Did Science Denial Kill Steve Jobs?

October 7, 2011

When a man with a net worth of $7 billion dies after a long battle with pancreatic cancer, you assume that he succumbed to his disease in spite of the best medical intervention money can buy. In part, this is true. Steve Jobs underwent a surgery that rearranged his digestive organs in 2004 and a liver transplant in 2009.

But, sadly, proper medical treatment wasn’t his first course of action. After receiving his cancer diagnosis in 2003, Jobs delayed seeking conventional medical treatment for some nine months. Why? Apparently, Jobs had been taken in by peddlers of alternative medicine. A 2008 article from Fortune magazine reported:

While a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is often tantamount to a swiftly executed death sentence, a biopsy revealed that Jobs had a rare – and treatable – form of the disease. If the tumor were surgically removed, Jobs’ prognosis would be promising: The vast majority of those who underwent the operation survived at least ten years.

Yet to the horror of the tiny circle of intimates in whom he’d confided, Jobs was considering not having the surgery at all. A Buddhist and vegetarian, the Apple CEO was skeptical of mainstream medicine. Jobs decided to employ alternative methods to treat his pancreatic cancer, hoping to avoid the operation through a special diet – a course of action that hasn’t been disclosed until now.

Yesterday, Brian Dunning wondered aloud whether earlier medical intervention might have prolonged Jobs’ life. According to Dunning, life expectancy for this form of cancer depends on how quickly the tumor is removed:

The median survival is about a decade, but it depends on how soon it’s removed surgically. Steve caught his very early, and should have expected to survive much longer than a decade. Unfortunately Steve relied on a naturopathic diet instead of early surgery. There is no evidence that diet has any effect on islet cell carcinoma. As he dieted for nine months, the tumor progressed, and took him from the high end to the low end of the survival rate.

Jobs deserves credit for dumping the advice of the cancer-diet charlatans when it clearly wasn’t working. But one has to wonder whether giving the tumor an additional nine months to grow made a difference is his long-term health outcome.

It would be wrong to call Jobs a science denier. After all, he built an empire by staying on the cutting edge of computing technology. But when it came to the health sciences, for a brief but critical period of time he ignored the advice from the cutting edge of that field. He got conned into buying an abacus when he really needed a MacBook.

I am sad that Steve Jobs has died. I am even more saddened by the scores of unnecessary deaths that result from otherwise intelligent people eschewing clinically-proven medical treatment in favor of ineffective fad alternatives. As Michael Specter puts it (in what is possibly the best TED talk I’ve ever watched), “We hate Big Pharma. We hate big government. We don’t trust the man. … So we run away from it. And where do we run? We leap into the arms of Big Placebo.”

Do yourself a favor and watch the video. Spread it around. It might just save someone’s life.


  1. Interesting. After starting to homeschool this year, I have been awestruck to learn how much distrust of medicine abounds, suprisingly, in the secular, ultra-crunchy circles. While I too distrust Pharma and hold a heathy dose of skepticism of medicine, I don’t get the extreme obsession with alternative medicine. A healthy diet and avoidance of processed foods is important, but “natural” remedies aren’t categorically superior to synthetic drugs. Physicians aren’t all motivated by greed as the anti-medicine groups would like to paint them out to be. It’s too bad that such fundamentalism exists, b/c I feel it’s lead to physicians being clueless about dietary ways to improve health, and alternative medicine leading to unnecessary stories like the one you’ve told.

    • What gets me is that people are skeptical of so-called Big Pharma because they think the companies are motivated by profit. But why don’t we apply the same skepticism to alternative medicine? Are the multilevel marketers who try to sell you $40 bottles of acai berry juice not trying to make a profit? Is the Power Balance company not making a killing charging $30 for worthless rubber bracelets? Frankly, it’s the huge companies that manufacture in the pharmaceutical industry who are held to the highest standards, having to demonstrate through rigorous trials that their product produces the claimed health benefit. In the alternative medicine market, there is no quality control at all. Companies continue to sell products that have been shown repeatedly to have no demonstrable benefit.
      Sometimes I wonder if future generations will look back on this one and consider it something of a dark age when it comes to scientific literacy.

  2. […] A murit Steve Jobs fiindcă a respins știința? […]

  3. I completely agree with Chris here. So called Big Pharma are obviously interested in making a profit as any corporation would be, and profit is not always such a terrible thing. People always complain about how much money these corporations are making, without realizing the costs that accumulate from the rigorous testing involved in FDA approval, research grant donations, etc. Of course the Big Pharma execs get huge salaries, just like the execs at Apple (ironically Steve Jobs didn’t, but that’s not the point), yet almost anyone is willing to get an iPhone.

    As far as the naturopathic industry goes, it’s just appalling. Sure, natural foods and so forth are healthy for the most part, but regarding the overpriced products that Chris mentioned, among countless others out there, are completely useless.

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