Sunday, December 29, 2013
On Pseudoscience and Magical Thinking
Ah, Facebook. I do love it. In fact, I go there every day. But as much as I like reading friends’ updates and posts, sometimes I see things that just piss me off. Here is one of those things: http://premaseem.wordpress.com/2012/12/19/how-to-avoid-cancer/. Do click on the link and take a look at this if you have any interest in reading more of this blog post. It is titled “How to Avoid Cancer,” and it is posted by an adventurous mountaineering Sun-certified Java programmer. (Critical reading tip #1: You have to scroll all the way to the bottom of the blog page and click on “About Me” to learn that the person telling you how to avoid cancer doesn’t have a f**king clue what he is talking about when it comes to cancer prevention and treatment.) But alas, this blog post is making the rounds on Facebook along with scores of other questionable claims. When a Facebook friend of yours shares this post and you view it in your feed, you can see the title of the blog in the preview: Premaseem.wordpress.com. However, you have to actually go to the person’s blog to see the subtitle: “A place for different dimmentions of my thoughts.” (Critical reading tip #2: Um, if you really need a critical reading tip here, then start by brushing up on your knowledge of word roots. Did he mean dementias or dimensions? Hmm....)
OK, assuming you have now familiarized yourself with the blog post at the link above, let me just say this: WTF?! Okay, actually, I’m going to say more than that. First of all, I am all about avoiding cancer. In fact, throughout my adult life I have actively participated in eating a good diet and exercising in part because I’ve thought they might help ward off nasties like cancer. But this blog post really irritates me, and here’s why: It’s pseudoscience. What’s more, it’s not even well done pseudoscience. It’s actually not even authored by the blogger; rather, he has lifted it from an email that has gone viral in the etherworld (more on that later).
The advice in the post actually sounds pretty good, even sensible at times. I mean, the first sentence includes the name “JOHNS HOPKINS.” It must be reliable, right? (Critical reading tip #3: Ask yourself, is it a representative of Johns Hopkins giving us advice on how to avoid cancer, or is it just a random outdoorsy computer programmer telling us these things while using the name “Johns Hopkins” in upper case letters?) While some of the suggestions in the “how to avoid cancer” post may indeed help some people prevent cancer, my initial thoughts when reading it were a) Hello! I would like references to actual research, including clinical studies and an explanation of those studies’ research methodologies; and b) Sometimes shit like cancer happens anyway.
One of the things that ticks me off most about the “how to avoid cancer” post is that it smacks of blaming the victim (see #4 on the list). Again, sometimes bad shit happens, even if you eat a healthy diet. This blame-the-victim approach is central to pseudoscience, and resembles the same sort of discourse that permeates educational policies and practices for historically marginalized students (most notably, children whose families do not make much money, children who are black and brown, and children who are multilingual or becoming multilingual). These discourses assign deficit to biological, social, and/or cultural attributes of the victim of whatever issue or “problem” has been identified (e.g., illness, poverty, school failure).* In addition to blaming the victim, other signs of pseudoscience include cherry picking research findings and embellishing them with stories to suit the point being made, distorting research results, and referring in vague terms to recognized research institutions (JOHNS HOPKINS!) or researchers without actually providing specific citations of research studies or full reference information. As I tell my graduate students when they read research and begin thinking about their thesis or dissertation work, “you can’t just make shit up.” That’s called magical thinking, and it is harmful.
The “how to avoid cancer” post further reveals the dementia of magical thinking by recommending treating cancer with diet rather than chemotherapy and radiation. Will I continue to eat a healthy diet through cancer? Um, yeah. Duh. Just ask my friend Gentzy, who I recently had an inspirational conversation with about a cookbook comprised entirely of recipes for green smoothies. But let’s be very clear: If I decided to treat my cancer with dietary changes alone, such as dramatically increasing my intake of green smoothies, and to forego chemotherapy and radiation, I would probably be dead within a year. Yes, good diet rocks. Yes, chemotherapy will negatively impact my immune system during treatment. And we would probably do well to work for environmental changes (such as curbing unchecked pesticide use) that can help prevent cancers. I have also gotten tested for BRCA (the “breast cancer” gene). However, it is simply not helpful for me (or anyone else) to speculate as to what caused my cancer. What is helpful is to critically attend to and weigh the findings of years of cancer research. It is also helpful to fight for more funding for cancer research. Such research has yielded new drugs (some of them very new) targeting specific receptors on breast cancer tumors to eat away at the cells with minimal systemic side effects. Such treatments include biological therapies, such as Herceptin and Perjeta (Pertuzemab) (both of which I am getting), which work in concert with chemotherapies like Taxol and Adriamycin. And—NEWSFLASH!—you will not find them on the shelf at Whole Foods. You cannot mix them into a smoothie no matter how good your blender is.
By the way, a quick Internet search using the terms “johns hopkins cancer diet recommendations” in your search bar will lead you to the website of the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University. There Johns Hopkins Medicine provides a statement regarding the email (and social media) hoax about avoiding cancer: http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/kimmel_cancer_center/news_events/featured/cancer_update_email_it_is_a_hoax.html. In some ways, a hoax such as this doesn’t deserve as much page space as I’ve given it. And yet, it still makes the rounds on Facebook and gets liked and shared by people who should know better.
For those of you interested in more reading on pseudoscience, as related to the swell of interest around advances in neuroscience and how they are taken up in the popular imagination, you might find the following article to be a good read: http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2012/09/your-brain-pseudoscience.
*If you are interested in understanding and unpacking deficit thinking in the field of education, you might start with Richard Valencia’s (2010) book, Dismantling Contemporary Deficit Thinking: Educational Thought and Practice, published by Routledge. In his book, Valencia calls out Ruby Payne’s (unfortunately popular) work on education and poverty, showing how it is not based on rigorous research, but rather on pseudoscience.