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Sickening CAM Propaganda at Huff Po

by Steven Novella, Sep 27 2010

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.

Conclusion

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.

Recommended Reading

41 Responses to “Sickening CAM Propaganda at Huff Po”

  1. Harland Bird says:

    Jeez Louise! I’ve never turned to the HuffPo for science news, but by dropping the ball so badly here, they have turned me off completely.

    Thanks for the analysis, Dr. Novella! I was very sorry to hear of your wife’s diagnosis and wish her and yourself all the best. Very glad to hear she is doing well.

  2. GoneWithTheWind says:

    If we don’t start speaking up against superstition based medicine we will have it and it will be paid for from your taxes. CAM is an insidious attack on your health care dollars. It will not only steal your money it will take your health and life if you let it.

    • MadScientist says:

      It sure will. That’s been happening in Australia for the past 10 years. The results are clear: 200% increase in health insurance cost over a mere 4 years. Neither the government nor the medical association seem to care about it though. The latest fad seems to be for medical insurers to offer pet insurance as well – go figure.

      • Max says:

        How much of the 200% increase is due to CAM?

      • MadScientist says:

        I have no idea how much is due to CAM and how much due to the government deregulating the market and creating a free-for-all. Having said that, health insurance for medical professionals and their families hadn’t even gone up 100% in almost 10 years, and those insurers don’t pay for woo-woo. The CAM thing could be entirely coincidental (though I doubt it) – only the insurers would know, and this isn’t information which they make public. Still, paying for bullshit remedies in the healthcare system has got to be a waste of money (unless perhaps you consider killing some patients as a good way to save money).

  3. Old Rockin' Dave says:

    It’s the dolphin story all over again. That is, everyone knows that dolphins sometimes push shipwrecked sailors to shore. What no one can know is whether an equal or even greater number of sailors are pulled under and drowned by dolphins, since they wouldn’t survive to tell us.

  4. Max says:

    Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) tout their use of CAM like Reiki and homeopathy, mainly to alleviate side-effects rather than replace real cancer therapy.

  5. Deanna says:

    This post totally reminds me of a time when acupuncture was combined with a science-based treatment for my hip and I mistakenly gave the alternative treatment just as much credit as the science-based treatment. I liked to this post and shared my own example on my blog. We really do need to be careful of the slippery logic CAM promoters use.

  6. LovleAnjel says:

    Dr. Novella, I hope your wife’s treatment and recovery go well.

    Stories like the one you talk about make me nauseous.

  7. Cthandhs says:

    My twin sister has been recovering from breast cancer surgery and treatment over the last year. Thanks to the Skeptical community, there was never any question whether she would get chemo and radiation post surgery. Oh, and none of her doctors ever suggested using “nutrients and botanicals”.

    I think there is something that could help which doctor’s do not recommend enough – counseling. Cancer is freaking scary and between the chemo and the steroids, there can be a lot going on in your head that you don’t understand. I wonder if cancer patients and survivors would be less interested in alt med, if they had counseling to help with the mental side of things.

  8. Patrick says:

    We can all quit worrying now, the UN has us covered when aliens finally reveal themselves (and stop abducting people) har har. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/space/8025832/UN-to-appoint-space-ambassador-to-greet-alien-visitors.html

  9. MadScientist says:

    That just makes me wish that Arianna would develop breast cancer – then we can see what happens to the founder of the HuffPo. Will she suck up the deadly nonsense which she promotes or will she go for the best genuine treatment her money can buy?

    • tmac57 says:

      I also would like to know what any advocate for CAM would ultimately use for their serious medical conditions, but your opening wish is totally inappropriate. We should be better than that.

      • GoneWithTheWind says:

        I think advocates of CAM fall into two groups. Those that truely believe would use CAM to treat their cancer and as they fail to recover they would angrily blame conventional medicine for not finding it soon enough or diverting them from CAM first etc. The second group are in it for the money and like those who oppose any changes to our failing public schools while they send their own children to private schools they would seek out science based health care knowing it is their best chance.

      • Max says:

        Hollie Quinn and Suzanne Somers had curative surgery (lumpectomy), but substituted CAM for chemo. Having a tumor cut out is more appealing than having a poison injected in.

      • GoneWithTheWind says:

        A few years ago my father in law went through chemo and radiation. Prior to that I would have been wary about chemo. He had no negative side effects. He was a little weak but worked everyday and still did family things. The combination allowed him 5 more years of good health and life. I would no longer be afraid of chemo. Many good advances in chemo in the last decade or so.

      • Max says:

        Yeah, it’s like CAM proponents who wish that skeptics develop cancer to see what happens, or religious fundies who wish that atheists develop cancer to see if they convert.

      • MadScientist says:

        What’s your problem with wishful thinking? If more people would be the victim of the nonsense they push, perhaps people wouldn’t be so willing to push such nonsense. I have no problem wishing that the woo peddlers be the victim of their own evil; it’s a pity that for the most part they are not the victims, instead many of the victims are strangers who trusted them.

  10. Chris Howard says:

    What is the educated opinion when it comes to this sort of thing, as far as, regulation, and consumer protection goes? Why doesn’t the FDA do something about this, obviously dangerous, idea of alternative medicine… or do they?

    • MadScientist says:

      Many decades ago the American Medical Association ran a pretty big campaign against snakeoil salesmen. These days they’re likely to be sued for saying the same things against the woo peddlers. Many of our legislators buy into the bullshit so I can’t imagine any regulations coming in. The FDA is stuffed with bureaucrats (maybe not enough scientists) and seems bent on avoiding the issues so long as what is sold is not itself toxic in the doses offered to the public. I don’t know what the FDA’s attitude is on recommending and setting regulations – would they care to propose their own or do they take the attitude that it’s the job of Congress to tell them what to do? Perhaps the best course of action at the present time is to fund consumer protection groups to pursue the snakeoil salesmen in court?

      • Chris Howard says:

        Wow! I just took a look at Huffpost, and the amount of CAM garbage, on her site, is through the roof! There doesn’t seem to be a “counter point” section. The Homeopathy “expert” makes some really silly claims, about depression and homeopathy, and the comments seem to trail off into a flame war, pretty quickly.

        Are there any well documented cases of harm, coming from CAM? Perhaps, people becoming increasingly ill because they gave up scientifically based medicine, for CAM? Something that could be used as an example to show that there are, often times, dire consequences for alternative treatments.

      • Max says:

        There’s http://whatstheharm.net
        But this assumes that the patient harmed by CAM would not have been harmed by conventional medicine. CAM proponents can just as easily rattle off cases of patients harmed by conventional medicine, e.g. 195,000 annual hospital deaths from medical errors.

        Some cases are pretty obvious though, like children dying from easily treatable infections because their parents chose to pray instead of seeking medical treatment.

      • GoneWithTheWind says:

        Most deaths that are blamed on conventional medicine are a result of either misuse of drugs or reactions to drugs. That is either the patient or the health care person over or under doses the patient OR that the patient has a genetic predisposition to reject a drug or reat to a drug. There are some cases where a doctor/surgeon makes a valiant effort to save someone but fails and then their effort is blamed. A very competent heart surgeon in NY choose to use his skills to operate on seriously ill people who had been rejected by other surgeons as bad candidates for surgery. He was rewarded for his humanitarian efforts by being dropped from the hospital so they could improve their success rates. Not all deaths by medical personal is the fault of the doctor. You have to accept that the doctor is often simply the last person trying to save someone whose fate is sealed by their poor health and genes. My point is a lot of the deaths blamed on conventional medicine are simply the result of natural causes and not malpractice.

      • Chris Howard says:

        True. Usually what I tell my CAM inspired friends is that one must be skeptical about both “alternative” as well as “standard” medical treatments.
        I think part of the reason we know about the 195,000 deaths, is because they are documentable, traceable to the casue e.g., malpractice, drug interaction, etc. There may be more in the CAM field, but we just don’t know about it because it’s not regulated, or watched as closely. Just a guess.

      • Chris says:

        This blog article of a cancer patient includes links to some disturbing photos of untreated cancer (be warned, they are very graphic):
        http://anaximperator.wordpress.com/see-this-images-of-cancer/

  11. Dave says:

    Great article Steve. Unfortunately, however, the feeling I get is that CAM believers will read the HuffPo, skeptics will read this blog, and the middle-ground with no opinion would be more likely to dip into the HuffPo than this blog and other scientific ones.

    I’d love to see skeptics such as you appearing in the national media as much as possible — Fox News, Larry King Live, radio shows, etc. I get the feeling that the skeptical community does a lot of ‘preaching to the choir’, and the message doesn’t really get out to the people who need to hear it.

    Any plans to write a book Dr Novella? With a book usually comes a book tour, media appearances, etc. Michael Shermer does a great job appearing in the media very often, but I think Steve’s rare appearances are terrific, so I’d like to see him get a bit more exposure.

  12. Trimegistus says:

    I’m sorry, this is simply impossible. All good skeptics must know that opposition to science only comes from evil right-wing Christianists. We hear that constantly on this very blog. Huffington Post is a liberal website and therefore MUST be scientific. Denying that means you’re a racist or something.

  13. Doug Mesner says:

    Just published today, a blog that exposes the pseudo-scientific claims and cult-like hierarchy of Transcendental Meditation notes that a TM member of the TM faithful now uses Huffington Post to market TM. Keep in mind, TM is not – as they sometimes claim – just a relaxation technique that has demonstrated amazing powers to increase focus and intelligence, it is a mystical belief system that claims practitioners my achieve levitation, and (of course invoking quantum physics) may bring “peace to the atmosphere”, improve weather, and reduce crime.
    http://tmfree.blogspot.com/2010/09/transcendental-meditation-marketer.html

  14. Burk B says:

    I was saddened to hear of your wife’s diagnosis, Dr. Novella. I wish you both the best and to her a full recovery.

  15. If I had to summarize the subtext of this article, I might be tempted to wax poetic on the seeming, present day, wide-spread superstition against science and evidence-based reality. I see this everywhere from the media to my own family and friends. It often seems to me that people are quicker to believe something with no evidence than they are something with overwhelming evidence. This may be so because people are dissatisfied with truth that does not meet their expectations or desires. They would rather create a factitious world of spurious thought and bad logic with a comforting theme. So sad really, when one considers how truly amazing and inspiring evidence based science is. My prescription might be an extra dose of patience and a reading of one of the “Classics of Skepticism” as listed on this site. The one I often hand out is “The Demon Haunted World” by Carl Sagan.

    Daniel

  16. Tressa says:

    I’m glad to hear your wife is doing well.

  17. Alex says:

    Thanks for this very good article. I also wish you all the best with your wifes recovery!

  18. DeLong says:

    My wife was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. At first, it appeared to be the “best” kind in that it was not large or invasive. However, since the mammogram was not conclusive, an MRI was done. The MRI found many more sites that needed to have a biopsy. All were either cancerous or “atypical” sites. Within the next two – three weeks there will be surgery, either lumpectomy or up to bilateral mastectomy, followed by treatment.

    My concern is that many in my wife’s extended family are CAM believers who will be pushing her to follow their latest fad for “treatment” of questionable scientific value. The Huffington Post article and this book could be cited as “proof” that my wife will need nothing following the surgery.

    My work as a supportive husband is cut out for me.

  19. Gregory Goldmacher says:

    Disclaimers cannot shield people who disseminate such dangerous misinformation from ethical responsibility, even if they are legally protected.

    Dr. Novella, best wishes for your wife’s recovery.

  20. Back choke says:

    I guess medical marijuana would be considered a form of “alternative” medicine. Marijuana has many medicinal properties yet main stream medicine has no interest in it whatsoever( that is changing now but only because its efficacy has become so obvious for so many people, main stream medicine is now being FORCED to reluctantly accept it) . Gee, I wonder why that is? They do have interest in patentable alternatives to the natural substance though since drug companies can make money from them. The THC pill Marinol is an example. 4 times more expensive than pot and far less effective for treating the miladies it was intended for.

    Sorry to say but you guys are really missing the boat on this one if you think that the only “drugs” that really work are the ones that have been tested and approved by the FDA. Granted that there are scams, misinformation etc concerning natural remedies but some seem to hold great promise but will never be tested by the FDA because no drug company will fund the testing. So in the end people that sell “snake oil ” should be ashamed for selling a bogus cure and the FDA and big pharma should also be ashamed for knowingly promoting medicines that are ( in some cases)inferior to natural/alternative therapies all for the sake of profit. Same as the snake oil dealers.