Cell Phones and the Anatomy of a Cancer Scare

Cell Phones and the Anatomy of a Cancer Scare

Faye Flam writes about science, mathematics and medicine. She has been a staff writer for Science magazine and a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She is author of “The Score: How the Quest for Sex has Shaped the Modern Man.”
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June 2, 2016 9:00 AM EDT
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The latest study supposedly linking cell-phone radiation to cancer was meant to serve the public good. But its effect on the public has been bad. The $25 million government-funded experiment produced confusion and scary headlines, but little in the way of useful information — beyond perhaps an indication of where the science publicity machine is broken.

This wasn’t necessarily a case of bad science. The researchers, from the National Toxicology Program, subjected one group of rats to high doses of radiation of a frequency similar to that emitted by cell phones. Following accepted protocol, they compared the radiation-exposed rats to a control group. The pathologists looking for cancer didn’t know which animals came from which group.

But last week, the scientists released partial, unpublished results in a rush, suggesting some public health urgency. They claimed to have identified a link between the radiation and a type of brain cancer called a glioma as well as a non-malignant growth called a schwannoma. Adding fuel to their health scare, they offered up sound bites such as “breakthrough” and “game changer.”

Only after the first round of scary headlines did critics get a chance to explain why the result was statistically weak, riddled with unanswered questions and somewhat implausible.

It’s not clear why scientists are carrying out these studies in the first place. There’s no compelling theoretical or empirical reason to suspect that cell-phone use has anything to do with cancer. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, said investigations of possible links are done because people are interested in the question. That interest, he said goes back to 1990, when Republican political strategist Lee Atwater was diagnosed



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