Saturday, March 22, 2014

Cancer & Human History

Whenever a science-related segment appears on the evening news, it immediately grabs my attention.  Unfortunately, unless it appears on PBS, I am generally disappointed by both the coverage and its simplistic conclusions.  After all, one can't adequately present a complex subject in two minutes or less.

This past week, one of the network news programs included a brief segment on the discovery of apparent lytic bone lesions in a skeleton dating from 3000 years ago; they reported that it is the earliest evidence of cancer in a human being and concluded that the disease has tormented our species for at least 3000 years.  Of course, they didn't have time to place that discovery in perspective.  Humans had walked the Earth for about 127,000 years before that individual died with either primary or metastatic bone cancer; surely, hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of cases preceded that person's illness.  Neither did they have time to emphasize that "cancer" is a spectrum of disease, involving many tissues of the body, most of which are not preserved over time.  Finally, there was no mention of the fact that many other animals also develop cancer (i.e. the disease certainly existed well before our species did) or that the disease is not always related to modern carcinogens; indeed, specific genes predispose humans to some types of cancer while others result from genetic mutations.

Though well intentioned, brief reports on scientific discoveries often fuel the arguments of creationists and other non-scientists who use the simplified data to support their own misguided theories.  At the very least, appropriate specialists should review the report prior to its release, insuring that the facts, as presented, are not misleading.  While it's refreshing to find scientific segments amidst the sea of politics, tragedy and celebrity worship, they are counterproductive if not placed in context.