I’ve been lambasting the recent WHO report claiming that eating meat causes cancer, not because the report is worthy of anything more than a brief sneer, but because it’s an almost perfect specimen of what’s wrong with public health science.
In my last post we noted that, according to the WHO folks themselves, 97% of all the epidemiological studies they reviewed were bogus. But that’s only the beginning of what’s wrong with public health research these days. People who work in the public health field view themselves as gods (and goddesses) who are privy to special knowledge not vouchsafed to the rest of us. Their work is so critically important – hey, we’re talking about matters of life and death here! – that they feel morally licensed to lie, cheat, steal, commit fraud(1) and scare the hell out of us in order to get us to follow their diktats. This leads to a whole host of other problems epitomized by the WHO report.
Scare tactics, part 1. The WHO report not only argued that eating meat causes cancer, it concluded definitively that processed meats had to cause cancer, and they therefore placed it in WHO’s top category, “Category 1 – Carcinogenic to Humans,” right up there with smoking cigarettes. But hold on here. Smoking cigarettes makes you 2,500% more likely to get cancer, while (even according to WHO’s experts) eating processed meats only makes you 17% more likely. These are equivalent risks? Even the folks at WHO aren’t that stupid. No, they put processed meat in the same category as cigarettes because they knew it would lead to headlines like, “EATING MEAT AS DANGEROUS AS SMOKING CIGARETTES!”(2) Following a global uproar over the WHO report, WHO put out some fine print(3) that debunked the equivalence of smoking and meat, but it was too little too late.
Scare tactics, part 2. Like almost every public health study ever published, the WHO report wildly exaggerates its findings. In the “Q&A” (see footnote 3) WHO opines that “50,000 cancer deaths per year” might (might!) result from eating meat. Well, gosh, that sounds like a lot of dying, but let’s put it in perspective. Last I looked at the World Population Clock there were 7,382,743,138 people alive in the world. So we are talking about a problem that affects 0.00000677 of us? Don’t the folks at WHO have better things to do with their time? How about a headline that says “You have a 0.00000677 chance of dying if you eat meat.” Underwhelming, I’d say. (Consider that, by comparison, almost five times as many people – 240,000 – are struck by lightning every year.)
Scare tactics, part 3. One especially sleazy tactic in public health is the use of frightening statistics. A few months ago I was wondering why my doctors were insisting that I take statins, even though statins made me feel terrible. “Because,” said the docs, “statins decrease your risk of dying by 25%!” That certainly seemed like a lot, but was it worth ingesting a powerful chemical every day of my life and, incidentally, feeling like hell all the time? I decided to do something outrageous: I went back and read the statin studies. Sure enough, in the lead study (the so-called Jupiter Study), people who took statins had 25% fewer heart “episodes” than people who didn’t. But then I did something even more outrageous: I actually looked at the raw data, and therein lay a shocking discovery. 17,802 people had been studied, half on statins and half not (the “control group”). In the control group, the chance of dying was 4%, while in the statin group the chance of dying was 3%. WTF? That’s it? If you ingest a powerful chemical every day you might – might – reduce your chance of dying from 4% to 3%? What idiot would do this? But of course people, including docs, don’t read the studies, and they especially don’t look at the raw numbers, and so they ingest powerful chemicals at extravagant cost for no good reason at all.
Far worse, most of the studies, while they definitely show that statins reduce cholesterol levels, show no decrease in deaths from heart trouble and actually show an overall increase in mortality among statin-takers. Well, naturally – if you ingest powerful chemicals everyday bad things are going to happen to you.(5)
Wearing blinders, part 1. As someone pointed out (sorry, I forget who), there is a far easier way to prevent colon cancer than eliminating meat eating, which people have been doing since people were invented: get a colonoscopy. As cancers go, colon cancer is easily prevented, easily diagnosed, and easily treated. This seems not to have occurred to WHO.
Wearing blinders, part 2. Suppose that people all over the world stopped eating meat and started eating veggies, what would happen? I’ve already suggested (in my last post) that the incidence of other cancers would skyrocket from ingesting all those pesticides. This, too, seems not to have occurred to WHO.
But the worst aspects of the WHO report, and of public health science in general, are still to come. More on that next Friday.
(1) Okay, outright, stark fraud seems to be fairly rare, although when it happens it’s illuminating. In 2011 a professor named Stapel faked experiments so he could show that eating meat made people selfish. He defended his conduct – which was simply fraudulent – by claiming that he was on “a quest for aesthetics, for beauty – instead of the truth.” Stapel published more than 50 fraudulent papers, most of them confirming politically correct nonsense. The final investigative report on Stapel criticized a research culture across the field of social psychology “that was excessively oriented to uncritical confirmation of one’s own ideas and to finding appealing but … superficial ad hoc results.”
(2) That one happens to be from The Guardian. “Meat … may be as detrimental to your health as smoking cigarettes, study says,” CBS News. “Eating red meat is just as bad as smoking a cigarette: WHO,” RS Medical Daily.
(3) “Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat,” WHO, October 2015.
(4) Actually, most of the docs who conducted the study had financial links to the drug company that made the statin (AstraZeneca, whose statin sales skyrocketed after the report) and the lead author actually co-owned the patent on the C-reactive protein test (which costs $50 a pop). AstraZeneca alone sells roughly $3 billion worth of statins every year. Bias? You can draw your own conclusions.
(5) A recent study found that long-term statin use by women led to a doubling of the risk of an especially invasive form of breast cancer. McDougall et al., “Long-Term Statin Use and Risk of Ductal and Lobular Breast Cancer among Women 55 to 74 Years of Age,” Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev; 22(9); 1529–37, 2013.
Next up: Why We Don’t Take Our Meds, Part 4
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