Don’t accuse me of being smug if I said “I told you so.”

OK, I didn’t tell you so. It’s just that I have always had what I would call an ongoing suspicion that there isn’t always a straight forward cause and effect relationship in what produces illness. Modern medicine hates that thought.

In a paper “Genes, environment, and ‘bad luck'” published today in Science magazine, Cristian Tomasetti and Dr. Bert Vogelstein state that overall, 66% of the genetic mutations leading to cancer are due to random errors. Environmental and lifestyle factors contribute 29% of mutations. The remaining 5% are inherited.

From the story on CNN: “Every time a perfectly normal cell divides, as you all know, it makes several mistakes — mutations,” explained Vogelstein in a briefing. “Now most of the time, these mutations don’t do any harm. They occur in junk DNA, genes unrelated to cancer, unimportant places with respect to cancer. That’s the usual situation and that’s good luck.”

Occasionally, one of these random miscopies will occur in a cancer driving gene.

“That’s bad luck,” said Vogelstein.

A tip of the hat to Vogelstein: the expression “bad luck” is both specific and unique – a fine scientific term. It is well-defined on “an unfortunate state resulting from unfavorable outcomes.” But what’s especially interesting to me is how difficult it is to find a good synonym for “bad luck.” I looked it up on to see what the going synonyms are supposed to be. None, to my mind, are accurate: adversity, misfortune, set back, tragedy, blow, hard cheese, mischance, raw deal, reverse, or tough break.

Bad luck is outside of science, that (somewhat) reassuring world of cause and effect. Bad luck is scary because it is deep, dark, and mysterious. Bad luck and science don’t get along.

That’s what makes Dr. Bert Vogelstein’s comment, one that I bet he considered very carefully before using it in public, very interesting!