Editing sensationalism (or: Don’t throw away your cellphone)

Earlier this week, a top story on my Google News feed caught my eye. “Report claims cellphones cause cancer!” one site blared. “Mobile phones can cause cancer,” read another headline. One was particularly bad: from the headline, to the buried critiques, to the opening sentence (“It’s the moment we’ve all been dreading.”)

I immediately sigh: it seemed highly unlikely to me that the study, whatever it said, would say that cellphones definitely cause cancer.

Out of morbid curiosity, I pulled up the original article. Even the title—bland, like most scientific articles—immediately contained a clear and obvious caveat: “Report of Partial Findings from the…Carcinogenesis Studies of Cell Phone Radiofrequency Radiation…” (emphasis mine). Partial findings! The study wasn’t even fully released yet. I scrolled down, noting that the pdf actually contained reviewer comments, a practice that is not overly common in my field. I liked it. It allowed me to immediately hear what other experts thought of the article. Generally, the reviewers were cautious. Every review contained a criticism, some harsher than others.


Credit: Steve Paine on Flickr

Others have already written about why this study does not prove that cell phones cause cancer, or why we shouldn’t immediately stop using our phones. The short version is that there were some concerns about the control group, and the statistical significance was weak—meaning the positive result (ie cellphones cause cancer in rats) may be false, even though it seems true given the data. Male rats and female rats did not produce the same results. Studies done in rats don’t always translate to humans. And of course, you should never trust a single study anyways. Maybe the most obvious argument against the headlines is that we’ve been using cell phones for years without a huge increases in brain cancer, and that many other studies do not agree with these finding.

Sensationalization has real consequences for science and scientists. Articles like these lead John Oliver to tear apart my field on HBO, correctly identifying sensationalization as a reason why the public no longer trusts science news.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean the study wasn’t well done, or important. It just means that cellphones may or may not cause cancer. Science moves slowly, and this is one study among many on the effect of cellphones.

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