Public Health

Reason Writers Around Town: Ron Bailey on Hyping Health Risks


At The Wall Street Journal, Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey looks at how activists, regulators, and scientists distort or magnify minuscule environmental risks.

Read all about it here.

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  1. WTF Ron? Don’t you ever think of the children?

  2. By doing things like claiming that organic farming will kill 2 billion or more people if adopted?

    Ron seems like an irony machine today.

  3. Ron Bailey | August 19, 2008, 11:50am | #
    From a review of Vaclav Smil’s Enriching the Earth:
    The greatest catastrophe that the human race could face this century is not global warming but a global conversion to ‘organic’ farming – an estimated 2 billion people would perish.

    Fewer than Federoff suggests, but still a substantial number.

  4. Epidemiologists (statisticians mostly) will often tease out correlations to please their funding source. I’m not exactly surprised. I’ll bet that only some of this is the result of dishonesty and lack of scientific rigor, that some is subconscious and the researcher honestly believes that her findings are untainted by bias.

    Being a technicician on high power radars who often slept next to the transmitters, I remember the EMF panic well. What I don’t remember is the debunking being bandied about the media as much as the hypothetical danger was. I dare say that’s because it wasn’t.

    Being a skeptic helps, especially IRT the second hand smoke studies. When the data’s all in, if it confirms my strong suspicion that it’s all much ado about nothing, bars will remain smoke free and other pointless laws and regulations will remain on the books “because if it saves just one life …”

  5. Neu, anyone recommended laws to prevent organic farming ’round these here parts? Anyone filing lawsuits and blocking access to farms over it? Oh yeah, westerners save those tactics for GM farmers. And high voltage transmission lines. And nuclear power plants.

  6. JsubD,

    I thought the topic was using scare tactics to advance one’s partisan position.

    Maybe I misread Ron’s article.

  7. I know whereof Mr. Kabat speaks. In 1992, as the producer of a PBS program, I interviewed an epidemiologist who was on the EPA’s passive-smoking scientific advisory board. He admitted to me that the EPA had put its thumb on the evidentiary scales to come to its conclusion. He had lent his name to this process because, he said, he wanted “to remain relevant to the policy process.” Naturally, he didn’t want to appear on TV contradicting the EPA.

    I met a guy once who said something…I don’t have any corroborating evidence that he was right, but I’ll pass along his claim.

  8. The fastest growing industry in this country is what I’ve come to call the Warning Industry. It draws it funds from government regulatory agencies seeking to expand their power and authority and has resulted in the utter corruption of science in the mad search for ever more threats and hobgoblins that need state and federal regulatory intervention.

    Perhaps the most hysterical, latest and greatest of these threats is the great global warming scam, at least in the sense that it seeks to gain control of literally all human activity in the name of “saving the earth.”

    The simple fact is that industry-sponsored scientific studies are models of objectivity and reason compared to any study commissioned by a government regulatory agency looking to expand its headcount and the grade levels of its supervisors.

    That these agents of corruption have the support of an ignorant and none-too-bright MSM (journalists, apparently as qualification for the trade, must have absolutely no scientific or technical knowledge of any topic) makes the problem all the more intractable.

  9. “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”

    Hyperbole used in the fight against rampant hyperbole is a minor sin. If you really cared about hyperbole in partisan politics, nanny-state confirmation bias in science is the place to start Neu Mejican. I think once they learned to game the system with bogus government funded illicit drug researched is when they really decided that reality no longer matter to them at all.

    Unless you’re just here to beat up on Ron. (Not that I have a problem with that.)

  10. Neu, that’s what relying on poorly run and preliminary studies leads to. Surely you remember the lawsuits that attempted to stop, reroute high power transmission lines using now debunked studies as evidence. Do I have to bring up cyclamates?

    OhNoes! The children!

  11. Sugarfree,

    Who are “they” again?

    FWIW, confirmation bias is a risk that all scientists and reviewers worth their salt take very seriously…particularly epidemiologists.

    A design flaw in many studies that compounds the C-bias problem is being over-powered. The problem of studies being under-powered now gets the attention it deserves, but the reciprocal problem of over-powered studies is relatively less high profile…it has received more attention lately.

    Requirements for studies to publish both effect sizes and confidence intervals are increasingly more common. The trick is figuring out what effect size matters for the question at hand. Policy decisions should be based on fairly robust effects, I would think. But smaller effect sizes may be important for understanding a phenomena. Confusing the purpose of particular studies in the reporting results in much confusion, imho.

    Science reporters, it seems, have a duty to try and understand these issues. I don’t find many of them that do…Ron’s linked article provides no evidence that he has risen above the average in this sense.

  12. JsubD,

    Right now Santa Fe has two individuals suing to stop wireless internet because they claim it gives them headaches.

    No science required…not even preliminary studies.

    Scare tactics in politics are not a scientific issue, per se.

    Ron’s posts today seem to highlight that…propaganda is propaganda whether or not it cites a particular scientific study.

    I mean 100% of statics can be manipulated to say what you want…80% of the time.

  13. Neu Mejican,

    They = fans of the nanny-state = IFTC!

    As alluded to in the preceding sentence. Be careful, this is how a certain someone’s reading comprehension problems got started.

    Anyway, we are never going back to bias-free science. Too many people are invested in using the science club to beat there ideological opponents. I say we go back to augury.

    “There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come-the readiness is all. Since no man, of aught he leaves, knows what is’t to leave betimes, let be.”

  14. Don’t forget the breast implant and alar scares.The former brought down a company.I still don’t see where primitive,err,organic farming fite in this.

  15. Neu: You have not explained or offered any evidence for why you disbelieve Vaclav Smil or Nina Federoff’s claims that a wholesale switch to organic farming would cause massive famines because organic production is so much less productive than conventional and/or biotech farming. It is possible that they are wrong, but it seems to me that instead of calling me a propagandist you should show that Smil and Federoff are propagandists. In any case, your fact-free personal incredulity is not enough.

    With regard to epidemiology, do you really expect links to all of the studies cited by Kabat in a 800-word book review? Why not pick up the book and read it for yourself?

  16. Neu Mejican is correct in pointing out the irony. The difference is whether the scare tactics are calls for government intervention or not.

    The scare tactics in the anti-organics issue are merely being used in the actual marketplace of ideas – basically flipping the bird to enviros (though I think lotsa enviros would be happy with a drop in fertility rates resulting in 2 billion fewer births); essentially buyer beware. The scare tactics used in the marketplace of bullshit (aka government) are the real issue – buyer has no choice.

    There isn’t a libertarian alive that opposes any of the research in and of itself – organizations like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation can handle the funding. It’s when the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation starts lobbying for legislation to provide tax-based funding or lobbies for coercive legislation based on flimsy evidence that you get miles apart from the concept of merely knocking organic farming as opposed to calling for its ban.

  17. Neu: For background, see my column on the epidemiological findings of Long Island Cancer cluster study.

  18. Calling one food ‘organic’ is a lie in itself .For instance,all tomatoes are organic but the means of producing them vary.Changing the meaning of a word to better position your product is ,in a way,dishonest.On the other hand,I guess ‘organic’ sounds better than raised in cow manure.

  19. Anyway, we are never going back to bias-free science.

    When was that? Was that when Jesus was riding around on dinosaur’s?

    Ron Bailey,

    No, I do not expect links to all the studies cited by Kabat.

    That is why I didn’t mention his claims.

    a wholesale switch to organic farming would cause massive famines

    Think carefully Ron, who is advocating this be done in a wholesale fashion in a way that would lead to this result?

    Do the “organickers” really want to kill off a few billion people? Is that their goal? They have outlined a plan to quickly switch from industrial farming to organic farming in a single step, results be damned?


  20. Neu Mejican is correct in pointing out the irony. The difference is whether the scare tactics are calls for government intervention or not.

    I am not sure that is the only difference that matters.

    In the case of farm policy, it is not like we have a government free industry that is under assault from the “organickers” who want the public to own the means of production.

  21. Neu: “organickers” who want the public to own the means of production.

    Right you are–however, some organickers just want to ban biotech crops.

    Will you please put your inner troll back in its dank psychic cage now?

  22. Scare tactics in politics are not a scientific issue, per se.

    If you are saying is what the government does with poor data isn’t a scientific issue, yeah. Government/special interest funding affecting conclusions however is a scientific issue. That those faulty conclusions are used in politics may not be, but to Dick and Jane down the street, the real life results of those sometimes faulty studies are very real. I was talking about real world consequences of bad science and the over reliance on prelim work.

    And I guess you weren’t pasying much attention to the EMF scare. That’s OK. Nobody can keep up with it all.

  23. Ron Bailey,


    Remember I started this by saying that the issue of productive efficiency in organic farming was equivocal…I do not claim that Smil/Federoff are incorrect, just that they have not demonstrated their case to my knowledge…

    eg. two recent articles:

    “Organic agriculture and the global food supply”

    Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems (2007), 22: 86-108 Cambridge University Press


    Field Crops Research
    Volume 106, Issue 2, 5 March 2008, Pages 187-190

    Come to very different conclusions on the issue. The jury is still out, in other words.

    some organickers

    Again, you are being disingenuous. The claim that switching entirely to organic will not be able to produce enough food is distinct from a claim that we don’t need to use GM crops to feed the world, is distinct from a claim that GM crops are dangerous and need to be banned, is distinct from a claim that sustainable agriculture does not require GM crops.

    Conflating these distinct issues into one giant…”be afraid of the organickers” mess is pretty troll-like behavior, imo.

  24. Ron Bailey said : it seems to me that instead of calling me a propagandist you should show that Smil and Federoff are propagandists

    Smil wrote a book about the importance of nitrogen fixation on modern culture. It includes a rough estimation of the number of people that can be supported by the earth with some vaguely specified method of farming that didn’t use nitrogen fixing fertilizers. This does not make him a propagandist, necessarily.

    Federoff made an unsupported (off-the-cuff) claim in an interview about her role as a science advisor for the state department.

    You seem to have introduced Smil into the discussion to support Federoff’s point…a point which implied a false relationship between organic farming productivity and opposition to GM crops.

    But Smil’s point isn’t about GM crops.

    So how does it further the argument?
    I think it is because the quote you pulled included some additional scary numbers.

    You have a message you want to get across…

    The “organickers” are dangerous and, like Rachel Carson, will kill billions of people.

  25. I dunno, but getting rid of 2 billion idiots organically sounds a whole lot better than doing it the conventional way (gas, bombs, criminal justice system, etc.)

  26. On Kabat,

    A peer reviewed study published later in 2003 included this in the lit review:

    Another negative report was published by Enstrom and Kabat,[26] who also received funding from the tobacco industry. These investigators performed an analysis of data from the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Study I, a large cohort study based on residents of 25 US states who were recruited in 1959 and originally followed-up for 12 years. The new analysis was based on a subset (residents of California) who were followed-up for 40 years. It showed no difference in ischemic heart disease mortality in nonsmokers according to whether the spouse was a current smoker or a nonsmoker in 1959 (relative risk, 0.94; 95% CI, 0.85-1.05). It was based on 1,400 heart disease deaths, compared with 6,600 events in the meta-analysis [1] and 2,600 in the other studies published since 1997 showing positive associations. The most likely reason for this negative result is that over the 40-year follow-up from 1959, a large proportion of people who smoked in 1959 would have subsequently given up, so the exposure to the nonsmoking spouse would have diminished greatly. This, plus the fact that many of the couples will have divorced or separated over the 40-year period, will greatly reduce the expected excess risk in nonsmokers married to smokers in 1959 because the excess risk from ischemic heart disease in active smokers is largely reversed within a few years of stopping smoking and the same would be expected in passive smoking. A subsidiary analysis, based on 1972 smoking histories, had smaller numbers and a wide confidence interval (relative risk, 1.06; 0.90-1.25), and even in this analysis there were nearly 30 years of follow-up. The negative result is therefore not surprising.

    Environmental tobacco smoke and ischemic heart disease. Malcolm R. Lawa and Nicholas J. Walda
    Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases
    Volume 46, Issue 1, July-August 2003, Pages 31-38

    I do believe the authors are calling the study to task for methods rather than funding.

    They find about a 30% increase in risk for ischemic heart disease events…reviewing Kabat’s evidence and that of others.

    It seems to me consumers should decide whether a 30% increase in risk for one of the leading causes of death warrants attention. I am not sure this case fits into the “hyping of medical risk” as nicely as the other examples.

  27. Re: Organic Farming

    Why does it always have to be “If we completely changed everything over tomorrow” or nothing? Yes, if we switch entirely to organic farming this year we wouldn’t have the capacity to feed the population. As farming technology advances and market forces dictate a shift to more efficient and cost-effective use of land (bye bye cattle farms and cotton, hello buffalo and hemp, and how about them robotic harvesters and vertical farms), over the course of say, 50 years, organic farming can be an effective and efficient part of the economy and provide improved nutrition and lower environmental impact.

    These kinds of statements are as bad, if not worse, than environmentalist nuts implying that if we don’t all go out and buy electric cars tomorrow LA will drown and Mexico will be burning alive by Friday. Seriously. Get a grip on the rhetoric.

  28. Ron, corporate America has a long and sorry history of manipulation of science and public opinion to underplay legitimate concerns about the consequences of their profit-seeking activities. Think of astroturf organizations and paid scientific hacks to create doubt and confusion about global warming and tobacco, to name just two. I’m just waiting for you to give the research raising concerns about GMOs a fair hearing rather than rely on Monsanto and those on their payroll/political contribution list for your evidence.

  29. so Enviro-weenies are trying to scare us into submission with threats of global warming so they can steal our lucky charms. Just like seat belts destroyed our economy.

    Fear for your Lucky Charms!

  30. Epidemiologists are indeed statisticians. There are many StatPack computer programs that’ll crunch numbers to fit the desired result.

    No one ever seems to mention government’s agenda — their underlying motive is to regulate human behaviour and underwrite the HealthScare industry — and it is indeed an industry that pulls in billion$ for ‘research.’

    Yet another topic that is rarely mentioned in MSM statistical insignifigance. As well, there is the matter of publication bias. Papers that find a positive correlation are far more likely to hit the press than one that concludes there isn’t any scare there.

    As to the secondhand smoke matter, the statistical books were cooked by the EPA, lowering the confidence interval to 90% rather than the gold standard 95%. It included no negative findings and included studies done to measure indoor coal fires in Asia.

    Business’ manipulation of science doesn’t hold a candle to the HealthScaristas.

  31. Great review, Bailey. Convoluted statistical techniques always set off a red flag for me. Their presence indicates that the straightforward tests failed to find significant results or that the research design was less than ideal.

  32. On the decades scale, politics will trump science, as a lack of funding weeds out scientists with unpolular views. On the centuries scale, science trumps politics, as a lack of science weeds out doctrinaire governments. Reality is stubborn enough to win any debate if you wait long enough.

  33. “Mr. Kabat himself got burned by activist fury when, in 2003, he and a colleague published a study using 40 years of American Cancer Society data. The study found “no evidence of an elevated risk of coronary heart disease or lung cancer” in the nonsmoking spouses of smokers. Activists attacked the study before publication by saying that Mr. Kabat had been funded by tobacco money. In fact, only the last seven years of data collection had been funded by a research center supported largely by tobacco companies.”

    I found the last sentence here kind of odd. Surely Kabat was not collecting the data for the entire 40 years. Also, I’d like to know if one excluded the data for the last seven years of tobacco-funded data collection, does one still come up with the same conclusion? That should settle the argument.

    Ron, I understand why you didn’t put it in the WSJ article, but could you elaborate on the nature of the sophisticated statistical techniques with which the data were tortured?

  34. the innominate one,

    See the quick summary I posted above…

    It will not, unfortunately, clarify what Ron meant by “In fact, only the last seven years of data collection had been funded by a research center supported largely by tobacco companies.”

    Kabat was reanalyzing existing data.

  35. I wonder if they’re calculating the “30% increase in risk” the way the EPA used to. Even if a 10 in-a-million chance of contracting cancer or heart disease shoots up to 13 in-a-million, the risk is still fairly negligable.

    (Personally, Im getting my heart disease the old fashioned way: genetics. Both sides of my family tend to croak in their 50’s and 60’s.)

    I can’t speak with any authority on the statistics, but it seems to me if the scary numbers on passive smoke meant anything, the streets would have been choked long ago with dying bartenders.

  36. The problem with the passive smoking causes heart attacks numbers is simply this: a correlation of less than 3.0 means nothing. In the use of the metastudy referred to here on passive smoke as being causal for heart attakcks, the correlation, as fudged by the Surgeon General and others to give the highest result, yielded a 1.19. Don’t confuse the meanings of the various numbers. The difference between 1.09 and 1.19 isn’t 10% higher chance of death with the higher correlation; it’s purely a statistical – not real-world causation – measurement. Correlation isn’t causation without a proven – in this case medically proven – cause and effect relationship. If a study showed a 1.19 relationship between broken legs and AIDS infections, who would believe it? No matter how sound the methods used in the study, there is just no causal connection between a broken leg and AIDS; none. So, what is it? A meaningless coincidence? Yes, in this case because we know what broken legs don’t -> AIDS. In passive smoke, we don’t know the answer because we don’t know the actual causation or any proven – not plausible to our politics or idiology, but proven – causal chain between passive smoke and heart attack. On it’s face, to say as the Surgeon-General did in his TV annoucement, that second-hand smoke is more dangerous than being a smoker and that the metastudy proved that, is preposterous! Fantasy! A lie, if you prefer or relish bluntness. If it was intended to somehow stir up public sentiment, it succeeded, but it wasn’t science or medicine. And public policy in these areas must be driven by authentic science, not science in service to political ideology, else when some genuine catastrophe looms, no one will believe and hence will fail to act to avert the real one. Not to mention just how rotten, dirty, low-down, no-good, subversive, unAmerican, etc etc twisting science is! And for Christ’s sake! the source of funding shouldn’t be a consideration. If it is, then what about the government as a source of funding for the AGW research that is screaming for more government?? Come on! Grow up and get real!

  37. Ike,

    That is all gobbledeegook.

    Is there a real point buried in there somewhere?

  38. Take the land in Alaska that we will not drill for oil on. Its barren and ugly and does not appear to forbode drastic consequences. Yet, the dogooders hurt the majority of people trying to survive with higher pump prices. stop
    the lectures and get the fuel. who is Nancy Pelosi to decide anything? In combat she’d be fragged!

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