Friday, June 17, 2005

Terrorism causes Cancer, expert says

Colby Cosh has a most excellent column (subscription, alas) today debunking "the most revolting piece of junk science [he has] ever seen in a Canadian newspaper", a.k.a Mitchell Anderson's "What's causing cancer?" in the T-Star. Specifically, Cosh goes after Anderson's claim that "Recent statistics show that the net incidence rat of cancer has increased 25% for males and 20% for females from 1974 to 2005 -- after correcting for the effects of aging."

Cosh essentially demolishes the claim: "Anderson somehow neglected to mention that these observed cancer rates grew rapidly during the 1970s, and have been flat since about 1981. And the change observed in the 1970s was almost entirely an artifact of better cancer reporting."

Reading Anderson's article the first time, I never thought to check his statistics because, well, I wouldn't have known where to look. (Cosh gets his info from a Canadian Cancer Society/National Cancer Institute of Canada/Statscan brochure.) I should have known something was being overblown, however, when his first example of environmental toxins (which he blames for the 'epidemic') in "your local supermarket" was mothballs... Mothballs? When was the last time you knew anyone who used mothballs?

Statistics -- particularly medical statistics -- always seem to be twisted, exaggerated or misread by journalists and I resent the fact that I have now started to ignore all newspaper articles that include them as a crucial element. There was, for instance, the once popular depression 'epidemic' that was sweeping the West because of our mind-numbing consumer culture or the loss of "family values" or whatever your side of the political spectrum didn't like.

Cosh is out there questioning statistics, experts and urban legends regularly and I do wish we had more skeptical journalists doing that kind of "legwork"...

(In the interests of balancing out all this Cosh-love, I should note that his column on Napoleon Dynamite of August 30, 2004 remains his worst ever.)

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