Updated: Aug 1, 2019
All the great festivals and observances have their rituals, Christmas has caroling, Halloween has trick-or-treating, Easter has egg hunts and World Cancer Day has pseudoscience bingo.
World Cancer Day, which is, apparently, “celebrated” on February 4 each year,[i] decided to run with the theme “I can, we can” in 2018, apparently giving many the false idea that they could, and resulting in a bumper year for pseudoscience bingo in 2019. For those who are, for some strange reason, unfamiliar with the traditional practice of pseudoscience bingo, here are a few rounds to show you how, so grab your ticket and play along.
First Round: A Hospital in Delhi Which Helps Treat Cancer with Ayurveda, Yoga
Atul Singhal, founder-president of the Ayurvedic Cancer Treatment Hospital, starts off strong by differentiating what they do at the centre from “allopathic” treatment.[ii] The term “allopathy”, in case you are not familiar with it, was coined in 1810 by the creator of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann, as a pejorative term for the standard medical practices of his day and is now used exclusively by practitioners of alternative medicine to dismiss modern evidence-based medicine and promote their own woo.[iii]
The alternative system favoured by the “Hospital” is ayurveda, the ancient traditional medical system of India which uses herbal remedies, detoxification and exercise to restore balance in the three “doshas” (metabolic types).[iv][v][vi] This system had been revived and championed by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Deepak Chopra as part of their costly alternative medicine programmes,[vii][viii][ix] and the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as part of a rise in pseudoscience rooted in Hindu nationalism.[x][xi][xii]
The medicine, according to Singhal, is panchagavya,[xiii] a mixture of five cow products (dung, urine, milk, curd and ghee), which when used in this way is referred to as cowpathy.[xiv] These natural wonders don’t just work on cancer, but also HIV, arthritis, renal disorders, dietary disorders, gastrointestinal track disorders, acidity, asthma and many more, not to mention their applications as biofertilizers, vermicompost and biopesticides.[xv] Clearly panchagavya is, despite the complete lack of large scale clinical trials to indicate this or to find either therapeutic dose or window,[xvi][xvii] a panacea for all diseases and the cow is its mobile dispensary.[xviii]
Diet and exercise, which are the other prongs of the approach here,[xix] may have some value in prevention and palliation but not treatment.[xx][xxi] The particulars of the diet on offer, barley, black pepper and jiggery and the exercise regime, yoga, have little to no specific evidence in support of them. While the system as a whole has never and perhaps could never be trialed,[xxii][xxiii][xxiv] and is based on siddhānta (unchanging principles) which go against current scientific thinking.[xxv][xxvi][xxvii]
Singhal’s response to being questioned about evidence for the efficacy of the treatment is therefore limited, and with no clinical trials to point to he instead proclaims that his patients, or at least the surviving ones, are his biggest testimonies.[xxviii] Such testimonials fail to provide sufficient details to understand the course of the cancer and whether any regression was spontaneous, the result of prior-treatment, due to diet, exercise and weight loss, or indeed down to the panchagavya.[xxix] Nonetheless, it is put down to ayurvedic treatment in classic post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning.[xxx]
Our bingo ticket is now well marked and while of course this does not necessarily mean that the claims in the article are pseudoscience, we do seemingly have good reason to be skeptical of them. This press release was however reprinted verbatim in numerous national newspapers without any counterbalancing commentary and more often than not without even the attribution indicating it as a press release. It did, fortuitously, remain largely confined to the national press, whereas the claims in our next round went international.
Second Round: A Cure for Cancer? Israeli Scientists May Have Found One
Dan Aridor, Chairman of Accelerated Evolution Biotechnologies Ltd. (AEBi), gets straight to the point with his announcement that his company is just one year away from offering a complete cure for cancer.[xxxi] A claim made all the more extraordinary when one realises that, far from being a single disease, cancer is in fact a category of disease and claiming to have found a cure for it is akin to claiming to have found a cure for respiratory disease or infection.[xxxii][xxxiii]
In fact this sort of silver bullet approach, while appealing to the common sense of the layman, is now seemingly rejected by the experts. Indeed, with deepening understanding of the biology of specific cancers,[xxxiv] researchers have moved away from treatments lacking in selectivity, which often target healthy cells as well as cancerous ones, to develop cures which target the Achilles’ heel of the individual diseases.[xxxv]
Aridor’s claim that that this cure-all will be available within a year is made all the more suspect by his own admission that the company has only just concluded its first exploratory experimentation on mice and is yet to even begin the years of required clinical trials.[xxxvi][xxxvii][xxxviii] Furthermore, the claim that the results of this test are consistent and repeatable are entirely unsupported as they have not, and it later emerged are not intended to be, published.[xxxix][xl][xli]
Ilan Morad, CEO and founder of AEBi, responded to criticism of Aridor’s announcement with special pleading that as a small company they lack the funds for the conventional process of development and proposed a false dichotomy of spending $100,000 on advancing their research or doing experiments to write an article.[xlii] Without publication, however, the company’s claims can only be taken on the basis of Aridor’s charm alone and Morad’s comparison to, “criticizing a book without reading it,”[xliii] rings a little hollow. A further concern is that much of the uncritical support for this claim seemed to be based on its country of origin rather than its content.[xliv]
While not as well marked as our first ticket, the ticket for this round has more than enough marks to warrant some skepticism of the claims made, and yet analysis has shown that 59 articles (87% of social media shares) repeated the claims without verification, 10 articles (10% of shares) offered counterpoints but no analysis, and only 7 articles (3% of shares) were fact-checked.[xlv] It is clear then that for the most part we are left to play this game with little help from our friends in the press.
Final Round: Ayurvedic Drug for Cancer Launched
The announcement of the launch of an all-natural treatment based on ayurveda, which works on all cancers, is 100% safe and has no side-effects, but has yet to go through clinical trials,[xlvi][xlvii] I think I’ll leave you to play this round by yourselves, but if you need any help the scientists behind it are themselves apparently somewhat skeptical.[xlviii]
Perhaps World Cancer Day isn’t the best time to be playing games, but while journalists and newspaper editors evade their duty to inform the public responsibly, we are seemingly left with little choice. As our dear friend Dr. Edzard Ernst has pointed out, uncritical, sensational reporting is a concern to us all. Such articles, he asserts, jeopardise the tireless efforts of professionals to improve the prospects of cancer patients and put the lives of those patients at risk.[xlix] Now if you’ll excuse me, I think my dabber needs refilling.
[i] (Press Trust of India, 2019)
[ii] (Press Trust of India, 2019)
[iii] (Jarvis, 1996)
[iv] (Mishra, 2003)
[v] (Bivins, 2007, pp. 16-20)
[vi] (Ernst, Pittler, Wider, & Boddy, 2008, p. 52)
[vii] (Butler, 1992, p. 110)
[viii] (Wanjek, 2002, p. 168)
[ix] (Shapiro, 2008, pp. 72-75)
[x] (Kumar, 2019)
[xi] (Telegraph Editorial Board, 2019)
[xii] (Ramachandran, 2016)
[xiii] (Press Trust of India, 2019)
[xiv] (Dhama, Rathore, Chauhan, & Tomar, 2005)
[xv] (Dhama, Rathore, Chauhan, & Tomar, 2005)
[xvi] (Butler, 1992, p. 111)
[xvii] (Iversen, 2016, p. 27)
[xviii] (Mohanty, Senapati, Jena, & Palai, 2014)
[xix] (Press Trust of India, 2019)
[xx] (Ernst, Pittler, Stevinson, & White, 2001, pp. 229-239)
[xxi] (Ernst, Pittler, Wider, & Boddy, 2008, pp. 342-346)
[xxii] (Bausell, 2007, p. 259)
[xxiii] (Singh & Ernst, 2008)
[xxiv] (Ernst, Pittler, Wider, & Boddy, 2008, p. 52)
[xxv] (Butler, 1992, p. 112)
[xxvi] (Wanjek, 2002, p. 170)
[xxvii] (Bausell, 2007, p. 259)
[xxviii] (Press Trust of India, 2019)
[xxix] (Hall, 2018)
[xxx] (Carrier, 2013)
[xxxi] (Jaffe-Hoffman, 2019)
[xxxii] (Scotting, 2017, p. 153)
[xxxiii] (Steinbuch, 2019)
[xxxiv] (Scotting, 2017, p. 136)
[xxxv] (Scotting, 2017, p. 154)
[xxxvi] (Jaffe-Hoffman, 2019)
[xxxvii] (Lichtenfeld, 2019)
[xxxviii] (Baxter, 2019)
[xxxix] (De Graff, 2019)
[xl] (Forster, 2019)
[xli] (Gander, 2019)
[xlii] (Solomon, 2019)
[xliii] (Solomon, 2019)
[xliv] (Vincent, 2019)
[xlv] (Vincent, 2019)
[xlvi] (Deccan Chronicle, 2019)
[xlvii] (Ministry of S&T, CSIR-IICB release first ayurvedic cancer drug, 2019)
[xlviii] (Mudur, 2019)
[xlix] (Marshall, 2015)
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