When Fearmongering is Harmful

By Keith Kloor | June 3, 2011 3:06 pm

Question: What do earthquakes in Washington D.C. have to do with brain cancer and cell phones?

You can find the answer in this excellent interview with a scientist at BoingBoing.

Meanwhile, over at Stoat’s thread on this cell phone/brain cancer issue, here’s a great observation that has not yet been made in any of the discussions, so far as I can tell:

I am bemused at the WHO’s capitulation to the fearmongers on this. There is extremely strong evidence from numerous studies that the risk of cancer from cell phone use is either zero or at worst some number so close to zero that creating widespread anxiety about it engenders a larger risk.

And incidentally due to the WHO’s stupidity we have no prospect of stopping wasting research resources on this non-risk, which might then be used to better advantage. The opportunity cost of worrying about the wrong things.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: science
MORE ABOUT: cancer, risk, science
  • Gaythia

    Ok, Stout’s use of the term “opportunity cost” obviously is the academically correct phrasing, but isn’t it pretty much the same thing as in my previous comments on this blog here: “I don’t believe this is a case of “abandoning science”  but rather the significant issue is, given all the seriously serious health problems in the world, who at WHO decided to focus on this?”  or here: “Are cell phones a side show?  Did the fuss about cell phones drown out more serious stuff, and if so, whose fault is that?”

    On Stout’s other point, what happened to lessons learned from Jonathan Gilliagan’s or David Ropeik’s previous comments and post here, having to do with risk, and not presenting the science as absolute?    I think it is fine to say that the risk is quite negligible, especially when compared with other risks, but zero or so close to zero as to be less risky than worrying about it?  Who measured that?

    Part of my objection here comes from the fact, that in my previous experience, this (stress worse that the item of interest) phrasing has been commonly used by people interested in a cover-up.  “Don’t even talk about it” “Don’t worry about that”.  It’s also used as a rationalization for things that really are known to be bad.

    The piece at Boing Boing is great, after all what it talks about is: ” a “possible cancer risk” means something different to scientists than it means to the public” and themn analyzes the communication snafu that results from that difference.
    But in analyzing why this story is so popular, I think that the sort of annoyance you display in your previous “The man with the ear piece” post, has at least as much to do with it as fear.  Deep in our hearts, when encountering all those other people who (unlike ourselves, of course) use cell phones in unsafe, inappropriate and impolite ways, we really do want to think about brain cancer.

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Gaythia,

    The comment I highlighted is from a reader of Stoat’s (not Stout, BTW).

    You’re also nitpicking with my reference to Romm “abandoning science.” Here’s a guy who regularly unloads on journalists for not providing the proper context in stories or emphasizing the wrong thing (which, BTW, would be a generally fair criticism sometimes if he didn’t do it in his characteristically hyperbolic manner), and here he goes and writes a post that has zero context about risk and willfully ignores the sum total of the science on this issue. His framing was wholly alarmist.

    But because of tribal loyalty, fans of his (who are readers here) can’t bring themselves to acknowledge that. The wild-eyed rabbet provides some insight into why this is.

  • RickA

    Always!

  • http://cluebyfour.com PDA

    engenders a larger risk.

    A risk of what?

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Kinda figures you would ignore the point of the whole comment and and focus on something tangential.

  • Sashka

    Perhaps wasting research resources on this non-risk is precisely what WHO wants?

  • Gaythia

    @Keith, I’m missing your point about Romm, since what Eli Rabbet said was “As to Romm, get off it. He said something that was well within the Overton window, that there may be a risk, and since avoiding the risk costs less than zilch, he was going to do so, what you do is your business.”.  As far as I can tell even Romm is likely to find that ok-ish.
    But it is Stouts post there, and the concept of deaths per unit of energy, that I find interesting, and quite relevant to a discussion of risk.  I’d still dispute some of the data.  Maybe this is about drop dead immediately type of dying.

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Gaythia, that is not the part of Eli’s post I was referring to, regarding tribalism.

    The point about Romm, to reiterate, is this from his post (my emphasis):

    As I wrote three years ago, “You can choose to ignore the risks, of course, but from my perspective, I think the science is more than strong enough to raise concerns, and the measures needed to minimize risk are trivial.”

    That is bogus, has has been shown abundantly by all the rational people who have written about this (linked to in Maggie Koerth-Baker’s recent post.)

    At the beginning of his alarmist post, Romm also says that the verdict is still out on whether cell phones are still safe.

    Again, if you want to be literal about it, sure the verdict is still out. The verdict will likely be out for many decades. (The verdict is still out on coffee too, I suppose.) But what does the science say about all this in sum? He knows. He just chose not to include it.

    Do you not see this?

  • Gaythia

    I think that Maggie Koerth-Baker’s post is excellent, and I particularly like the passage you highlighted: “This is about nuance and uncertainty, and if the American public doesn’t get those things, then we’ll never get climate change.”
    I think that there are only a few things interesting about this cell phone controversy, having to do with how humans deal with risk and uncertainty, AND having to do with why we, and the media are obsessing about this.   Given that we, or our media representatives, have now accessed the WHO website, we could be thinking about e-coli, malnutrition, 9 million people infected with HIV but not receiving AIDS treatment, or, as I mentioned before, No Tobacco Day.   Why do we find cell phones to be so engaging?  Why does the media feed us this information instead of something much more serious?
    Maybe it is not just that we are not conveying nuance and uncertainty, maybe it is that we are also demonstrating a lack of prioritization or the careful consideration of meaningful risks.  How can we expect the public to get this?

  • Jeff Norris

    My first reaction was to lay blame with the practice of Science by press release.  So I looked at IARC media center.  Compare the Media coverage of the two 2010 studies regarding the possible benefit of vitamin B wrt Lung Cancer or Vitamin D and Colon Cancer.  Yes they were briefly covered by various news agencies but not as quickly or as prominently as the Cell phone story was.  No matter how you look at this you have to acknowledge the large role the Media has in accepting and promoting fear. 

  • Gaythia

    I think that it is as much about creating side shows as it is about fear.  If not this, then Schwarzenegger or Weiner.   Anything but addressing the crucial issues of our times.

  • kdk33

    Seriously, you thought for on iota of one instant of one micro-second they weren’t gonna cover the Weiner.

    Seriously?

  • Jeff Norris

    Some interesting articles about Fear Mongering in medicine.  No surprise that Big Pharma uses it in advertising but some in sight on the Media’s role.
    First, journalists should be very wary when confronted with a new or expanded disease effecting large numbers of people. If a disease is common and very bothersome, it is hard to believe that no one would have noticed it before. Prevalence estimates are easy to exaggerate by broadening the definition of disease. Journalists need to ask exactly how the disease is being defined, whether the diagnostic criteria were used appropriately, and whether the study sample truly represents the general population (e.g., patients at an insomnia clinic cannot be taken to represent the general public).
    Finally, instead of extreme, unrepresentative anecdotes about miracle cures, journalists should help readers understand how well the treatment works (e.g., what is the chance that I will feel better if I take the medicine versus if I do not?) and what problems it might cause (e.g., whether I might be trading less restless legs for daytime nausea, dizziness, and somnolence).
     http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pmed.0030170
    I cannot help but wonder if these suggestions could be applied to another topic.  Any suggestions?

  • Matt B

    I read that interview and did not get the answer to “What do earthquakes in Washington D.C. have to do with brain cancer and cell phones?” Most people understand why California is at a higher risk of earthquakes than DC; it’s the plates, stupid! And they also understand that the probability of getting earthquakes in an area where plates violently interact will give a higher probability of quakes than regions sitting in the middle of a big plate. It’s been reasonably explained to them.

    I see few explanations in the media of the very real mechanisms that make some types of radiation a grave health risk, while other types of radiation pose far lower risks. It certainly wasn’t explained in this interview. Radiation as a concept is poorly understood by the general public and I see no evidence that most in the media understand it either. The possibility that many reasonably educated people will give up their beloved cell phones just because “radiation” is involved is a powerful demonstration of the grip this word has on our collective psyche.

  • Nullius in Verba

    Part of the problem is that people have no scale of risks, nor understanding of how they compare. And the scare generators are careful not to give them one – telling you the ratio of risks, but not the absolute.

    In considering claims for danger of death, I like to translate them into the scale of background mortality statistics. For a young adult in the West, you have about a 0.001 probability of dying per year. As you pass 40 it starts to ramp up, and by the age of 60 is about 0.01 per year. In less prosperous nations the numbers are roughly 2-10 times higher. Thus, I classify 0.001/yr as “safe” and 0.01/yr as “acceptable” and 0.05/yr as “dangerous” – although knowing that it is what some people less fortunate than me are forced to accept as normal.

    So when somebody comes up with some new health scare I try to translate the statistics they give into the above mortality scale. The danger of brain cancer from mobile phones is at least three orders of magnitude below “safe”, even if it exists, so I don’t consider it.

    A more intuitive presentation of the same data for the general public is to plot the “life curves” – the cumulative probability of death against age, for the cases with and without the factor (with error bars). You think of it as starting at some random point on the left hand axis, and continue rightwards until you hit the line. If you plotted the life curves for smokers and non-smokers, for example, you would see the lines visibly separated. You could then see at a glance how much risk you were taking, and when it would likely affect you.

    Any case where you can’t see the difference between the life curves is obviously not worth worrying about. It seems to me the obvious basis on which to make such judgements (although there are other quality-of-life issues to consider too), but it’s very difficult to find the data to be able to do it when you read these stories – even in medical journals.

  • http://neverendingaudit.tumblr.com willard

    To get Keith’s attention, mention the WHO twice.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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