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“In exchange for freeing me from this lamp, you may ask me one question,” said the genie.

“Not three?” I protested.

“Just one,” said the genie.

“What is the cure for cancer?” I asked.

“A compound called oxymercuriphine, found in the venom of the two-toed toad of Toronto,” said the genie. “Cures 100% of all cancers.”

“Huh,” I said. “Thank you. And here I was worrying you were one of those evil genies who would satisfy the letter of the wish while actually being totally useless.”

“Me?” said the genie, as he faded from view. “Never. That molecule is the genuine article and I wish you only the best of luck getting the fifty million dollars or so needed to push it through years of FDA clinical trials.”

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32 Responses to Biodjinnetics

  1. Ben Lash says:

    Well, you could at least cure yourself and all your friends of cancer for a reasonable fee. And I’m sure someone would notice when suddenly the population of unregulated medicine users started getting a ridiculously low cancer rate. But yeah.

    • jurko says:

      And then be imprisoned for unlawful medical practice.

      • Anonymous says:

        At what point does “eating something not recognized by the FDA” become “unlawful medical practice”? I’m fairly sure I’m allowed to have some, and I can probably tell my friends (and my blog) that “I had this and then my cancer disappeared”. Could I add “Coincidentally, I have several Torontonian two-toed toads; their venom looks really pretty when the sun catches it in a certain way. Does anybody want to buy any as a decoration? It should absolutely not be eaten.” while winking? Where is the line drawn, in general?

  2. Romeo Stevens says:

    Hey what the hell? Don’t put giant pictures of things that are known to cause adverse reactions in some people at the top of your post with no warning! Hopefully someone else got mad at you in the comments section of the post, personally I just left without reading it.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Are “people who are legitimately angered and traumatized by pictures of spiders rather than just ‘wow that’s gross'” actually a thing?

      EDIT: I edited the spider picture to a less scary version, but I’m still curious about the answer to the above.

      • Shel says:

        Presumably arachnophobes (in the sense of “actual phobia,” not in the sense of “fear of spiders”).

      • Berry says:

        Not so much angered, but a very unpleasant feeling. It went away after a few dozen more views, though.

      • Qiaochu Yuan says:

        Yes. Some people get panic attacks. (I used to date a girl who was fairly arachnophobic.)

      • Romeo Stevens says:

        If you don’t have a phobia it’s hard to communicate just how unpleasant it is having your consciousness hijacked by irrational terror.

      • On a purely personal basis I can answer “yes”. Seeing pictures of large spiders causes me to itch all over for about 15 minutes afterwards, and has been known to give me nightmares the next night (or in a couple of occasions, couple of nights).

        Doesn’t happen often, thankfully. And I can cope with it. I just don’t _like_ it.

      • FeepingCreature says:

        Personally speaking, I get a shock response in the short term – elevated heartrate, panickedly closing the window and such, then for the next half hour or so I’m paranoid about spiders around me. IRL, spiders have literally made me involuntarily run away.

  3. Carl Shulman says:

    A compound that effective would be easy to demonstrate in vitro and in animals to get funding.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Can you perform in vitro experiments? Do you have access to a supply of cancer cells? And venomous toads? If not, do you think you could persuade a biochemist to do the lab work for you on the authority of “a genie told me”?

      • Carl Shulman says:

        If I had good reason to believe the genie was real in the first place, I would pay to have them done.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          This is kind of a silly argument, but:

          1. Are there actual respectable biologists (ie capable of getting themselves published) who will perform experiments for profit for what a private citizen would be able/willing to pay?

          2. It’s kind of a truism that every day people discover something else that destroys cancer cells in a petri dish. Are these claims considered sufficiently interesting that you think a pharma company would invest just based on one article from the sort of biologist who would work for pay claiming that this chemical did so too?

      • Elissa says:

        You’d probably want to make a Youtube documentary about how you’re a Brave Maverick Doctor curing cancer with toads to get some desperate/credulous cancer patients to come to your clinic in Mexico, and then the 100% efficacy will be enough to cause it to spread through the altmed community. That seems to work for getting studies done that are otherwise hard to justify (cf the Gonzalez protocol).

        Not unethical if you’re sure the genie is truthful.

        • Max says:

          The downside is, people believing in other completely unsupported medical treatments will point back to the origins of your cancer cure as justification, forever.

      • Anonymous says:

        >Are there actual respectable biologists (ie capable of getting themselves published) who will perform experiments for profit for what a private citizen would be able/willing to pay?

        Yes: your money would go to the lab as a private grant, and that grant money would pay the salaries of the lab members & a portion would go to the university. There would be no moral or legal objections, so I’m sure w/ either enough money or a legitimately promising sounding idea you could get it done. A lot of grants for popular causes like cancer research are private – albeit usually generalized to make any cancer lab eligible. Private companies fund studies for products too – thats what the “conflict of interest” section on academic papers is for. It’s usually somewhat generalized though – like you might get a grant from a tomato company to study if tomatoes are good for you, but you probably wouldn’t have a public scientist studying the Voltion 3000 toothbrush or some other highly non-generalizable finding.

        Scientists are always hungry for grant money and the professional incentive structure rewards those who acquire it. But you would need much more money to fund an obviously stupid project, since the incentive structure also rewards useful results.

  4. Vanzetti says:

    One molecule curing 100% of all cancers would mean everything we know about cancer is wrong. I find that highly unlikely…

    • Scott Alexander says:

      If we’re going to be picky, I point out that the genie never said the molecule left healthy cells alone, and on those lax standards there are LOADS of molecules that cure 100% of all cancers.

      • Vanzetti says:

        Nope. What was asked for is a “cure for cancer”, not “something that kills cancer”.

      • Fnord says:

        That would be a much more straightforward way for the genie to satisfy the letter of the wish while actually being totally useless.

        Fun fact: a major breakthrough in early cancer treatment was started when cancer patients were exposed to an accidental release of mustard gas (the chemical warfare agent).

        • Tom Womack says:

          I think that the cancer treatment story is that a large number of civilians were exposed to mustard gas during an air raid in 1943 in Bari; doctors looking at blood samples from the survivors saw that the mustard-gas had selectively killed lymphocytes; so they tried treating patients with Hodgkin’s disease (a cancer involving proliferating lymphocytes) with mustard-gas and found that it worked.

          One more level of indirection.

  5. Typhon says:

    This reminds me of some Fredric Brown short short stories.

  6. von Kalifornen says:

    You fool! By imperial degree, all genies are upon pain of death to be conveyed posthaste to the Yudkowskian Institute!

    • Eliezer Yudkowsky says:

      There are good reasons for that decree, you know.

      • von Kalifornen says:

        Yes. By the way, you might what to answer the door. THere’s an armored personell carrier and a really scared looking recovery team outside.

  7. Aris Katsaris says:

    I liked the small detail where the djinni isn’t being a dick and therefore doesn’t say “Just one, and you just asked it.”

  8. Randy M says:

    Or perhaps just as irritating to utilitarians–
    Genie replies “There is no cure in this universe, only slightly better methods of selecting from the dangerous treatments now available. Good luck convincing the millions of people donating money for a cure to put it to better use.”

  9. Gareth Rees says:

    It’s rhetoric, innit? Attacking your opponents’ character is, alas, much more effective than attacking their argument. (You might enjoy notes on rhetoric if you’re not already familiar with it.)

  10. Jack says:

    “Are there actual respectable biologists (ie capable of getting themselves published) who will perform experiments for profit for what a private citizen would be able/willing to pay?”

    I’m really not sure, but my impression is that, in general, it’s hard to turn money into reputable scientific experiments, but most cancer research consists of “hey, we found this in a toad toe, does it do anything interesting?” and if you were willing to sink the cost of a mortgage into it, you could get a reasonable “this works better than anything else in test tubes, someone stump up funding for animal testing” results.

  11. John says:

    Supposedly marijuana is a pretty effective treatment for cancer.