Here’s a story I wanted to comment on late last week, but I decided to play beach volleyball in the 100+ degree heat here in Houston instead. The summer heat, especially during the dog days, has kicked my ass for the last 20 years, but I keep going back for more.
Sheesh! Just more proof that my issues are indeed many and varied.
At any rate, it seems Dr. Ronald B. Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, warned his faculty and staff last week to limit cell phone use because of the possible risk of cancer.
Yes, when I read that, I thought I had been transported back to 1998, too. As you no doubt suspect, the move is contrary to numerous studies from years past that did not find a link between cancer and cell phone use, yet the good doctor is adamant about being duly cautious with cell phones.
In his memo, he wrote:
“Although the evidence is still controversial, I am convinced that there are sufficient data to warrant issuing an advisory to share some precautionary advice on cell phone use.”
It’s alarming to me that a person in his position would draw conclusions or make decisions based on “controversial” evidence, but the most disturbing thing about this story may be Dr. Herberman’s mindset about science and how to approach unknowns. First of all, he is apparently basing his concerns on some unpublished data, saying surprisingly that it takes too long to get answers from science. And, since those answers are slow in coming — at least in his view — he believes people should take action now.
He states in the article:
“Really at the heart of my concern is that we shouldn’t wait for a definitive study to come out, but err on the side of being safe rather than sorry later.”
Now, erring on the side of safety is one thing. Except for me stubbornly risking heat stroke on the volleyball court every July and August, we all no doubt put that notion into practice to some degree on a daily basis. But completely ignoring previous studies, being too impatient, and taking a “might as well” approach is something else entirely. It does a disservice to science and the scientists doing the work, doesn’t it?
To his credit, Herberman cites a massive ongoing research project known as Interphone, which involves scientists in 13 nations, mostly in Europe. Plus, it’s conceivable that being in his position has caused him to find cancer even more vile than those of us on the outside. However, results already published in peer-reviewed journals from Interphone aren’t all that alarming, showing little correlation and definitely no causation.
Also, the National Research Council in the U.S., which isn’t participating in the Interphone project, reported in January that the brain tumor research had “selection bias,” because it relied on people with cancer to remember how often they used their cell phones. And as you know, this is not considered the most accurate research approach.
So Herberman issued his memo based on a study with findings that so far aren’t very alarming, and that may very well be flawed.
Another driving force behind the memo was the director of the university’s center for environmental oncology, a woman called Devra Lee Davis. Davis says:
“The question is do you want to play Russian roulette with your brain? I don’t know that cell phones are dangerous. But I don’t know that they are safe.”
I had a litany of hilarious analogies all loaded up to crap all over that statement, but the stupidity of it just sucked the life right out of me. I mean, Jesus Christ, how many things could we substitute for “cell phones” in that quote? A hundred? A thousand? A million?
In any case, we’re going to have to write a shitload of memos.
The short of it is, Herberman and Davis may be simply extra cautious when it comes to cancer because it’s a foul beast they have to deal with every day. But for those of us somewhat removed from the issue, their approach seems a little too reactionary, especially for a group of scientists.