Aetiology is questioning the intelligence of Brits for the fact that “More than a quarter of [British] people believe that fate alone will determine whether they get cancer, not their lifestyle choices”.
Brits, here I come to the rescue–I agree. Fate causes cancer. (Aetiology’s Tara Smith is an assistant professor of epidemiology, which may have clouded her views on this one–that’s what statistics and population studies will do to you!)
If you look at groups of people, you can easily say that smoking increases your risk of many, many cancers. And other lifestyle choices definitely increase your risk of cancer. But look what I said–increased risk. Not guarantee. Not all smokers develop lung cancer, not all smokers develop emphysema. Not all obese people develop diabetes, and not all people who develop diabetes are obese.
You can say that X increases your risk of cancer by 99%, but when you go down to the individual level, that individual has to either develop cancer or NOT develop cancer. We can’t say which smokers will get cancer and which won’t, only that they’re more likely to. There’s still random chance–if you want to call it fate, so be it–that gives people cancer.
So there you are, Brits, you’re right.
If you want to reduce your risk of cancer, heart disease, and other big killers, prevention is the key, and lifestyle changes can do a lot. But we want to accurate for the individual, we don’t know who will get cancer. Is this an argument for patients to keep smoking, and playing Russian roulette with their bodies? Of course not. Maybe someday we’ll be able to tell which people will get cancer, but we definitely can’t now.
(Update: Orac agrees! I’m flattered!)