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Cell Phones, Cancer and the Dangers of Risk Perception

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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May 31, 2011, was a bad day for a society already wary of all sorts of risks from modern technology, a day of celebration for those who champion more concern about those risks, and a day that teaches important lessons about the messy subjective guesswork that goes into trying to make intelligent choices about risk in the first place, for policy makers or for you and me. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) says radiation from cell phones might cause cancer. OMG!!! Your phone is ringing! Now what?

Do you try to get more information about what the experts say? That won’t help, because they’re pretty unsure themselves. IARC said "…the evidence was… limited among users of wireless telephones for glioma and acoustic neuroma, (two types of brain cancer) and inadequate to draw conclusions for other types of cancers." And here’s what limited means to IARC; "A positive association has been observed between exposure to the agent and cancer for which a causal interpretation is considered…to be credible, but chance, bias or confounding could not be ruled out with reasonable confidence." Dr. Jonathan Samet, head of the IARC group that looked into the issue, said "…there could be some risk, and therefore we need to keep a close watch for a link between cell phones and cancer risk." Keep a close watch?! Thanks a lot! Your phone is ringing!

Do you just figure things are safe until we know more? That’s not much of a strategy either since it will be years before we know about this particular risk for sure. Brain cancer takes a long time to develop, and we are exposed to hundreds of potentially carcinogenic substances, in varying combinations, all the time, so it’s hard to rule out other possible causes. And most cancers aren’t environmental in the first place. Meanwhile, your phone is ringing, right now. So what do you do?

      What you do – what people facing risk of any kind at any time do – is rely on the affective/instinctive/subconscious system of risk perception that has gotten us this far through evolution’s gauntlet. We take the hints and clues and headlines we have at any given moment and apply a set of heuristics and biases – mental shortcuts – that help us make sense of that partial information. We apply psychological filters that help us judge how scary or not those hints feel. And, oh yeah, we also try to think carefully about the facts.

      In other words, our perception will be a tangled subjective blend of facts and feelings. This messy combination of intellect and instinct shapes our decisions about any risk. Which, of course, sometimes leads to mistakes, which can be risky all by themselves, when we do what feels safe, but isn’t, (like switching to hands free devices when we drive and giving ourselves a reassuring sense of control, which lessens our vigilance, which raises the risk, since talking while you’re driving mostly distracts your brain, not your hand, and that mental distraction is just as bad using a hands-free device as a hand-held one.)

      That’s why this episode is a great teaching moment to highlight the affective nature of the process by which we try to keep ourselves safe. Based on what we know of the specific characteristics or this hidden system, the news for cell phones is not good.

1. The bias of ‘Loss Aversion” means that in a trade off between gain (using the phone) and loss (brain cancer), the loss usually carries more weight. Bad news for phones.

2. The "Availability Heuristic" means that the more aware of something we are, the more worried about it we are. Bad news for phones.

3. "Representativeness bias" means we make sense of partial information by comparing it to what we already know that seems similar. "Radiation" rings a lot of familiar bells. Scary ones.

4. We’re more afraid of human-made risks (radiation from cell phones) than natural ones (radiation from the sun), and we’re more afraid of things that cause high pain and suffering – like brain cancer – than risks which cause less painful outcomes.

5. We worry more about risks produced by sources we don’t trust, like companies which, in service to their profits rather than our health and well being, will undoubtedly say the IARC report does not prove there is any risk. This is counter-productive risk communication, but cell phone companies are not alone in taking this trust-busting approach.

    Not all the risk perception news for cell phones is bad;

1. The more benefit we get from a choice or behavior the more we play DOWN the risk. So you may check who’s calling before deciding whether to risk brain cancer by answering.

2. The more familiar a risk is, and the more everybody’s doing the same thing, and has been for a while, the more we think it’s safe for us to do it, too.

  Risk perception is not a coldly objective process of fact-based analysis. It’s as much gut reaction as it is reason, usually more. Which helps explain why champions of the Cell-Phones-Cause-Cancer Theory will get much louder, and tout the IARC report as the case-closed evidence that proves them right, despite the fact that IARC itself says that’s not so. The fearful nature of the issue explains why the IARC report will almost certainly be used in legal actions against cell phone companies, and in all sorts of marketing by companies that offer protection from The Risk. It explains why the report will be shouted from the rooftops of the 24/7 Scream-a-Thon news media which, if form holds, will play up the ‘cancer” part and play down the “possible” or “limited evidence” or “chance, bias or confounding could not be ruled out with reasonable confidence” parts. And it explains why the heat will be on policy makers to protect us from what we’re afraid of, even if the evidence is far from in on whether there is any real reason to worry.

  Meanwhile, research into the risk will continue to try and answer the question scientifically. And you and I will have to listen to that ringing phone in our purse or pocket, and as it is with all risks, we’ll be guessing, and interpreting, and basically winging it, as we try and figure out how to keep ourselves safe.


About the Author: David Ropeik is an Instructor at the Harvard Extension School and author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.




Related on

Radiation from Cell Phones Flagged as "Possibly"–Not Probably–Carcinogenic by Katherine Harmon.

Fact or Fiction?: Cell Phones Can Cause Brain Cancer by Melinda Wenner.

Cancer Cells?: Brain Tumor Numbers Steady Despite Increased Mobile Phone Use by Katherine Harmon.

Cell phone emissions change brain metabolism by Katherine Harmon.

Can You Hear Me Now? The Truth about Cell Phones and Cancer by Michael Shermer.

Comments 8 Comments

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  1. 1. jrothstein 12:04 pm 06/1/2011

    Excellent perspective. Just one quibble: acoustic neuroma isn’t brain cancer, or in fact, cancer at all. It’s a non-cancerous tumor on the eighth cranial nerve (in the skull, but outside the brain). AN is really only life threatening if it grows large enough to put pressure on the brain stem, and AN cannot metastasize.

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  2. 2. pabloson 2:22 pm 06/1/2011

    I wonder how these risk assessment tendencies play into evaluating the risks of global warming? After all, we do get a lot of benefit from our carbon footprint behaviors!

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  3. 3. sault 3:02 pm 06/1/2011

    Well, considering that the scientific community has overwhelmingly endorsed the theory that humans are causing climate change, and that multiple lines of evidence converge towards the conclusion that our CO2 emissions are causing climate change (CO2 infrared absorption, CO2 levels measured in the atmosphere with the chemical signature of fossil fuel carbon, nights and high latitudes warming faster than days and low latitudes, falsifying the "sun-caused warming" hypothesis, and that the science on this issue has been very solid for over 100 years, then no, the same risk assessment tendencies are NOT at play for human-caused climate change.

    We benefit a lot less from our fossil fuel consumption than you would think. Thousands of deaths and 100′s of billions of dollars in healthcare costs & property damage are the result of the air pollution that fossil fuel produces each year. We are also at the economic mercy of speculators and oil market cartels since we allow fossil fuels to dominate our energy mix. If we had more choices in transportation and what fuels it, the irrational swings in oil prices we have seen over the last few years would be impossible. Also, the U.S. has spent over $1 Trillion, possibly closer to $2 Trillion so far, protecting oil supplies in the Middle East. Finally, the potential costs of dealing with climate change range from severe to catastrophic, but that uncertainty is more of a reason to hedge against the risk instead of doing nothing. Add that all up and gasoline should cost over $10 per gallon. You pay either way, but I would rather let the Free Market have a say with more transparent cost accounting instead of hiding the costs of fossil fuel consumption behind government subsidies and medical bills.

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  4. 4. pabloson 10:53 am 06/2/2011

    Oh I’m with you Sault, but I think you miss my (obscure) point. As a psychologist, I’ve been trying to analyze why people are in denial about global warming. I don’t think they are denial based on any facts or theories, but based on their own individual psychological dynamic – such as risk assessment or other factors. eg: The impacts of global warming don’t seem to be an immediate risk to ME personally, but wow, I sure do like to drive my SUV around (immediate benefit) and love my huge flat screen tv. I remember hearing one politician who’s name I am spacing out right now, actually yelling on the House floor, "we will not change our lifestyle!!".

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  5. 5. sault 12:53 pm 06/2/2011

    Climate Change denial is based on a combination of things:

    1. Political affiliation: Most of the deniers are conservatives / Republicans. Since Al Gore and other Democrats supposedly invented Climate Change, they HAVE to be wrong, regardless of the evidence. The spectrum of motivation for this belief goes from the cynical "Democrats just trying to grab more power" to the crazy "The New World Order is trying to make us a bunch of Socialists living in huts so they can do bad things…because they’re evil…"

    2. Free Market Fundamentalism: The "Invisible Hand" can do no wrong and if there really was a problem with climate and pollution, the Market would have solved it already. This view ignores the innumerable "market failures" that inevitably pop up, such as Ozone-destroying chemicals allowing more UV rays to hit Earth’s surface, causing skin cancer. The Market could never effectively price in the medical bills from UV damage to ever limit CFC production and Government action outside of the Market is required to solve the problem. Climate Change is just the most glaring Market Failure humanity has ever encountered, shaking the very foundation of the Free Market Fundamentalist worldview. They are threatened by this and cling to their faith, because the evidence that the Market isn’t always perfect just HAS to be wrong.

    3. Money Talks: Just the top 5 oil companies made over $1 Trillion in PROFIT over the last decade. They will lobby, contribute campaign cash, spread baseless doubts about Climate Science and do whatever else it takes to keep that gravy train running as long as possible. When the $4 Billion / year oil subsidy repeal were up for a vote in the senate, the 40 senators who filibustered it (mostly repubs) received $55 million in campaign cash from oil companies versus $8 million for the 50 senators who wanted repeal. The return on investment for that $55 million is around 100 to 1 PER YEAR. Lobbying has the HIGHEST return on investment, even though the public was overwhelmingly against keeping the subsidies intact. Necessary action on Climate change would be a slight disruption to their cash flow and the fossil fuel companies will not allow it if they can.

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  6. 6. charlieswahili 6:52 pm 07/20/2011

    It’s a little hard to take the WHO seriously. Didn’t a couple of their scientists recently release something saying that 3 of their execs were previous long term employees of Motorola? The same goes for that decade long Interphone study. I remember reading that they were funded by the GSM association and the Mobile Manufacturers’ Forum, both telecom companies. I know that this isn’t proof that they’re deliberately trying to obscure their results, but it’s better to be safe than sorry and just assume that call phones are carcinogenic. My neighbor didn’t believe that nonionizing radiation caused tumors for the longest time but he developed a brain tumor on the same side of his bed that he had his satellite dish that he got from

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  7. 7. JMercer2012 3:07 pm 02/10/2012

    This finding worried me a little bit when it came out. I actually was looking into getting a case that redirects the cell phone radiation. Do you have any thoughts on the usefulness of these?

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  8. 8. mitchbrown35 4:20 am 05/17/2012

    Technology can be friendly and worse is, be your enemy. According to research studies, there pros and cons in having a cellphone. And it redirected my mind to cons. It’s very alarming because of the radiation. Use it with a discipline manner.
    For more applications for your mobile phones, check

    Link to this

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