Friday, July 04, 2008

Scared to Death by Christopher BOOKER & Richard NORTH

Book review by "Ken"

This is an expose of the cost to society of unsubstantiated scare campaigns.

The human race seems to have an inherent need to predict the end of western civilization as we know it. A familiar sight in cartoon corner is the bearded fanatic holding up a sign saying "THE END OF THE WORLD IS NIGH!". The fact that we have a cartoon cliche for the event should alert us to the frequency of such claims. Such portentous predictions have a similar negative outcome to the modern scares of bird flu, global warming etc. but without the enormous cost to society of these latter phenomena. Unfortunately, the actual purveyors of mass hysteria are not the largely ignored hirsute placard wavers, but respectable suited bureaucrats, ambitious self-promoting scientists, sensation-seeking media, and sycophantic politicians who are too scared to back the true science against a rising tide of popular opinion.

The book's authors were personally involved in many of the scares recorded in its pages, either as consultants or scientific investigators, and so have firsthand knowledge of the fallacious reasoning that propagates many of the panics. They have split the text into three sections; part one simply states case studies of food scares that caused financial ruin to many producers through needless draconian legislation, bad science, and overzealous field operatives; part two elaborates on other non-food related scares while the epilogue attempts to question the reasons the human race seeks out these disasters and offers a pseudo-religious hypothesis for our motivations.

While reading about these events it is difficult not to feel your hackles rising in anger at the simple lack of common sense being applied to apparently innocuous situations that bring unbelievable hardship and, in many cases, bankruptcy to the people concerned. The reader's sense of frustration is heightened by the natural desire to confront the officials concerned and demand answers. While in a few cases a follow up report is offered, I felt an overwhelming desire for resolution and a general feeling of anger towards officials who apparently made stupid choices even when faced with logical truths.

Food health scares in Great Britain saw an overreaction that caused a 70 percent increase in the number of statutory instruments issued between 1986 and 2001. Most of these demands for upgrades and changes to premises were prompted by regulations flowing from new legislation or directives from the European Community.

The authors offer a plausible explanation for the mechanism behind this proliferation of regulations, but seem to simply shrug at the inevitability of it, accepting that the motivations are difficult to disagree with. They accept that our society is obsessed with the desire to legislate away any possibility of harm or accident and in the process are causing idiotic precautions the cost of which are way out of proportion to the risk.

All of the cases examined, of course, were investigated in hindsight when it is relatively easy to isolate areas of extravagant precaution and overreaction. Unfortunately scientific confirmation of the causes of mass poisonings require time to investigate, setting up double-blind tests and examining all of the variables concerned while potentially putting thousands of innocent people at risk. This lag in scientific proof can be very dangerous, "lack of proof that long term damage is not caused by mobile phone use is not proof that mobile phone use does not cause long term damage"

It may be that modern life necessitates that we have to accept the ridiculously high cost of panic-driven precautionary measures in order to prevent a real pandemic. Modern communications and technology is moving so fast that there is very little time to verify safety before rolling out new ideas. When a new cancer drug looks promising everyone with cancer wants access to it immediately.

We have to face the fact that we are living in an age of instant gratification. We cover up undesirable side effects by prescribing a fix for the side effects. We are trapped in a cycle of fixes for fixes.

In attempting to explain the inexplicable, the authors delve into man's deep-seated fears and desires, even suggesting that we are seeking out super sensations simply because we live in an age of unprecedented peace and prosperity. The arguments are well put and quite persuasive, especially the thought that the need for a cause to throw our energies behind has supplanted the religious fervour that is rapidly losing its grip on the masses.

Overall the book is an excellent source of controversial material to give ammunition to those wishing to further the cause of rationalism when arguing with bigots.

I was left with a sense of awe and amazement at the obviously massive extent of hysteria-led decisions that are made at huge public expense by people untrained in scientific principles. Decision makers in general seem singularly unsuitable for the jobs entrusted to them.

There is another review of the same book -- by Prof. Brignell -- here

Eating broccoli reduces prostate cancer?

This is little more than speculation. Some proper skepticism expressed below.

EATING broccoli once a week can reduce a man's chances of developing prostate cancer and might even slow tumour growth, a study suggests. Australian cancer experts have welcomed findings from a British study which have confirmed the benefits of the vegetable on cancer in humans, not just lab rats. However they warn it is still unclear how protective the broccoli is or who will benefit most from adding it to their dinner plate.

Researchers from Institute of Food Research in Norwich, in eastern England, gave 22 men 400g of either broccoli or peas a week equal to one or two portions in addition to their normal diet, for a year. Tissue samples were taken from their prostate gland before and during the trial and the results showed that broccoli changed how genes linked to prostate cancer act. This suggests the broccoli-rich diet reduces the risk of developing prostate cancer and also the chance of localised cancer becoming more aggressive. Other studies have shown that cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli may reduce the risk of prostate cancer and other chronic disease, but this is the first to explain why.

Lead researcher Professor Richard Mithen said the results, published in the journal PLoS ONE, were exciting because they indicate benefits from relatively small quantities. "Other fruits and vegetables have been shown to also reduce the risk of prostate cancer and are likely to act through other mechanisms," he said. "Once we understand these, we can provide much better dietary advice in which specific combinations of fruit and vegetable are likely to be particularly beneficial."

Cancer Council Australia chief executive Professor Ian Olver said the result was interesting but larger studies were needed to prove broccoli caused the reduced cancer risk. Dr Michael Fenech, principal research scientist at CSIRO Human Nutrition, warned that studies had yet to show broccoli consumption affected levels of PSA, the main biomarker of prostate cancer risk, or that it changed tumour cell growth. "There is also little direct evidence to suggest that eating more broccoli protects you against prostate cancer if you are susceptible due to any genetic or environmental factor," Dr Fenech said.


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