riskbenefit-deficiency

I’m back from the depths of science. It was a rough (though fantastic) weekend, so you’ll forgive me if I’m slightly behind on subject matters.

One the eve of the World Science Festival that so cruelly whisked me away from you, I saw an article on CNN.com that made a pretty stunning announcement: Cell Phones Cause CANCER. I remember thinking, “Wow, just like that? The jig is up?” —it was CNN after all. Oh wait, I forgot that CNN has been slowly turning into a sensationalist mainstream media-fail whale. Where once it was news network, one has to fact check it constantly or end up misinformed. To be fair, they did lace their headline liberally with “can” and “possible” but really, we all know that the average reader sees that headline and reads, “Cell Phones: Cancer.” But lets digress from my opinions into the realm of scientific fact.

Within a few minutes of finding out, @briandgregory linked one of the source studies.  It seems this was merely a matter of CNN pulling the old TL;DR and just running with an article about cell phones giving you cancer. They didn’t even bother skipping to the end where it read:

The authors have concluded that “overall, no increase in risk of either glioma or meningioma was observed in association with use of mobile phones. There were suggestions of an increased risk of glioma, and much less so meningioma, at the highest exposure levels, for ipsilateral exposures and, for glioma, for tumours in the temporal lobe. However, biases and errors limit the strength of the conclusions we can draw from these analyses and prevent a causal interpretation.”

In other words, they got some results, but they were so minuscule that it fell into the realm of standard deviation.

Later I found the actual statement released by the World Health Organization—or WHO, setting themselves up for Pete Townshend and Abbot & Costello jokes forever—about the addition of radiofrequency magnetic fields to their  list of carcinogenic agents, classified by their probable cancer risk. They were put in the 2B category, or possible causes, which includes malicious venoms such as coffee. Yes, coffee. You’re probably drinking coffee right now. You’re doomed.

—and I remember distinctly when coffee was added to that list. People muttered and gasped, but who really stopped drinking coffee? Same with burnt food, or pickled vegetables. Where was the uproar then? Did brine not flow into the streets as charcoal grills were upended in the riot that followed those announcements?

The issue is that cell phones involve radiation, and as we learned from the Fukushima disaster, radiation scares the bejeezus out of people. People don’t understand it very well. To most, this news was as if every cell phone was found to have had a nuclear reactor inside it that is designed to specifically deliver radiation to their testicles. I’ll get into the physics of how cell phone radiation works in the next comic of this series. For now, I want to segue into Risk/Benefit Analysis—or rather, how terrible we are at it.

Statistics and probability are a lost cause for people. Numbers in general, be they very small, or very large, confuse the hell out of most folks. Percentages cause most grown men to weep in frustration. For whole numbers, it usually happens in the -illions. The difference between one million and one billion is enormous, but in our heads it’s just “the next step up.” We just have very poor faculties when it comes to numbers, statistics, probabilities, and perceived risks. I’ll give you some examples:

I can assure you, to almost 100% accuracy (see? here we go) that the woman wearing the lead apron to protect her unborn child from her deadly cell phone, is texting while she walks. She’s probably drinking coffee ice cream with pickles, too. Dead Meat. She’s freaking out about the unfounded radiation risk, but ignoring the very real, very probable risk that she will walk out into traffic or fall down the stairs. Right now, the probability of her getting a brain tumor from her cell phone is so tiny, that she is more likely to die walking to the store without her cell phone. Leaving the house is a death trap in comparison (There’s a one in 625 chance that you will die walking across the street over the course of your lifetime). Navigating any stairs is just asking for a shortened lifespan compared to the threat of cell phone tumors.

But the radiation is a scarier risk. We see this same thinking in the anti-vaccination movement. They say one out of every 100 children will get autism from a vaccine (they won’t) and somehow that’s worth risking the lives of all 100 kids to measles or whooping cough. This failure to see risk/benefit is because we’re social creatures, and the anti-vaxxers appeal to our emotions rather than statistics (it even sounds better on paper!) The in-your-face, emotional, watching-crying-parents-on-TV risk of autism, is much scarier than the disconnected, unseen risks of diseases we’ve never seen in our lives because (gasp) we’ve all been vaccinated. Not to mention that nobody parades around the millions of people that vaccines have protected from diseases. All it takes is that one child to get our hears tied in knots. It’s a completely human reaction, used against us to further a misguided and immoral cause.

Another example of this is speeding. The time saved by driving over the speed limit is trivial compared to the risk of a fatal accident or hefty fine you’ll incur if the police do you a favor and pull you over. Think about this:  if you hit somebody at 30mph, they have an 80% chance of surviving, but increase that only 10mph, and it becomes a 80% chance they’ll die. It seems like a such a small jump in speed, but if you do the math, it’s about a 33% increase. That’s a big jump in the difference between life and death! But for somebody trying to make a flight or get to work on time, that risk isn’t in their head. They aren’t calculating percentages and tallying up the probability of pedestrians walking into traffic, texting their oncologists. They’re looking for the 2 minutes they’ll save over the course of the trip, and I think you’ll all agree that somebody’s life isn’t worth those two minutes.

The takeaway here is that compared to every other stupid thing you’re going to do/eat/stand in over the course of the day, the “maybe, kinda, possible” risk of a brain tumor isn’t worth sweating, at least until more studies are done. So take off the tin foil hats and lead aprons. There are bigger things to worry about.

 

This post was brought to you by Beryllium (Be). In the next comic we’ll explore the delivery mechanism of cell phone death (not really) and discuss some of the misconceptions around cell phone radiation by pointing out the inconsistencies of the claims. I will also talk about what we do know. Stay tuned!