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Sumptuary panics

October 21, 2011 - Harry Eagar
Tomorrow's Maui News will have a story about the Danish study finding that cell phones don't give you brain cancer.

There will be other studies, not because there is the slightest reason to think that cellular phones cause brain cancer, but because people like cell phones. Anything people like automatically creates a deathless industry of naysayers claiming that it makes you fat, go blind, get cancer, become mentally ill, etc.

The list of good objects under suspicion is long: white sugar, coffee, tea, potatoes, uninhibited sex, inhibited sex, “Huckleberry Finn,” cow's milk . . . you can add your own to the list.

The reason for this is simple: Puritans don't want anyone to experience pleasure, and so they have to make it seem dangerous.

The reason why more sensible people – and anybody is more sensible than a Puritan – continue to waste billions of dollars and the time of talented people who could be doing something worthwhile knocking down these stupid panics is more complicated. It would take a long essay or a short book, at least, to tease out the reasons, but the fear of being thought insufficiently skeptical is part of it. That's always a good way to get under the skin of a scientist.

A couple of days ago, I was listening to Dr. B.'s Beehive on Manao radio. Dr. B – Barry Sultanoff -- is a real doctor, a psychiatrist, but usually also a little too much of a food policeman for my taste, so I was surprised to hear him speak favorably about a new study out of Harvard purporting to show that people who drink four cups or more of coffee a day have a lesser risk of something; heart attacks, I think.

He reclaimed his food policeman's status a little by observing that people who drink that much coffee are at higher risk of anxiety or stress or something.

I didn't bother to make a note of what the effects were. Here's why.

People have been drinking coffee for 500 years, and hundreds of millions drink four cups a day; while even more millions never touch coffee.

If coffee had any significant effects, good or bad, aside from caffeine jitters, then, by golly, someone would have noticed by now. It is absurd to keep studying the health effects of coffee. There aren't any.


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