Red Wine and Sunshine Ain't That Bad
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It 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.

Top 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".

Then 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.

Much 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."  

Next, 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.

And 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:

"Everything is poisonous. Nothing is poisonous. It's all a matter of dose."

Dr James Le Fanu,  In Sickess and in Health  (column in the Sunday Telegraph)  Sept 2005


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Last modified: September 10, 2006