A different take on the age 0ld issue: why do people smoke, eat unhealty. Why don’t they listen to health advice about dangers that happen in the far future.
While the article does not give clear good answers, nevertheless it gives some funny and interesting suggestions.
By David Spiegelhalter
Professor of risk understanding, University of Cambridge
The threat from bacon sandwiches gave the opportunity for The Sun to produce the classic headline “Careless pork costs lives”, while the Daily Telegraph was true to form and frothed on about the nanny-state denying us our bacon birthright.
But all these health warnings tend to have little influence on behaviour, just as scientific derision for homeopathy appears to have no effect on many people’s enthusiasm.
So who is being unreasonable – the epidemiologists who give us health advice, or the public that duly ignores it?
The curious fact is that both might be right.
These issues are tricky, and reflect a basic tension between individuals and society’s points of view.
If everyone improved their lifestyle just a bit, then the benefits to the overall health of the nation would be large but each individual would not notice the difference.
An inspired epidemiologist, Geoffrey Rose, called this the Prevention Paradox and we see it being played out again and again.
That is why it is understandable that attempts to create these shifts in behaviour by exhorting people to change tend to fail – and make them anxious and guilty.
There is a lot more to say:
- evolutionary explanations why we love sugar and fat (when our mind was formed, sugar and fat were scarce and hard to find,not available in a supermarket without limits. One had to hunt lean wild animals and collect fruits or risk one’s life to get honey away from the bees)
and psychological issues like:
- why should we believe in cold impersonal statistics? how do we know they are true? Did evolution prepare us to respect scientific research we cannot personally verify?
- do we really care about getting cancer in 35 years? We follow our instincts now and eat plenty to prepare for the day we don’t succeed to hunt down and eat another pig.
- now if we had a religion that tells us not to eat pork, that would be a different issue. Then we would respect, and no science is needed for that. Just faith!
- of course, in evolutionary time, 100 000 years ago we probably would not live enough to get bowel cancer
- and if we did get bowel cancer, we would not slowly die in a hospital with all kind of artificial life support. There would be no problem about “right to die” issues. Starvation, infection, or wild animals would help us to end our suffering quickly.