Scitech  Pseudosci-notes

Trottier Symposium

Snake oil is of course the classic image of pseudoscience,” said Joe Schwarz, of the McGill Office for Science and Society, in his opening remarks at the Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium: Confronting Pseudoscience, on Monday, October 18. The invitations and posters for the event showed a corked bottle of “snake oil” on a lime green background. In the early 1800s, when snake oil got its start, it was said to be able to cure arthritis: snakes are curvy, slithery – not the sort of creature that suffers from joint pain. The explanation went, Schwarz explained, that something from their insides gave them this quality, oil that could be collected and sold as a treatment. It didn’t work. “This is the reason why we use the expression ‘snake oil’ for many of the remedies that we encounter today,” explained Schwarz.

Pseudoscience is no longer just sold in corked glass bottles, though: today we have machines that are advertised to cure cancer, sensors with bells and whistles are connected to fancy terminals with empty insides. “Modern snake oil,” said Schwarz of these electrical devices, which are only a tiny fraction of the modern products whose packaging makes false promises, and the so-called-medical remedies which absolve themselves from peer-reviewed journals.

“People look at pseudoscience, and think that they’ll recognize it when they see it,” explained Schwarz.

“But it isn’t always easy to recognize.”

The symposium, which sought to outline both the reasons why even smart people have trouble recognizing pseudoscientific claims, as well as highlight the very real costs of false medicine, drew a crowd of McGill students, faculty, members of the public, and a small flurry of press. The first evening consisted of speakers Michael Shermer, editor-in-chief of Skeptic magazine among many other things, David Gorski, managing editor of the blog Science-Based Medicine, and Ben Goldacre, author of the book Bad Science. The second evening featured James “The Amazing” Randi, investigator of paranormal phenomena.

*—Shannon Palus*

“Our brains are belief engines, we are pattern-seeking primates,” explained Shermer in his presentation. Shermer coined the term “patternicity” to describe “the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise.”

We can make out faces from just three well-placed data points, see a pair of eyes and a smile in martian photographs, and religious figures in our lunch. We can bend the laws of physics by looking at an Escher drawings. Have you ever gone on a road trip and stopped in a town or at a rest stop – you know, the ones with the picnic tables and vending machines next to the washrooms – and gotten the feeling that you’ve been there before? We pick out similarities, see some details and not others.

Shermer showed slides of shoe ads, toes squished into flip-flops, meant to evoke the idea of butt cracks. He played part of “Stairway to Heaven” backwards twice, only the second time putting the words about Satan that the recording supposedly has hidden in it– with the prime, the suggestion of what we’re supposed to hear, the backwards music really does sound like lyrics about evil.

This is why people believe weird things: we’re constantly trying to make sense of the world. Without a constant awareness of how to pick out claims that are right versus ones that are wrong, it is easy to look at a fancy machine, and false promises, and see more than just snake oil.


Cancer Claims
David Gorski’s presentation at the Trottier Symposium directly attacked both alternative methods for combating cancer and the oft-published testimonials from cancer survivors that that exploit emotions and twist facts.

“We [scientists] are limited by science in what we can claim,” Gorski said, “but quacks are not!”

Gorski brought up Hulda Clark, after identifying her as one of his all-time favourite quacks.

“First, she published The Cure for Advanced Cancers, … [and] The Cure for All Cancers, but that wasn’t enough for her,” Gorski said as he read the title of her newest book: The Cure for All Diseases.

“Okay, well, what happened to Hulda Clark,” Gorski asked. “She died of cancer!”

Gorski applied a framework for analyzing cancer testimonies developed by an Australian oncologist to three famous testimonies written by cancer survivors. In each case, the survivor blamed western medicine for their poor health and praised their alternative therapies for forcing the cancer into remission and prolonging their lives.

Gorski warned that in nearly every case of miracle cancer remission, the patient first underwent surgery to remove the tumour and sometimes consented to chemo or radiation therapy before moving exclusively to alternative therapies. These cases, he said, should not be regarded as high quality data.

Gorski said that surgery is the single most effective tool against cancer. All other treatments can be regarded as secondary, or adjuvant, therapies.

Using a medical prognosis calculator, Gorski illustrated how surgery is so effective at improving patient longevity that we should not be surprised that there are examples of long term survival in patients given only a short amount of time to live with surgery as the only medical intervention.

Gorski said that even two per cent of women in the study were alive 12 years after their diagnosis.

“These women exist,” he said, “and if she is lucky enough to be alive and doing alternative medicine, she will say alternative medicine is the reason why she’s alive.”

Gorski illustrated an account of a patient who chose to end chemotherapy, which shrank her tumour, and replaced it with vitamin-therapy recommended by a German doctor who convinced her that internal conflict was the cause of illness.

Her tumor grew exponentially and her chest and back began to rot, before she died in agony.

“This is known as cancer en curasse, a horrible situation that we do not see anymore,” Gorski said as he concluded his presentation. “What you need to remember is that death from cancer is worse than chemotherapy and dead people do not give testimonials.”

*—Ethan Feldman*