Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Fitchburg's Cancer Center: Now with more placebos!

Fitchburg seems to have a pretty good thing in the form of the Simonds-Sinon Regional Cancer Center.

While I don't have any direct experience with it (or cancer, happily), it appears to be a fairly well-respected medical facility. It's been commended by the Commission on Cancer of the American College of Surgeons, which sounds like a pretty good thing.

They've also got a nice linear accelerator on-site for use in radiation therapy. And linear accelerators are cool. Plus, you know, they save lives.

So the cancer center seems to be a pretty good place. Which is what makes their apparent embrace of pseudoscientific bullshit "therapies" so disturbing.

The Sentinel has an article about the cancer center's "Evening of Wellness." I'll quote from it in a moment, but let me just start by saying that whenever someone talks to you about "wellness" it means they're bullshitting you.

Okay, article:
The Fitchburg cancer center offered some types of complimentary [sic] care through a 2007 grant, such as music and art.

HealthAlliance CEO and President Patrick Muldoon announced Thursday night at the center's "Evening of Wellness" that a new donation will help the hospital integrate even more complementary care.

Complementary care refers to art, music, exercise and traditional Eastern therapies in conjunction with traditional medical care administered to cancer patients.
What a second. So "traditional Eastern therapies" basically equals "ancient Chinese medicine," but "traditional medical care" equals scientifically sound and evidence-based modern medical treatments? Man, we're playing fast and loose with the word "traditional!"

No matter... Music and art are great things. They can undoubtedly improve the lives of people with cancer. I don't think anyone has a problem with them being offered. Same goes for exercise. That's just obvious.

"[T]raditional Eastern therapies," on the other hand, are total and utter crap. Neither "traditional" nor "Eastern" is something you should be looking for in your medical care (and yes, the "traditional" term used above to refer to evidence-based medicine is inappropriate).

The current life expectancy in China (where a huge amount of this "traditional" crap comes from) is 73.18 years, and that's with modern medicine. In the US, it's 78.14 years. Yes, please take five years off my life with your dumbass therapies, China!

Of course, at the time most of these "therapies" were made up (and "made up" is the correct way to refer to their creation), the life expectancy was probably closer to 30 or 35. So we're really talking about 40-45 years lower. But why split hairs?

Let's look at a couple of the "complementary" therapies used here. First, a quote:
[Patient Barbara] Patterson also utilized the center's LeBed [sic] exercise program to increase patient's physical strength and immune systems. The therapeutic exercise focuses on movement and dance for women with breast cancer.

"I was just coming out of treatment," she said. "It (exercise programs) opens your lymphatic glands and gets you moving. A lot of breast cancer patients can develop lymphedema."

I wasn't familiar with the Lebed program, but here's its website. I recommend you watch the video on the front page. As you can see, it appears to be a low-impact dance program. Which may or may not involve blowing bubbles.

Now, Ms. Patterson is right. Lymphedema can be caused by radiation therapy. Furthermore, light exercise is a pretty decent treatment. So we're all good.

But what's this crap about "increas[ing]... immune systems"? I assume it's the reporter's own little touch, since as far as I can tell not even the Lebed people make that claim. They do say it increases "femininity" right after saying it was designed "for women and men," which is a little strange.

Incidentally, much like talking about "wellness," anyone talking about "strengthening the immune system" is at least 99% likely to be bullshitting you.

Anyway, while the Lebed method seems a little odd, I have no problem with it. Hell, it's just a dance class. It even has at least one study (pdf) on it published in a peer-reviewed journal! Sure, it's not a very well-done study (they do admit to some of the limitations in the study itself), but it does suggest that the program has some quality-of-life benefits, even if the actual medical benefits are not well-proven. So again, no worries!

Man, what am I so annoyed about then?

Oh yeah, this:
Dr. Betsy Burbank , who will offer acupuncture to patients at the center in the fall, was the night's guest speaker.

"Science is just catching with what you already know deep in your bones," Burbank said to gathered patients. "You know these (alternative programs) help your wellness."
Umm, way to throw out the "wellness" bullshit along with making a totally idiotic claim that "science is just catching up"! And offering acupuncture on top of it!

Dr. Burbank, believe it or not, actually is a real doctor. Not an oncologist, mind you, but a family doctor. Which is fine, and no doubt more than qualifies her to perform acupuncture.

On the other hand, I'm about equally qualified to perform acupuncture. Though you may want to give me a chart of where the major nerves are, just so I don't hit anything bad. But seeing as how "real" acupuncturists and people just faking it and inserting needles randomly are equally effective, I think I could do just fine. And since it's not like you actually need a medical license to do it, I think I'm plenty qualified!

Acupuncture is bullshit. It's a big fat placebo, nothing more.

"So what?" you might ask. After all, placebos are powerful things. People do sometimes feel better from them. So what's the harm?

Well, there's actually significant harm. Hopefully it doesn't affect anyone actually being treated at the cancer center. After all, they're getting real medical care in addition to the useless crap.

But offering and, more importantly, promoting the totally absurd practice of acupuncture is a problem for several reasons:
  • It diverts resources from actual medicine: For every penny spent on acupuncture and its pseudoscientific brethren, that's one less penny spent on curing cancer. Go ahead, ask me which I think is more important...
  • It gives the impression that acupuncture is a valid therapy for cancer: It is not. People at the cancer center get real treatments with real medicines and techniques that have been proven to work. But people not at the cancer center may get the impression that they can go to their local quack acupuncturist, save a few bucks, and treat their cancer cheaply. And die of cancer, because acupuncture doesn't fucking do anything.
  • It promotes a lie: Simple morality should suggest that a hospital promoting quackery is not a good thing to do.
There are actually many more reasons, but this post is starting to get pretty long, so I won't go into them just now. Suffice it to say that a hospital shouldn't be promoting something that's totally at odds not just with medicine (by which I mean the practice of medicine, not pharmaceuticals), but also at odds with reality!

And it gets worse:
Several patients traveled the corridors of cancer center, watching demonstrations of complementary care, including Reiki and Massage Therapy.
Reiki? Seriously, Reiki? That makes acupuncture look like hardcore science!

Don't know about Reiki? Let me put it in a nutshell for you.

Step 1: Maybe put on some soothing music or something.
Step 2: Wave your hands around on and over somebody's body.
Step 3: Claim you're moving their aura or "energy field" around.
Step 4: Maybe get a placebo effect if you're lucky.

Whoopdy-doo! That's Reiki. One of the most inane and ridiculous of all the pseudoscientific gibberish out there. So bad I don't even really feel the need to debunk it. If its idiocy isn't obvious to you, you're probably not reading this.

As for massage therapy... well, who doesn't like a good massage? It's not going to cure your cancer, but no doubt it feels quite nice.

Look, cancer center people. I know you mean well, and probably think what you're doing is noble. In general, it actually is pretty noble. But not the alternative medicine shit! It's exploiting the gullibility of people who are already suffering enough, dammit.

There are a lot of things you can do to improve the lives of cancer patients. The arts and exercise classes are good, why not expand them? I'm sure they could always be better. You don't need stupid "therapies" like acupuncture and Reiki (and who knows what else!) that purport to help without actually doing a damn thing. Your doctors deserve the credit when they heal someone, but at least a few people are going to walk away truly thinking that these placebo therapies actually cured them. Not because they did, but because these lies have a nasty tendency of fooling people. Even doctors, apparently.

You're better than that, cancer center. Ditch the pseudoscientific nonsense and just work on helping people with cancer!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Freedom on the Internet = Bad!

Okay, I've been bored to death with local politics lately. Too much whining about the stupid trash fee (services don't come free, people!).

But we're back to good times, because we've got another dumb editorial from my good friend Jeff McMenemy!

This one has the very promising title of Laying down the law on the Internet, and it gives me the excuse to talk not just about about a terrible legal case, but also ruminate on freedom on the internet and the nature of pseudonymity! Whee!

The editorial is about the rather depressing case of Megan Meier, who committed suicide after being rejected on MySpace by a fake person. Said fake person was portrayed as a 16-year old boy, but in reality appears to have been several people. The one we're dealing with today is a 49-year old mother by the name of Lori Drew.

She's just been charged with a crime, and Mr. McMenemy in his editorial couldn't be happier!
The world of the ever-growing and ever-more dangerous Internet got a little dose of much-needed law-and-order Thursday when a federal grand jury indicted a Missouri woman for her alleged role in perpetrating a hoax on the online social network MySpace against a 13-year-old neighbor who committed suicide.
As anyone who's listened to his dribble before knows, McMenemy is no fan of freedom on the internet.

But let's deal with the charge first. What Drew allegedly did is certainly distasteful, but is it really illegal? I mean, this is an old story, and the official word had been that Drew didn't actually commit a crime. But there's an indictment (and here's a pdf of it). So what's Drew charged with?

To put it simply, she's charged with breaking the MySpace Terms of Service. That's right, the "injured party" here is more MySpace than Meier, she's just so much collateral damage. This charge is being brought under a federal law that's generally used against hackers. Not the cool kind, but the intrusive criminal kind.

There are perhaps two big problems here that just about anyone can see:

First, the assumption is made that Drew's messages caused Meier's suicide. Personally, I'd argue that an otherwise emotionally healthy person doesn't hang herself over some MySpace friend she's never met, but people seem to be assuming causation anyway.

Second, the federal law is really about intrusion into systems, not breaking stupid Terms of Service. Breaking Terms of Service is generally grounds for losing your account, not going to jail. So it's an obvious case of trying to cram something that doesn't really fit into the federal law because the federal law has harsher punishments.

So not only does this case have the assertion that bad messages on MySpace were a causative factor in Meier's suicide, we also have a case of misusing anti-hacking laws to punish someone for essentially creating a fake online persona and doing (extremely) stupid shit with it.

It's no wonder McMenemy loves it!
While there is little doubt prosecutors may have a tough row to hoe -- as they say down South -- when it comes to making their case, I applaud them for having the courage to charge the woman with a crime. [Ed: This would be called "wasting taxpayer dollars" if McMenemy wasn't in favor of it.]

For too long, the Internet has been not only a place for freedom of expression and instant communication with anyone in the world, but a place where unsavory people can inflect real emotional damage on another human being.
Man, the internet sucks! People can say stuff that other people might find unpleasant!

To continue with the editorial:
As I've said repeatedly, the Internet is a great tool for the world, but it also allows people with little or no morals to say things to people anonymously that they would never have the guts to say to their face.
Ah, now we're on to a different topic, and it's one I enjoy.

I always love the "anonymous people are cowards" line of attack. Chuck Owen used it on me, and pretty much every pseudonymous blogger in the world has heard the same thing at one time or another.

Not because it's true, mind you. There are a lot of reasons to remain pseudonymous on the internet (note: pseudonymity != anonymity).

Having seen some of the abuse heaped on female bloggers basically just for being female, I'm amazed that any of them use their real identities. People with families also have a good reason to be pseudonymous. To say nothing of whistleblowers, those living under oppressive governments, and basically anyone who would rather avoid every crazy asshole on the internet knowing who they are.

The thing I find funny this is that it's very commonly the line of attack used by newspaper-people. I guess we're supposed to assume that because their names are (sometimes) on their stuff, it means they do have the guts to go up and say these things to people's faces. Which is laughable, but I'll get back to that...

In contrast, they can easily say that pseudonymous people don't have those guts, because who can really tell? If I go up to McMenemy and tell him exactly what I think of him, he's not going to think "wow, that pseudonymous blogger actually does say things to people's faces." He's going to think "hey, that jerk I don't know just came up and told me off!" Most pseudonymous bloggers I know are not shy about telling people what they think in person, they just don't want their names all over the internet.

Of course, I contend that newspaper reporters don't in fact have guts at all. Sure, maybe a few do, but when Helen Thomas is the pinnacle of bravery in journalism, it's a pretty sad state. Have you ever talked to a reporter who's on the job? They're the most pusillanimous little shitsacks you'll ever meet in person. Even an "aggressive" reporter in person is about as intimidating as your average narcoleptic. Maybe not all are like this, but it sure seems to be the majority. No hard questions, no probing, nothing but simple stenography. They're not going to even hint at what they think.

Now, that may be for a good reason. Newspaper reporters need to maintain their access. Bob Woodward is a great example of this (in his more recent years, at least). Not pissing people off becomes important if you want to keep getting interviews. It also leads to cowardice.

Picking right back up with McMenemy:
Combine that with the disturbing trend of people taping people being attacked and beaten, and then posting it online, and it's obvious that it's time to start taking control of the Internet and punishing people who act maliciously while using it.
Yeah, maybe creating limits on free expression because you don't like what people do with it isn't that obvious a need to most of us, Jeff.

People who lack familiarity with the internet (and I'd argue that McMenemy is one of them, as was Chuck Owen) often like to use it as a scapegoat for society's ills. The general form is:

1) Person sees something unpleasant on (or involving) the internet.
2) Person can't recall having seen that particular thing in person.
3) Person therefore blames the internet for causing the unpleasant thing.

This is, of course, a logical fallacy. Just because you haven't seen it before doesn't mean it didn't exist, and it sure as hell doesn't mean the medium on which you saw it caused it to happen.

McMenemy relates what he remembers as a bad day, which boils down to either getting turned down when asking a girl to the prom, getting a strike in baseball, or acting dumb at a party. That's a tough life, alright! Maybe he really does believe that these things didn't happen when he was a kid, just because they didn't happen to him. Could he be that blind to reality?

Just because the technology didn't exist to videotape fights and post them online doesn't mean they didn't happen. They did.

Similarly, jilted lovers have always committed suicide. It's always tragic, but that's life. Is this more tragic because one of the "lovers" was a fraud and MySpace was the vector? I don't honestly know, but I hardly see how it's vastly different. In Meier's mind it was no different at all.

I get the feeling that those who would put limits on freedom of the internet are not really interested in solving these problems (because they won't), they just don't want to have to have to see them anymore. It's reality-denial at its finest.

If this case is successful, it's bad news for everyone. If people like McMenemy are successful in limiting the internet to only the things they like, it's even worse. The world exists in this form whether you can see it or not. If you can't deal with it, shut your eyes. But don't try to force everyone else to shut theirs.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

People need dictionaries!

Maybe closing the library isn't such a good idea. Protesters desperately need places like that!