Renaming Cancer and Public Involvement

Paul Hsieh writes the GeekPress blog, which I like quite a bit for its wide ranging posts (that are by and large politic free). Hsieh tends towards the “free-market” perspective, and I disagree with some of the stuff he writes. But, first, its not usually part of GeekPress, and second he’s a radiologist who thinks carefully about health care reform While I disagree with his stance on Obamacare, his arguments are thoughtful and worthy of consideration, based on his experience as a health care provider.

He sometimes publishes Op-Eds in Forbes, and has one on Redefining Cancer. I don’t know much about cancer. I’ve not had it, no one close to me has (except a beloved mentor who ultimately died of it, but I wasn’t doing any care-giving), and my research and teaching don’t touch on it. So, I didn’t come at this piece with a bunch of preloaded expectations, axes in need of grinding, or strawmen I wanted to punch.

His main point:

But while there are legitimate scientific and medical questions about the proper definition and classification of any disease (including cancer), we must be careful that that any redefinition won’t be used for inappropriate political purposes.

is something we all agree with, of course, as with the shutdown – it’s the other guy’s fault. His examples of when does life begin (my view: when the kids leave home and the dog dies), and very importantly what counts as a live birth (should be obvious, but its not) are primo examples of things that have become politicized.

His end quote is powerful.

Dr. Milton Wolf, a practicing radiologist who cares for patients with DCIS warns against this Orwellian possibility: “Health care rationing takes many insidious forms but perhaps the most immoral is for the government to wage a public relations campaign designed specifically to dissuade patients and doctors from seeking available cures for cancer. They scheme to rename cancer, not to cure it, but to deny it exists. These government rationers have calculated that rather than actually treat patients with cancer, it’s cheaper to simply keep them as calm as Hindu cows right up to the very end.
“Cancer” is a powerful word. Hence, whoever controls the definition of that word wields tremendous power over patients. Ordinary Americans should stay vigilant to ensure this power isn’t wrongly used against them.

Beyond thinking about cancer, this concern about politicization applies to much of the rest of science. If not the whole concept of science and its role in general. I was taught that science was/is about the truth and should/has existed in a vacuum, outside of politics.

Yet, we see over and over, that the one who controls the definitions can control the debate. Think: climate change, evolution, vaccine, even “science” as in creation science. Whatever is true, we don’t want the government (often in the form of the state of Texas choosing textbooks) to control the definitions of things that we know.

In the cancer debate, there are scientists and doctors weighing in. In the debates I list above, there are many (heroic, even) scientists weighing in. The emotional pull of the various groups, many of whom are religious Christians, however, is as potent as the word “cancer”. We are ordinary citizens, and we need not to lose sight of the public’s view of science.


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