Culture of blame: how we perceive certain diseases

In her article Scandal of Underfunded and Undertreated Cancer” [1], Linda Geddes describes the heart-breaking struggle of a non-smoking mother-of-two against the ravages of lung cancer. The purpose of the article was to point out the disparity between research funding and number of deaths for the various cancer types. Leukemia and breast cancer draw from huge sources of public and private funds, receiving much more than their deaths : research-dollars share. There are more deaths from lung cancer than from breast cancer or leukemia, but the funding for lung cancer research is pathetically small. Part of the reason for this is that many family physicians view lung cancer as untreatable–a diagnosis of death–so why fund research into an untreatable disease? But, after all, how are we to learn how to treat the disease without research? And how shall we perform research without funding? 

The article suggests another alarming reason for this funding disparity as well: many people, consciously or unconsciously, believe that lung cancer is the fault of the victim. If they hadn’t smoked, after all, would they be in this situation? Shame on them! And they’re endangering us with their second-hand smoke as well! But what about non-smokers who get lung cancer? (After all, that second-hand smoke is going somewhere, isn’t it?) And what right do we have to blame the victim of a disease, anyway? Is a person’s death less tragic because he was a smoker? Trust me, I fall prey to those adverts of children with leukemia…I want to send them money, too. But does our culture of blame induce us to spend money on those we consider “deserving” but not on the “undeserving?” Are we ok with that? 

I think a good example of our society (and the world) overcoming a prejudice against a culture-of-blame disease is our relative success with suppressing the dreaded AIDS epidemic. Many a politically-incorrect statement about AIDS victims was bandied about when I was younger…but now, I think, those negative connotations are mostly remembered only by older members of society. And although we haven’t successfully “cured” or fully protected against AIDS, we can now suppress it with anti-viral drugs–the result of well-spent research funding. Perhaps we can take a good lesson from our success with AIDS. Perhaps we can see lung cancer for what it is–a tragic disease that steals the lives of tens of thousands of people in the US every year*. Perhaps we can bring a halt to our culture of blame.

Geddes, Linda: Scandal of Underfunded and Undertreated Cancer. New Scientist issue 2871. 28Jun, 2012.

*This number was 35,000 deaths in the UK in 2010 according to Geddes’ article.

Thoughts on God in scientific research

In The God Issue of New Scientist, there was an article by Stenger which claimed that because science has not proven that God exists, God must not exist. After reading this, I pouted. I felt that it’s not very good science to claim that because experiments designed to prove the existence of God yield non-significant results, these non-significant results prove God doesn’t exist. I’ve had plenty of experiments with non-significant results. If that proves that the opposite is true, then I’ve made some pretty awesome negative discoveries! I’d better get those published!

The next few weeks have had many letters-to-the-editor about The God Issue. Mainly, they seemed offended by the articles which did not firmly proclaim God’s non-existence–few of them had any problems with the article by Stenger. So I laughed when I saw this letter about the article that annoyed me:

Stenger confidently states that prayers have not been shown to have been answered. For some time now, I have been praying for other people’s prayers not to be answered. Could this explain these findings?
                -From Les Hearn; London, UK

I am so thrilled that I’m not the only one who found this article ridiculous!

In his article, Stenger’s main “proof” that God does not exist is that a study to determine whether intercessory prayers help recovery of surgery patients had non-significant data. Like the writer of the letter, I was amused that Stenger came to such strong conclusions based on non-significant data from one study. This is not good science. I was even more amused because the first time I heard about this study was in a book called The Spiritual Brain, by Mario Beauregard (reviewed here). Beauregard claimed the same exact studies were indicative that God DID exist. He pointed out that there was a (albeit non-significant) data trend, and talked around experimental design and data analysis jargon to make himself sound more convincing. Isn’t it amusing that two scientists find their own personal beliefs so important to them that they take exactly the same study and (unconsciously) twist it to help them prove contradictory points?

Because of human errors exactly like these, I have long felt that science was rather like a religion—perhaps it is impossible for emotional humans to stick rigorously to the scientific method? Here are elements that science has in common with some of the oft-criticised aspects of organized religion:

Indoctrination/faith: scientists start out learning and accepting a set of “facts” laid out by those older and wiser than us (teachers/professors). Sometimes these “facts” are rather difficult to stomach—like an object that can move from point A to point B without moving anywhere in between??? (electron tunneling)

Ideology: Scientists (hopefully unconsciously) twist the experimental design or data analysis in order to fit our personal hypotheses. We ignore or discard data which is contradictory to our hypotheses (usually with a rationalized reason). We see what we want to see. This type of interpretation is unfortunately natural to humans and generally not a purposeful act, but it happens more often than we’d like to admit.

Heretics: Scientists ostracize other people from the scientific community if they suggest a hypothesis or provide data which is contrary to widely accepted (dogmatic) beliefs. These people sometimes turn out to be right, but generally after it’s too late for their ruined careers.

I like to be aware of these issues so that I can avoid falling into traps in my own work. I also think it’s a good idea to be cautiously skeptical of dogmatic beliefs, and to accept that perhaps they could be wrong–entirely, or partially. I am also skeptical of models, whether they be quantum physics models or cell signaling models. Although I appreciate the amount of work scientists go through to develop these models, and I also appreciate the fact that these models can accurately predict the physical world most of the time, I think it’s good to recognize that these really are just MODELS for the real world. The real world is almost always more complex than we could ever fully predict.