Sunday, May 18, 2008

Everything in the Entire World Causes Cancer

Forget about making a list of suspected carcinogens - I'd like to know what items have not been labeled "carcinogenic" by one stupid study or another over the past thirty years. Why doesn't the entire scientific community just put out a press release which says, "we have now determined that EVERYTHING IN THE ENTIRE WORLD CAUSES CANCER FOR EVERYONE FOREVER", and be done with it?

Look at your newspaper tomorrow; somewhere inside it, there will be yet another article on how goldfish, or dental floss, or picnic baskets, or anything, "has been linked to increased risk of cancer". Evidently, like the speed of light, it is an immutable law of the universe that there is no better way for a scientist to secure funding for a study than to announce s/he is hot on the trail of a "hitherto unknown possible cause of cancer!". And evidently, no better way to secure a headline, or sell papers or TV ad space, than to trot out the old "c" word again.

Nor does the ease of the cancer game make it any less effective. For example, if you don't really get any solid evidence of a link in your study, but you still think there might be a link, or would just rather there be a link, you just announce, "we have concluded that there may be a link between Item X and cancer".

That is, you only say what everyone in the world actually already knows: that there "may" be a "link". Well, yeah - sure. There "may" be a link between what I ate for breakfast this morning and who will win the World Series next year; there "may" be a "link" between any two things in the entire universe. It's just that this doesn't tell us anything important. Very rarely are we even told what kind of "link" it "may" be, which is another problem. For example, I could justifiably say that there is a "link between being alive and cancer", since only live people get cancer. But this doesn't tell us much. Anyway, none of this matters, because the merest reminder that something scary is possible is enough to rivet us. It's certainly enough to get us to buy the newspapers and books, watch the shows, etc.

Fortunately for the cancer-scare industry, it is quite easy to wind up with "evidence" of carcinogenesis. All you need to do is locate a chemical in some substance safe for human use - say, in a pesticide or disinfectant spray - and then multiply its concentration to astronomically high levels, wildly in excess of what any human would ever encounter in real life; and then, voila! CANCER! Hooray!

There is something deeply irrational in this. The evidence showing that DDT, or a thousand other items, is perfectly safe when used correctly, just melts into nothingness when humans hear about evidence that the item is UNsafe when used INcorrectly. We can even talk about our latest cancer fears sitting next to our children at dinner, all of whom are holding a utensil called a knife, which if used incorrectly, would be lethal, and not notice any irony there.

A large enough amount of anything will kill us. A large enough amount of many substances will specifically trigger carcinogenesis. If we are doing things like constantly inhaling ash into our lungs, or eating forty crates of unwashed, pesticided cabbages every day for six years, yes, we should be concerned about cancer and change our behaviour accordingly. Overall, though, it seems to me that the incessant onslaught of cancer scare media pieces is hardly worth our notice 95% of the time. (Maybe it's 99%...).

Just my two cents.


smile said...

Thanks for sharing your thought-provoking humor!

I really like the way your brain works.

Su said...

Well, you probably already know this, but most studies have to write "may" since correlation does not equal causation. Of course, not all studies are created equal. In order to ascertain the importance of the findings, you have to look at the methodology, the statistical analysis and how the conclusion relates to all of the above.

Sadly, the media prefers to write the words "scientific study" and throw it around as irrefutable proof. Even sadder, most of the human population blindly accepts it based on the authoritative phrase "scientific study". It's all so Milgram-esque.

I'm guessing that you've read Stanovich's "How To Think Straight About Psychology". I think it should be re-tooled as, "How To Think Critically, So You Don't Act Like A Blind And Ignorant Idiot"...but I guess it's just a little too long.

Stacey Lau said...

I'm still afraid of red jelly beans, have been since I was a little girl.

Anonymous said...

Everything gives you cancer
Everything gives you cancer
Theres no cure, theres no answer
Everything gives you cancer

Dont touch that dial
Dont try to smile
Just take this pill
Its in your file

Dont work hard
Dont play hard
Dont plan for the graveyard
Remember -

Everything gives you cancer
Everything gives you cancer
Theres no cure, theres no answer
Everything gives you cancer

Dont work by night
Dont play by day
Youll feel all right
But you will pay

No caffeine
No protein
No booze or

Great song by Joe Jackson from "Night And Day"

T. C. R. said...

Joe Jackson, huh? I wish I'd written that!

Anonymous said...

LOL, wow I am a morning person too Tal :} nice analogy btw..yes and swallowing small amounts of saliva periodically causes cancer too.
Much love~ Pennylane

Anonymous said...

In conclusion...It just isn't healthy to be alive. Glad I am though.

Anonymous said...

From my past recolection from high school, all of us have cancer cells within us, to which some foreign pathogen needs to invade our bodies in order for our whole immunological ecosystem within the body to be thrown off. Since this revelation from the doctors everything causes cancer. However, as Sue has stated about the "scientific studies" becoming thrown around like confetti is true. Furthermore, by the lack of citations for the regular readers to the media system and thereby the ignorance on statistics by the population to digest the findings is either slim or non existent. Moreover, the accusations of cigarette smoke causing cancer irrevocably is blaming all of the air pollutants causes of cancer indoors and outdoors all on a 20 pack of 4000 carcinogenics inhaled for $5-$7 while the cars, fossil fuels burning ect. are ignored. This one just fueled my anger, but it was humorous.