False alarm does harm


You do us a disservice with stories such as Daryl Ilbury's Light at night sets off alarm bells, says Professor Philip Lloyd.

It is usually easy to do a reality check on stories that use bad science to make outrageous claims. (Reuters)

Reading the piece, it appears that light might be linked to an increase in breast cancer. The trouble is that "could" and "might" are what I call "posineg" words, you could add a "not" after them and barely change the sense of what is being said. Light might be linked, but equally, it might not. In which case, where is the story?

The difficulty with such stories is that they can cause considerable harm and distress. Imagine that you are a night worker who reads that "compelling evidence exists for an association between night work and breast-cancer risk." Do you give up night work and take a pay cut?

It is usually easy to do a reality check on such spook stories. In this case, all you do is ask how long people have been enjoying light at night, or ask what the difference is between  night light and daylight. You soon conclude that, even if there is a link, the risk of harm is very small, or women would be dropping like flies in the streets every day – and they are not.

Even the blurb – "Some researchers fear it could be linked to an increase in breast cancer in ­developing nations" – gives a clue to the ­falsity  of this story. Why in developing nations, not developed ones? Have women in developed nations built up a resistance? Or is this yet another example of eco-paternalism: "Don't use light at night like we do – it could cause harm!"

The same people deny Africa the right to resolve malaria by the responsible use of insecticides. Irresponsible use caused environmental damage but fixed the malaria epidemic. We are not allowed to be responsible and a million die annually from a preventable disease.

Please be more careful about publishing these "might-could" claims. – Professor Philip Lloyd, Energy Institute, Cape Peninsula University of Technology

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