When scientific misinformation is spooky
When I was a kid, I remember watching the cartoon, “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!” and being freaked out by the monsters on the screen. They seemed so real.
Each episode followed roughly the same formula, and you could always count on a few things to happen: the gang would pile into the Mystery Machine, they would get separated, Velma would lose her glasses, Shaggy and Scooby would get distracted by food, Daphne would go missing, and upon closer inspection, the monster was never really a monster at all.
These days, I get my fix of spooky stories by reading the news, especially when it comes to faulty or misleading causal claims. Below are five spooky “causation” stories that were published this year that happen to also follow a similar formula of spooky clues and misinformation. Upon closer inspection, they might not be so scary after all.
1) The Case of the Spooky Skittles
This summer, there was a wave of stories covering a lawsuit filed by a California resident regarding very slight amounts of titanium dioxide used as a colorant in the popular candy, Skittles. The class-action lawsuit claims that titanium dioxide is a “known toxin” and “unfit for human consumption.”
In the United States, Canada, and Britain, titanium dioxide is used in toothpaste, sunscreen, paint, food, candy and gum, baked goods, dressings, ice cream, coffee creamers, and more.
The National Cancer Institute of the U.S. National Institutes of Health has determined that titanium dioxide is not carcinogenic, using a study on rats. While more recent animal studies have suggested possible toxicity, the quality of these studies have been criticized.
On the other hand, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) determined it is possibly carcinogenic in humans. Then again, the FDA allows its use in the United States in small quantities.
There is no good data showing that titanium dioxide poses a danger to humans. However, the idea that its safety would be determined in a courtroom and not a laboratory? Now that is spooky.
2) The Case of the Dementia-Causing Cookie
Reporters jumped at the chance to cover a new study claiming that “adults who ate more processed food saw a 25% faster decline in their ability to plan and execute a task than people whose diets did not contain much processed food.” The stories ran before the study was even peer-reviewed.
While the researchers acknowledged that no causation was established, and that the study did not attempt to examine the underlying reasons for cognitive decline, others jumped to conclusions.
One university professor went as far as to say, “The data is incredibly strong that foods that are not part of the Mediterranean diet—foods high in fats and sugar, and now we can add to this list foods that are highly processed—absolutely, positively do contribute to one’s risk of cognitive decline and ultimately dementia.” Another headline claimed as little as two cookies a day could hurt your brain.
As originally pointed out on the American Council on Science and Health blog, even the author of the study sent out mixed signals, making this claim to the press:
“Independent of the amount of calories, independent of the amount of healthy food that you try to eat, the ultra-processed food is not good for your cognition.”
We might want to rename this one: The Case of the Missing Evidence.
3) The Case of the “Dirty” Makeup Aisle
Parabens are used as a preservative in several products, from foods to makeup and deodorant.
In 2004, a study was published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology, which found intact parabens in the tissue from 20 breast tumors. These preliminary findings had many limitations, which the study authors were transparent about in their conclusions:
“This study used 20 breast tumour samples because of the availability of the material. However, it will now be important to measure levels in corresponding normal tissue to determine whether there is any difference between normal and cancer tissues. Larger studies also are needed to give more representative values for body burdens in different tissues and across the human population.”
Further studies since the 2004 publication have not established a causal connection between using products with parabens and breast cancer. The National Cancer Institute at NIH has concluded that there is no evidence parabens cause breast cancer. The Food and Drug Administration investigated the issue and concluded the same.
Even so, panic erupted over the use of parabens, and there are hundreds of paraben-free products on the market today. Some stores even have a “clean” beauty aisle to display them. Are you ready for the plot twist?
Reports are surfacing of paraben-free products becoming saturated with mold and bacteria. These replacement chemicals have not been investigated as extensively, and may actually be dangerous themselves.
4) The Case of the Cancer-Causing (Non-Fried) Fish
A study published in Cancer Causes and Control made headlines after it suggested a link between skin cancer and eating fish. It surveyed nearly 500,000 people across six states over 15 years and found the rate of melanoma was 22 percent higher among people who reported eating the most fish—unless the fish was fried.
If the fish was fried, they found no increased risk of skin cancer. They have no explanation for this. We have a theory.
5) The Case of the PFAS “Throw it Outs”
There were almost too many stories to count this year of farmers dumping crops, mothers worried about the safety of their breast milk, state wildlife agencies issuing “do not eat” advisories for deer, fish, and more. The reason for all these warnings: PFAS.
PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals that have become the essential ingredient in many things we use in modern society, from water-resistant clothes and nonstick cookware to anti-lock braking systems, 5G data networks, medical devices, and firefighting foam.
PFAS are commonly detected in people and animals all over the world and are present at low levels in a variety of products—the vast majority are innocuous. However, there are concerns that some PFAS compounds (PFOA and PFOS) may present a health hazard at high exposure levels.
Meanwhile, there is wide agreement in the scientific community that research on short-chain PFAS (which are less persistent than the original PFOA and PFOS) is far from settled. As people tragically dump their livelihoods down the drain, there is still so much we don’t know.
The idea that people may lose their livelihoods and legacies based on unfinished research … that’s a scary thought.