Reasons for skepticism about cell phone/cancer study – The San Diego Union-Tribune

It’s Memorial Day weekend and reporters are scrambling for news. So there’s plenty of h̶y̶p̶e̶r̶v̶e̶n̶t̶i̶l̶a̶t̶i̶n̶g̶ reporting about the new study finding that cell phone radiation is linked to heart and brain cancer — in rats.

Time to take a deep breath. While the study comes from a credible source, the National Toxicology Program, there’s good reasons for skepticism.

1: The study hasn’t been formally published yet.

It’s hosted on BioRxiv.org, a website operated by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. It’s intended to get studies out for reading and discussion, and can be viewed as the Internet’s addition to the peer-review process. This should be considered the beginning of that process. Whether this study holds up after more extensive review is an open question. The study could turn out to be accurate, it could be erroneous. Without considered independent review, this can’t be determined.

“Articles are not peer-reviewed, edited, or typeset before being posted online,” according to the site. “However, all articles undergo a basic screening process for offensive and/or non-scientific content and are checked for plagiarism. No endorsement of an article’s methods, assumptions, conclusions, or scientific quality by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is implied by its appearance in bioRxiv.”

2: While the study does list reviewers, they are not totally independent.

The findings “were reviewed by expert peer reviewers selected by the NTP and National Institutes of Health (NIH),” the study states. So not only did the agency performing the study have a hand in selecting the reviewers, all were selected by fellow federal employees. I hope the journal that formally publishes the findings includes reviewers with no common affiliation with the authors. This arms-length distance provides perspective that only truly independent sources can provide.

3: The full study hasn’t been released, only partial results.

This raises the danger of cherry-picking. The full results are due to be released next year.

4: Independent sources contacted about the study by reporters (in a few articles) raise questions.

Kudos to Scientific American for including such an independent source, not affiliated with the study. A tip of the hat as well to NBC.

But a slap on the wrist to the NBC reporter for not revealing that an independent quote was provided by the Australian and UK Science Media Centre. This dodgy habit of not revealing the use of provided quotes is common among British journalists. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with using these quotes. I use them, but I also disclose the source. Otherwise, I’d be implying that I did work that someone else actually performed. This is considered a shady practice — at least in American journalism.

5: Other studies have found no relationship between cell phone use and cancer.

So what is different about this study? We’ll only know if the findings can be replicated by independent researchers. We do know that given enough studies, just by chance some will report a spurious linkage. Studies on this topic have been going on for decades.

6: Cell phone use patterns have changed with the popularity of texting.

You don’t hold your cell phone to your head when texting, which reduces the amount of radiation received by the brain. I live on my cell phone, but for the last few years I have rarely used it to make calls. I’ve replaced that with texting. The study doesn’t mention this change.

7: Cell phone technology has changed dramatically over the decades, but the study doesn’t describe these differences.

The study speaks of the two main forms of digital wireless technology used in mobile phones, CDMA and GSM, but that’s as far as it goes. We’re now on the fourth generation of cell phone technology, and the fifth is approaching. The study doesn’t specify which generation of technology was used, or whether multiple generations were used.

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