The MSM and science: your cell phone will kill you!

With the appearance of the Apple iPhone the radiation alarmists are getting another hearing. Today my local paper ran a story that we can use as a template for how not to do science journalism, and how not to think about risks.

The conjecture about cell phones is that because they are two-way radios, and because radio waves can hurt you if they’re strong enough, their tiny amount of radiation released right upside your head can hurt your brain. The story attends mostly to a “leading activist” who moved from Mendocino to Santa Fe when the former town allowed cell phone towers and threatens to leave Santa Fe as well if it allows WiFi. It identifies, without citation, one scientific study from 2003 finding cell damage from two hours of cell phone exposure in rats . It lumps together “groups, scientists, and environmental specialists” that see risks in cell technology, including such high-candlepower outfits as the San Francisco Neighborhood Antenna-Free Union and the Planetary Association for Clean Energy, quoting the latter’s president, whose science you can admire here . Here is the abstract of his talk to a 2000 convention of dowsers:

It is possible to regenerate cells and correct damage. Several successful techniques indicate the

mechanism. Dr. Andrew Michrowski, Ph.D., will discuss these techniques developed by Robert C.

Becker, Antoine Priore, Royal R. Rife and the University of Mississippi Medical Centre.

Essentially it is possible to time reverse the cell and all its components, including the genetics,

back to its previous state. The technique is significant for AIDS, cancer and leukemia, infectious diseases and the increasing resistance of pathogens to the conventional antibiotics and other means

of treatment.

The piece ends with the following classically misguided paragraphs:

The ability to place calls to your office, your spouse or your local pizza place on a cell phone isn’t worth dying a horrible death from cancer. There’s no solid proof that cell phones are hazardous, but then tobacco companies once claimed that about cigarettes. So did makers of cookies larded with trans fat.

At the least, those millions of consumers who apparently can’t wait to buy an iPhone and spend all their waking hours playing with this latest high-priced, high-tech, must-have gadget might want to think twice.

But it is worth it, if the probability of the horrible death is low enough; just as it is worth risking a horrible death in traffic driving to see a movie. How big can the risk be? Well, the American Cancer Society’s estimate of national brain cancers cases went up from 17,600 in 1996 (about when cancers from the few cell phones in use in 1990 could start showing up) to 18,800 in 2006. Suppose all of these 1200 extra cancers were caused by cell phones; in 2001, about 2/3 of adults had a cell, so regular use of your phone for a year has a risk of about six in a million, about the same as skiing for a week. Your risk of death from driving is a little over one in ten thousand (unless you talk on the cell phone while you do, which makes it much more dangerous).

If cell phones present a brain cancer risk worth worrying about, where are all the cancers? They can’t be concealed by Cingular or T-Mobile no matter how cynical these corporate malefactors may be.

The foregoing reality-anchor analysis took me about an hour on the same internet available to the Chronicle’s reporter. Why does the odd flat-earth self-identified prophet get equal, or more-than-equal time, with real science?

The crowning irony of this little episode, I have to add, is that the cell-phone story was gutted mercilessly right on the front of the Chron’s comics section today in Doonesbury.

There remains the question of choosing a way of death, which is what we sort of get to do, as opposed to avoiding it. Age-adjusted cancer rates have been pretty flat for a century (with the spectacular exception of lung cancer, that goes up and then down with smoking), while cancer has been increasing…because more people are living long enough to get cancer. You may wish to give up your favorite foods to delay a heart attack, but of course by doing so you push up the likelihood that you die of something that takes a long time and hurts. Life is not wisely managed by avoiding risks of death, much less by worrying about the really tiny ones; any life you choose is fatal. The challenge is to choose the right portfolio of risks for your taste, accounting both for their real likelihoods of injury and death and for the benefits of whatever you’re considering. A press that does its job could help a lot.

UPDATE: This blog has such great readers!…one of whom, Peter MacLeod, points out that US population increased 11.5% between 1996 and 2006, so the brain cancer rate actually went down, by about 5%, in the decade that cell phone use was exploding.

A crude risk calculation indicates that you can balance the risk of tomorrow’s day on the slopes by spending this evening in the lodge chatting with everyone you know on your cell. And don’t use an earpiece, you lose the beneficial effects if you don’t have the actual phone right next to your ear.

You read it here first, remember.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.