I wrote last week about a swarm of bees that had attached itself to a wall of my house, as if this were a rare and momentous event; but since then there have been three more swarms, and the men in spacesuits have been back again to remove them. Well, they’ve actually removed only two swarms, for I don’t know where the third one ended up. I only know that Stan, my nearest neighbour, knocked on my front door last weekend to report that a swarm in flight had just crossed his house and was making a bee-line (yes) for my garden. But whether they stopped there, and if so where they settled, I haven’t managed to discover. Anyway, the experience has turned me into a bee-crisis sceptic, as some people are climate-change sceptics. The experts could be right, for all I know, in claiming that bees are in precipitous decline all over the world, but with so many thousands of them buzzing about alarmingly in south Northamptonshire, I find it hard to be too worried.
Well, that’s enough about bees. There are plenty of other things to worry about — Isis, Fifa, Europe, and so on. And I am becoming particularly worried about the British press which, while still worthily reporting all the really ghastly things going on, increasingly resembles some parody of the Lancet, giving absurd prominence to obscure bits of medical research by any old academic institution anywhere in the world. The Daily Telegraph, no less, recently chose for its main front-page story the news that the Karolinska Institute of Sweden had found that living near a main road or a railway line or under a flight path could make people fatter. ‘Researchers said they believe that traffic noise raises stress levels to the point where the body begins to store fat because it thinks it is heading for a time of crisis, when food may be scarce,’ the newspaper said.
So forgive me for also being a medical-scare-story sceptic. How could anyone take that last sentence seriously? Do ‘bodies’, as opposed to brains, ‘think’ at all? And even if they do, why should they conclude that too much traffic noise means that there is going to be a food shortage? As John McEnroe said to a Wimbledon umpire more than 30 years ago, ‘You cannot be serious.’ Nevertheless, the Telegraph found the research results convincing enough to justify a banner headline reading ‘Road and jet noise fuelling obesity epidemic’.
This seems to be rather overstating it. The Swedish researchers claim to have found that for every five decibels over the 45 decibels that the Telegraph said was the noise made by ‘normal’ traffic, the waist circumference of the average person would increase by 0.2 centimetres — hardly an enormous amount. The newspaper pointed out that the noise levels around Buckingham Palace exceeded 75 decibels, thus implying that the royal family, against all appearances, was threatened with obesity. That’s 30 decibels above the norm, which would mean that the Queen’s waistline should by now have expanded by about 1.2 centimetres — not a deeply worrying development. But even that was put in doubt by Dr Anna Hansell, a health expert at Imperial College, London, who was quoted lower down in the story as saying that ‘while interesting, this is one of the first studies to look at the link between waist size and traffic noise, so it’s definitely too soon to be able to blame your increasing waistline on traffic noise’. So there you are.
I’ve been quoting the Telegraph, but nearly every British newspaper shares the same urge to promote the most flimsily founded health alarms to stop us feeling complacent about the fact we are actually healthier and living longer than ever before. The most persistent offender in this regard is surely the Daily Mail, which at around the same time gave prominence to a finding by Singaporean researchers that living next door to richer people makes one’s blood pressure soar. Imagine living with a rich neighbour next to a motorway and under a flight path! Your prospects would be pretty grim, especially as the Telegraph also reports that obesity is about to overtake smoking as the main cause of cancer.
But newspapers aren’t stupid; they know what their readers like. And it must be that people find ridiculous scare stories of this kind less alarming and more entertaining than the real things that threaten them.