Thursday, 27 September 2012

Security, so easy to be done wrong

I just finished reading this article about data security and how easily it can be done wrong. A real eye opener, if you're thinking about breeding your own solution. I highly recommend it, in spite of the initially weird feeling of reading something that looks like a script.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Why a lack of skepticism is dangerous...

Some of my Romanian readers might know that for the last two years I've got involved in the skeptical movement to such a degree that I am a co-producer of a bi-weekly podcast on science and skepticism (in Romanian) called „Skeptics in Romania”. Some might even be regular listeners of the show.

(There isn't much to see now visually on the site, but me and the other people behind the project have some ongoing plans to change that.)

In spite of our modest site, up until now we had some successes, one of them being the publication of an article on us in a known Romanian printed publication and another being the invitation to a live show face to face with Oreste Teodorescu, a well known Romanian mysticist and woo promoter.

During that live show we managed to show a demonstration (video below, in Romanian) of how astrology gives the impression of working, without actually working, and, taking into account we had no prior TV camera experience and that it was a live show, I think we managed an honourable presence.

We also have a series of interviews in English with some really interesting people: Dr. Eugenie Scott, Prof. Christopher French, Prof. Edzard Ernst, Samantha Stein and others. We did these interviews at Denkfest 2011, in Zurich, and we integrated the translated (voice over) interviews in our podcast. The conlusion is that most of our activities revolve around the podcast, so let me tell you more about that.

The podcast has a somewhat fixed structure, it starts with a conversation between ourselves, then we have a segment on the history of science, technology, skepticism and woo, and then we have a segment called „The dangers of not being skeptical”. In this segment we present cases of people who lost their lives, their health, their money or any combination of the former because they were duped into some scam, science-y sounding non-science, unfounded claim or some other woo.

Having lost recently my brother-in-law to a form of cancer known as Hodgkin lymphoma, I became especially sensitive about miracle-cure claims for cancer, and this section of the show has lately seen its fair share of such cases. Honestly, if there could be a way to prosecute the irresponsible, ignorant and/or cynical people promoting all sorts of quack "therapies", especially for cancer*, I would really like to see it happen. But there isn't, and we're trying the best accessible approach, informing the public.

During my brother-in-law's last two years of his life, he went through lots of chemotherapy and radiotherapy sessions, repeated periods of hospitalisation, and lots of drugs. This is the best of what we currently have for treating and curing most forms of cancer, and too many times this isn't enough. I can't even imagine how stressful and discouraging it must feel when the best of what we have doesn't help.

Here is where the desperation and hopes of patients and their families meet the purely irresponsible cynical or ignorant promoters of woo and quack therapies. Because it takes either an ignorant or a really cynical (I really feel this word isn't enough) person to prey on the suffering of other people to make easy money under the false pretence of offering a cure.

It almost happened to my brother-in-law and his family, because they almost went for some herbal concoction promoted as a cancer cure on some forum, blog or page of a seller of this fake therapy. It was really hard for me to make them understand why using such a product it not advisable, not even in parallel with the medical treatment due its possible counter effect or interactions with the real medical treatment, without them getting the wrong idea that I wasn't trying to help. While trying to be brief and informative not to lose their attention, I told them how "natural" doesn't necessarily mean "good" (uranium, lead and Irukandji's venom are all natural), and how plants are drugs because they all contain chemical  substances (and no, "chemical" does not mean "human made" or "artificial") which could interact with the medical treatment.

But most people don't even have the chance of having close by a person with a more science-leaning thought process and a skeptical mind. Those unfortunate people are the most vulnerable people and constitute the biggest chunk of the victims of baseless pseudo-cures or pseudo-treatments.

On our last show, I presented the case of Yvonne Main, a cancer suffering patient who mistook an invasive carcinoma for a cyst, and irdologist Ruth Nelson for a real healthcare giver.

Yvonne Main, died from an invasive carcinoma
after seeking help from a iridologist,
and delaying real medical treament for 18 months

Yvonne, after seeking medical advice from a person that essentially promotes the dead idea of guessing diseases by looking at the eyes**, used natural treatments for about 18 months and, after all this time, her carcinoma grew to a size of 10 to 11 cm, eating through her skull and causing damage which was later attempted to be countered through bone transplant from her ribs.

Ruth Nelson wasn't prosecuted in any way and continues her practice of quackery unharmed.

This is not the only case, nor even one case from a select few where woo and quackery lead to grave consequences for patients. There are many, many more; they're so many that even after splitting them in categories they seem too many per category, especially when you realise these are only the findings of, essentially, a single man:

This is part of what I have been doing in the last few years, instead of working on Debian. Is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing? Maybe it's good. I want to know what do you think?

* you will, most likely, never hear such a promoter of non-therapies say that there isn't just one cancer, and that, in fact, „cancer” is a name for a certain family of diseases which are all called „cancer” - that's a first sign that you might be dealing with quack
** probably in the line of thought that „the eyes are the gates to the soul” so they must tell something significant about health