Faith in what hasn’t been shown to work

Most religions, and certainly the major ones (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) require that you take certain things on faith. Many of them offer no hard evidence of their tennets. Yes, there is plenty of historical evidence for many of the events that happened in the narratives of these religions, but there is no hard evidence of the existence of a God beyond what is taken by faith alone.

But this blog is not about religion. It’s about science. In the world of science, we scientists require that claims be backed up by evidence. If someone comes to me and says that they can cure cancer, then I require certain proofs. I require that the treatment be shown to be biologically plausible. That is, I require that what the treatment claims to do is something that can happen in the real world, not the back of a napkin or a drawing on a blackboard. I also require the results of a well-conducted clinical trial where people with cancer are healed or live longer than people who do not receive the treatment. Finally, I require that the study that shows the treatment as effective be replicated by other studies by investigators who have no stake in the success of the treatment. That’s all I ask. It’s not a lot to ask for is it?

Apparently, it is a lot to ask for a clinic in Texas that claims to be able to cure cancer by using what it calls “antineoplastons”, a treatment of their own making. That treatment has not been shown to work. There have been no randomized, controlled clinical studies. There have been no follow-up randomized, controlled clinical studies. And even the biological mechanism by which the antineoplastons are supposed to work is, well, questionable. In short, there is no credible evidence that the treatment works.

That is unless you believe the testimonials. There are plenty of people who give testimonies about the treatment. Unfortunately, many of these testimonies are from the friends or relatives of the people who tried the antineoplastons as a last resort, albeit with a promise of a cure and at a great expense. I mean, it’s expensive:

“Antineoplastons are given orally or by injection into a vein. The duration of treatment usually ranges from eight to twelve months. A year of treatment can cost from $30,000 to $60,000, depending on the type of treatment, number of consultations, and the need for surgery to implant a catheter for drug delivery.”

But you wouldn’t know that this whole thing was expensive, unproven, and that the Food and Drug Administration is keeping an eye on it all from what you read in the testimonials. In those testimonials you have people who believe in the therapy with what can only be described as a religious devotion. One after another, the patients describe miraculous recovery from cancer. Others have family members describing an extra amount of time bought by the antineoplaston treatment. But, again, there are no studies published. There is no extraordinary evidence.

In fact, something that is missing from the testimonials website is the story of this young lady. She died. Also missing is this story. That little girl died, but not before her parents and friends had to raise a lot of money to try and get her to the clinic and into the clinical trials. They also don’t mention these stories. Or these.

The list goes on, and there will probably be names added to it because the clinic is still open, still charging patients thousands of dollars for unproven treatments that insurance won’t pay, and still being warned by the FDA for its activities.

A lot of people I know keep harking on the dangers of religion and how religion drives us to do some things that are insane. I tend to agree. However, part of me believes that it’s the human being inside of us that is to blame. We are the ones that forgo true, proven medicine for something that hasn’t been shown to work. For what? Hope that we may live a little longer? Hope that this maverick clinic in Texas has figured out the cure to the plague of the twentieth century?

Of course it’s safe… It’s natural!

One of the things that a lot of the alternative medicine, holistic, naturopathic, etcetera people will tell you is that the “mainstream” medicine people don’t want you to try anything that is natural because it will affect their bottom line. Some will even take it a step further and tell you that their “treatments” are completely safe because they’re natural, that they have no side effects whatsoever. Or that the side effects are minimal when compared to what “Western” medicine has to offer.

Guess what? They’re not lying.

They’re not lying when they tell you that an herbal remedy is safer than science/evidence-based medicine. They’re lying when they tell you that something is more effective when there is no evidence whatsoever that this is the case. They actually stand there and sell you a treatment that, although safe, is not effective, or has never been proven to be effective.

And you buy it because you’re desperate, because the medicine from a physician is expensive, or because you had some unpleasant side effects. You buy it because they – the natural remedy sellers – gathered together anecdotes of people and presented them to you as data. You also buy it because your brain biases the so-called evidence they present and make you think that someone getting over the flu after five days of taking a remedy is some sort of a miracle and not just simple, everyday “return to the mean” bias on your part.

The sad part is when people with some very serious conditions forgo treatments based on science and evidence and buy into treatments and remedies that have never been shown to work. The buy into something that – because it is labeled as natural – seems to be good for you. There is a difference between something that is not bad for you and something that is good for you. There really is.

On the other hand, I will be the first one to admit that those people who enjoy a lifestyle aimed toward natural things – like eating more fruits and veggies, drinking more water than soda – those people really do have a lower incidence of certain diseases and conditions. However, if they do fall ill to an infection or some other disease, no amount of herbs and spices will “cure” them. I’m yet to see turmeric and basil be an effective treatment for cancer. (Then again, I might be oversimplifying their approach.)

For some of you out there, there is not much I can say to stop you from believing in or even trying the “all natural” path to cure a disease or condition. You’ll be convinced that the lack of serious side effects from a plant or salt somehow make it effective. The flipside is that you you’ll think that the side effects of a safe and effective medication somehow means that it’s the work of the Devil. To those of you that believe this, I have nothing more to say.

To the rest of you, I’ll let you know that any healthcare provider worth their weight in salt will be more than happy to discuss “alternative medicine” with you, the pros and cons, and even discuss how it can be integrated into your regular care. This is especially important if the remedies you want to try may possibly interfere with any medication you’re already taking. So go have that chat and put down the remedy. It will still be there when you get back.