Monday, October 26, 2015

Bringing home the bacon

There has been a lot of fun poked at the World Health Organisation classifying bacon as carcinogenic. The Daily Mash was quickly in on it:
Following claims that bacon is ‘unhealthy’, angry mobs gathered outside clinics, laboratories and hospitals chanting ‘death to the men in white coats’ and ‘whoever defames the pig should be executed’.
Bill McKay, from Dorchester, said he would rather disembowel himself than live without bacon, the only meat to be approved by the Vegetarian Society.
He added: “We’ve taken a lot of shit from these people over the years. Perhaps the time has come to throw our health experts in jail.”
Rona Cameron, head of bacon sandwiches at the Vegetarian Society, said: “I love pigs, they’re intelligent and sensitive, but these so-called ‘experts’ are deranged, neo-Nazi perverts.”
Wayne Hayes, bacon director at the Bacon Institute, said: “Bacon transforms men into incredibly sensitive and generous lovers and guarantees women the longest and most intense orgasms imaginable.”
That smell of cooking bacon ... one of the most wonderful aromas in the world and something I miss when I'm in Greece. Almost the first thing I have when I get back is a bacon butty. That is why the killer bacon scare has so little traction and lots of ridicule. We certainly don't want it to be unhealthy, but it is more than wishful thinking. Our experience is telling us that there is something wrong with the whole idea. Our instinctive reaction highlights a serious issue, the problems with both the classification of risk and the reporting of research in the media.

This piece explains the classification issues well.
Here’s the thing: These classifications are based on strength of evidence not degree of risk.
Two risk factors could be slotted in the same category if one tripled the risk of cancer and the other increased it by a small fraction. They could also be classified similarly even if one causes many more types of cancers than the other, if it affects a greater swath of the population, and if it actually causes more cancers.
So these classifications are not meant to convey how dangerous something is, just how certain we are that something is dangerous.
But they’re presented with language that completely obfuscates that distinction.
The reporting follows this. It talks bluntly about a substance causing disease, yet rarely about it merely increasing the risk of that disease. When risk is mentioned it gives a percentage figure for the increase in that risk, but rarely says how great the original number was or what the increase is a percentage of. And for bacon, it is tiny, as Tom Chivers explains.
According to Cancer Research UK, 64 people out of every 100,000 can expect to develop colorectal cancer per year. Taken crudely, the IARC’s report suggests that eating 50g of bacon every day would raise your risk from 64 in 100,000 to 72 in 100,000, or from 0.064% to 0.072%. Over a lifetime, your risk is about 5%, according to the NHS; eating 50g of processed meat a day will raise that to about 6%.
 Smoking and bacon are lumped together, despite radically different health impacts.

There is a bigger problem here too. I remember teaching a third year group in social history and we were looking at health statistics on the home front in the First World War. When I asked the students, none had done statistics at any level, and nobody even knew the difference between causation and correlation. It goes much wider than statistics. Simple logical fallacies were foreign territory to many students, they fell for them all and repeated them with depressing regularity. I used to hammer away at the need to teach analytical thinking, simple logic, basic statistics and the like as an integral part of degrees. Although I taught one module on a degree in Hull that covered this ground, I was mainly ignored.

When I see the utter bollocks that is posted on social media, the distorted misattributed quotations stuck onto viral memes, and the blatant falsehoods that should be obvious to anyone who was aware of simple cognitive biases, I am more convinced than ever that the purpose of education is the one that Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner advocated in an old book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity.
Try this: in the early 1960’s, an interviewer was trying to get Ernest Hemingway to identify the characteristics required for a person to be a 'great writer'. As the interviewer offered a list of various possibilities, Hemmingway disparaged each in sequence. Finally, frustrated, the interviewer asked, 'Isn't then any one essential ingredient that you can identify?' Hemingway replied, ‘Yes, there is. In order to be a great writer a person must have a built-in, shockproof crap detector.' 

It seems to us that, in his response, Hemingway identified an essential survival strategy and the essential function of the schools in today's world. One way of looking at the history of the human group is that it has been a continuing struggle against the veneration of 'crap '. Our intellectual history is a chronicle of the anguish and suffering of men who tried to help their contemporaries see that some part of their fondest beliefs were misconceptions, faulty assumptions, superstitions and even outright lies. The mileposts along the road of our intellectual development signal those points at which some person developed a new perspective, a new meaning, or a new metaphor. We have in mind a new education that would set out to cultivate just such people - experts at 'crap detecting'.
And those skills have never been needed more.

In the meantime, carry on frying.

Thanks to Anthony for the links


George S said...

Just to say I'm reading, Peter, always with sharp appreciation. Thank you.

The Plump said...

Thank you too, George