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On cancers, false balance and the judiciary

Climate change has for long been my go-to example to illustrate how absolute objectivity can sometimes be detrimental to the reliability of a news report. Stating that A said “Climate change is real” and that B replied “No, it isn’t” isn’t helping anyone even though it has voices from both sides of the issue. Now, I have a new example: cancer due to radiation from cellphone towers. (And yes, there seems to be a pattern here: false balance becomes a bigger problem when a popular opinion is on the verge of becoming unpopular thanks new scientific discoveries.)

This post was prompted by a New York Times article published January 5, 2018. Excerpt:

From 1991 to 2015, the cancer death rate dropped about 1.5 percent a year, resulting in a total decrease of 26 percent — 2,378,600 fewer deaths than would have occurred had the rate remained at its peak. The American Cancer Society predicts that in 2018, there will be 1,735,350 new cases of cancer and 609,640 deaths. The latest report on cancer statistics appears in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. The most common cancers — in men, tumours of the prostate; in women, breast — are not the most common causes of cancer death. Although prostate cancer accounts for 19 percent of cancers in men and breast cancer for 30 percent of cancers in women, the most common cause of cancer death in both sexes is lung cancer, which accounts for one-quarter of cancer deaths in both sexes.

This is a trend I’d alluded to in an earlier post: that age-adjusted cancer death rates in the US, among both men and women, have been on a steady downward decline since at least 1990 whereas, in the same period, the number of cellphone towers has been on the rise. More generally, scientific studies continue to fail to find a link between radio-frequency emissions originating from smartphones and cancers of the human body. Source: this study and this second study.

The simplest explanation remains that these emissions are non-ionising – i.e. when they pass through matter, they can excite electrons to higher energy levels but they can’t remove them entirely. In other words, they can cause temporary disturbances in matter but they can’t change its chemical composition. Some have also argued that cellphone radiation can heat up tissues in the body enough to damage them. This is ridiculous: apart from the fact that the human body is a champion at regulating internal heat, imagine what’s happening the next time you get a fever or if you go to Delhi in May.

Those who continue to believe cellphone towers can damage our genes do so for a variety of reasons – including poor outreach and awareness efforts (although I’m told TRAI has done a lot of work on this front) and, more troublingly, the judiciary. By not ensuring that the evidence presented before them is held to higher scientific standards, Indian courts have on many occasions admitted strange arguments and thus pronounced counterproductive verdicts.

For example, in April 2017, the Supreme Court (of India) directed a BSNL cellphone tower in Gwalior be taken down after one petitioner claimed radiation from the structure had given him Hodgkin’s lymphoma. If the court was trying to err on the side of caution: what about the thousands of people now left with poorer connectivity in the area (and who are not blaming their ailments on cellphone tower radiation)?

This isn’t confined to India. In early 2017, Joel Moskowitz, a professor at the Berkeley School of Public Health, filed a suit asking for the state of California to release a clutch of documents describing cellphone safety measures. Moskowitz believes that cellphone radiation causes cancer, and that Big Telecom has allegedly been colluding with Big Government to keep this secret away from the public.

In December 2017, a state judge ruled in Moskowitz’s favour and directed the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) to release a “Guidance on How to Reduce Exposure to Radiofrequency Energy from Cell Phones” – a completely unnecessary set of precautions that, by the virtue of its existence, reinforces a gratuitous panic. By all means, let those who believe in this drivel consume this drivel, but it shouldn’t have been at the expense of making a mockery of the court nor should it have been effected by pressing the CDPH’s reputation to endorse the persistence of pseudoscience. What a waste of time and money when we have bigger and more legitimate problems on our hands.

… which brings us to climate change and the perniciousness of false balance. On December 20, 2017, Times of India published an article titled ‘Can mobile phones REALLY increase the risk of brain cancer? Or is it too far-fetched?’. It quotes studies saying ‘yes’ as well as those saying ‘no’ but it doesn’t contain any attributions, citations or hyperlinks. Sample this:

Lab studies where animals are exposed to radio frequency waves suggest that as the waves are not that strong and cannot break the DNA, they cannot cause cancer. But some other studies claim that that they can damage the cells up to some level and this can support a tumour to grow.

It also contains ill-conceived language, for example by asking how radio-frequency waves become harmful before it goes on to ‘discuss’ whether they are harmful at all, or by saying the waves are “absorbed” in the human body. But most of all, it’s the intent to remain equivocal – instead of assuming a rational position based on the information and/or knowledge available on the subject – that’s really frustrating. This is no different from what the Californian judge did or what the SC of India did: not consider evidence of better quality while trying to please everyone.

Featured image credit: Free-Photos/pixabay.

‘Mantra sciences’ is just poor fantasy

I don’t know how the author of a piece in the Times of India managed to keep a straight face when introducing a school based on Vedic rituals that would “show the way” to curing diseases like cancer. Even the more honest scientific studies that are regularly accompanied by press releases proclaiming “the paper is a step in the right direction of curing cancer” tend to be unreliable thanks to institutional and systemic pressures to produce sensational research. But hey, something written many thousands of years ago might just have all the answers – at least according to Jaya Dava, the chairperson of the Rajasthan Sanskrit Academy. Excerpt:

Proposed in 2005, the Rajasthan government’s research institute to study the science of ancient Hindu texts, the first-of-its-kind in the country, is all set become operational soon. On Monday, the Research Institute of Mantra Sciences (RIMS) or the Rajasthan Mantra Pratishtan, under the Jagadguru Ramanandacharya Rajasthan Sanskrit University (JRRSU), called for applications from eligible candidates for various posts, including that of teachers. The then education minister, Ghanshyam Tiwari, had first proposed the institute in 2005. While presenting the concept, inspired by ‘Manusmriti’, the ancient Hindu book of law, Tiwari had quoted a verse from the text, ‘Sarvam vedaat prasiddhyati’ (Every solution lies in Vedas), in the state assembly.

So the RIMS is being set up to further the ideals enshrined in the Manusmriti, the document that supposedly also talks about the caste system and how anyone trapped in it has doomed all their descendants to never being able to escape from its dystopian rules. Second: apart from having been mooted by a state’s education minister, the Jagadguru Ramanandacharya Rajasthan Sanskrit University is a state institution utilising public taxes for its operation. Don’t the people get a say in what kind of magic-practising institutions their government is allowed to set up? Hogwarts was at least entertaining and nicely written.

I’m just anguished about the Hindutva brigade’s poor imagination when it comes to epic fantasy. For example, according to Dava, “reciting verses such as ‘Achutaya Namaha’, ‘Anantaya Namaha’ and ‘Govindaya Namaha’ have helped in treating cancer patients.” Helped in what way? If we had a quantifiable measure that other people could try to replicate, we’d be working towards having an internally consistent system of magic – but no.

Also, in a world without cancer, is anybody even thinking about the numerous emergent possibilities? For starters, by 2020, we’re going to have $150 billion left unspent because cancer drugs are going to be useless. And India’s B-grade film industries are going to have to come up with new ways to make forlorn ex-lovers spurt blood and die. And David Bowie and Alan Rickman would still be alive. And chanting hippies would be the new millionaire oncologists. The possibilities are endless. More, according to Rajendra Prasad Mishra, who headed RIMS for a decade from 2006,

“The answer as to how a simple line drawn by Lord Ram prevented the mighty king Ravana from crossing over lies in Vedic science. This ancient wisdom, if discovered, can safeguard India from our enemies by drawing lines across the borders. The chanting of mantras, with the right diction, pronunciation and by harnessing cosmic energy, can help in condensing vapours and bringing rain. This can solve the major problem of water scarcity.”

But conveniently, this wisdom is considered “lost” and has to be “found” at a great cost to a lot of people while the people doing the finding look like they’re doing something when they’re really, really not. Maybe its writers wrote it when they were 20, looked back at it when they were 40, figured it was a lot of tosh and chucked it into the Saraswati. I’ve no issues with magic myself, in fact I love fantasy fiction and constantly dream of disappearing into one, but I sure as hell don’t want to exist in a realm with infinite predictability shoved down everyone’s throats.

Notice also how people are completely okay with trusting someone else who says it’s a good idea to invest a lot of money in a scheme to make sense of which very few people are supposed to possess the intellectual resources, a risk they’re willing to take anyway because it might just them more powerful – while they actively stay away from cryptocurrencies like bitcoins because they suspect it might be a Ponzi scheme? Indeed, the powers that be must be vastly more resourceful in matters of the intellect than I to be able to resolve this cosmic cognitive dissonance.

Featured image credit: stuarthampton/pixabay.

UCL cancels homeopathy event by Indian docs

An India-based homeopathic organisation caused ripples in academic circles in the UK over the last few days after announcing it would conduct a conference on treating cancer at the University College London (UCL) premises – an appointment that has since been cancelled by UCL.

Although homeopathy has been widely drubbed as possessing zero curative potential, it continues to have an existence ranging from undemonstrative to unrestrained in many countries. In the UK, its practice is restricted by law; further compounding the issue is that the scheduled conference plans to discuss ways to manage cancer with homeopathy, the kind of advertising that’s barely legal in the country (see: Section 4, Cancer Act, 1939).

The website built for the event says that the Dr. Prasanta Banerji Homeopathic Research Foundation, based in Kolkata, will conduct the conference at the UCL Institute of Neurology, with an entry fee of £180. The two-day event will discuss the so-called Banerji Protocols, a set of methods developed by doctors Prasanta and Pratip Banerji to manage various ailments using only homeopathy and arrive at diagnoses quickly. However, their claims appear insufficiently backed up – a list of publications on the foundation’s page doesn’t contain any peer-reviewed studies or reports from randomised clinical trials.

Once the event’s details were publicised, the furore was centred on the Banerjis’ using UCL premises to promote their methods. As Andy Lewis wrote in The Quackometer, “[UCL’s] premises are being used to bring respectability to a thoroughly disturbing business.” However, after complaints lodged by multiple activists, researchers and others, UCL cancelled the event on February 1 and said, according to blogger David Colquhoun, that the booking was made by a “junior [secretary] unaware of issues”, that it had learnt its lesson, and that a process had been set up to prevent similar issues from recurring in the future.

The UCL clarification came close on the heels of the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority approving five homeopathic combinations to make therapeutic claims. All combinations are made by a company named Helios and assure palliative and curative effects, including for hay fever. Edzard Ernst, noted for his vehement opposition to homeopathy, wrote in response on his blog, “If you look critically at the evidence, you are inevitably going to arrive at entirely different verdicts about the effectiveness of these remedies: they actually do nothing!”

It’s notable that the marketing practices that the Banerjis are following closely mimic those generally adopted by people selling dubitable products, services or ideas:

  • Advertising methods through case studies instead of scientific details – Three items on the conference agenda read: “Evidence based management of cancer, renal failure and other serious illnesses with case presentations including radiology and histopathology images” and “Live case studies to demonstrate case taking for difficult conditions”
  • Conflating invitation from institutes with invitation from governments (the latter hardly ever happens) – From “Under invitation from Spain, Portugal, Royal Academy of Japan, USA, Roswell park cancer centre at Buffalo, New York, Italy, Netherlands, Germany we have done workshops and teaching seminars and we received standing ovations in all the places.”
  • Citing alleged accreditation by prestigious institutions but of which no official record exists – Also from “Our protocol for Brain cancer & Breast Cancer has been experimented by the scientist of the MD Anderson Cancer Centre, Houston, USA and found in vitro experiment that these medicines selectively kills cancer cells but not the normal cells. Joint paper by us and scientist, professor of cell biology and genetics has been published in International Journal of Oncology. Our work with National Cancer Institute, USA has been published in journal of Oncology Reports.” – The papers are not to be found.

Others include referring to essays and books of their own authorship; presenting their publication as validation of their methods; not participating in any collaborative work, especially with accredited research institutions; and often labouring unto not insubstantial commercial gains.

Despite a World Health Organisation directive in 2009 cautioning against the use of homeopathy to cure serious illnesses like malaria, it is officially counted among India’s national systems of medicine. Its research and practice receives support from the Department of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy (AYUSH) under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. From 1980 to 2010, the number of homeopathic doctors in the country doubled while the number of dispensaries increased four-fold.

The Wire
February 2, 2016