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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
Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.
- Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
- As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
- The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
China moves to Russia and India takes over Canada. The Swiss get Bangladesh, the Bangladeshi India. And the U.S.? It stays where it is.
What if the world were rearranged so that the inhabitants of the country with the largest population would move to the country with the largest area? And the second-largest population would migrate to the second-largest country, and so on?
A recent analysis of a 76-million-year-old Centrosaurus apertus fibula confirmed that dinosaurs suffered from cancer, too.
- The fibula was originally discovered in 1989, though at the time scientists believed the damaged bone had been fractured.
- After reanalyzing the bone, and comparing it with fibulas from a human and another dinosaur, a team of scientists confirmed that the dinosaur suffered from the bone cancer osteosarcoma.
- The study shows how modern techniques can help scientists learn about the ancient origins of diseases.
Centrosaurus apertus fibula
Royal Ontario Museum<p>In the recent study, the team used a combination of techniques to analyze the fibula, including taking CT scans, casting the bone and studying thin slices of it under a microscope. The analysis suggested that the dinosaur likely suffered from osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer that affects modern humans, typically young adults.</p><p>For further evidence, the team compared the damaged fibula to a healthy fibula from a dinosaur of the same species, and also to a fibula that belonged to a 19-year-old human who suffered from osteosarcoma. Both comparisons supported the osteosarcoma diagnosis.</p>
Evans et al.<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The shin bone shows aggressive cancer at an advanced stage," Evans said in a <a href="https://www.rom.on.ca/en/about-us/newsroom/press-releases/rare-malignant-cancer-diagnosed-in-a-dinosaur" target="_blank">press release</a>. "The cancer would have had crippling effects on the individual and made it very vulnerable to the formidable tyrannosaur predators of the time."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The fact that this plant-eating dinosaur lived in a large, protective herd may have allowed it to survive longer than it normally would have with such a devastating disease."</p><p>The fossilized fibula was originally unearthed in a bonebed alongside the remains of dozens of other <em>Centrosaurus </em><em>apertus</em>, suggesting the dinosaur didn't die from cancer, but from a flood that swept it away with its herd.</p>
Dinosaur fibula; the tumor mass is depicted in yellow.
Royal Ontario Museum/McMaster University<p>The new study highlights how modern techniques can help scientists learn more about the evolutionary origins of modern diseases, like cancer. It also shows that dinosaurs suffered through some of the same terrestrial afflictions humans face today.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Dinosaurs can seem like mythical creatures, but they were living, breathing animals that suffered through horrible injuries and diseases," Evans said, "and this discovery certainly makes them more real and helps bring them to life in that respect."</p>
Join the lauded author of Range in conversation with best-selling author and poker pro Maria Konnikova!
UPDATE: Unfortunately, Malcolm Gladwell was not able to make the live stream due to scheduling issues. Fortunately, David Epstein was able to jump in at a moment's notice. We hope you enjoy this great yet unexpected episode of Big Think Live. Our thanks to David and Maria for helping us deliver a show, it is much appreciated.