Monday, March 12, 2012

Bad Science: When There's No Science At All

I have to admit I do enjoy National Geographic. Sure some of the articles can be a little wishy-washy, but the pictures are stunning and it definitely keeps my attention and keeps me company far more than an any “women’s” magazine ever would (no, I could give a shit if those are Angelina Jolie’s real boobs, and if she has an eating disorder it is none of my business). This month, however, when flipping through I came across an article that bothered me called Rhino Wars.

The article talks about the illegal trade in rhino horn from Africa to Asia, where it is rumoured to have medicinal properties ranging from fever reducing properties to a cure for cancer. Despite the lack of scientific peer-reviewed evidence, many people believe in this and even doctors suggest it as a possible treatment for cancer.

Because of this demand, poachers have driven all five species of rhino onto the Endangered Species List, selling the horn for up to twice its weight in gold. This has also led to entrepreneurs trying “rhino farming”, where they keep the animals alive and sever their horns two-three inches above the base, which ensures its re-growth within a few years. While it doesn’t seem like an optimal solution, the argument for rhino farming is that it makes for competition for poachers (who kill the rhino before severing its horn) and is a good way to ensure the species' survival. However, there is one big glaring problem that this NatGeo article completely fails to mention:

What about the millions of people that are duped into paying a fortune for something that most likely doesn’t work?

This is where the lack of science becomes incredibly bad science. A search through the literature on this subject has led me to only two studies, from the 1990s, on the effects of rhino horn on hypothermic rats. OK, so it seems as though they have been published in an actual journal with an actual Impact Factor, which is a good start. Unfortunately I cannot access the full article in order to take a good look at their methods, but here is an excerpt from one of the abstracts:

Intraperitoneal administration of an aqueous extract of rhinoceros horn at 5 2.5 and 1 g/ml, showed a significant antipyretic effect in rats with hyperthermia induced by subcutaneous injection of terpentine oil. Similar assays with extracts of the horns of saiga antelope, water buffalo and cattle at 5 g/ml also caused a significant drop in fever

Let’s say for the sake of argument that this is true, and that this effect translates over to humans. So rhino horn reduces fever, so what? So does paracetamol. We already have drugs that do this. Also notice that cattle horn has the same effect. Well, if you have to use some kind of horn, why not use one from an animal that is already farmed and has the same effect?

Here’s the problem, I cannot find a single peer-reviewed paper on the effects of rhino horn on cancer treatment. So what the hell are we waiting for?!

Although I highly doubt that rhino horn will have anti-cancer properties, I have explained again and again that not thinking something likely is no reason to not investigate it. There are doctors that are suggesting this, there need to be studies done. If one, two, three studies are done that show no health benefits, these results need to be plastered in these doctors’ faces and all over the news, only that way can we have any hope of educating people and getting them to devote their efforts to other, tried and tested treatments, possibly saving lives. You want to save the rhino and decrease poaching? Start by decreasing the demand.

And what if these studies demonstrate that rhino horn actually does have an anti-cancer effect? Well great! We can start looking for the active ingredient in the rhino horn so that it can be purified in the lab.

If it turns out that rhino horn does aid in cancer treatment then maybe I’ll be in favour of expanding and trading from rhino farms, at least until scientists are able to identify and replicate the compound that has these medicinal properties. But, until then, I think that rhino farming is a terribly flimsy band-aid over this festering problem.

By supporting rhino farming you are supporting financial interests in keeping the rhino horn trade alive. You may decrease the poaching and black market trade a little, but you are supporting people that do not want it to get out that rhino horn doesn’t have the medicinal benefits people think, because that would hurt sales. I know that there are going to be people that believe in traditional medicine no matter what, but to think that education could not make a huge dent is ridiculous. You only have to look at the past hundred years to see how this is not the case.

The fact of the matter is that, while NatGeo is right to point out the lives of rhino’s that are being saved, they fail to make the more obvious point. It is not just rhinos that are losing lives in this “war”, it is countless sick, desperate humans that are losing their lives as well.

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