Tag Archives: science

Cause, correlation, cancer and obesity

Last week, the charity Cancer UK started a campaign to tell people that obesity causes cancer – more on their website – https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/causes-of-cancer/obesity-weight-and-cancer There’s a very good piece here pointing out that ‘cause’ and ‘correlation are not the same thing. https://medium.com/@laura_86024/an-open-letter-to-cancer-research-uk-19ecaa71b263

Humans are easily persuaded to see correlation as cause and effect – this is the basis of all superstitious thinking. We’re prone to seeing patterns even when no patterns exist. That there is a correlation between obesity and cancer is really important and needs investigating. Correlation means there is a good chance of underlying issues causing both. Unless you can identify a mechanism that means one thing results in another, it is not helpful to suggest there’s a causal link. So, what other options are there?

Stress. Some of us may store fat as a stress response – good article here https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3428710/ So adding to the stress of larger people by telling them their size is going to cause cancer may… wait for it… increase stress levels.

Alcohol has a lot of calories in it and is strongly linked to cancer risk in a mechanical way. Alcohol consumption could easily, for some people, be an underlying cause of both obesity and cancer risk.

Every article I’ve read about cancer avoidance has advocated having a good diet high in fruit and veg, and getting plenty of exercise. Poverty diets don’t deliver this, and a poor diet leaving you with low energy is not conducive to staying active. What if poverty causes cancer?

If you show up to the doctor with a health problem, and you are also a larger person, the odds are you will be diagnosed with fat. If you lose weight and don’t get better – as has happened to a number of people I know – you may then get your symptoms taken seriously. Being diagnosed as fat increases your risk of having the early signs of other conditions ignored. It’s not going to cause cancer, but it does mean you are at higher risk from any illness if you don’t get your symptoms properly investigated.

We’ve recently discovered, after years of being told that weight is the cause of diabetes, that there’s an impact from air pollution, too. Pollution is recognised as causing lung cancer, but according to the World Health Organisation website, there are questions to ask about the impact on other cancer risks. If you breathe it in, some of it is probably getting into the rest of your body. If pollutants can give you lung cancer it seems fair to ask what risk they pose for other cancers. Here’s a piece exploring whether air pollution might contribute to obesity – http://thescienceexplorer.com/brain-and-body/pollution-making-us-fat and another study about what happens when pollutants accumulate in your body fat – https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/02/150227084315.htm – studies are ongoing as to the health implications.

If you make obesity and cancer the responsibility of the individual, you don’t look at collective responsibility for pollution and poverty. It is easier to blame and shame an individual who is at risk, than it is to invest time and money helping them. It is painfully easy to persuade people that being fat is a personal failing and that shaming fat people is the best way to help them. There’s plenty of research out there that demonstrates blaming people for their body shape does not lead to productive, health-improving changes in behaviour.

It’s shit science. Correlation is not causality. There may well be a great many people for whom conventional weight loss tactics don’t work, and many underlying causes that link obesity and cancer that will be ignored if we insist on simply focusing on weight.

Ask for evidence

I’m picking up the themes Molly Scott Cato has suggested on her blog for resisting fascism – this week it’s about evidence.

Asking for evidence is always a good idea, even when we’re not fending off toxic far-right ideas. When we have evidence, we have consensus reality. When we have evidence, we can discuss the evidence and how it might be interpreted, and if you really want to challenge mainstream thinking in some way, this is the far better route to take.

You can have different opinions and interpretations. You can even have different data sets drawn from different studies in different times and places. It is ok to argue over this. It’s good and healthy to ask questions at this point. What you can’t have, are different facts that are really opinions being called facts and offered with the implicit demand that no one asks what’s going on.

The right to ask for and question evidence is key to making free speech work. It’s key to making democracy work. When you are expected to accept whatever you are told, unquestioningly, it’s a pretty good indicator that you are living under a tyrant.

I am suspicious as soon as people start talking about facts without also talking about evidence. Real science doesn’t give us that many facts. It gives us theories, probabilities, best information based on the data to date. If someone is cautious with their facts, or tries to explain where they come from, I am more likely to trust them. The more strongly asserted a ‘fact’ is the more likely I am to think it’s a lie.

Truth is often complicated, nuanced, and conditional on various factors. Often there is no hard and certain truth – as with weather forecasts. There is only likelihood. What is true in one situation won’t always hold up in another – whether we’re talking about human behaviour, or the behaviour of atoms. Change one variable and the whole thing can be radically different.

However, as humans we’ve bought into the idea that truth should be simple. We are more persuaded by clear statements than by caveats and clauses. It may be to do with how we’ve evolved, or a few thousand years of monotheism having given us ‘one true way’ thinking, but that’s what most of us default to. We want our truth plain and simple, and so too often we will take a plain and simple lie in preference to a complicated truth.

In the short term, the simple lie may be comforting, but it takes us further from any kind of truth, further from what helps us.

If you mistrust experts – as seems common in the current environment – don’t ignore them. Ask for their evidence. See if they offer evidence. Trust your own ability to look at evidence and think about it. The person who will show you their evidence and share the process of their thinking is far more likely to have your interests at heart than the person who expects you to take everything on trust.

Science and Meditation

This morning on Radio 4 there was a news item on scientific recognition that meditation really does have some effects. I would have thought this was a no-brainer, but then, in certain circles, nothing is real unless you’ve poked it in a methodical way.

Meditation is nothing more than an organised and deliberate form of thinking. If you change the way you think, you have the scope to change your behaviour and your emotional experiences. This is the understanding that underpins cognitive behavioural therapy, currently used to help tackle depression and anxiety. Thoughts and feelings do not belong to separate systems, and they both belong to and are influenced by what happens to your body. In essence, it all comes down to the same chemistry.

When we think, pathways form in our brains. The more we do something, the easier it becomes to think it, and the faster it translates into action. This is obvious when you try and learn a script, or an instrument. Practice is partly in the mind. Thinking something through contributes to practice even if it’s a physical activity. If you never imagine killing your neighbour with an ice pick, the odds of you doing just that are pretty slim. If you imagine, every day, killing your neighbour with an ice pick the odds of you doing it are going to be somewhat higher. The same probabilities apply to pretty much everything else as well.

Meditation can be used for all manner of things, but at the heart of it lies the intention to slow down and become calm. Deep breathing, resting the body, thinking calming thoughts and imagining soothing things are frequent habits in meditation. They form the basis from which more complex meditation can follow. This develops the habit of being able to deliberately become calm. Introducing a few minutes of deliberate calm into every day helps break the hold of stress and anxiety in life. It also gives a tool that can be drawn on in times of need. Even when there isn’t time to meditate, the habit of drawing breath, and settling into a calm mindset can be very handy in a crisis. The more in the habit we are of becoming calm, the more readily our mind can run down that particular track. It’s simply a skill to master.

We know that stress and anxiety have effects on the body – raised pulse and blood pressure, trouble sleeping, tight chest, difficulty eating and digesting, shoulder pain, headaches to name but a few. Creating calm helps to tackle these. The pains and trials of stress and anxiety induced illness are real. There can be a tendency to write off such problems as ‘all in the mind’ or ‘psychosomatic’ but the mind is real, feelings are real, and our emotional lives matter and need taking seriously. Depression is a crippling illness and it can be born from ongoing distress.

In terms of quality of life, our emotions are one of the things that influence us most. Emotions are not always rational, and don’t seem scientific, or terribly measureable, but that doesn’t make them less real, or less important. The view that sees emotions as irrational silliness can also be rather too quick to assume we have no control over them. Working with our own emotions, we can come to understand them, to see what prompts them, to work out what is justified, what needs expressing, and what we have been feeding in the darkness to our own detriment. Taking time to meditate can be a way of accessing our own emotional lives and developing a calm space from which to have a relationship with ourselves.

By consciously shaping our own thought forms, we can take control of ourselves. At the same time we create spaces for the unconscious to breathe. Rather than crushing and repressing the unconscious self with its dream logic and animal impulses all jumbled together, we can embrace it. There is a deep realness that comes from being more at peace with the unconscious mind.
How we feel shapes the ways in which we think. If we aren’t in good relationship with our own emotions, the rational, logical thoughts we are so sure we have, may be no more than illusions based on misconceptions. About the most irrational thing we can do is cling to the idea that intellect and emotion are separate, incompatible and that one is better than the other. We need both.