Cork Skeptics

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Burzynski the Cancer Quack and other stories: Our roundup for January

Jen Keane speaking at Cork Skeptics(Photo courtesy Donncha O'Caoimh)

Jen Keane speaking at Cork Skeptics
(Photo courtesy Donncha O’Caoimh)

We were delighted to have Jen Keane down to speak to us on Saturday night. Jen has taken a personal interest in the Dr. Burzynski story. She has been a prominent voice on the Internet, challenging the widespread view that Burzynski is a “pioneer” and a “maverick”. Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski runs a cancer clinic in Houston, Texas. In recent years, he has become famous around the world for offering a supposedly side-effect free cure for certain types of cancers, deemed incurable by most medical experts. Many support groups have been formed to raise the huge funds necessary to send patients to the clinic in Texas, where they can partake in Burzynski’s “revolutionary” treatment.

Not is all it seems, unfortunately. Burzynski has published very few studies in support of his antineoplaston therapy. His treatment has not been approved by the FDA, and it is still – after 30 years – in clinical trial phase (which makes it highly unethical for him to be charging patients for his treatments). Although very little clinical information has been published by the Burzynski clinic, there is growing evidence that his treatments fall far short of the clinic’s promises, offering little or no advantage to anybody except Burzynski’s bank account.

burzynski_cancer_poster_ruffJen, who tweets as @Zenbuffy on Twitter, has had an ongoing interest in this story for some time now. Her father passed away recently from cancer, so she understands well the difficulties faced by patients, families and friends in such situations. She recognises the conflicting nature of the Burzynski situation: where patients’ freedom to choose knocks against the false hope on offer by the Burzynski Clinic. While patients should be free to choose, they and their families also need to be fully informed. This is not the situation at present. The information on offer by Burzynski is not the whole story. The press releases, glowing testimonials and documentary films are little more than advertisements. Information about side-effects, clinical trial results or negative results are much harder to come by. Patients, families and friends are not given the full story and instead are being told that critics are part of an organised conspiracy to silence Burzynski because he represents a threat to the special interests involved in the “cancer industry”. Mainstream media is not helping, preferring the publication of uncritical pieces rather than examining the many legitimate concerns of those who see another side to Burzynski. Thus, they are helping the marketing of Burzynski to a wider audience.

Jen had words of advice to those who might criticise patient support groups – “Be Kind”. While sceptics can and should be forthright in their concerns, little is achieved through ridicule, insults and insensitive comments on the Internet, of which there are many examples on all sides. The people who are fundraising and trying to help are usually doing it for the best of reasons. Unfortunately in this case they have been badly informed, and the responsibility for this falls at the feet of the Burzynski clinic.

There are many resources available, putting forward the position of prominent scientists, oncologists and skeptics in this area. David Gorski has been blogging about Burzynski for a number of years, as have Orac and Andy Lewis among others. A website, thehoustoncancerquack.com is fundraising to raise awareness of Burzynski’s activities, while simultaneously helping cancer patients in St. Jude’s Childrens Hospital.

This was a powerful, well researched talk. We’re looking forward in having Jen back in Cork at a future date.

Celebrities and Science 2012

Every Christmas, Sense about Science reviews some of the more extraordinary statements by celebrities in the past year. This year was no exception, with dried placenta pills being suggested as a mineral supplement, ground coffee beans as a treatment for cellulite and compressed oxygen to help slow down the ageing process. Is this the reason why “celebrity” and “credulity” sound so much alike?

GM Foods – a change of heart.

For years, Mark Lynas has been to the fore in the campaign against genetically modified foods. In a recent lecture to the Oxford Farming Conference he outlined a very different vision – one where GM foods could be part of the solution, rather than a problem to be eliminated. It’s a great talk, definitely worth a listen.

Sandy Hook Conspiracy Theories

Following on from the terrible shooting at the Sandy Hook school in Connecticut in December, a number of websites have sprung up claiming that the event was a conspiracy designed to part Americans from their guns. Some people have been targeted as “crisis actors”, while parents have been accused of not expressing “proper levels of grief”. They’ve produced a video about it – such is the level of insanity in parts of the conspiracy community.

Homeopathic Vaccines

The BBC’s Inside Out programme reported that Ainsworths, a homeopathy supplier in the UK, has been recommending homeopathic vaccines as an alternative to vaccines that inoculate against Measles, Rubella and Whooping Cough among other illnesses. Whooping Cough (Pertussis) and Measles are experiencing something of a resurgence in Ireland due to lowered vaccination rates.

The 12 Cognitive Biases that prevent us from being rational

The website io9 published an interesting article on 12 common faults in our hardwiring that make us prone to making huge errors in judgement. Errors include Ingroup Bias, Post-Purchase Rationalisation, Observational Selection Bias and Neglecting Probability. These biases help us to understand why rigour is required in science. Simple observation and anecdote does not guard against bias, so when it comes to the critical questions we need a greater standard of observation and analysis.

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January news

At our last meeting, I discussed some recent news items that might be of interest to skeptics. Here is some further information about these news items. I should also have David’s speech online soon too.

2012 Doomsday

The media hype over 2012 is an example of Numerology, where numbers and dates are accorded a kind of mystical significance without any empirical basis whatsoever. Examples in modern lore include Friday 13th, and Blue Monday.

The myth behind 2012 is associated with calendars used by the Mayan civilisation that flourished in Latin America between 250 CE and 950 CE. By some reckonings, 2012 signifies the resetting of the ‘Long Count’ Calendar – a period of about 5,000 years, similar to the recent change in our calendar from the 20th century to the 21st century. There is no evidence that the Maya expected the world to end or for there to be huge convulsions on our planet during this time. All sorts of strange ideas have been postulated, such as a close encounter with a planet from far outside the solar system, to unprecedented solar activity, to calamities caused by an alignment with the centre of the galaxy. None of these speculations have any support and are widely dismissed by astronomers.

Another Doomsday prediction

After the mad biblical ramblings of Howard Camping in 2011, we expected 2012 to put this issue to bed, at least for a while. Not so. A preacher called Ronald Weinland has predicted the end of the world on May 27th, 2012, and that those who don’t take his message seriously will ‘die of cancer’. Nice guy. His sect, “God’s Church on Earth”, previously announced the return of Jesus in 1975. As Jesus was unable to make it on this occasion, we all got to listen to Bohemian Rhapsody instead.

Worst Quackery of 2011

Forbes recently announced Battlefield Accupuncture as the worst example of quackery in 2011. Invented just 10 years ago, quack physician Richard Niemszow has solicited tens of millions of dollars from the US military to stick needles in the ears of army veterans, supposedly to cure them of their ailments. The evidence for this is the usual pile of anecdotes and hearsay. Before the negative publicity, Niemstzow was hoping to train up to 30 acupuncturists in the war-zone.

Nutritional Therapists in the Hot Seat

Which Magazine in the UK carried out a consumer study on Nutritional Therapists in the UK. The results were scary. Out of 15 consultations made, 6 consultations were classed as “dangerous fails”. One therapist who believes that the cure for cancer is to starve the cells of sugar. Another therapist advised the patient to cut out red meat where proper medical advice would advise the exact opposite. Another therapist diagnosed “leathery bowel syndrome” for someone experiencing infertility problems. Just one nutritional therapist received a “borderline pass” for their consultation.

Burzynski sued in Texas

Stanislaw Burzynski has been getting a lot of flak from the blogging community since he set his attack dog on a young blogger in Wales. The Texas based cancer quack has been making a lucrative income out of patients who have incurable tumours, even though his therapies have neither been licensed or proven to work. A former patient, Lola Quinlan, has now sued him for failing to disclose that his therapies were part of a clinical trial and for coecing her into overpaying for medicine. If she wins her case, this could put an end to Burzynski’s right to practice in Texas.

Richard Dawkins claims victory over creationism

Richard Dawkins, Richard Attenborough, and a number of leading scientists in the UK have succeeded in ensuring that funding is withdrawn for any school that attempts to teach creationism as science. UK schools have been receiving creationist materials from religious groups in an attempt to influence education policies.

Andrew Wakefield sues to protect his nonexistent reputation

Andrew Wakefield has filed a libel suit against the British Medical Journal (BMJ) and Brian Deer, the journalist who exposed him for his fraudulent and unethical study linking autism to the MMR vaccine. On foot of Deer’s findings, Wakefield has been banned from practicing medicine and the original Lancet paper has been withdrawn. Wakefield’s attorneys are actually trying to argue that the BMJ libeled Wakefield to protect its “big pharma sugar daddy”, the vaccine manufacturers. Good luck with that.

Shamanic Rain Payment

At the Under-20 football World Cup last year, organisers are accused of paying a shaman $2,000 to ensure that it did not rain during the tournament’s closing ceremony. The organisers are claiming vindication because it didn’t rain during the ceremony, but could the reason have been something other than a magic man uttering mumbo jumbo?

Science Spot

A new part of our meetings will be fascinating science discoveries. In our last meeting we mentioned that a tiny frog had been found, measuring less than a centimetre from head to toe, now claims the record for the world’s smallest vertebrate creature. We also celebrated the 70th birthday of Steven Hawking, and the announcement, based on Kepler discoveries so far, that the Milky Way galaxy could contain billions of planets. These months also commemorate 100 years since the fateful Amundsen and Scott race to the South Pole. In more serious news, it was announced that an untreatable strain of TB had been identified in India.

Notable podcasts

A video well worth a look is the Royal Institution Christmas lecture presented by Bruce Hood. In the lecture, he talks about the human brain, one of the most amazing structures in the known Universe.  – Christmas Lecture http://tinyurl.com/79qagsk

Upcoming conferences

In March, we are heading to Manchester to attend QEDCon – one of the biggest (and best value) skeptics conferences in Europe. Tickets are still available.

A series of public science lectures are currently taking place in UCC. This is definitely worth a look.