The british press and the issue of mobile phone safety

A typical mobile phone user

A typical mobile phone user

Do mobile phones cause brain cancer? This is the question at the heart of concerns around mobile phone safety. This concern continues:

  • despite the fact that there is not a single known case of harm arising from the use of mobile phones* and,
  • despite the fact that incidence of the relevant cancers has not changed significantly over the last two decades during which mobile phone use has risen exponentially and,
  • despite the fact that no one has provided a convincing model of how the phones could even in theory cause harm.

Now there are real issues around mobile phone safety, and we spend an evening discussing them in Protons for Breakfast. These issues should form topics that can addressed rationally by the press. It is possible, and as an example, please read this superb article in New York times (I think you may need to register to read the article, but it is worth it). It is written by Siddhartha Mukherjee, a cancer specialist, and introduces all the complexity of the subject in an intelligent and accessible way. It does not resort to platitudes, but simply reports the situation as it is. Reading it I felt reassured that intelligent journalism was actually possible.

Sadly, I  have yet to read a single rational article about this the British press. I won’t bore you with the all the articles in my database. The stories are uniformly facile – even in apparently august journals such as The Telegraph – and designed explicitly to engender fear, uncertainty, and doubt. These are factors which newspapers believe encourage media consumption.

They stories are simply ‘hacks’ of whatever press release some journalist is required to create a story around. However, the most egregious nonsense moves beyond the pathetic to the truly spectacular, and the prize must be awarded  to The Independent on Sunday for its article Mobile phone radiation wrecks your sleep. This was its front page headline on Sunday 20th January 2008. The story begins routinely enough reporting results of an unrefereed conference article which claims that mobile phone radiation affected the sleep of a cohort of people studied. Scratching around for supporting evidence Geoffrey Lean (again) happens upon the result of a study which he claims supports his thesis:

It also complements other recent research. A massive study, following 1,656 Belgian teenagers for a year, found most of them used their phones after going to bed. It concluded that those who did this once a week were more than three times – and those who used them more often more than five times – as likely to be “very tired”.

Did you catch that? Yes. This is a major UK newspaper reporting on its front page that teenagers who use their mobile phones in bed are likely to report that they are “very tired”. Can you believe that an apparently reputable UK newspaper can publish such risible nonsense? I urge you to laugh – it helps keep back the tears.

* This excludes harm arising from inattention caused by distraction while using the phone which has caused many road deaths and at least one train crash.

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