Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Seven Signs of a Quack

By Peter Bowditch

How does an expensive cancer clinic measure up against seven signs of pseudoscience?

In his book Voodoo Science, physicist Bob Park lists seven signs of pseudoscience:

1. Discoveries are announced to the media, not in peer-reviewed journals.

2. A powerful establishment suppresses the discovery.

3. The effect is at the limits of detection and usually only demonstrated by torturing statistics.

4. Evidence is anecdotal.

5. The knowledge has been known for centuries because people who lived in the past knew more than we know today.

6. The pseudoscientist works in isolation, not as a part of any establishment research facility.

7. New laws of nature need to be proposed to explain what is happening.

Recently I have had my interest in Houston cancer curer Dr Stanislaw Burzynski revived, and I thought it might be instructive to see how many of these signs he shows. I first became aware of Burzynski in 2000 when I found him using the tragedy of a child with terminal cancer in a campaign to raise money for his clinic and to swing public opinion against the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and anyone else who wanted to place any restriction on offering unproven cures for cancer.

Burzynski graduated as a doctor in 1967 in Poland, and according to a grant application in 1973 he obtained a Doctor of Medical Science degree in 1968, although his current CV says that he was awarded a PhD in the same year. One year for a PhD seems like a short time, particularly when gained from a university that did not have a doctoral program at the time, but maybe he is very smart.

It was also in 1967 that he discovered that “antineoplastons”, which are peptides extracted from urine, are an almost universal cure for cancer. He currently runs a clinic in Houston, Texas, where patients pay enormous amounts of money to be included as subjects in clinical trials of antineoplastons.

He does trials instead of treatments because that is all he is allowed to do, and he currently has 61 such trials listed at clinicaltrials.gov. Fifty of these trials have had no progress reported for more than 2 years, one is noted as completed (in 2006), seven are shown as “withdrawn”, two are “terminated” and one has not started recruiting subjects despite supposedly starting in December 2011. No results from any of these trials have ever been published in reputable journals, yet almost miraculous results are claimed on web sites asking for money.

So how does Burzynski look when passed against Park’s signs of pseudoscience?

1. Discoveries are announced to the media, not in peer-reviewed journals.
Many videos on YouTube feature people who have been told to go home and die by oncologists but who are now leading cancer-free lives thanks to Burzynski. A documentary can be purchased on DVD. Many web sites report miraculous results, all with the obligatory request to send money – participation in a “trial” can cost more than $100,000 per year). There is nothing in peer-reviewed literature setting out the results of any of the trials that Burzynski has been conducting for the past 30 years.

2. A powerful establishment suppresses the discovery.
The FDA. Need I say more?

3. The effect is at the limits of detection and usually only demonstrated by torturing statistics.
Apparently only Burzynski can get these great results. In the absence of publication it is difficult to replicate what he does, but nobody else has been able to detect any effect of antineoplastons. There is also the matter of scientific plausibility as no mechanism of action has been suggested.

4. Evidence is anecdotal.
Web sites. Videos. Advertising documentaries. Nothing but anecdotes.

5. The knowledge has been known for centuries because people who lived in the past knew more than we know today.
To give him credit, Burzynski only claims that the knowledge has been known for decades, not centuries.

6. The pseudoscientist works in isolation, not as a part of any establishment research facility.
Research is conducted at the Burzynski Research Institute, which seems to be closely associated with the Burzynski Clinic. There is no evidence that research is being carried out anywhere else, although claims have been made by Burzynski’s supporters that some unnamed university in Japan is also looking into the cure. The anonymous Japanese researchers also choose not to publish anything.

7. New laws of nature need to be proposed.
Apparently antineoplastons just work. They are particularly effective against terminal brain cancers in desperate people who have access to large amounts of cash, but just how chemicals that are naturally manufactured in human bodies do their work is a mystery.

I think that Park would say that Burzynski is a quack practising pseudoscience. I would have to agree, but I would add “charlatan” as well.

Peter Bowditch is a former President of Australian Skeptics Inc. (www.skeptics.com.au).