Reply to a Cell Phone Story Complaint

May 27, 2016

I recently got an e-mail from a Skeptical Inquirer reader who wrote, “Not long ago I appreciated your investigative research into eHarmony and how its claims of being based on research are empty zero evidence. However, and with all due respect, your cell phone commentary… improperly confuses some evidence with zero evidence… and somehow ignored the World Health Organization’s IARC position which directly contradicts the commentary’s theme.” He included a few links which I examined.

I looked back at the News and Comment piece I’d written, reviewed it, and replied:

Thanks for writing. You wrote that “Your cell phone commentary improperly confuses some evidence with zero evidence.” I have reviewed the piece, and in fact I made no reference to neither “some evidence” nor “zero evidence.”

Here’s what I wrote: “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, has found no evidence of that cell phones cause cancer.” In that case I was referring specifically to the CDC and its findings, and the statement is correct as written. To the best of my knowledge the CDC found no evidence that cell phones cause cancer; if this is inaccurate, please provide a reference so that I may clarify the issue.

I’m aware that over the years a handful of studies have found some evidence of EMF harm, which is implicit in my statement that “the scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports that idea that cell phones are harmless” (instead of, for example, “there is no scientific evidence that cell phones are harmful”). In fact I end the piece by stating this explicitly: “there’s little evidence that cell phones cause cancer.” Thus your concern that I claimed that there is “zero evidence” for potential cell phone harm seems unfounded, as I acknowledge that there is indeed “little evidence” for the threat (which I believe is accurate when the research is reviewed as a whole).

Regarding the WHO Factsheet you linked to, I see no contradiction. The apparent discrepancy is the result of the gap between “proven safe” and “possibly harmful.” All of science is subject to revision and further information; new studies and research may always throw “facts” into the “former facts” category (the book The Half Life of Facts is an interesting look at this issue).

Science does not deal in absolute certainties, and it is possible–despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary–that smoking does not cause lung cancer, for example, and that humans are not contributing to global warming. Decades of research have established a clear causative link between these variables (smoking and lung cancer, human activity and global warming), but they are not 100% definitive; nothing in science is.

In the case of EMFs and cell phone danger, we have the same situation except not a proposed link but instead the absence of such a link: We have the great bulk of evidence finding no correlation between cell phone usage and brain cancer, for example. This does not mean the link cannot exist, and indeed it is true that EMF is “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

Anything is possible; that’s not the question. There are many things that people are exposed to every day that are known carcinogens, including sunlight (radiation which can cause skin cancer) and eating red meat (which according to a widely-reported study last year increases a person’s risk of cancer by a measurable but miniscule amount). The fact that there are “ongoing studies” of the link between EMF and cell phones does not imply that there is any reason for concern; ongoing studies are an important part of the scientific process. EMF will never be, and cannot be, definitively and conclusively proven safe-not because they are dangerous but because that’s how science works. Nothing is 100% safe, even drinking too much water can kill.

As to the WHO, a position statement is of course no substitute for research. The WHO is not a scientific organization and while I respect its mission and achievements, it has a history of issuing alarmist health warnings. For more on this, see this article in The Atlantic which uses science to put the WHO’s findings into perspective and applies very well to the EMF report as well. 

I hope that helps clarify the issue, and I’m glad that you’ve enjoyed SI for three decades. I hope you will for many more.