As long-time readers know, I take issue with a number of high-profile “wellness warriors” and anti-science advocates who claim to offer “natural,” “holistic,” or simply “alternative” treatments that can cure cancer or prevent it entirely. Chief among these are Chris Wark and Ty Bollinger, two people with absolutely no scientific or medical training and tons of bad advice. They are part of a large network of disreputable and largely discredited hucksters, many of whom get by on their claims by offering just the tiniest shred of truth mixed in with their hyperbole and insidious messages. They thrive in our increasingly anti-intellectual culture, where headlines and sound bytes sway their customers and their “fan base” into believing that there is substance to their messages. This is why, more than ever, it is essential to take a critical approach to all the medical headlines that are presented, and especially those making extraordinary claims.
The well-established and professionally vetted website, Healthline, has a very good primer on the subject of spotting fake medical news. It could hardly be more topical. There is nary a day that goes by when some website or other isn’t making absurd claims about the latest health craze or danger. Whether it is bloating the risks of GMO foods or misrepresenting the cancer risk from eating red or processed meat, there are more sources out there in the ether intent upon cherry picking data or simply removing it from context in order to sell their point than there are serious outlets for the reporting of science news. Part of the problem with this is that science news isn’t usually considered very sexy or commercial, but a bigger problem is that it is generally difficult for most people to fully understand.
And capitalizing on that, we have opportunists like Chris Wark, a self-proclaimed guru on defeating cancer without chemotherapy. Duly note, of course, that Mr. Wark was cured through surgical intervention and, while chemotherapy was recommended as an adjunctive treatment to lower the risk of future metastasis, there was no indication that he had any actual, existing metastases that needed treatment. To put it bluntly, he was one of the lucky colon cancer patients who had it all taken out without any recurrence. This had nothing to do with whether or not he received chemotherapy, and there is no way of knowing how he would have responded to such treatment or whether his “lifestyle” choices have had any bearing whatsoever on his post-surgical health. Continue reading Common Sense, Clarity and Wellness Warrior Lies→
Arguably, we live in a time when it has become increasingly important to carefully parse data, even, as it turns out, in casual conversation and friendly communication. The rampant spread of misinformation in the Age of Social Media is nothing new. Conspiracy Theorists and intentional hoaxsters have been an ever-more-apparent online presence since the rise of newsgroups. Even in those near-forgotten days of Lost History prior to our every moment getting logged for “posterity” in the cloud, we had plenty of access to active (and more easily identifiable) paper sources of deliberate misdirection ranging in credulity from The Weekly World News to The National Inquirer — publications finding a non-ironic insurgency in recent years as their online brethren like NaturalNews, InfoWars, and WorldNewsDaily have added to the fodder for the less-Luddite paranoid contingent.
For the sake of reason, it is essential for all of us to adhere to certain standards of Critical Thinking. Just for purposes of general, civil communication, we should all want a basic, coherent understanding of the facts of our world. Philosophical differences aside, it should be a simple task to understand the foundations of science and recognize pseudo-scientific rhetoric as what it is; it should be easy enough to discount rigorously anti-intellectual arguments and logical fallacies
Lately, I have written a few posts on critical thinking and promised an interview on the topic. Although I recorded this some weeks back, I have finally delivered on the promise to upload it.
Following are a few fun pages that list logical fallacies. They present them differently, so it is worth visiting a few of the sites to get a feel for how they lay them out or categorize them, but generally speaking, they cover a lot of the same ground. Enjoy the journey!
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My recent post on dealing with change and adversity was inspired in no small part by a change I am facing in my own life, one rife with uncertainty and heavy with anticipation. The last CT scan I had showed that my primary tumor, the one by which we gauge progression or lack thereof, was still within the technical boundaries of business as usual. That is to say, its lateral dimensions had not changed significantly since the previous scan, and overall had not grown enough over the similar measurements from a year or two years ago to precipitate anxiety. But CT scans are, for lack of a better term, a bit fuzzy. The images are fairly clear, but the data is difficult to measure with absolute precision.
Because CT scans are essentially three-dimensional, but are viewed on two-dimensional screens, comparisons between scans are inherently imprecise. The angle of a subject’s body, how inflated the lungs were, the position of the subject within the imagining chamber, all figure into subtle differences between the final scans. On top of that, because the images are basically multitudes of cross-sectional snapshots, a comparison must be made by selecting the closest approximation to the “same” image between scans from different times. I’ve looked at lots of these — in fact, I keep digital copies of all my scans for reference or posterity — and I’ve used the tools to line up and measure my tumor as best I can.
And in two dimensions, at the standard viewing cross-sectional approximation, my mass looks very similar from scan to scan, every three or so months since this process began. My chemotherapy was clearly doing what it was intended to do, which was to prevent progression of the disease. Progression is generally defined in terms of the length of the tumor, but we all know that tumors are bundles of cells that grow and change along more than just one axis.
I was never under any illusion that the chemo would cure me — there is no official cure for Stage 4 Lung Cancer. Any time that the chemotherapy could afford me by maintaining stasis has been considered a luxury and at over two and a half years on this particular regimen, I have been the longest continuous success case that many on my medical team have known. So the next time I see most of them will be a special, bitter-sweet occasion.
Nothing is forever, as the saying goes. And it seems true in terms of human experience. Change is inevitable. You can’t please all the people all the time. Time will tell. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But, of course, you can’t judge a book by its cover because the grass is always greener on the other side. Also, that thing about picking your friend’s nose.
Just not that one about everything happening for a reason. I’ll concede that there are certainly arguments for cause and effect — in fact, very much so, which is essential understanding when it comes to actually dealing with the issues that are thrust upon us in spite of our best efforts and desires. To suggest that everything happens for a reason is immensely wrongheaded and, even with the best of intentions, is ultimately unhelpful.
I have been fascinated by the suggestion that life with cancer somehow equates to “a new normal” in my families existence. I don’t know what that is supposed to mean, exactly; isn’t “normal” supposed to be an objective center, a median experience, the fulcrum of an ever-swinging scale? But nowhere does the relative nature of normality present itself so clearly as with the slide into a chronic, managed illness.
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Here’s a thought that needs to be considered. Since the United States is not doing its part to fight global climate change, nature will not be able to keep up. This REQUIRES us to be open-minded about the advantages science offers to help our species adapt. Science-denial is one of the biggest reasons we are in this mess, but science can help mitigate the damage if it is embraced and supported in a reasonable, methodical and pro-active manner. One of the areas that must be re-evaluated by many is the use of GMO crops.
There is overwhelming evidence from unbiased sources that show the safety of these crops, many of which are modified explicitly to be able to grow under hotter and drier conditions, or in soil that would not otherwise support proper plant development. Already, without the use of GMO crops, it would be difficult to keep up with the food production needs of the planet. Within the next decade, there is little doubt left that human food will be largely reliant upon GMO crops for minimum sustainability. I propose that it is time to look at the science objectively and stop reacting to fear-based marketing that mostly just serves alternative health websites and their advertisers or overpriced processed food manufacturers.
In the spirit of an interview I will be conducting tomorrow on Critical Thinking, I invite you to check your confirmation bias before reading the link below. Now, more than ever, this is becoming an essential skill, especially in the age of social media and 10,000 clicks per second “information” sharing.
Also essential is the ability to differentiate legitimate viewpoints from pure nonsense. (“Nonsense” would be any argument for the existence of chemtrails, for example.) A “legitimate” viewpoint always requires two things: clear logic and reliable sources. This is an incredibly low bar, but people, it seems, are often inclined to stoop much lower.
As a disclaimer, I buy a lot of organic food. But not because I think it is safer or healthier. I am much more inclined to buy LOCAL, which has a greater positive impact than organic and often tastes better, too, though I am fortunate enough to live in an area where much of the local is organic, if that is what I am looking for. But I have also talked with people who source organic for their products about why sometimes they specifically choose non-organic, not the least reason being that it is often ethically superior and more environmentally friendly NOT to be organic. Organizations like the EWG (Environmental Working Group) tend to only tell a distorted part of the story, and they certainly present data from a heavily skewed perspective (we expect this from corporate mouthpieces for Big Agriculture, and the EWG is no different — it is just a corporate propaganda arm for the organic foods industry).
But, like I said, if you can, let go of your confirmation bias. Assume that what you “feel” isn’t necessarily true. Assume that you are wrong, or at least only partially right, and that maybe you will find something to fill in the blanks and help you arrive at a reasonable conclusion. It’s good practice. We all need it. Only an exercised skill stays sharp and critical thinking is no different.
Read this article by Steven Savage and feel free to come back here and comment.
I’ve mentioned the blog, Every Breath I Take, before, and spoken highly of its author, Lisa Goldman. Like myself, she was in her 40s when she was diagnosed with Stage IV Lung Cancer — although she was in her very early 40s, compared to my “mid-ish” — and, also like myself, she was a non-smoker. Her most recent post is an impassioned response to a special issue of Cure magazine, dedicated to lung cancer, that resonated as a major fail from the publication.
She also set up a petition to encourage the media to stop promoting the lung cancer stigma.
It is in the best interest of all patients to re-write the cancer narrative away from being a smoker’s disease, and away from being an automatic death sentence. While rates of the disease continue to climb and it remains the world’s most deadly cancer, clearly it is not the cancer that we have been sold on for so many years. Smoking is a stupid habit and greatly increases risk, and it was a useful tool to make lung cancer the whipping post for awareness. But the resulting stigma facing lung cancer patients is unwarranted.
Through the wonder that is Social Media, I’ve connected to a wide range of people with their own personal cancer stories. As an extension to this blog, and as part of the research for both a broader understanding of the treatment options out there in the big, wide world, and the book I have been slowly developing to help guide future patients and caregivers through this often difficult and confusing process, I have been collecting interviews from a growing pool of diverse perspectives. Most of these interviews end up in my Patreon feed, where my podcast/video blog has its official home.
One of my recent acquaintances was the wonderful Lizz, who writes a lively blog called The Drop Off, which recently acquired the subtitle of “TRAVERSING THE INCURABLE, HELP AND HUMOUR FROM A CANCER SUFFERS WIFE.”
My mother had recently received news about five friends and relatives dying within a four-day period. It seemed really stacked up, and then she got a call that her last remaining uncle was going into hospice care. While it would be another couple of days until he died, the early warning essentially brought the total news to six in under a week. Granted, she is “of a certain age” at which it is expected that her peers and associates will be ending this existence at an increased rate, especially those markedly older than herself. It happens. It’s a part of life. And it isn’t talked about enough.
As a culture, death makes us squeamish. It’s hushed up, spoken of mainly with euphemisms and generally avoided for its awkwardness. Worse, it is often treated as an embarrassment. Oh, why did Grandad have to die so…inconveniently? Perhaps he should have just gone on vacation and disappeared… “I’m sorry for your loss,” they all say, pitying you for being unable to arrange a cleaner exit for the dearly departed. But death is messy, sometimes. Death brings hurt, upends the cozy lives of the living, leaves an overwhelming amount of loose ends.
But death is a natural part of life — one that cancer patients often have staring at them right over the proverbial shoulder. In February, I interviewed Michael March about his, as he put it, “Final Journey.” Michael is dying from throat cancer that migrated to his lungs, after eight years of dealing with various cancer issues (including periods of remission). Our conversation ran the gamut, from the lack of education that people have in talking about death to the spiritual comfort some seek during their period of decline. Michael also opened up about the fear of suffering that still remains after having made peace with the idea of dying. Continue reading Death, Death and More Death, Naturally→