Why avoiding sunshine could kill you

“Researchers followed 30,000 women for 20 years and found that those who avoided the sunshine were twice as likely to die”

Despite the very sensational title, this is an interesting case to look it when understanding the nature and challenges of science. A simple look at the title might convince people that using sunblock or avoiding sunlight may be bad advice, however a more careful look at the study, its conclusions, and an understanding of the nature of scientific certainty should give us pause.

The study followed women in Sweden and, assuming the study was done properly, should only suggest conclusions dealing with a particular set of people: fair skinned women living in northern latitudes.

There may be a tendency to overextrapolate and think that all sunscreen is bad and all sunlight is good however that would be a premature and possibly detrimental conclusion.

Buried in the article linked below is an interesting sentence: “Women who sunbathed in the summer were also 10 per cent less likely to die from skin cancer although those who sunbathed abroad were twice as likely to die from melanoma.”

This study is not simply a study about sunlight vs. not sunlight but possibly about how much sunlight is appropriate.

Furthermore, the article states:

“The findings from Dr Lindqvist’s team are interesting, but it is possible that the women in the study who had high sun exposure differed from the women who had low sun exposure in ways that may explain their reduced cancer risk.”

Yinka Ebo, senior health information officer at Cancer Research UK, said striking a balance was important.

“The reasons behind higher death rates in women with lower sun exposure are still unexplained, as unhealthy lifestyle choices could have played a part,” she added.

This adds to the discussion of what it takes to prove something in the natural sciences and shows how challenging it is to build a scientific consensus. This just one study on a very specific group of people and still there are variables that are unknown.


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