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Jay Currie

One Damn Thing After Another

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Mummy! Colby is being mean to the environmentalists again

But with Mitchell Anderson's Monday piece about cancer, the Toronto Star has transcended humbler achievements along this line, and reached the doorstep of the B.S. Hall of Fame.

Mr. Anderson's piece is entitled "What's causing cancer?" And well he might ask, for cancer is his trade: the biography line on his column describes him as "a board member of the Labour Environmental Alliance Society, a Vancouver-based charity that educates the public on cancer prevention."
colby cosh
It is well worth going to Colby's and reading the full article with the charts and stats used with precision to demonstrate Anderson is blowing smoke. But, where Colby really bears in is on the question of why someone would systematically misrepresent and misinterpret cancer statistics.
When I suggest to people that environmentalism should be regarded essentially as a religion, I sometimes meet with a raised eyebrow. But I know of no other conclusion one can reach when one examines an article of popular environmental literature and finds such an openly grotesque attitude toward the use of language. What we have here is a coterie believing itself to be in possession of final, indisputable truth; the facts can be rearranged freely in the name of making converts. It is the Church's "lie officious" reappearing in history, as it does so often. The effort to play on the emotions--and there is no more emotional topic in Western life than cancer--is so poorly disguised; the contemptuous attitude toward reason is so transparent. I believe this has become more widely known, and pieces like Mr. Anderson's are now commonly regarded by newspaper readers as mere static. And no one thinks there is any harm in having it about, right up until the moment we completely lose the ability to communicate candidly with one another, or to persuade by any means but sheer amplitude.
colby cosh
The problem with environmentalists lies in the fact they want to combine their concern for the environment with an anti-corporate, anti-modernity agenda. Sometimes this works where there is a clear link between a particular environmental issue and a bit of corporate behaviour; but most of the time the attempt to get environmental concerns to justify a run at the cosmetic makers or the corporate food requires statistical gymnastics. And those gymnastics almost always undercut whatever credibility the poor environmentalist may have.

For Colby this sort of article really is like shooting fish in the barrel because, as soon as he saw the affiliation of Mr. Anderson he knew to be on the look out for the double flip dismount. Sure enough, there was Mr. Anderson railing about the increase of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma since 1976, and there was Colby blasting the fishy fact Anderson had not thought to mention non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is a common diagnostic symptom of AIDS. Poor Mr. Anderson.

Not that it will matter of course. Our schools do not bother to teach the majority of their students any statistics at all; much less the idea of spurious correlation and confounding variables. Anderson's statistical manipulations will, for the vast majority of Toronto Star readers, go unchallenged and uncorrected.