On Steve Jobs again

PZ has a post about Steve Jobs and woo. In it he summarizes the conclusions everyone on the side of science has been giving. However, he does make one error:

So the final result is that real science kept him alive and healthy as long as possible, and that an early flirtation with ‘alternative’ medicine might have contributed somewhat to lowering the odds of survival, but that what killed him is cancer. And cancer is a bastard.

No, there is no “might” about it. There is a direct correlation between when one treats cancer and how long one is likely to survive. By looking at ‘alternatives’, Jobs’ odds of survival lowered. Think about Huntington’s Disease. It’s a neurodegenerative disease which is passed on genetically. In the average situation where this disease is involved in a family, one parent has a single defective gene whereas the other parent is fine. Any child those two people have has a 50% chance of getting the disease. Those are the odds. Period. Even if the child gets tested and is found to not have the disease, the odds of contracting it will still always be 50% (as just described).

When we talk about the odds of this or the stats on that, we are not referring to a single individual. Even if Jobs’ time of survival remained the same – or even, against all the evidence, it increased because of the woo – his odds were absolutely decreased. Odds refer to the numbers we have on either a sample or population. The only way a person can change his odds is by doing something which has statistical significance. Jobs’, for instance, did just that by engaging in woo instead of treating his cancer.

PZ’s statement is no better than when Bill O’Reilly cited a single poll about atheists and then claimed a trend was evidenced.

6 Responses

  1. You are sure putting a lot of emphasis, and reading an awful lot into, one word: might. Your last sentence is way out of proportion.

  2. Hey, the guy got the treatment he wanted, good for him. For all we know he might have died on the operating table had he used real medicine instead of the likely fictional kind and had a much shorter life. Not to mention if he had chemo all the long hours spent puking and in pain.

    People should get the treatment they want, not the treatment others think they should get, even if it doesn’t work.

  3. This isn’t reading into a word, Bob. Whether Steve Jobs used alternative ‘medicine’ or a scientifically experimental treatment, so long as we have no statistical evidence to say anything about odds (in the alternative or experimental cases), we must say that his odds of survival decreased. That statement is premised in the fact that these odds and statistics are compiled based upon a sample or population. They do not change based upon a single individual. That’s why I compared what PZ said to what O’Reilly said. We cannot draw conclusions from single data points. I’m positive PZ knows this, but his wording was sloppy and his stand-alone statement is on level with O’Reilly’s.

  4. To put this another way, let’s say the odds on a 5 year survival rate for a given cancer is 80% for those who catch it and treat it within period X. For those who catch it and treat it within period Y (which we will say is longer than X), the survival rate is 70%.

    Now let’s say Jobs was within period X when doctors caught his cancer. The odds on his 5 year survival rate was 80%. It was 80% whether he lived 30 more years or died in the next 2 hours. Now let’s say he waited until period Y when he began treatment. The odds on his 5 year survival rate was 70%. It was 70% whether he lived 30 more years or died in the next 2 hours.

    Thus, by going from period X to period Y a person will absolutely decrease the odds on his 5 year survival rate.

  5. Ok, so if one waits a period, one is closer to death. Ok. ;)

  6. Statistically, yes.

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