Why Do We Fear the Harmless While Irrationally Putting Ourselves in Harm’s Way?

October 25, 2012 • Commentary
This article appeared on Forbes​.com on October 25, 2012.

Why do we fear the harmless while irrationally putting ourselves in harms way?

After almost being run down by (yet another) of Washington’s insolent cabbies, I thought it a good time to look at some of our most unreasonable fears, as well as some of our riskiest behaviors. Some, it turns out are both.

Take the current hysteria about vaccinations. When the unvaccinated population becomes large enough and in sufficient proximity—think religious communities—adult epidemics of childhood diseases can arise. Measles may be uncomfortable for a child, but it can kill or cause serious brain damage in an adult.

Some of these behaviors usually arise because of our dreadful educational system, where—save for the brightest in good schools—science and technical education are horrendous. The number one large nation in per‐​capita income ranks 17th (out of 34) in this department.

It doesn’t help that our science journals appear to be increasingly lax about peer review. Andrew Wakefield’s completely fraudulent study—since withdrawn by The Lancet—claimed (with a remarkably small sample size) that thiomersal‐​containing vaccines for measles cause autism. In retrospect, it should never have seen the light of day, and the potential harm it has caused is yet unknown.

Autism and Asperger Syndrome (its (somewhat) less severe variant) are obviously genetic with incomplete penetrance and a heritability of 90%. You can see this in multiple citations in the scientific literature (as opposed to one bad vaccine study), or you may know an extended family where it runs rampant. There’s likely to be a few PhD’s in that cohort, probably in math, meteorology or economics, and you probably refer to them as “the nerds”.

The autistic spectrum disorders have always been with us, but Asperger’s were often (erroneously) shoved in with what we now call the developmentally delayed. There’s not more Asperger’s, just better diagnosis, and no consistent environmental cause has ever been detected. Not only is it medically dangerous to blame vaccines, it is scientifically wrong.

Next on my list is chemical weirdness. The current rage is something called Bisphenol‐​A (BPA), which is in the lining of most every food‐​containing can. It’s an inert shield that keeps the food from reacting with the metal, which acid foods can dissolve. In low‐​acid vegetables and meats, it’s protection against botulism, a particularly horrible way of death.

Bisphenol‐​A is also a very weak estrogen‐​like compound that binds weakly to a set of hormone receptors. Humans ingest truly minute amounts, metabolize it in a couple of hours, and pee it away. Yet BPA is now blamed—via the most primitive associational analysis—for obesity, impotence, early puberty, and you‐​name‐​it. In fact, fat people do have more BPA in their blood, perhaps because they eat more, which is why they weigh more.

Here the story gets better. Many plants produce estrogen‐​like substances that do the same thing as BPA, only the amount ingested is orders of magnitude greater than BPA. One of those many plants is the soybean, Glycine max., which is the single largest source of human protein. If you don’t consume them directly (as in edamame), your nutritional drink (think Ensure or Muscle Milk, etc…) is loaded with them, as is your child’s infant formula. The protein in your hamburger, chicken filet, or barbecue was almost certainly fixed by an animal concentrating soy protein.

Now I have yet to hear that my Vegan friends are poisoning themselves, the females giving themselves estrogen‐​related cancers, the males self‐​castrating, and that tofu is a heckuva contraceptive.

No, instead we indict BPA. Rather than go nutso about all the phytoestrogens in infant formula, we blame the liner of the can, despite the fact that the difference in exposure from the two sources is sometimes impossible to calculate because human BPA levels are often too low to measure.

I save my final one for the beach and your old air conditioner. Its refrigerant is R-22, a chlorofluorocarbon that will probably leak out, taking to the sky, with the very slight chance that it will be wafted upward by a thunderstorm so powerful that it penetrates the stratosphere, depositing it where catalyzes the destruction of springtime ozone, especially over Antarctica.

It is true that there has been a slight increase in downwelling ultraviolet radiation in our latitudes—generally a few percent and more in the winter than the summer—and this has caused great consternation and fear…

…except when people go to the beach. Which creates a greater risk—a few percent of increasing ultraviolet radiation (that is equivalent to moving from Washington DC to Richmond, Virginia) or removing (at least) 90% of your clothes and lying in the sun on purpose?

The bottom line is that people do risky things and irrationally perceive risks. While we can in part blame poor education and dodgy scientific review, I fear (rationally, of course), that it is simply in the nature of Homo sapiens.

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