Shining Light on Medical Flip-Flops

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The topic of the latest Unger Report: "When medical experts change their minds." Day to Day slightly confused correspondent Brian Unger questions a recent medical study that suggests sun exposure may in fact prevent certain kinds of cancer.


Over the weekend, the Associated Press ran a story with this headline: Scientists say sunshine may prevent cancer. The startling finding has the Unger Report examining what happens when established medical wisdom is turned upside-down. Here's Brian Unger.

BRIAN UNGER reporting:

The radical notion that sunshine might actually help prevent cancer is tied to several studies that found vitamin D helps protect against cancers of the colon, prostate, lung, even skin. Now turns out the skin makes vitamin D from UV rays, which suggests the very thing that causes cancer, exposure to the sun, helps prevent cancer too. So sunscreen is bad for you?

Well, this certainly has advertising agencies working for Coppertone and other sunscreen manufacturers scrambling to distill this new medical wisdom about tanning into a catchy slogan. `SPF 30: 30 times the cancer but without all the burn.' `So your face will look like the catcher's mitt. But wait till they see your colon.' So compelling is this finding, the American Cancer Society is reviewing its sun protection guidelines. And this makes the much-hyped redrawing of the food pyramid a day at the beach.

How much sun is too much sun? At this point, scientists walk away from the table and leave us to the mercy of ourselves: highly inexpert, blogging, dubious authorities--you know, people like me--to decipher these paradoxical findings. The researchers are the same trusted medical experts who recently told us the dangers of being overweight maybe overstated. These same folks told us drinking red wine is good for us, that butter is better than margarine, bacon better than potatoes, that battered and deep-fried cigarettes actually improve cardiovascular health. OK, I made that one up.

But I worry about a world thrown into chaos by radical reversals of wisdom, a world in which wooden nickels are safe to take from strangers, where reading in the dark is good for your eyes, and too much chicken soup will kill you. Maybe the grass isn't always greener on the other side. Maybe we should beat a dead horse.

Because scientists never tell us what to do with their radical findings that contradict years and years of accepted wisdom other than practice moderation. Yet moderation is so subjective, and we are not a moderate people. No, we are a nation of extreme people. We prefer absolutes. Those who dream of coming to our shores don't dream of American moderation. You hardly ever hear a defector say, `I wanted to live moderately in America.'

It's entirely possible, given the stunning reversals on sun, fat and alcohol, that the scientific community could eventually flip-flop on the concept of moderation itself. How can we trust people who tell us what's bad for us will eventually kill us, but a moderate amount of what's bad for us might help us live longer? The answer is simple: Be skeptical about these latest "findings." Question experts who say poison ivy reduces wrinkles. I'm not saying dismiss them outright, but just, you know, doubt them--moderately.

And that is today's Unger Report. I'm Brian Unger.

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News and I'm Alex Chadwick. I'm actually going to be away on a writing assignment for the next couple of days, but my colleague Madeleine Brand will be here. And I'll be back soon. Talk to you then.

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