The National Institute of Health (NIH) just released a report that says the majority of Americans turn to the Web as their first source of information for Cancer. This is somewhat disturbing, since there is an awful lot of bunkum out there. If you put the words “cure cancer” into Google’s search box, the top results are clearly quacks. (The page on Hulda Clark is simply jaw dropping, in fact, if you know anything about parasitology.)patent medicine

There is currently little or no FDA regulation on a lot of materials for sale. If you want to publish a blog that says bathing in urine will clear your skin, or some other wacky claim, great. Free Speech.
You want to sell urine for that purpose–that needs to be regulated. (I’m not making the urine thing up.)

Neutraceuticals are the fastest growing segment of the food industry right now. It’s an exponential curve, if you look at sales stats. But any pimply kid can work at the GNC, or work for Herbalife, and push vitamins and herbal suppliments that you “need.”

I’ve had lots of arguments in the local health food shop (only place to get good pastrami, oddly enough) with the vitamin guys. “The amount of Vitamin C that’s recommended for you daily by the FDA won’t keep you from getting Scurvy!” was a memorable claim made by a dude who chased me all the way into frozen foods. (Apparently, I look like a malnourished pirate. Who knew?)

As long as the majority of the public understands science as information received from an authority figure, they are going to listen to these hucksters. Why do you think the actors in neutraceutical commercials wear lab coats, and pretend to look through light microscopes at DNA? Because they are invoking the regalia of science, that’s why.
We know they are actors. But the signs and symbols convey the authority, not the facts and numbers. And it is, frankly, easier to not have to think about numbers and facts, and run on autopilot, responding to familiar stimuli. The media doesn’t help by treating anecdotal evidence and controlled studies as equal sources.

A Task Force between the FDA and FTC was formed recently, and this is a good start. However, task forces don’t do diddly-poop. What we really need is a skeptical public, less willing to look for a miracle cure, and a crew of FDA agents willing to prosecute fraudulent hucksters. A cure for cancer is desperately needed. I would do pretty much anything to help keep my sister’s cancer from coming back. But I also want to see some real evidence–and an acknowledgment that there are millions of different ways to get cancer.

There will never be a single, universal-panacea, unfortunately. But we do have science, and research, and the hope that a better understanding of all the different ways cells go wrong and turn into cancers can lead us to a better time.

[Image via DawnEndico]

Posted by Gwen Pearson

Writer. Nerd. Insect Evangelist. Have you heard the good news? BUGS!


  1. spam harvester that stole my words; I’ve saved this for reference :(

  2. Okay, I’ve been drinking again, so I apologize for the spelling ahead of time.

    I’m not so certain that people turning to the net as their first source of info is so bad. In this way: most people turn to whatever the most available and easiest source there is. This makes no difference whether it’s a book or television or the net. The quantity of quality information versus woo nonsense is probably the same (no reference because I am making it up as I go along). In the end, people who know how to evaluate information and claims will do so and those who don’t will continue to take their choelation and homeopathic remedies (as my mom does).

    As far as the FDA regulating things, I’m sort of against it. Sort of, because I think people have the “right” to be morons, but at the same time if people aren’t taught the ability to distinguish between nonsense and reality this “right” isn’t as much a choice as the result of just not knowing. What a real world solution to this problem is. I don’t know.

    Like my mom. She knows, somewhere inside, that the reason she feels so miserable is because she is old, overweight, and unhealthy. If she exercised and ate right, her life might improve. but she continues to go to a homeopathist despite being a scientifically eduacated person. And she gets to do that, no matter how suicidal it is.

  3. I think we actually agree, Ezekiel; or at least on this part:

    “if people aren’t taught the ability to distinguish between nonsense and reality this “right” isn’t as much a choice as the result of just not knowing.”

    And I see plenty of woo books in the library.

    I feel like this means there is even more need for skeptics to be vocal and to call woo claims what they are–frauds preying on desperate people.

  4. Oh yes, and a very secular Amen. I work – and this embarassing – at a grocery store (I’m in college; I’ll do better. Some day…) and we sell (I may have said this before) a huge array of BS in our “Healthy Living” department. This is an upscale grocery store the skews to the health side (organic/hippie foods) in Austin TX. Anyway, our “Healthy Living” department would be the drug section in any other store, except we don’t sell drugs. Anywhere. We sell vitamins, supplements, homeopathic tinctures etc. Because my department (Bulk – oh man, I am embarrased.) is located right next to this one, I am constantyl asked questions by credulous people with real problems reaching out for help in this section dedicated to frauds and market con-men. If asked a question, I answer it honestly. I see this as my duty as a human. It can make for uncomfortable moments, and the majority of people get upset (I’m polite, but when asked about which homeopathic tincture is the best, I honestly tell them that they are all equally useless and they should just go for the cheapest or drink a cup of tap water and get the same affect for free).

    But every so often someone goes “Oh, really, is this true?” And a dialogue starts. Skeptics do need to speak up when the opportunity arises.

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