is a curious phenomenon that, more than at any other time in our history, there
should be quite so many interest groups, policy-makers, lobbyists and busybodies
of every persuasion seeking (ostensibly) to protect our well-being.
They come with a large repertoire of ingenious ways for transforming the
simplest of facts into fearful statistics that might support their case.
of the list is undoubtedly the "unwarranted extrapolation", usefully
deployed when a much-heralded crisis fails, after all, to materialise. Thus the
100,000 cases of BSE in human beings projected at the beginning of the 1990s
have become a grand total of just 148. No
matter, researchers recently believed they had identified the presence of the
abnormal protein that causes the disease in two of 2,000 specimens of human
tonsils they examined. Extrapolate
that to the entire population of the country, and instantly we are back again
with the promise that "tens of thousands might die from BSE".
there are the cases of "baseline bias", when comparing the present
with some carefully chosen moments from the past can provide the most compelling
evidence of hidden dangers. This is
a particular favourite of the environmentalist lobby, where juxtaposing the mean
average temperature of the past decade with that of the mini Ice Age 200 years
ago (when the Thames froze in winter) is offered as irrefutable proof of the
relentless progress of global warming. Further
statistical sleights of hand include the "misleading comparison",
"the false analogy" the "crucial missing fact" and much else
besides. The upshot is the proliferation of rules and regulations to make our
safe, undangerous lives yet safer and less dangerous.
angered by this mixture of "half truths, tendentious beliefs and
unsubstantiated opinions", a couple of medical emeritus professors, the
anaesthetist Stanley Feldman and the biochemist Vincent Marks, invited a medley
of authoritative sceptics to write an essay debunking (or as they put it,
"unpicking") such mythological hazards, which they have published in a
book called Panic Nation (John Blake, £9.99). Two brief examples must suffice.
First, Prof Sam Schuster of the University of Newcastle in his essay "Sun and the Skin: a Violation of the Truth" disputes the claim that the increase in the skin cancer melanoma is due to the larger numbers of people who sunbathe abroad. To be sure, Prof Schuster points out, the number of these cancers has shot up by 250 per cent during the 20-year period under study, but the mortality rate, the numbers dying from the cancer, has not budged. This can only be, he argues (correctly I'm sure), because pathologists are reclassifying moles as malignant which they would previously have designated as benign. "Even more doubtful" he says, "is the role of ultraviolet light in causing this cancer, the evidence for which certainly does not justify the current anti-solar terror campaign."
Prof Viucent Marks reviews the overwhelming evidence that generous quantities of
alcohol, and red wine in particular, can prolong ones life by several years.
Those who consume twice as much as is officially deemed "over the
limit" still live longer than the habitual teetotaller.
so it goes on, as each of the alleged risks of everyday life is subjected to
critical scrutiny and found wanting. This
may be a modern phenomenon, but its weakness, the editors point out, was first
recognised by the great sage Paracelsus (1493-1541), whose portrait and most
famous aphorism they have chosen as their. book's frontispiece:
is poisonous. Nothing is poisonous. It's all a matter of dose."
James Le Fanu, In Sickess and in
Health (column in the Sunday
Telegraph) Sept 2005
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