that’s going on at “several major universities” in the US. That’s a bit of—shall we say?—an exaggeration, unless two sites, one university and one community equals “several” in Howe’s mind, as there are only currently two sites carrying out the Stemedica trial of stem cells for stroke. I suppose Howe (geez, it’s hard not to get all the Howes in this story mixed up) could be referring to other Stemedical trials and lumping them in the mix, but the stroke trial is only happening at UCSD and a hospital in Arizona.

It gets even more embarrassing for Olbermann, who basically slobbers all over Maynard Howe, gushing about how supposedly Gordie Howe has gone from death’s door to doing “everything but the Macarena.” This gushing gives Maynard Howe an opening to gush himself, making claims without evidence about how his stem cells have cured people with “locked in” syndrome, major traumatic brain injury, and serious vegetative state, which he characterized as a “number of very miraculous treatments.” Olbermann then basically feeds Howe questions, like the interviewer on an infomercial, leading him to be able to rattle off all the conditions he is planning on testing Stemedica’s stem cell treatments on. There’s even the obligatory question of, “How do interested people see if they can get your product?” (OK, how can interested people see if they’re eligible for your clinical trials?) and “Are there scammers out there that I should look out for?”

This question allowed Howe to mention his “four red flags” of what to look out for in dubious stem cell clinics. One “red flag” in particular amused me, and that was the one where Howe said that you should be able to ask the clinic for documentation of the minister of health or other government body’s approval of the clinical trial. My thought upon seeing that was this: How disingenuous can you get? I’m sure Howe knows quite well that in Mexico the government approves clinics to administer stem cells and the clinics can then administer them however they wished based on the physicians’ clinical judgment. Indeed, I documented this in my last post, having learned how Mexico regulates clinical trials of stem cells in an e-mail from Novastem’s director. The short answer is: Basically, the Mexican government doesn’t regulate stem cell clinical trials. Things just don’t work there the way they work here in the US, with the FDA approving clinical trials of new biologics, such as various stem cell treatments. Once a clinic in Mexico is approved to administer stem cells it can do so however it wants, carry out trials if it wants, or not.

Oh, and it can charge for the privilege. In the case of Novastem, it’s $20,000 to $30,000 a pop. What Howe should have mentioned as a red flag is that patients interested in participating in a trial of stem cells should not have to pay for them, but then he couldn’t well do that, could he? After all, his company sent Gordie Howe to Novastem, which makes me suspect that Stemedica probably routinely shunts patients not eligible for its FDA-approved clinical trials to Tijuana, to Novastem, to receive stem cells as part of its dubious trial.

Of course, Olbermann, his nose stuck so far up Howe’s rectum that he could use Howe’s uvula as a handkerchief, saw none of this. Truly, Olbermann has fallen far.

Then, just last night, there appeared this story on my local NBC affiliate WDIV this story by sportscaster Hank Winchester:

As you can see, Dr. Murray Howe, Gordie Howe’s son, is still, unfortunately, touting the Novastem treatment as a “miracle”:

I wrote his eulogy. We were making his funeral arrangements and didn’t have a whole lot of hope for him,” said Gordie’s son, Dr. Murray Howe.

Murray thought his father’s life was over. A stroke late last year caused a big setback.

“It was to the point where even if you pounded on his chest there would be no response from him,” said Murray.

The one-time hockey great appeared lifeless. He was unable to communicate.

“His eyes were open but there was just kind of nothing there,” said Murray.

As family members scrambled to make funeral arrangements, one phone call changed everything.

“He just said that they had a stem cell company,” said Murray.

Then came the Lazarus-like transformation after the stem cells:

It required flying an almost lifeless Gordie Howe from his daughter’s house in Texas to San Diego. Then he had to travel to Mexico, where the clinical trial already was underway. Just hours after the stem cells were injected, Gordie showed a new sign of life.

“I said, ‘Dad, you can’t walk,’ and he said, ‘The hell I can’t,'” said Murray.

Gordie, who was nearly paralyzed just hours earlier, began to walk.

“It was really funny. He was like, ‘Let’s go,’ you know, ‘I’m outta here.’ He didn’t even want the wheelchair when he left. I said, ‘Dad, you gotta be in the wheelchair, we don’t want you to fall on the way out,'” said Murray.

He started walking and hasn’t stopped. Video recently shot by the Howe family shows Gordie playing floor hockey with his grandson.

“Nearly paralyzed”? What does that mean? Clearly, Howe had motor function before the stem cell treatment and wasn’t completely paralyzed. I understand how Dr. Howe thinks that stem cells caused Gordie’s apparent recovery. I really do. Unfortunately, being a physician, Dr. Howe seems unaware of his own weaknesses with respect to his ability to assess the cause of his father’s recovery. Nothing against Dr. Howe, but, as I pointed out before, doctors tend to be very prone to the same sorts of wishful thinking that anyone else is while at the same time tend to overvalue their powers of observation outside of their specialty because, well, they are doctors. Remember, Dr. Howe is a radiologist. He’s not a neurologist. He doesn’t take care of stroke patients; in fact, he probably doesn’t really take care of patients more than doing invasive imaging procedures on some of them (judging from his appearance in surgical scrubs). When it comes to what should be expected from a stroke patient at various times in their recovery, he is no expert. In any case, if a single anecdote, like that of Gordie Howe, could tell us whether a treatment worked or not, we wouldn’t need clinical trials.

Also, as I mentioned above, there is no plausible biological mechanism whereby infusing stem cells could result in such an immediate and dramatic (and, apparently, permanent) effect. Rebuilding neural pathways would be expected to take days, weeks, or even months, even assuming the stem cells were doing what was claimed for them. As Steve Novella has described to me, doing clinical trials on stroke patients is difficult because measuring function is prone to all sorts of confounders, including how much their caregivers push them to do. It’s not hard to imagine that perhaps Gordie Howe had become depressed after his recent hospitalization for dehydration in early December that had scared the family into thinking he was at death’s door. He then recovered from that and, no doubt, was hydrated well with intravenous fluids before the stem cells were administered, and he perked right up. Certainly that is a far more likely explanation, given what we know about mesenchymal stem cells, than a miraculous recovery within hours. Is it possible that the stem cells are responsible for Howe’s improvement? Sure. Is it likely? Not very.

The only new thing in this video is a very brief shot of Howe shown playing floor hockey with his grandson. It’s rather odd. Mr. Hockey’s face is not shown. He stands in the same place and doesn’t walk. All he does is to shoot the ball a couple of times at the net. One would think that if Gordie Howe had made such a miraculous recovery the family would have had video of him walking, talking, and strutting his stuff, showing just how well he is doing. To me, the 20 seconds or so of video looks highly odd in context. Again, if Howe is so improved, why not show his face, show him walking, or have him converse with the reporter on camera? It’s hard from the brief snippet of video shown not to conclude that perhaps Gordie Howe is not as improved as is being claimed. I suppose we’ll see eventually. In the meantime, that video raises more questions than it answers.

Nobody wishes ill upon Gordie Howe or his family. Nobody. Least of all, me. Nor do I think Howe’s family is being deceptive. It’s very clear that Murray Howe very much believes that stem cells are responsible for his father’s improvement, even though he has demonstrated clearly some major blind spots about how dubious Novastem’s “clinical trial” is. However, the continued credulous and irresponsible reporting on his “miracle” recovery from stroke due to Stemedica stem cells, administered at the Clínica Santa Clarita via Novastem, continues. The most recent story from local media is utterly devoid of anything that might be described as critical thinking, science, or medicine. With precious few exceptions, in general thus far the reporting on Gordie Howe’s stem cell treatment has been completely without even the minimal level of reasonable scientific skepticism. Indeed, it’s been bordering on advertising for Stemedica, Novastem, and their stem cell treatments. Strike that. Some of it has been advertising; certainly it’s not reporting. For example, neither Keith Olbermann nor Hank Winchester even bothered to interview an actual neurologist or stem cell expert for their stories. For WDIV and Hank Winchester, there’s no excuse, given that there’s just such an expert, someone doing stem cell research for neurologic disorders, readily available less than 50 miles away at the University of Michigan.

There still remains Gordie Howe’s impending appearance at the Celebrity Sports Dinner on Friday. If he doesn’t show up, it’ll be a strong indication that his condition is not as improved as advertised. If he does, hopefully there will be video. Either way, as Jesse Singal notes, it won’t be enough to make a scientific assessment of whether or not Novastem’s stem cell treatment is responsible for Gordie Howe’s condition. Let no one doubt that I hope Howe’s condition is improved. I just doubt that it was the stem cells that were responsible for his improvement and have a lot of questions and concerns about Novastem’s treatments and clinical trials, concerns I deem well-justified.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

32 replies on “Gordie Howe: How not to report about dubious stem cell therapies”

Orac says,
“One of them makes a mockup of the Stanley Cup every year out of garbage cans and shines a red light on it at night”.

And all I have are young gay men smoking various substances on their balcony.

Olbermann has been lazy for a long time now. He used to be well prepared but seems to rely so heavily on staff now that he is easily fooled and often caught off guard by guests. Something that almost never happened during his ESPN and early post-ESPN days. He’s often his own worst man in the world these days. I enjoyed both his insightful sports commentary and political leanings.

Olberman blocked me on Twitter for this tweet:

@KeithOlbermann yes, @gorskon is a blogger. Just like @stevennovella and @BadAstronomer are bloggers. And all happen to have PhDs as well

It’s the only comment I’ve ever made to him, so there’s no doubt about the cause & effect.

Denise, as a former resident of southeastern Michigan, I can attest to the hockey madness. Two of my brothers used to get up at 2am for rink time. And this is as adults, not teenagers. One of them fractured something in his neck skiing and his first question to the orthopedic surgeon was “Can I still play hockey?”

I’m sorry for the Howe family and I wish that their version of events was the true one.

Yeah, I’m guessing Olbermann’s going to paint me as some sort of monster who’s calling Murray Howe a liar, crushing the hope of stroke victims, and skinning newborn puppies while I’m at it. To be honest, I was shocked at how thin-skinned he is. I mean, really. If you’re in the media I’d think you’d have a thicker skin than that.

Of course, any fair-minded person reading any of my posts, either here or at the not-so-super-secret other blog will realize that’s not true, but what percentage of people seeing Olbermann will actually read my posts? 0.01%?

On a completely personal level I wish him recovery. When I was a little girl he was in my town doing a personal appearance of some kind. I was afraid of the town escalator (yes, at that time there was only one) and he encouraged me and eventually gently lifted me onto it. Gordie Howe cured me of my fear of escalators – correlation and causation!

We all do, but as is so often the case when a skeptic questions a testimonial of a “miracle” recovery, it’s the skeptic who’s the bad guy, who’s “attacking” the patient or the family, etc. At least, that’s how the skeptic is painted, no matter how much he tries to bend over backward to be respectful.

Desperate people have always been the fore-guard for new medical procedures. Hopefully well documented, for even in failure useful evidence can be obtained.

Sure wish that coronary stem cell research would get moving quicker.

I don’t have a dog in this fight other than being a fan of Gordie Howe.

I stumbled on the fracas on Twitter and checked out this article. I agree that the Olbermann piece could have been better, but this article has got a lot of problems mainly because it is so speculative.

I don’t care how many PhDs you have speculating on Mr. Howe’s condition from a 20 second video clip is poor journalism, poor science and poor medicine.

Uh, my “speculation” is based on way more than a 20 second video clip. Read the post that preceded this:

http://respectfulinsolence.com/2015/01/02/about-gordie-howes-miraculous-recovery-after-stem-cell-treatment-in-mexico/

It details the dubiousness of the stem cell therapy, the shady way that Stemedica contacted the Howes and shunted them to the Tijuana clinic that uses their stem cells; how patients there pay $20,000+ a pop to be on a “clinical trial” (it’s generally considered unethical to charge subjects to be on a clinical trial); how the stories about Howe’s condition and timeline of his recovery have been shifting; how the scientific basis for the treatment is weak at best. Links to information supporting all these contentions are in my post and in the post above I linked to.

Also, to a physician, the fact that Gordie Howe’s face wasn’t shown is very telling. If he’s really so recovered, there’s no reason not to show his face. The most likely explanation is that he still has a very noticeable facial paralysis.

Does it not bother you that Olbermann’s story came across as practically an infomercial for Stemedica and that Stemedica is using the Howe story to promote its product, particularly given that it was Stemedica executives that contacted the Howe family first?

I consider myself a fair- minded person and I usually never comment on articles or get involved in Twitter fights, but something about this tripped my trigger. I came to this article thinking Olbermann was being an arrogant jerk, but after reading it I changed my opinion. I think you’re on firm ground criticizing the company, but not on firm ground speculating on Mr Howe’s true medical condition and the opinion of his son who is a medical doctor.

I agree that this company seems super sketchy and exorbitantly expensive, but that does not mean Mr. Howe did not benefit from their treatment. No one who hasn’t examined Mr Howe can know for sure how the treatments effected him or the true state of his health or whether his family and doctors are exaggerating his recovery. I fail to see why Mr Howe’s son, who is a doctor, would make false claims if his father was really doing poorly and he had been fleeced by quacks.

Also, the

My comments got cut off.

Please don’t take my comments as a personal attack. Your articles are very well-researched and written compared to most of the Internet. It doesn’t hurt Olbermann to get a little blowback, since he always mouths off anyway.

I sincerely wish you all the best.

With regard to the IV-injected stem cells:
It would seem to me there are only two plausible things that could result
– the SCs secrete something while floating about in the intravascular compartment and said something finds its way (rather selectively, presumably, unless the quantity of the something is very large or it is extremely potent) to the target site where it exerts an effect, while the SCs remain in the intravascular compartment (and wouldn’t they run the risk of being rather promptly eated therein?)
– the SCs behave along the lines of leukocytes and themselves extravasate at the target site. I would think this highly unlikely, given the elaborate mechanism in place for extravasation of WBCs. If they extravasate readily but without specific attraction to the site, surely they would simply be broadly distributed throughout the body, again leaving the only like effect that of secretion of something beneficial.

And of course there is the question of the size of the injected SCs. If they are much larger than RBCs and not sufficiently deformable, would they not tend to block capillaries, which is generally a bad thing?

SamE (by the way, are you an Electric Company fan?):

Part of Orac’s point is that even if Howe has improved significantly, it almost certainly isn’t because of the stem cells.

Given the number of variables, including the fact that sometimes people recover significantly from strokes without this new treatment, we can’t deduce much from a single case report.

@Doug Is not part of the theory (wild eyed guess) that SC migrate to areas showing necrosis? The ability for SC to differentiate to “fill the gaps” during embryonic development is amazing.

Still, it does seem like a unreasonable jump (aka Grand Canyon on a tricycle) to compare reasonable research into injection of SC into freshly damaged cardiac tissue and this.

There is serious scientific work being done on the use of stem cell to treat ischemic stroke. For example, Athersys completed enrollment in December for a controlled study that will report initial results in late March or April. They are using a type of stem cell called Multipotent Adult Progenitor Cells (MAPC). Their preclinical studies have indicated that any positive effect is probably due to signaling by the cells that reduces inflammation and promotes healing in the brain, even though the cells never traffic to the brain. Concentrations of the cells have been found in the spleen following IV injection. It is fascinating and very promising work.

I’ll boil down my point here.

I don’t like the fact that you guys were attacking Olbermann for not going with peer-reviewed scientific evidence, and then when I click on your article expecting peer-reviewed evidence and I get a bunch of speculation about Mr Howe based on a 20 second video clip and a bunch of shade thrown at his son, because he’s a radiologist and supposedly doesn’t understand the intricacies of neuroscience.

The video clip is anecdotal evidence, which the twitter critics claim to sneer at when it is used to say Mr Howe’s condition has improved. I don’t know why Mr Howe’s face was not shown in that clip and neither does the author, but instead of doing his due diligence and asking a representative of Mr Howe’s family why his face wasn’t shown he provides a speculative assessment based on his own prejudices. I don’t see how anyone could honestly do that and then claim to have the moral high ground

Anyway I will check out of the debate now. The only reason I got involved was because I had a sick day and I got too deep into Twitter (never gonna do that again).

I hope you will take these comments in the spirit they were intended. I just thought the author might be interested to know how a disinterested party viewed this debate.

Blessings to you all.

I don’t like the fact that you guys were attacking Olbermann for not going with peer-reviewed scientific evidence, and then when I click on your article expecting peer-reviewed evidence and I get a bunch of speculation about Mr Howe based on a 20 second video clip and a bunch of shade thrown at his son, because he’s a radiologist and supposedly doesn’t understand the intricacies of neuroscience.

Which shows that you missed the point. The criticism of Olbermann wasn’t because he didn’t use peer-reviewed evidence. It was because he didn’t apply even a tiny modicum of skepticism to the story and basically did an infomercial for Stemedica, letting its official make whatever claims he wanted for his stem cell treatments completely unchallenged, with not even a mildly skeptical question. Again, as for the 20 second clip, that was clearly highly selected, which casts reasonable doubt on just how improved Gordie Howe is. Finally, no one is trashing Murray Howe. No one. I’m simply pointing out as a fellow physician that (1) he is not a neurologist; (2) as a radiologist he doesn’t take care of patients in the way that even primary care docs do; and (3) doctors are just as prone as confuse correlation with causation, particularly when it’s a loved one. As I said on Twitter, no one’s accusing him of lying or incompetence, just of having the same limitations that every human being has. As I said above, there’s a reason why it’s considered a bad idea for doctors to treat family members. No objectivity.

[…] Yesterday’s post was about news stories portraying Gordie Howe’s “miraculous” recovery from his serious stroke last fall and further attributing his recovery to a dubious stem cell treatment he received at Clinica Santa Clarita in Tijuana, a clinic that uses Novastem stem cells, which are purchased from a company called Stemedica. It was basically a continuation of a post a month before, except that I complained about the credulous news coverage that basically let Stemedica the media as infomercials for their products. In particular I was harshly critical of Keith Olbermann, whose five minute segment two weeks ago on Howe’s recovery was, indeed, basically an infomercial for Stemedica. On a whim, I Tweeted out the link, plus a link to the previous post, to Keith Olbermann (@KeithOlbermann) and the local news station (@Local4News) that did a similar story on Tuesday night featuring new video of Howe. Let’s just say, Olbermann was not pleased: […]

SamE has either indeed missed the point, or is rather disingenuously trying to pass off a straw-Orac. Orac didn’t claim to know the true state of Gordie Howe’s health. And he didn’t claim the stem cell treatment had nothing to do with the current state of Gordie Howe’s health. The OP isn’t about Gordie Howe’s health. It’s about sportscasters offering credulous melodramatic paeans to an unregulated Stem Cell clinic in Mexico without doing one iota of fact-checking.

Orac doubts stem cell treatment could yield the dramatic improvements claimed, He didn’t ask for Olbermann to have cite peer reviewed research. He just said he wished Keith had shown a glimmer of any kind of skepticism. Like, asking one challenging question. Which Keith didn’t, as he was too busy going ‘Wow!” and “Pshew!” during Maynard Howe’s spiel.

Pointing out, as Orac does, that “neither Keith Olbermann nor Hank Winchester even bothered to interview an actual neurologist or stem cell expert for their stories.” might imply they should have, but here’s the take I would have given to my broadcast journalism students when I was a TA for such a class. Those stories Flunk J101. They demanded that an independent neurologist or stem cell expert be consulted, at least on background, if not actually put on the air. Orac is being mild (which is good, all things considered).

“I don’t care how many PhDs you have, speculating on Mr. Howe’s condition from a 20 second video clip is poor journalism.” Point missed again. The speculation is not about Howe’s condition, but about the CLAIMS about Howe’s condition. And that speculation is framed as speculation in the OP.

It’s hard from the brief snippet of video shown not to conclude that perhaps Gordie Howe is not as improved as is being claimed. I suppose we’ll see eventually. In the meantime, that video raises more questions than it answers.

Yeah, if Orac was a student turning that in as an opinion-column assignment I’d circle “conclude” and put a “?” over the circle. But in the context of the blog as posted it’s hardly “fair-minded” to ignore the qualifiers of “it’s hard not to”, “perhaps”, “suppose” and the conclusion “more questions than answers.”?

Do you know anything about TV news reporting, SamE? Ever done it yourself or studied it? See, I don’t see how anyone who would do due diligence to MY field would throw shade at someone asking questions about the selective editing of a video clip.

“Bad journalism” you see, would include citing highly specialized peer-reviewed research papers instead of citing reader-accessible public statements by the university professors who write such papers, as Orac did in the OP you claimed lacked citations – and btw the links provided lead to the published research of Prof.’s Knoepfler, Parent and others. So excuse me my LOL at the reference to “moral high ground.”

But that’s not quite as funny as failing to get that if a producer from Countdown with Keith Olbermann calls Knoepfler or Parent there’s a very high probability they’ll do a phone interview with the staffer, or agree to appear on-air, while the probability that even if Orac could get contact info for the Howe family they’d actual talk to him are about a snowball’s chances of surviving being run over by a Zamboni.

Among the things a smart journalist knows, and a smart media critic knows as well, is that every ‘fact’ is pulled from a big field of choices – and included in that concept is that 20 second video clips are typically pulled from about 45 minutes of raw footage If somebody only provides 20 seconds of video, there’s a reason they shot THAT 20 seconds, and not 20 seconds of something else. If Gordie Howe can do the macarena, you’re going to see him do the macarena. If he can walk around with ease, you’re going to see him walking around.

I know why Howe’s face isn’t visible in the clip: it was shot by an amateur trying to get Howe’s body and his grandson’s makeshift goal in the frame at the same time, thus taking a ‘natural’ position from behind. It’s not to hide Howe’s face, which I’d guess looks fine for a recovering stroke victim as you can hear him making chatter w/o difficulty to the kid.

But his feet don’t move the whole time. The kid makes a save on the first shot (!) and Gordie flubs the stick-handling on the second shot before getting a nice little wrister between the kid’s legs.

So I ask myself: what I would shoot to demonstrate Gordy’s recovery, if I were working for the Howe family? If he had anything but serious facial paralysis, I wouldn’t be afraid to shoot face-front, I’d just avoid a CU where it would be apparent. Since he’s ‘Mr. Hockey’ nothing’s going to grab the public more than him doing something ‘hockey-ish’. So I probably do shoot him playing with the kid.

See, this is almost certainly a set-up for the camera, rather than a ‘candid’ of a family interaction that would have happened anyway. You can tell that from the camera position, and from the fact when the camera moves, it catches Murray Howe hovering just outside of the frame, then he awkwardly steps back to get out of the picture.

Anyway, the VO leading into the clip is “He started walking, and he hasn’t stopped” And what we see is Gordie Howe NOT walking, his feet planted as if nailed to the floor. And why is Murray Howe stationed just outside the frame, caught moving forward toward his dad after the first shot-on-goal, then stopping when he sees dad ready to take another shot, unless he’s spotting Gordie out of fear he might fall over?

You can make a darn good guess that this clip is all the Howes gave WDIV, because the story repeats it three times, which WDIV would not do if they had other footage of Howe in action post-stem-cell-treatment. Also, with Murray coming revealingly into the frame like that, why didn’t they shoot it over, or if Gordie and kid had continued playing, why didn’t they give the station a different 20 seconds?

If Gordy can walk OK, why not have him start a few feet back, and take a couple steps up handling the puck before taking the shot? If he’s doing as well as Murray claimis, after Gordie takes a couple shots at the kid, why not have them switch, and put Gordie in goal, so we can see him smiling as the kid takes a couple of shots at him? Again, at that position and focal length, we wouldn’t see paralysis unless it was really bad, and even if he can’t move well enough to stop the kid from scoring, wed see he’s capable of some kind of motion, and some kind of smile.

Is this clip conclusive proof of anything? No. But every aspect of what it is (and of what it might have been but isn’t) is evidence that Gordie Howe can’t stand up for 29 seconds without his family being afraid he’ll fall over, and once that 20 seconds is up, he’s back down for a rest.

This is all a bit of digression, but only a bit. The central point of the OP is that no matter how much Mr. Howe has improved there’s no evidence beyond post hoc fallacy that the stem cell treatments had anything to do with it.

Countdown‘s error in abetting this fallacy is inexcusable, but modest. I’d guess Oblermann and his producers (it’s almost never just the on-air ‘star’) got the ‘stem cell miracle’ peg from Murray Howe and ran with it by booking Maynard Howe. That was a poor choice as journalism. The peg could have been ‘Gordie Howe makes miraculous recovery’, without attributing it definitively to Novastem. The treatment could have been mentioned, in a minor role, with a ‘maybe / maybe not’ frame that would still have given Novastem a nice bit of run. But from the WDIV piece, it’s pretty clear Murray Howe is the real issue here, and he wasn’t having any part of anything that didn’t offer Novastem as the Savior of Mankind. Countdown also has a format limitation: they need somebody to interview. If they’d put Murray Howe on, it would probably have been worse. From the decision to interview Maynard Howe on, though, we’re talking about errors of omission: the failure to check with independent medical experts, or prepare any even mild questions to limit Maynard Howe’s claims.

The WDIV story is something else altogether. Here ‘reporter’ Hank Winchester is not only actively constructing the post hoc fallacy himself, but presenting extremely questionable ‘evidence’ to establish a claim about the ‘post’ condition. A post hoc fallacy explaining a real thing is bad enough, a post hoc fallacy explaining a fake thing is worse. Again, we don’t know it’s fake, but Orac’s skepticism is more than justified, and should be stated, even if it’s a secondary matter to the central issue.

Finally (maybe a bit OT) the WDIV piece is one of the worst excuses for ‘TV news’ I can recall. It’s over-bearing manipulative treacle – complete with an awful, tear-jerking music score – that looks like it escaped from a Ted Shuttlesworth faith-healing video. Olbermann let a guest on his talk show make a plug w/o challenging him – that’s not cool, but it’s not ‘against the rules’ for talk shows. WDIV is supposed to be doing ‘hard news’ yet they actually wrote, directed and broadcast a shameless “PR video for Stemedica”. That’s a no-no in anybody’s journalism book.

‘Gentlemanly’ isn’t the first thing I think of when I hear the name “Gordie Howe”; following ‘skilled’, ‘tough’ and ‘mean’ are first to leap to my mind. But perhaps you’re remembering him more from his latter days in the WHA than his early (1950’s and 60’s) career in the NHL.

I don’t get Olbermann and Maher. I have a hard time understanding how people can have such massive amounts of cognitive dissonance. They are both extremely bright political critics, and good religious critics as well (full disclosure: I am an atheist, and I admit to having a soft spot in my heart for Maher for being an open atheist, regardless of how much I may disagree with him at times). But I don’t understand how they feel qualified to cherry pick.

These are the guys that have no problems with the science on climate change. They have no problems with the science on evolution. Astrophysics, economics, social problems, etc. etc; they go with the science. Human health? Nope, they know better than all the doctors out there, screw you.

Boggles my mind. I’d love to go on Real Time and ask Maher why he thinks some branches of science are more “true” than others.

Sorry I missed the date of the Olbemann vid, but if he mentioned hockey with the kids two weeks ago, and claimed Gordie was stickhandling, then either Gordie’s relapsed or the footage the Howes gave WDIV for yesterday’s story is at least two weeks old. Which raises questions either way… Dinner tomorrow. Wonder who’ll pick up the check? (sadmar goes to punalty box for 2 minute minor…)

@ Slugdoc #25
fwiw, I’d guess it’s just personal involvement with the Howes for Olbermann, not the sort of overt science cherry-picking Maher does with vaccines…

I listen to the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corp) during the day–hours of commercial free, well-presented music–and in one of the hourly newscasts (ususlly pretty dull compared to what goes on here) there was a report about the upcoming event in Saskatoon. It was all about Mr. Howe’s “amazing recovery following stem cell treatment”. I was in a real froth at the total lack of “balance” if you will. Lack of critical thinking now seems to be the norm.

@Sadmar
Do you ever teach your students to get to the point? 🙂

@Slugdoc

I’m salivating to see if Orac will get a blog or two out of the Feb 6 Real Time with Bill Maher. He really shed any pretense of being science minded at all. “I’m not an anti-vaxxer, but…”
And then came up with his top 10 list of where he “disagrees with medicine”. It was truly cringe worthy.

For me, it was Bill Maher’s “jump the shark” episode.

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