The Cure for Worry Porn

1) Wait, you're using a Teflon pan? Haven't you heard of the serious risks of PFOA?
2) Vaccines will give my child autism!
3) "A new link between grilling meats and cancer..."
4) Aren't you worried about Bisphenol-A in the linings of your canned food?
5) Have you heard about the link between acrylamide and cancer? You can get cancer now from burnt toast!

In the modern media era, we are literally buried by the above kind of "information." We all have friends who post alarming articles on Facebook, or friends who send us chain emails loaded with concerns like these. And of course, we're constantly exposed to major news media outlets carrying authoritative-sounding articles based on scientific studies... studies that somehow always seem to discover a link between a perfectly reasonable everyday activity and some dreaded disease.

Readers, this is not information. It is just another form of pornography. It isn't meant to inform you, it's meant to stimulate your limbic system. It's designed to produce fear and worry (hence the term "worry porn"), so you'll click, read, or just sit there and keep watching.

Fear is a hindbrain reaction. Our forebrains just follow along. Whatever article we happen to be reading merely has to seem persuasive--which is laughably easy as most readers lack basic critical thinking skills.

VoilĂ : we believe the fear is real and worth worrying about.

And yet this information is never worth worrying about. To see why, allow me to share five rules I keep in mind whenever I stumble onto worry porn:

Rule 1: The studies we see are the most outlandish or the most fear-inducing.
This is a basic and fundamental concept of the media. Fear sells and surprise sells. Further, the more media you consume, the more it seems normal to read about fear and surprise, to the point where it begins to skew your own perception of reality. Incidentally, this is why, in an era when life has never been safer for human beings, we all feel like life is more dangerous than ever.

Rule 2: A tiny fraction of studies are independently replicated.
A study that "proves" something actually proves nothing until somebody else can come up with the same findings separately. This almost never happens, but you'd never know it judging by the way the media covers scientific issues. The general media is interested in selling you information that surprises or scares you, it is not interested in running follow up stories on how such-and-such study couldn't be replicated by anyone else.

Rule 3: Even when the results of a study are replicated, the size or strength of the effect is smaller--usually significantly smaller--than the findings of the original study.
It's not enough that we're unable to replicate most studies. Even when when we do replicate results, the linkage is almost always far weaker than the original findings. This is known as the Decline Effect, and it's been confounding researchers for decades. Taken to its logical conclusion, the Decline Effect suggests that there is some other unknown form of bias--statistical bias, survivor bias, medical journal bias, perhaps even political bias--at work that skews the fundamental nature of scientific studies.

Rule 4: No one sees the studies that say "this chemical is safe," "this pattern of behavior is safe" or "we postulated this link between burnt toast and cancer but didn't find anything."
This is known as the File Drawer Effect: Studies that don't prove anything or studies that produce negative findings tend to vanish into the journal editor's file drawer without getting published. Why? Readers should know the answer by heart by now: If there's no fear involved, no one will read it.

Rule 5: Therefore, any fears you have after hearing about any study, ever, are overblown.
Thinking about scientific studies this way is immensely freeing, not to mention a lot less fear-inducing.

But that's the funny thing about fear: if you have a fear, you can't really ask me or anyone else to save you from your fear. Your fear is a feeling. It can't be disproven. You have to decide yourself whether you will submit to your fear or not.

Once you wrap your mind around what worry porn really is, you'll be able to look at this information in an entirely new way. You will no longer worry. You'll recognize that this information is presented against backdrop of fear, and it's designed for one reason and one reason only: to keep you reading, watching and listening.

Readers, what do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments.


A quick footnote: One more thing. I'd like to briefly review perhaps the worst example of worry-porn ever. Why do so many people harbor an irrational fear that vaccines cause autism? It all stems from an extremely famous study that supposedly found a link between autism and the MMR vaccine.

This study got a lot of publicity. A lot. After all, there's nothing more fear inducing than the idea that we could be deliberately harming our very own children. And this study scared millions of parents away from vaccinating their kids.

And that study? It turns out that the data was faked, the study was fraudulent and the author was barred permanently from practicing medicine.

Leaving us with no facts, no study, just fear. Which is incredibly sad, because there are now thousands of children contracting measles in perfectly modern developing countries, thanks to fears spread by a false study. There was a measles outbreak in Scotland--Scotland!--just last April while I was there visiting.

Thus now we're facing outbreaks of a dangerous childhood disease that should already be conquered. Keep this example in mind the next time you can't resist clicking on some article that says "A new study suggests a link between...."


For further reading:
1) The Truth Wears Off - a well-written article on the Decline Effect in the New Yorker
2) Publication Bias (including thoughts on the File Drawer Effect) at Wikipedia
3) The Decline Effect Is Stupid - a critique of the above New Yorker article at The Last Psychiatrist
4) "Wakefield’s article linking the MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent" - a short and useful summary at the British Medical Journal Online on the autism/vaccine fraud.
5) Fifteen Years After Autism Panic, a Plague of Measles Erupts - Sobering article on the unintended consequences of worrying about all the wrong things.


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10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Awesome, I want to send this to my MIL, but she has taken worry to the extreme - paranoia. (deadly diseases can be caught by sitting on public toilet seats, etc.)

chacha1 said...

Brilliant, Dan, thank you.

Anonymous said...

As a researcher myself, I can assure you that editors don't eve get the boring studies. "It doesn't work" is often terribly unexciting, although valuable, and never submitted by the researcher.

Anonymous said...

Hahaha! I haven't read this in a news report, but I just found out that the boring old white button mushrooms that my husband and I have been eating daily for years are full of toxins that will damage our organs or kill us or something. I learned this from Harold McGee's book "On Food and Cooking", so of course I had to look it up on that excellent repository of truth and wisdom, Wikipedia. Sigh. It's True. I wonder how many more decades we have left before these poisonous yummy thingies kill us?

Anonymous said...

I have been reading several years, though I've never commented before. I've thought several times that I ought to say thank you for sharing your reasoned thoughts, but I am especially grateful for this post. I found out I am expecting just a week ago, but I can already tell there is a level of hysteria to which I was previously unexposed in some of the pregnancy/mothering materials I've read. It will be good for my sanity to remember that "worry porn" is good for publishers, but not for me!

Daniel said...

Thanks for the feedback everyone. Anonymous (11:41 AM), I want to single you out with a BIG thanks. This is exactly why I write Casual Kitchen. Thanks for sharing.

DK

The Calico Cat said...

Glad this was in the tops list it was a favorite of mine this year. Now to reread the soda ban article.

Daniel said...

Thanks, CC, for the good vibes. And thanks as always for reading!

DK

Anonymous said...

Amazing that all the articles I have read supporting vaccines quote the report that is supposedly not factual as if there are no more studies available. Maybe you would be interested in reading this report http://archive.lewrockwell.com/miller/miller15.html by Donald W. Miller, Jr., MD who is a cardiac surgeon and Professor of Surgery at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. He is a member of Doctors for Disaster Preparedness and writes articles on a variety of subjects for LewRockwell.com. His web site is www.donaldmiller.com

Helen Rennie said...

Hi there,

Don't know how to thank you for posting this. What drives me nuts is general public's inability to evaluate the magnitude of risk. I posted a recipe for a medium-rare burgers on my blog and the "isn't this dangerous" e-mails started pouring in. I looked up stats on how many people die from e.coli per year in the US (low 20s) vs. how many people die in car accidents (30,000). The burger offers much more pleasure than driving with a puny fraction of the risk and yet people think it's dangerous. Of course, people view driving as necessary and a burger is not. But how about going on a hike in New England. The amount of ticks and lyme disease cases is huge compared to getting sick from a burger. Hiking or outdoor activities are hardly necessary to these people's likelihood (the way driving is) and yet that poor burger is viewed as scary.

I think we love to be afraid of food in the US.

Cheers,
-Helen