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Nov 22 2013

Time for the professional societies to take a stand on Burzynski

The 4th Quadrennial Meeting of the World Federation of Neuro-Oncology is meeting right now in San Francisco, and guess who is presenting there? There are four papers being presented by those criminal frauds of the Burzynski Clinic.

They sure can talk the science talk, can’t they? And they go through all the motions of attending and presenting at meetings of the Society for Neuro-Oncology, which I’m sure looks formidable to the rubes, but when you look at the results of recent reviews of their facilities and protocols (or read the summary in USA Today), they don’t walk the science walk. Read about the patients, or the story of the Burzynski scam. For over thirty years, he has been skating at the edge of credibility by carrying out the rituals of science without going the next step and actually testing his claims, getting rich off desperate people and killing them with bad therapies and sloppy protocols.

I know what these meetings are like. They will be full of professionals in nice dresses and conservative ties, and they will be talking shop and taking notes on the interesting presentations, and I know exactly how they will respond to Burzynskiites: they are beneath them, they will roll their eyes as they skip their talks, and they might grumble a bit at the bar afterwards. And that’s about it. I’ve seen it when creationists get their work into poster sessions at non-peer-reviewed science meetings.

But these guys are worse than creationists. These are con artists giving false hope to dangerously ill patients, using organizations like the SNO as a façade to bilk people out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and skirting on the proper protocols to give the illusion that they’re doing legitimate science.

It is a huge ethical problem for these societies to provide cover for quacks. I would hope that, at the very least, attendees take time to read the facts about Burzynski and give these con artists a hard time in public; but more significantly, I think the only appropriate thing for the Society for Neuro-Oncology to do is to kick the bastards out. Don’t let them take shelter under your wing any more.

18 comments

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  1. 1
    Sastra

    Hear, hear.

    Medical professionals who know better but choose to let quackery slide are called “shruggies.”

    A shruggy is the medical version of an accomodationist. The underlying reasons and rationales are the same — and they range from apathy (‘someone else’s job’) to a cloying deference for faith (‘I would never remove anyone’s hope, no matter how unreasonable I personally thought it was.’) Sometimes the reluctance to speak out is accompanied by a serious misunderstanding of the scope of the problem. Other times it seems to be based on the idea that the focus should be on “extremism” in order that the irrational stuff stays benign and harmless.

    I wonder where the shruggies would draw the line if it’s not against cancer quackery. Reiki? Homeopathy?

  2. 2
    hillaryrettig

    Once again, PZ cuts to the heart of an issue. A professional association that won’t take stands like this isn’t professional at all. It’s simply a cartel.

  3. 3
    culuriel

    Anyone wanting to know just how awful this scam is can read Paul Offit’s “Do You Believe in Magic?”, Chapter 9. A good book for anyone who reads this blog, actually.

  4. 4
    Hairy Chris, blah blah blah etc

    You mean that they are actually members of at least one professional body and haven’t been drummed out for misconduct already (for things like the Rhys Morgan incident, let alone the clinical aspect)?

    Jesus non-existant Christ.

  5. 5
    Trebuchet

    Careful, PZ. You’ll have his minions sending you “I know where you live” pictures of your house from Google next thing you know.

  6. 6
    MarkM1427

    Yeah, they need to either get FDA approval or STFU about their drugs curing cancer. I can understand the FDA not having the backbone needed to tell these people to fuck off while alternative medicine is popular for the general public, but that’s no excuse for professional organizations to not tell these people to fuck off.

  7. 7
    Gregory Greenwood

    I would call Burzynski and his associated cronies scavengers, but actual scavengers are rather important to functioning ecosystems, whereas you don’t get much that is lower, more repellant, or less useful than conartists that prey on the desperation of cancer sufferers and their families. And then they compound their unethical behaviour by having the gall to use legal threats and even direct intimidation to try to silence their critics, while trying to play the victim themselves all the time.

    I would ask how they sleep at night, but that unreasonably presupposes that they have a grain of conscience or empathy between them.

  8. 8
    cervantes

    I’m a bit puzzled. I don’t know how this society works, but the conferences I go to, and present at, you have to submit abstracts and they have review panels that pick and choose who gets to talk. You don’t have to kick anybody out, you just don’t accept their abstract in the first place. That even goes for posters — they don’t take all comers. Presumably somebody reviewed those abstracts and accepted them.

  9. 9
    Sunioc

    When i was in culinary school, one of my classes was a nutritoon course. The first day the teacher showed us a food dockumentary that promoted a raw diet and promoted this fraud. i later complained to the teacher, who gave a lame ass defense for showing it. She still, as far as i know, shows it to all het classes. I considered complaining to the department head, but i decided not to risk my deans list record over it.

  10. 10
    nathandickey

    You made a great point about ritualizing science without actually doing science. There are several reasons harmful pseudoscience proliferates at the rate it does without having to confront a proportional level of sound criticism. One is the well-documented “Gish Gallop,” another is the unfortunate communicative barrier that stands between professional scientists and the general public due to the majority of scientists in this country choosing not to involve themselves in anything that might be perceived as “activism.”

    But the most important reason is the nominal credence people give to anything that has the ring of science to it without understanding what the scientific method is or how it works. Martin Gardner wrote that “Many of the classics of crackpot science exhibit a neologistic tendency,” i.e., making use of complex-sounding phrases and jargon that exacerbate gullibility among their followers.

    We need more real scientists calling out groups like the Burzynski Clinic on a regular basis, refuting their bullshit for a mainstream audience. Thank you for doing your part, PZ.

  11. 11
    Robert Blaskiewicz

    No. We don’t need public refutation. We need investigation and legislation. Folks, if you want to help put an end to the monstrosity in Houston, please visit thehoustoncancerquack.com. It should not be hard to sell protecting cancer patients to Congress, but you have to alert your representatives to what’s going on there. We have resources and links and files that we want in the hands of your representatives. Truly damning things, but we need constituents to step up and put 10 minutes into the fight, to write to your reps–actually mailing the damned documents to them so they can hold them in their hands and experience the same horror that you did– and then follow up with a phone call in a few weeks to get a commitment to investigate. Everything you need is there; we just need bodies to print up letters, personalize them, and send them to representatives. It’s a little work, but people are dying and the most vulnerable are being taken for a ride. It’s doable. We just need 10 minutes of your time. Thanks.

  12. 12
    Robert Blaskiewicz

    I’m looking at you, Nathan. :)

  13. 13
    vaiyt

    Presumably somebody reviewed those abstracts and accepted them.

    That only makes things worse!

  14. 14
    nathandickey

    Thanks Robert, and I agree. Investigation must publicized refutations, both within professional societies and without, and legislation should follow. I don’t mean to imply that one aspect of the campaign to put Burzynski permamently out of business, in isolation, is effective.

  15. 15
    Orac

    It’s going on right now, BTW, and the abstracts, not surprisingly, are crap:

    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2013/11/22/is-anyone-attending-the-4th-quadrennial-meeting-of-the-society-of-neuro-oncology-in-san-francisco-right-now/

  16. 16
    playonwords

    Whilst Burzynski and his minions are a wart on the backside of science, I’m afraid you the image that sticks with me from this post is PZ in a dress and tie.

    professionals in nice dresses and conservative ties

    Will it be off the shoulder? a simple little black dress by Dior? or perhaps something by Alexander McQueen?

  17. 17
    Robert Blaskiewicz

    I got a message from an attendee who thought the USA Today story was shocking. He said:

    “@rjblaskiewicz only talks are seriously reviewed, everything else automatically gets a poster presentation.”

    So not a very high bar. This is pretty much consistent with professional meetings that I’ve been to.

  18. 18
    David Marjanović

    I’m a bit puzzled. I don’t know how this society works, but the conferences I go to, and present at, you have to submit abstracts and they have review panels that pick and choose who gets to talk. You don’t have to kick anybody out, you just don’t accept their abstract in the first place. That even goes for posters — they don’t take all comers. Presumably somebody reviewed those abstracts and accepted them.

    Well. In my field, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology pretty ruthlessly (if perhaps inconsistently) reviews every abstract and rejects some 30 % for lack of time/space. At the same time, the Geological Society of America reviews nothing and accepts everything. Remember the “Triassic kraken” thing?

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