A blog about science, medicine, media and the ramblings of Irish hack....

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Science and Politics don't mix

 A little bit about the Barbara Ellen post natal depression furore, another cheap shot at Santorum and why science and hardline ideology don't mix

There are some things that just don't really mix;  fire and water, caviar and cream soda, small children and high voltage power sources etc. In bad pairings, one of the elements twists and dominates the other; But there are even less comfortable bedfellows in the form of science and politics. And predictably, it is science that is all too often twisted and abused.

It would be very easy to illustrate this with an attack on the American right; their propedency to climate change denial, creationism, frankly repugnant attacks on reproductive rights, occasional hilarious diatribes about croco-ducks and Rick Santorum makes them ripe for parody this side of the Atlantic. Here in liberal-ish Europe we roll our eyes and shrug, which we do very well, having learnt the Gallic shrug from our French brethren and then go back to our wine drinking, beer brewing, love-making, or David Hasselhoff listening depending on where in the continent we are.

If you do all these things at once,it's called the Pan-European.

Liberal in Europe isn't the denigrating kind of insult that it is in America; it doesn't lead to mass outrage, public disowning and cross-burnings. We reserve that bile for the Eurovision. If you're based in the US it is entirely another story, and I highly recommend you visit my friend Dr. Jen Gunter's blog on how the American right are attacking reproductive rights. As a European left-leaning liberal , it would extremely easy to use the American right as an example of politics trying to twist science to fit its rhetoric; it is precisely the kind of fact twisting, truth bending, outright denialism that too often occurs when an ideology encounters actual research on the subject. When the ideology proclaims one thing, and the actual  research finds something else, it is the science which tends to be attacked or dismissed, not the rhetoric.

You know Rick, they say those most repressed are the most homophobic...

There's no question the American right do this regularly, but I feel I would be remiss and hypocritical to not notice such bad form in ideologies I tend to support; now, here is a little piece by an Observer journalist Barbara Ellen, ostensibly on my side of the political spectrum; I'm not linking to the piece as I feel the piece is an utter troll piece designed to produce controversy and clicks, a more highbrow version of the Samantha Brick fiasco - which I also won't link to. But allow me set discuss the tone of the piece.

Must.... resist....urge...to...feed... troll!

Oh wow. Straight from the tagline it goes for the jugular, and throws in a scientific clanger for good measure; Ellen immediately claims postpartum depression is directly related to the physical act of childbirth, which is not supported by any scientific literature. Sure there is some evidence that it is linked to hormonal factors, and yet other evidence indicating hormonal factors do not play a huge role. There is also the evolutionary psychology theories to boot. Ellen casts doubt and trivialises the medically established fact that men can and do suffer severe post partum depression. In her article, there are numerous other horrendous smears and a total lack of understanding about depression. But while I'm troll feeding, allow me to quote her cinching line -

"One hesitates to use the term womb-envy, but what else could it be? Can't females have anything just for themselves, without men barging in, not even a foul, debilitating condition directly related to the physical act of pregnancy and childbirth? What next: women staking a claim to the trauma of penile dysfunction? It was a long, hard road for womankind, getting postnatal depression recognised as a condition, and also to receive medical attention or even routine sympathy. It seems to me that saying men can also get it is just cheapening this achievement."

And there you have it; not content with re-writing medical science, Ellen casts it in a pseudo-historical light. Post partum depression is not some new trendy concept that men has 'stolen', it has been recognised since the time of Hippocrates. This is text-book bending science to fit an ideology. I wonder if Ms Ellen has been told yet that men can get breast cancer too ? "Cheapening the achievement" is a shockingly distasteful line - I have both male and female friends who have suffered dreadfully from postpartum depression, and is it no achievement -  regardless of etiology, depression is a serious illness and requires help. I admit while I usually laugh trolls off, this line caused me to sputter a little, especially as I lost a friend to depression just last year - oh, and she was female too, not that it matters - That is just the point; gender, race, age do not matter when it comes to mental health.

Now, Barbara Ellen exists to generate controversy, and I know this; either that or she is some empathy deficient individual who thinks it's ok to refer to depression as "sulky self-interest". The comments on the article are almost universally negative towards the piece, and many commentators in medicine and psychology on twitter were quick to correct the inflammatory post. One of my favourite psychologists on twitter, Dr. Petra Boynton promptly responded

Owned: By science!

Mind hacks wrote an equally cutting academic demolition of Ellen's diatribe; It wasn't just academics who took issue with the piece - Mic Wright wrote a powerful piece called "Belittling depression: Barbara Ellen is the Jan Moir that Twitter doesn’t seem to notice". Jan Moir by the way, is the political opposite number troll from the Daily Mail who tried to link the tragic death of Stephen Gately from a pulmonary edema to his homosexuality - another example of trying to bend science to politics, and no, I'm not going to link to it either. Mic's piece is visceral and powerful, and well worth a read. You would have thought that was the end of the story; troll piece gets torn apart, science blows it out of water, we all have biscuits. After all, that's the rational approach. 

Emmm... not quite. Some personally attacked Wright for his piece, which can still be viewed on his Twitter timeline; everything from being a misogynist to "appropriating women's conditions - what next, will you claim you get PMT?!" sneers. Wright also received at least one emailed death threat, and that is a little jarring even if it is totally unlikely it will be carried out. What is worse is these all came from self described feminists and that makes me sad - I AM a self described feminist. I've taken stick for my pro-choice work and believe in equality regardless of a person's gender, race, sexuality or anything else. Yet these people do not speak for me and I suspect the vast majority of feminists would see Ellen's work for the bile it is. It is not misogynistic to criticize a piece; that the author is a woman is incidental. That the piece was wrong and spiteful is what invites that criticism.

Yet this just goes to show that no matter what the ideology, right or left, liberal or conservative that there will be elements who don't need proof, and will not change their opinion in the light of new information. These people scare me, and are the reason science and politics don't mix; science demands that in the light of evidence, even the most hard held belief can be adjusted. Ideology all too often denies evidence to preserve faith in it. Until we learn to think in an evidence based manner rather than a rhetoric based manner, there will be no easy solutions.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A cure for cancer....

Just a few minutes ago I read a very concise and informative piece on why there is no single "cure for cancer" by Michael Freeman. It's well worth a read here - full disclosure: I have written for the journal thrice before (On statistics, nuclear power and homeopathy) but had nothing to do with the creation of this particular article. The article itself is well worth a read and explains clearly why there is no one cure for cancer, as it is an entire class of diseases all involving run-away and aggressive cell growth. But check out the very first comment on the article...

Yes folks, crack out the tin foil hats - it's conspiracy time!

This kind of argument comes up time and time again in cancer research - it goes something like "there IS a cure for cancer but big pharma are covering it up to make money!" And a surprisingly large amount of people believe this -  in the example above, about one third of commenters supported the comment, implying a certain sympathy for the position of the poster. This wasn't a comment in isolation, I see it all the time. Just a few comments later in the same article we have this..

Just add a few lines about Freemasons, Jewish cabals and new world order and we're DONE!

These kind of arguments follow a familiar pattern - immediately after such assertions, there are others agreeing and suggesting their very own 'proven' cancer cures, from vitamin B17 to TBC to licking the underside of a gazelle during a full moon or some such. Essentially, the logic is that big pharma is engaged in some en masse conspiracy to withhold the cure.

Withholding the cure - What would Robert Smith think?!

These claims, though popular, are easy to show as bunk. This is not a defense of big pharmacy, who often engage in frankly appalling practices, but rather a discussion of why there is no cure and why even if there was a conspiracy would be a ludicrous idea. To see just how ludicrous, consider the following points - 

  • Cancer is not one disease - it is an entire class of malignant neoplasms, growing aggressively and invasively. There is quite simply a world of difference between different growths and tumours; some will respond to surgery, some to radiotherapy and some to chemotherapy. Some sadly are too difficult to treat or not likely to respond to anything. The survival rates for different cancers vary hugely - non-melanoma skin cancer is easy to treat and results in very few deaths. Pancreatic cancer on the other hand is almost invariably fatal. The idea of a single magic bullet to treat all these various forms with different causes, pathologies and responses is utterly unbelievable.

  • If big pharma did possess a cure for cancer, then surely they would not have CEOS, senior executives and high level researchers dying of cancer. Pretend this is the case; where then would that knowledge extend to ? Lower level researchers and workers could not be kept from the truth for ever, and the whole conspiracy would inevitably collapse. This problem is only compounded if the secret is shared between all big pharmaceutical companies, multiplying the number of potential leaks. A secret like that is not possible to contain long, no matter how unethical the companies involved.

  •  Finally, the obvious point - if there was a cure for cancer, why on earth would a company NOT sell it ? Their business is to sell cures and treatments, and a cure for an entire class of disease that affects over a third of us throughout life would always have a market. It would make not one modicum of sense to cover up such an advance! Or as I put less eloquently on my reply on thejournal.ie ..

Not going to win points for subtle reasoning....

The idea there is a cure is simply not supported by any evidence, and the fallacy is based on a (occasionally justified) hatred of big pharma; but cancer is not that simple, and anyone postulating a simple solution to a complex condition should be viewed with an air of sceptical caution.  There are enough myths and misunderstandings about cancer without postulating the outlandish.

Edit: After receiving a threat from one of the posters in question I have amended the post edit out their identity. The individual ascertained some personal information about me, including where I worked and I decided to yield to avoid any drama. This is pointless, as it can clearly be seen if you look at the comment in the original thread.
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