Thursday, September 17, 2009

Chemotherapy has Pro's and Con's aka Shut the Fuck Up Mike Adams

I was checking one of my favorite sites I love to hate on, It is a haven for all sorts of medical quackery. Under the guise of offering natural alternatives to health care (without evidence of them actually working) he rambles about government conspiracy, big pharma and the evils of western medicine. His website reads like a typical shitty newspaper. Flashy headlines, an emphasis on pop culture, short grossly oversimplified conclusions and a lack of scholarship to back up his claims. I am going to use a term that I heard from Dr. Mark Crislip, who does the podcast Quackcast and delve into some evidence based ridicule.

Celebrities appear to be his favorite target. As many of you know Patrick Swayze recently passed away from pancreatic cancer. This disease is one of the nastiest forms of cancer with a low 5 year survival rate and an average life expectancy of around 6 months after diagnosis. After he passed away wrote an article titled "Patrick Swayze dead at 57 after chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer". What a piece of garbage. Not to mention an insult to a man who put up a heroic 20 month battle with a devastating illness.
Sorry the chemotherapy didn't kill him, it is one of the most stunning examples of confusing causation with correlation I have ever seen.

People who get diagnosed with terminal cancer have a few things in common. They normally get some form of treatment such as surgery, chemotherapy or radiation. Secondly most of them die eventually from the disease. If you want to pick one of the forms of treatment as an evil villain chemotherapy is going to be your target. By any accounts it is horrible. In short the mechanism for chemotherapy to work is that it kills rapidly dividing cells in your body, both good and bad. This is why hair loss is a common side effect. Because cancer cells are rapidly dividing the cocktail of drugs target these cells, hopefully destroying much of the cancer. Chemotherapy's effectiveness depends based on the disease it is treating, cancer isn't one disease, it is a grouping of hundreds. In some diseases such as Hodgkin's lymphoma the cure rate approaches 95 percent. In other diseases such as later stage pancreatic cancer it can only be used to moderately extend life.

In order for a drug to be used legally in medicine it needs to pass two major tests. First it has to be effective, double blind clinical trials need to show to works better than placebo treatment. Secondly it has to be safe or more correctly that the benefits need to outweigh the risks. If you get the common cold and someone hands you a pill saying this will cure your cold instantly but you have a 1 in 50 chance of dying any person in the right mind would refuse it. If you replace common cold with lethal cancer most people would take the pill. These are extreme, oversimplified examples but they illustrate my point. Chemotherapy has been shown to be effective in fighting cancer and curing it in some cases. It has also been shown to have brutal side effects and even the chance of serious immune disorders. However simply put the benefits outweigh the risks. Doctors can save more lives, extending the lifespan of cancer patients so they can spend more time with loved ones by using chemotherapy drugs.

There is extensive research on this topic but delusional cranks like Mike Adams aren't bothered to read and understand them. They instead recommend "natural ways" to fight cancer. Well OK lets skeptically look at these natural ways. I personally don't care if it is natural or made in a lab, I just care that it works and the risk/benefit outcome is favourable. I am going to quote him again.

Having put his faith in conventional chemotherapy, he largely dismissed ideas that nutrition, superfoods or "alternative medicine" might save him, instead betting his life on the chemotherapy approach which seeks to poison the body into a state of remission instead of nourishing it into a state of health.

Four words in and Mike fucks up. Faith implies believing in something without evidence. Such as believing in God, believing in reincarnation or the vast majority of alternative medicine. Mr. Swayze relied on doctors explaining to him the best avenue of life extending treatment. It was based on clinical trials and decades of research not faith. There is uncertainty as the science hasn't advanced far enough to have a full cure but people are tirelessly working at it.

He then begins to list things: nutrition (check, good nutrition is important to help prevent cancer and eating well while having cancer is probably a good thing too although it will not cure you), superfoods (meaningless), and "alternative medicine" (so broad and ill defined it is also meaningless). I won't go into these each in depth but let me summarize. I am not against "natural cures" I am however against bogus cures that don't work. If you want to claim something is a treatment for cancer do actual research. Don't make shit up. People DIE because they do not take the drugs that could have saved their lives. It is assholes like Mike Adams that spread ignorance and cause people to die needlessly.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

2012 Part 3 Rogue Planets, Gamma Ray Bursts

I thought I would finish my series I started on 2012 a while back. I'll look at solar objects catastrophically affecting the Earth's orbit/axis orientation and gamma ray bursts.

Our solar system is a rich mosaic of objects hurling around the sun in various orbits, all interacting with each other via gravity. The 2012 "theory" has postulated, among a great deal of other things that a rouge planet may enter the inner solar system and cause untold catastrophe. One name for this world is called Nibiru. Like most parts of this rough collections of ideas it lacks distinction and you will hear different descriptions of this heavenly body depending on who you talk to (or more likely, what website you read). I have heard it range from an undiscovered planet beyond Pluto to a "brown dwarf", a failed star.

There is evidence of mass extinctions happening every 25 million years or so, and some people have thrown out the idea that there may be a companion star that orbits around the Sun. This gravitational influence could perturb the orbits of comets and send them towards the inner solar system. There is nothing inherently implausible about this idea. Many star systems contain more than one star. The main problem is that we haven't seen it or observed evidence of it gravitationally. This rules out a bright star such as our sun but does leave the possibility of something called a brown dwarf. They are many times the mass of Jupiter but much smaller than the sun. They don't have the mass to increase the core temperature to support hydrogen fusion. They are very dim, mostly seen in the infrared (heat) part of the spectrum.

Such a large object would have a gravitational influence on other objects in the solar system. Researchers have constrained the orbit of planets to vast distances. We haven't observed them either directly or indirectly. I could go into a great deal more detail on this idea but suffice it to say there is no evidence of a large mass posing danger to the Earth.

Other more nonsensical ideas incorporate things like a planet swinging by and knocking the planet off axis. A flyby of a planet simply couldn't do it. It is wild speculation not bridled to things such as reality. It grossly misunderstands the mechanics of gravity. The only way a major shift in Earth's axis could happen would be if a large object of comparable size to the Earth collided with us. Needless to say a tilting axis would be the least of our problems.

Now lets step a few quadrillion kilometers away. It turns out that supernovae have an angrier cousin called gamma ray bursts. These are truly remarkable and devastating astronomical events, the largest explosions in the universe since the big bang. Most of them last only a few seconds but in this time they release more energy than our sun does during its entire 10 billion year life. Pause for a second to comprehend that.

So this sounds pretty scary, clearly an object with this amount of power could do tremendous damage to the Earth. In fact it may already have. Around 440 million years ago a gamma ray burst may have caused the Ordovician extinction where 70 percent of species were wiped out. Luckily for us we appear to be safe for at least thousands and probably millions of years.

In order for a gamma ray burst to threaten Earth a few things need to come into place. Either you need a massive star, around 100 solar masses rapidly rotating or binary neutron stars spiralling in towards each other. In the first case when the supernova occurs material begins to get pulled into the newly formed black hole. This forms a rapidly spinning accretion disk around it and jets of extremely energetic particles and radiation coming from the poles. This radiation is a gamma-ray burst. In the neutron star case a black hole forms from the two spinning neutron stars collide and the rest of the matter is pulled in not unlike the supermassive star collapse. This jet of radiation is emitted in a line similar to a laser (rough analogy). In order to be in danger you need to be directly in line with the jet. It is estimated that these events are dangerous up to a few thousand light years. Which is pretty far even in galactic terms.

Luckily for us our neighbourhood appears to be fairly safe for the time being. The closest star that may explode in this fashion is Eta Carinae at 7500 light years away. At around 100 solar masses it is certainly a candidate. Its rotational axis however is not pointed at the solar system and we appear to be safe from any ill effects. There is certainly no evidence that it will explode in three years. The current best estimates range from thousands to a few million years. We do not have the capability to predict supernovae with any reasonable accuracy.

In no way have I hit on everything that has been proposed on the 2012 theory. I just tried to go over a few of the ideas that were at least possible based on the laws of physics and show that we are not in any danger when 2012 rolls around. I would encourage anyone still curious to check out Universe Today, I have a link in my links section. They do a wonderful job of covering the ideas in more detail.

I will try to start blogging more regularly now after taking a few weeks off.