Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Rumors of Tumors

In a recent Reuters news story, some eighty-five users of cell phones had malignant brain tumors and used cell phones “a lot.” What was the scientific quantity of use? “A lot.” Big science employed here! So a correlation was established by the writer, between cell phone use and malignant tumors. Two valuable rules of evidence were ignored.

One is that we all know that correlation is not cause and effect. We all drink water and we all die. Does water cause death? Only to those who drown in it.

The second rule is even simpler. It is exemplified by the story of people who lived near electric power poles whose children contracted cancer. Immediately, some people (and their lawyers) jumped to the conclusion that the electricity in the wires caused the cancer. What else did the children have in common? They played near the base of the poles where the power company had sprayed a herbicide to keep down the growth of weeds. It turned out that the herbicide was behind the cancer and not the electrons flowing through the wires.

Here is the second rule: One correlation does not rule out other correlations. In fairness, I can say that author of the study wrote that some “other agents” were ruled out (such as cigarettes). Probably not all of them. What they did not write about was the mechanism that causes human cells to become cancerous while in the presence of the electro-mechanical field of a cell phone. There doesn’t seem to be one.

Perhaps cell phones cause malignant tumors in some people, but probably not. The preponderance of evidence says not.

These kinds of “folk science” stories give good science a bad name. You'd think an educated Media would be more responsible. At least, more demanding.

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