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Cancer Microbes and The Age of Mis-Information

Brie McKenzie

April 23, 2013

For us eager students of the sciences, the information age can be truly magnificent. ScienceNews pops up daily in my inbox, the sequence of any human gene is merely clicks away, and my iPhone can access PubMed with the touch of one button. Clearly, science has become faster and more accessible than ever before.

Scratch that.

Science has become faster and more accessible for scientists than ever before. The accessibility of science for the public, however, seems to remain painfully inadequate. Few members of the public have heard of PubMed or ScienceNews. So where does the curious layperson turn for scientific information?

I recently typed the words “cure for cancer” into Google, wondering what plethora of brilliant new discoveries Google would inform me of that day. On the first page, I noticed a site called cancertutor.com, which I thought might attract a curious layperson seeking information about this illness. Fascinatingly, the site informed me that DNA damage cannot cause cancer, that cancer was perpetuated by pH-sensitive ‘cancer microbes’, and that the Canadian medical establishment does not want cancer to be cured.

Aghast at the barrage of scientific atrocities found on a single page, I decided to switch gears and investigate the world’s other favourite science topic of the minute: stem cell transplants. What I found was far more insidious, far more disturbing, than the incoherent ramblings of the cancer conspiracy theorists moments before.

Lining the ads section of my search results was a list of clinics that promised scientifically proven cures, in the form of stem cell transplants, for every conceivable patient condition. For instance, Stem Cell of America, which reassuringly sports the physician’s serpent within its logo, promises fetal stem cell-based cures for Alzheimers, arthritis, autism, brain damage, cancer, chronic pain, diabetes, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, and stroke, among others, with no side effects. Of course, the site specified, none of the cures offered at their Mexico-based treatment center were covered by private or public insurance.

My little escapade into the world of Google-medicine (albeit a mere n=2) left me more than slightly concerned about the ease with which the average layperson could access life-altering misinformation. What bothered me most was not the existence of the sites themselves – fraud and misinformation are always apt to flourish somewhere- but the fact that the first page of my search results for two relatively innocuous searches, “cancer cures” and “stem cell transplants” contained such vast quantities of utter scientific garbage. Trusting the written word as we are apt to do, how might the untrained individual accurately identify and avoid the plethora of medical absuridities populating the web?

Unfortunately, we cannot curate the content of the internet, nor can we adequately inform all its users of its perils. As grad students, however, we are in a position to provide scientifically valid, easily accessible resources to friends and family who may be in a position to require them. The following is a list of my top favourite sites to combat cancer microbes and the Age of Mis-Information:

  1. NIH Health Information: this website offers an A-Z list with detailed, current, patient-friendly information on a plethora of medical conditions:
    http://health.nih.gov/see_all_topics.aspx

  2. ClinicalTrials.gov: this NIH website lists completed, ongoing, and recruiting clinical trials
    http://www.clinicaltrials.gov

  3. Heath Canada: this website offers information on everything from nutrition to travel health and routine vaccinations
    http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/index-eng.php

  4. Mayo Clinic: this website offers extensive information for various medical conditions, as well as a brilliant symptom-check function complete with self-care and when-to-call-the-doctor instructions
    http://www.mayoclinic.com/health-information/

  5. Science News: written by trained science writers, ScienceNews articles often offers more in-depth coverage than typical online articles.
    http://www.sciencenews.org/view/interest/id/2357/topic/Body_+_Brain