The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

New York Post: Sloppy Journalism in Report of Cellphone-Cancer “Link”

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 26, 2009

In another media *facepalm* moment, the New York Post is reporting of a supposed “link” between cellphone use and cancer…

Study: Cell Phone Cancer Link

A groundbreaking, $30 million study into cell phones has found a link between long term use and brain tumors.

The World Health Organization is about to reveal that its decade-long investigation has found the devices can lead to cancer — and the internationally-respected body will soon issue a public health message with its findings, London’s Daily Telegraph reported today.

The conclusion goes against years of assurances by cell phone companies and scientists that cell phone use is safe.

But last month, Sen. Arlen Specter (D – Pa) organized Senate hearings to examine health implications of talking on-the-go.

CAN YOU KILL ME NOW? -- A groundbreaking, 10-year study will show that long-term cell phone use can lead to brain tumors.

elizabeth lippman/N.Y. Post
CAN YOU KILL ME NOW? — A groundbreaking, 10-year study will show that long-term cell phone use can lead to brain tumors.

The WHO’s Interphone investigation’s results showed, “a significantly increased risk” of some brain tumors “related to use of mobile phones for a period of ten years or more,” the Telegraph reported today.

The study’s head, Dr. Elisabeth Cardis, said, “In the absence of definitive results and in the light of a number of studies which, though limited, suggest a possible effect of radiofrequency radiation, precautions are important.”

The project carried out studies in 13 countries, talking to tumor sufferers as well as healthy cell phone users, It interviewed 12,800 people.

The results will be officially published before the end of the year, according to the Telegraph.

This is a perfect example of how some in the media misuse science to make headlines, while at the same time spreading misinformation.  Notice that the article is citing research which hasn’t even been published yet! So, if the research isn’t yet published for scrutiny, how in blazes do the morons at NY Post know what the research says?  I always thought that a good journalist was supposed to check their facts before reporting a story, not the other way around.  Apparently, the folks at the NY Post live in an alternate universe.

In addition, some other tidbits that pop up in this article:

1. It references a “significantly increased risk” of cellphone use causing cancer – but what does “significantly increased risk” even mean?  Is it a higher risk by 50%, 10%, 1%, 0.1%, 0.0001%?  The fact that this info isn’t even reported just fuels wild speculations that – despite any actual evidence – whatever it is, it’s really bad.

2. I also want to make particular note of this paragraph in the article:

The study’s head, Dr. Elisabeth Cardis, said, “In the absence of definitive results and in the light of a number of studies which, though limited, suggest a possible effect of radiofrequency radiation, precautions are important.”

Note that the head of the study states that the results are not definitive, and the studies which are there (she refers to them as “limited”, which is science-speak for “we don’t have enough research to support a solid claim”) suggest only a possible effect.  And this is the research heading the study saying this, but she’s a scientist – the goofballs who wrote the NY Post headline are not scientists.

3. Lastly, there’s this part of the article:

The project carried out studies in 13 countries, talking to tumor sufferers as well as healthy cell phone users, It interviewed 12,800 people.

Ummm… I’ve got a bad feeling about this.  From what this states, it seems the study is based upon interviews with people.  Interviews?  As far as medical studies go, that’s pretty thin stuff, folks.  It’d be much more convincing if someone could actually provide some kind of clear-cut evidence of a physical mechanism by which cellphone radiation can cause cancer.  The problem is – for reasons I’ve outlined in an earlier blog post – no such mechanism exists that can be studied.

It’ll be interesting to see what comes out at the end of the year when the actual study is published, and I’m wondering how close to reality the NY Post’s depiction of the study will be.  I’m going to guess now: not much.

So, in the end, this is a classic case of sloppy journalism which, though it might grab some people’s attention with the scary sounding headline, ultimately serves to spread fear & ignorance of science.  Way to go, NY Post!  I give you a grade of FAIL.

7 Responses to “New York Post: Sloppy Journalism in Report of Cellphone-Cancer “Link””

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  2. […] post: New York Post: Sloppy Journalism in Report of Cellphone-Cancer … Share and […]

  3. putitinfocus said

    All one has to do is take a look at the New York Post’s Wiki and see:

    “According to a survey conducted by Pace University in 2004, the Post was rated the least-credible major news outlet in New York, and the only news outlet to receive more responses calling it “not credible” than credible (44% not credible to 39% credible).[33]”

    Reading the entire Criticism section (which I must say is longer than the actual portions on the history of the tabloid) is even more enlightening to the smear they spread.

    The other ironic thing is it doesn’t appear to mention the largest scale study known to date done in Denmark (on almost the entire population) with fully controlled studies that disproved what the NYPost is saying. This study was on people who used their cell phones from 1982-1995 — over 10 years of use. Cancer incidence was determined by linkage with the Danish Cancer Registry.

    Found Here

    Nor do they mention the massive amounts of controlled studies finding no link whatsoever.

    And finally, on the study mentioned in the article — most of the individual studies from various countries have already been released and they have also found no connection, even if their way of testing (interviews) is a bit off compared to the Denmark study. The final report as a whole is what has not been published yet as their were a couple of researchers not sure if there was a possible increased risk on use over 10 years.

    The whole reason for the delay, is there is an equal number of researchers, if not more who are butting heads with them saying there is “no increased risk over 10 years of use”. The problem they ran into with this study, is that on several occasions, as we know, people want to blame their ailments on something, therefore you get skewed study results and that is why only using interviews are not the best means of a research study. But even at that… all the studies I know of from this major study have found none.

    I hope that clarifies even more on the above topic.

    And to the Skeptical teacher I say… keep up the good work! Great Blog and I appreciate the critical thinking skills you are teaching to a society that obviously needs them so much these days.

  4. Putitinfocus said

    Just an update that the results have been “officially” released as of today which…. surprise… goes against what the New York Post reported back in October. Here is the conclusion from the study:

    Conclusion
    “This is the largest study of the risk of brain tumours in relation to mobile phone use conducted to date and
    it included substantial numbers of subjects who had used mobile phones for equal to or greater than 10 years. Overall, no increase in risk of either glioma or meningioma was observed in association with use of mobile phones. There were suggestions of an increased risk of glioma, and much less so meningioma, at the highest exposure levels, for ipsilateral exposures and, for glioma, for tumours in the temporal lobe. However, biases and errors limit the strength of the conclusions we can draw from these analyses and prevent a causal interpretation.”

    Here is the link to the press release:
    http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2010/pdfs/pr200_E.pdf

    Here is a link to the study results:
    http://www.oxfordjournals.org/our_journals/ije/press_releases/freepdf/dyq079.pdf

    The funniest thing is the different ways the media is spinning this already. Those with an agenda are using sensationalist headlines, citing the study only very slightly, while getting their opinions from outside (biased) sources. Others are presenting it in it’s true light, without the use of sensational headlines and actually citing the report.

  5. […] by mattusmaximus on May 27, 2010 Last October I posted about a really crappy piece of “journalism” in the New York Post regarding a supposed link between cellphone use and cancer.  The punchline was that the […]

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