Caught in a web of idiocy

2010-11-06 00:00

LIKE a skilfully wielded scalpel, the Internet can slice through thickets of ignorance, delivering authoritative, critical information virtually instantaneously. So why is it so often used like an out-of-control chainsaw, endangering anyone within electronic reach?

Indolence, for one. People couldn’t be bothered to check the veracity of the e-mails they forward, even though it’s easy to access Google or a professional debunking site such as Snopes.com.

Also gullibility. We believe “authorities”, especially when someone we know helpfully forwarded the information to us.

So, given the combination of indolence and gullibility, perhaps one should just murmur “thank God for Darwin”, as another wide-eyed innocent provides banking details to a crime syndicate or chooses carrot juice above chemotherapy.

Normally when a chain e-mail is discredited, those involved just melt away. Occasionally, though, the peddlers of ignorance are caught out so convincingly that they have to retract their information.

This week I was a cyber spectator to such a climb-down by Nicky Armstrong, a conservative former mayor of Westville and an enthusiastic e-purveyor of quackery, as well as low-grade political abuse masquerading as humour. Armstrong sent to her cronies, to be passed on endlessly as is the nature of chain e-mails, medical advice purporting to come from Johns Hopkins, a top United States research university.

This particular hoax, rubbishing conventional cancer therapies, dates to 2004. It blames cancer on artificial sweeteners, plastic food wrappings and a bad attitude, and posits an array of alternative, discredited remedies.

Obviously Johns Hopkins is unamused at being the cited source of pernicious mumbo-jumbo, especially when it can influence the ill to delay medical treatment until too late.

Hopkins’s Kimmel Cancer Centre rebuts the hoax in detail on its website, as does the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, Cancer Research UK, and Cancer SA.

Cancer SA’s research head, Dr Carl Albre­chts,­ is scathing about the “dangerous hypothesis” in the e-mail that “a proactive and positive spirit will help the cancer warrior be a survivor”. Coming on top of everything else, “it makes the poor cancer patient even more downcast and miserable because it is saying the patient’s personality actually caused the disease.”

There is no evidence that a positive attitude significantly helps to cure cancer.

According to Albrecht, “this leads to dismay and deep unhappiness in those where the cancer is winning, as [they] are made to feel that the failure of the therapy is their fault.”

The South African version of the hoax comes with Armstrong quoting a warm endorsement — since denied — from South African-trained Dr Grant Tarling, now the medical chief of an international cruise company.

Pasted into the e-mail are approving remarks regarding the Hopkins hogwash, apparently made by him and sent to his mummy, who forwarded them to Armstrong.

There were immediately moves to have Tarling professionally censured. Tarling responded that he was shocked that something “so blatantly inaccurate and unscientific has been sent out with my name within it … Nicky Armstrong appears to be the originator and … this has resulted in significant damage to my hard-earned reputation as a scientist and supporter of evidence-based medicine.”

Once the veil of anonymity is broken, there is no hiding place in the cybersphere.

Alderman Mrs N. F. Armstrong, as she prefers to be addressed, has since retracted the e-mail.

She says that Tarling has informed her that it was “absolute crap”.

So for once a life-threatening hoax mailing is stopped dead, with some red faces for the perpetrators. Score one for the cancer sufferers, but I guess zero for Darwin.

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