Annika Merkelbach: Can you quickly introduce yourself? Who are you? What are your hobbies? What’s your profession?
Dr. Alice Howarth: I’m Alice, an academic researcher in the field of clinical and molecular pharmacology and cancer cell biology. I’m an organizer of the Merseyside Skeptics Society and cohost of the podcast Skeptics with a K. I blog at DrAlice.blog about skeptical and scientific topics for a lay audience. I like to be busy—exploring the city that I live in, attending local events, and being outdoors. I like to knit, snuggle with my doggo, and watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer on a loop.
Merkelbach: We quite frequently hear about “cures for cancer” in the news. Do you think we will actually ever have a cure for cancer?
Howarth: Cancer is a disease that is so incredibly complex—largely because it’s a disease that engages with some of the smallest building blocks of the complicated multicellular body of a human. That complexity, and the vast number of different ways the disease can arise, or different cell types it can affect make it incredibly hard to treat. I believe the way to tackle such a complicated set of diseases is to work to “treat” rather than “cure.” If we look for “cures” we might throw out hundreds of wonderful “treatments” while searching for one single answer. Whereas if we work on making every treatment slightly better, we might eventually stumble upon a cure and save the lives of thousands of people along the way.
Merkelbach: What are the most promising areas of cancer research at the moment?
Howarth: One of my favorite areas of research are those that are looking to minimize side effects. Cancer treatment is brutal; it has to be, because cancer cells are derived from our normal healthy cells. To kill them we have to target pathways that are shared by our healthy cells and the cancer cells. But if we’re really very clever, we can work to make those side effects more manageable so patients can feel more comfortable. One interesting way of doing this is to wrap the cancer drug in a tiny particle that protects it from interacting with cells. Once the drug has reached the tumor site through the normal blood flow, we can use ultrasound to disrupt the particle and release the drug only where the tumor is, which means that only the tumor cells come into contact with it.
Merkelbach: Sometimes certain foods or lifestyles can be claimed to lead to cancer. What can you tell me about that?
Howarth: Lifestyle is one of the biggest contributing factors to developing cancer. The biggest causes are smoking, alcohol, obesity, and sun exposure. Generally, the best thing any one individual can do is to try to live a reasonably healthy lifestyle. However, cancer can affect any one any time, and it’s not something we can entirely prevent with lifestyle changes; it’s all about risk management. We can drink a little less, lose a little weight, and wear a good sunscreen, but we can’t remove all the risks entirely from our life, and trying to would be detrimental for our health and happiness. My view is to focus on the big picture: live life to the fullest but make a little effort to do it in a slightly healthier way without worrying too much about it.
Merkelbach: You are also a skeptic. What are your favorite skeptical topics?
Howarth: My “favorite” topics are the fun ones that aren’t really harming anyone too much: the silly old wives’ tales that people like to do to make themselves feel like they’re doing something good for their health. We can all engage with those and we can learn about good science by investigating them.
But as a skeptic and a human being, many of the topics I engage most with are those that are the most dangerous: the “alternative” medicines that are promoted in such a way that removes informed choice from patients and encourages them to make decisions that might be harmful to their health. As a human I feel a great responsibility to engage with those and help give patients the most complete information so they can make health decisions based on the fullest understanding of the facts.
Merkelbach: How can we get more researchers and scientists interested in the skeptical movement?
Howarth: This is a question I ask myself time and time again. I work with a lot of scientists who are interested in skepticism but just don’t have the time, energy, or capacity to engage with it. I try to encourage people to engage with the social side of it, but they often find it hard to branch out and try a new experience. Focusing on that social aspect certainly helps. And seeing other people doing good skepticism and challenging pseudoscience can make the exercise seem less futile. Giving scientists the opportunity to take ownership on how the public engages with science is so important but is also something we struggle to do well in academia.
Merkelbach: What are the Merseyside Skeptics and SwaK? How do they belong to each other?
Howarth: The Merseyside Skeptics Society is an organization that has been running for almost ten years (find out about our ten year birthday party at www.mssx.co.uk). We run monthly speaking events in Liverpool, UK, where a speaker will talk about some fascinating topic we think is related to skepticism. We’ve had talks from witches to flat earth theory, from cancer cures to eating insects. We also do some activism in the field of skepticism including 1023, a mass homeopathy overdose, and we do some investigations such as putting psychic mediums to the test under scientific conditions. A few months after the group formed, we started running a fortnightly podcast, Skeptics with a K. Skeptics with a K is a podcast where three of us talk about topical stories related to skepticism, usually with a lot of friendly chat in between each story. The three of us cohosts are really good friends in real life, so our listeners tell us they really enjoy our friendly format.
Merkelbach: You have been to several skeptical conferences such as QED and SkeptiCon. What do they have in common and how do they differ?
Howarth: The one thing I think skeptics around the world do really well is form strong communities. The grassroots, social bonding style of skepticism both in Europe and Australia makes it a really friendly and productive place to be, and that makes those conferences so special. Of course, the talks at skeptical conferences are often outstanding, and the organizers all make a massive effort to put on interesting panel discussions and great entertainment. But at the heart of it all is that community spirit.
Merkelbach: Last year you went to Australia, but you also skyped with the people of the European Skeptics Podcast and GSoW of QED in Manchester. How did that come about?
Howarth: The Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) skeptics worked with Australian skeptic Richard Saunders to organize the Skype chat while I was in Australia. It was a really fun idea. I was so sad to be missing QED even though I was so excited to be in Australia for SkeptiCon, so it was really great to check in with everyone!
Merkelbach: You’ve been at the Skeptics in the Pub in Cologne. Do you often go to and speak at SitP events?
Howarth: I’ve now spoken at a dozen or so skeptics in the pub groups and I find every visit fascinating. I love meeting skeptics from all walks of life, and every group is so friendly and welcoming. It makes me all the more confident that if I was ever visiting a new city in the UK or Europe alone, I could drop in to the local skeptics group and have a great time.
Merkelbach: I know that you’ve got an adorable dog called Lupin. That leads me to two questions: Do you like Harry Potter? What do you do to relax?
Howarth: I used to love Harry Potter when I was younger, though I never much got into the films. But I actually totally forgot there was a character called Lupin until after we named our little dog, so it’s just a happy coincidence.
My favorite ways to relax are to go to events in Liverpool. I love visiting other groups for talks; we have a few local science groups and we have an Ignite runs in our city. I also love to be outdoors in green space, so walking Lupin in the park is one of my favorite ways to unwind. When I visited Cologne, I spent an hour or so wandering around a cemetery because it was filled with trees and was calm and peaceful! I also love watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer or playing board games.
Merkelbach: What would you tell any young or new skeptic about how to get active in the skeptical movement?
Howarth: Find your local group and see what they’re up to. Put yourself out there and try to socialize. It can be really scary to throw yourself into a new social group, but we were all new once and it’s really worthwhile! Once you’re engaged socially, ideas to get more active often just grow. Interact with other skeptical groups! And if you see something needs doing, muck in! Ask for help if you need it, or talk through ideas with other skeptics, but most of us are just running with ideas and seeing how far we can take them. Don’t be afraid to give things a go. We’re all learning as we go along!
Photos by Dr. Alice Howarth, if not otherwise named.
This interview has been lightly edited.