Review of Getting Risk Right: Understanding the Science of Elusive Health Risks, by Geoffrey Kabat, Columbia University Press, 2016, 272 pages; ISBN-13: 978-0231166461; $35 hardcover, $19 Kindle version on Amazon.com.
Widespread confusion about potential health threats impairs patients’ ability to assess risk and thus to make sound decisions about health care and health care policy, writes Geoffrey Kabat in Getting Risk Right: Understanding the Science of Elusive Health Risks (2016).
Kabat, a cancer epidemiologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, asks why potential threats unlikely to harm us get so much attention, overshadowing known threats to health. A second question Kabat asks is why the public and media focus on lines of scientific inquiry that never lead to new knowledge, meanwhile ignoring science leading to life-changing discoveries.
To explain these inequities, Kabat elucidates how science is subject to methodological biases and scientists’ desire to obtain interesting findings to aid their professional advancement. Because most human health studies are necessarily observational instead of experimental, their results can be extremely tenuous, Kabat says. Moreover, if a study links some exposure in our immediate environment—such as to food, water, air, or a consumer product—to a serious disease, interest in the findings is guaranteed, regardless of whether the study is scientifically solid.
Navigating the conflicting scientific findings and health recommendations requires “developing a healthy skepticism toward results that may be tenuous but get amplified because they speak to our deepest fears,” Kabat wrote.
News coverage in recent decades has conditioned people to react to every alarmist report claiming a substance in our environment could harm them and their children. The media amplifies these potential threats, keenly aware of the stories’ power to attract viewers and readers. Activists, regulators, industry representatives, lawyers, and even scientists add to the hysteria over minute and dubious risks, seizing the public’s imagination.
Kabat cites several ultimately disproven health threats scientists, the media, and regulators have exaggerated into high-profile and costly public hazards. Perhaps most famously, the electromagnetic fields created by power lines and electric appliances generated enormous public anxiety for more than 15 years, starting in 1979. In retrospect, it is clear this public health threat was a mirage based on poor studies.
Another example of the media’s fixation on infinitesimal or unproven health risks is the claim cell phone use causes brain tumors. This false claim persisted in the early days of cell phone use because scientific and media reports ignored data that eventually disproved any such link.
A further example of media-generated hysteria concerns trace amounts of Bisphenol A (BPA) in the environment and consumer products. BPA is a carbon-based compound first synthesized by a Russian chemist in 1891. It has been widely used in the manufacture of plastic bottles and epoxy resins for 50 years and has proven to be highly effective in limiting illness from food spoilage, Kabat writes.
Kabat narrates the mystery of how and why BPA came under attack despite a lack of proof the compound causes any health problems. Conflicting studies have piled up for decades as many scientists enhanced their reputations by badmouthing the chemical. These scientists’ claims supposedly linking BPA to endocrine disruption have not been replicated, yet “they studiously avoid acknowledging that there is no firm or consistent evidence of the effect,” Kabat wrote.
Gullibility to Blame
By contrast, the major causes of chronic disease identified in the past 60 years include smoking, heavy alcohol consumption, excess body weight, poor diet, and lack of physical activity. Yet because these influencers appear mundane, they “do not inspire anywhere near the kind of fear that is inspired by trace exposures to chemicals and radiation in the environment,” Kabat argued.
All of us are susceptible “to being fooled by ideas that appear to offer an explanation for a mysterious phenomenon we are eager to understand,” Kabat wrote.
In other words, gullibility undermines people’s ability to assess health risks accurately. The media, overambitious scientists, and power-hungry regulators exploit people’s gullibility, prompting unnecessary costs and regulation. By tuning out alarmism, individuals can improve their judgment and make the best possible choices regarding potential health care risks.
Jay Lehr ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute.
Michael McGrady, “Teflon, Other Chemicals Receive Greater EPA Scrutiny,” Environment & Climate News, The Heartland Institute, July 11, 2016.