The Merchants of Doubt Strike Again

A few days ago I wrote a post about the WHO’s declaration that processed meat can cause cancer in human beings. Since posts from this blog also appear on my Facebook page, and many people comment there, I noticed a curious phenomenon: the knee-jerk response of many commenters was to cast doubt on the results of the committee who reached these decisions. Some of the doubters hinted that the committee members had ulterior motives. Others contended that the studies the committee relied upon to reach a decision, could not distinguish between meat eating and many other lifestyle choices that could heighten the risk of cancer.

Many indeed were those who doubted the results, for many wide-ranging reasons. And yet, from reading the comments it’s quite clear that none of them knows who exactly are the committee members, or which 800 papers they relied upon to make a decision. The main objective of the comments was to disparage the results that stand in contrast with the commenters’ current way of life.

Now, I’ll say straight ahead that the transparency of the evaluation process is definitely at fault. I haven’t yet had any success in finding the names of the experts on the committee, nor details about the “800 different studies on cancer in humans” they examined, or how much weight each study carried for them. In a world of information and transparency, it seems almost ridiculous that a body such as the WHO does not provide easy access to these details to the public, so that independent researchers and thinkers can make their own evaluations.

All the same, the first wave of doubters that we face now are probably a sign for the near future of the meat arena. In fact, if we learn anything from the way other industry giants have dealt with uncomfortable scientific evidence in the past, it’s that the spreaders of doubt will soon become prevalent in social media and on radio and TV.

Doubt, Tobacco and Climate Change

In the middle of the 20th century, the tobacco industry found itself facing a difficult challenge. An increasingly large number of scientific studies revealed a connection between smoking and cancer. The tobacco companies turned to one of the leading PR firms of the day, Hill & Knowlton, which reframed the situation: the dilemma was not whether or not smoking causes cancer, but what the public thinks on the matter. A key memo emphasizes the real issue from their point of view –

“There is only one problem—confidence and how to establish it; public assurance, and how to create it.”

In other words, the tobacco industry realized that it needed to create doubt about the scientific evidence. To that end, the industry founded ‘independent’ organizations that ‘studied’ the subject and reached conclusions that had almost no relation with the scientific reality or consensus. The industry also supported and promoted scientists who were willing to talk on behalf of tobacco and to publish studies (shaky as they were) against the connection between smoking and cancer.

I’ll admit this accusation would’ve seemed much like a conspiracy theory, if not for the fact that the internal communications in the tobacco companies was eventually made public. The industry could not challenge the scientific evidence for more than a few decades. Eventually, at the end of the 1990s, forty six states filed a collective lawsuit against the four largest tobacco companies. The companies agreed to pay a large fine, to shut down their funded ‘independent’ research organizations like the Center for Indoor Air Research, and to make all the related documents available to the public. This is how we know today how the history of tobacco in America really looks like: a grim mix of propaganda and greed, which was spilled on the public by the big companies. Overall, the tobacco industry had worked actively to plant and promote disinformation which has significantly damaged the public’s capabilities to act in a legal and enlightened way against smoking. Since a billion people are smoking today worldwide, and as the life expectancy of smokers is ten years shorter than that of their friends, it can be said that the tobacco companies have cost humanity ten billions years of living.

That is a pretty hefty fee to pay.

We see the same strategy of doubt casting being used today by ExxonMobil to counter scientific evidence for global warming and climate change, with some of the scientists who spoke against the relation between tobacco and cancer also speaking against the relation between human activity and climate change.

And quite soon, we’ll probably see it in use by the meat industry as well.

Meat and Doubt

Already, the meat industry starts casting doubt on the committee’s conclusions. Shalene McNeill, director of Human Nutrition Research at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, had this to say on the WHO’s declaration –

“These are studies that draw correlation, not causation. So these are studies that cannot be used to determine cause and effect.”

Her point is well-known to all scientists who review these studies, so I can’t imagine any of them falling for this old trick in interpretation.

another statements made by the meat industry about the WHO’s ruling included “Dramatic and alarmist overreach”, which seems strange in light of the fact that similar conclusions about the connection between meat and cancer have already been reached by the American Cancer Society and the World Cancer Research Fund. So nothing dramatic or overreaching here. If anything, the WHO is just falling into the ranks of the current scientific understanding of the issue.

Nathan Gray, science editor in the popular FoodNavigator site, has reported that he has received a large number of responses from trade associations and PR agencies representing the meat industry last week. Most of these responses, according to Gray, claim that the committee’s findings are biased, and that “the science is undecided or misrepresented”.

In short, they’re all casting doubt. We’ve seen this strategy being used before. We’re seeing it again right now.

Conclusion and Forecast

You want a final forecast, don’t you? Well, here’s an easy one: unless some kind of a miracle happens, we’re going to see a lot of doubt mongering coming from the meat industry in the next few years. Get ready for it. It’s coming, and it’s also going to rely a lot on social media. Social media is the new communications arena, where anyone can level baseless accusations, spread rumors and thrive on attention. If ever there was a place almost designed for disinformation, this is it.

Get ready. The doubt industry is marshalling its forces once more.

Meat and Cancer: Is Meat Going to Disappear from our Diet?

Two days ago, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization (WHO) released a statement that’s probably still causing the meat industry leaders to quiver in their star-studded boots. The agency has convened together a working group of 22 experts, who reviewed more than 800 studies on the association between cancer and red and processed meat. The final results were phrased unequivocally: eating just 50 grams of processed meat every day makes one 18% more likely to develop colorectal (bowel) cancer.

The obvious question that rises now deals with the future of meat eating. Are we about to see the demise of hamburger joints? Is McDonald’s about to go down in flames, along with its beef patties?

Probably not, at least in the short term, for a few reasons.

Reasons for Meat to Stay

I divide the reasons that meat will remain in culture into two different categories, each coming from a different audience: the reactions in the public, and the innovations coming from start-ups.

The Public

Will the public forego meat? That is one possible outcome, but it seems extremely radical in the short term. Even now, articles in journals and magazines bring sense and nuances into the WHO’s declaration: they explain that while an 18% increased chance to develop cancer sounds frightening, the actual numbers are much more nuanced. When Cancer Research UK crunched the numbers, it found out that –

“…out of every 1000 people in the UK, about 61 will develop bowel cancer at some point in their lives. Those who eat the lowest amount of processed meat are likely to have a lower lifetime risk than the rest of the population (about 56 cases per 1000 low meat-eaters).”

Now, that sounds much less scary, doesn’t it?

The articles also explain the rationale behind the WHO’s five categories of potential cancer-inducing agents and chemicals. In Group 1 you can find the agents that the experts are certain of their potential to cause cancer, but there is no distinction between the different levels of harm caused by each substance! That means that tobacco and processed meat exist side by side in Group 1, even though smoking kills more than one million people every year, whereas processed meat kills ‘only’ 34,000 people every year. And guess what? People are still smoking, with 17.8% of all U.S. adults smoking cigarettes!

And that leads us to another matter: people are willing to do things that are harmful to them in the long run. We go out to the sun, even though the sun’s radiation is also in the Group 1. Women take contraceptives to make sure they do not get pregnant – despite the known increased risk of cancer. And of course, 51.9% of all Americans aged 12 or older consume alcohol, even though the ethanol in the drink has also been shown to cause cancer. So you’ll pardon me if I don’t stop investing in meat production anytime soon (figuratively, since I don’t invest in the stock market; I’m a wary futurist).

All of the above does not mean that we won’t let go of meat eventually, in the long term. But at least in the short term, much more needs to happen in order to make people radically change their dietary habits. Culture, as you may remember from a previous post about pace-layer analysis, is very slow indeed to change.

The New Meat Start-Ups

Whenever human beings run into a wall that stands in the way of their desires, they either break it down or find ways to go around it. The most obvious solution in this case would be to develop new kinds of cooking and preservation methods for meat that do not involve the dangerous chemicals highlighted by the WHO. We can expect to see hamburger joints coming up with hamburgers made from unprocessed meat, possibly with an emphasis on freshness. And since it seems that barbecuing the meat can also cause cancer, other types of dishes like goulash might gain popularity in place of steaks.

While I don’t know what innovations will come up in the meat industry, I feel confident that they will arrive. Where there is great need, there is also great money – and innovators go where the money is.


Even in the face of the WHO’s declaration, there doesn’t seem to be much of a chance that people will stop eating meat anytime soon. Note the emphasis on “soon”. It is entirely possible that a movement will rise out of this declaration, and urge people to let go of meat altogether. Such a movement will probably base itself on panic-mongering, distorting the evidence to lead people to the belief that all meat is bad for them. But even this kind of a movement will take time to develop and gather political and social power, which means the meat industry probably still has at least one generation’s lifetime – twenty years – to survive. Whether you like this assessment or not depends on your previous beliefs.

I would like to draw attention to one last issue at steak (pardon the pun). The WHO’s committee reported that – “The most influential evidence came from large prospective cohort studies conducted over the past 20 years.” This innocent comment reveals once again the importance of conducting research and collecting data long into the future. Most research today only lasts as long as it takes the student obtain his or her graduate degree, which makes it very difficult to collect data over time.

This is a topic for another post, really, so for now I’ll just end by saying that there is a very real need to support and fund lengthier research. Research that lasts decades provides the best evidence about the impact of nutrition and lifestyle over our lives, and it should be encouraged in the scientific community.