Men Aren't More Scientific About Cancer, Despite What The Wall Street Journal Thinks

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Pink Breast Cancer RibbonFalse equivalence: a fallacious effort to create the appearance of similarity between two entities when in fact the entities are not equal. For example, comparing "The Dr. Oz Show" to a medical program.

The Wall Street Journal newspaper used a new Memorial Sloan Kettering-commissioned study to suggest that"women distrust scientific data" - the false equivalence is equating prostate cancer with breast cancer.

The goal was to evaluate if men and women reacted differently to a cancer diagnosis. To do this, they compared the online behavior of men who had been diagnosed with prostate cancer with that of the online behavior of women with breast cancer. Of the 72,000 prostate cancer related posts between 2012-2014 they aggregated, 633 were chosen for evaluation. For breast cancer, of the over 640,000 online breast cancer posts, the researchers chose 806 for further evaluation.

Obviously that methodology lends itself to potential flaws but the researchers still say their analysis shows that men make decisions "deeply situated in science" while women "displace the voice of science and medical experts". Men sought out the "latest studies" while women relied heavily on anecdotes and advice from other women.

There are several issues that concern the American Council on Science and Health and therefore merit a skeptical look by the public. First, the responses were from online support group forums where people go to seek out testimonials and correspond with other survivors, so responding to those types of information does not indicate an anti-science or less emotional mindset from a whole gender. Furthermore, seeking out "the latest studies" as men purportedly do, is not always the best option. We here at the Council are constantly pointing out flaws in those newest of studies; new is not always better. So to equate the latest studies with better science is not right nor is this behavior necessarily beneficial to patients.

However, the real problem with the study is that prostate cancer and breast cancer are not the same so evaluating and comparing behavior towards them is flawed methodology. This is true from a biological standpoint, but more importantly for this analysis, from a public perception point of view. To start with, look at the number of posts the researchers found: ten times more posts about breast cancer than about prostate. Women with breast cancer are inundated, particularly through the internet and social media, with stories about breast cancer.

Look at the following graph, it compares google searches for prostate cancer (in blue) to breast cancer (in red) for the past ten years. The letters indicate when the topic made major news headlines. Breast cancer has dominated internet interest by almost 4 fold and when a major news piece breaks, public interest explodes.

Screen Shot 2015-09-22 at 11.35.25 AM Source: Google trends

The almost ubiquitous interest in this cancer causes many patients (note the change in phrasing) with breast cancer to stress more over this type of cancer. This leads them to opt for treatments that science might not back. The media attention accentuates the risks and the rare extreme cases and patients worry themselves into choosing radical paths. This behavior is consistent with a condition called "social media anxiety" in which people overreact to things they see on the internet.

I switched to patients there because both men and women get breast cancer and the data show that men with breast cancer also overwhelmingly opt for treatment options that are not supported by consensus science. So really, it is not a question of how the sexes deal with cancer in general, it is a question of how people of any sex deal with this particular cancer. Actually, the WSJ story points out that the group that analyzed the data for MSK stated that in other cancers, like lymphoma, men and women react basically the same. This again supports the idea that this is not a case of the sexes reacting differently to science, but patients reacting differently to different types of cancer.

Prostate cancer is not given the same mania. One headline on prostate cancer indicated how half of men over 60 have prostate cancer, but it never develops into a fatal disease. Another headline suggested that not all prostate cancers needed treatment because many of the growths are clinically insignificant. In contrast, the headlines on clinically insignificant types of breast cancer (like DCIS) focus on how celebrities (i.e. Sandra Lee) are getting double mastectomies. The media leaves out the part about how the treatment is against scientific data and consensus, while it is the lead in the prostate cancer stories.

Maybe the greatest false equivalence here though was to call this study real science. The survey wasn't conducted or commissioned by the medical or science teams at the hospital, but instead by their marketing team.