The risk of skin cancer, the causes of global warming, the dangers of high
cholesterol - one expert says it's all bunk. Report by Robin McKie
Sunday July 1, 2001
Imagine a world where cholesterol is harmless, depression is beneficial and
only suntan lotions cause skin cancer. Or a planet on which the industrial
gases that pour from cars and factories are unconnected with increasing
temperatures and rising ocean levels... it may be far closer to reality than
Many of the medical and environmental horror stories that fill our newspapers
and TV documentaries on subjects ranging from global warming to GM foods may
be based on science that is 'so unreliable, so fragile, that it does not merit
our emotional energy', according to a controversial new analysis of science in
the modern world.
In Fragile Science: The Reality Behind the Headlines, Dr Robin Baker, argues
that confusion over statistical analyses, pressure to provide speedy answers,
misguided belief in computer models and the desire to attract the attention of
journalists and broadcasters have misled the public to such a degree that 'we
can scarcely believe anything they tell us'.
As a result, the public has been pressured into believing that
cholesterol-reducing diets will save their lives, that global warming is
mankind's fault, and that GM foods are threats to global well-being - although
evidence to back any of these claims is either absent or unconvincing.
It is a damning indictment of pop-science. But is Baker - whose previous book,
Sperm Wars, was an international bestseller - correct?
A good example of Baker's analysis is provided by skin cancer. Over the past
three decades, cases of malignant melanomas have soared and irrefutable
evidence has been gathered to show exposure to sunlight is a principal cause.
Making sure people block out such rays has therefore become a priority among
health education experts, with sun creams highlighted as key preventive
But Baker says the evidence to back their efficacy is meagre and
contradictory. Some studies, on both humans and mice, have found that
sunscreens can increase the chances of getting skin cancer. As he points out,
plastering your body with chemicals is a risky business.
'There are just as many grounds to blame skin cancer on chemicals as on
exposure to the sun.'
In other words the 'cure' may be as dangerous as the complaint. 'The available
evidence simply isn't capable of telling us whether sunscreens are a
protection or a potential menace. With the best will in the world, the
sun-care industry cannot scientifically reassure its customers that this or
that product is safe.'
These are startling, provocative words, yet they are supported by skin cancer
experts. Dermatologist Professor Rona Mackie of Glasgow University told The
Observer. 'There have been several studies which have indicated that melanoma
patients tend to use more sunscreens than people who do not get melanomas.'
'Of course, this link may have a lot to do with the way individuals use such
creams. Most people spread sunscreen too thinly and so weaken its protective
powers. In other words, people are going out in the sun, using creams in the
mistaken belief they are protected against strong sunlight - and are getting
cancer. That would explain the correlation with sunscreen use and cancer
Skin cancer expert Dr Julie Newton Bishop, of the Imperial Cancer Research
Fund, also backed Baker.
'Creams with a sun protection factor rating of up to 15-20 are OK. However,
those with higher ratings only achieve such protection by increasing
concentrations of their key chemical components, and these can cause
irritation. So, yes, one should be aware that sun screens are not a panacea.'
Then there is the question of cholesterol. After researchers in the 1970s and
1980s found strong evidence that high levels of cholesterol were triggering
heart attacks, most Western nations introduced policies aimed at cutting fat
from diets - and have witnessed a corresponding drop in the incidence of
coronary disease. The link would seem undeniable.
Baker disagrees. He points out that heart attack rates have also dropped in
Eastern countries, such as Japan, even though people there now eat more
hamburgers, chips and other fatty foods. He argues that it is far more likely
that improvements in diagnosis and treatment are responsible for the decline
in coronary disease.
Baker believes that high cholesterol levels and a high risk of heart attack
are both caused by other factors. 'Unemployment, stress, high blood pressure,
general unrest and sleep disturbance are probably all involved,' he states.
In other words, high cholesterol is just a symptom, not a cause of coronary
disease. Efforts to reduce levels in the blood are therefore a waste of time,
and are only being shored up by a multi-million-dollar food industry with too
much to lose.
'Millions of healthy people have been cajoled into changing their diet to rid
them of a chemical they may even need,' he says.
However, Baker's claims are not supported by coronary scientists. 'I find the
causative link between cholesterol and heart disease quite convincing,' said
Professor Godfrey Smith of Glasgow University's Institute of Biomedical and
'When you give people drugs like statins, their cholesterol levels are lowered
and their risk of suffering heart attacks reduced. It seems perfectly clear to
Other targets for Baker's wrath are GM foods, whose supporters and opponents
are both accused of using sloppy science to make their cases. On the issue of
global warming he says the evidence that our planet is heating up because of
mankind's industrial activities is unimpressive, most of it being based on
computer models whose outcomes are easy to manipulate.
'Scientists haven't yet found enough consistent evidence or powerful enough
analytical tools to reach a consensus - even among themselves, let alone to
convince self-interested governments and industries.'
As for depression, far from being a curse it may actually represent the risk
one pays for having a nature that is 'exceptionally appraising, empathetic,
introspective, romantic and imaginative as a result of its particular
structure, activity and chemistry'.
In short, depressive people are more creative and artistic than the average
non-depressed person. This does not stop their suffering, of course, but in
most cases doing nothing turns out to be the best a psychiatrist can achieve
for a depressive. Baker states: 'Doing nothing produces an 80 per cent
He adds: 'We need a way of identifying people with a genetic predisposition
without having to wait for them to become depressed.' Until these goals are
achieved, psychologists are merely stumbling around, Baker implies.
'Fragile Science: The Reality behind the Headlines' is published by Macmillan
>Question: if all the ice on earth melted, how much would the seas rise?
If all the ice on earth melted, you'd better take your money out of cryonic
investment, and you wouldn't be able to have scotch on the rocks.
consciousness, phlogiston, philosophy, vitalism, mind, free will, qualia,
analog computing, cultural relativism
Everything that can happen has already happened, not just once,
but an infinite number of times, and will continue to do so forever.
(Everything that can happen = more than anyone can imagine.)
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