What spin would you like with that?

I’ve been trying to avoid commenting on the recent mobile phone and cancer study (since everyone else is) but something I’ve just read has rather irked me so I’m going to do it.

So we have a study that’s just been published in the International Journal of Epidemiology. As with other high interest scientific research, it gets reported in mainstream media, with a bit of journalistic / editorial interpretation on it. Or ‘spin’, if you’d rather. 

So we see the rather calming and reasuring headline on www.bbc.co.uk "No proof of mobile cancer risk, major study concludes". In New Zealand, we are a bit more dithery about things, and www.stuff.co.nz presents it as "Mobile phones, cancer risk inconclusive". (Don’t you just hate the way a comma gets used as a substitue for the word ‘and’, as if it’s too much work to put in another two characters).  But go to the American-based www.foodconsumer.org we read "Cellphone use may increase brain cancer risk". Three different headlines, all of them reporting the same thing, and all of them true, but leading you in different directions in your thinking.  Read the BBC report, and you may be left thinking "Well, mobile phone use seems to be no more dangerous than anything else  – I’ll go on as I was".  Read the food consumer report, and you may start to worry about what you’ve done to your brain. 

See how reporting can colour your thinking? 

What has really irked me about  foodconsumer is that, after saying that the cellphone industry is reporting that there is no conclusive evidence of a link between use and cancer, they quote some unidentified health observer as saying "cell phone users need to make their own conclusion and they should not wait for others to tell them whether long term use of cell phones is safe."

Um, let’s have a think about this statement. On the one hand, we have a reasonably scientific study carried out over a huge sample over several years. (Yes, the study has its flaws – it is a really hard one to properly control – let’s face it, would you volunteer for a study where you had to hold your cellphone to your right ear for exactly hour a day for ten years?)  On the other we have Joe Bloggs who doesn’t have a degree in physics or epidemiology, but does have access to the internet and its rather dubious reporting. Now, if Joe Bloggs knew some science, I would support him making his own conclusion based upon the evidence out there, but I suspect Mr Bloggs doesn’t, and so any conclusion he makes is probably going to be a bit flaky. N.B. I’m not saying that’s Mr Bloggs’ fault – not everyone has or should have a degree in science – but what people write about science should consider this fact.

This is why we need some decent science reporting, that doesn’t have agendas to push (except for good science) not just in NZ (Well done you Science Media Centre people…) but everywhere.

One thought on “What spin would you like with that?”

  • Nice piece Marcus, couldn’t agree more. But spare a thought for the poor subs who have to write the headlines – there are very tight constraints over the length of words and numbers of characters to fit the space available, which is determined by someone else. So yes, sometimes a couple of extra characters just aren’t possible. Doesn’t excuse headlines that are downright misleading though.

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