2001 – The year of new reason?
It should be evident to readers of 'The Pick' column that an increasing resistance is developing to alarmist and sensational health warnings. A couple of years ago it was quite hard to track down and give voice to the small murmurs of discontent – those who wondered whether we were so devoid of real risks in our everyday lives that we felt some perverse need to invent spurious ones to keep alive a frisson of danger. Now, however, such views are entering the mainstream of comment and debate in British newspapers – a very welcome signal that rationality is not quite dead.
Just before Christmas, for example, we were pleased to note the Independent's coverage of Bridget Ogilvie's cogent Dainton Lecture, delivered at the British Library, where she commented "…we expect to live in a risk-free environment and we are more risk averse than ever…we need to find a way to persuade people that life simply can't be risk free. Progress and change inevitably involve risk." It was also the Independent that gave us a nicely worked spoof on Christmas health warnings, 'Tis the Season to be Wary', suggesting that "Christmas crackers are classified as a class IV explosive device, which means they should not be left unattended in case any child, with or without dark glasses, should have a go at pulling and so detonating them. There is always a risk that a child who detonates an unattended cracker may cause a heart-attack in a nearby grandparent."
B"est of all from the Independent, however, has been Jeremy Laurance's diatribe, Highly infectious: scare stories. "Has the country lost its marbles? From the newspapers that have crossed my sickbed over the past 10 days … there has been an overwhelming stench of fear … Risk is unavoidable in life; no human activity is free from risk and those who insist "safe" must mean "zero risk" are deluding themselves." Another honourable mention goes to paper's social affairs editor and her article about the false scares associated with polio vaccine.
The Guardian, the paper of choice for many health and environment correctness devotees, has begun to hedge its bets a little judging by a brilliant article contained within its pages by Julie Birchill, Unhealthy disinterest. "Those who place too much emphasis on healthy eating display a fear of both life, in all its messiness, and death, in all its inevitability. And I've got to say that the muesli-munching middle classes, last time I looked, didn't even throw up half as many appealing physical specimens as the junk-crunching proles, from where we recruit our best examples of beauty and athleticism."
The Times has also started to pour some refreshingly cold water on the agenda-driven prophecies of groups such as Greenpeace. We remember well the warnings that GM crops could spell the end for the Monarch butterfly, although we wondered at the time whether Prince Charles would have quite been so upset if it was a species called the Republican butterfly that was allegedly at risk. Well now, it seems, Greenpeace had got it wrong, again. As the Times was eager to tell us in "Threat that never was": "… data is now starting to pour in, and it is not to the environmentalists’ liking. At the end of last month, entomologists from universities across the US and Canada gathered at a conference in Chicago to discuss the first results of field trials launched in the wake of the Cornell study. The message was strikingly different from Lord Melchett’s."
The greens have also taken a bit of pasting elsewhere, not least in the New Statesman, where Hywel Williams described Jonathan Porritt thus: "He is our tree hugger in chief, a self-righteous prophet who now finds himself at the centre of things…Rainforests certainly totter and GM crops undoubtedly sway on land where sheep had better graze sceptically – or not at all. But, Praise the Lord and pass the New Environmentalist's Handbook. There are careers to be made out of all this,sermons to preach and hours of broadcasting time to fill." Prince Charles has similarly lost much of his credibility with even the Express heading a comment piece with Hypocrisy, global warming and Charles. "What we might call the Highgrove Tendency, after Charles' Gloucestershire estate, is riddled with arrogance and humbug."
In the world of learned journals the Lancet has often been slow to stand up to the anti-science behind many health scares. Recently, however, it seems that they too have a had a change of heart. In Mobile phones and the illusory pursuit of safety Philip Denby comments: "[Gas] is piped into millions of homes in the country. Is it safe? Of course not but the amenity value is such that people are prepared to live with the risk. Researchers into the pursuit of safety, of mobile telephones or other features of modern living, would be well advised to take this political element into consideration." The BMJ has also signalled a new stance on media sensationalism in an editorial The politics of risk: the case of BSE. "The way in which the media pounce on, and headline, risk is often unhelpful. The examples of oral contraceptives and measles vaccination show how easily – and damagingly – information about risk may be translated into overreactions."
The best evidence for the shifting zeitgeist, however, comes from a publication which always seems to mirror most accurately the mood of the nation – Readers' Digest. Whatver you think about RD, it is one of a few publications which future cultural historians will rely on to understand what was really happening in our world over the past few decades. In the January 2001 UK edition of Readers' Digest the editor, Russell Twisk, directs our attention to the first of an occasional series by Lucy Wildman called "You shouldn't believe it." He notes that Wildman, RD's Research Editor, "has been concerned about the number of times health stories we check for our compilation 'News of Medicine' do not stand up to examination."
In the article itself she draws quite extensively on SIRC's material and on an interview with Co-director, Peter Marsh. It challenges, for example, the Daily Mail's lack of responsibility in publishing an article alleging that abortion could lead to breast cancer, also the subject of SIRC comment in Daily Mail bitten. Similar condemnation follows regarding misleading reports of the supposed dangers of MMR vaccine and microwave ovens, and the raising of false hopes regarding 'miracle' cures for arthritis.
The Reader's Digest article includes some of SIRC's Guidelines on the reporting of science and health issues and concludes: "We will publish 'You Shouldn't Believe It' regularly in the magazine, uncovering bogus reporting of not just health issues, but food and diet, the environment and education. Next time, we will focus on food scares. Send any alarming reports you come across, with your full name, address and phone number, to firstname.lastname@example.org." That's an invitation we hope you will not refuse.
All of this is very encouraging. We also see similar positive trends occurring in the United States. The New York Times, for example, sees fit to use the headline Many Americans Fed Up With Diet Advice in its coverage of a report from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. There is clearly only so much that people can take in terms of stories which range from the unnecessarily alarmist to the downright silly, and the news media are at last recognising this. We will continue to play our part in the coming year, not only by highlighting the absurdity of many articles which purport to be 'reasonable advice', but also by giving additional coverage to the increasing number who are prepared to speak out against those who make a good living from being professional prophets of doom.
January 2nd 2001