Margaret Wente on Understanding Risk

great sign gets priorities straight photo

The Globe and Mail, which thinks it is Canada's New York Times, finally removed the fence around its editorial content, so that people under 30 or outside of the country can finally learn that it exists. Their Maureen Dowd is Margaret Wente, who occasionally gets it right but sometimes is spectacularly wrong, as in her recent article "Yellow duckies and other killers.". It isn't just the errors, which are legion, but it is the entire idea of the article, that demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the concept of risk.

Let's start with the errors, like in the first line:

"It's hard to be a good mother these days. Deadly perils lurk everywhere. Take that yellow bathtub ducky, contaminated with a dangerous substance known as BPA."

Sorry, Peggy, BPA is in hard plastics like polycarbonates. The rubber ducky is soft and squishy because it is made with phthalates, a plasticizer for PVCs, or vinyls. But that is OK, they are both gender-benders, endocrine disruptors, that mess with your kid's hormones. You can read about them here:

How to Green Your Kids' Toys
Into the Mouths of Babes: Green to Grow Bottles

It goes downhill from there. She writes:"a walk in the park really does rank higher on the risk-o-meter than plastic baby bottles, plastic bath toys, plastic water bottles, and other products deemed a health hazard by the current round of chemophobia. Dr. Elizabeth Whelan is president of the American Council on Science and Health, an independent group devoted to accuracy in health reporting. She points out that both BPA and phthalates have been studied intensively for decades. There are no studies - none - that show any link between these substances and harm to people. The basis for the claims of danger are all from studies done on rats, and they don't predict human risk."

She does not explain that the American Council on Science and Health, which started with a strong stance against tobacco, now, according to Sourcewatch, "takes a generally apologetic stance regarding virtually every other health and environmental hazard produced by modern industry." Or that even a former director calls Elizabeth Whelan a "junk food queen" for her defense of companies who make products with low nutritional value.

But in the end, the most important and most dangerous paragraph is the last; after a description of how moms are programmed to protect their kids from sabre-tooth tigers,

Today, almost all those dangers are gone - eradicated by what's generally known as progress. But maternal vigilance remains as strong as ever. So now we fix on the invisible - toxic spores from mould, death-rays from the sun, or poisons in the manmade objects all around us. We forget how negligent our own parents were. They gave us naked sunbaths and let us suck on plastic duckies and roll around on pesticide-drenched lawns. It's astonishing how ignorant they were, and how many of us managed to grow up.

1) How many of your contemporaries are dying of skin cancer from too much sun, Peg? How many kids drowned because they were not wearing life jackets? How do you know what caused the cancers that are killing so many others of our generation? How do you know it wasn't that pesticide-drenched lawn? And don't let's forget where we learned to smoke, and how we travelled around in sealed up cars while both parents lit up? I'm sorry, the astonishing thing is how many of us have died needlessly.

2) How many girls are hitting puberty early? How many kids are morbidly obese? How many young men have low sperm counts or enlarged breasts? How do you take for granted that all these hormonal changes are not a result of the chemical bath we tossed out kids into? Whatever happened to the precautionary principle? Enough about us, what about them?

No, sometimes an article can be phoned in and not be taken seriously; sometimes it can have a few errors, and sometimes it can be astonishingly, dangerously wrong. ::Globe and Mail

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