[Paleopsych] spiked-central: Panic, Don't panic
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Mon Apr 11 21:59:23 UTC 2005
Panic, Don't panic
Programmed to bully
Panic: New research claims that 'Four-year-old children who watch more
television than average are more likely to become bullies'.
Researchers in Seattle found that children who went on to bully
between the ages of six and 11 watched five hours of TV per day,
almost two hours more than those who did not. Writing in the journal
Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, the team led by Dr
Frederick Zimmerman said: 'Our results have some important
implications. We have provided some empirical support to theories that
suggest that bullying might arise out of cognitive deficits as well as
emotional ones. We have added bullying to the list of potential
negative consequences of excessive television viewing along with
obesity, inattention and other types of aggression.'
Don't panic: What the news reports have failed to mention, in their
rush to blame TV for yet another social problem, is that the effect
found was so small as to be barely significant. The journal abstract
notes: 'Each hour of television viewed per day at age 4 years was
associated with a significant odds ratio of 1.06 for subsequent
bullying.' In other words, children who watched TV for one hour a day
more had a six per cent increased risk of being 'a bully'.
But there are plenty of other problems with this research. All the
reporting is done by mothers, so what one mother considers to be
bullying behaviour might be another mother's friendly horseplay. In
fact, it must be extremely difficult to define what 'a bully' is for
such a report. Does it mean violent behaviour? Would organising
classmates to exclude a particular individual constitute bullying?
Would someone who exhibits this behaviour at the age of six, but not
at the age of eleven, fall into the category of a 'bully' for the
purposes of this research?
Moreover, if there is a real correlation here, it has little to do
with television as such. For example, watching television is a very
passive activity. While not harmful in itself, it's a poor substitute
for the social and intellectual engagement involved in play.
Opportunities for free play are becoming increasingly restricted by
parental fears. If some children then take longer to learn what is
appropriate behaviour and what is not, that is hardly the fault of
television but of the wider environment in which they grow up today.
That said, this particular paper also suggests a complete lack of
historical perspective. Children have been picking on other children
since time immemorial - and certainly a long time before the gogglebox
was invented. Whether the amount of bullying going on is on the
increase is surely impossible to know. However, we live in an age
where the feeling of being a lonely, picked-upon individual is the
very zeitgeist. No wonder there's money to research bullying. Nor is
television alone in being blamed - the finger has been pointed at
everything from mouthy footballers to food additives.
Television may be the source of innumberable bad programmes, but the
evidence that it is responsible for society's ills is thin. Maybe it's
time to pull the plug on this kind of research.
Early Cognitive Stimulation, Emotional Support, and Television
Watching as Predictors of Subsequent Bullying Among Grade-School
Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, April 2005
TV 'could create child bullies',
BBC News, 4 April 2005
Panic: 'Based on current trends, children could be three times more
likely than their grandparents to develop malignant melanoma', says
BBC News, reporting the launch of a new campaign by Cancer Research
UK. The concern is that climate change in the UK and greater numbers
of foreign holidays mean that rates of melanoma will continue to rise
in the future. Men and women born in 1970, now in their mid-30s, are
being diagnosed with melanoma at the same rate as people who were born
in 1930 and didn't develop melanoma until their 50s. The campaign
contains advice on ways to reduce sun exposure. Professor Brian Diffey
of Newcastle University told the BBC that public awareness campaigns
would help lower the toll, but he emphasised that early detection was
the key to bringing down mortality rates.
Don't panic: Barely two weeks after the last blizzards, the annual
skin cancer campaign has begun. But does this campaign do any good?
It would be surprising if skin cancer rates in the UK did not rise to
some extent. After all, people born in 1930 in the UK would rarely see
strong sunshine. A year spent with British weather and smoggy skies
would be relieved by a week or two in Blackpool or Margate. No danger
of serious sunburn there. The mere fact of jetting abroad at all was
always bound to have some effect on the pale British skin.
However, the relationship between sunbathing and melanomas is far from
clear-cut. The most common forms of skin cancer (basal-cell or
squamous-cell carcinomas) are definitely related to sun exposure. But
they are also highly treatable and rarely serious. The relationship
between malignant melanomas, which are much more serious, and sunlight
is less clear. For example, melanomas tend to appear on areas of the
body that are less likely to be exposed to the sun. Rates for melanoma
in Japan are comparable to those in the UK, even though there is no
tradition of sunbathing in Japan.
The explanation offered for this apparent contradiction is that
cancers can be caused by one-off incidents of sunburn on holiday. But
can the occasional bit of sunburn really cause cancer, or is this a
case of trying to fit the facts to a shaky theory? While the British
obsession with turning lobster-pink in Mediterranean resorts may lead
to nasty sunburn (and the bafflement of the locals), it seems unlikely
to cause cancer. Professor Jonathan Rees, head of the dermatology
department at Edinburgh University, believes 'there is little hard
evidence to support these public health campaigns in the UK' - a point
that even Professor Diffey seems to have some sympathy with.
Moreover, there is some evidence now suggesting that vitamin D may
have a protective effect against some cancers. Our bodies produce most
of their own vitamin D through skin exposed to sunlight. In northern
Europe during the winter, people get very little exposure to the sun,
so a quick trip to the Costa del Suntan might be beneficial. While
getting sunburnt regularly probably won't do you much good, the
opposite reaction of avoiding the sun altogether is unlikely to be
helpful either. The current campaign is based on an Australian model,
but now the Cancer Council of Australia has said: 'A balance is
required between avoiding an increase in the risk of skin cancer and
achieving enough ultraviolet radiation exposure to achieve adequate
vitamin D levels.'
We should remind ourselves that skin cancer is a relatively minor
cause of death in the UK. Even if rates did treble, the chances of any
individual developing a melanoma would still be quite small. The
benefits of two weeks away are well worth such a tiny risk.
Too little sun causes harm, cancer specialists say,
Independent, 22 March 2005
Experts fear soaring cancer rate,
BBC News, 23 March 2005
Enjoy your moment in the sun,
The Times (London), 28 July 2003
Eruption of fear
Panic: 'A true story that hasn't happened yet', intones the trailer
for the BBC drama Supervolcano. In the mini-series, a volcano in
Yellowstone erupts, covering North America in ash and inducing global
cooling. On the back of the series, scientists have warned that we
need to be prepared for this kind of disaster. A report by a
Geological Society working group notes: 'An area the size of North
America can be devastated, and pronounced deterioration of global
climate would be expected for a few years following the eruption. They
could result in the devastation of world agriculture, severe
disruption of food supplies, and mass starvation. These effects could
be sufficiently severe to threaten the fabric of civilization.'
Professor Stephen Self of the Open University says: 'We don't want to
be sensationalist about this, but it's going to happen. We just can't
say exactly when. But we have just had a natural disaster affecting
hundreds of thousands of people. Now is the time to be thinking about
Don't panic: This is an example of a Really Bad Thing that could
happen in our lifetimes but is highly unlikely to. While major
volcanic eruptions occur somewhere in the world every few years, these
are much smaller than the kind of event described in Supervolcano,
which appears to occur on average about every 50,000 years.
But what programmes like this do produce are some really bad pieces of
logic. For example, the accompanying documentary, part of the Horizon
series, tells us: 'Scientists have revealed that [Yellowstone] has
been on a regular eruption cycle of 600,000 years. The last eruption
was 640,000 years ago...so the next is overdue.' Perhaps that eruption
cycle isn't so regular after all....
One thing is clear: there's nothing we could do to stop such an
explosion occurring, so there is simply no point in worrying about it.
It might keep a working party or two gainfully employed fretting about
how we might cope, but that's about it. Moreover, it is wrong to
assume that society could not survive such an event. Unlike the
dinosaurs, we can control our environment - produce our own sources of
power, find alternatives methods of producing food, and so on. We are
not helpless victims of nature.
In the meantime, there are lots of very real problems that are within
our means to control, such as malaria, access to clean water and
general poverty. The more society develops, the better able we are to
cope with the occasional shock.
Classic Hollywood disaster movies were about putting yourself in the
place of the hero and wondering how you'd cope with being in a sinking
cruise liner, burning skyscraper, failing airplane, or even a town
struck by a volcanic eruption. The crisis was purely a device to
create a dramatic situation. But no disaster movie these days is
complete without the 'real science' behind it. Supervolcano, like The
Day After Tomorrow, hitches its plot to real ecological concerns in
order to grab our attention. But 'a true story that hasn't happened
yet' is not a true story. It's a wind-up.
The suggestion that there is a real and pressing problem behind the
fiction feeds off and reinforces a more generalised fear of the
future. It also encourages scientists to over-egg their research to
grab the media limelight. It's time to untangle science and fiction:
the only thing disaster movie fans should be fretting about in real
life is the price of popcorn.
Experts weigh supervolcano risks,
BBC News, 9 March 2005
Super-eruptions: global effects and future threats,
Geological Society of London
Panic: '11,000 killed every year by passive smoking', said the UK
Mirror, in response to a report published in the British Medical
Journal (BMJ). Various estimates of increased risk associated with
passive smoking were combined with figures for known deaths, overall
populations, and populations working in specific industries. The
results suggest passive smoking in workplaces is responsible for 617
deaths per year, with one death per week in the hospitality industry.
The study also concluded that 2,700 deaths of people between 20 and 64
years of age occur due to passive smoking at home, with a further
8,000 deaths in those aged 65 or over. Professor Konrad Jamrozik of
Queensland University, who wrote the report, said: 'Adoption of
smoke-free policies in all workplaces and reductions in the general
prevalence of active smoking would lead to substantial reductions in
these avoidable deaths.'
Don't panic: This report doesn't provide us with any new information
on the risks of passive smoking. It merely takes existing research and
calculates all the number of people who would die if all the suggested
risks proved to be accurate. This is an extremely dubious practice,
taking uncertain but probably small risks and then multiplying them by
very large numbers to produce startling headlines.
The true risks of passive smoking remain as controversial as ever. For
example, in 2003 the BMJ published a study of 120,000 adults in
California over a 40-year period, which concluded that 'the results do
not support a causal association between environmental tobacco smoke
and tobacco-related mortality, though they do not rule out a small
effect'. As a BMJ editorial concluded at the time, 'the considerable
problems with measurement imprecision, confounding, and the small
predicted excess risks limit the degree to which conventional
observational epidemiology can address the effects of exposure to
environmental tobacco smoke'.
For the record, it's worth noting that even if Jamrozik's figures are
correct, restricting public smoking will have little impact, as most
of the deaths are due to passive smoking in the home. The vast
majority of these are people over the age of 65, people who would have
lived through much smokier environments than exist today. Clearly,
their lives will not have been shortened by much even if Jamrozik's
numbers add up. As for the supposed risks to bar and restaurant
workers, the most prominent justification for smoking bans these days,
we should note that it amounts to 54 deaths per year out of a
workforce of well over a million - a risk factor of 21,000-to-one.
What you probably won't read in the papers is Jamrozik's
acknowledgement of assistance from Deborah Arnott of Action on Smoking
and Health (ASH), the UK's main anti-smoking campaign. Nor will you
read his note that 'the calculations in this paper were commissioned
by SmokeFree London, a collaboration of 33 local borough councils in
London concerned with extension of smoke-free policies in that city'.
Jamrozik's report is a piece of advocacy dressed up as science and
should be treated with considerable scepticism.
Estimate of deaths attributable to passive smoking among UK
British Medical Journal, 2 March 2005
We have ways of making you stop smoking,
by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick
spiked-issue: No smoking,
The dangers of dye
Panic: The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) hit the headlines last week
by demanding the removal from supermarket shelves of 350 processed
foods which may contain traces of the banned dye Sudan-I. The dye
appears to have been used to colour chilli powder imported from India,
but it is illegal to use it in food sold in the EU. The chilli powder
was added to worcester sauce, which in turn was added to processed
foods, including canned soups and ready meals. 'At the levels present
the risk is likely to be very small but it is sensible to avoid eating
any more', said Dr Jon Bell of the FSA.
Don't panic: Sudan-I is not, as frequently stated, a 'known
carcinogen' in humans. In large quantities, it does increase the
frequency of liver tumours in rats, but not in mice. It is classified
as a 'category 3' carcinogen - that is, something for which not enough
information in relation to humans is available to make a firm
judgement but which has carcinogenic potential.
The old adage 'the dose makes the poison' also suggests there is
little risk here. The quantities contained in these ready meals must
have been tiny. The chilli powder must only have contained a small
fraction of Sudan-I. In turn this was added to the sauce, which
therefore only contained a small fraction of the chilli powder.
Finally, the finished products will have contained only a small
fraction of worcester sauce. The quantities of Sudan-I in the end
products must be measured in micrograms.
Nor is Sudan-I peculiarly harmful. When it is consumed, it breaks down
into a number of by-products called amines. As the German Federal
Institute for Risk Assessment notes, 'the carcinogenic action in
animal experiments are attributed to the release of amines and their
ensuing metabolic activation.' Their report goes on to note that the
same amines are found in significant quantities in cabbages and
carrots. For example, a day's worth of Sudan-I contaminated chilli
powder will, at most, contain the same amount of the amine alinine as
20 grammes of raw carrots. This exposure is in turn thousands of times
lower than the levels which produced cancers in rats.
The FSA seems to have self-consciously made a media splash on this
issue, in an attempt to reassure the public that it is watching over
us. But such tactics tend to have the opposite effect to that
intended. These alarms make us more fearful about what we eat, and
lend credence to the bogus arguments of those who believe that
supermarkets and food processors are reckless about safety in the
pursuit of profits. Sudan-I is unnecessary in food preparation, and
banning it may be a sensible precaution. But the actions of the FSA in
relation to this particular incident have been excessive and
Action taken to remove illegal dye found in wide range of foods on
sale in UK,
UK Food Standards Agency, 18 February 2005
Dyes Sudan I to IV in food,
Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, 19 November 2003 [pdf format]
Food Scares Agency,
by Jan Bowman
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