Because Cowards get Cancer too

Because Cowards get Cancer too, by John Diamond, Random House, 1998

So John Diamond is dead; at age 47 killed by his tongue cancer. He may not be well known in New Zealand, but was a popular newspaper columnist and broadcaster in Britain. Soon after developing cancer in 1997 he used his weekly columns in the Times and the Daily Telegraph to report the course of his disease. This book, written after he had endured some terrible experiences, appeared when he was still unsure whether he was “cured”. Of the many books I have reviewed, this is the first to bring tears to my eyes.

Of special interest to Skeptics is that, to put it mildly, he was critical of “alternative” therapies. “…where I stand on alternative medicine is roughly where the Pope stands on getting drunk on the communion wine and pulling a couple of nuns.” Because of his public position, his candour on this brought in many letters of advice and abuse. He was particularly enraged by those which told him to take “a positive attitude”, or to “take control of his illness”.

The trouble started with a lump. No need to worry, said the doctors, you have a 92% chance it’s harmless. Unfortunately, Diamond was of the other 8%. The lump became a tumour; no need to worry, said the doctors again, radiotherapy will give you an x% chance of a cure. Again unfortunately, Diamond was of the (100-x)%. And so, to the surgery, described in almost unbearable detail. Because of the effect of the surgery on his speech and ability to swallow, this man, who previously had spent much of his working day in a broadcasting studio or on the telephone, was reduced, in his words, to “a honking, dribbling fool”. A dreadful fate.

Despite the fact that conventional medicine did not, in the long run, save him, Diamond never accepted that alternative treatments would serve him better. Although he earlier admitted that, in extremis, he might visit “that well of alternative solace”, there is no sign that he ever wavered in his opposition to those he called “scatterers of pixie dust”.

Diamond’s writing is full of insights expressed with wit. What text-book could explain for the general reader the difference between cancer cells and normal cells as pithily as this:- “A cancer cell is the one that never grows up…[it] bears all the nastier traits of reckless youth…[a member] of some wacky religious cult obsessed with immortality.” And metastasis: “.. spreading the good word round the body…to share the secret of eternal cellular life with other cells.” These apparently light-hearted words were written by the “honking, dribbling fool”.

He disliked the warlike metaphors used in discussing disease; “battle” and “brave” he avoided in his writing, claiming that this stigmatised those who succumbed to the disease as cowards or losers.

The Canterbury Public Library has five copies of this book, and I have had to join a longish queue of borrowers. It is gratifying that the author’s views and experiences are being widely read; I hope readers are as impressed as I, and accept the message. No doubt some of us who hold “alternative medicine” in derision will also die of cancer. Let us look to John Diamond as our inspiration when courage and steadfastness may falter.

Telling Lies for Father Moon

Reviewed by Bernard Howard with acknowledgement to Ian Plimer

Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth? Why Much of What We Teach About Evolution is Wrong, by Jonathan Wells

This is an important book. Look out for it, for example, in places where young minds could be influenced, such as high school libraries, or other places where creationists might care to spend US$27.95. The text may be unremarkable, the usual misquotations, selective omission, distortions, etc. The important thing is the credentials of the author; surely the holder of a doctorate in biology from one of the USA’s finest universities cannot be wrong?

However, there is more to Dr Wells than his biography in the book tells. Thanks to some astute websearching on the part of the biologist who reviewed it for Nature, we are now aware of the following:

  1. Wells has been a member of the Unification Church (the Moonies) for upward of 25 years.
  2. He was chosen by the founder of the church, Sun Myung Moon, to study for a Ph.D., in preparation for his life’s work, destroying Darwinism.
  3. He appears to have gone through the entire post-graduate programme of course work and a substantial research project without his teachers or supervisor knowing of his beliefs and intentions.

Distasteful though it may seem, it could be possible for a student to go through an undergraduate course, passing examinations on existing knowledge without accepting its validity. The situation is greatly different when tackling a research project for a post-graduate qualification. Those of us who have been through this academic mill know the dedication required, not only of time, but of the mind, to the search for new knowledge. I find it hard to credit that one could do research in developmental biology, as Wells did, while believing that growth of a life is something quite different.

But perhaps one should not be surprised. With the example of Australian geologist Dr Andrew Snelling before us, who believes the Earth is billions of years old when writing for geological journals, but only a few thousand when concocting creationist literature, the capacity of creationists for deception or self-deception seems limitless.

In preparing this note, I am indebted to Dr J. Coyne, University of Chicago, for his excellent review in Nature, and for subsequent correspondence.

Salting Away the Profits

The marketing of sodium chloride should be taken with a pinch of salt

Sodium chloride is a very simple chemical and cannot decay. Excess is harmful though it is an essential part of our diet. These days many people seem to believe that some forms are better than others.

Years ago an idea developed that all white foods were bad: bread, sugar, milk, salt. Similarly it was held that all refined substances were bad: (because they were unnatural), while food additives were worse (though of course diet supplements do not count).

Table salt is white, it is refined, anti-caking agent is added to prevent clogging in damp weather, and a tiny amount of potassium or sodium iodide is added for health reasons. Thus it offends against a host of popular prejudices.

Many people’s diet is short of the essential element iodine, which is added to salt to prevent deficiency. In particular, without sufficient iodine, children’s brains will not develop properly and they suffer a form of mental retardation called ‘cretinism’. It has been claimed that non-iodised salt is better for preserving food (though I know of no scientific justification for this), so this is available in bulk packs.

In most countries salt is obtained from underground deposits, either by mining or by dissolving it in water. It is not generally extracted from seawater because this is so dilute that huge amounts of energy are needed to evaporate such large quantities of water. A dry climate at low latitudes allows solar energy to be used, but large areas are needed so land needs to be cheap.

These requirements are marginally met at Grassmere in the Awatere valley, Marlborough, where evaporation exceeds precipitation in nine months of the average year. A long-established solar salt industry is a prominent feature, visible to travellers between Picton and Christchurch. However the suitable area is limited and New Zealand has always imported salt.

Solar salt is of sufficient purity for most purposes but not all. Vacuum salt is more highly refined and is produced both at Grassmere and Mt Maunganui; the latter uses imported salt as feedstock.

A fad starting in Europe held that sea salt was healthier than other kinds, being ‘more natural’, and it was believed this came as large crystals. Fashionable restaurants provided salt grinders, which held large crystals of sodium chloride, rather than the old dispensers of fine crystals in a shaker. One advantage of sea salt, it was argued, was that it was ‘more salty’ and therefore healthier because less would be needed.

It is possible that relatively large crystal fragments have a more vigorous assault on the palate, however most salt is added in cooking, and in solution all salt is equally ‘salty’. Salt ions have no memory so do not know what size crystal they inhabited.

The underground deposits in Europe are remains of dried-up seas, so all their salt is ‘sea salt’; while in NZ the cheapest form of table salt is locally produced, and made directly from sea water. Furthermore it is not really ‘highly refined’.

It may be of concern that some parents refuse to use iodised salt, and so expose their children to a risk of iodine deficiency. It is claimed that in New Zealand, iodine intake has been dropping for twenty years. In the 1990s intakes twice fell below internationally recommended levels (NM 17th May Report quoting Elizabeth Aitken in NZ Dietetic Association Journal).The decreased use of iodised salt in our diet is to be deplored.

On Sale Now

I had a look at what is available in Nelson and the results were quite interesting. The cheapest salt available was Skellerup Marlborough in bulk packs at $0.80 per kg. It could be bought either iodised or non-iodised. Prices for similar quality in other brands ranged up to $1.00.

Salt in dispensers was naturally dearer because of the packaging; the price range was $2.10 – $3.60 per kg.

The dearest salt was Maldon Sea Salt from Essex, England, declared to be ‘Unrefined and Natural’. Various NZ writers on health and food have touted this as a superior product. It needs to be good, as the price was $38.75 per kg.

Other imported products were:

Celtic Sea Salt produced in Brittany and packaged by Lotus in Australia priced at $13.46 per kg. This claimed to be ‘Hand harvested and Unbleached’ (whatever that means). It consisted of large brownish crystals and was very sticky. The pack carried an analysis showing it to be only 83% sodium chloride with 7% water. Other elements (found in seawater) amounted to around 3% so what else the stuff contained we do not know.

Also available was Lotus Australian Sea Salt. This was only available as a fine grade; but a relative bargain at only $2.50 per kg.

Some small New Zealand firms were selling salt.

Solar Sea Salt was from Kaiora Organics, Napier and certified by Bio-Gro (organic salt is a splendid idea). These large crystals at $8.81 per kg were ‘unrefined, unwashed’.

A Nelson firm provided ‘Safe Earth Unprocessed Sea Salt, “The way Nature created it” Not altered, Not refined, No additives, Natural Minerals retained. Bio-Gro certificate currently being sought’.

They have a leaflet that is a mixture of good sense and outrageous claims. Stating that salt cannot be organic, but also; ‘unprocessed sea salt is a natural antihistamine’. In a health shop it was $18.00 per kg for both large crystals and normal grade. At a supermarket it was $15.88 per kg; still hardly a bargain.

Presumably for legal reasons the pamphlet refers to an overseas website rather than making direct claims – nevertheless under ‘Prevention and Cure’ it manages to refer to most human diseases except cancer, including such refractory problems as ‘Altzheimer, Multiple sclerosis, and Insulin Independent Diabetes’ (sic).

It also includes the delightful thought; ‘Without sufficient water to wet all parts equally, some parts of the body will not receive the vital elements that water supplies’.

Bargain price

Large crystals of Empire Rock Salt by Hansells NZ were at a bargain price ($1.25) in one supermarket. Apart from the claim ‘no additives’, there was no further information. Without labelling on the packet, this was of dubious legality.

The large companies are also in on the act and their products labelled ‘Sea Salt’ are much cheaper than those sold by the small companies; though more expensive than their own sea salt without the label. This is a truly wonderful way of adding value. Saxa and Cerebos have fine ‘Sea Salt’, not iodised but with added anti-cake which sells at a range of $1.20 – $1.55 per kg depending on the supermarket. This is generally around 20-35c more than their similar (possibly identical) product not labelled ‘Sea Salt’.

But in one Supermarket I found Cerebos Sea Salt as large crystals at $1.20 per kg. It is more expensive to produce large crystals so this is very reasonable. It makes ‘Maldon Sea Salt’, essentially the same product but 3000% dearer, look rather overpriced.