Reason Hell special: Scares and authority

As anybody reading this blog may have noticed, I’m having a nice old chat with John C Wright about global warming. I’m sticking the global warming replies here but there is another issue in Wright’s post that I’m pulling out separately and which is best exemplified by this paragraph.

The hoax was clear from the beginning for those with eyes to see because of the hysteria surrounding it. It was a scare, a panic, and there was no more evidence for it than for the DDT scare, the ALAR scare, the radon scare, the mercury in the fish scare, the acid rain scare, the hole in the ozone layer scare, the power cables causing cancer scare, mobile phone towers causing cancer scare, the chloroflourocarbons scare, the overpopulation scare, the salmonella scare, the Mad Cow disease scare, and so on. Have you ever heard even one retraction or apology for any of these false alarms, even long after the fraud was exposed? Is DDT available even thought Rachel Carson’s mass-murdering fraud is well known to have been scientifically absurd?

In a more recent reply Wright has offered me a challenge:

I offer you the following challenge: name for me the environmentalist
scare that turned out to be wrong or exaggerated. It can be one I have
listed here, or another famous one.

Either put up or shut up. Either name the false alarm or admit that you cannot.

If you cannot admit that there are any false alarms in the system, not
even one, then you attribute unrealistic if not supernatural accuracy
and perspicacity to the system.

Which is really kind of fun – particularly as it ties in so neatly with the recent theme of authority and credibility. So, I’ve put Timothy the Talking Cat outside to chase small animals (he is no use at a time like this) and sharpened my debunkotron, fired up Google and off we go!

The DDT Scare, Rachel Carson and other matters: too big to fit in everything about this monster topic here but it is a classic case study of FUD. I may return to it in another post but in the meantime – no I don’t ‘still believe’ Rachel Carson because what ever beliefs I have about DDT are based on reading scientific evidence on its environmental impact and not on an old but influential book. But yeah – lets go back to DDT sometime because that is a story well worth telling.

The ALAR scare. Alar is a brand name for the chemical daminozide which is a plant growth regulator (see PubChem for details) and has uses in fruit production and as a herbicide. The ‘scare’ Wright is referring to was twofold – media hype about the dangers of daminozide when used in apple farming and a move by the US EPA to ban its use in fruit production. In terms of the hard science alar is probably carcinogenic (again see PubChem – it is a B2 Possible carcinogen) so people not wanting it in their food are/were not batshit crazy. However, lost of things are possible carcinogens and news media can whip themselves into a craziness over cancer scares that amount to small risks over a lifetime. How over the top was the media coverage of alar? I don’t know – I didn’t see it at the time 🙂 but I’m more than willing to believe that US news media probably over exaggerated the risk from the use of alar in fruit production and did so based on insufficient evidence. This is easy to believe because what we are looking at here is bad reporting by news media of science issues – that is definitely a thing.

The radon scare. Well I can say that ionising radiation is certainly something I exercise caution around. So what does Wright mean by the radon scare? Radon is chemically non-toxic but is present in our environment in the form of radioactive isotopes. In particular it is a product of the radioactive decay or uranium and so any area which has uranium deposits may have radon working its way out from underground. Additionally areas where there is coal mining, natural gas extraction or oil extraction can have elevated levels of radon above ground. See PubChem or the ATSDR websites for more general information. So yes, it is radioactive and definitely carcinogenic but neither of those things actually mean that radon poses a general health risk. For example plutonium is a really nasty substance but it isn’t a general health risk because most people don’t encounter it in even the small quantities that poses a risk. So is radon an actual public health risk?
Big epidemiological studies have shown a significant risk of lung cancer from exposure to radon that maybe found in the home in areas with high levels of radon. That risk is exacerbated by smoking. Again – without knowing which particular aspects of a ‘scare’ Wright is referring to I can’t claim that nobody anywhere has ever exaggerated the risk due to radon. Indeed somebody, somewhere alsost certainly has. However radon does, based on the balance of evidence, pose a general public health risk that it would be foolish to ignore.

The mercury in the fish scare. A similar issue as to the one above. Mercury? Yes, a bit scary in elemental form (although not so scary in some compounds which your body can metabolise fairly safely). Mercury in fish? Enough of an issue that it is worth paying attention to it. Has somebody at some point gone OTT with concerns about mercury in fish? Probably. Does that mean that mercury in fish is NOT a problem? No, think about the freaky logic that would involve – it would mean I could disprove the dangers of something by exaggerating the dangers of the thing. For example if I say hitting yourself in the face with a sledgehammer will cause the moon to explode, then I haven’t just demonstrated that it is safe to hit yourself in the face with a sledgehammer (please do not try that at home).

The acid rain scare. Yes acidification of rain is a genuine thing that can occur. It can occur naturally and also due to industrial activity producing gases such as sulfur dioxide. When sulfur dioxide dissolves in water it forms sulfuric acid. This isn’t freaky environmentalist hoo-ha but rather the thing we call ‘chemistry’. I can confirm I do believe in chemistry.
Is acid rain a potential environmental problem? Yes. Did use to get a lot more coverage? Yes and then countries got together and enacted policies that would reduce the risk. When a dire prediction doesn’t come true because you stopped doing the thing that was the subject of the prediction that is a good thing rather than some kind of disproof. For example if I say ‘if you hit yourself in the face with a sledgehammer you will break your face’ and you then DON’T hit yourself in the face with a sledgehammer then the fact that your face is not broken does not demonstrate the safety of hitting yourself in the face with a sledgehammer.

The hole in the ozone layer/ the chloroflurocarbon scare. See above. Actual chemistry and nations actually acting on the issue. Problem hasn’t gone away but many risks have been reduced by prompt intervention. No it isn’t a literal ‘hole’ but rather specific zones of greater ozone depletion.

The power cables causing cancer scare, mobile phone towers causing cancer scare. I can add the ‘microwave oven’ scare to that list and so called ‘electromagnetic hypersensitivity’. Great! We have an actual scare – a case were small risks (or no risks) were blown up into something scary and then amplified by the media. Now electromagnetic fields do not have zero potential health impacts but epidemiological evidence does not, on balance, suggest that the risk is great from living near power lines – but such studies have many confounding factors because the only way of studying this is to look at people who live near power lines and they aren’t a random selection of the population. So power lines – probably not an issue but something researcher should keep an eye on.
Mobile phones? Again not much evidence that they actually pose any danger.  Now note, we can’t be selective here – if we trust epidemiological studies in one area (e.g. radon) we can’t rationally just pretend it doesn’t exist in another area without good reason.
What do these and other scares around EMF suggest? Well here we can more easily point at at least one dubious source. A writer called Paul Brodeur has written books and articles that have received significant media coverage – particularly in the 1990s – making strong claims about the dangers of electromagnetic fields from various sources. Like many bad science claims Brodeur’s arguments involved cherry picking data, conflating one kind of risk with another and general kinds of misleading FUD. The right response is, to follow the actual science and not follow some given individuals own little crusade. This is true whether it is Paul Brodeur or Steven Goodard.

The overpopulation scare. Another example of the people not actually hitting themselves in the face with a sledgehammer. In this case thanks to improved access to contraception and improved access to healthcare and education and job opportunities for women. Hooray for feminism! Thank you for stopping us hitting our collective faces with collective sledgehammers.

The salmonella scare. I don’t know what that one is. I mean I know what salmonella is but I don’t thing Wright is saying that it doesn’t exist. So I guess it was some big scare about salmonella at some point somewhere that didn’t eventuate.

The mad cow disease scare. Well this is at least a different kind of beast. Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is not something you want to catch. It is a real disease and it isn’t very nice. It is probably (and we still don’t know for sure) caused by a prion – a kind of rogue protein that is much simpler than a living thing but which can reproduce inside a body. It was first detected in the UK in the 1990s and was linked to another prion disease called BSE aka mad cow disease. BSE was present in the UK and the rise of vCJD is assumed to be linked with consumption of beef products from infected cattle. There are three elements here with the notion of a scare:

  • BSE and vCJD were new diseases and a lot still isn’t known about vCJD (including if it really is linked with BSE) – unfortunately not knowing means it is very difficult for medical professionals or public health agencies to give accurate assessments of risk and this was even less so when the disease was first discovered.
  • Prions are not eliminated by cooking or general safe food preparation and the agent responsible for vCJD can’t be screened for or detected.
  • vCJD doesn’t develop immediately – it can take years before symptoms might show.

So amid the normal factors in a health emergency there was a substantial fear of the unknown. Potentially much of the population of the UK was at serious risk. We know now that the risk was probably lower because the cases of vCJD peaked in 2000, a few years after the British (Conservative) government took draconian action to eliminate BSE from the cattle population. Should they have apologized? No, probably not. They made a decision based on the data they had – what else could they do? Overall it was probably a good call.


5 responses to “Reason Hell special: Scares and authority”

  1. The “salmonella in eggs” (google Edwina Currie) thing was another great example of the media taking a single statement by someone and turning it into a gigantic shock-horror piece that turned an actual issue (albeit minor in the UK at the time) into something ridiculous. However, it falls into the acid rain/sledgehammer to the face category in that the comment did prompt action within the farming industry and now what was a small problem before is now virtually non-existent in the UK.

    But yes, the general problem here is that pretty much everything Wright cites is a problem with a political and media 24-hour news cycle society in which things explode into the biggest thing ever overnight before fading away, rather than a problem with the science, which generally gets around to a consensus over time. That’s what the debate ought to be about, not whether or not individual cases are “right” or “wrong” (which they never can be, anyway.)

    Then again, I bet he thinks that the Millennium Bug wasn’t a real thing either.


  2. Regarding the “radon scare”; I don’t really know what Wright means by that, but in Finland radon is a big thing. Our bedrock is granite that contains more uranium than apparently anywhere else in the world, sandy ridges on top of that bedrock and, because of that, radon in the air we breathe. Radon is estimated to be the main cause of 300 lung cancer cases every year.

    So, when you go to our national radiation and nuclear safety authority pages: – the first thing you see (in Finnish) is a banner on how to make your house radon-safe.

    Of course, from CJW’s viewpoint whole Finland is probably far-left, so having this sort of material on a governmental website is actually a proof of radon being a leftist scare.


    • From further reading , it seems the EPA in the US used to have scary adverts about the dangers of radon and there may have been a peak point at which the dangers of radon was ‘thing’. I think various kinds of con artists may have tried to exploit the issue as well.

      But, yes, radon is not something you want in your house.


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