5 things that you probably should keep worrying about.

So, I was forwarded a lovely New York Times article by John Tierney, titled “10 Things to Scratch From Your Worry List.” (Originally published July 29, 2008). It seems to contain two types of “worries”– things that are kind of ridiculous to be worried about, and things that are kind of ridiculous to not worry about. I’ll be quoting the full article below with rebuttals.

For most of the year, it is the duty of the press to scour the known universe looking for ways to ruin your day. The more fear, guilt or angst a news story induces, the better.

I am profoundly disappointed that the press knows this and doesn’t care. It’s like saying, “For most of the year, we don’t bother being the watchdogs for society, holding public figures accountable for their words and actions and informing the public of pressing issues.”

But with August upon us, perhaps you’re in the mood for a break, so I’ve rounded up a list of 10 things not to worry about on your vacation.

“And we’re not going to be doing that watchdog stuff today either. Ha ha ha.”

Now, I can’t guarantee you that any of these worries is groundless, because I can’t guarantee you that anything is absolutely safe, including the act of reading a newspaper. With enough money, an enterprising researcher could surely identify a chemical in newsprint or keyboards that is dangerously carcinogenic for any rat that reads a trillion science columns every day.

This is actually a commendably realistic view of life. Nothing is 100% safe so just keep an eye on the major risks (like drunk driving) and live your life.

What I can guarantee is that I wouldn’t spend a nanosecond of my vacation worrying about any of these 10 things. (You can make your own nominations in the TierneyLab blog.)

1. Killer hot dogs.

Huh?

What is it about frankfurters? There was the nitrite scare. Then the grilling-creates-carcinogens alarm. And then, when those menaces ebbed, the weenie warriors fell back on that old reliable villain: saturated fat.

But now even saturated fat isn’t looking so bad, thanks to a rigorous experiment in Israel reported this month. The people on a low-carb, unrestricted-calorie diet consumed more saturated fat than another group forced to cut back on both fat and calories, but those fatophiles lost more weight and ended up with a better cholesterol profile. And this was just the latest in a series of studies contradicting the medical establishment’s predictions about saturated fat.

If you must worry, focus on the carbs in the bun. But when it comes to the fatty frank – or the fatty anything else on vacation – I’d relax.

It’s a little weird that he talks about how so-called “unhealthy” foods may not actually be all that unhealthy, and then demonizes carbs (which, like saturated fats, won’t murder you in your sleep). It’s just promoting another variety of love-hate relationships with food, wherein some foods are evil and others are saintly. Newsflash: nothing’s going to kill you if you eat it occasionally. It’s far more unhealthy to cut out an entire food group like, say, grains. To be healthy, just eat food, not too much, mostly plants. (A great NYT article by Michael Pollan that I’ll be referencing in a moment.)

It’s also weird how he conflates losing weight with being healthier but I suspect that’s another post for another day.

What I really want to say, to the people who are now snarfing hot dogs worry-free, is that I have never worried about hot dogs, because I do not eat meat in general. And I actually do think that eating meat is a cause for worry.

Now, I’m no hypocrite– I’m not going to suggest cutting out an entire food group (meat) right after I’ve condemned fad diets for doing the same to grains. But cut down on meat. That means, maybe go a few days without eating meat at all. Or cut it down to a couple times a week.

Now, it’s rare that there’s any nutritional advice that advises just plain eating less of something (as opposed to advising that you eat leaner meats, for example) so I’m going to quote Pollan’s article on the assumption that most people didn’t click the link above (though you should):

Responding to an alarming increase in chronic diseases linked to diet — including heart disease, cancer and diabetes — a Senate Select Committee on Nutrition, headed by George McGovern, held hearings on the problem and prepared what by all rights should have been an uncontroversial document called “Dietary Goals for the United States.” The committee learned that while rates of coronary heart disease had soared in America since World War II, other cultures that consumed traditional diets based largely on plants had strikingly low rates of chronic disease. Epidemiologists also had observed that in America during the war years, when meat and dairy products were strictly rationed, the rate of heart disease temporarily plummeted.

Naïvely putting two and two together, the committee drafted a straightforward set of dietary guidelines calling on Americans to cut down on red meat and dairy products. Within weeks a firestorm, emanating from the red-meat and dairy industries, engulfed the committee, and Senator McGovern (who had a great many cattle ranchers among his South Dakota constituents) was forced to beat a retreat. The committee’s recommendations were hastily rewritten. Plain talk about food — the committee had advised Americans to actually “reduce consumption of meat” — was replaced by artful compromise: “Choose meats, poultry and fish that will reduce saturated-fat intake.”

So, back to hot dogs. Tierney is giving them the green light because of research showing that saturated fat isn’t all that unhealthy. Except that hot dogs aren’t just saturated fat– they’re meat. Pollan talks a lot about how we talk about nutrients instead of food these days, and how that leads to a lot of confusion, because it’s not about any one or two nutrient, it’s about the foods. And it’s healthy to eat less meat. So don’t stop worrying about those hot dogs– start thinking about all the other meat you eat, and think about cutting down on meat consumption entirely.

2. Your car’s planet-destroying A/C. No matter how guilty you feel about your carbon footprint, you don’t have to swelter on the highway to the beach. After doing tests at 65 miles per hour, the mileage experts at edmunds.com report that the aerodynamic drag from opening the windows cancels out any fuel savings from turning off the air-conditioner.

Okay, this is just silly. Sure, it makes no difference at 65 miles an hour, but you pretty much have to be on a highway to be going that fast, and I don’t know about you, but I drive around within my city a lot more often than I leave the city.

Actually, I’m a little offended by how he’s framing this information. It’s a lot more intellectually honest to admit that if you’re driving at less than 65 miles per hour, you should open the windows instead of turning on the AC.

Not to mention the fact that these aren’t the only two options– not driving at all is better than driving with the windows down. It’s probably the best way to save fuel out of everything anyone’s ever recommended– walk or bike instead, or just stay home.

Now, I drive around my city with the AC on all the time; it’s hard not to when it’s this hot out. But I don’t do so operating under the delusion that it’s better for the environment. And you shouldn’t either.

As a slight digression, thinking back to the meat advice above– I’ve heard people try to justify driving and so on by pointing out that farm animals are one of the biggest pollutants, and compared to cow farts, a trip to the movies is insignificant. Whether or not this is true, I want to point out, it’s not an excuse to pollute in other ways. It’s a reason to cut down on meat consumption, so that there are fewer cows emitting pollutants. Especially since all the corn we’d no longer be feeding to said animals could then be used to fuel our cars.

3. Forbidden fruits from afar. Do you dare to eat a kiwi? Sure, because more “food miles” do not equal more greenhouse emissions. Food from other countries is often produced and shipped much more efficiently than domestic food, particularly if the local producers are hauling their wares around in small trucks. One study showed that apples shipped from New Zealand to Britain had a smaller carbon footprint than apples grown and sold in Britain.

Pollan didn’t cite any sources for this one so I had to do some digging myself. According to this article at ACS Publications, Tierney got it half right: reducing food miles isn’t always the best way to reduce greenhouse gasses.

But it’s how food is produced, not how far it is transported, that matters most for global warming, according to new research published in ES&T (DOI: 10.1021/es702969f). In fact, eating less red meat and dairy can be a more effective way to lower an average U.S. household’s food-related climate footprint than buying local food, says lead author Christopher Weber of Carnegie Mellon University.

Which brings us back to that hot dog again. Another article on Weber’s research is even more straightforward: food miles don’t feed climate change– meat does. It basically makes the argument for me:

His analysis included emissions such as transporting and producing fertiliser for crops, methane gas emitted by livestock, and food’s journey to market. All told, that final step added up to just 4% of a food’s greenhouse emissions, on average.

To drive his point home, Weber calculated that a completely local diet would reduce a household’s greenhouse emissions by an amount equivalent to driving a car 1600 km fewer per year. He assumed the car travels 10.6 km per litre of petrol (25 mpg). Switching from red meat to veggies just one day per week would spare 1860 km of driving.

So, sure, you can stop worrying about how far your apples have traveled. But take a good, long look at that hot dog. Since Pollan missed half the point with this item, I’m counting it as half a thing to still worry about– but that doesn’t mean it’s not important.

4. Carcinogenic cellphones. Some prominent brain surgeons made news on Larry King’s show this year with their fears of cellphones, thereby establishing once and for all that epidemiology is not brain surgery – it’s more complicated.

As my colleague Tara Parker-Pope has noted, there is no known biological mechanism for the phones’ non-ionizing radiation to cause cancer, and epidemiological studies have failed to find consistent links between cancer and cellphones.

It’s always possible today’s worried doctors will be vindicated, but I’d bet they’ll be remembered more like the promoters of the old cancer-from-power-lines menace – or like James Thurber’s grandmother, who covered up her wall outlets to stop electricity from leaking.

Driving while talking on a phone is a definite risk, but you’re better off worrying about other cars rather than cancer.

I have to admit, I can’t debunk this one. I wasn’t even aware people still worried about cellphones causing cancer– I thought we’d moved on to bogus worries about wireless internet.

So, uh, this one stands. Cell phones aren’t going to kill you. (But be careful how you recycle them!)

5. Evil plastic bags. Take it from the Environmental Protection Agency : paper bags are not better for the environment than plastic bags.

So I guess it’s a good thing we don’t have to use either!

If anything, the evidence from life-cycle analyses favors plastic bags. They require much less energy – and greenhouse emissions – to manufacture, ship and recycle. They generate less air and water pollution. And they take up much less space in landfills.

Seriously, folks, this is a false dichotomy. You can bring your own bags. No one will get mad at you for it! (Unless you forget to tell them until after they’ve already bagged your stuff.)

Like with the car AC factoid, I get rather angry when I see this one floating around. It’s just wrong, to use a study like this to justify an environmentally harmful practice when there’s a much better alternative. Whole Foods stores and most libraries have inexpensive, highly practical tote bags that will suffice for small shopping trips. (Heck, my purse is enough for most small shopping trips.) If you’re getting a lot at the grocery store, bring your bags from the last time you went, of if you’re at a mall, get a huge bag at the first place you go and put your other purchases into the same thing. Or just shop less. It is an option, you know.

6. Toxic plastic bottles. For years panels of experts repeatedly approved the use of bisphenol-a, or BPA, which is used in polycarbonate bottles and many other plastic products. Yes, it could be harmful if given in huge doses to rodents, but so can the natural chemicals in countless foods we eat every day. Dose makes the poison.
But this year, after a campaign by a few researchers and activists, one federal panel expressed some concern about BPA in baby bottles. Panic ensued. Even though there was zero evidence of harm to humans, Wal-Mart pulled BPA-containing products from its shelves, and politicians began talking about BPA bans. Some experts fear product recalls that could make this the most expensive health scare in history.

Nalgene has already announced that it will take BPA out of its wonderfully sturdy water bottles. Given the publicity, the company probably had no choice. But my old blue-capped Nalgene bottle, the one with BPA that survived glaciers, jungles and deserts, is still sitting right next to me, filled with drinking water. If they ever try recalling it, they’ll have to pry it from my cold dead fingers.

I trust him on the BPA issue, so this is something you should only half worry about. If you buy a plastic bottle– Nalgene or not– and reuse it so you can always have water with you, I’m sure you’ll be fine. I used the same off-brand one-use water bottle to store my water my entire first year of college, and it didn’t kill me.

But if you’re buying a new water bottle every time you want to get a drink and then throwing them away, we need to talk.

This is one of my biggest pet peeves. There is just no point in constantly purchasing new containers of water when we’ve already invented this fantastically efficient water-delivery system called plumbing. Free water, available at the twist of a handle or a push of a button, at sinks and water fountains everywhere! It’s one thing to get a bottle of water when you’re traveling, and don’t have access to the plumbing– but why, in your ordinary life, would you pay money for water that’s been shipped halfway around the world (sometimes from Fiji) when it’s more work, more greenhouse gasses, more money, and not as good for you? Because, remember, city water is usually fluoridated, making it better for your teeth. At one point, my university town had a severe drought, and I stopped drinking the city water to conserve; I got five cavities that semester.

So, you don’t wave to worry about the plastic bottles you may be keeping permanently to store drinks– baby bottles or otherwise– but disposable bottles are definitely worth concern, and by ignoring them, Tierney has once again missed half the point.

7. Deadly sharks. Throughout the world last year, there was a grand total of one fatal shark attack (in the South Pacific), according to the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida.

Okay, cool. This is definitely an irrational fear people have, and it’s definitely unfounded.

I could be a spoilsport and point out that jellyfish are a growing concern, but I’ll let this one stand. Don’t worry about the sharks.

8. The Arctic’s missing ice. The meltdown in the Arctic last summer was bad enough, but this spring there was worse news. A majority of experts expected even more melting this year, and some scientists created a media sensation by predicting that even the North Pole would be ice-free by the end of summer.

So far, though, there’s more ice than at this time last summer, and most experts are no longer expecting a new record.

It may be worth nothing that last summer, we had record-smashing amounts of melting, so it would be pretty tough to melt even more this year, especially since we also had record amounts of freezing last winter.

Not to mention the fact that the ice that we do still have is mostly the very thin ice that won’t last all year– the perennial ice cover is diminishing.

You can still fret about long-term trends in the Arctic,

Yeah, I’m gonna do that.

but you can set aside one worry: This summer it looks as if Santa can still have his drinks on the rocks.

Good to know that our fictional beings are still just fine.

Once again with this point, Tierney has taken something that is technically true and used it to dismiss concerns about a much larger issue which is not any less of a concern than before. Actually, for this one, I’m going to go ahead and say that he’s missed the point entirely: we need to be worrying about the Arctic more, not less or for a different reason. Polar bears are drowning.

9. The universe’s missing mass. Even if the fate of the universe – steady expansion or cataclysmic collapse – depends on the amount of dark matter that is out there somewhere, you can rest assured that no one blames you for losing it. And most experts doubt this collapse will occur during your vacation.

Okay, this is kind of a stretch, Tierney, but I’ll give it to you: there’s no point in worrying about the collapse of the universe. I’m not convinced it was actually on anyone’s radar, but sure. If the universe is missing some matter, there’s not much we can do about it.

10. Unmarked wormholes.

What? I’m not sure you’re allowed to have two improbable theoretical-physics-based “worries” in what is supposed to be a practical list. Running out of things that we can actually stop worrying about?

Could your vacation be interrupted by a sudden plunge into a wormhole? From my limited analysis of space-time theory and the movie “Jumper,” I would have to say that the possibility cannot be eliminated. I would also concede that if the wormhole led to an alternate universe, there’s a good chance your luggage would be lost in transit.

But I still wouldn’t worry about it. In an alternate universe, you might not have to spend the rest of the year fretting about either dark matter or sickly rodents. You might even be able to buy one of those Nalgene bottles.

Ha ha. What a clever way to end the article.

Actually, it is a pretty clever way to end the article– since the point of the article was that we often worry about things that we shouldn’t worry about (true) and since it was meant to be a light-hearted article. But it would only have worked if the previous 9 items had been things that people were worried about, which they didn’t need to worry about. And no, he doesn’t get to count the dark matter if he’s using wormholes for #10.

Which leaves him with…deadly cell phones, shark attacks, and half a point each on plastic bottles and food miles. That’s not a good record.

I think the problem is that he was trying to address environmental concerns, but most of them are actually real concerns. The two he got totally right– cell phone radiation and sharks– were the only two not related to environmentalism (besides the wormholes and antimatter which I refuse to take seriously.)

It’s just rather frustrating that what could have been a useful article—we do have a tendency to obsess over “problems” that are non-issues—ended up belittling legitimate concerns. Especially since he didn’t have to list things that people worry about for good reasons—I’m sure there are at least ten things that people worry about for no reason. In fact, I’ll give you ten things right now:

1. Don’t worry about cell phone radiation.

2. Don’t worry about shark attacks.

3. Don’t worry about using cell phones near gas stations.

4. Don’t worry about getting salmonella by eating raw eggs.

5. Don’t worry about saturated fats/ trans-fats/ carbs/ whatever “nutrient” is currently the villain.

6. Don’t worry about being fat.

7. Don’t worry about wireless internet causing headaches/ cancer/ anything but a susceptibility to silly memes.

8. Don’t worry about video games or the people who play them.

9. Really, seriously, don’t worry about disinfecting absolutely everything in your home.

10. And finally, don’t worry about whatever people like Tierney are telling you to do.

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5 Responses to 5 things that you probably should keep worrying about.

  1. Esra says:

    8. Don’t worry about video games or the people who play them.

    Yay! I love this one.

    That was a very strange article. Such a mish mash of different things, I almost think it would have been better off just sticking to one subject, like food or various animal attacks. There’s been a lot of crap about bears on CTV lately, “War on Bears” and such.

  2. eloriane says:

    Yeah, as a gamer, it always drives me crazy how the media’s obsessed with video games as evil. I mean, sure, the latest teen shooter played video games– but so does every other teenager in the country. Correlation does not imply causation.

    As for the article– I think he was trying to do the theme of environmental problems, which didn’t work because he was wrong about them, but yeah, you’re right, it was all over the place. I expect he’d defend it because it was “only” a light humorous piece, but it’s still…poorly written.

    Thanks for reading the whole thing, but the way, I know it was a big one 🙂

  3. pizzadiavola says:

    I remember reading that article when it was first published. I also remember my head nearly exploding from the WTF levels of entitled, smug, complacent stupidity. Most of the reasoning in the article is flawed and sets up false dichotomies, as you pointed out – the choice isn’t between paper and plastic, it’s between paper, plastic, reusing a bag, or -gasp- not using a bag at all (it’s amazing how store training makes cashiers automatically bag stuff, even when I’m just buying 1 dental floss).

    The article was infuriating primarily because the author seemed so self-satisfied at poking fun at environmentalists (loosely defined as anyone who gives a shit about the environment, which seems to be the author’s definition) and actively impeding progress. If he doesn’t want to recycle, fine. If he doesn’t want to turn off the A/C, fine. Well, not really, but hey, if he’s determined to be pigheaded, that’s his prerogative. But there’s no reason to spit on people who have different opinions about what’s going on with the world right now, particularly when he does so with facile, flawed reasoning.

  4. pizzadiavola says:

    But be careful how you recycle them!

    That note made me so happy! Improperly recycling electronics is one of my pet peeves, especially considering that most high tech electronics, including cell phones, contain valuable rare minerals being mined in conflict zones. So more recycling means less demand for coltan and cassiterite.

  5. eloriane says:

    the author seemed so self-satisfied at poking fun at environmentalists .. and actively impeding progress.

    Yes! I wanted to punch the guy who forwarded it to me (even though he usually sends me great stuff) because it’s actively harmful to spread around this kind of rhetoric without a rebuttal.

    I mean, I almost never use bags any more (I have a truly cavernous purse) but I drive with the A/C on when it’s hot, but I don’t pretend that it doesn’t matter. That’s what really gets me, here– it’s like he decided he didn’t want to stop doing X, so now he’s declaring that X doesn’t matter. Which is depressing in an ordinary human being, but irresponsible in a journalist, especially when he uses his position of authority to tell other people not to worry about X either.

    I guess it all goes back to my disappointment with the media, in the end. They’re not supposed to spread lies to get people to do harmful things! They’re supposed to be better than this! But, it seems, they’re not.

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