The Report Newsmagazine


Up Front


By Colby Cosh

The first casualty of political war

A lie," says an old proverb, "will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on." (Please do not bother writing Up Front to attribute these words to Mark Twain; their authorship is apparently a matter of some scholarly uncertainty.) This is a sad truth, and sadder still is the corollary that the lie travels even faster when printed as a large banner headline. The same goes for simple, and conceivably well-meant, editorial screw-ups.

On September 26, buyers of the Toronto Star were greeted over their morning coffee with the headline "Kyoto: it's a lifesaver, MDs say." Semicolon. "Coalition insists accord could prevent 16,000 deaths a year." The top of the story describes a news conference at which "a coalition of 50 health associations and more than 2,000 doctors" is said to have opined the previous day that, as the headline implies, "more than 16,000 lives could be saved in Canada each year if the federal government ratifies the Kyoto accord." Specifically, the ratification of the accord--the magic stroke of the Governor General's pen itself, perhaps!--would reduce smog-related deaths from respiratory illness in Canada by 16,000 a year.

An astonishing claim, you say? Even preposterous? The Star's desk didn't even blink. It also did not tell us, anywhere in the article, what manner of "coalition" was hosting and stage-managing the press conference. Up Front supposes you have already guessed at the involvement of Canada's Doctor for All Seasons--David Suzuki. As later, better journalism revealed, Mr. Suzuki's foundation had convinced a number of congenial organizations, including the Canadian Public Health Association, the Ontario College of Family Physicians and the Montreal Department of Public Health, to sign onto an ad hoc pro-Kyoto "coalition."

Who was responsible for this "better journalism"? Top honours go to a private citizen--a Toronto software manager and Web logger named Mark Wickens (he lives at Mr. Wickens could not find the "16,000 lives saved" figure in the on-line version of the physicians' statement. He wrote to the Star's ombudsman on September 26 demanding a source for the "16,000" figure. An assistant wrote back: "Dear Ms. [sic] Wickens: I asked our National editor about your concerns. He explained this coalition of health associations held press conference [sic] and made these comments."

Unfortunately for the Star's reputation, "Ms." Wickens had had the temerity to carbon-copy his original e-mail to Alan Abelsohn, an actual physician who had actually appeared at the conference. Dr. Abelsohn's response? "The Star got it wrong." Period. "We said what the physicians' statement says." What the statement says is that 16,000 is the total number of Canadians who die prematurely in a year from the effects of all fossil-fuel burning. Nowhere does the statement claim that the Kyoto Protocol would save all, or most, or many of these lives.

After a couple more e-mails, the Star agreed to run a correction. It ran October 1 on page A2--the inside front cover. Not only does the lie outrun the truth, but the truth gets printed further back in the paper when it eventually catches up.

Eco-global cross-purposes

On September 17, an atmospheric scientist for the Australian government, Paul Fraser, declared that he expects the infamous "ozone hole" over the Antarctic (pictured in a NASA photo here) to be closed by 2050 as humankind reduces its output of the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which have been steadily replaced in refrigeration systems worldwide under the 1987 Montreal Protocol. But could it be happening sooner than expected? Thirteen days later, the U.S.'s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration (NOAA) announced that the "hole" (actually just a thinning of the ozone layer, which protects life on earth from solar radiation) had shrunk dramatically and actually split into two smaller holes.

One might have expected the announcement to induce delight among advocates of the new Kyoto Protocol. Hey, global environmentalism works, right? Instead, response was muted. One is forced to wonder whether that might be related to this passage from NOAA's press release: "Paul Newman, a lead ozone researcher at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center [in] Greenbelt, Maryland, said this year, warmer-than-normal temperatures around the edge of the polar vortex that forms annually in the stratosphere over Antarctica are responsible for the smaller ozone loss."

So global warming helps protect the ozone layer? That is odd: just last September, Goddard scientists were claiming that buildup of greenhouse gases would cool the polar stratosphere (while driving surface temperatures upward), thus making the hole ruinously larger. If the hole really is getting smaller, something's very wrong with someone's theory.

Find your disease

A new study may mean the end of the long mania for routine breast self-examination (BSE). Some clinicians have suspected that the value of BSE, a favourite subject of prurient layouts in newspapers, has been much overstated; however, the evidence in the literature has been ambiguous, at least to BSE crusaders. Eleven years ago, a team led by David Thomas of Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, began an ambitious study designed to settle the question once and for all. They went to Shanghai, China, where they divided more than 266,000 female factory workers into two equal groups. One group was taught, reminded and generally hectored to perform periodic BSE under clinical supervision. The other was left alone, to serve as a control group. (Communism makes these things easy.)

The results were reported October 2 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. The women examining themselves reported more lesions and were given more breast biopsies--and it did them no good. In the BSE group, 135 women died of breast cancer over the study period. In the control group, 131 died. The conclusion: in countries where routine mammography does not exist, BSE is a waste of time that leads to a waste of money. It is possible that BSE may be more useful in conjunction with mammography, and further investigations will follow. But it seems unlikely that BSE is headed anywhere but history's dustbin.

Some, however, wish to perpetuate the practice; ABC News spoke to doctors who cannot let go. Jay Brooks of the Ochsner Clinic in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, said, "I think that breast self-exams should be taught to women because it gives them empowerment over their own health and lives." But how do worthless exams "empower" anyone? "If you say to people from a public health point of view, 'You don't have to worry about this,' everybody may pay a little less attention to themselves," warned Clifford Hudis, a breast cancer specialist at the legendary Memorial Sloan-Kettering Center in New York City. So the idea is to trick women into awareness with useless rituals? From a public health point of view, we suspect that pronouncements like this make everyone even more suspicious of physicians. Is that good for patients, or for doctors?

The art of the steal

On September 19, two men committed a "distraction theft" at Pearson International Airport, one catching a traveller's attention while the other made off with his laptop. But the Peel Regional Police's Airport Division had received tips about two "distraction thieves" working in the area, and the next day they rounded up Quebeckers Teofilo Massoni-Castilla, 45, and Luis Rodrigo Via y Rada Pinto, 43. Airports and train platforms are meccas for the efficient, ever-travelling penny-ante crooks known as distraction thieves. They sometime work in pairs, but a team of at least three is better, and four is ideal. One serves as the lookout, watching for plainclothes and uniformed security personnel; one provides the distraction; one grabs the loot; and one serves as the getaway driver. Bada-boom, bada-ding. With a little effort, a crew can get the snatch down to a science.

Life has gotten a little harder for distraction thieves since September 11, says Peel Regional investigator Constable James Mackey. "Security personnel, for example, are far more likely to notice a car idling near an airport entrance." But, in most respects, travellers remain shockingly vulnerable to such thefts. Normally the distraction is nothing major. "It could be as simple as dropping a set of keys or money, or bumping into somebody," says Const. Mackey. It is not unheard of, he says, for a "distractor" to catch the victim's eye, point at something and reel off a few words of pure gibberish. By the time you finish going "Wha?" your suitcase is history.

"What you try to do when you're patrolling an airport terminal is to study the victims the way these people would," says Const. Mackey. "That's when you learn how easy it is. You get people making phone calls, turning their backs on their luggage for minutes at a time." Distraction thieves are particularly fond of people with children, and people who are lost or confused (and in an average airport, who isn't?). The last thing an air traveller needs is more to worry about, but the countermeasures are simple. Check as much baggage as you can, as soon as you can; avoid carrying large amounts of cash; and keep your hands on lightweight valuables such as laptops, even in the bathroom.

The oldest profession

The BBC reports (October 1) on a survey of 3,000 British mothers which reminds us--particularly the half of the species which may need reminding--that childbirth is difficult, dangerous and depressing. There is no real news here, but to have all the complaints in one place is still startling. Seventy-five percent of mothers said the pain of childbirth was "far worse" than they had imagined; 60% said prenatal classes prepared them insufficiently for the experience; 72% said that people do not show pregnant women courtesies on trains or buses these days. During birth, 23% of women delivered by Caesarean section, 38% required an epidural, 41% were given the perinatal painkiller pethidine, half needed stitches and one-quarter had labour artificially induced. Just 6% got through the procedure entirely "naturally." Forty-five percent were not told what was happening during the various stages of childbirth, 43% said they "did not receive" adequate postnatal care in the hospital and 44% reported some degree of postnatal "blueness" or depression.

After all that, how many of the women do you suppose said that motherhood has given them more happiness than their previous careers? Why, only 99%. Up Front notes that he has never before seen a figure of 99% in any sizable public opinion poll, ever. Is it not a bit strange that our society continues to cast so many vague aspersions on motherhood as a vocation?

Duly Noted

Earlier this year, the Brick Brewing Co. of Waterloo, Ont., made waves by reintroducing the classic "stubby" beer bottle to the Canadian market. Consumers flocked to buy, but now Brick may be pushing innovation a step too far. On October 2, the company announced the rollout of a revolutionary plastic beer bottle which, they claim, "is designed to chill quickly and stay cold longer." It will also be lighter than glass, making it attractive to those who like drinking themselves into a stupor on picnics and at the beach. Marketing experts are already cringing, and environmentalists note that plastic is annoying to recycle. Indeed, even an anti-environmentalist might wonder why we want to undermine society's one traditional, self-funding, efficient form of recycling.

Someday, however, you might be able to enjoy that "Plastic Brick" in the comfort of a movie theatre. The Vancouver Sun reports September 24 that the cinema chain Famous Players is polling customers on whether they might like to have beer or wine with the latest box-office hit. A single drinks-allowed theatre could be set aside in multiplexes for cineastes of suitable age; already some big theatres have attached "lounges" which serve beer and wine. But "this is not going to happen next week," warns chain VP Nuira Bronfman. Too bad. Who can honestly enjoy a Hollywood movie sober?

Ed and Doug Lang, the Swift Current-area cattlemen whose extortion case was profiled in the previous Up Front, were found not guilty September 25 by a jury in the Saskatchewan city. The pair admitted they used a female acquaintance--let us be honest here, shall we? A tart--to lure Mayor Paul Elder to a hotel room rigged with cameras, in an effort to videotape him enjoying some extracurricular carnality. (His Worship failed to rise to the dubious bait.) The jury apparently bought the defence's theory that the Langs did not have blackmail in mind, but merely wanted the private satisfaction of knowing that Mayor Elder was the sort of man who would do that sort of thing. Defence counsel described the pair as "stupid, but not guilty." And juries, it seems, will always be easily fooled into thinking that "stupid" and "guilty" are contradictories.

Rumours of war: MSNBC reports October 2 that a manufacturer of suntan lotion in Daytona Beach, Florida, was blown away by the size of an order he received September 3 from the U.S. Department of Defense's logistics agency. Normally Sun Fun Products ships between 20,000 and 40,000 bottles of scentless SPF 15 Native Tan sunscreen to the U.S. armed forces twice a year. The Gulf War, he says, consumed 20,000 bottles over and above the usual supply. But now the department suddenly, for some strange reason, needs 153,000 bottles all at once. "Any attempt to tie purchase quantities and/or purchase dates to possible military action is purely speculation," said logistics spokesman Jack Hooper. You know, they probably are just planning a real big beach-volleyball tournament.

Finally, Up Front can never resist touting the miracle drug doctors hate. The Medical Post, a magazine for the profession where such things are spoken of freely, reports October 1 that over a wide range of studies analyzed by the Harvard School of Public Health's Miguel A. Hernan, current smokers were found to have a 60% lower risk of developing Parkinson's disease than people who never smoked. "Not only does smoking appear protective, but add a little caffeine to the mix and the chances of avoiding the debilitating illness are really quite good," writes Nancy Duetsch; coffee and tea seem to reduce the incidence of the disease, characterized by uncontrollable tremors, a further 30%. The authors, as is usual with similar studies (nicotine also appears to have a role in preventing Alzheimer's and ulcerative colitis), say that prescribing cigarettes is not to be considered. But they intend to study the heck out of tobacco--while in the meantime your governments try to tax it out of existence. Some of us are already experiencing tremor, but only when it is time to pay the cashier for our next carton.