Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies
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Bad luck and cancer – did the media get it wrong?

Andrew Maynard

Risk Science Center

January 03, 2015

The chances are that, if you follow news articles about cancer, you’ll have come across headlines like “Most Cancers Caused By Bad Luck” (The Daily Beast) or “Two-thirds of cancers are due to “bad luck,” study finds” (CBS News).  The story – based on research out of Johns Hopkins University – has grabbed widespread media attention.  But it’s also raised the ire of science communicators who think that the headlines and stories are, in the words of a couple of writers, “just bollocks”.


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Posted by BillInLA  on  01/04  at  01:12 AM

A good journalist could boil your extreme verbosity down to these few sentences:

1. The media accurately reported what the paper concluded.
2. About 30% of cancers can probably be attributed to environmental factors and genetic predisposition, the other 70% to random events.
3. People with a vested interest in keeping the money flowing for their pet anti-cancer projects are misstating the reporting by news media, falsely claiming that the media are telling us that environmental factors don’t matter—despite the fact that nothing in any cited news stories says or implies any such thing.
4. Given the extreme unlikelihood that policymakers are going to conclude, “Oh—only 30% of cancers are caused by environmental factors?  Well, then, let’s de-fund prevention,” the entire anti-media reaction is utter hogwash. 

There.  Any decent journalist could have written your commentary faster, shorter, and more clearly.

Posted by des  on  01/04  at  01:24 AM

Andrew: good points. I believe the journalists have done us some good in stirring this up. Peer reviewed? should have picked up an unscientific word “luck”. I feel also researchers should rephrase their findings when it comes to everyday jargons like “luck”. On another point: do you think “random” has some order to it. Random may be initiated by finite physic0-chemical and biological factors, still unknown. Instead of ” badluck” the authors should have said ” due to as yet unknown factors”

Posted by philosophytorres  on  01/04  at  03:22 PM

Very helpful article. Thanks for the nuanced clarification.

Posted by superreader  on  01/04  at  07:09 PM

A good journalist would have made the distinction of 2/3 *types* of cancer (which the study really focused on) vs numbers/percentage of cancer cases (which is what all most headlines implied & several of the articles I read actually stated). Yes, the headlines used sensational language but the real coverage gap was in not being clear on that distinction. It isn’t just semantics: the cancers most closely linked to environmental/lifestyle issues are far more common than the ones that’re primarily due to cell division. Failing to make that clear does a real disservice to readers & the public at large.

Posted by David Krueger  on  01/25  at  10:30 PM

If I understand the paper correctly, they are saying that these cancers are 70% attributable to “random mutations” that happen when stem cells divide.

To say this is a matter of random chance is, IMO, absurd, since environmental factors and genetics affect how much cells divide, and the probability that mutations occur during cell division.

Maybe there is more to it than that; I haven’t gotten my hands on the paper itself yet.

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