Everything you know is wrong

John Stossel

5/10/2006 12:05:00 AM - John Stossel

Where are the bodies?

For years, reporters have been alerting America to one scare after another. Chemicals, cell phones, SARS -- everything is going to kill us! You would think by now we'd be doing nothing but digging graves.

Instead, Americans are living longer than ever. Not that you'd ever know that from the mainstream media.

So let's grab a shovel to clear away the nonsense and dig out the truth: Myths, lies and stupidity are often the basis of today's scary news stories.

Reports that motorists using cell phones were triggering explosions at gas stations sent fear at gas stations through the roof (where gas prices, adjusted for inflation, haven't gone). But there is no evidence that cell phones are much of a threat.

The media keeps pumping out the stories. In 2004, the Poughkeepsie [N.Y.] Journal ran this scary headline: "Cell Phone Ring Starts Fire at Gas Station."

The story quoted the local fire chief, Pat Koch, as saying gas vapors were ignited by the ringing of a cell phone. But -- stop the presses and start shoveling -- just days later, Koch said: "After further investigation . . . I have concluded that the source of ignition was from some source other than the cell phone . . . most likely static discharge from the motorist himself." The truth is that anything that involves static or sparks can ignite gasoline fumes, including rubbing your rear end against a cloth car seat on a dry winter day.

At the University of Oklahoma, there's a "Center for the Study of Wireless Electromagnetic Compatibility," which researches the effects of electronic devices on our lives. The center examined incident reports and scientific data, and concluded that there was "virtually no evidence to suggest that cell phones pose a hazard at gas stations." The researchers went even further: "The historical evidence," it said, "does not support the need for further research."

You're about as likely to be toasted by a dragon. To its credit, the Poughkeepsie Journal gave its follow-up story as much play as the original. The media rarely do that. Usually, the alarmist and scientifically clueless media just keep churning out the scares.

A persistent media myth holds that chemicals are responsible for "the cancer epidemic." The truth is, there is no cancer epidemic. In fact, the cancer death rate has been declining for more than a decade. If you're tempted to argue that fewer die from cancer today simply because there are better treatments, look at the cancer incidence rates.

The incidence of prostate and breast cancer is up, but that's only because there's more early detection. Lung cancer increased in women because more women took up cigarettes, and skin cancer increased because of lunatic sunbathing. But overall, cancer rates are flat, and lots of cancers, like stomach, uterine, and colorectal cancer, are on the decline.

We think there's a cancer epidemic because we hear more about cancer. It's a disease of an aging population, and fortunately, more people now live long enough to get cancer. More talk about it, too. Many years ago, people who got cancer were secretive about it.

But the main reason we think there is an epidemic is that the media, suspicious of technology, hype dubious risks.

Almost every week, there is another story about a potential menace. Reporters credulously accept the activists' scares: While I've been a reporter, I've been asked to do alarmist reports about hair dye, dry cleaning, coffee, chewing gum, saccharin, cyclamates, NutraSweet, nitrites, Red No. 2 dye, electric blankets, video display terminals, dental fillings, cellular phones, vaccines, potato chips, farmed salmon, Teflon, antiperspirants and even rubber duckies.

I refused to do most of those stories. If one-tenth of what the reporters suggested was happening did happen, there would be mass death. The opposite is true: Despite exposure to radiation and all those nasty new chemicals, Americans today live longer than ever.

So grab a bar of chocolate (it's healthier than you think, if you eat the right kind) and a copy of my new book, just out this week.

Everything you know is wrong -- and that's very good news.