You’ve been had!

Published October 1, 2002

You’ve Been Had!
How the Media and Environmentalists
Turned America into a Nation of Hypochondriacs

Melvin A Benarde, Rutgers University Press, $28

As his title suggests, epidemiologist Melvin Benarde is not one to mince words.

To Benarde, television, radio, and newspapers are “the scoundrels at whose doorsteps must be placed our current pandemic of mediagenic diseases.” He cites recent scares over “an extraordinary range of potential causes of cancer,” including “asbestos, dioxin, hot dogs, breast implants, pesticides, coffee, liquor, hair dryers, mouthwash, dietary fat, magnetic fields and cellular phones.” He blames the media for creating “an epidemic of anxiety, year after persistent year of alarm.”

Benarde presents an impressive body of evidence in support of his indictment of the media. He accurately identifies the dangers arising from the trend of the mainstream media to report directly from specialist medical and scientific journals. Preliminary and provisional findings are presented, sometimes before peer review and without appropriate caveats, as proof of links between familiar products or activities and lethal diseases.

Premature reporting of dramatic breakthroughs may also have a demoralizing effect on the public; as Benarde puts it, “purveying false hope is not virtuous.”

Media not only to blame

A closer examination reveals the media often play a secondary role to prominent medical and political figures in the promotion of public concerns about health. For example, Benarde discusses the “five-a-day for better health” campaign launched in the United States in 1991, recommending more fruit and vegetables to prevent colorectal cancer. He reports major studies published in 1999 and 2000 confirming no evidence of benefit; claims that such dietary changes prevent heart disease and stroke also remain unsubstantiated. The media can scarcely be blamed for this and many similarly dubious health promotion campaigns sponsored by doctors and health ministries.

The other main target of You’ve Been Had! is the environmental movement (and the allied world of alternative health). Benarde presents a damning critique of the way in which Green campaigners have grossly inflated public fears of toxic wastes and pesticides, nuclear power and genetically modified foods, to the general detriment of public health and welfare. He also condemns the multibillion dollar trade in dietary supplements, vitamins, minerals, and herbals, whose products are scandalously “unregulated, untested, unstandardized and have unknown effects.” “At the moment,” Benarde writes, “crankiness is ascendant” as the media collude with environmentalist pseudoscience, and serious scientists too often remain aloof.

To combat the irresponsible manipulation of popular anxieties about health, Benarde proposes “SL: scientific literacy,” a national campaign to provide basic scientific education for all. I think this is a good idea, but I offer a friendly amendment: Rather than beginning with the schools, the SL campaign should start where most health scares originate, in the medical establishment and the government.

Michael Fitzpatrick is a general medical practitioner in Hackney, London.

For more information

You’ve Been Had! How the Media and Environmentalists Turned America into a Nation of Hypochondriacs, by Melvin A. Benarde, is available through at