I had quite the large backlog of posts due to a big end-of-semester deadline, and I was saving all the cell phone stories for last. Unfortunately I won’t be able to do them justice, but will just have to post and quickly summarize. Sad, right? Especially since that’s the same treatment I gave to the NYT magazine piece the other month (discussed briefly here).
Ok, let’s start with the front page of the Boston Globe on June 1. Below the fold, there was the headline “Cellphones are added to list of potential risks for cancer.” A little unclear? The quote that appears above the headline is even better: “The evidence…is strong enough to support a conclusion…that there could be some risk.” Here’s the globe story. And here’s a shot of the front page.
Next we have this AP piece that I read via the New York Times.
Classifying agents as “possibly carcinogenic” doesn’t mean they automatically cause cancer and some experts said the ruling shouldn’t change people’s cellphone habits.
“Anything is a possible carcinogen,” said Donald Berry, a professor of biostatistics at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas. He was not involved in the WHO cancer group’s assessment. “This is not something I worry about and it will not in any way change how I use my cellphone,” he said — speaking from his cellphone.
Only some experts? What the heck are people supposed to believe?
Then the NYT editorializes on the topic on June 2. They actually do an okay job, but why did they participate in fanning the hysteria in the first place? I also like the opening paragraph as a case of cycling:
Cellphone users have every right to be befuddled. Just last year, a major study in 13 countries found no clear evidence that exposure to the radiation from cellphones causes brain cancer. Yet, this week, a panel convened by the same agency, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, declared that the radiation is “possibly carcinogenic” to humans. It made this pronouncement by press release before publishing a monograph that will lay out the basis for its concerns — and will give independent scientists their first chance to evaluate this new judgment.
Next up is Globe technology columnist Hiawatha Bray, pointing readers in a June 2 piece to some ways to avoid the threat of brain tumors via cell phone use. Like, buy a headset!
Last but not least, Times “digital and pop culture” blogger Virginia Heffernan weighs in in a June 5 posting. There’s a nice piece of advice in the post, but mostly it ignores its own advice. I’m referring to this:
Making good decisions about new data that surfaces in a rhetorical hurricane — like the data about cellphones and other technology — requires sharp critical skills. Like reading a hard poem or novel, “reading” data and commentary requires a free mind, a measure of originality and decent aesthetic judgment. Last month, John Horgan published an elegant post on Scientific American’s Web site raising questions about the efficacy of a high-fat diet in promoting weight loss. Instead of pulling magic new facts out of his data hat, in the set-piece legerdemain made famous in TED Talks and bestsellers about the brain, Mr. Horgan simply stared hard at the high-fat diet, as if at a cultural object — a poem or sofa. And then he let himself, in a brazen departure from scientific method, retch.
Ok, so it’s not all good advice. But the point about the need for sharp critical skills in a world where “new data” often “surfaces in a rhetorical hurricane” is well taken. I just think that journalists shouldn’t burden their readers with having to get a PhD in economics to make sense of the rhetorical hurricanes they throw out there. Instead, journalists should try harder to boil things down. In the end the principles of inference don’t seem that complicated, and conveying information about how a study is conducted should not be hard, since it just involves reading the research and translating it to a lay audience. (And how many sentences in this storm of coverage on the cell phone study did you see devoted to the research design?) What does seem hard is generating all the fluff.