Curt Schilling, a major league pitcher, and a damn fine one, announced last week that he had been diagnosed with cancer. He didn’t specify which kind of the dreaded disease he had, but he did ask us to keep him and his family in our thoughts and prayers.
I will do that. I have a special affection for him. Curt pitched for my team, the Philadelphia Phillies, in the ‘90s and he contributed in his typically outspoken style to the internet discussion group I run for the Phillies. Curt also wrote a cover blurb for the hardcover edition of my minor league baseball book, Small-Town Heroes, for which I was deeply grateful. All in all, Curt has contributed enough to my life so that I’m bringing some extra energy to hoping he beats his cancer and his family finds the strength and love to endure what lies ahead of them.
That’s background. Now here’s why this is a Caveman Logic column in Psychology Today. In the course of discussing Curt’s diagnosis, one of our discussion group members reminded us that some other members of the Phillies in that era and before have also been diagnosed with cancer. They include catcher Darren Daulton; first baseman and broadcaster John Kruk; player/coach/manager John Vukovich; pitcher Tug McGraw; player/coach/manager Johnny Oates. Recently, Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, perhaps the greatest Phillie of all time, made veiled reference to an “undisclosed illness.” Could it be? That’s a lot of Phillies and a lot of cancer, some of which (Vukovich, McGraw and Oates) has already been fatal. What’s going on? Is there something about playing for the Phillies? Playing in Veteran’s Stadium during that era? Was there something in the bowels of that cavernous edifice that led one to develop cancer?
Many of us on the Phillies discussion list scratched our heads and wondered. It was puzzling. Just what do we know about cancer? Plainly, not enough. Just what do we know about the construction materials used to build the Vet? Barely anything. Ex-Phillie Larry Bowa points to exposed pipes or Astroturf as possible causes.
What kind of substandard goods or high voltage lines or who knows what kind of carcinogen might be lurking in the bowels of that building? Isn’t that scary language? Any time you get “carcinogen” and “bowels” in the same sentence, you know you’re going to grab somebody’s attention. About fifty million fans paid to see the Phillies play during that period, many of them repeat customers. Are they doomed? How about the people who worked there every day? The grounds crew? The people who cleaned the clubhouse, scrubbed the toilets, sold hot dogs and beer? That’s a lot of potential victims.
Let’s stop this. I purposely did it to trigger some of the fear and panic that lurks in most of us at the suggestion that something dangerous that we don’t really understand is loose in our environment. A celebrity (in this case, Curt Schilling) has been wounded by it. That brings it to our attention. Maybe we’re next! Didn’t I go see the Phillies play one afternoon back in the ‘90s? Maybe I’ll get it too! This isn’t very far from the territory staked out by supermarket tabloids, with their paranoia about government conspiracies. Cell phones cause brain cancer! Childhood vaccinations cause autism! My god! We’re all going to die!
The problem isn’t supermarket tabloids or idiotic bloggers. The problem is that our minds (This is where the plug for my book, Caveman Logic comes in, and not a moment too soon!) are still working at default settings geared to half a million years ago. We should see through this nonsense, this non-logic, but we don’t. We fall right into the trap baited by our Pleistocene Age minds. Read Caveman Logic. Seriously! If you don’t want to read my book, seek out any of a dozen similar books that show you all the pure drivel you accept because others around you believe it, and because it is packaged to slip by every defective circuit in your Pleistocene brain. Just take a deep breath. Invest a few more calories into thinking clearly and maybe you’ll see that what’s being offered is often pure crapola.
I often get asked, “So what do you think causes this? If it isn’t some unshielded high voltage line or asbestos insulation buried deep down, out of sight, what do you think it is, Mr. Smartie pants? Mister fancy University Professor? Mr. author? You’re so smart. You tell us!”
And my answer to those questions is to say, “Before we try to explain it, let’s make sure there is an “it” to explain.” Somebody ought to carve those 15 words onto a tablet somewhere and upload it to YouTube where, we can only hope, it will go viral.
One member of the Phillies discussion list, who works for the New York State Department of Health, calmly said (I’ll quote this exactly, although I’ll withhold his name just in case it could embarrass him), “Being an epidemiologist, I'd say it's likely a coincidence. We deal with "clusters" like this all the time, and they usually don't pan out as having an environmental or occupational link.”
Get it? He’s saying there may not be any “it” to explain. No guarantees, of course. There never are. But based on existing evidence, it seems unlikely. And, if you haven’t noticed, I’m not doing the expected thing here, either, which is to fuel the fear/conspiracy approach to this topic. Run, everybody! The Government is keeping critical information from us that we need to stay alive! Here’s what REALLY happened. You won’t read it anywhere else. Stay with me and I’ll protect you.
Understandably, that’s where your mind goes and anything that appeals to it gets priority. Panic does funny things to logic. Even without panic, human logic is far from terrific. The present situation, unwittingly triggered by Curt Schilling’s diagnosis, is a case in point. It sounds like eye-bulging panic is what it might take to survive. But instead of feeding your panic and paranoia, I’m talking like a calm epidemiologist. I’m suggesting that the odds of this cancer “cluster” happening by chance are greater than you think. Maybe there is no cause for alarm.
Because you’re hard-wired to survive, you think, “Chance? Hell! If there’s ANY chance of this being real, I’m going to get out of here. Better safe than sorry. What do I care if I’m indulging in a false belief. A Type I error. A False Positive. Better deluded than dead!
So, yeah, you think, that cluster really IS there. All those cancers are happening together beyond chance, and they’re happening for a REASON. The hell with Caveman Logic. Let’s figure out what those risk factors are and how they might affect ME. Did I ever attend a game at the Vet? Did I ever eat a hot dog there? Did I ever use one of those bathrooms? Did I ride in an elevator? Did I bring a souvenir home? Maybe I should go see a doctor. If it’s happening to Curt, it could happen to me. The hell with faulty logic and false positives. I’ve got to survive!
Punchline: Take a deep breath. Take off your loincloth and put your jeans back on. Board up your cave and go back to your high rise. It’s OK to use the more recent, intelligent parts of that spectacular mind you were blessed with. You don’t have to default to the Pleistocene Age in order to survive. Honestly. It’s OK to think, not just to run. And while you’re at it, go read Caveman Logic.
Caveman Logic, written by Hank Davis, published by Prometheus Books, 2009.
Small-Town Heroes: Images of Minor League Baseball, written by Hank Davis, published by University Iowa Press, 1997. Reprinted by Bison Books, 2003.
“Ex-Phillies wonder is stadium if to blame for players’ brain cancer.” By Randy Miller, in USA Today Sports, July 22, 2013.