Daryl Ilbury

Posts Tagged ‘cancer’

South Africa takes a further step back into darkness

In Eish!, Science, Scoundrels on September 17, 2015 at 12:02 pm

CandleWhat do the following have in common: cheese, butter, coffee and oral sex? If you’re a science journalist you’ll probably know. The answer: they’ve all been ‘linked’ to cancer. The word ‘link’ is contentious at best.

The list is by no means complete. It’s a long one and includes such gems as air fresheners, bras, hot dogs, talcum powder, and…well, Ross Pomeroy, the author the blog Real Clear Science, has attempted to track them all down.

I was reminded of this because of two recents events, coincidentally linked. The first was the Mail & Guardian’s decision to drop its science desk as part of a series of retrenchments in the face of a cashflow crisis. I learned about this – the day before it happened – when chatting with the title’s (now former) science editor, the award-winning journalist Sarah Wild. It couldn’t have come at a more absurd time – Sarah has just published a book that champions the work of South African scientists, expertly putting science into context for ordinary South Africans.

The second was a piece in the Daily Maverick by one of the few journalists still bothering with employing an investigative eye – Ivo Vegter.

Ivo’s point, and it’s an oft-ignored one, is that science doesn’t know everything (if it did it would stop), and that it’s not so much a repository for knowledge as a process for learning about our natural world. More importantly science acknowledges this (as opposed to religions that claim to know the absolute truth), and so it’s quite comfortable with making mistakes along the way – after all, as I’m sure your mother told you, ‘we learn by our mistakes’.

Now this wouldn’t be the problem if more people knew this when reading the paper or going online. Instead they’ll read a ‘science story’ and just believe it, because a) it’s in the news, and b), well, it’s science.

Editors know this, which is why they like ‘science stories’ that ‘link’ something everyone fears (cancer) with something that everyone consumes or does (coffee…sex…etc.). It’s also why science journalists – real science journalists, not inexperienced journalists given a science ‘beat’ – are sorely needed. They can expertly cut through the research clutter and correct the claims (the ‘links’) editors want to make. That’s how they get in the way of tabloid content dressed up as ‘science’, and why they’re often the first to go in any title’s shake-up.

But in South Africa there’s an added reason why science journalists are needed, but paradoxically not: We’re a nation that still believes in spirits, ‘throwing bones’ to diagnose maladies, and that a man who calls himself ‘Doctor’ can help you win the lottery while making your penis bigger. This would be quaint if it weren’t culturally protected under the title ‘traditional healing’. So any journalist that forces uncomfortable questions about the merits of cultural claims, is, in such a politically and culturally sensitive media environment, bound to get in the way.

The Mail & Guardian’s decision to drop the science desk – claiming the decision is a purely economic one – risks dragging the country deeper into ignorance; and that’s not only short-sighted, it’s wholly irresponsible.

Smoking causes cancer, you retard! (Only it doesn’t)

In Eish!, Fools, Politics, Science on August 4, 2013 at 6:15 pm

Mouth CancerThe image you see on the left is that of a packet of cigarettes from Australia. See if you can see the brand name. It’s there on the bottom. In the smaller type. Virtually hidden.

My wife bought the pack during a recent business trip Down Under. She doesn’t smoke, but she does know how strongly I feel on the subject – not of the perils of smoking, but on how distorted the Australian authorities’ views are on matters pertaining to the health of its citizens.

As of 1st December 2012 all tobacco products sold in Australia must be in plain packaging. The motivation behind it is simple, but complicated. It is designed to discourage the buying of tobacco products on the belief that it will make for a healthier nation. Sounds simple enough because the link between smoking cigarettes and cancer has been established and is well known. Or is it?

It would be fair to assume that most people who saw this pack wouldn’t challenge its claim that ‘smoking causes mouth cancer’. However, the claim is not entirely true. The devil, as they say, is in the detail.

Smoking is just one of a number of risk factors associated with the development of mouth cancer – also known as oral cancer; but it doesn’t, as the box suggests, cause cancer. If it did – and this is important – then everyone who smokes would develop mouth cancer; which isn’t the case. In a way it’s like saying sex causes babies. No-one can deny the link between intercourse and conception, but having sex doesn’t cause you to have babies. Cancer is actually caused by the mutation of cells in the body.

Am I splitting hairs? No. It’s a question of scientific accuracy. Proof of causality is at the very heart of scientific research. It’s why rigorous methods need to be used to eliminate any extraneous variables in conducting scientific research so that a direct cause-and-effect relationship can be proven; i.e. if this, then that, every time.

Example: if every time a small electrical shock was applied to a particular part of a person’s leg their knee jerked and the lower leg was kicked forward, then science can claim than for that person the application of a small electrical shock to a particular part of their leg causes their knee to jerk and their lower leg to kick forward. If, however, for the first couple of times the person receives the small electrical shock they utter a small shriek (more from surprise or momentary discomfort than anything else), then science cannot claim that the application of a small electrical shock to a particular part of a person’s leg causes them to shriek.

So what does this mean for the relationship between smoking and mouth cancer? According to the NHS there are other risk factors – beyond smoking – associated with the development of mouth cancer. These include poor oral hygiene, diet, the human papilloma virus, smokeless tobacco (such as snuff and chewing tobacco), and the consumption of betel nuts and qat (a green-leafed plant that is chewed as a mild stimulant).

Oh yes. There’s another product that can cause mouth cancer; and this is where the distortion of values rears its ugly head. That product is alcohol – something that is passionately embraced as part of the famous Australian outdoor lifestyle. An example is proudly emblazoned on the Australian cricket team’s shirts for all the world to see.

In contrast to laws prohibiting tobacco companies to show their brands on their products, alcohol companies are left untethered to advertise their brands, and even sponsor sporting events where the drinking of alcohol is encouraged; even though the consumption of alcohol, like that of tobacco, has been proven to increase the risk of developing mouth cancer.

The term ‘double standards’ pops into mind.

What is true about the new, plain packaging though, is that it sends a very clear message to smokers – who are well aware of the dangers of smoking, but choose (as is their right) to smoke – that the authorities think they’re retards who haven’t got the message yet.

[In case you were wondering – no, I don’t smoke; and I don’t in any way encourage smoking]

Everything gives you cancer, and cures it.

In Eish!, Science on May 21, 2012 at 9:05 am

…er, no, it doesn’t make you live longer

As a science journalist with a social science background I hold a sliver on envy for those colleagues who have degrees in pure science and who write pieces for other scientists to enjoy. It’s like walking into a party, pointing to a budgie in cage, saying loudly “this is an ex-parrot”, hooking up with all the people who laugh, and then spend all evening exchanging Monty Python anecdotes.

One of the biggest challenges for science journalists such as myself –  those who dabble at the interface of science and society – is that every time we write something, we have to win over an audience who may not necessarily be interested in science. We have to do so by writing wonderfully engaging copy and surreptitiously slipping in a little science. It’s like wrapping a pill in bacon so that the dog will eat it.

I have been writing science stories in my columns for the last couple of years in a way that the readers – and my editors – wouldn’t really notice. I feel both excited and dirty with my subterfuge. But every now and then I read something that threatens to blow my cover. And so it was with this past week when the media ran with various aberrations of a study finding that people who regularly drank coffee seemed to have a lower risk of death. “Coffee makes you live longer!” screamed the headlines.

The reality of course is that coffee doesn’t make you live longer. Nothing in the world makes you live longer. A healthy lifestyle will increase the possibility of you not suffering the ill-effects of living an unhealthy lifestyle; but that doesn’t mean that if you eat fresh fruit and vegetables and exercise daily you won’t have a heart attack or stroke.

Stories such as these spin serious scientific research out of control, frustrate scientists, and fuel the belief created in Daily Mail readers that everything gives you cancer, while it’s also a cure for cancer

It also makes make my job to enthuse and educate non-scientists that much more difficult.

If you want a relatively straight-forward explanation of the story in question, click here, but bear in mind that the study shows a measure of correlation, not causality. BIG difference.