The Royal Society has a beauty pageant moment

Scientists are good at science. That does not qualify them as advisors on world affairs.

“So, Miss Royal Society, if there were three things you could change about the world, what would they be?”
 
OK, so there isn’t a Miss Royal Society (it’s proving hard enough to get the Society to elect female fellows in respectable numbers). But a report issued by the Society today reads like the answers often heard from toothsome beauties in swimsuits.
 
The report is on issues relating to global population and consumption. The Society’s first request is that “the international community must bring the 1.3 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day out of absolute poverty, and reduce the inequality that persists in the world today.” The Royal Society doesn’t want any children to go to bed hungry, you see.
 
Second, they’d like people to stop being so greedy: “The most developed and the emerging economies must stabilise and then reduce material consumption levels.”
 
Third, they want people in developing countries to stop having so many babies.
 
If it really were a beauty pageant, we’d all gape in awe at the gaffe, then share the video with our friends. We could share the 5.7MB PDF of the report, but really, that’s a lot to read when the top three recommendations are, respectively, banal, naive and reminiscent of an edict issued on behalf of the British Empire in the latter part of the 18th century.
 
The case study given for the family planning problem is Niger, where the report tells us “over a quarter of women older than 40 have given birth to 10 or more children.”  The report explains that Niger’s high fertility is not, for the most part, due to poverty, education or access to family planning. The biggest problem, the report says, is the double-barrelled shotgun of Niger’s polygamous culture, and – wait for it – its “large desired family size”.
 
Yes, they actually want all these children! In fact, the report goes on to admit that married women in Niger want an average of 8.8 children. So let’s put that first statistic another way: the majority of women in Niger have, or will have, roughly the number of children they’d like to have. That’s not a problem, surely?
 
Well, apparently it is. The Royal Society’s issue is that, from a global perspective, these women really aren’t team players: they are producing more than their fair share of humans.
 
In science circles, there’s an old joke about theoretical physicists helping out a troubled dairy farmer. It’s not actually that funny, so I’ll cut straight to the punchline where the physicists say, “first let’s assume the cow is a sphere.”  The point is that science is often ill-equipped for realities outside the lab. The Royal Society’s report is well-intentioned, and Sir John Sulston, the chair of the panel that produced it, is both an excellent scientist and by all accounts a deeply impressive human being. The problem is, scientists are good at science, and beauty pageant contestants are generally beautiful. From the evidence presented so far, these are not qualities that seem to qualify either group as advisors on world affairs.
 

A boy stands by his hut in a village near Maradi, a southern city in Niger. The country was a case study in the Royal Academy's report. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.