Thursday, July 24, 2008

Evidence? Who needs evidence to start a panic?

Oh what the fu....

I remember the good ole days, when a flawed study actually had to be released for the panic to hit the streets. You may remember it as well. Power lines. Childhood Leukemia. Well meaning social scientists. Lack of control groups. Lack of proper methodology. Logical fallacies. The end result being widespread panic as people began believing that the electromagnetic radiation from power lines was causing cancer in little kids. An entire industry sprung up to take advantage of it, and it took real scientists years of real science and proper studies to convince people of the truth. Living near power lines is not going to kill your child. There is no increased cancer risk from the power lines. Hell, even today, you will find people who still believe the lines are giving tons of innocent children a horrible disease and the scientists are covering up the truth. All from a couple poorly done studies.

Well, now you don't even need a study. You can just wake up in the morning and decide to freak half of the United States out.

Front page of my local fish wrap today, Ronald B. Herberman, MD, the director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute has issued a warning linking cell phone usage with brain cancer.

So I know what you must be thinking. The head of a major cancer research center issues a warning that using cell phones can cause/causes brain cancer, he must have some hard evidence to back it up. Surely he wouldn't freak out the country and start another cancer panic without knowing what he was talking about, right?

Right?

Nope. Dr. Herberman issued his warning based on "early unpublished data." And you know, if this "early unpublished data" was coming from the first study ever done on the possible link between cell phones and cancer, I may give him a pass and assume that the "early unpublished data" actually backs him up on his claims.

But this is a subject that has been studied before. And the results are always the same. There is no link between cell phones and brain cancer. The study that his "early unpublished data" comes from, a multinational research project known as Interphone has already released peer reviewed results. And guess what? No cancer link so far.

So why issue the warning? Well, the good doctor says that "it takes too long to get answers from science and he believes people should take action now — especially when it comes to children." JENNIFER C. YATES and SETH BORENSTEIN AP News

Let's let Dr. Herberman speak for himself.

"Really at the heart of my concern is that we shouldn't wait for a definitive study to come out, but err on the side of being safe rather than sorry later"


So rather than letting science work, and seeing if there is a risk involved, let's throw it all out and go with our gut feeling.

Pushing this man to yell, "fire!" in a crowded theater, apparently, was Devra Lee Davis, the director of the university's center for environmental oncology. She says:

"I don't know that cell phones are dangerous. But I don't know that they are safe."


Isn't that precious? Well, let's warn people about breathing. I mean, I don't know that breathing is dangerous, but I don't know that it is safe either! 100% of all people who breathe end up dying, after all.

Seriously. Technology comes with a price, whether it's pollution, health risks, or just that it makes us a little bit lazier. We really don't know the looooooooong term effects of cell phone use. But we really don't know the long term effects of countless new inventions. Maybe my ipod is giving me herpes and my flat screen is turning my brain into lettuce. Right now, all available evidence shows no link between cell phones and cancer. The FDA states on their website that if there is a risk from using cell phones, while stressing that they have no evidence that there is a risk, the risk would be very small.

We can live in fear, or we can live. Each and everyone of us has so many real terrors to worry about. To issue an unsupported warning like this is irresponsible and a slap in the face to science. Dr. Herberman probably thinks he is saving lives, but all he is causing is this:

Susan Juffe, a 58-year-old Pittsburgh special education teacher, heard about Herberman's cell phone advice on the radio earlier in the day.

"Now, I'm worried. It's scary," she said.

She says she'll think twice about allowing her 10-year-old daughter Jayne to use the cell phone.

"I don't want to get it (brain cancer) and I certainly don't want you to get it," she explained to her daughter.


Thank you for giving millions of people something new to worry about, for no reason at all.

3 comments:

HolfordWatch said...

Those were the days, eh?

Thanks for a very entertaining perspective on this whole sorry business and I intend to use the "good old days" publication line whenever I can (with attribution).

Pensive said...

There are a group of us who would treat all comments by experts with more than a pound of salt.

After all, what is science except a supposedly logical compilation of material garnered after asking questions about a spontanously combusted theory. Those facts being compiled depend on the right questions being asked in the first place.

A point Dr John Emery once made in an article on SIDS, where he pointed out that the right answers weren't being found, because the wrong questions were being asked.

So when you talk about science, the best way to describe it is possible answers to possible questions.

The problem for the average person in the street, is that they have no idea which are the right questions and right answers.

And the problem for the average doctor in business is that s/he doesn't read the medical literature, which amply describes how little of "science' is actually fact.

Mind you, neither do most people who call themselves scientists.

Hubert said...

This is fantastic!