Scary headlines sell news
Last week the media blitzed us with headlines that linked cell phones with an increased risk of brain and heart cancers.
Don’t believe everything you read in a headline!
That news story was based on a study out of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences that looked at the effect of cell phone radiation on rats.
Most journalists, if you bothered to read the entire article, did point out that the study was not perfect and it did use rats, after all, and not humans.
However, if you just read the headlines or skimmed through the articles, you were left with the impression—as I was—that this new study was important and significant and we should definitely be more worried about using our cell phones.
What did the study really show?
I’m no expert in deciphering the results of a research paper, so I went to a couple of my favorite evidence-based resources to see if I could find out more.
Luckily, two of them had responded very quickly to our fear-mongering mass media.
The first was Dr. David Gorski from the wonderful blog Science-Based Medicine: No, a rat study with marginal results does not prove that cell phones cause cancer, no matter what Mother Jones and Consumer Reports say
There are certain myths that are frustratingly resistant to evidence, science, and reason. Some of these are basically medical conspiracy theories, where someone (industry and/or big pharma and/or physicians and/or the government) has slam-dunk evidence for harm but conspires to keep it from you, the people.
He calls these “zombie myths” because “no matter how often it is ‘killed,’ [it] always seems to rise again.
That cell phones cause cancer is a zombie myth.
Dr. Gorski’s post is long but well worth reading if you have any lingering concerns about your cell phone. He details past studies and past SBM posts that have debunked the cell phones and cancer connection.
He also explains how this current rat study is full of design flaws and why we shouldn’t give much credence to the results.
Taking these issues into account, I agree…that the results reported are almost certainly due to chance and are not indicative of a real biological effect. There are just so many red flags in the study that should have told journalists that there’s a lot less there than meets the eye. I could tell this, and I’m not even a statistician.
Dr. Aaron Carroll, who is a health statistician as well as a pediatrician, wrote in the Upshot column of the New York Times: Why It’s Not Time to Panic About Cellphones and Cancer
Despite what some outlets reported, this was a not-yet-published study of rats that had been shopped around to scientific journals for review, but had not been accepted by any editors. It detailed a study that examined if exposing rats to radiation like that emitted by cellphones might give them cancer.
Dr. Carroll also picks apart the study, outlining the researchers’ flawed conclusions and tendency to report only the results that seemed to fit with their theory. For example, more male rats had cancer, but not the female rats. And the control rats, those not exposed to the radiation, actually had a much lower incidence of cancer than normal for typical rats.
You can’t cherry-pick in science, as I’ve discussed before. If you want to own the positive result seen in males, you have to own the protection being female seems to confer. You have to own that the control rats were somehow magically without cancer. You have to own that cellphone exposure increases life span. Or you can admit that none of these results are especially convincing.
But too often, the news media latch onto one finding while ignoring others. Too often, this finding is the one that’s most frightening, or scariest. It’s certainly the one that seems most likely to get attention.
Again, both Dr. Carroll’s and Dr. Gorski’s posts link to multiple good-quality studies that do not show a link between cell phones and cancer.
So, as far as the current scientific evidence can show us, it’s okay to continue using your cell phone.
But don’t use it when driving or walking near traffic—that is likely to prove deadly!