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Brazilian Cancer Quackery

THE CURE FOR CANCER HAS BEEN FOUND YET AGAIN, this time in Brazil. And like many others before, it involves a desperate people, a populist government, and a scientifically illiterate society.

The story began 25 years ago, within the largest and most prestigious University in South America: University of São Paulo. In a small town called São Carlos, a full professor from the Institute of Chemistry, Gilberto Chierice, decided to play messiah. Convinced that he had found a cure for cancer in a molecule called phosphoethanolamine—phospho, as it became known, probably because not a single journalist could pronounce it correctly—he started to manufacture the compound at his laboratory at the university, and distribute it to the local population in the shape of blue and white miracle pills, with the promise to cure cancer.

Mind you, Chierice had never before worked in cancer research. He worked with analytical chemistry, and his field of expertise was castor oil. He did not run any tests on his dream molecule other than general toxicity. He did not test it in cell cultures. He did not test it in animals. He just knew, as every messiah does, that he was right! How did he know? He had read a 1979 paper that showed the presence of that very substance in breast cancer tumor sites. He concluded that the only reason for its presence there was that it had obviously been released by the immune system to fight the cancer.

Chierice decided to synthesize and produce phosphoetanolamine. He even patented the synthesis process, just in case some bad Big Pharma company tried to steal his precious formula. And with every passing year, he grew more certain that his formula worked, because people kept coming back for more tablets! Who needs more evidence than that? Why would people come back and recommend it to their friends and family if phospho didn’t work? It looks like the professor skipped scientific methods classes when he was a student. Surprisingly though, it did not affect his career. I pity his students.

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About Skeptic

EVIL, THEISM, and ATHEISM Answering the Hard Question “You’re an Atheist?! How Do You Find Meaning and Morality in Life if There is No God?”; God, Heaven, and Evil: A Renewed Defense of Atheism; The Devil’s Mark: The Evaluation of Evil, the Measurement of Morality, and the Statistical Significance of Sin; Whence Cometh Evil? The Concept and Mechanics of Natural Evil; Virtuous Reality: Why Right and Wrong Seem Real: a Critique of Moral Realism; Tearing Down Mr. Hume’s Wall: A Response to Moral Realism Skeptics; Brazilian Cancer Quackery; The “Sonic Attack” on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba: Why the State Department’s Claims Don’t Add Up; Understanding Human Skeletal Variation; Updating the Software and Hardware in Educational Practice: A Way Forward for Science and Mathematics Education; Why Freud Matters: Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud, and the Skeptical Humanist Tradition; Hope and Hype for Alzheimer’s; I, Too, Am Thinking About Me, Too; Junior Skeptic: The Incredible Claims of Pet Psychics…