Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Audacity of (False) Hope

No, this isn’t going to be an analysis of a presidential candidate’s “groundbreaking” recent speech on race relations that, now that I’ve read the transcript several times, I still find beautifully worded but lacking in any substantive message and full of misleading equivalencies. In fact, this blog post is not political at all. (I’m sure you’re all breathing a sigh of relief).

Instead, it’s about one of my pet peeves: people who take advantage of those in dire medical situations with unsubstantiated and expensive cures that “your doctor doesn’t want you to know about”. I’ve always been surprised by people who take tons of vitamin C because it will cure what ails them, or people who think that just because something is natural, it must be healthy. (My favorite story there, which I may have mentioned already, is a video we watched in Physics class where people were not worried about “natural” radon that was polluting their homes and giving them cancer, but they were worried about the non-existent levels of radiation coming from a well-built nuclear power plant nearby.) But about a year ago I read an expose on the entire vitamin industry called Natural Causes: Death, Lies and Politics in America's Vitamin and Herbal Supplement Industry that explained some of the lies and politics the vitamin industry goes through to get people to use their products without having to do any rigorous safety or effectiveness testing. Recent news stories about Airborne show that this is something that’s prevalent even where you wouldn’t expect it.

That said, I was horrified to hear an NPR story last week that gave an entirely positive view of an experimental use for stem cells. I originally heard the story on Morning Edition last Tuesday. It described a $20,000 treatment that one Chinese doctor was doing where he would inject stem cells into children to cure a particular form of blindness. American doctors were advising their patients not to get it done, but parents willing to try anything were going there. I was disturbed that they were reporting the story as though it were proven fact that, because there were a few cases where the children seemed to improve, this was a great new treatment that might change the face of medicine. There was absolutely no skepticism in the report, except in the form of, “well our Doctor was skeptical about this, but we didn’t believe him and did it anyway and now look how great things are”. This plays right into the fears and assumptions that the Vitamin industry plays into – “we know something your Doctor doesn’t want you to know about”.

So I was relieved when, the next morning, Renee Montagne interviewed Dr. Borchert, who’s in charge of the Vision Center at Children’s Hospital in LA, to give his opinion on this miracle cure. He made some great points, including (a) This particular form of blindness can improve on its own, so there’s no telling that the stem cells had anything to do with the recovery and (b) If the treatment were really as simple as injecting a few stem cells, then $20,000 is an insane amount of money to charge and shows they’re taking advantage of the patients. Ms. Montagne also interviewed prominent Chinese scientists who are worried that this false treatment will ruin China’s entire reputation in biotech.

It’s clear to me that this is yet another way that people have the audacity to sell “hope” to the folks who need it most, but without delivering any of the real results. I hope next time Morning Edition takes the time to get the full perspective the first time around.

Monday, March 17, 2008

NPR Library

Nancy Pearl, who writes the Book Lust series, is often interviewed on Weekday and while I love books and talking about books, I can’t imagine buying a book that is just a list of other books that someone recommends. Where would you start? And why would you trust her taste?

Last Tuesday, though, NPR acted like my own private book recommendation engine. First of all, I had started reading The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational World by Tim Harford the night before because I’d heard him on The Conversation a few weeks earlier. I was actually pretty proud of myself because I convinced our company library that they should order the book and check it out to me so that I didn’t have to wait in line at the regular King County system, which is excellent but can take a while for popular books. Also, although I found the book didn’t hang together quite as well as Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything I’ve actually found more relevant instances to throw out, “well, in this book I was reading it said that…”, helping me in my constant quest to be erudite and witty at dinner parties.

Anyway, on Weekday that morning, E.J. Dionne Jr., author of Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right talked about how religious people don’t necessarily have to end up in the conservative camp and how some of them are really living their religious values and finding themselves more drawn to the left. Given that I have to work really hard to not just assume that all strongly religious people are not crazy right-wingers by default, I think this book is a good one for me to try. Then later that afternoon on The Conversation, Daniel Klein and Thomas Cathcart, authors of Aristotle and an Aardvark Go to Washington: Understanding Political Doublespeak Through Philosophy and Jokes* discussed lots of fun anecdotes about politics, making me want to go check out their book too.

See, who needs Book Lust when you can hear it straight from the authors’ mouths? Now that’s effective marketing.

*What is it about books today that every single non-fiction seems to be titled Pithy Short Phrase: Longer and Sometimes Still-Witty Explanation? It’s getting a bit old.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Horsey Dilemma

Yesterday on The World, Genevieve Oger reported on the Bridgette Bardot Foundation’s efforts to get French people to stop eating horsemeat. Horsemeat used to be poor man’s meat in France, but now it only accounts for 2% of meat eaten, and it’s more expensive than beef or pork, but the Foundation is focusing on giving out pamphlets and pressuring markets to stop carrying it. They admit their real goal is to try to get people to eat less meat in general, but they say that such a goal is unrealistic so they’re focusing on this particular issue.

As someone who gave up red meat with no problems 4 years ago (and pork a year or so ago; that’s much harder even for a good Jewish girl like me…mmmm…bacon) I have no real interest in trying horsemeat, although since I do eat meat when I travel abroad I wouldn’t be averse to trying it if I were in France. However, images of My Little Pony aside, I have two issues with the Bridgette Bardot Foundation’s plan:
  1. I really don’t see how eating horsemeat is any worse than eating the meat of any other large herbivore. If anything it might even be better when it comes to the environment and humane treatment of the horses since there aren’t any large factory farms that raise and slaughter horses. I assume that therefore most horse’s lives while alive are probably a great deal better than your average meat cow, and they probably consume more grass and less oil-based-fertilizer-enhanced corn.
  2. Convincing people not to eat horsemeat is not going to raise the number of people who are vegetarians or even those who eat less meat. I would be willing to bet that for every person who goes to the store to buy horsemeat and doesn’t find it, they will simply buy some other meat product. Why is the horse more special than any other mammal? It’s really just a cultural thing – it’s the reason some cultures eat dogs but no one here would even consider it – and if France’s culture still thinks eating horses is okay, albeit for a very small percentage of people, that’s fine by me.

At best this is a showy effort to bring attention to the plight of animals that are bred for the food chain. Realistically though, I think this is much like the efforts of a few socialites ten years ago or so to pass an anti-horsemeat initiative in California – it was an activity for folks with too much time and money on their hands, and the opposition encouraged us to, “Just say Neigh”.