Bacon, Cancer, and Stupid Headlines

You Headline Writers are Destroying Civilization and Murdering People

You Headline Writers are Destroying Civilization and Murdering People

I'm sure you've all read the news by now, and since our news cycle is bleeding fast, I'm sure I've already missed out on telling you this:, you're probably not going to get cancer from eating bacon.

I'm no doctor, so all this is to be taken with a blood-pressure appropriate measure of salt. But I'm sure you've seen the headlines: BACON AS BAD AS CIGARETTES! HOT DOGS ARE PLUTONIUM! ASBESTOS BURGERS!

Now, should you go and eat a whole pack of bacon, right now?

No, no you should not, you greasy bastard. Moderation in all things, right? And nobody but the Cattlemen's Association (the only people on Earth powerful enough to take on Oprah Winfrey) and the Pork Board are claiming you should be slapping meat into your daily diet. Lighten up, for fuck's sake. I do not understand the internet obsession with bacon. It ain't a health food. It's a rare treat, not something to shove into everything from salads to burgers to grilled fucking cheese. Go outside and play, you monster. Have a fruit cup. Steam some broccoli. Grow up, you sniveling manbaby.

But, let's get into the meat of why these headlines, and all the hand-wringing, is wrong.



Part 1: The WHO is Kinda Dumb.

The World Health Organization does a lot of good work. I'm sure. I didn't check that fact. I could be wrong. The WHO is kind of like the UN, in that I've never actually heard of them doing anything right, but I get this vague sense that there have been things they didn't fuck up, and in those cases they did something right.

Anyway. What had happened was: The WHO has this one bit, the International Agency into the Research on Cancer. (The IARC, IIRC) Part of what the IARC does is to classify if things do or do not cause cancer.

If I had readers who were science and statistics minded, they would immediately say "Hey, wait, that's not how that works. That's not how ANY of this works! You can't just say 'yes, no, it causes cancer..."

Good catch, hypothetical reader.

So, as a workaround of "this is carcinogenic and this is not," the IARC has a different (profoundly confusing and nonsensical) methodology. They classify things as "how settled is it that these are carcinogenic?" The rankings, a handy 1, 2A, 2B, and 3, are based on that: 1 being "yes, cancer," 2A is "probably" 2B is "probably not" and 3 is "no data."

The only things in Group 1 are very much carcinogenic. They do, in fact, increase the risk of getting cancer. Red meat and processed meat have been moved to Group 1. This makes a certain amount of sense.

BUT, here's what's important: Group rankings don't take into account HOW MUCH the thing increases the risk of cancer. Only that it DOES.

Eating bacon? A very tiny increase for a certain chunk of the population (men, over a certain age). But that's enough to put it in Group 1, with cigarettes, which have a very HUGE increase for everyone who smokes them.

Or plutonium, which, again - HUGE increase in cancer for EVERYONE exposed. Asbestos? Same. But there's other fairly harmless things in Group 1 as well - some antibiotics, some oral contraceptives, alcohol, sunlight. These things CAN cause cancer. Sometimes. In some people. Depending on the exposure. Etc. Etc. Endless et cetera. The ranking is based solely on the strength of the evidence that they CAN. Not the increase in the risk!

Which is why better minds than I would point out that this is fucking stupid.

Part 2: Headline Writers: The Devil?

Reading into the articles that most people linked to, you might have puzzled together this information. Sure, it wouldn't have been as easy to figure out, or as vulgar.

You MIGHT have figured it out if you read enough of the articles, provided you didn't get stuck with an especially feverish vegan food website - if you're visiting from Veganista, hello! We have vegan recipes!

But, you could also have been mislead by The Guardian, which isn't usually this stupid.

But you probably didn't read any articles at all. You probably just saw endless streams of headlines on your Facebook or Twitter.

These were inevitably bad headlines. People call such headlines "clickbait," but that's what a headline does, in modern journalism. It makes you click. It is, literally, clickbait. That doesn't have to mean that it's misleading.

In the end, you could have just as accurately claimed: Bacon! As Healthy as Sunshine!

Or, more sinister: Smoking: Healthy as Sunshine, Claims WHO!

Big tobacco, I am available.