The World Health Organization Will Have to Pry My iPhone from My Cold Dead Hands

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Inane cell phone conversations may rot the brain, but they probably don't cause cancer

Regarding the World Health Organization's (WHO) recent finding [PDF] that mobile phones might possibly maybe could-be perchance correlated with a slightly higher rate of brain cancer, one should keep in mind, epidemiologist John Ioannidis' admonitions about the public choice pressures on epidemiologists. In Scientific American, Ioannidis warns against "An Epidemic of False Positives":

False positives and exaggerated results in peer-reviewed scientific studies have reached epidemic proportions in recent years. The problem is rampant in economics, the social sciences and even the natural sciences, but it is particularly egregious in biomedicine. Many studies that claim some drug or treatment is beneficial have turned out not to be true. We need only look to conflicting findings about beta-carotene, vitamin E, hormone treatments, Vioxx and Avandia. Even when effects are genuine, their true magnitude is often smaller than originally claimed.

The problem begins with the public's rising expectations of science. Being human, scientists are tempted to show that they know more than they do. The number of investigators—and the number of experiments, observations and analyses they produce—has also increased exponentially in many fields, but adequate safeguards against bias are lacking. Research is fragmented, competition is fierce and emphasis is often given to single studies instead of the big picture.

And when the postulated effect is tiny, what can epidemiology really tell us? As I have reported [PDF] elsewhere:

It is not easy to sort actual risk factors from the statistical background noise of confounders and biases. "With epidemiology you can tell a little thing from a big thing. What's very hard to do is to tell a little thing from nothing at all," said Michael Thun, an American Cancer Society epidemiologist in 1995. Former Boston University epidemiologist Samuel Shapiro agrees: "In adequately designed studies we can be reasonably confident about big relative risks, sometimes; we can be only guardedly confident about relative risks estimates of the order of 2.0, occasionally; we can hardly ever be confident about estimates of less than 2.0, and when estimates are much below 2.0, we are simply out of business. Epidemiologists have only primitive tools, which for small relative risks are too crude to enable us to distinguish between bias, confounding and causation." …

"Some may argue that it is of public health importance to identify and evaluate possible causal implications of small relative risks because for common diseases these can translate into large absolute risks," writes Shapiro. But as he cautions his colleagues, "Unfortunately, however, not all questions are answerable even if we desperately want answers, and public health importance does not equate with scientific validity."

Let's take a brief look at the results of one of the bigger studies considered by the WHO panel in coming to its decision, the 13-nation case-control Interphone study [PDF]. The National Cancer Institute summarizes the results:

"A reduced odds ratio (OR) related to ever having been a regular mobile phone user was seen for glioma [OR 0.81; 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.70-0.94] and meningioma (OR 0.79; 95% CI 0.68-0.91), possibly reflecting participation bias or other methodological limitations. No elevated OR was observed ? 10 years after first phone use (glioma: OR 0.98; 95% CI 0.76-1.26; meningioma: OR 0.83; 95% CI 0.61-1.14). ORs were < 1.0 for all deciles of lifetime number of phone calls and nine deciles of cumulative call time. In the tenth [highest] decile of recalled cumulative call time, ?1640 h, the OR was 1.40 (95% CI 1.03-1.89) for glioma, and 1.15 (95% CI 0.81-1.62) for meningioma; but there are implausible values of reported use in this group. ORs for glioma tended to be greater in the temporal lobe than in other lobes of the brain, but the CIs around the lobe-specific estimates were wide. ORs for glioma tended to be greater in subjects who reported usual phone use on the same side of the head as their tumour than on the opposite side."

It's mildy amusing to note that mobile phone use appears to be prevent brain cancer among people who have ever made a cell phone call. Even among top ten percent of heavy users, their risk of brain cancer was well below Shapiro's 2.0 relative risk threshold.

Interestingly, as the number of cell phone subscriptions in the U.S. has risen from 1 million in 1987 to over 300 million today, the National Cancer Institute reports that brain cancer incidence [PDF] has been trending slightly downward.

Based on what is known so far, AT&T doesn't have to worry about me giving up my iPhone just yet.

NEXT: David Mamet's Conversion Story

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  1. Is there anything that doesn’t cause cancer?

    1. I am beginning to think that the leading cause of cancer is the overuse of statistics.

      1. A gem from Fletcher Knebel: “It is now proved beyond doubt that smoking is one of leading causes of statistics.”

    2. Not the way they look for it.

      Nobody seems to remember confounding variables or direction of causation anymore. Observational studies can only hope to eliminate causes, not to confirm them. “Risk” only means you’re in a different statistical group, not that you’re actually hurting yourself.

      Teen dieters are at higher risk of being overweight as adults, for instance. You might get the idea dieting in your teens causes them to be overweight later when it’s the reverse: young people who have trouble with weight gain go on diets to try to fight it, and often do so unsuccessfully.

      Also, diet advice given them through government schools has been shown time and again to be minimally effective at best, which would be a confounding variable. Bad advice hurts their results.

  2. What weak correlations tell you is where to look for causation (which you may or may not find). Until someone identifies the mechanism by which cell phones cause cancer, it is simply wrong, scientifically speaking, to say that there is any cancer risk at all from cell phones.

    1. However the Precautionary Principle dictates that since someone has voiced that there is a possibility, though unproven, that cell phones may cause cancer, legislators and regulators are duty bound to protect the public from this potentially deadly scourge on humanity.

    2. I’m going to test my hypothesis – that short-wavelength RF induces electrical currents in coiled DNA (think small loop radio) that confuse the BER DNA damage correction system (which is thought to function by scanning for conductivity breaks). Of course that would mean that cell phones don’t *cause* cancer, but rather, make it harder for the body to fight cancer.

      Also, looking in the brain would be the wrong place, since most of those cells are terminal anyway.

  3. I suppose you all think Steve Jobs is the picture of health. CONNECT THE DOTS, PEOPLE.

    And switch to Android before it’s too late. They actually cure cancer.

  4. Just a nit-pick with the way this argument is made here.

    we can be only guardedly confident about relative risks estimates of the order of 2.0, occasionally; we can hardly ever be confident about estimates of less than 2.0, and when estimates are much below 2.0, we are simply out of business.

    Is followed by

    A reduced odds ratio (OR) related to ever having been a regular mobile phone user was seen for glioma [OR 0.81; 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.70-0.94] and meningioma (OR 0.79; 95% CI 0.68-0.91), …

    OR = Odds ratio =/= Relative Risk

    1. NM:Nice point. Readers confused by this may want to look at this explanation of the difference. Still I think on the basis of the research so far, there is no reason to worry much about risks of cancer from cell phone use.

      1. That is a nice link about the difference between RR and OR.

        there is no reason to worry much about risks of cancer from cell phone use.

        The evidence looks stronger for a group 4 than group 2b classification, but given that 2b is “Possibly carcinogenic to humans” I am not sure it is worth getting too worked up about.

        Particularly given their main finding:

        The evidence was reviewed critically, and overall evaluated as being limited among users of wireless telephones for glioma and acoustic neuroma, and inadequate to draw conclusions for other types of cancers.

        With limited and inadequate evidence…”possibly” is hardly going beyond your data.

        1. “Possibly” is going well beyond the available data. A better interprepation is that available data show no link between cell phones and cancer BUT further monitoring for any link might be wise.

          1. “Possibly” is going well beyond the available data.

            Well beyond? Not sure there is a strong enough semantic difference between “possibly” and “probably not” to say that they went well beyond their data. If you are willing to put the “but further monitoring might be wise” into your interpretation, you are pretty much at “possibly.”

  5. One of the main problems in this kind of research are over-powered studies looking for very small effects.

  6. The WHO is merely trying to remain relevant. This is like saying video games cause cancer. They sure as fuck aren’t going away, but you get your name in the papers.

    1. They jumped the shark long before that Stupid Bowl halftime “performance”. They haven’t been decent since the mid 80’s at least.

      OH, you meant…never mind…

      1. While there are a few good songs afterwords, I think you can say they lost relevance with the death of Keith Moon.

        Townsend’s solo stuff might be argued for a mid-80’s relevance (maybe), but not The WHO, imho.

  7. The World Health Organization Will Have to Pry My iPhone from My Cold Dead Hands

    Nah, you’ll just throw the damn thing away when they come up will a phone/supercomputer/theater/music/games player that links directly to your brain.

    (IOW, fairly soon.)

  8. Imagine my surprise, now that the initial, repetitive pearl clutching has subsided, that the study isn’t the slam dunk that the highly-trained media made it out to be.

    1. Tell me more about this repetitive pearl clutching… for example, do you clutch really slow at first and then speed up?

      1. Picture an anus rapidly clenching and gaping. Forever.

        1. OK. Go on…

  9. You know, in Somalia, the cellphone companies operate with no government regulation and standards. The study linking cellphones and increased chance of cancer come out soon after.

    The logical leftist conclusion is that lack of a functioning government in Somalia leads to a worldwide increased risk of cancer. Since that is our libertopia, it is only common sense to surmise that all libertarians are for increased levels of cancer…and no roadz.

    Scientific PWNAGE!!!!!!111!!11!1!!

    1. Yawn.

      1. May I offer you a helping of ROADS, then?

        1. Make it stop!

  10. Appropriately interpreted, the entirety of the evidence clearly indicates that cell phones DO NOT cause cancer.

    Moreover, cell phones use NON-IONIZING radation which, in theory, should not be carcinogenic.

    1. https://reason.com/blog/2011/06…..nt_2318053

      fuck this non-ionizing bullshit. The TSA also says that the dose of ionizing radiation from the raperscan is less than the dose of ionizing radiation from an airline flight, but that’s possibly bullshit because one is a transmission effect and the other is a compton scattering effect.

      Simplistic explanations are not always correct.

      1. So you suppose that cellphones may disrupt the cell’s repair mechanisms rather than directly causing damage. This is an interesting hypothesis but as you know, currently without any proof.

        In any case, the overall epidemiologic studies strongly suggest that cellphones DO NOT cause cancer over a 10 year period. The failure to find any link between cell phone use and cancer at this point is fairly definitive – I don’t believe the WHO is putting an accurate spin on the data. The WHO should have put out a more accurate statement that “according to current data, cellphones are EXTREMELY unlikely to significantly increase cancer risk over a 10 year period.” Of course, it will still be best to monitor for longer term risks.

        1. I know it’s without proof. Give me a few weeks, I’ll have the experiment done.

  11. Maggie Koerth-Baker at boingboing nailed it a couple of days ago:

    http://www.boingboing.net/2011…..h-org.html

  12. Come on people, between this and the bees, cell phones are finished. I’ve already destroyed mine, and I’d advise you all to do the same.

    1. The plot concerns a New England artist struggling to reunite with his young son after a mysterious signal broadcast over the global cell-phone network turns the majority of his fellow humans into mindless vicious animals.

      It’s only fiction if you don’t live in DC.

  13. All you need to know, from page 2 of the PDF:

    The Working Group did not quantitate the risk

    In other words, they made a political rather than a scientific decision.

    1. One study showed a 40% increased risk. One whole study!

    2. The Working Group did not quantitate the risk

      Or, apparently, write in English. “Quantitate”? Seriously?

  14. Cell phone transmissions are also responsible for globalwarming/climatechange.

  15. Disclaimer: For a living, I do research related to chemical risks.

    An anecdote that may be relevant. A couple years ago, I was in a meeting with a very famous biologist with whom I’ve done some work and a team of toxicologists and epidemiologists from a major chemical company. Famous Biologist was reviewing his work from in vitro studies we had done which suggested that some of their chemicals had biological problems. The tox and epi guys kept poking him with, “But have you made a definitive link to public health? Do you have all the data you need in order to say that this is a real problem rather than an imagined one?”

    Famous Bio replied, “See, here’s the problem. We can’t take 30,000 people and isolate them on one island, take another 30,000 and isolate them on another island, then dose the people on the first island with these chemicals for generations, then compare the health outcomes. It’s not ethical. This isn’t the Third Reich!”

    Unfortunately, the toxicology and epidemiology folks were all Germans. Cringe-worthy silence.

    (fill in Basil Fawlty reference here)

    1. beautiful story.

    2. Whaddaya mean, “unfortunately”? That’s what makes it comedy gold!

      1. When you’re trying to sell something to Germans, whatever you do, don’t mention the war!

  16. conflicting findings about beta-carotene, vitamin E, hormone treatments, Vioxx…

    …garlic, coffee, Himalayan magic pink salt…

  17. “With epidemiology you can tell a little thing from a big thing. What’s very hard to do is to tell a little thing from nothing at all.”

    That right there is the money quote. And it gets harder and harder and harder as we control fewer and fewer and fewer variables. Like in this case.

    Fuck it. In the long run, we’re all dead.

    1. Also, good stuff, as always, Ronald. Kevin Cameron makes engineering interesting and understandable – you do largely the same thing with science that might otherwise be awfully dry.

  18. XKCD on significance…

    http://xkcd.com/882/

  19. I read about the study first when a friend in Boston sent me The Globe’s take.

    [S]tudies suggest an increased risk of glioma, a rare type of brain cancer. … [T]he data were limited but enough to categorize personal exposure as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

    “The evidence … is strong enough … that there could be some risk.” …

    The group emphasized that more research needs to be conducted before the real risks of cell phone use are known.

    Children’s use of cell phones might be particularly worrisome since their brains are still developing. Parents may want to take more precautions with them. …

    [T]he US Food and Drug Administration have stated that the weight of the scientific evidence doesn’t link cellphones with any health problems.

    That’s way too much hedging to take this seriously.

    1. They’ve reset the weasel-word benchmark to a new record.

  20. This study seems to have a problem with what I call “slicing” for lack of a better term – when significance tests are ran for so many subgroups that it becomes likely that you’ll find a correlation in one of them, even at 95% confidence.

    ORs were < 1.0 for all deciles of lifetime number of
    phone calls and nine deciles of cumulative call time. In the tenth [highest] decile of recalled cumulative call time,
    >=1640 h, the OR was 1.40 (95% CI 1.03-1.89) for glioma, and 1.15 (95% CI 0.81-1.62) for meningioma; but there are
    implausible values of reported use in this group.

    So the divided the study results into 10 subgroups based on number of calls, and 10 based on time on the phone, for a total of 20. And ran tests on those groups at 95% confidence, finding a significant correlation in one group (and just barely rejecting the null, since the edge of the CI is 1.03 and the null is 1) – which is the average number of spurious correlations produced by random chance if you run 20 tests at 95% confidence.

    1. Actually, I was wrong about the number of tests – they were testing separately for two different types of tumor, so they ran 40 tests, not 20, so the average number of false positive would be 2.

  21. http://healthland.time.com/201…..?hpt=hp_t1

    Here’s a good article for you Ron.
    the epidemiological and economic aspects of this are fairly interesting.

    GO GO SUPERBUGS!

    1. p.s. it’s clearly a strain developed by jewish scientists to get revenge on Germans.

  22. And the statist fucks of the tag-team WHO are taking it to Bailey! But wait… no… that’s CHARLTON HESTON’S MUSIC!!! HE’S COMING IN TO THE RING!!! HE’s GOING TO USE HIS SIGNATURE TAKE-DOWN- THE COLD, DEAD, FINGERS SUPLEX!!!

  23. From reading the article it sounds like a lot more study is needed on the dangers of cell phones before any conclusions can be reached.

    1. If you read MSM articles on it (like the Boston Globe one I linked previously), you’ll get the same bits about more research being needed. But then you’ll find freaked-out recommendations like always using an earpiece and how parents may want to keep kids away from cell phones. No mention of how people might also want to do nothing because an observable effect has been difficult to tease out and the science is inconclusive.

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