Scholars of scientific hype in the modern age typically point their finger at the media, the internet and, above all, the gullibility of the science-illiterate general public. While these elements do clearly play their part, cancer epidemiologist Geoffrey Kabat is more interested in blaming a more unlikely enabler: scientists themselves.
When establishing whether a potential health hazard is real, various violations of the scientific method can lead to weak or frankly misleading scientific reports. And when these reports involve environmental threats to our health, they have the power to arouse a response that is out of all proportion to risk, leading to public anxiety, unsuitable government policy and inappropriate research funding and focus.
The researcher biases and failures that Kabat describes are familiar, dirty little secrets in the scientific community, but they may come as a surprise to laypeople who have a particular view of scientists as rational creatures wedded to logic and “the truth”. Unfortunately, objectivity can be derailed by human tendencies, as when a researcher is convinced that a hypothesis is true before it is proved, favouring findings that support it and dismissing those that do not. Scientists are also driven by real-world motivations such as the need to publish papers – which are more likely to get published if they report something important. Papers in turn attract further funding for future work and grease the wheels of academic promotion. These imperatives, Kabat suggests, can be just as much of a vested interest as the financial profits for which Big Pharma are perpetually blamed.
To make his case, the author explores several health scares that have made big news for years and siphoned off enormous amounts of resources, but which appear to be red herrings bolstered by weak, biased studies that nonetheless gain wide media coverage and regulatory attention. One example is the idea that mobile phones cause brain tumours, which has been frightening the public since a high-profile anecdotal report in 1993. Another is the theory that Bisphenol A, a material widely used in food packaging, can cause “endocrine disruption”.
These risks are still feared, despite costly studies producing a body of evidence that indicates that they are largely unfounded. In each case, Kabat argues that a minority, contrary view, put forth by opposing groups of scientists, is keeping the flame alive. These scientists commit cardinal sins, including publishing papers that fail to acknowledge studies that disagree, or to confess the limitations and potential pitfalls of their own. These researchers also confuse correlation with causation, or don’t rigorously assess how well the supporting studies they cite were carried out. Meanwhile, against this ongoing noise of potential risk from a supposedly trustworthy source, it is difficult for any reassuring signals to get through.
It would clearly be in everyone’s interest to reduce misplaced fear and to ensure that public policy and resources are concentrated on bona fide problems. This book, with its scholarly and dry tenor, is unlikely to find a wide general readership. But it may have an impact on scientists, inspiring them to examine their own prejudices and failings with more candour, and not to make the same mistakes in future.
Jennifer Rohn is principal research associate in cell biology, University College London.
Getting Risk Right: Understanding the Science of Elusive Health Risks
By Geoffrey C. Kabat
Columbia University Press, 272pp, £26.00
ISBN 9780231166461 and 1542852 (e-book)
Published 22 November 2016