May 2, 2020


The Hype Cycle for Chloroquine Is Eerily Familiar (KEITH KLOOR, 05.02.2020, Wired))

In hindsight, it's easy--and correct, no doubt--to blame these influential boosters for generating that groundswell of unwarranted attention. But it's important that we recognize the pattern underneath: Bad ideas like this one often grow their roots in solid-seeming science (not just Reddit or Youtube conspiracy channels), then attach themselves to pollinators within the media or political landscape, who continue to spread them even after the underlying claims have been debunked.

We've seen the same life cycle of medical disinformation play out many times before. Exhibit A is the false vaccines/autism narrative. Yes, that claim had (and still has) its famous instigators and evangelists: Jenny McCarthy, Robert Kennedy Jr., Del Bigtree, and so on. But would they have become the faces of a movement absent the idea's crucial, embryonic publication in a top-tier medical journal? And would that movement have grown so large if not for its nurturing by journalists?

Like other pseudoscience, the modern antivaccine narrative started with the imprimatur of respectable, peer-reviewed research. In 1998, The Lancet published a tiny study (only 11 children were involved) that seemed to show a connection between the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine and autism. Scholars have linked sensationalist and skewed British media coverage of the study to a subsequent decline in UK immunization rates, which didn't rebound until the mid-2000s. By then, the study had been declared "entirely flawed" by the editor of The Lancet (although it wouldn't be fully retracted until 2012). Of course, by then, the seed had sprouted.

The same template can be applied to the belief that exposure to radiation from cell phones or Wi-Fi gives you cancer. Once again, it's tempting to apply the not-great-man theory of history and lay the fear of "electromagnetic fields" at the feet of its most avid and visible proponent, New Yorker writer Paul Brodeur.

As I wrote some years ago at Discover, this strain of fear can be traced, in part, to a series of articles Brodeur published under The New Yorker's "Annals of Radiation" rubric in the 1980s and early 1990s. He'd already been on this beat for some time, with similarly themed work that turned into a book titled The Zapping of America: Microwaves, Their Deadly Risk and the Cover-Up. (Fans of the movie American Hustle might recall Brodeur's name being mentioned during the "science oven" scene.)

Given Brodeur's lofty, influential perch, it's natural to single him out for turbocharging the great overhead powerline panic. After all, he did also write a book called Currents of Death: The Great Power Line Cover-Up. But Brodeur was hardly the only one in mainstream media trumpeting the notion that high-voltage power lines were causing an epidemic of brain tumors and leukemia. The narrative was everywhere back then, from ABC's Nightline and The Washington Post to Frontline at PBS ("Currents of Fear.")

This publicity--which triggered a wave of lawsuits against utility companies--was as much a product of the published scientific literature as of anything that showed up in The New Yorker, though. You could point your finger, in particular, at a 1979 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology, which found that children in Denver who developed leukemia were more likely than their peers to live near "high-current configurations" of denser, thicker power lines. That study had serious methodological flaws (are you seeing a pattern here?), but it gave rise to a new field of international research that sought to trace the details of this supposed correlation. Eventually the World Health Organization and other scientific bodies undertook their own, massive investigations, finding no evident link between overhead power lines and human cancer. As the National Academy of Sciences concluded in its 1997 assessment: "No clear, convincing evidence exists to show that residential exposures to electric and magnetic fields (EMFs) are a threat to human health."

This enormous expenditure of time and resources is similar to the one we've seen since the early 2000s on the issue of vaccine safety. Multiple large-scale studies have now looked for any possible connection between autism and childhood immunizations. The latest effort, like all the previous ones, found no link.

Worth listening to the recent EconTalk on the hype surrounding the "War on Cancer": Vinay Prasad on Cancer Drugs, Medical Ethics, and Malignant

Posted by at May 2, 2020 9:32 AM