Recent weeks have seen some disturbing science news coming out of Australia. The University of Wollongong awarding a PhD for an anti-vaxxer thesis; the CSIRO axing its Oceans and Atmosphere division; the CSIRO claiming credit for its role in the discovery of gravitational waves—work done by a unit it had already axed; and now this: the ABC’s flagship ‘science’ program, Catalyst, running a Bart’s people-esque story on the harmful effects of wifi signals and mobile phones, followed up by a piece in the Guardian by the same ‘journalist’, Maryanne Demasi.
It’s the classic mix of conspiracy theory, ‘undone science’, and general mumbo-jumbo we see in all sorts of pseudo-science narratives, from anti-vaxxers to flat-earthers (incidentally, I find hollow-earthers the most interesting of nut jobs). In particular, Maryanne fails to understand the nature of scientific proof and rational decision making, taking the position that if scientists can’t ‘prove’ these signals are safe we must assume they’re harmful. The only ‘evidence’ of harm she has is reference to a 2011 IARC monograph review of studies investigating the possibility of a link between mobile phone use and brain cancer, which concluded:
“The human epidemiological evidence was mixed. Several small early case–control studies were considered to be largely uninformative. A large cohort study showed no increase in risk of relevant tumours, but it lacked information on level of mobile-phone use and there were several potential sources of misclassication of exposure. The bulk of evidence came from reports of the INTERPHONE study, a very large international, multicentre case–control study and a separate large case–control study from Sweden on gliomas and meningiomas of the brain and acoustic neuromas. While affected by selection bias and information bias to varying degrees, these studies showed an association between glioma and acoustic neuroma and mobile-phone use; specically in people with highest cumulative use of mobile phones, in people who had used mobile phones on the same side of the head as that on which their tumour developed, and in people whose tumour was in the temporal lobe of the brain (the area of the brain that is most exposed to RF radiation when a wireless phone is used at the ear).”
The ultimate decision of the IARC working group was to categorise RF radiation in group 2B: “Possibly carcinogenic to humans“. For many scientists thought this was overly conservative (i.e., erring on the side of an unnecessary warning) and that a more appropriate category would be 3: “Not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans”, owing to the noted limitations of the INTERPHONE study (e.g. Dr Ken Karipidis, a rare voice of sanity in the Catalyst episode, says “On a personal level, I don’t think it should be a 2B.”) In fact, the argument could be made that the IARC working group mis-interpreted the INTERPHONE study results given that their conclusions were quite different to those of the INTERPHONE study team itself:
“Glioma and meningioma
Overall, no increase in risk of glioma or meningioma was observed with use of mobile phones. There were suggestions of an increased risk of glioma at the highest exposure levels, but biases and error prevent a causal interpretation. The possible effects of long‐term heavy use of mobile phones require further investigation.
There was no increase in risk of acoustic neuroma with ever regular use of a mobile phone or for users who began regular use 10 years or more before the reference date. Elevated odds ratios observed at the highest level of cumulative call time could be due to chance, reporting bias or a causal effect. As acoustic neuroma is usually a slowly growing tumour, the interval between introduction of mobile phones and occurrence of the tumour might have been too short to observe an effect, if there is one.”
Interestingly, this is not the first time that Maryanne Demasi has been under fire for pseudo-science and bad journalist with Catalyst: her earlier debacle concerning the efficacy of statins was the subject of a memorable Mediawatch episode. The same problems are evident in this new episode: a parade of ‘maverick scientists’ given the lion’s share of airtime with only a couple of token soundbites from ‘the establishment’. Only this time there’s an extra pinch of “Won’t somebody please think of the children?”.
Anyway, I’d be happy to explain in detail to the ABC and/or Maryanne Demasi how retrospective cohort studies work and the logic behind the ‘establishment’ position of ‘we don’t have any evidence that RF radiation from mobile phones or WiFi is harmful but we’re not prepared to say that they’ve been proven safe’, should they fancy a lesson in epidemiological statistics.