Friday, April 20, 2012

Healthy Skepticism Above All

A couple of days ago I was meeting with a business associate and at one point in our conversation I had the occasion to remark on how excited I am by the current free flowing of information on the internet (for as long as it may last). In particular, I appreciate how it allows intelligent, free-thinking people an opportunity to receive unfiltered information from all corners on all subjects so that they can make up their own minds about vitally important issues and not be spoon-fed by editorially-biased publications. In most cases, of course, the editorial biases are still there, but now they are much more nuanced and less insipid, it seems to me. One of the caveats I put forth, however, was that in all of this information overload it is now more important than ever to maintain a healthy skepticism and to due your own "due diligence" before accepting anything at face value, no matter how trusted a source you might be using.

This point was drilled home to me again today by a friend on Facebook (names withheld to protect the innocent!) who - with very good intentions - posted a link to the Facebook site "Cancer is finally cured in Canada but Big Pharma has no interest" and to the video at the top of their page taken from an old CTV National News broadcast, likely 5 years old or more. The claim is made that there is a "simple cure for cancer" that currently exists but that it is somehow being suppressed by "Big Pharmacy". This is a perfect storm of scaremongering: cancer, evil big business and doubt about the legitimacy of major charities all fusing together brilliantly. Unfortunately, as a quick check of Snopes shows, it is also completely misleading with gusts up to outright lies.

Now, I am not trying to pick on my friend here - nor really anyone who shares this sort of misinformation with the best intentions - because if people didn't fall for this sort of nonsense then the ones propagating it would be really lousy at their "jobs". What I really want to stress, though, is this: if something is shocking, outrageous, too good to be true, or even just out-of-whack with what you expected to read - even if it reinforces some unfounded suspicions you previously held - do not just assume you are hearing the truth. This sort of false conclusion borders on the principle known as Occam's Razor, although by no means a perfect illustration. Still, that principle cautions against jumping to complex conclusions or explanations to explain a data set; in this case, the information was that dichloroacetate (DCA) was showing promise for curing cancer in rats but that the simplicity of this non-patented compound was making it difficult for the scientists to receive clinical funding for future experimentation. This is an easy situation to comprehend; however, it soon spun out of control and became a sinister sort of "cover-up" story which eventually made it all the way to the National News.

It's no wonder people were angry when they heard these "facts" being laid out by good ol' Lloyd Robertson himself, but this leads me directly back to the point of this post: maintain a healthy skepticism in everything you do or you risk being taken in by non-stories like this one. The downside of the Information Age is that it's easier than ever for a trouble-maker to disseminate this kind of misinformation on a global scale; however, the upside is that it's also easier than ever to debunk these falsehoods without even leaving your own home. Information is power which means that, like any other form of power, it can be extremely dangerous in the wrong hands but incredibly useful in the right ones.

I found this site to have some more excellent examples of how necessary a healthy skepticism is in everyday life, but I also have another personal example of how dangerous this sort of misinformation can be if handed out unopposed by people who should be digging just a little deeper.

A long time ago - half a lifetime, in fact - I listened religiously to the alternative radio station in Toronto, CFNY (now the Edge 102.1). They hired a woman to do the news (such as it was on that station) by the name of Mary Ellen Beninger. She developed a short-lived (thankfully) newsmagazine called "102 Magazine" which - if memory serves - was about a half-hour long and aired during the weekday morning drive time in the mid-'80s. I likely wouldn't remember this show at all were it not for one very disturbing interview she did with some anti-seatbelt kook. Now, bear in mind that the demographic for this station was then much as it is now: young men and women between the ages of 15-24 or so. In other words, people who were fairly new at the whole driving game and also who could be very impressionable indeed - especially when given what comes across as "rebellious" information.

This interviewee, as I mentioned, was convinced seat belts did more harm than good if you were in an accident and you should never wear them while driving. To back up this position - one which was not only scientifically inaccurate but illegal in Ontario - he produced some set of "facts" which I cannot reproduce here verbatim but "proved" that, of all the fatal accidents in Ontario the previous year, the percentage of people who died while wearing a seatbelt was far higher than the percentage of people who died while not wearing one. An impressive stat, to be sure....but completely and utterly irrelevant. (I'll explain why in a moment.)

The nonsense he was putting forth itself was bad enough, but I was stunned that Beninger let it run completely unopposed by a single person who could have easily debunked this ridiculous "theory". Instead, she acted like a fan-girl, saying things like "wow, I never realized that!" and "I'm going to have to think hard about wearing my seatbelt from now on!" I was outraged by this and called in immediately to speak to someone about how dangerous this was; alas, although I spoke to many people at CFNY on many, many occasions, this was not one of them. As you can tell, I still haven't forgotten how egregious her behaviour was that day.

As promised, here is a quick explanation as to why the stats our "rebel" was using that day were horribly twisted.

Let's say you live in a community of exactly 100 drivers. Of those 100 drivers, 90 of them wear a seatbelt at all times and the other 10 never do. Now let's say that one very eventful day, all of those 100 drivers get in an accident (50 2-car accidents, 1 100-car pileup, it really doesn't matter although it would be more impressive if each of them was in precisely the same kind of accident). Of those 100 drivers, 50 are killed. Of the 50 that are killed, 40 are wearing seatbelts and 10 are not - meaning all 10 drivers who never wear seatbelts are killed.

To use the stats that Mr. Anti-Seatbelt was using that day, in 40 of the 50 fatal accidents that day (or 80%), the drivers who were killed were wearing seatbelts. In only 20% of the accidents, the fatalities were seatbelt-free. This, on the surface, might seem to be a pretty compelling argument for never wearing a seatbelt. But it's a ridiculous conclusion based on an equally ridiculous "statistic".

It's much more important to look at this situation from the reverse angle. Of the 10 people who were in an accident that day - any accident, fatal or non-fatal - without wearing their seatbelts, all 10 of them died. This is a fatality rate of 100% among drivers not wearing seatbelts. Conversely, of all the drivers who had accidents that day and survived, all 50 of them were wearing seatbelts. Furthermore, of all the drivers that day who were wearing seatbelts while being involved in an accident, 50 of the 90 survived - a survival rate of a little more than 55%. So your chances of surviving your accident that day were better than 1 in 2 if you were wearing a seatbelt, but absolutely nil if you were not.

Same overall numbers but a wildly different conclusion if the stats are actually processed properly. There's a reason Mark Twain was fond of quoting (but didn't actually coin) the expression, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.

As a born contrarian and lifelong cynic, I am very unlikely to ever take anything anyone tells me at face value, no matter how much I trust the source. It's really only been this new Information Age where that position has finally started to pay off instead of just annoying the hell out of everyone around me. I mean, it still does that; now, however, I can point to how healthy it is and laugh. I highly recommend this to everyone!


  1. I'm amazed at how many of my friends and relatives email me stories/news articles that are just big fat lies! They seem to take for gospel everything they receive in an email or read on the internet, and have apparently not heard of Snopes! These are people with educational ranging from grade school to post-graduate. Someone I thought would have known better sent me that Big Pharma story just the other day. My mother-in-law is the worst offender, though. She'll believe anything she reads, and can't be budged from a position once she's lodged herself there. According to her, bolstered by an email story she just sent me, medications never expire. Uh, okay.

    Too bad people don't think a little harder about what they read online (or anywhere else, for that matter!) I'm all for healthy skepticism. The world would be a better place if people did a little more critical thinking.

    Great post!

    1. Thanks, Natalie!

      I used to just ignore these "stories" when they were sent to me via email in a mass effort. Mostly I just didn't want to make the person sending it to me (usually a good friend) feel stupid for believing it in the first place. But as time has passed and these things are now appearing in much more public streams such as Facebook, Twitter, blog pages, etc. I find myself leaning more towards "The Greater Good" than anything. I think the greatest single threat to the future of an open internet is the lack of critical thinking. I agree with you: there is no one demographic for the kind of person who will be taken in by a fishy story; I am constantly amazed by exactly who sends me things that are so easily debunked.

      Unfortunately, it's the same syndrome that leads directly to the election of some very shady/stupid people to office. But that's a whole other post. ;)

  2. Here's the faulty Snopes link:

    "Unfortunately, as a quick check of Snopes shows, it is also completely misleading with gusts up to outright lies."

    Urmm, I don't get that at all. Snopes says "mixture" first off. It calls to attention that there have been several favourable news reports about good provable results, but points out that the drug is not yet on the shelves - not because big pharma is trying to surpress it, as the viral post suggests - but because no pharmaceutical company is paying to research it. It cannot be released to the public since there are nowhere near sufficient trials to release this to the public.

    As an aside, there is nothing stopping individuals from requesting the treatment, and adding their results to the research pool. Snopes (and all articles so far) show evidence of success. This success is of course, limited to the scope of the practical trials thus far.

    1. Hi Phil. Thanks for posting the "good link" in your comment. I don't know how or when mine became corrupted, but I have fixed it now with your help.

      I imagine you are saying you "don't get" what I said in my blog post about it being "misleading with gusts up to outright lies". If I may elaborate, the "it" in question here is the Facebook site to which I also linked, "Cancer is finally cured in Canada but Big Pharma has no interest". I stand by my comment as you quoted it: the Snopes article that you linked to (and I tried to link to) quotes Dr. J. Leonard Lichtenfeld, Deputy Chief Medical officer for the national office of the American Cancer Society, thusly: "Simply stated, the science is intriguing....but, it is not a cure for glioblastoma or any other cancer based on these results." I think that's a pretty good rebuttal to the claim that cancer has been "cured" in Canada and it's up to the reader, I feel, to decide if it's just misleading or an outright lie to say otherwise.

      I did not mean to imply that every possible cure for cancer should not be looked into as deeply as possible; nor do I—a born skeptic—wish to suggest that I think any "big business" is above suppressing a breakthrough that might damage them financially (think, for example, of the struggles to bring an electric car to the masses). I was using it only as an example of how easy it can be to be "sucked in" to a scam based on a sensationalist headline that, at the bare minimum, stretches the truth so as to make it unrecognizable.

      Your last paragraph is very interesting to me. Thank you for sharing that we may request the treatment as private individuals; I had no knowledge of that before you brought it to my attention. However, it's still not a "simple cure for cancer" which has been "suppressed" as far as I can make out. Thanks for the contribution!


I've kept my comments open and moderation-free for many years, but I've been forced to now review them before they post due to the actions of one member of my family. I apologize for having to take this stance, but that's the way the world is headed, sad to say. Thank you for your understanding.

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