Sorting out 'scare stories'
We in the media rarely lie to you. But that leaves plenty of room to take things wildly out of context.
That's where most big scare stories come from, such as recent headlines about GM foods. GM means “genetically modified,” which means scientists add genes, altering the plant's DNA, in this case to make the crop resistant to pests.
Last week, Poland joined seven other European countries in banning cultivation of GM foods. The politicians acted because headlines screamed about how GM foods caused huge tumors in rats.
What the headlines didn't tell you, though, is that the female Sprague-Dawley rats used in the test usually develop tumors — 87 to 96 percent of the time.
Reporters and environmental activists have incentives to leave out details that might make the story boring. It's useful if you think you're in danger.
“It's a great way to get attention,” says Bjorn Lomborg, statistician and author of “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” “but it focuses you on the wrong solutions.” Instead of doing something that really fights cancer, like quitting smoking, people devote their energy to banning things like GM foods.
Reporters sleep with clear consciences because we (usually) don't say anything completely false. We tell ourselves that we may save lives and draw attention to important issues — and so what if people err on the side of safety?
But the answer to “so what?” is that people waste time, money and emotional energy, and we are less safe because we worry about the wrong things.
Years ago, the Natural Resources Defense Council claimed the chemical Alar, which helps keep apples from rotting, killed kids. When “60 Minutes” ran the story, I believed it. So did lots of people.
But the scare was bunk. Apples, even apples with Alar, are good for you. Since banning Alar meant apples decay more quickly, apples became slightly more expensive, and that meant some kids ate less healthful food.
Today, we have new scares, like the one over plastic water bottles. Some contain a chemical called BPA, which activists say causes cancer, hyperactivity and all sorts of problems.
If these stories were true, who could blame parents for being frightened?
Julie Gunlock, from the Independent Women's Forum, blames the scaremongers. She points out that the activists scare mothers needlessly because “over 1,000 studies, independent studies, have said that BPA is perfectly safe.”
She knows how the scare stories work: “BPA is easily vilified. I mean, it's invisible. And people tend to say: ‘Chemicals, it's scary. I'll just trust what some activist organization or consumer rights organization says and avoid it.'” To keep scares in perspective, remember all the good news that gets less attention. Coverage of horrors like the massacre in Newtown, Conn., makes us think our kids are in more danger today, but school violence is actually down.
And despite all the chemicals — actually, because of them — we live longer than ever.
There is plenty of bad news that's real — like the national debt, and most of what politicians do. But in most ways, most of the time, the world slowly but surely gets better. To most of us, that's good news.
John Stossel is host of “Stossel” on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of “No They Can't: Why Government Fails, but Individuals Succeed.”
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Penguins acquire defensemen Lovejoy, Cole in deadline deals
- Steelers release WR Lance Moore
- Sestak to kick off U.S. Senate campaign
- No franchise tag for Steelers’ Worilds
- Arrogant media elites mock Middle America
- Police say teen driver in fatal Butler ATV crash had been drinking, considering charges
- 4th suspect in shooting of Homewood security guard surrenders
- Pirates notebook: Hart ‘down a few days’ after cutting foot
- Shale drilling boom a bust for some Western Pennsylvania towns
- LaBar: Is Brock Lesnar leaving WWE again?
- Lawmakers press Veterans Affairs for improved access to rural health care