Monday, July 23, 2007


No, you do not make your own reality—at least sane people don't...

America is the land of positive thinking. It’s almost everywhere, from Old Age (Norman Vincent Peale) to New Age (Deepak Chopra). No matter what the clothes, what the jargon, it amounts to the same thing: if something is wrong in your life, it’s your fault. Cancer, poverty, a cheating spouse, bad neighbors or bad breath, the positive thinking folks say it’s up to you to change yourself, then everything will be groovy.

I have friends with diabetes and hepatitis C, multiple sclerosis and cancer, emphysema and bi-polar disorder. I have a genetic flaw that has resulted in extremely fragile bones. Positive thinking won’t cure any of these disorders. I’ve heard it said that children who are born with CP or mental retardation are paying for the sins of their parents. It’s all such a crock of shit, isn’t it?

The name of the game is “Blaming the victim.” The person doing the labeling is letting her/himself feel superior and virtuous.

Sure, to an extent we all do make our own reality. We’re dealt certain hands of cards at birth. How we play the cards is up to us—yet a bad hand is a bad hand, period. You can’t change deuces to aces, no matter how positive you think. It just won’t happen. All we can change is our attitudes toward ourselves and our conditions. We can blame all we won’t, but it won’t change reality. The largest chunk of reality is already laid out for us.

(And, no matter what the president thinks, Iraq is a disaster.)

The Huffington Post

Barbara Ehrenreich
What Causes Cancer: Probably Not You
Posted July 19, 2007 | 03:52 PM (EST)

The perennial temptation to blame disease on sin or at least some grave moral failing just took another hit. A major new study shows that women on a virtuous low fat diet with an extraordinary abundance of fruits and veggies were no less likely to die of breast cancer than women who grazed more freely. Media around the world have picked up on the finding, cautioning, prudishly, that you can't beat breast cancer with cheeseburgers and beer.

Another "null result" in cancer studies -- i.e., one showing that a suspected correlation isn't there -- has received a lot less attention. In the May issue of Psychological Bulletin, James Coyne and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania reported that "there is no compelling evidence linking psychotherapy or support groups with survival among cancer patients." This flies in the face of the received wisdom that any sufficiently sunny-tempered person can beat cancer simply with a "positive attitude." For example, an e-zine article entitled "Breast Cancer Prevention Tips" advises:

A simple positive and optimistic attitude has been shown to reduce the risk of cancer. This will sound amazing to many people; however, it will suffice to explain that several medical studies have demonstrated the link between a positive attitude and an improved immune system. Laughter and humor has [sic] been shown to enhance the body's immunity and prevents against cancer and other diseases. You must have heard the slogan 'happy people don't fall sick'.

So far no one appears to have read Coyne's study. On June 30, a month after its publication, all-purpose guru Deepak Chopra assured Sanjay Gupta on CNN that the mind can control the body: "...You know, of course, the ... study where women who supported each other in a loving environment with breast cancer the survival doubled." Gupta, last sighted seeking to discredit Michael Moore's SiCKO with his "fact-checking," simply nodded, although the study Chopra was referring to was discredited years before Coyne's research came out.

For the last decade or so, adherents of the new discipline of "positive psychology" have been insisting that not just cancer, but almost any health setback, can be conquered with optimism or a "positive attitude." But as Coyne and other critics point out, the science here is shaky at best. Even the theoretical linch-pin of the supposed happy-mind-healthy-body connection -- that a positive outlook strengthens the immune system -- took a kick in the teeth two years ago when Suzanne Segerstrom at the University of Kentucky found, to her own apparent surprise, that optimism can have a negative effect on the immune system when the stressors are intense, as in the case of serious disease.

Even if veggies and smiles don't cure cancer, aren't we still entitled to blame some people for their diseases? Lack of exercise and dietary indiscretions play a role in the development of diabetes and coronary heart disease, so we indulge in self-gratifying contempt for the fat lady scarfing down Doritos. But before you rush to judgment, ask yourself: What nutritional alternatives does she have? (And, yes, I know they have "salad" at Wendy's now, but they don't offer apples on Amtrak.) As for exercise, gym memberships easily cost $500 a year, and far too many of us are forced to spend 10 hours or more a day sitting in a cubicle, a car or a bus.

In the case of breast cancer, one victim-blaming theory after has wilted under scrutiny: The "cancer personality" theory, for example, which breast cancer victim Susan Sontag took on in her 1978 book Illness as Metaphor, and now high-fat diets and negative attitudes. Something other than genetics causes it, though, and one leading candidate is the Hormone Replacement Therapy that doctors pushed on menopausal women for decades as a supposed way of preventing heart disease, Alzheimer's and wrinkles. When, in 2002, HRT was found to be correlated with breast cancer and millions of women stopped taking it, the incidence of breast cancer plunged.

Which suggests that optimism, especially about the validity of the conventional wisdom, can be hazardous. What you need is a narrow-eyed, deeply skeptical attitude.

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