Claptrap about chemicals

Chemicals are to blame! Much like big business, chemicals have be used as a convenient enemy for the true believers. There was a report by the President’s cancer panel that took this approach. Whelan and Miller describe it as Chemicals, Cancer And Claptrap (from Forbes.com).

If the authors had only bothered to consult a standard textbook on cancer epidemiology, they would have learned that lifestyle factors such as smoking, obesity, excessive alcohol consumption and overexposure to sunlight–not chemicals in air, water and food–are the underlying causes of most preventable human cancers.

They could also have referred to the summary statement from one of their own previous meetings, “Strategies for Maximizing the Nation’s Investment in Cancer,” held in San Diego in 2007, … Significant impact on morbidity and mortality could also be achieved by ‘following the evidence’ and applying what we know–screening and early detection of cancer; better preventive interventions and treatments for those cancers with the highest morbidity and mortality (e.g., breast, colon, lung, prostate); and expanded access to cancer care.”

But instead of following the available evidence, the current panel relied on several specious premises.

Those “specious premises” are rather common when it comes to issues like this – almost signature items. They include:

  • Hidden basic absurd assumptions – e.g. “chemicals, by definition, are dangerous”
  • The reduction to the absurd – the goal is to eliminate all risk
  • The false binaries – the critical relationship of dosage in whether something is a poison or not.
  • The false negative – cast as the precautionary principle that tries to put the burden on a suspected villain to prove its safe.

The example is about a misuse of science. A trashing of science for the purpose of political ideology. Whether matters of cancer, vaccination, climate change or other such issues, it is damage done not only to political process but to science as its own endeavor.

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