A shimmering of rationality in a “10 o’clock news” world
Science journalism, specifically the kind on the nightly news, is full of scare tactics to sell ads. Everything causes cancer. Your cell phone causes cancer. Your baby’s toys are full of cancer. Watching the competing channel’s news program causes cancer.
A surprising number of people (and politicians) believe this stuff (and why shouldn’t they? I don’t blame them). Even when the danger is real (for example, asbestos) the response tends to be disproportionate to the danger. I have long maintained a harsh, unforgiving stance (i.e. I constantly fight with on internet comment boards) towards the people that propagate lies and disproportionate claims about the carcinogenic properties of everyday items. Anytime somebody complains about the parts-per-gajillion chemicals in their food supply, I am quick with the “you should spend time worrying about things like not being obese, not driving like an idiot, and not being a flaccid, mountain-dew consuming sedentary bag of Doritos.” I make a lot of friends on the internet.
You can imagine my delight to find this article in Slate. It’s the best kind of article (namely, one that confirms my preexisting beliefs).
This thinking cleaves to a popular motif: The natural world is less toxic and more healthful than the industrial one. To avoid cancer, you should buy organic produce, drink unpasteurized milk from specialty dairies, eat more fiber to cleanse the colon of carcinogens, and avoid cheap cosmetics. To protect one’s family, in short, become a paranoid consumer of everyday “artificial” products.
Natural is not the stamp of healthy. “Natural” is getting life-taking diarrhea from some tiny worm which lives in your lettuce. “Natural” is STDs and measles and mumps and the plague. Back in the days before pesticides and plastics, the average lifespan was, give or take, 30 years. That’s a nice and “natural” time for a human to live.
Would I live in an asbestos house with lead pipes and a mercury fountain in the foyer? Probably not. Should people stop questioning the safety of their household and occupational materials? Certainly not. Should people who wont drink out of a plastic bottle because it may or may not raise their infinitesimal chances of contracting a rare subtype of cancer be called irrational? I think so. And, just like the article says, I think the money that goes into beating dead horses (*cough* cell phone cancer *cough*) should go into beating the horses that kill lots of people each day. It’s not a matter of giving up on safety research, but rather a reprioritization of it.