Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Willful ignorance

I recently read this story about how being sedentary may increase the risk of some cancers. The story itself is somewhat interesting in that researchers isolated the knowledge that a high frequency of physical activity during each day seems to have some benefit for health, particularly related to inflammatory markers that might be related to cancer. This is fundamentally different than the traditional knowledge of the relationship between physical activity and disease which leads to the standard recommendations of regular exercise 3 - 4 times per week. In this study the information seems to indicate that the act of being sedentary between bouts of physical activity is also a risk factor. In other words, you can be active and fit, but if you sit for 8 - 10 hours per day without moving around, you are increasing the risk of some cancers.

But what really shocked me was the response to this study by the people who commented on the news story at the end of the article. Comments (and the rough estimate of readers' views based on the amount of "agree" vs. "disagree" votes with each comment) seem to indicate that the majority of people who read this either dismiss it or are flippant about the data merely because it is inconvenint.

A few sample comments follow:

"This just in: Everything causes cancer. Doctor's prescription: Live your life."

"SITTING? Are you kidding me? Sitting, standing, lying dan, peeing the wrong way, breathing at the wrong time, eating the wrong food (it's all wrong at this point...so it doesn't much matter), looking at the moon at the wrong angle....I mean really...this is GETTING RIDICULOUS."

"A little more fear-mongering...pretty soon they will determine that breathing causes cancer too."

These comments can be summed up with the attitude of: "Sitting may lead to an increase in cancer risk. How inconvenient to me. I'll just dismiss the data because I don't want to deal with it."

Everything does not cause cancer. Cells do degenerate and some factors cause an increase in this process. Stand around some radioactive materials and you'll increase your cancer risk in some cells. Is that inconvenent? Why does no one say: "Radioactivity??? Are you kidding me? You can't do anything these days without getting cancer!" The fact that being sedentary for long periods might cause cells to increase the risk of becoming cancerous might be true (more data will illucidate us). So, if you find that annoying, should you just dismiss it and assume that everything causes cancer?

"This is getting ridiculous." What is getting ridiculous? The fact that we have so much data, or the actual nature of the data? (The nature of nature).

The last comment is perhaps the most ludicrous. More fear-mongering. Yeah, right. There is a huge group of well funded people out there making up data that is specifically designed to get you to stand up from your desk once an hour and go for a 30 second walk. Maybe this is the same group of people that killed Kennedy.

Why are my fellow humans becoming so willfully ignorant? Why do people not want data? Why do people refuse data when it isn't convenient to them? If you had heart disease, wouldn't you want to know so that you could take the appropriate steps to avoid a heart attack? So why is this any different? This trend is very frightening because it denotes an overall mistrust of science. Science is not taught well these days in educational institutions. Science is seen as abstract and relatively useless in our world, rather than as the fundamental process of discovery by which we find answers to everything. The less understanding of science and more importantly, the scientific process, then the more opportunity that people in power with an agenda have of ramming their agenda down your throat. Just look at the state of politics in the United States these days. There are millions of voters who base their vote on things that are known to be false, such as creationism. We know that evolution is true and that the world was not created as described in the Bible. This is established fact, and yet millions of voters cast their ballot dependant on a candidate's acceptance of the known falsehood of creationism. This concept can be extended to any reach of government. Some people like the notion of small government and cast their vote accordingly, but are too un-schooled in scientific unbiased observation to notice that the very people they vote for enlarge government rather than reduce it.

Science education is an absolute must in a healthy society. The process of learning scientific knowledge is only one small portion of scientific education. Equally or more important is understanding the process of science so that, when a politician stands up and makes claims such as climate change being "made up", one can dismiss it as an unscientific claim.

Evidence. Love it or be deliberately blind.

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