Tag Archives: Catalyst

Mobile phone health alarmists bereft of credible arguments

The Conversation
Simon Chapman, University of Sydney

In May this year, I led a paper published in Cancer Epidemiology, which looked at the incidence of brain cancer in Australia between 1982 and 2012.

The first mobile phone call was made in Australia in 1987 and today their use is all but universal.

Cancer is a notifiable disease: all newly diagnosed cases are gathered from doctors by state cancer registries and nationally aggregated by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare in publicly available data.

I summarised our study in this column, which to date has had more than 44,700 readers.

New study: no increase in brain cancer across 29 years of mobile use in Australia

We found that with extremely high proportions of the population having used mobile phones across some 20-plus years (from about 9% in 1993 to about 90% today), age-adjusted brain cancer rates have flatlined over nearly 30 years.

There were significant increases in brain cancer incidence only in those aged 70 years or more. But the increase in this age group began from 1982, before the introduction of mobile phones in 1987 and so cannot be explained by it.

The most likely explanation of the rise in this older age group was improved diagnosis that happened with the introduction of imaging machines that (for example) could more accurately diagnose some strokes as brain cancers.

In the days and weeks after publication, our paper received massive global news and social media attention, achieving an Altmetric score of 835. On the basis of the most media-covered research in all fields in 2015, this would have put it just outside the 100 highest Altmetric scores if we’d published it last year (2016 figures are published early next year).

It also drew the ire of the close-knit international network of mobile phone and wifi alarmists, who are utterly convinced mobile phones are deadly and won’t hear otherwise. Their opening salvo was to accuse me of being an undeclared phone industry stooge.

In 1997 I had been given a small grant by AMTA, the Australian Mobile Telephone Association, to conduct a national survey of how many mobile phone users had ever used their phone to call emergency services such as ambulance, police and fire. Large proportions of people had done so, probably saving many lives by alerting these services far more quickly than when having to find a landline.

I didn’t report this because I got the one-off grant 19 years ago, and all reputable journals and research agencies rule that competing interests are not lifetime but extinguish typically between one and three years after such support has expired. The grant also had nothing to do with cancer.

I also got a series of mostly verbally incontinent email. One from an excitable correspondent in Swaziland, insisted that I answer his many eureka moment insights into why what we had published was wrong in every respect. We should withdraw our paper, he demanded and tell the world we were wrong.

Predictably, several wrote to Cancer Epidemiology, setting out a litany of our egregious errors and failures to understand that an epidemic of brain cancer, comparable to the deluge of smoking-caused cancers, was just around the corner. Three of these were published this week with our response (open access until October 20, 2016).

The three letters were written by five individuals, three of whom are affiliated with a non-accredited Environmental Health Trust, headed by Dr Devra Davis, the alarmist doomsayer who featured in the much-criticised ABC Catalyst program which has now been withdrawn.

Assuming they got their heads together to rain blows on our heretical findings, it was amusing to see the barely audible blanks they decided to fire.

Their main arguments were:

‘It’s too soon to see an epidemic of brain cancer’

One argued several decades of widespread phone use were needed before increases in cancer might be seen. She seemed intent on diminishing the number of years that large numbers of Australians have used mobile phones, in order to preserve her argument. She argued that only the last nine years of data since 2001 when mobile subscriptions reached 50% of the population ought to be considered in any analysis. And nine years was not nearly enough.

But by 1996, some 20% of Australian adults (some 2.9 million) were using mobile phones. Apparently we ought to have joined her in seeing this as a trivial exposed population, unworthy of consideration. Quite obviously, there’s no alleged carcinogen where 20% of the population is exposed where any credible scientist would seriously maintain such widespread exposure should be ignored in assessing population attributable risk.

Further, in one of the studies cited in a review published by our critics, excess risks of brain cancer from mobile phone use are argued as occurring following exposures of as little as between five and ten years of mobile phone use. These critics even suggested in the same paper that the international INTERPHONE study may suggest a cancer “promotion effect”, with use as few as one to four years being dangerous.

We concluded that:

This therefore looks like an argument trying to walk on both sides of the street: if a short latency period show excess risks they are deemed to be credible, while if they show no excess (as with our study) they are to be dismissed.

‘Various case-control studies show evidence of increased risk’

Case-control studies in this field have been criticised because they rely on users’ recall of the extent of phone use going back many years. Just try recall your own mobile phone use in, for example, 2003 and you will immediately understand how data obtained this way are hugely problematic.

Moreover, people with brain cancer often have memory loss. And if you have brain cancer, are part of a study considering its cause, and have been exposed to frequent claims about the hypothesis that mobile phone use causing brain cancer, the likelihood of recall bias resulting in recall of high mobile phone use is probably going to increase.

The strength of our study was the ability to look at all cases of brain cancer in Australia in the 29 years since the first call was made here. The inconvenient fact for the alarmists is that there has been no significant increase in brain cancer in either men or women compatible with the mobile phone hypothesis.

‘Decreased use of X-rays is masking an increase in cancers caused by mobiles’

Perhaps the silliest argument thrown at us was an unreferenced hypothesis that “discontinued or reduced use of established carcinogens such as X-rays” may have reduced the incidence of brain cancer from such exposures while, simultaneously, the rise of mobile phone use would have replaced those cases, thereby explaining the largely flat line incidence across our data period.

This hypothesis would need to account for how reductions in a very uncommon radiation exposure (full head X-rays) could ever possibly produce the exact same decreased incidence of brain cancer that they claim arise in daily exposure to an alleged carcinogen by most of the entire population would add to that incidence.

Our Swaziland critic finished one of his missives writing that “it behooves you, as a scientist, to take note of fatal errors in your work.” It would “behoove” mobile phone alarmists to stop unnecessarily alarming people with their weak arguments.

The ConversationSimon Chapman, Emeritus Professor in Public Health, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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New study: no increase in brain cancer across 29 years of mobile use in Australia

The Conversation

Simon Chapman, University of Sydney

Earlier this year, Australia saw a whirlwind tour from the electromagnetic radiation from mobile phones alarmist Devra Davis. Davis is an international champion of the belief that populations bathed in radiation emitted by mobile phones face epidemics of disease – particularly brain cancer.

Davis’ concerns were the focus of an ABC Catalyst program which attracted widespread criticism, including from me and Media Watch. The Catalyst presenter Maryanne Demasi was nominated for the Australian Skeptics bent spoon award.

At the time of the Catalyst program for which I declined to be interviewed, I had my hands tied behind my back because, with colleagues in cancer research, I had a paper in preparation examining the possible association between the incidence of brain cancer in Australia and the inexorable rise of mobile phone use here over the last three decades. Releasing our findings would have jeopardised publication, we could say nothing about what we had concluded.

Today the paper is published in early view in Cancer Epidemiology. Here’s what we set out to examine and what we found.

We examined the association between age and gender-specific incidence rates of 19,858 men and 14,222 women diagnosed with brain cancer in Australia between 1982-2012, and national mobile phone usage data from 1987-2012.

In summary, with extremely high proportions of the population having used mobile phones across some 20-plus years (from about 9% in 1993 to about 90% today), we found that age-adjusted brain cancer incidence rates (in those aged 20-84 years, per 100,000 people) had risen only slightly in males but were stable over 30 years in females.

There were significant increases in brain cancer incidence only in those aged 70 years or more. But the increase in incidence in this age group began from 1982, before the introduction of mobile phones in 1987 and so could not be explained by it. Here, the most likely explanation of the rise in this older age group was improved diagnosis.

Computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and related techniques, introduced in Australia in the late 1970s, are able to discern brain tumours which could have otherwise remained undiagnosed without this equipment. It has long been recognised that brain tumours mimic several seemingly unrelated symptoms in the elderly including stroke and dementia, and so it is likely that their diagnosis had been previously overlooked.

Next, we also compared the actual incidence of brain cancer over this time with the numbers of new cases of brain cancer that would be expected if the “mobile phones cause brain cancer” hypothesis was true. Here, our testing model assumed a ten-year lag period from mobile phone use commencement to evidence of a rise in brain cancer cases.

Our model assumed that mobile phones would cause a 50% increase in incidence over the background incidence of brain cancer. This was a conservative estimate that we took from a study by Lennart Hardell and colleagues (who reported even higher rates from two studies). The expected number of cases in 2012 (had the phone hypothesis been true) was 1,866 cases, while the number recorded was 1,435.

Using a recent paper that had Davis as an author we also modelled a 150% increase in brain cancer incidence among heavy users. We assumed that 19% of the Australian population fell into this category, based on data from the INTERPHONE study an international pooled analysis of studies on the association between mobile phone use and the brain. This would have predicted 2,038 expected cases in 2012, but only 1,435 were recorded.

Our study follows those published about the United States, England, the Nordic countries and New Zealand where confirmation of the “mobile phones cause brain cancer” hypothesis was also not found.

In Australia, all cancer is notifiable. At diagnosis, all cases must by law be registered with state registries tasked with collecting this information. It has been this way for decades. So we have excellent information about the incidence of all cancers on a national basis.

The telecommunications industry of course also has information on the number of people with mobile phone accounts.

While touring Australia, Davis was confronted with the “flatline” incidence data on brain cancer. Her stock response was that it was far too early to see any rise in these cancers. She was here to warn us about the future.

However, prominent Sydney neurosurgeon Dr Charlie Teo would appear to disagree about it being too early. He told Andrew Denton on ABC-TV’s Enough Rope in 2008:

If you look at the science on mobile phones and the link with brain cancer, it is quite compelling … we know that radiation causes cancer, but it takes about ten years for it to develop, so we know that EMR electromagnetic radiation is going to take at least ten years to create brain tumours and possibly longer fifteen, twenty years.

In cancer epidemiology, the concept of the latency (or lag) period is well known. This refers to the time that it takes between initial exposure to a potentially carcinogenic agent (like cigarette smoke, asbestos, or nuclear radiation) and excess cases of cancers of interest to appear.

Davis would appear to be arguing that we would see a sudden rise many years later. That is not what we see with cancer; we see gradual rises moving toward peak incidence, which can be as late as 30-40 years (as with lung cancer and smoking).

For example, as I showed in a recent Conversation piece, this paper also reports on central nervous system cancers (including brain cancers) in those exposed to atomic bomb radiation in Japan in 1945. This graph shows 110 of 187 cases (58.8%) were diagnosed in the first 40 years (before 1985) (so before 40 years).


The incidence and type of cancers of those exposed to atomic bomb radiation varied over the years. And this quote from the methods section shows that there were another 27 who died before 1958 from central nervous system cancers, within 13 years of the bombs.

We excluded 73 tumours in individuals who were not in Hiroshima or Nagasaki at the time of the bombings, 35 individuals who did not have available organ dose estimates, and 27 individuals who died or were diagnosed before January 1, 1958.

Note here that A-bomb survivors were affected by ionising radiation (that is, radiation of sufficient energy to produce ionisation). This is where the energy is strong enough to remove electrons off their atoms or molecules, including causing DNA damage. Mobile phones produce non-ionising radiation which is low energy, sufficient only to ‘excite’ the electrons enough to make them just heat up.

We have had mobiles in Australia since 1987. Some 90% of the population use them today and many of these have used them for a lot longer than 20 years. But we are seeing no rise in the incidence of brain cancer against the background rate.

The ConversationSimon Chapman, Emeritus Professor in Public Health, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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Should scientists engage with pseudo-science or anti-science?

The Conversation

Rod Lamberts, Australian National University and Will J Grant, Australian National University

The ABC’s flagship science journalism TV programme, Catalyst, has riled the scientific community once again. And, in a similar vein to Catalyst’s controversial 2013 report on the link between statins, cholesterol and heart disease, it has now turned its quasi-scientific attention to a supposed new peril.

Its “Wi-Fried?” segment last week raised concerns about the ever-increasing “electronic air pollution” that surrounds us in our daily lives, exploiting a number of age-old, fear-inspiring tropes.

There are already plenty of robust critiques of the arguments and evidence, so exploring where they got the science wrong is not our goal.

Instead, we’re interested in using the segment as inspiration to revisit an ongoing question about scientists’ engagement with the public: how should the scientific community respond to issues like this?

Should scientists dive in and engage head-on, appearing face-to-face with those they believe do science a disservice? Should they shun such engagement and redress bad science after the fact in other forums? Or should they disengage entirely and let the story run its course?

There are many of examples of what scientists could do, but to keep it simple we focus here just on the responses to “Wi-Fried” by two eminent Professors, Simon Chapman and Bernard Stewart, both of whom declined to be a part of the ABC segment, and use this case to consider what scientists should do.

Just say no

In an interview about their decision to not participate, Chapman and Stewart independently expressed concerns about the evidence, tone and balance in the “Wi-Fried” segment. According to Chapman it “contained many ‘simply wrong’ claims that would make viewers unnecessarily afraid”.

Stewart labelled the episode “scientifically bankrupt” and “without scientific merit”. He added:

I think the tone of the reporting was wrong, I think that the reporter did not fairly draw on both sides, and I use the word “sides” here reluctantly.

Indeed, in situations like this, many suggest that by appearing in the media alongside people who represent fringe thinkers and bad science, respected experts lend them unwarranted credibility and legitimacy.

Continuing with this logic, association with such a topic would mean implicitly endorsing poor science and bad reasoning, and contribute to an un-evidenced escalation of public fears.

But is it really that straightforward?

The concerns Chapman and Stewart expressed about the show could equally be used to argue that experts in their position should have agreed to be interviewed, if only to present a scientifically sound position to counter questionable claims.

In this line, you could easily argue it’s better for experts to appear whenever and wherever spurious claims are raised, the better to immediately refute and dismiss them.

On the other hand, if scientific experts refuse to engage with “scientifically bankrupt” arguments, this could send a more potent message: that the fringe claims are irrelevant, not even worth wasting the time to refute. So this would mean they shouldn’t engage with this kind of popular science story.

On the third hand, their refusal to engage could be re-framed to characterise the experts as remote, arrogant or even afraid, casting doubt on the veracity of the scientific position. So to avoid this impression, experts should engage.

But wait, there’s more.

Participation in these kinds of popular science shows could also tarnish the reputation of the expert. But not appearing means missing the opportunity to thwart the potential harm caused by fringe, false or non-scientific claims.

And what about an expert’s obligation to defend their science, to set the record straight, and to help ensure people are not mislead by poor evidence and shonky reasoning? Is this best done by engaging directly with dubious media offerings like “Wi-Fried”, or should relevant experts find other venues?

Should scientists engage anti-science?

Well, this depends on what they think they might achieve. And if one thing stands out in all the to-ing and fro-ing over what scientists should do in such cases, it’s this: the majority of proponents both for and against getting involved seem convinced that popular representations of science will change people’s behaviour.

But there is rarely any hard evidence presented in the myriad “scientists should” arguments out there. Sticking with the Catalyst example, there is really only one, far-from-convincing, study from 2013 suggesting the show has such influence.

If you really want to make a robust, evidence-based decision about what experts should do in these situations, don’t start with the science being discussed. In the case of Catalyst, you’d start with research on the show’s relationship with its audience(s).

  • What kinds of people watch Catalyst?
  • Why do they watch it?
  • To what extent are their attitudes influenced by the show?
  • If their attitudes are actually influenced, how long does this influence last?
  • If this influence does last, does it lead people to change their behaviours accordingly?

Of course, we applaud the motives of people who are driven to set the scientific record straight, and especially by those who are genuinely concerned about public welfare.

But to simply assume, without solid evidence, that programmes like Catalyst push people into harmful behaviour changes is misguided at best. At worst, it’s actually bad science.

The ConversationRod Lamberts, Deputy Director, Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University and Will J Grant, Researcher / Lecturer, Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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