Do phones make you sick?

Posted on December 19, 2011


Dateline: 9 September 2011 // Posted by: Aine Connaire
Source: Daily Mail

Story: “Mobile Phones could be ‘health time bomb’: More than 200 academic studies link use with serious illnesses”

Summary: The article describes a recently published report which alleges that the British Government is underplaying the potentially huge health risks posed by mobile phones, especially to children given that their skulls are smaller and thinner making them more vulnerable to radiation. According to the report, over 200 academic studies have linked the use of mobile phones to serious health conditions including brain tumours, particularly the link of long-term mobile phone use to the development of a rare brain tumour called a glioma.

The report continues to talk about peer-reviewed studies that have found inconclusive links to low sperm counts, behavioural problems in children whose mothers used mobile phones during pregnancy, and also damage to brain cells.

One of the report’s authors, consultant neurosurgeon Kevin O’Neill, notes that because the latency period for brain tumours is 30 years it is possible that the ramifications of phone usage are not yet fully evident. The point is offered that just because no evidence of current harm has been found in the present does not mean that these devices will not cause harm in the future. “Vast numbers of people are using mobile phones and they could be a time bomb of health problems – not just brain tumours, but also fertility, which could be a serious public health issue,” stated Professor Denis Henshaw, emeritus professor of human radiation effects at Bristol University.

Mobilewise, a UK charity set up in 2011, says that Britain is lagging behind countries such as France and Canada. In France, mobile phones have been banned in primary schools and in Canada phone shops give out safety leaflets with devices. This is suggesting that the UK should become more vigilant in regard to children using mobile phones and more systems should be put in place to minimise the usage of the device by children for their safety as there could be huge health ramifications in regard to using mobile phones.

Why is this PseudoNews? There are many statements in this article that would indicate it is pseudoscientific news rather than scientific news. The author of the article seems to be making inaccurate statements on the topic of mobile phones and safety with no evidence what so ever to back these statements up. Some of these will be discussed now.

Firstly, the article states that ‘more than 200 academic studies link use of the devices with serious health conditions such as brain tumours, according to a leading group of scientists.’ However, as the article proceeds it states ‘Although the experts concede the links are not proven, they argue that schools, phone shops and the healthcare system should be enlisted into a campaign to reduce mobile phone use.’ The article starts by stating there are links between phone usage and brain tumours and then proceeds to state that the experts have admitted that the links are not proven; in other words, there is no evidence for such links. That means their argument for there being a link is invalidated almost immediately.

Next, they say that the government and phone companies could do more in relation to alerting the public about the dangers of mobile phone usage and suggest that a campaign should be undertaken even though ‘critics stress scientists have found inconclusive evidence and a campaign would cause a panic.’ It would be absurd for the government to start a campaign on something has not proven to be of danger to the public; all that would arise from this would be fear and anxiety where it is not necessary.

The article then proceeds to explain that the authors of the study ‘point to several studies linking long-term mobile phone use to development of a rare brain tumour called a glioma.’ This is the same study that experts state the links are not proven.

What features of pseudoscience are on show? The first feature of pseudoscience that appears is vagueness in measurement. There are no statistics mentioned or referred to when citing the different studies in the article, neither are there any data revealed. If there was data or statistics revealed in this article to back up the different claims made, the argument presented would maybe be able to be taken more seriously. Anyone can make a statement; it is the evidence behind that statement that makes a valid argument.

Lack of theoretical agreement is another feature of pseudoscience that is prevalent in this article. This can be seen clearly in many areas of the article, statements such as ‘Although the experts concede the links are not proven…‘ and ‘…a Danish study of 358,000 people concluded there was no link with brain cancer‘ show that previous studies carried out by experts have not and do not agree that there is a link between mobile phone usage and serious illnesses such as cancerous brain tumours. It also shows that experts who have examined the 200 academic studies in question also found that there wasn’t any links between the variables.

One more feature of pseudoscience that is prominent in this article is the use of argument from ignorance or, in other words, arguing that ‘something that is unproven as false is liable to be true‘. One example of this is can be seen when O’Neill states that ‘the latency period of brain tumours is 30 years so it is possible the consequences of phone use are not yet apparent.’ The usage of this certain feature is visible in this statement because even though there are no proven links between phone usage and brain tumours, he is presenting this as part of an argument that there could be precisely such links. However, the lack of any evidence against a proposition has no bearing whatsoever on the proposition concerned.

The moral of the story: There hasn’t been any study that has proven a link between mobile phone usage and illnesses such as cancer. Only through further experimental research will we find out if such a link truly does exist in ways that cannot as yet be identified. But for now, we have to conclude that such claims are unproven. This shows us that sometimes different sources of information can be misleading and it is very important to be critical of everything that we take on as knowledge.