Merchants Of Doom

Cancer Fear

It seems like everything causes cancer nowadays. The news is full of these 'silent killers' type of scary stories. Here's a funny example:

A [Schoenfield and Ioannidis (2013)] study of 50 common ingredients, taken randomly from a cookbook, found that 40 of them were the subject of articles, reporting on their cancer risks.

Source: Frank Furedi. How Fear Works: Culture of Fear in the Twenty-First Century. United Kingdom, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018. [x]

A little more about that study, Schoenfield and Ioannidis (2013), entitled Is everything we eat associated with cancer?:

After choosing 50 common ingredients out of a cookbook, they set out to find studies linking them to cancer rates—and found 216 studies on 40 different ingredients. Of course, most of the studies disagreed with each other. Most ingredients had multiple studies alternately claiming they increased and decreased the risk of getting cancer. (Sadly, bacon was one of the few foods consistently found to increase the risk of cancer.) Most of the statistical evidence was weak, and meta-analyses usually showed much smaller effects on cancer rates than the original studies.

Source: Alex Reinhart. Statistics done wrong: The woefully complete guide. No starch press, 2015. [B036]

How do these "findings" happen, only to get disproved later on?

If you send out a 10-page survey asking about nuclear power plant proximity, milk consumption, age, number of male cousins, favorite pizza topping, current sock color, and a few dozen other factors for good measure, you’ll probably find that at least one of those things is correlated with cancer. Particle physicists call this the look-elsewhere effect.

Amgen [once] retested 53 landmark preclinical studies in cancer research. [...] Despite working in collaboration with the authors of the original papers, the Amgen researchers could reproduce only six of the studies. [...] Of course, new findings get widely publicized in the press, while contradictions and corrections are hardly ever mentioned.

Source: Alex Reinhart. Statistics done wrong: The woefully complete guide. No starch press, 2015. [B036]

And besides, cancer risks are not always as straightforward as they seem:

Reduce your exposure to the sun, the logic goes, and skin cancer rates fall. True enough. Guess what goes up when sun exposure goes down, though: blood pressure. And as blood pressure climbs, so do rates of heart disease and stroke. People who avoid the sun have higher overall mortality rates than do people who seek it.

Source: Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein. A Hunter-gatherer's Guide to the 21st Century: Evolution and the Challenges of Modern Life. (2021). [B148]

In the 1970s, two researchers found the cancer incidence rate (specifically childhood leukemia) in an area of Denver was twice the national average. They wrongly concluded that nearby high voltage transmission lines were to blame. A firestorm ensued, despite there been little evidence that electric and magnetic fields (EMF) causes cancer.

The Wertheimer-Leeper cluster of cancer victims is one version of the “Texas sharpshooter” fallacy. The electromagnetic energy [from power lines] is far weaker than that from moonlight and the magnetic field is weaker than the earth’s magnetic field.

Source: Gary Smith. Standard Deviations: Flawed Assumptions, Tortured Data, and Other Ways to Lie with Statistics. United States, Harry N. Abrams, 2015. [B038]

An interesting case study is the story of asbestos. As Christopher Booker and Richard North point out "many people were led to believe that the slightest exposure to this ‘deadly’ substance might be almost as dangerous as contact with anthrax."1 While the truth is somewhat more nuanced, asbestos' bad reputation is not totally justified by the science.

‘Asbestos’, had come to be used to describe two quite different types of mineral. One form of what is generically but loosely called ‘asbestos’ includes five varieties of iron silicate, known collectively as ‘amphiboles’. Of these the most widely used are known as ‘blue’ and ‘brown asbestos’. When breathed in, the longer of their straight, narrow, sharp, acid-resistant fibres can penetrate the lungs and surrounding tissue in such a way that they cannot be dissolved or removed by the body’s defences. They are so persistent in the lungs that their ‘half-life’ is estimated at up to 150 years or more. It is the build-up of such ineradicable fibres which gives rise to potentially fatal disease.

A much commoner and very different substance is that known as ‘chrysotile’ or ‘white asbestos’, [...] with a half-life of only a few days. [...] By far the most extensive use of white asbestos fibres has been as a bonding agent in cement and plaster, as in roof slates and decorative wall coatings. Around 90 per cent of all the asbestos ever used has been to make ‘white asbestos cement’ products. When chrysotile is mixed with calcium-rich cement in this way the surface of the fibres goes through a chemical change. This helps the cement matrix to bond tightly to the fibre. A consequence is that, even when it is sawn or drilled, the fibres, bonded to the cement, cannot easily escape in a respirable form. Thus, by far the most widely used form of asbestos-containing material on the planet, comprising almost all the asbestos with which most people are ever likely to come in contact, poses no measurable risk to human health.

The source of the fear started with some wild estimates from the late seventies and early eighties. None of these projections ever came true.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIESH) and the National Cancer Institute (NIC) [wrote a paper that asbestos] exposure [...] would ‘result in over 2 million premature cancer deaths in the next three decades’. [...] What [the scientists] never mentioned was that the same list of Class 1 carcinogens included nickel compounds, leather, alcohol, chromium, sawdust, oral contraceptives, polyvinyl chloride, solar radiation and a wide range of other substances in universal, everyday use. None of these substances is banned as unsafe so long as exposure to them remains within safe limits. There is no prohibition on using nickel coins, or drinking a glass of beer, or sawing logs.

[A] court concluded that the ban’s net saving of human life would probably be zero. [Or take] the risk of increased automobile deaths through the use of less efficient braking materials. [...] [The] ‘best estimate’ for the risk of contracting mesothelioma from the kind of exposure caused by contact with asbestos cement was that this was so low as to be ‘probably insignificant’. As for the risk of contracting lung cancer it was ‘strongly arguable’ that this was ‘zero’.

It would seem that lawyers may have been able to shift the narrative in their favor:

By the early years of the twenty-first century, the number of compensation claims posted in the USA had soared above 700,000, worth more than $200 billion. Scores of companies had been forced into bankruptcy, and it was predicted that the total number of claims might eventually top three million. [...] Dubbed the ‘$200 billion miscarriage of justice’, [it] played its part in bringing Lloyd’s of London to its knees.

In 1990, when independent researchers checked the lung X-rays of 439 former tyre workers who had brought claims against a now bankrupt defendant, they found that ‘possibly 16, but more realistically 11 of the 439’ might have had ‘a condition consistent with exposure to asbestiform minerals’. A Kansas judge called this ‘a mockery of the practices of law and medicine’. It was later to be established that as many as 90 per cent or more of all compensation claims were at best dubious and at worst downright fraudulent.

A defence lawyer called this ‘the search for the solvent bystander’. [Most observers cannot] not understand how a disease that officially caused fewer than 200 deaths annually in the entire country could result in so many claims. [...] In June 2001 the worldwide business consultancy Towers Perrin estimated that the total corporate liability to US asbestos plaintiffs was likely to rise to $200 billion. Sixty per cent of this bill would be paid by the insurance industry, to be passed on to the public at large in higher premiums. It was forecast that the total number of claims might eventually rise as high as 3.1 million, of which only 570,000 had yet been filed. By now the corporations filing for bankruptcy included some of the bigger names in US business, including the glass makers Pittsburgh Corning, the boiler makers Babcock and Wilcox, the chemicals giant W.R. Grace and the auto-parts conglomerate Federal-Mogul.

Even now there is no scientific evidence that the fibres from the synthetic materials advertised as ‘asbestos substitutes’ are in fact any safer than the asbestos they are intended to replace. [...] Thus, in every possible way, thanks to the linguistic confusion which allowed the same term to be used for two quite different minerals, did the scare make ‘asbestos’ arguably the single most expensive word in history.

Source: Christopher Booker and Richard North. Scared to Death: From BSE to Global Warming: Why Scares are Costing Us the Earth. United Kingdom, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020. [x]

Here's a primer on asbestos1:

"Asbestos, it had been confirmed beyond doubt in the 1950s and 1960s, was a multiple killer. Breathed in, its sharp fibres had the capacity to inflict horrible damage on human lungs, leading to three fatal diseases, including two forms of cancer".

But it is an extremely versatile material with many important applications1:

"Its best-known property is that it is resistant to fire. [...] Then, uniquely among rocks, its fibres can be woven into a material, like silk, linen or wool. Lastly its fibres can bind together other substances, such as cement, with a tensile strength greater than that of steel".

The economic damage from asbestos liability is estimated to have "resulted in the bankruptcies of at least 60 firms since 1979"2.

Anything can kill if misused: "over the next 13 years we can expect more than a dozen deaths from ingested toothpicks".1

More Health Scares

Mad cow disease was a big scare, especially in Britain:

On Newsnight, Jeremy Paxman put it to Dr John Pattison, the chairman of Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC), that the number of deaths from vCJD might rise as high as 500,000. [...] The Observer conjured up a picture of how Britain might look in 20 years’ time. By 2016, it predicted, vCJD caught from eating BSE-infected beef in the late twentieth century would be killing half a million Britons every year. National Euthanasia Clinics would be on overtime, ‘struggling to help 500 people a week to a dignified death before brain disease robs them of reason and self-control’. Britain would long have been a nation in quarantine, totally shunned by the outside world. The Channel Tunnel would have been blocked off by ‘five miles of French concrete’. The health service would have collapsed under ‘the strain of caring for more than two million CJD victims’. The entire ‘fabric of the nation’ would be disintegrating. [...] Yet in May 1997, only fourteen months after predicting that the number of deaths from vCJD could eventually rise to 500,000, Dr Pattison confessed that his epidemic was not going to take place after all. The scientist [...] now indicated that the final figure might ‘end up at around 200’ [...] This extraordinary climbdown attracted virtually no notice from the media.

As a political compromise it was agreed that every animal over 30 months old, once it had reached the end of its useful life, should be sent up in smoke, even though not a single scientist had suggested that this was necessary. This scheme alone was to cost taxpayers £3.7 billion.

Source: Christopher Booker and Richard North. Scared to Death: From BSE to Global Warming: Why Scares are Costing Us the Earth. United Kingdom, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020. [x]

Public outrage in the 1960s and 1970s ended with a DDT ban, which may have caused more deaths than the initial measure was supposed to prevent:

DDT (or dichloro-diphenyl-tricholoroethane), [whose] insecticidal properties were discovered by Paul Hermann Müller, a Swiss, in 1939 (for which, in 1948, he won the Nobel Prize for Medicine). [...] In 1955 the World Health Organization used it to launch a global programme to eliminate malaria, reducing mortality rates by more than 95 per cent. [Then] biologist Rachel Carson [wrote] her book Silent Spring, published in 1962. [After that] US environmental groups campaigned for a complete ban on the use of DDT. [Eventually] in 1987, following studies on mice, the EPA classified it as a Group B2 carcinogen (along with coffee and gasoline). [Meanwhile] the use of DDT had helped to eradicate malaria from large parts of the globe including southern Europe, and undoubtedly saved millions of lives. In Sri Lanka, for instance, where, in 20 years before 1955, 1.5 million cases of malaria had resulted in 80,000 deaths, a DDT control programme reduced incidence of the disease, by 1963, to just 17 cases.

Popular novelist Michael Crichton [even echoed] that the ban had led to millions of deaths. [One of his characters in State of Fear says:] "Since the ban two million people a year have died unnecessarily from malaria, mostly children. All together, the ban has caused more than fifty million needless deaths. Banning DDT killed more people than Hitler".

Source: Christopher Booker and Richard North. Scared to Death: From BSE to Global Warming: Why Scares are Costing Us the Earth. United Kingdom, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020. [x]

Original Source: Sweeney Committee, 25 April 1972

The DDT controversy rages on:

Should [DDT, the] noxious pesticide be banned from the planet? The Economist has made a convincing argument that it should not. Much of the developing world is ravaged by malaria; some 300 million people suffer from the disease every year and more than a million die. (Of course, malaria is not a disease that we are particularly sensitive to in the developed world, since it was eradicated in North America and Europe fifty years ago. Tanzanian researcher Wen Kilama once famously pointed out that if seven Boeing 747s, mostly filled with children, crashed into Mt. Kilimanjaro every day, then the world would take notice. That is the scale on which malaria kills its victims. Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs has estimated that sub-Saharan Africa would be almost a third richer today if malaria had been eradicated in 1965. Now, back to DDT, which is the most cost-effective way of controlling the mosquitoes that spread the disease. The next best alternative is not only less effective but also four times as expensive. Do the health benefits of DDT justify its environmental costs? Yes, argue some groups—like the Sierra Club, the Endangered Wildlife Trust, Environmental Defense Fund, and the World Health Organization. Yes, you read those names correctly. They have all embraced DDT as a “useful poison” for fighting malaria in poor countries.

Source: Charles Wheelan. Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science. WW Norton & Company, 2010. [B047]

Why did elected officials not heed the warnings provided by scientists ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic. It may be related to crying wolf many years ago:

The ‘deadly H5N1 strain’ of the bird flu virus [...] was hailed by the World Health Organization (WHO) as ‘the greatest single health challenge’ to mankind, greater than HIV/AIDS or malaria.

Source: Christopher Booker and Richard North. Scared to Death: From BSE to Global Warming: Why Scares are Costing Us the Earth. United Kingdom, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020. [x]

Original Source: Jo Revill. Everything You Need To Know About Bird Flu (London, Rodale, 2005), pp. 16, 127.

It wasn't the first time policy makers had overreacted:

In 1976 and again in 2009, the U.S. government embarked on massive and expensive vaccination campaigns against the swine flu, having received warnings from epidemiologists each time that the currently prevailing strain was particularly likely to go catastrophically pandemic. In fact, both flus, while severe, fell well short of disastrous.

Source: Jordan Ellenberg. How not to be wrong: The power of mathematical thinking. Penguin, 2015.

Coming back to that 1976 example:

In March of that year, at the end of the flu season, a handful of soldiers at Fort Dix in New Jersey became ill. One died. The CDC gathered samples and found they’d been infected by a new strain of swine flu that appeared to be related to the virus that had caused the 1918 pandemic. The army found that at least five hundred more soldiers had been infected. [...] The vaccination program began on October 1, 1976, continued for two and a half months, and reached forty-three million Americans. [...] Then just about everything that could go wrong went wrong. [...] Two weeks into the program, three elderly people in Pittsburgh died. They’d all been vaccinated at the same clinic. Their deaths made national television news. The vaccine fell under new suspicion, even after heart failure emerged as the cause of all three deaths. A month later, a recently vaccinated man in Minnesota was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome. [...] That made national news again, as did cases of people who’d been vaccinated and become ill for reasons having nothing to do with the vaccine. The vaccine program went from controversial to unpopular to, on December 16, suspended. And the pandemic never came. The new strain of swine flu simply vanished. No one knew why.

Source: Michael Lewis. The premonition: A pandemic story. Penguin UK, 2021. [B022]

Sometimes the threats are real, but just grossly exaggerated in the public's mind:

Although [salmonella is] commonly found in poultry, cows, pigs, pets and wild animals, it includes more than 2,000 different strains, only relatively few of which are normally associated with human food poisoning. Because they can be killed off in various ways, as by cooking or exposure to the acid in vinegar, they usually only become dangerous where the handling of food is careless, either because it has been insufficiently cooked, or where it is infected by cross-contamination, then left in conditions which allow the bacteria to multiply. [Or take] E. coli. [...] Of hundreds of strains, again most are non-pathogenic and serve a useful purpose in suppressing other harmful bacteria.

Source: Christopher Booker and Richard North. Scared to Death: From BSE to Global Warming: Why Scares are Costing Us the Earth. United Kingdom, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020. [x]

Incorrect predictions have often been plastered all over the media at times of uncertainty over an impending health risk: "the examples of crack babies and AIDS illustrate a tendency to make exaggerated, worst-case projections regarding the spread of new social problems".3


1: Christopher Booker and Richard North. Scared to Death: From BSE to Global Warming: Why Scares are Costing Us the Earth. United Kingdom, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020. [x]

2: Stephen G. Moyer. Distressed debt analysis: Strategies for speculative investors. J. Ross Publishing, 2004. [B062]

3: Joel Best. Damned Lies and Statistics. University of California Press, 2012. [B041]