The assessment of Risk is one of the great big things of our time. From business to politics to social cultural history, we are constantly engaged in a seemingly relentless pursuit to uncover causes and effects; and more often than not, the hidden risks that lay within. I’v had countless conversations with people who confidently make pronouncement of complex social matters on the strength of anecdotes or personal experiences. And while that sort of thing is generally harmless, it does hint at a desire, we all have to seek patterns and theorize about causes and effects – without applying scrutiny to any confounding factors that may foil our thinking.
Not surprisingly, the popular mass media (and yes I know, they are ‘not a monolith’..blah blah blah.. tedious point raised again and again by hacks…*rolls eyes and yawns*) are keen to pander to that instinct. Whether its the tabloid newspapers or cable news channels, this constant ‘sinister scare’ narrative is too attractive an opportunity for them to pass up. And unfortunately, critical appraisal of evidence behind the said sinister scares, often becomes the first casualty in these instances
Chief among them are medical stories. Most tellingly of course the “MMR Vaccine causing Autism scare”. As I wrote in that post, I think one of the biggest drivers of that scare was the media’s inability to grasp the concept of rational risk evaluation. They found a sinister scare story, they found a doctor who was vaguely superficially plausible authority on the subject – and they ran with it.
The Daily Mail
They Daily Mail is one of the top selling newspapers and most visited websites in the UK . And their ‘Cancer stories’ are just utterly bonkers. Among the things that they claim, ’cause cancer’ include ‘divorce‘,wifi, toiletries , facebook and Coffee. While the things that ‘prevent or cure cancer’ are ‘crusts‘ ‘tea-spray‘, red pepper, carrots and coffee. Yes, according to the ‘Daily Mail’, Coffee both prevents and causes Cancer. Ben Goldacre of Bad Science thinks that they are “involved in bizarre exercise to divide all the inanimate objects in the world that either cause or cure cancer”.
To that end there are couple of awesome websites devoted to documenting just that . The magnificently titled Daily Mail Oncologogical Ontology Project and “Kill or Cure Heruko” ; both studiously document the latest musings on Cancer risks by the Daily Mail. While this is all fun and games, there is a more cynical side to this as well. To set this up I urge you to look at this story where they are calling into question the safety of the cervical cancer vaccines.
Martin Robbins of the LayScience blog, made a fascinating discovery. Just a short boat ride across Irish Sea in Ireland, the same paper (i.e. The Irish Daily Mail) ran a campaign “to Roll out the Cervical Cancer Vaccine”. Yes you read it right. The SAME paper which was highlighting the dangers of vaccine in the UK was putting pressure one the (Irish government) to roll them out. Two completely contradictory positions on health risks. How do we explain this discrepency?
I suppose in the UK, they were campaigning AGAINST it because perhaps its a transgressive thing which possibly encourages promiscuity among young people – something the mail famously rails against. And in Ireland, maybe they were campainging in FAVOUR of it, because its a chance to kick an incumbant government. Its just idle speculation really, but essentially what seems to be happening here, is that they’r making scientific health/medical pronouncement on the basis of their political narrative. I don’t think you can fully attribute this to an inability to read obscure medical journals on the risks of Cervical Cancer Vaccines, I think – and this is a point made on Bad Science – it can only be explained thorough mischief and distortion. Things which arise out of a desire to fit the science into pre-existing political narratives. Its all utterly farcical as Goldacre observes
As far as I can tell and I must stress this is only my interpretation of the available evidence; they just find something they disagree with politically, and pretend it GIVES YOU CANCER
Fukushima and Nuclear Power
Another example of this is perhaps the fallout from the 2011 Tsunami and Earthquake disaster in Japan. Soon after the catastrophic event, attention turned the Fukushima Nuclear Power plant and the meltdown that occured there. It triggered a mass hysteria over the dangers of radiation and how it is bound to affect populations. Article after article was going on about risks of radiation following that meltdown. Except most of it has really failed to materialize in the way people were claiming.
Among the more prominent voices driving this case were Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, two environmental organisations founded on anti-Nuclear activism. I think this also demonstrates that exaggerating dangers and praying on hysteria isn’t just the preserve of the Right Wing. I’ll write a more detailed post on how some campaign groups like Helen Caldicott’s “Physicians for Social Responsibility”, have misrepresented the evidence around the dangers of radiation, in contradiction to the mainstream scientific consensus in and in favour of fringe studies. But suffice is to say, this was a prime example where a rational risk assessment was thoroughly undermined by political activism. In fact undermined to the point which saw governments, including esteemed ones like Germany, deciding to shut down its Nuclear plants- replacing them with Coal/Fossil Fuel plants in a move that is set to increase their carbon emissions from the energy sector over the next decade – even if overall emissions in Germany did fall in the last year. Increasing their dependence on Fossil Fuel in the Climate Change context is essentially an environmental disaster – spurred on by environmental activists.
The same hysteria-led risk narrative often drives the media reporting on Crime Issues. Actual Crime Statistics are going down but the perception of Crime in people’s minds is as high as ever. The London Riots of 2011 provided a perfect storm for them to kick this into overdrive. I would go an develop this point, but I think this absolutely stonking talk by Michael Story (@mwstory) does a very good job of it already. It is about five minutes of your time, and well worth it.
People often look for a conspiracy type smoking gun in matters like these, but I think that is mistake. You won’t find men stroking cats demanding their minions to distort evidence around Cancer risks. In reality the push for hits/ratings and the time consuming nature of verifying stories (and disincentives associated with them) are probably a better explanation for all these shenanigans. Either way, I do think that the public is misled, and its ultimately a spurious distinction whether there was any premeditated intention to so or not. In the world where we’r we are exposed to a million different things everyday, it is even more important that we get good, solid, scientifically verified information about the risks in our day-to-day lives – not wild goose chases which only serve to confuse and mislead us.