Happy New Fear

The things that scared us silly in 2002.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

Devotees of spiked‘s ‘Don’t Panic’ button will already know that it’s been another bumper year for half-baked scares and misinformed hysterias.

Like White Christmas and Auld Lang Syne, some are timeless classics. So, we’ve seen further alarms this year about the contraceptive pill (1), pesticide residues on our food and the drug ecstasy. Mobile phones continue to fry our brains (2), apparently, if they’re not causing us to crash our cars (3). Passive smoking (4) and air pollution (5) are giving us lung cancer, so we’re told. If global warming doesn’t get us, a ‘global killer’ asteroid will.

A very large pinch of salt is in order all round. Just ask yourselves these sceptical questions:

What are the odds?

An amazing number of headlines assert a risk – only to mention a few paragraphs later that it is incredibly unlikely. Just look at asteroids. In June, we were told that an asteroid the size of a football pitch had ‘just missed’ the Earth – by a mere 75,000 miles (6). Apparently, that’s ‘close’ in astronomical terms – but 75,000 miles is 10 times the diameter of the Earth. If I threw a dart and missed the board by 20 feet, nobody would describe that as ‘close’.

A little later, it was suggested that another object might hit Earth in 2019. But even the initial reports suggested odds of 60,000 to one – and getting smaller all the time (7).

Even if the odds aren’t stated, a little bit of digging soon reveals the truth. We regularly read headlines complaining that the ecstasy drug has claimed yet another life: but in 2001, there were 40 deaths attributed to E (8) and one estimate suggests the drug is responsible for killing 0.0002 percent of users (9). Take a chill pill.

What is the measure?

Are we becoming a nation of fatsos, couch potatoes stuffing our faces with junk food? Weight Concern suggests that over half the population of the UK is now overweight and one-fifth is obese. They suggest that this leads to heart disease and diabetes for many, not to mention depression and low self-esteem.

How are so many of us so overweight? Perhaps it is because ‘overweight’ has now been defined as anything more than slim. For example, a six-foot-tall man weighing 13 stone is, apparently, overweight. The New England Journal of Medicine has noted that ‘the data linking overweight and death… are limited, fragmentary, and often ambiguous’. If there is a relationship between weight and disease, it is only clearly apparent where individuals are very substantially overweight (10). With the new health agenda, normal variations in body weight are thus lumped together with clinical obesity. Thou shalt not be cuddly!

A similar process has been going on with the discussion of binge drinking. A study of 15- and 16-year olds this year found that one in three binge drink (11). But what is binge drinking? Apparently, it is drinking at least a third of your recommended weekly allowance in one sitting. That is less than three-and-a-half pints for men and two-and-a-half pints for women – what used to be called ‘getting a bit merry’.

Where is the evidence?

‘Economy-class syndrome’, where deep-vein thrombosis (DVT, or blood clots) is apparently caused by having to sit still on long-haul flights, is pretty much accepted as fact. One researcher went further, linking the problem to post-11 September anxiety.

Yet the evidence is circumstantial. In three years, the hospital closest to Heathrow airport has seen just 30 post-flight cases of DVT out of 30million passengers who have passed through the airport. While some studies have shown a link between flying and DVT, others have not. Even if there is a link, the risk is small. Don’t buy those blood clot reducing stockings just yet (12).

Healthy eaters, beware – or should they? Friends of the Earth claimed this year that nearly half of the fruit and veg in supermarkets contained potentially harmful pesticide residues. Yet government studies found that 83 percent of items tested contained no traces of pesticide at all, and that levels on the other samples were so low as to be of no risk to health.

‘The amount of carcinogenic [cancer-causing] pesticides consumed in a day is one-twentieth of the amount of natural carcinogens in one cup of coffee’, says one scientist. Given this, it would surely be very difficult to prove any link between pesticides and health (13).

The defining example of a panic without evidence this year has been the purported link betweeen the mumps, measles and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. Reported cases of autism have been increasing in recent years, and Dr Andrew Wakefield’s theory that there is a link between these cases and the introduction of MMR has gained popular resonance.

However, all the reviews of the evidence from other studies have concluded that there is no link. Furthermore, as panicking parents delay vaccination, or avoid it altogether, the chances increase that there will be outbreaks of those well-known, and sometimes deadly, childhood diseases like measles (14).

Where is the sense of perspective?

Even if some of these panics did turn out to have some scientific basis, it is wise to remember that nothing in life is without risk. The advantages of the Pill, mobile phones, cheap fruit, vaccination, air travel and many other benefits of modern living far outweigh the possible dangers.

So, if you don’t die of alcohol poisoning or get crushed underfoot at some public gathering in the next few hours, have a happy new year.

Read on:

Don’t Panic Button

(1) Pill increases breast cancer risk, BBC News, 23 March 2002 and
The pill: balancing the risks and benefits, Department of Health and Public Policy, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, May 2000 [.pdf, 175KB]

(2) Mobile phones may hasten cancer, Sydney Morning Herald, 25 October 2002 and Mobile moans, by Joe Kaplinsky

(3) Mobiles ‘worse than drink-driving’, BBC News, 22 March 2002

(4) Action urged on passive smoking, BBC News, 6 November 2002 and Passive smoke gets in their eyes, by Brendan O’Neill

(5) Pollution ’causes cancer deaths’, BBC News, 9 December 2002 and The Smoke clears, by Austin Williams

(6) Too close for comfort,, 20 June 2002. This article suggests that in fact ‘near misses’, and minor hits, happen a few times each year without being noticed.

(7) See Rocking our world, by Joe Kaplinsky

(8) Ecstasy related deaths double, Guardian, 30 July 2002

(9) See Food, drink, drugs and holidays, by Brendan O’Neill

(10) ‘Fat Police’ Brutality, by Steven Milloy, Fox News, 6 October 2000 [republished on Junkscience]

(11) Adolescent angst, Guardian, 8 April 2002

(12) See spiked-issue: blood clots – economy class syndrome
(8) See The great unwashed, Social Issues Research Centre, 26 March 2002 and Pests about pesiticides, by Jan Bowman

(13) See spiked-issue: MMR vaccine

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Topics Politics


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