We’ve written extensively about professional do-gooders who have little respect for pesky things like “evidence” and “burden of proof.” Not when saving us from ourselves is Job one. This month the Food and Drug Administration criticized the Center for Science in the Public Interest's (CSPI) decades-old crusade to link artificial food dyes with hyperactivity in kids.
And just a few weeks ago, our favorite food writer-turned-opinion columnist lured readers into a spooky food fantasy that’s usually the realm of radical environmentalists. New York Times “Opinionator” Mark Bittman conceded he had no scientific evidence to support the claims of anti-biotech groups he echoed in blind faith—but added: “As far as I can tell, though, they [GMOs] remain real dangers.”
Not to be outdone by our domestic distributors of misinformation, the World Health Organization’s Dr. Angelika Tritscher continued writing an acrylamide scare story. Acrylamide is a naturally-occurring chemical that can form when starchy food is fried, roasted, or baked—and it represents a non-existent health threat. But that didn’t stop Tritscher from sounding alarm bells in London’s Daily Mail (emphasis added):
Acrylamide is clearly carcinogenic. It has been shown to cause cancer in animal studies and we have no reason to think that the same is not true for humans.
We don’t know what the risk is and if we tried to quantify it, it would just be a guess which would lead to scaremongering.
But it’s very important for us to reduce our exposure. It reinforces the importance of a healthy diet.
Let’s follow Tritscher’s logic. She understands that assessing acrylamide’s actual health risks would lead to scaremongering. But she leads off with a claim that it’s a carcinogen, without knowing the actual risk. Isn’t that scaremongering? If she told readers how much acrylamide was required to give cancer to lab rats, everyone would breathe a lot easier.
That information is vital. It’s the dose that makes the poison, after all. And for acrylamide, it turns out a person of average weight would have to eat 182 pounds of French fries every day for a lifetime in order to be in any significant danger.
Perhaps the scariest news in these examples is how willing newspapers are to promote wild, pseudo-scientific speculation. Impressionable readers without a scientific background panic easily. (They also buy newspapers.) Imagine if reporters started asked activists a few simple questions: “Where’s the proof?” and “How much is dangerous?”
Paranoia, too, is hazardous to our health.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this article reported that the FDA specifically criticized CSPI for its campaign against food dyes. While the agency was critical of the campaign’s central idea, it did not single CSPI out for blame.