Sunday, July 1, 2012

A Cure for Bad Analogies

‘What if I had the cure for cancer?” DP, the evangelizing history teacher, muses in the video In God We Teach, shown in the previous post. He goes on to ask rhetorically if he should keep it in a closet in case he ever needs it, or share it with others. The point he is trying to make, of course, is that he has knowledge as valuable as the cure for cancer would be, and so the only ethical thing to do is to share it.

So what is the problem, you ask? (Or maybe you don’t, because maybe you spot it as quickly as other people, myself included, have.) 

Think about what has to happen for DP to have the cure for cancer. He has to have the idea for something that could conceivably cure cancer. Once he has the idea, he can’t just spring it on the world and say, “I have the cure for cancer!” He has to test it, to be sure that it is in fact the cure for cancer. He has to test it first on animals and then on people, using double blind trials of sufficient sample size to be certain that his cure 1) kills cancer cells and 2) doesn’t kill patients in the process of killing the patients' cancers. He has to get FDA approval of his drug as a cancer cure. Unless he does, he can't call it a cancer cure. It’s an idea for a cancer cure, or a treatment that is in the experimental stages, or an old herbal remedy passed along to him by a shaman in a dream (in which case, keeping it hidden in a cupboard somewhere is the ethical thing to do, IMO), but it’s not the cure for cancer yet. That’s how science works.

All this costs money, a lot of it. DP will in all likelihood have to get this money through grants. I doubt very much that the people giving DP large grants to research his cure for cancer are going to give DP exclusive rights to patent and market it when he’s done. Tucking it away in a cupboard for his use alone is not going to be an option.

But let’s say that DP is a wealthy mad scientist who has the resources to carry on all the research and testing on this drug by himself. He still cannot legally test it on people without the approval of an Institutional Review Board. That means by the time he has established that this is indeed a cure for cancer, the secret is out. If he announces that he is not releasing the cure or the formula so that others can manufacture the cure, people will be begging him to change his mind. 

So let’s get back to the point of the analogy - if DP has knowledge as valuable as the cure for cancer would be, should he share it? Well, yes, if people are begging him for it, like they would be for the proven cure posited in the mad scientist scenario above. But DP was being accused of evangelizing to a captive audience of students in a public school history class, so not the same thing. No one ever said he couldn’t preach to the youth at his church where he is youth pastor.

What if DP has found the cure for cancer and decides not to hoard it all for himself? First of all, he cannot administer it to anyone. Even if it gets FDA approval, it’s not going to be sold over the counter at Walgreen’s under “Cancer Cures, for Reals”. It needs to be prescribed by a doctor, preferably an oncologist.

Second of all, what if an oncologist prescribes it for a patients and the patient says, “Nuh, uh. I’ve read up on the side effects and there’s no way I’m going to take that stuff” or “I’ve decided to try diet and herbal therapy instead” or “I’m 93 years old and you can’t keep me alive forever”? Unless it can be established that the patient is not competent to decide, the patient does not get the treatment. Even if it is The Best Stuff Ever, Proven to Cure Cancer in Five Minutes, the patient does not get the treatment.

None of this means I think DP's analogy is completely worthless. I think if he thought it through, he’d learn something about why he was being criticized for promoting his religious views in class. 

Which brings up a question for me. If I find the cure for lack of self awareness, should I keep it in a cupboard for myself, or share it? I know I need it, but I’m not the only one.

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