Yes, I know – this is old news. That the Huffington Post is a cesspit of anti-scientific propaganda. This recent item, however, is bad even for Huff Po standards. If I were writing a textbook on propaganda and wanted to craft an extreme example in order to clearly demonstrate the features of propaganda, I could not have done a better job than Nalini Chilkov. She is promoting the book of Hollie and Patrick Quinn, You Did What? Saying No to Conventional Cancer Treatment.
Chilkov tells her readers how Hollie was diagnosed with breast cancer while pregnant at age 27. After telling us over and over again how intelligent, educated, and well-informed Hollie and her husband are, we are informed that Hollie decided to treat her breast cancer entirely with alternative cancer treatments. And now, 8 years later, she is perfectly healthy and has two wonderful children.
First, let me say that I am very happy for Hollie and Patrick and I sincerely wish that Hollie has nothing but the best of health. This story is actually somewhat personal for me as my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year, and now she is doing very well after standard treatment. So I understand, not just as a physician but as a husband, how difficult it is to face this diagnosis and the treatment options.
But the purpose of Hollie Quinn's book, and Chilkov's promotion of it, is to promote a decision to forgo science-based cancer treatment in favor of a dangerous fantasy. Chilkov's article is dripping throughout with desperation for acceptance and scientific legitimacy – but in my opinion it is all a con.
While reading the article my first question was this – did Hollie undergo any surgery for her breast cancer? This is a critical question to evaluating her story – and Chilkov does not inform her readers either way. That information is conspicuously absent. But it only took me a moment with Google to find the answer – she had stage 2 breast cancer and underwent lumpectomy and sentinel node biopsy. Curious that Chilkov did not think it necessary to mention that, especially since that procedure alone is sufficient in about 70% of cases (depending on stage, type, etc.) to cure the cancer.
So Hollie did not forgo standard therapy for CAM therapy. She underwent standard surgical treatment, which is curative in most cases, and then did not undergo adjunctive therapy which is meant to decrease the risk of recurrence.
So all we really have in Hollie's story is yet another patient who underwent surgical treatment of breast cancer and is in the 70% who will not have a recurrence. There is no reason to suspect that the alternative treatments she subjected herself to had any effect – but she gives it full credit.
Chilkov does make this comment:
“Therefore, because this book is the story of just one woman, no generalizations or assumptions can be made about other women facing breast cancer.”
I wonder if the Huff Po lawyers had anything to do with this disclaimer, or if adding such disclaimers is just a reflex for Chilkov now. This is almost a Simpsonsesque disclaimer – “don't believe any of the things I just told you.” Chilkov spends many paragraphs fawning over Hollie Quinn's story, telling us that it has profound implications for the treatment of cancer, but then – Oh, we cannot generalize.
The disclaimer is truer than she likely knows. Not only is it anecdotal, and further worthless as evidence of anything since Hollie did, in fact, undergo surgical treatment, but we must also consider that all the women who forgo proven therapy for alluring nonsense and die horribly are not around to write books about their experiences. There is also a huge psychological factor at work. People feel the need to justify their decisions, especially controversial ones. The very title of the book: “You Did What?” is screaming “risk justification.”
At the same time people will tend to hide their bad decisions. Con artists largely depend upon the fact that those conned will be so embarrassed by their perceived stupidity that they will just crawl under a rock and not go after the con artist. (This is not to say they are truly stupid, just that they will feel that way.)
So we have a situation in which those who make the controversial decision to choose CAM and do well are motivated to shout it from the rooftops, while those who do not do well are either dead or are too ashamed of their decision to make it public.
That is precisely why anecdotal stories, even if written in book length and promoted in an anti-scientific rag like the Huff Po, are worse than worthless. They are biased and misleading.
Chilkov also seems intent on destroying her readers' irony meters – saying over and over that alternative cancer treatments are rational, evidence-based, and scientific. However, the only feature that defines a treatment as alternative is that it is not evidence-based. Science-based medicine will use rational evidence-based treatments, no matter what they are. Everything else is “alternative”.
She specifically mentions acupuncture as an alternative cancer treatment. She does not reference any science to show that acupuncture is useful for cancer – that may have something to do with the fact that there is no evidence (nor any plausibility) for any beneficial effect from acupuncture on breast cancer.
Here is another example of the propaganda worth dissecting:
Because our understanding of cancer genetics is advancing, Oncologists are beginning to acknowledge that Cancer Care can now become more individualized and that lifestyle and diet, nutrients and botanicals and acupuncture have a place in a complete treatment approach for cancer patients.
Yes – our understanding of cancer genetics is advancing due to science-based medicine, not any alternative superstition. Notice how she says, “Oncologists are beginning to acknowledge.” She makes it sound almost reluctant, as if they are being dragged into the light. Science-based oncologists are doing the research and following the results. As our knowledge base increases, our ability to individualize treatment is increasing. This is science-based medicine, but CAM proponents like Chilkov are frequently trying to take credit for it.
Then, of course, she equates science-based “individualized” care with diet and nutrition – these components are perhaps the least individualized. Good nutrition is mostly standardized, not individualized. The only individualization would come through blood testing for specific deficiencies, or those who may benefit from weight loss or a diabetic diet – all standard components of science-based medicine.
Then she shifts seamlessly into “botanicals and acupuncture” – in that one sentence she is demonstrating the CAM strategy of blurring the lines between science and nonsense, starting with proven therapies, then sliding into those areas that are science-based but sold as alternative (diet and nutrition), and then finally into hard core superstition like acupuncture – as if it's all part of the same spectrum.
Chilkov's article is a masterwork of pro CAM propaganda, but scratching beneath the surface reveals her intellectual shenanigans – most notably her omission of the fact that Hollie Quinn underwent surgery to treat her cancer.
More and more it is becoming apparent that reading the Huffington Post can be hazardous to your health.