Misleading headlines about phones giving you cancer are rubbish. If we're going to panic let's do it well, and keep disbelief suspended.
Mobile phones give you brain cancer, and a bacon sandwich a day puts up heart disease by a half. It makes the choice pretty simple: bacon is tastier than ceaseless phone chat, and myocardial infarction a lot less painful than a brain tumour. That said, it would be foolish to rule out the possibility that you have eaten a bacon sandwich while on the phone — in which case it is not a choice but a double whammy.
Both of these appeared as headlines in the right-wing London tabloid the Daily Mail: on the mobiles and brain cancer risk, its report was a marked contrast to those of the broadsheets, who agreed that the study on which the story was based had found no statistically significant raised risk. The author of the study, Professor Anthony Swerdlow of the U.K.'s Institute of Cancer Research, clarified the findings for me (as he had already, in a press conference — the misreporting here is not accidental): there were 10 usage groups, ranging from very low to very high. In the very highest group — those reporting using their phone for 12 or more hours a day — there was a raised chance of both glioma and meningioma.
However, that level of use is in itself improbable, and you have to take into account the possibility that, since this sample is of people with brain tumours, they were confused or misremembering. (“They'd have to have been millionaires,” Prof. Swerdlow commented, in passing; I personally think their wealth of time is more remarkable.) Furthermore, there is a dose response missing: “Real things tend to give progressively larger risks with larger doses. Biases tend not to, because the most extreme ones tend to be errors,” Prof. Swerdlow said, adding: “The study isn't useless or pointless but it needs careful interpretation.” Finally, biological literature can find no mechanism by which radio waves can cause cancer at all. Mobile phones do not disrupt DNA, which is the way ionising radiation causes cancer — that much was already well known. This makes me wonder whether the study was worth doing at all, but Prof. Swerdlow is very clear on this: “There is public concern, and it's part of the function of scientists to answer the questions that people are concerned about.”
My view is that cancers are so diffuse, now — in cause, in treatment, in aggressiveness, in fatality, in the people they attack — that we are not really talking about a disease at all, we are using it as an umbrella term for death. The two elemental truths are that nobody wants to be ill, and yet nobody wants to live forever.
This presents a chasm of realistic expectation: how do you eradicate disease while preserving mortality? What, exactly, do you want to die in your sleep of? There is also the ticklish conflict between what you want for yourself today and tomorrow, and what you imagine you will want when you are 80. If we were to talk openly about death, the onus would be on everybody to charge on to this fraught, conflicted territory; if we only talk about cancer, we can leave it to doctors.
That does not, however, tell the whole story about our love affair with scare stories. To move on to bacon, the Harvard School of Public Health has just produced a study showing the risk of heart disease goes up by 42 per cent with every 56g serving of processed meat. It sounds extraordinarily high, but on closer inspection is not. Compare it to smoking, which raises the risk of cancer by 20 times, that is, 2,000 per cent. A 42 per cent rise is small, in epidemiological terms, and could have been thrown up by a bias (maybe angry men eat more bacon than placid women?). But there is no bias in the world that could produce a 2,000 per cent increase.
The newspaper, in reporting this story (in fairness, it was, again, only the Daily Mail), takes the role of the Friend Who Exaggerates. They expect you to enjoy the drama of their tale, adjusting it down to reality afterwards.
And they are right, to a point. Medical melodrama, in the media, is emphatically not taken as a guide; none of us is getting any healthier. Well, smoking has diminished, by dint of the fact that it is manifestly dangerous and there aren't many places you can do it. But drinking, eating meat, not doing enough exercise — all the core modules of carcinogenic (or, generally, illness generating) behaviour steadily rise.
We look at scare stories not as a blueprint for a better life, but for thrill-tainment; we are looking for the fright elements of the horror genre; the masochistic guilt of the religious experience; and enough cod statistics to feel, fleetingly, as if we are being educated.
My problem with the Mail and its ill-explained stats and misleading headlines, is not about the spread of the panic itself, which serves a cultural purpose and is enjoyable, but that it does not do it very well.
When the author of a study says there is most likely no connection between mobile phone use and brain cancer, the headline to print is not “more muddle over mobiles as study suggests raised brain cancer risk”.
Poor statistical analysis is like bad CGI: it breaks the spell, drags you back to a world where robots do not exist and the causes of cancer are quite incremental and quotidian. Health journalism (and it is not just the Mail) needs more scientific credibility, even to function as entertainment. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010