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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 Vox: The 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...
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
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
We’ve mapped a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way. Take the virtual tour here.
See the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.
Astronomers have mapped about a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way, in the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.
A new study shows our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center than previously estimated.
Arrows on this map show position and velocity data for the 224 objects utilized to model the Milky Way Galaxy. The solid black lines point to the positions of the spiral arms of the Galaxy. Colors reflect groups of objects that are part of the same arm, while the background is a simulation image.
Apple sold its first iPod in 2001, and six years later it introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a new era of personal technology.