Saturday, 22 August 2015

Alternative medicine

I'm a science buff.  Although I have no proper scientific training, I spend at least an hour a day reading about the advancement of human knowledge, I have a large network of friends and colleagues in various fields of science, and I've attended conferences all over the world where I've chin wagged with some of the top guys in the field.  In short, in recent years I've discovered that being a scientifically literate layperson is a pretty useful skill in life.

Although it hasn't gotten me chicks.

But it also leads to a lot of disagreements with people.

I was recently sent yet another video of a "doctor" (read: someone with no record of any formal medical qualification but uses the title of "doctor" to artificially boost his credibility with the more unsuspecting of us) claiming to have a breakthrough into cancer research that nobody in the field of oncology seems to know about.  For any such example, click here.

I skimmed through the video.  It's five minutes of my life I'm never going to get back.  It was a long-winded speech by someone who's convinced that a change in diet can cure cancer, while providing no evidence to support his claims.  He also doesn't consider genetics nor other lifestyle differences that can play a role in one's ability or inability to beat cancer.  This guy simply insists that consuming less carbs will work for everyone.

He can use his magical powers to turn MRI machines into steak-eating unicorns.

Here's an excellent and unbiased article about the ketogenic diet, written by someone qualified to do so.

But a lot of people won't like it because it's ultimately inconclusive.  It doesn't have a happy ending, like Hollywood taught us everything should have.  It doesn't have false promises.  It just has a bunch of facts.  It's academic and boring compared to the video of the guy who says he has all the answers.  In a world where the most scientifically literate country (Canada, yay us!) has a science literacy rate of 42%, how many people do we think will be more attracted to the video?  A lot of them.

Sometimes facts don't give us what we want to hear.  But that isn't the point of having facts.  Facts give us what we NEED to hear, whether or not they benefit us directly.

Sure, the ketogenic diet can be helpful to some people with epilepsy.  Hell, a kid in my hometown got straightened out with it.

I'm able to recognize when things work.  But I'm also just as able to recognize the reality that this doesn't mean it will work for everyone with epilepsy, or whatever else they're dealing with.  Like cancer.

Elementary understanding of the complexities of cancer includes the study of genetics.  In fact, it is the single most important factor.  One of the biggest studies ever done on cancer came out this year, and it found that most cancer types (not cases, types) are genetic - an extremely inconvenient fact for the "ZOMG I HAVE A CANCER CURE IN MY LIVING ROOM" crowd.  Unsurprisingly, they ignore studies like this and continue on with business as usual (remember the word "business" for later in this article).

Our understanding of genetics tells us that nothing can prevent some people from getting these cancers and, even worse, fighting them off.  The genetic code isn't perfect, and never will be.  While some people can make lifestyle choices to lower their chances of getting or succumbing to cancer, not everyone is so lucky.  No form of conventional treatment, alternative medicine, special diet, or lifestyle change is going to reverse their fortunes.  And a lot of people have a tough time accepting that.  Many of them will click on the "X" in the top right hand corner of their browser before finishing this paragraph.

Out of respect for the human intellect, people need to accept the fact that the universe is random and unsympathetic, and that there are things beyond our control.  Science strives to understand and fix whatever portions it's able to.  This group of people and their method of rational inquiry have achieved more in the realm of understanding human biology than anyone else who's tried.

Although the Spanish Inquisition did yield some pretty snazzy pitchforks and torches.

Sure, science has shit the bed once or twice, like with thalidomide.  But their success rate is still by far the highest.  And at least they know how to admit when they're wrong, as science is a constantly self-correcting mechanism.  The alties, on the other hand, are almost always wrong, and there's not a peep from them about it.

Unless, of course, they get caught.

A substantial part of alternative medicine's appeal is that it offers hope that medical science cannot.  Science focuses on what works and debunks what doesn't, whereas alternative medicine offers grandiose claims that most people aren't equipped to debunk.  So it should come as no surprise that a hell of a lot of people in their desperation (or even their general desire to see the underdog win) will believe the guy with the gimmicky promises over the rational guy in a white lab coat with the comparatively unexciting catch phrase of "you're wrong, but we're still working on it."

Cancer affects virtually everyone in some way, so it's bound to trigger an emotional response in most of us.  We're looking for something, anything, anyone that will say they have the answer.  But as long as most people are fueled by a need for belief instead of a need for evidence, these alternative medicine guys aren't going anywhere any time soon.  Every single one of these guys is at best offering a placebo and at worst a snake oil salesman.

If you think big pharma is evil with their desire to make money, then have a leaf through the websites of some of the more popular alternative medicine guys to see all the natural/holistic/supplement/bullshit products in their inventory.  They prey on countless well-meaning people with "open minds."

And open wallets.  The alternative medicine business is a multi-billion dollar industry, and almost entirely unregulated.

We live in an amazing world today.  In the last century we have essentially eradicated dozens of diseases and corrected malpractices that have existed for millenia that used to kill 1 in 3 children before they saw their 7th birthday.  Worldwide life expectancy has increased by a decade in the past 50 years, largely thanks to medical science.  The only major disease that tends to dominate the press and in dialogue is cancer.  Why?  Because they've cured just about everything else.

Click here for another dose of extreme good that, ironically enough, those who think rationally minded folk are buzz killing party poopers probably aren't aware of.  Fun fact: we talk about this stuff all the time.  Because it makes us happy to laud the accomplishments of humanity.  There are more than enough opportunities to revel in actual triumphs our species has participated in without needing to seek out the more dubious ones.  Ignorance is bliss, but far greater than that is the bliss of seeing the world as it actually is.

Being open minded is seen as a virtue, but it can actually be extremely dangerous, as it can entail an inherent gullibility for new information regardless of its source.  So if we express an interest in new information with a filtration system in the form of a healthy dose of skepticism, bad and unproven ideas can be checked at the door.  It is with this method of reasoning that we have been able to fly past Pluto, understand the water cycle, and eliminate polio.

So it's going to take a lot more than a YouTube video of someone that nobody's heard of to convince me that there's a cure for cancer out there.

Spoiler alert: there isn't.

Here's a video of a 29 year old experiencing sound for the first time.  Herbs played no role in this.  Rejoice.

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