What a field day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly saying, "hooray for our side"

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Life is an object lesson

On the ombudsman article in the NYT asking if they should report the "truth," here's an example. The BBC is reporting processed meat 'linked to pancreatic cancer'." (Grokked from Jay Lake) Note the quotes in the headline. This is a way of saying, "well, 'some people' are saying there is a link." Now, if you read that full article there's a hell of a lot of dancing going on in there. Is it the processed meats, is it red meat itself, or is obesity? The article and the people interviewed go round and round. Why? Well, because they all have their interests to protect.

Now, here's the truth, all three of those are linked to increased cancer risks (high intake of red meat, processed meats, and obesity). But all at different levels and for different types of cancers. And the research the BBC is reporting on links increased cancer risk to "processed meats." That means they normalized the results to compensate for those other factors. So while you could say, "this is just one study, and a small one at that," saying it could be something else is obfuscating.

Because here is the truth. Now, obesity brings about it's own problems, and a well selected sample study would eliminate that variable as a problem. Processed meats would have the same occurrence of cancer as red meat consumption except for one thing, what we add to the meats when we process them.

Nitrates have already been linked to cancer. Nitrates are used in most processed meats as a preservative. Nitrates are cheap, and are used as more than just a preservative (they're also used as bulking agents, or fillers).

So, you could lose weight (sure, it's a "good idea"), eat less red meat (protein is good for you, and meats are a good source of proteins), eat fewer processed meats (also a good idea, but I love 'em), or find processed meats who don't use nitrates. Which means fewer profits for the meat processors, and the destruction of an industry that is rarely talked about, the industrial chemical industry (and in truth, lower nitrate sales would just mean lower profits, not destruction, but in their mind it's the same thing).

So, what's the truth here? Well, it isn't the finger pointing that is going on in the article. More than likely it's another example of nitrates causing cancer. But that would require a reporter to 1) have encyclepedic knowledge of the subject they're reporting on, 2) and editor with memory, 3) fact checking that could find linkages and 4) not reporting "every view point" as valid.

So, what at first blush looks like a well rounded article is actually meant to leave the reader with the impression that nobody really knows what is going on. And that way the organization keeps both their advertising (when it's advertising driven), keeps their legal department happy, keeps their "contacts" within industries, and doesn't burn any bridges. It's perfectly safe.

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