Posted by: ateedub | July 24, 2008

Cell Phones, Cancer, and Irresponsible Scientists

The announcement from University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute‘s (UPCI) director today is completely irresponsible and should not be covered by the mainstream media (MSM). In his letter to the UPCI faculty and staff about the cancer-causing capabilities of cell phones, Ron Herbeman cites a document which acknowledges that epidemiological studies show nothing conclusive. In short, in broad population-based studies, no association has been found.

The international expert committee which released (I see no information about whether this document was published) the report includes Devra Davis, director of UPCI’s Center for Environmental Oncology. Everytime I have broached the subject of responding to Davis’ claims in the media, epidemiologists I work with tell me she has no standing in academia and that her claims cannot be taken seriously because there is no data behind them. And yet, the MSM continues to invite her on their shows.

Science works through peer-review. We all know that a lot of science is far too complicated for people without specialized training to understand. Most of us take it as a matter of faith that the scientists know what they’re doing. (I similarly take it as a matter of faith that my broker is appropriately managing my 401k – maybe not always a great idea.)

But in science, the vetting is done by peers through the publishing process. Scientists publish their data in peer-reviewed journals where subject area experts examine the methods, results, and conclusions with a fine-tooth comb, sometimes sending the paper back for additional analyses to be completed. Only after a study has gone through this process and is being published do scientists consider the work complete and accurate. At this point, the media is notified of the discoveries, NOT BEFORE.

Furthermore, the PR team at UPCI and at Pitt should never have allowed the internal email or the public announcement to go out. Communications professionals are there to be gatekeepers to prevent inappropriate announcements from being released. We have a responsibility to protect the reputation of our institutions. I believe this can and should be done in a responsible way (let’s not hide our faults, acknowledging them is not only the right thing to do but also helps you put it behind you sooner – take the Lewinski scandal as an example).

Of course, the MSM had to cover this story. Here are a couple examples:

  • Tara Parker-Pope at Well,
  • WebMD provides an overview of reactions to the statement,
  • The Chicago Tribune offers pros and cons of cellphone use while noting the unusualness of Herbeman’s statement,
  • The Washington Post emphasizes the many studies that do not show a link between cellphones and cancer, and
  • The BBC unfortunately titled it’s article “US cancer boss in mobiles warning,” which does far less to minimize the damage of the announcement.

Like the evolution “debate,” media coverage of this issue needs to be clear about the actual amount of debate within the scientific community. By and large, I think the articles above are accurate representations. I hope, though, that the splash of this announcement quickly fades as the real scientific message comes through.

I can’t wait to hear from Epi Wonk and Orac – the real scientists in the blogosphere – on this latest dose of woo. PalMD at the denialism blog has already posted on this. Check out a couple older posts on the topic from others at ScienceBlogs: Framing Science, Pure Pedantry, denialism blog, and The Island of Doubt.



  1. *gasp* More fear in the media?!!?

  2. […] on Cell Phones It’s been a week since Herberman of University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute publicly declared his fear of a link […]

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