Dear Tila Tequila

aka When to Ask for Proof

View of Earth from the International Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA/ISS

Not long ago, reality TV star Tila Tequila made a splash on Twitter when she wrote a series of tweets revealing her belief that the Earth is flat. “It’s 2016 and nobodys been able 2 prove 2 me that the Earth is round”, wrote Ms. Tequila. “Where is the curvature in the horizon? Prove me wrong dammit!”

It’s easy to laugh at Tila Tequila — after all, most of us know, without a doubt in our minds, that the Earth is round. Think about that for a moment. How do we know this? As far as most of us are concerned, we’re content to believe what we’re told. But not Ms. Tequila. She’s asking the right question: she wants proof. Far too often, we accept things without asking for the proof.

I’d like to take Tila Tequila’s demand for proof and compare it with a very personal situation. Someone I’m close to is currently battling cancer. I’m sure I don’t need to go into too many details; just the word “cancer” will bring up awful gut-tightening emotions for many of us. When it comes to cancer, the cures hardly seem better than the disease. He’s several weeks into chemotherapy. He’s tired. He feels sick. He never knows what any given day will be like. It’s clearly a struggle for him, and it’s difficult for the rest of us to watch. We all want to help in any way we can. For some people, this supposed help comes in the form of advice: alternative therapies, natural remedies, special diets.

The problem with these alternative methods lies in the proof. Or, in this case, the lack of proof. I’m all for options. If we have a choice in therapies, we should know about it. The problem comes when people recommend remedies without enough evidence that they work, or that they are safe. Most of these alternative remedies have very little evidence, if any. In this case, we need to follow Tila Tequila’s lead.

If you want to prove to yourself that the Earth is round, it’s simple. Watch a ship sail over the horizon and it will disappear from the bottom up. Don’t live near the ocean? Call someone up who lives several time zones away. Ask them how long it has been since the sun rose. Compare that to when the sun rose where you are standing. I guarantee you that the two numbers will be different. If the Earth is flat, the sun can’t rise at different times in different places. Still don’t believe me? Try it for yourself. Shine a flashlight on a flat piece of cardboard several feet away in a dark room. Try to turn the cardboard so that it goes dark in zones. It can’t be done. Either the entire side is in the light or it is all in the dark. Now try the same exercise with a ball. All you have to do to create different light/dark zones is spin the ball.

There are lots of other ways to prove to yourself that the Earth is round, and they are easy to find with a simple internet search. So then why does the Earth look flat? Here’s another experiment to try: take a pencil or pen and a piece of paper. Draw a small circle. Now draw a bigger circle on the same paper. Now draw a BIG circle — as big as you can. Look at the three circles you’ve just drawn. Most importantly, look at how curved they are. The bigger circle will have a straighter line, even though all three of them are circles.

Draw another circle. This time, make it so big that you can’t fit the entire shape on the paper you have. The curve of that circle would look straighter (or, dare I say, flatter) still than those you drew before. You can imagine continuing this exercise, drawing bigger and bigger circles on this same paper. Eventually, your circles would become so big that, from what you can fit on your paper, they will look like they were straight lines. The horizon looks flat because you’re only looking at a small part of the big picture.

Proving to yourself that the Earth is round is fairly simple. Proving that any given cancer treatment works is far more complicated. Many of us will hear of someone who tried one of these alternative cancer therapies and, lo and behold, their cancer was cured! Is this proof that any given remedy works?

Sadly, it’s not. This would be like looking at the horizon to determine the shape of the Earth — you just don’t have enough information. Imagine flipping a coin and having that coin land with “heads” up. Is this proof that coins will always land “heads” up? Of course not — and you don’t need me to tell you as much. We clearly don’t have enough information.

Let’s take this one step further. Imagine flipping that same coin a second time. Again, it lands “heads” up. Why did this happen? Is your coin weighted unevenly? Will it land “heads” more often than “tails”? Or was the outcome just luck? How many times would you have to flip the coin to find the answer?

This is the problem faced when determining whether or not a treatment works, why scientists do big studies with many patients. Some people, statisticians they are called, specialize in answering the question of “how many times.” They calculate the number of tests needed to be confident that any given treatment works, or doesn’t work. This is what you might have heard called “statistically significant”. It’s like getting a big enough picture to see that the Earth is round.

When it comes to a round Earth, we’re fortunate enough to live in an age when we have the ultimate proof: images from space. Someone offered Tila Tequila the exact proof for which she was asking: a photograph of the entire Earth, complete with curved horizon. Unfortunately, Ms. Tequila didn’t see it that way. When faced with exactly the proof she had requested, she claimed it was fake: a NASA conspiracy.

People say the same thing about cancer remedies. They will say that, for some reason (usually money is the one brought out), there is a conspiracy forcing doctors to pass up alternative remedies and instead use chemotherapy. I had trouble writing that last sentence because, to me, this idea doesn’t make any sense. Here are the problems I have with it:

First, this conspiracy would have to involve a lot of people. I mean a LOT of people: all of the doctors in the entire world, scientists performing research, journal editors, and more. That’s a huge slice of the world’s population, right there. Imagine all of those people involved in this conspiracy, and none of them ever making a single mistake. They leave no trail that this conspiracy exists anywhere. I find that highly unlikely.

Second, people become doctors for a reason. Sure, some of them do it for the money, but lots of them go into medicine because they want to help people. They honestly want to see their patients feel better and get better. If this is true, why would they ever choose to give patients something that they knew to be harmful?

Third, and most important, is that there is absolutely no proof of a conspiracy. None. Not one of those millions of doctors and scientists has come forward to blow the whistle on this supposed massive conspiracy.

This, to me, is the nail in the coffin for conspiracy theories.

Carl Sagan once famously said that “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Long ago, claiming that the Earth was anything but flat was a big deal. One might even call it “extraordinary.” The evidence for a round Earth has piled up over the years. If you followed the activities before, you would have proved to yourself that there is no way our Earth is flat — you have that extraordinary evidence.

Claiming a conspiracy, either for NASA or for cancer treatment, is an extraordinary claim. It requires extraordinary evidence. I have yet to hear of any evidence that is even remotely convincing for either case.

For me to believe in any alternative remedy, I need proof. Without this proof, without the big studies required, there is absolutely no way to know that any of them work. The beauty of science is that new information is brought forward every day. I’m a scientist and, just like the oncologists who treat cancer, just like the astrophysicists at NASA, if you show me the proof, I will believe you. For now, I am thankful that my loved one has followed his doctor’s advice.

If you want to convince yourself that chemotherapy works, the proof is all there, in publicly available journals. You can follow the trail of evidence that has lead doctors to recommend the treatments they use and find out for yourself how and why they work.

And if you’re still not convinced that the Earth is round? NASA is taking applications. Go and see for yourself.

Perez Hilton’s article on Tila Tequila’s tweets

NASA’s application procedures

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