Sex, Lies and Cheeseburgers

Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 7.22.07 AMNumber of deaths attributable to eating processed meat, according to the World Health Organization (WHO): 34,000

Number of people struck by lightning annually: 240,000

And yet the WHO generated a huge headline by saying that eating red and processed meat could increase your risk of colon cancer by 18%.

Let us assume that they are right. (And we will let the trade associations debate them on the scientific merits of that 34,000 figure.) Even if they are right, this is a perfect example of confusing an increase in relative risk of one disease with absolute risk of dying. To use the lightning example, you probably have a 1-in-a-billion chance of being struck by lightning if a thunderclap is audible but the sky above is clear.

Some states close public pools when that happens. If the sky above is clear but you can see lightning in the distance, your odds of getting struck may jump to 1-in-100,000,000. That’s a 10-times relative increase, but only a 9-in-a-billion absolute increase. So these states inconvenience parents and fidgety kids for basically no reason other than misunderstanding relative and absolute risk.

To make matters worse, the WHO conflates the risk of smoking and asbestos with red meat. Both the former cause perhaps something like an 18% increase in age-adjusted death rates in total, not an 18% increase in one form of cancer. The difference? Probably about a thousand times in total, unvarnished, absolute risk.

Yes, I know it’s not always about me (my ex-wife was quite clear on this) but this is exactly what Quizzify teaches. Newscasters who had taken the Quizzify quiz (and relative-vs-absolute risk is in the advanced level…but they are newscasters so they should get to that level) would have led with the headline: “WHO Demonstrates No Understanding of Health” instead of “You Could Die from Eating Red Meat”.

That’s it for now.  Funny thing, I used to be a quasi-vegetarian because I was concerned about the impact of red meat and processed meats on my colon cancer risk. But anyone who understands health research would read this the same way I do: it’s OK to live on the edge. Don’t deprive yourself of red meat for this reason. I myself am headed out for a burger. Not just any burger but a bacon burger. In the immortal words of the great philosopher Sammy Davis Jr., I’ve got a lot of living to do.


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16 replies »

  1. Okay you lost me at trivially risky = smoking.

    Are you arguing that tabacco has been demonized?

    How refreshing.

  2. I could not agree with you more, Al.

    Journalists need to understand that reporting does not mean repeating.

    It means analysis.

    Journalism is about taking responsibility, not about shirking it.

    If the data in a study is clearly dubious, it should be challenged.

  3. Great piece. Raises a lot of issues we’ll be tackling for generations to come. There’s too much money and snake oil that’s driven by confusion and fear. That should be medicine’s role, to bring clarity, but they aren’t immune to the need to do something, anything, to assuage an out of proportion fear. Journalists as well make more money on fear than clarity. Openness, transparency and education in critical thinking are the only answers I see.

  4. Spike, the goal should be to make people think about what they eat, not dismiss the warnings as scientific babble of no consequence. This is probably early science of a foggy smoking gun, as were health warnings on cigarettes and trans fats, also back handedly dismissed by industry profiteers and people thinking there were faster ways to die.

  5. Like John said… you always raise great points Al. I made the same exact point to a friend on Facebook who was panicking about her bacon habit.

    A lot of this is on the media. The WHO was just saying that bacon and cigarettes are similar in that both are PROVEN to increase cancer risk. But of course the WHO is smart enough to understand relative vs. absolute risk, they even said so to CNN:

    “The report outlined that simply eating 50 grams of processed meat each day — the equivalent of two slices of ham — can increase the risk of such cancer by 18%. However, the authors say the risks are relatively small to begin with.”

    The issue is scientists still don’t understand how to message things properly so the media and the reader don’t jump to crazy conclusions. The problem here is the headline, not the report.

  6. “I just don’t think occasionally eating meat is a “self-destructive behavior.””

    If you read the WHO report is does not say that it is. What about all those who eat meat more than “occasionally”, think they might be interested to know the warning?

    “We demonize sugar, transfats, and sedentariness (and of course smoking).”

    Because they are demons of our industrial food chain culture.

  7. Even Quizzify couldn’t fix this one, I’m afraid. And there are very few societal ills I can say that about. I just don’t think occasionally eating meat is a “self-destructive behavior.” On the other hand, by definition too much of anything is bad for you. Quizzify is a good example of one thing, which is if you drown people in advice about trivially risky behaviors, you lose them altogether. We demonize sugar, transfats, and sedentariness (and of course smoking). We’d rather have a high probability of getting people to change a few really bad habits than try to get everyone to become perfect — and fail altogether at doing that.

  8. Excellent question, Peter. The concept of relative and absolute risk has mind-boggled people for generations. My ex-wife was scared of flying, and there were certain airlines she wouldn’t take because she read a story that they were more likely to crash than other airlines. I think in this case it’s wishful thinking that the end-user would figure it out. This is the purview of journalists. They actually have to do their job and present more than a he said-she said view.

  9. Al, as always you raise good points.

    As the economists like to say : there is an “on the other hand”

    The problem here is that your argument can be and will be misused to justify irresponsible behavior.

    It will be Googled. It will be cited. This isn’t a guess. People are looking for evidence to justify their self-destructive behaviors.

    Not our problem?

    Please don’t tell us the answer is Quizzify.

  10. Peter – above us nothing but sky. Get your risk calculator and fret away ;). There’s an industry that’s growing risk thanks to fretters. Keep them in business.

  11. I’m not scared, and will continue to eat modest small amounts of meat products, but think it important to know about what’s in my food.

    Would your threshold of 15371 also apply to all potentially dangerous products sold to unsuspecting consumers? Maybe even the recent Blue Bell ice cream recall?

  12. Peter, life cannot be so precisely defined, even by social engineers. But since you ask: I believe a number needed to treat of 15371 should be the threshold.

    Aren’t you from North of the border? I thought it’s not easy to scare Canadians.

  13. “…about small environmental relative risks, without realizing the irony.”

    Rogue, at what point should we be informed about “relative” risks? Is because lightning is a greater risk we should not be informed about our risky food consumption?

  14. It never ceases to amaze me that the same people who decry the rise of big pharma and the medicine-pharma complex, get themselves in a twist about small environmental relative risks, without realizing the irony.


    Exhibit A: 100 people treated with statins for five years to save one death from MI (Greed, over treatment, big pharma, government please regulate).

    Exhibit B: 100 people must avoid red meat for their lives to save one person from colorectal cancer death. (Greed, food industry, government please save us from death by regulating).

    Am I alone in seeing that the reason we are overmedicalized is because we have become afraid of infinitely low risks?

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