Tuesday, February 27, 2007

on quacks and cancer

About ten years ago, when I was a graduate student in molecular biology, I went home for Christmas and my mother had a book waiting for me. This book was called "The Cure for All Cancers". Certainly a bold title. My mother has a friend who is a devoted conspiracy theorist, and until rather recently, a devoted practitioner of various homeopathic health treatments (in recent years as her health as she has started to suffer from arthritis, she's become more of a believer in more standard health practices). She wanted to hear what a scientist had to say about this book, and so had my mother pass the book on to me.

I can remember that morning quite well. I was sitting at the table while my Mom was making waffles. My Dad was standing nearby while I read out loud various passages in the book. According to the author (I can still remember well), all cancers are caused by a type of worm that infects people. And this same worm can be rid from the body merely by building a small machine (that consists of a 9 volt battery and a few wires) and electrocuting yourself with it. According to the author, one Hulda Clark, the worms don't like the electricity, but you can tolerate it well. Well, we read a few chapters of this book (all in large type, so it went rather quickly) and my father and I laughed out loud at various parts. It all seemed terribly funny at the time.

My mother asked that I write something for her friend, to explain to her gently that this book was written by a quack, so I wrote to her that to our best understanding, most cancer was caused by mutations, and that electricity likely wouldn't have any effect at all on someone with cancer. I also wrote that anyone who telss you that they can cure all of anything, is likely trying to sell you a bill of goods. Over the years, I've brought this book up occassionally at parties, as an object of derision, and good humour. It seldom fails to get people to chuckle.

Fast forward several years. In 2002, my father was diagnosed with a particularly nasty transitional cell carcinoma. This is the cell that grows around the bladder, and this tumour had spread into his kidney and aorta. He had a twelve hour surgery in August of that year to remove his kidney, and the surrounding tissue. During his recovery I thought it would help my Mom to deal with all of the trauma if she had a book that explained simply what cancer was and what we could do about it, and headed down to my local Barnes & Noble to find something appropriate. They have a cancer section in their bookstore, and one of the most prominently displayed books of that time was none other than "The Cure for All Cancers". Needless to say, this time I found this book much less funny. I was enraged. Here is a book of complete quackery that is preying on desperate people during dark times. Since then, I've kept an eye out for it, and I've never failed to see this book in every bookstore I've set foot in since that day (and in fact, is listed as #8 of the cancer books on Amazon.com). In fact, a rough survey of the cancer section in most bookstores shows that at least half of the books in there are complete rubbish, and many of them promote cures that are nothing more than snake oil. I plan to do a more complete review of the crap found in these other books in the future.

In reading more about her, I found this quote from a review of her book at Amazon.com that sums it up better than I can:

"Understand that, for her to be correct, literally every physician and nurse you have every met would have to be part of a conspiracy to hide this truth. If a few zaps of electricity could cure cancer, then literally every drug company, every family doctor, every Nobel prize winner for the past half-century would need to be in on the lie. Or, if that seems a bit much, it could be the Hulda Clark is a quack. Ask yourself which seems more likely. "
Apparently these days, Hulda Clark is claiming that she can cure AIDS and various other diseases as well, and she is clearly a fairly successful scam-artist for so many bookstores to carry her books. I shake with anger when I think about all the unfortunates who have looked to her for hope. For more reading on this, or on others, check out Quackwatch.

Rest in peace, Dad (1933-2002).

Edit: Orac discusses Hulda Clark here. It's worth a read.


Thursday, February 22, 2007

more on conservapedia

More news from Conservapedia. Having scanned through a few of their entries, I can't tell if people are satirizing conservatives, or if the posters are downright crazy. (Well, I can tell that at least a few are satire). But check this out for an example entry:

Do they want this to be an educational site? Or a laughingstock? Or merely a way to make homeschooled children even more confused?

It makes my head hurt. Check it out for yourselves.


Wednesday, February 21, 2007


Via Pharyngula:

Apparently the appendix does have a purpose. Try this out for weird:

Though it may look vaguely like a hand grenade, the solid white structure in the X-ray is actually someone's appendix, visible only because it is full of shotgun pellets -- so full, in fact, that it is stretched to about three times its normal size.
The patient, a 73-year-old Inuit woman at Norton Sound Regional Hospital in Nome, had probably been swallowing the pellets inadvertently for decades, in the meat of ducks and geese shot by local hunters..... ....Older people with bad or missing teeth may not chew well enough to notice the lead or steel pellets in their food, the doctors said.
Once swallowed, the shot may travel through the digestive tract and leave by the usual exit. But some pellets may find their way into the appendix.


When a bad idea gets worse...

Oy. I'm not a fan of wikipedia. There are some clear advantages to it. It's fast. It's easy to get information. But I have a problem with the open contribution policy. I think it's too vulnerable to be manipulated by the folks who care most about an issue, rather than the folks who know the most. It's the classic problem on the internet. Arguments are not won by people who are right, they are won by people who are shrill.

Apparently I'm not alone in my concerns about wikipedia. The folks at conservapedia think so too. They've decided to create an alternative encyclopedia:

Conservapedia is a much-needed alternative to Wikipedia, which is increasingly anti-Christian and anti-American. On Wikipedia, many of the dates are provided in the anti-Christian "C.E." instead of "A.D.", which Conservapedia uses. Christianity receives no credit for the great advances and discoveries it inspired, such as those of the Renaissance. Read a list of many Examples of Bias in Wikipedia.
What?!? So rather than try to edit wikipedia for perceived bias, they are creating their own system, and only allowing folks that are biased to contribute? And who are the mastermind contributing editors to this exercise in self-delusion?
Conservapedia began in November 2006, as the class project for a World History class of 58 advanced homeschooled and college-bound students meeting in New Jersey.
Perfect. Not just regular children. Homeschooled children. It won't be long before conservapedia is a conservative satire site. Yow, you can't make this stuff up.


Friday, February 16, 2007

Oh the irony of it all...

How is it that AdWords can miss the point so thoroughly? I've put AdWords on my blog, and I'm damn near ready to take it down. This blog is my attempt to write about science and society. Science has had some of the largest effects on how 21st century society operates, and yet most Americans have no idea how science and scientists work. So I put AdWords on my blog, cause all the cool kids are doing it, and all the ads that are coming up are for homeopathic pseudoscientific bunk. Apparently my earlier post about the new HPV vaccine has pegged by AdWords for various flaky HPV cures. That's the danger of the web. All kinds of information out there. Most of it is crap.

My quick google search of HPV reveals that around 2/3 (it changes each time) of the sponsored search results are for quackish "cures" for the virus. Let's all be clear, here. There are no cures for viruses. For most viruses, there are no effective treatments (though HIV has a few due to the huge amount of research done in this area).

Many people think that science is about lab coats and words that end in "ology". Science is first and foremost proof. If someone says they have a cure for something, demand proof. Demand publication in peer-reviewed journals (that is, that they've convinced their scientific peers that they are correct). There are no "alternative" treatments. There are treatments that work and pseudoscientific bunk.


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Happy birthday!

Today my son is one year old. In honor of his birthday, I thought I would write an entry about the pseudoscientific bunk that is Baby Einstein. President Bush lauded the creator of this company in his 2007 State of the Union speech as a "talented business entrepreneur". Of this I have no doubt. She's also a talented scam artist.

Those of you who don't have small children probably aren't aware of the crazy popularity of Baby Einstein products (I certainly wasn't until after my son was born). 1 in 3 American babies have watched a Baby Einstein video. These videos purport to teach babies valuable skills and concepts. Take one of their products, for instance:

Baby Mozart Music Festival is a musical festival for little eyes and ears. Given top ratings by moms worldwide, this title is a captivating experience that exposes babies and toddlers to the splendor and delight of classical music while mesmerizing them with stimulating, colorful images.

I have no doubt that it mesmerizes babies. My son is mesmerized any time he sees a TV screen that is on, regardless of the content. And implicit in the name Baby Einstein is the suggestion that using these products will make your child smarter. Is this true? According to Harvard psychologist Susan Linn:
"Essentially, the baby video industry is a scam. There's no evidence that the videos are educational for babies, and a review of the research on babies and videos concludes that while older babies can imitate simple actions from a video they've seen several times, they learn much more rapidly from real life,"
Wow. And the company knows this. They even use a few weasel words on their website to cover their butts from lawsuits:

The Baby Einstein Company is aware of the ongoing discussions regarding children and television viewing, particularly as it pertains to infants under the age of two years old. And, while we respect the American Academy of Pediatrics, we do not believe that their recommendation of no television for children under the age of two reflects the reality of today’s parents, families and households – for example, a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 68% of all babies under two years old watch screen media on any given day. The Baby Einstein Company believes that when used appropriately, television can be a useful learning tool that parents and little ones can enjoy together.

Enjoying together, right? Yet many of the testimonials on their own website read like many parents are using these videos as a babysitter so that they can have some free time. Granted, I often feel like I could use some free time. My wife and I outnumber our son two to one, and we still feel like we're barely able to keep things under control. But to be pretending that your product is educational seems dirty, when not only is it not educational, it's probably less educational than having your baby bang pots and pans while you make dinner. And expensive, too.

I want the best for my son. I want him to be smart, and well-educated and have the chance to do whatever he is most fascinated with when he is an adult. I think there are very few parents that feel differently. That said, these products are a crass attempt to turn the fears of parents into cash, and I deeply resent that.


Monday, February 12, 2007

suppressing the truth

Marcus R. Ross was profiled today in the New York Times. He's a scientist, of sorts. Apparently he's completing his PhD from the University of Rhode Island. Apparently he's also a young earth creationist. So how does this graduate student at the University of Rhode Island merit a profile in the New York Times? Because while studying the Cretaceous Period (that occurred 65 million years ago) he is maintaining that the earth is less than ten thousand years old.

Asked whether it was intellectually honest to write a dissertation so at odds with his religious views, he said: “I was working within a particular paradigm of earth history. I accepted that philosophy of science for the purpose of working with the people” at Rhode Island.

And though his dissertation repeatedly described events as occurring tens of millions of years ago, Dr. Ross added, “I did not imply or deny any endorsement of the dates.”
On the one hand, scientists are appalled at the thought of giving Ross a PhD, despite the fact that he holds such radical (from a scientific standpoint) views. Several scientists in the article (though notably not his advisor) suggest that Ross not be allowed to graduate. There is no scientific evidence that the earth is only ten thousand years old. This is all inference from a book (the Judeo-Christian Old Testament), and scientists don't get their evidence from authoritative books, they get it from data. And by giving him a degree, isn't the University of Rhode Island claiming responsibility for him and his views? No. A PhD is not a license to pursue science in the way a law degree or a medical degree is. A PhD is an indication that you have undergone rigourous training, and that you have been able to create a body of work that is defensible to other scientists. Once you have a PhD, you are still allowed to be wrong (and certainly, there are scientists who hold views equally suspect as young earth creationism).

On the other hand, religious folk are worried that their views are being suppressed. The fact that scientists are even discussing witholding a PhD from a man simply for his religious belief suggests he is being censored. But what is the difference between censorship of a man who holds radical beliefs and failing of a man who doesn't understand basic concepts? I think an example we can all agree on is that the earth is a globe. Flat-earthers don't deserve equal time in geography departments, and we wouldn't think twice to deny a PhD in geography to someone who professed his belief that the world is a flat disc supported on the backs of turtles. To the public at large, there is a big difference between young earth creationism and flat-earthers. To the vast majority of scientists, there is none.

So, should we scientists worry that a young-earth creationist is going to bandy about his PhD from the University of Rhode Island as a way to bludgeon people into viewing young-earth creationism as a legitimate science? Yes, we should. Beware a raft of popular "science" books from Marcus Ross, PhD. But neither should we try to stop him. The best way to counter misinformation is with data.


Wednesday, February 7, 2007

scared of needles?

This week, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas announced that by executive order, he would be requiring the young girls of Texas to receive the vaccine Gardasil. A similar measure is being considered in Maryland. This has stirred up all kinds of excitement. Conservative bloggers are all aflutter. (full disclosure here: my wife does research on vaccines).

Gardasil is a vaccine that prevents infection with several subtypes of the Human Papillomavirus (HPV). In some cases, infection with HPV causes cancer. So, by blocking the infection with this virus, HPV prevents cancer. End of story? Well, not really. The thing is that HPV is transmitted sexually. So we're talking about a cancer that is sexually-transmitted. Granted, not everyone who gets the virus, gets the cancer (most people never know they had it - which is why it is transmitted so readily. You're much more likely to notice your partner has gonorrhea.) You'll never in a million years notice that your partner has HPV. The other complication is that for this vaccine to work, you have to have it before you ever contract HPV. Meaning, you have to have it before you have sex. Or, rather, girls need to have it before they have sex. The recommended age for administering this vaccine is 12.

And there's the rub. Vaccinating girls against a sexually transmitted disease before they should be having sex. Most parents hope their children aren't even *thinking* about sex at that age. Quite frankly, when I was that age, I could hardly think of anything else, but I'm male, and such is the stereotype. So the arguments I've heard against making this vaccine mandatory have included:

1) This vaccine shouldn't be mandatory because it only works against some strains of the virus. As it happens, it doesn't prevent mad cow disease either, but I think that's not a valid argument for not having a mandatory vaccination program.

2) This vaccine shouldn't be mandatory because all the profits are going to one company. Though I'm very interested in intellectual property rights, I'm not going to discuss it here. But let's just run with the assumption that in modern capitalistic democracies, intellectual property rights should be respected, and really are not sufficient reason to not want to use a drug.

3) This vaccine shouldn't be mandatory, because it prevents a cancer that is spread by sexual contact. Do people who have sex deserve to get cancer?

and finally 4) Vaccines are dangerous, they cause autism/ADD/insert your favourite disease here. Hogwash. There are side effects to *some* vaccines. These side-effects are rare, and are always less dangerous than the disease they prevent (when this is not the case, for example the rotavirus vaccine that caused intussussception) the vaccine is quickly withdrawn. Vaccines *don't* cause autism or ADD. I will discuss this later, as this is a pet-peeve of mine.

Safety is a real issue. While I'm sure that Gardasil has been tested on thousands of people, that is not sufficient to find side-effects that occur on the one in one hundred thousand level. So it is possible that there will be side-effects that we don't know about yet, but they should be exceedingly rare.

The real issue that no one is talking about is that there are people out there who don't want their daughters to have this vaccine. That is, there are people out there who don't want to protect their daughters from cervical cancer. Whether this is through some puritanical aversion to sex, or whatever, it's sad that any government has to talk about making Gardasil mandatory. People *should* be lining up around the block to get this vaccine for their kids.


Tuesday, February 6, 2007

a hint of outrage

Why do people start blogs? I have a sneaking suspicion that it's because people get fed up with the mendacity of it all, and decide that they need to shout out to whoever will listen. And, given that if you do this at your cubicle at work, you're likely to lose the respect of your peers (if not your job). So instead, we write blogs.

So what is it that makes me want to shake my fist at the sky shouting, "Oh, the humanity!!!"? Well, as it happens, I'm passionate about a lot of things, but today, the thing burning my butt is conservative blogs reacting angrily to any suggestion that global warming is happening. "It's a conspiracy!!!" they cry. Well, I hate conspiracies. H.A.T.E. I just can't believe that they happen. As it happens, human beings are terrible at keeping secrets. We're generally cranky creatures that manage to manufacture consensus only after mountains of effort. And scientists? We're even worse. We get paid to think grand ideas, but more importantly, we get paid to prove it. We're naturally a contrarian bunch, and the way you generate consensus among scientists is by gathering data that supports your model, and showing that your model explains more data than anyone else's model.

It's been suggested that the current scientific consensus exists because either 1) most climatologists are too stupid to understand the real Galileo's of climate science, and that their time will come or 2) there is a conspiracy to silence the scientists who dont agree with the "liberal" position that global warming is happening. Or most likely of all: both.

Now any scientist worth their salt will say that anything may be disproven. It may turn out that global warming is a giant mistake. It may turn out that gravity doesn't exist and the world is flat. But at the moment, mountains of data suggest that global warming is happening, and that it is a result of manmade carbon emissions. This is not a liberal fact. This is not a conservative fact. This is a scientific fact. And while some may argue that until we are 100% sure, we should hold off acting on it, the truth is, I'm not 100% sure the sun will rise tomorrow.

But if it does, I'll add more thoughts to this...