The past couple of Friday Links posts have linked to several worry porn articles about the grave dangers of eggs, toast, bacon and even the horrifying dangers of... exercise.
Readers, do you ever get the impression that all these articles and studies have jumped the shark? The fear and loathing in our media is beyond all reason, and it's all but verging onto unintentional satire. The Onion can now take stories directly from reality (Toast Causes Cancer!) and produce effortless parody without changing a word.
Our entire reality has become self-parodying, at least when it comes to new things to worry about.
These studies, and the panicked general media articles reporting them, clearly must fill a need. They must serve some purpose, otherwise we wouldn't see a near-infinite supply of them offering more and more new things to fear with each passing year.
Of course, when I say these studies "fill a need," I'm referring to the media's need... to increase revenues and profits. Remember our first principles: the media's purpose is not to inform you. It is to capture your attention. And then profit. Never forget this.
In the sense of helping us understand our reality, however, these articles most certainly do not fill a need. The "information" in these articles may capture our attention and our clicks, but it is useless in the extreme. In fact, if these studies are intended to help us live safer lives, they are ironically working to achieve the exact opposite end.
Which brings us to the central point of this post: the scientific study publishing establishment--and the media outlets cynically trumpeting its most outlandish and attention-grabbing studies--have together become the boy who cried wolf. We've heard "wolf!" cried so many times that we're soon going to stop listening. Heck, most of us already have.
But someday, there will be a real wolf. A study that, perhaps, we might actually want to pay attention to. But we won't, because we've all already heard the cry of "wolf!" from thousands of reports on "death from ice cream" and "cancer from toast." All the years of worry porn have inured us to some future message that will matter.
So what happens when there's a real link between cancer and some activity? And when I say real, I mean statistically substantial, replicable, without use of the denominator fallacy* and not designed to dupe innumerate readers. What happens when we become so inured as a culture to these ridiculous junk science headlines and pseudo-intellectual fulminations from the media, that we just stop paying attention? And then a real warning comes out?
Makes you think.
* Denominator fallacy: Imagine a hypothetical study that finds a higher risk of cancer linked to some previously harmless food, citing data indicating that a sample of people eating this food show an incidence of cancer of 0.0002%, compared to a control group which has a 0.0001% risk. The media (idiotically and innumerately) reports this as "Food X Linked to a 100% Greater Risk of Cancer!!!", a statement that, while technically true in some sense, is deeply misleading, as both numbers are effectively zero (one ten-thousandths of a percentage point is a one-in-a-million chance), particularly when compared to the gauntlet of actual risks we run when living a perfectly normal life. The recent "bacon causes cancer" study offered numerate readers a textbook example of the denominator fallacy.
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