A catfight of sorts broke out last week over whether industrialization is responsible for cancer being the second leading cause of death in industrialized countries. Two researchers, Rosalie David of the University of Manchester and Michael Zimmermann of Villanova, published an article in the journal Nature Reviews Cancer titled “Cancer: an old disease, a new disease or something in between?” Note the question mark. In it they argue that a review of research on mummies and human remains reaching back 3,000 years suggests that cancer was rare until the Industrial Revolution when evidence of cancer increases dramatically. David and Zimmermann also examined medical treatises for evidence of cancer as a recognized condition. They found virtually nothing for treatises from antiquity, but an increasing number of references as the Industrial Revolution marched on.

Their conclusion from this is that, fundamentally, cancer is the result of industrialization.

These results were reported in the Telegraph of London under the title “Cancer caused by modern man as it was virtually non-existent in ancient world.”

This sent the editorial staff at the New Scientist into apoplexy and deeply disturbed the big cancer institutes and so-called cancer charities. The title to the New Scientist article is matter-of-factly “Cancer is not a disease of the modern world.” Note that there’s no doubt in their mind. So there!

So far as the New Scientist is concerned, David and Zimmermann are talking complete rubbish. The New Scientist makes its case with a combination of twisted logic, avoiding the question, and bad science. For example, it makes much of David’s and Zimmermann’s remark that nothing in the natural environment causes cancer, concluding their attack with a quote from England’s cancer establishment: “And that’s to say nothing of cancers caused by genetic inheritance.”

Genetic inheritance doesn’t cause cancer. It might make someone more vulnerable to an environmental provocation, but genes don’t cause anything. Gene’s only load the gun. The environment pulls the trigger. It makes me question whether these people are just confused or so hysterical over this issue that they can’t think straight.

The cancer charities were upset because “[t]heir big fear is that by blaming industrialization generally for cancer, it will make people feel helpless about the situation, and divert attention from the many changes they can make to their behaviour to reduce their risk, such as quitting smoking, exercising more, drinking less and eating more healthily.” In other words, it diverts attention away from blaming the victim—if you’ve got cancer, it’s your own fault because you’re foolish or wicked or both. It says that these fatted organizations won’t do anything if the cause really is industrial practices—people will feel helpless because those organizations won’t offer help.

But twisted logic and craven politics aren’t what is most disturbing about this over-the-top response to a piece of research that adds to an already substantial body of research, only this time from a novel perspective. For one thing, if industrialization is the cause for the dramatic rise in cancer, the dominant theories and practices for cancer treatment and prevention that are based on ideas about people behaving more sensibly should be called into question. So much is invested in them that it be would world shattering. I’ve mentioned before that an alternative theory does a better job at explaining cancer, a theory that makes sense of industrialization as the cause, a theory that is studiously ignored.

Beyond that parochial defense of the faith in conventional cancer science there’s something more. I’ve become increasingly aware that there are many people deeply committed to the faith that technological change is progress. There’s no doubt that this is a faith. If you think I’m being hyperbolic, I recommend historian David Noble’s The Religion of Technology. The New Scientist got it’s back up because it is committed to the faith of technology-is-progress as are many people in our culture. So in its review of the idea of industrialization as cancer causing, the New Scientist was engaged in theology not science.

One of the things that advocates of the precautionary principle such as Mary O’Brien bring to our attention is that progress is about our goals; it’s about what we want from life. As I’ve noted before, those who study such things have found that technology has little to do with it.

Progress is not synonymous or even closely related to technological change. Knowing that industrialization is the cause of cancer doesn’t make me feel helpless at all. On the contrary, it informs me, as all good science ought, of what needs to change. An heretical idea, but true.