Now that It Causes Cancer, Are You Going to Give Up Your Bacon? How About Your Cellphone? Or Your Pesticides?

Cancer is the scariest disease, but not all causes of cancer frighten us equally.

            The first wave of reporting about the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) listing of processed meats as carcinogens, and red meat as a probable carcinogen, was predictably simplistic and alarmist. The second wave, by science journalists with the maturity to give things a bit of analysis, is commendably trying to put things in perspective.


     There is exemplary work by Casey Dunlop for Cancer Research UK putting the actual risk in perspective: Processed meat and cancer — what you need to know.  Bottom Line: Heavy consumption of processed meats like bacon, ham, sausages, hot dogs, corned beef, and beef jerky, over years, increases the number of people likely to die of bowel cancer by five per thousand. Pretty small.

     Several pieces also explain the caveats about just what a listing by IARC (part of the World Health Organization — WHO) does and doesn’t mean.

Sarah Zhang at Wired:  Bacon causes cancer? Sort of. Not Really. Ish.  

Brad Plumer at VoxThe bacon freak-out: Why the WHO's cancer warnings cause so much confusion  which includes this helpful chart:

  

And at The Atlantic, in Beefing with the World Health Organization’s Cancer Warnings, Ed Yong suggests

Perhaps we need a separate classification scheme for scientific organizations that are “confusogenic to humans.”

     But beyond putting the risk in perspective and explaining IARC’s listing system, there's another important aspect to this story that needs consideration. Why does labeling anything a carcinogen automatically provoke such concern and attention in the first place, even when the actual likelihood of cancer is really low? And why do some carcinogens freak us out more than others, regardless of the actual number of cases each one is likely to cause?

     The answers come from the psychology of risk perception, which has found that, as the pioneer researcher in the field, Paul Slovic, has put it, “risk is a feeling.” Our perception of potential danger is not just based on the facts. It’s mostly a product of how the facts feel. Any officially designated "carcinogen" gets our attention, regardless of how many people might actually get sick or die, because we are more afraid of things that harm us in particularly painful ways than we are of statistically more likely dangers that don’t involve as much suffering. We are also more afraid of risks over which we feel we have no control. We still believe that we are powerless to cure cancer. Saddled with those psychological characteristics, cancer has long been the disease people fear most, and anything that can cause it evokes special concern.

            But why do some carcinogens freak us out more than others, regardless of how many people each one might affect? Compare the reaction to the IARC designation of processed meat to its listing of two other probable or possible carcinogens: radiation from mobile phones, and the pesticide glyphosate. Here too you can see how emotion more than pure, objective reason shapes how we perceive and respond to risk.

     Processed meat is the only "known carcinogen" — IARC rating 1A — of the three. It’s getting lots of attention now, but as was the case with the listing of radiation from mobile phones (2B or "possibly carcinogenic"), that attention is likely to fade, because these potential carcinogens just don’t scare as much as some others. Why? Well, we like our bacon/ham/sausages/hot dogs/corned beef/beef jerky, and we LOVE our mobile phones. The more of a benefit we feel we get out of some product or behavior or choice, the more we tend to play down any risk that may come with it.

     Compare the reaction to the listing of mobile phone radiation to the much deeper and longer-lasting concern in response to IARC’s listing of glyphosate as a 2A "probable carcinogen." That’s the same rating IARC gives red meat, steroid medications, air emissions from wood stoves, and shift work that interferes with our sleep cycle. Why has the listing of glyphosate evoked more persistent attention and concern than the listing of those other threats? Glyphosate doesn’t endanger more people. But it is...

  • A human-made (unnatural) industrial chemical, a general class of boogeyman we have learned to fear, regardless of the evidence about each one.
  • A pesticide, another stigmatized category of threat we’ve learned to automatically worry about.
  • Made and sold by Monsanto, a company vilified by environmentalists.
  • Associated with genetically modified crops, which are also attacked by some environmental advocates... more than a few of whom probably enjoy the warm glow of sitting near their wood stoves and talking on their mobile phones even while working on their “Glyphosate is a carcinogen!” anti-GMO outreach.
  •      The problem with these emotion-based responses to risk is, when we worry about some things more than the evidence says we need to, or we don’t worry about some things as much as the evidence says we should, we sometimes make choices that feel right, but which may actually increase the danger. Ignoring the low but real risk of pigging out on processed meats because — hey, I like my bacon. Oops. Opposing genetically modified food on environmental grounds, even the crops that have been modified to allow farmers to replace a far more toxic pesticide with safer glyphosate, reduce pesticide use overall, and employ other weed-control practices that do far less damage to the soil? Oops. And as for excessive general fear of cancer — that can in many ways do more harm than the disease itself. 

         The IARC listings usually get lots of attention, as anything connected with cancer often does. But it’s not just these listings, and our knowledge about what is or isn’t carcinogenic, that determine how much risk we actually face. That also depends on how we actually behave. In the end, risk is determined by how we feel and what we do with what we know.

    Image: Getty Images, John Rentsen DigitalVision

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    Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

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    • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
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    Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

    The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

    Mind & Brain
    • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
    • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
    • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

    Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

    Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

    "[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

    Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

    Psychoanalysis

    Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

    The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

    The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

    That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

    Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

    Repressed memories

    Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

    Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

    First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

    Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

    More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

    This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

    "The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

    The Oedipal complex

    The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

    During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

    That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

    Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

    But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

    Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

    An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

    The Freudian slip

    Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

    "Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

    In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

    According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

    "This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

    Freud's case studies

    Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

    It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

    For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

    Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

    Sigmund Freud and his legacy

    Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

    Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

    If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

    When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

    Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

    But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

    With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

    U.S. reacts to New Zealand's gun ban

    On Thursday, New Zealand moved to ban an array of semi-automatic guns and firearms components following a mass shooting that killed 50 people.

    (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
    Politics & Current Affairs
    • Gun control supporters are pointing to the ban as an example of swift, decisive action that the U.S. desperately needs.
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