Thursday, October 11, 2007

Attack of the Killer Cell Phones

The Telegraph of London ("Britain's No. 1 quality newspaper website") reports about a study purporting to show that cell phones are dangerous and must be kept out of the hands of children (it's always for the children, isn't it?):
People who have used their phone for a decade are twice as likely to be diagnosed with a tumour on a nerve connecting the ear to the brain, according to a group of scientists who have surveyed the results of 11 different studies.

Prof Kjell Mild, of Orbero University, Sweden, who is a Government adviser and led the research, said that children should not be allowed to use mobile phones because their thinner skulls and developing nervous system made them particularly vulnerable.

This news story is an example of the kind of science reporting that drives me crazy. I realize that there isn't the space is a newspaper story to explore all of the nuances of the underlying data presented in the study or the methodology that the researchers used, but how can a reader form a reasonable opinion about the soundness of the study without any information at all about how it was conducted. Okay, it's not strictly true that there is no information about how this study was conducted, but just saying that it was a survey of 11 other studies provides next to no information other than that all of the data used is derivative. And what about the conclusions? What if it is true that heavy cell phone users double their chances of developing a nerve tumor than those who aren't? What is the chance of developing this tumor without a cell phone? If it's 1 in 10 million, doubling it is insignificant and should not cause any rational person to alter his cell phone usage at all. If it's one in four, then it's an entirely different situation. This article is good for nothing but causing unwarranted alarm, and I suspect that that was the entire point.

(No, I don't read the online version of The Telegraph regularly. This story caused a flurry of radio "news" blurbs, and I went looking for their source.)

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