Category Archives: Off Season

All I didn’t know about Cancer

 

I wrote this a few years ago for a different context and purpose, while bored on a beach in Puerto Rico. The context and purpose were replaced many times over, and the text was forgotten. Now I was reminded of it and I dug it up to be posted here.

I do not remember how I came to realise that all I knew about cancer was wrong, but I remember discussing it with my friend the prostate cancer researcher, who gave me the articles (referred to at the end), which I was reading and writing about on that beach. Maybe I wasn’t that bored after all…

Here it is. 

Three of my grandparents died from cancer. One of them was treated with chemotherapy, one with surgery, and one with radiation therapy, all to no avail. These are the three main methods for treating cancer today. Chemotherapy was first used in its current form in 1942. A search for “cancer” on the online data base for medical publications, PubMed.gov, shows that 2.7 million scientific papers have been written on the subject since 1942. Still, the treatments remain the same, albeit more accurate, cheap, and accessible. For some cancers, like some leukaemia or testicular cancers the chemotherapy is highly efficient, while other diagnoses still come with “a few months up to a year” attached to them. So, in a way we are celebrating over 70 years of not improving cancer treatment much.

Why is that? Why has a cure for cancer not emerged in the course of those millions of publications? Well, cancer is a tricky beast and we are only recently beginning to learn how it works. We are also beginning to learn how cancer does not work (but we thought it did). Also, maybe more surprisingly, we are starting to learn why we do not get cancer (most of the time) and that a tumour is not necessarily a bad thing. Let’s start the story with how it does not work. Continue reading

Uncoupling Truth from Elegance in Scientific Theory

abstract-art-wallpapers-wallpaper-images-array-wallwuzz-hd-wallpaper-2506In a recent comment in Nature, George Ellis and Joe Silk employ Karl Popper’s falsifiability criterion of science to demote superstring theory to the realm of pseudoscience. At the heart of the debate lie two questions: Is superstring theory a scientific theory? And if so, how likely is it to be true? Here I will predominantly try to address the second question. I agree with many of the conclusions of Ellis and Silk but will make the case that we can find a more viable reasoning for them by joining Karl Popper’s falsifiability condition with Thomas Kuhn’s analysis of science as a progression of different phases taking us from one paradigm to another. In order to contextualise the discussion of Kuhn’s ideas, I will first take a brief historical detour back to the scientific revolution of the 17th century. Continue reading