Cell phones and cancer again, or: Oh, no! My cell phone’s going to give me cancer!

Before I start into the meat of this post, I feel the need to emphasize, as strongly as I can, four things:

  1. I do not receive any funding from the telecommunications industry in general, or wireless phone companies in particular. None at all. In other words, I’m not in the pocket of “big mobile” any more than I am in the pocket of big pharma.
  2. I don’t own any stock in telecommunications companies, other than as parts of mutual funds in which my retirement funds are invested that purchase shares in many, many different companies, some of which may or may not be telecommunications companies. (I should probably go and look at the list.)
  3. None of my friends or family work for cell phone companies.
  4. I don’t have a dog in this hunt. I really don’t.

I say this because these are the most common accusations I hear whenever I venture into this particular topic area, and I thought I’d just clear that up right away in order (hopefully) to preempt any similar comments after this post. Indeed, one of the favorite retorts to anyone who criticizes fearmongering about cell phones is to try to insinuate that that person is only doing so because he or she is in the pocket of industry, and I’ve been at the receiving end of such claims. Unfortunately, I’m sure someone will probably show his or her lack of reading comprehension and post one of those very criticisms of me. It’s almost inevitable. Even though posting such disclaimers never works against the “pharma shill” gambit when I write about vaccines or dubious cancer cures, nonetheless hope springs eternal.

Now that that obligatory unpleasantness is out of the way, let me move on to say that I’m very puzzled about something that happened last week.

I know that being puzzled isn’t particularly unusual for me. Indeed, I’m frequently puzzled about a great many things. I can’t figure out how, for example, anyone with the slightest bit of reason or critical thinking ability can believe that homeopathy is anything other than water treated with, in essence, magical spells accompanied by shaking or do anything other than laugh when informed what homeopathy really is and how it supposedly “works.” I can’t figure out how anyone can look at the mass of interlocking evidence from multiple different scientific specialties supporting evolution and reject still reject one of the most powerful scientific theories ever to spring from the human mind, deciding instead that creationism or its bastard offspring, “intelligent design” creationism is anything more than pure religion or rank religion-inspired pseudoscience. I can’t figure out why American Idol or Survivor is so amazingly popular.

And I can’t figure out why on earth the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Center released this warning about cell phones last week:

PITTSBURGH July 24, 2008, 07:13 am ET · The head of a prominent cancer research institute issued an unprecedented warning to his faculty and staff Wednesday: Limit cell phone use because of the possible risk of cancer.

The warning from Dr. Ronald B. Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, is contrary to numerous studies that don’t find a link between cancer and cell phone use, and a public lack of worry by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Herberman is basing his alarm on early unpublished data. He says it takes too long to get answers from science and he believes people should take action now — especially when it comes to children.

“Really at the heart of my concern is that we shouldn’t wait for a definitive study to come out, but err on the side of being safe rather than sorry later,” Herberman said.

Dr. Herberman is a highly respected cancer center director whom I’ve in general thought well of, and the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute is a highly respected cancer center. I know a few people there, and in the past I’ve worked closely with two surgeons who trained there. One in particular remains my collaborator, even though I’ve moved on from the institution where we were once partners.

That’s why I can’t help but wonder just what on earth Dr. Herberman was smoking when he decided to issue this warning, given my general respect for the University of Pittsburgh to the point where I once even tried to land a faculty position there. His announcement strikes me as being rash in the extreme, especially given that its text even admits outright that the published data at present do not appear to support a link between cell phone use and brain tumors. Consequently, I conclude that this is alarmism that, I suspect, even a prominent blogger known to be somewhat receptive to the claim that cell phones cause brain tumors (Revere) would have a hard time supporting, because it goes far beyond the published evidence and is based on “early unpublished data.” Scaring the nation based on “early unpublished data” that can’t be examined by the entire medical and scientific community is generally not a good idea. That’s why I’ve been asking over the last few days: Why on earth did Dr. Herberman do it?

The question of whether cell phones cause or contribute to the development of brain tumors is not as easy a question to answer as one might think. Indeed, I suspect that the very difficulty of answering the question is what contributes to the amount of woo that has come to surround the whole issue of cell phones, complete with useless “cell phone shields” and various other devices that will supposedly obviate any risks, whether real or not. First, there is the issue of biological plausibility. Radiowave energy at the power level used by most cell phones, is not ionizing. It’s not even close, being several orders of magnitude too weak to break chemical bonds. Our understanding of cancer is that, in general, ionizing radiation is what is required for radiation to cause or contribute to cancer. That does not mean that there might not be a potential, as yet undiscovered, mechanism by which non-ionizing radiation might cause cancer, but simple physics and chemistry make the hypothesis that cell phone radiation causes or contributes to brain tumors not particularly plausible on the basis of currently understood biology. Too, we can actually test radiofrequency radiation in the same power range used in cell phones on cells in cell culture in order to determine whether exposure to such radiation can cause changes associated with malignant transformation. There is one confounding effect that has to be controlled for in such experiments (but is not always), namely that radiofrequency radiation interacts with water in order to heat it. Still, there are no compelling studies showing any specific effect of radiofrequency radiation on cells to induce changes associated with malignant transformation, at least none that I’m aware of. Animal studies are prone to the same sorts of problems as cell culture studies, but even so there is no good quality animal data that I’m aware of implicating cell phone radiation in the formation of cancer. On a basic science basis, at present there doesn’t appear to be strong evidence (or much of any evidence at all) supporting plausible mechanism by which cell phone radiofrequency radiation might cause cancer or an actual effect in which they do.

Another form of evidence that might be suggestive that cell phones are causing cancer would be in the form of pure incidence data. Cell phones were first introduced into the U.S. in the 1980s, but their use didn’t become widespread until the late 1990s, mainly because before that they were too expensive, bulky, and generally unreliable. I got my first cell phone in 1997, and the thing was a brick, with high per-minute charges and really high charges for roaming or long distance. In fact, it wasn’t long before I wondered why I bought the damned thing and signed up for a three year–yes, three year–contract, given how little I ended up using it. In any case, we might expect that, if cell phones were causing brain tumors, there might be a generalized spike in the number of cases of brain tumors recently. There hasn’t been any such dramatic increase over the thirty year period from 1975-2005.

Of course, we may not have been using cell phones widely for long enough to see the increase, given that the lag time from an exposure to the development of cancer is often two decades. That brings us to epidemiological studies. For us to consider any epidemiological to be support for the hypothesis that cell phones cause brain cancer, there must be a few key results. First, there must be an increased incidence of brain cancer in cell phone users. It’s even more convincing if there is some sort of dose-response phenomenon. In other words, there should be an increasing risk of cancer that is strongly correlated with increasing cell phone use. Other results that also support the hypothesis would be tumors correlated with proximity. In other words, do people who primarily use their left hand to hold their phones to their ears tend to get tumors primarily on the left and people who primarily hold their phones with their right hand tend to get tumors primarily on the right? Finally, there should be a plausible lag time between exposure and tumor development consistent with known lag times for cancer, say 10-20 years, and some specificity. In other words, does exposure to cell phone radiation correlate with certain types of tumors and not others? There are other aspects of the results of a study that can more strongly support the hypothesis that cell phones cause brain cancer, but these are the main ones.

In general, however, getting “clean” data from an epidemiologic study of cell phone use that can support a strong enough correlation to suggest causation is very difficult indeed. In order to correlate cell phone use with an increased incidence of brain tumors, it’s necessary somehow to be able to reliably quantify cell phone usage. This presents a big problem. It’s generally not possible to continuously observe people with their cell phones for years on end and obtain objective measurements, and certainly it’s not impossible to do so for people who have brain cancer now and whose exposure ten or twenty years ago is the possible contributory factor that we are interested in studying. Another way to try to come by this information is to ask people how much they use their cell phones. However, memories are unreliable, and such methods are very prone to recall bias in the form of people with brain tumors being more likely to remember their cell phone use as having been “heavy.” That’s not even counting trying to control of the number of potentially confounding factors, such as heavy cell phone use being associated with certain jobs or professions or, especially for 10-20 years ago when cell phones were far less common, with higher socioeconomic status, or even region of the country, given the uneven penetration of cell phone technology out from the urban areas that were covered first–especially 10-20 years ago. Then there’s the shift in technology from analog to digital cell phone technology that occurred in the early 2000s, which changed the power and frequencies used.

There are ways to overcome the limitations of retrospective studies. For example, an investigator can try to look at cell phone bills and see the number of minutes used per month, but who keeps their bills from 10 or 20 years ago, which is the time of exposure most relevant to the development of cancer? Alternatively, one can abandon the retrospective study altogether and follow people prospectively and have them report their cell phone usage from their bills every month. However, because brain tumors represent an uncommon form of cancer, thousands upon thousands of subjects would have to be followed this way, and it would take at least a decade or two to start to see any results. Also, it would be very hard to find and enforce a viable control group, given the ubiquity of cell phones.

Despite the difficulties, several epidemiological studies have been done, with largely negative results. Surprisingly, the NPR report actually summarizes them pretty well; so I don’t see a compelling reason to do anything other than quote the article:

The issue that concerns some scientists — though nowhere near a consensus — is electromagnetic radiation, especially its possible effects on children. It is not a major topic in conferences of brain specialists.

A 2008 University of Utah analysis looked at nine studies — including some Herberman cites — with thousands of brain tumor patients and concludes “we found no overall increased risk of brain tumors among cellular phone users. The potential elevated risk of brain tumors after long-term cellular phone use awaits confirmation by future studies.”

Studies last year in France and Norway concluded the same thing.

“If there is a risk from these products — and at this point we do not know that there is — it is probably very small,” the Food and Drug Administration says on an agency Web site.


A French study based on Interphone research and published in 2007 concluded that regular cell phone users had “no significant increased risk” for three major types of nervous system tumors. It did note, however, that there was “the possibility of an increased risk among the heaviest users” for one type of brain tumor, but that needs to be verified in future research.

Earlier research also has found no connection.

Our fearless leader Steve Novella also summarized the state of the evidence regarding cell phone use and the risk of cancer and concluded that we can probably rule out a strong correlation between cell phone radiation and cancer, but we do not yet have enough data to rule out a small increased risk of brain tumors due to cell phones, particularly in children. I mostly agree with this characterization of the state of the evidence at present, which is why I find statements like this to be overblown fear-mongering:

A driving force behind the memo was Devra Lee Davis, the director of the university’s center for environmental oncology.

“The question is do you want to play Russian roulette with your brain,” she said in an interview from her cell phone while using the hands-free speaker phone as recommended. “I don’t know that cell phones are dangerous. But I don’t know that they are safe.”

I think that a friend of mine, PalMD, got it right when he sarcastically retorted:

Hey, I don’t know for an absolute certainty that my popcorn won’t spontaneously combust, but I’m not yelling fire either.

To which I’d add: Hey, I don’t know with absolute certainty that vaccines don’t cause autism, but I’m not joining the anti-vaccinationists or planning to head off to the second annual “Green Our Vaccines” rally next year as a speaker. (Don’t worry; it’ll never happen unless anti-vaccine activists can provide evidence at least as compelling as the evidence that vaccines are safe.)

The actual warning is even worse, delving into some truly dubious comparisons:

In the early 1980’s, the owners of asbestos mines were reduced to bankruptcy as a result of lawsuits brought by the families of deceased exposed workers. A few years later, a key executive of Johns Manville, the most prominent company, drew lessons from the years of struggle of his industry against medical data and the scientists who were drawing attention to the risks of asbestos. He concluded with regret that greater warnings for the public, the establishment of more effective precautions, and more extensive medical research “could have saved lives, and probably also shareholders, the industry, and the benefits of its product.” [13, 14]

We call on the cell phone companies to provide independent access to records of use so that appropriate studies can be carried out.

I don’t know about you, but personally I wouldn’t want investigators combing through my cell phone records without my permission. Of course, it’s hard to see what investigators would do with such data; after all, it wouldn’t be hard to get study participants to agree to give permission to examine their cell phone records, and in that case there would be no need for cell phone companies to provide “independent” access to anything. If investigators are planning on using aggregate ecological data instead of subject-level data, for instance, to try to correlate regions of where cell phone use is heavy with regions where the incidence of brain tumors is higher, then there would be a very high danger of falling prey to the ecological fallacy of epidemiology which is a principle that states that ecological (or group level) analyses are particularly prone to false positive correlations, as happened with this study and this study.

Worse, earlier in the report there was even a comparison with tobacco! Here’s the difference that makes these comparisons specious. Tobacco smoke is a known carcinogen. We have many in vitro and animal studies that allow us to elucidate the mechanisms by which its components can induce lung cancer and other forms of cancer. Similarly, although the mechanism of how asbestos induces cancer is not as clear, we similarly have animal studies that show that asbestos can indeed induce characteristic cancers. In marked contrast, we have no such studies showing biological plausibility for cell phone radiation. That’s why even bringing up the comparison strikes me more as poisoning the well more than anything else. As Steve Novella points out, how do we know that a better comparison isn’t silicone breast implants, which were initially thought to be associated with autoimmune diseases but were later exonerated by the science–but not before Dow Chemicals was bankrupted by lawsuits in the 1990s? We don’t. We need more science. Premature warnings can be almost as bad as warnings that come too late.

Particularly strange is Davis’s statement:

She said 20 different groups have endorsed the advice the Pittsburgh cancer institute gave, and authorities in England, France and India have cautioned children’s use of cell phones.

As PalMD astutely pointed out, these 20 groups did not actually endorse UPCC’s report; rather they endorsed recommendations similar to the recommendations in the report. The recommendations are not too far out there, although they are probably more cautious than current evidence warrants.

I later discovered that Dr. Herberman gave an interview with The Cancer Letter that was published shortly after he issued his warning:

The [Interphone] study was completed and analyzed over two years ago, but “the frustration is, it has not been published yet,” Herberman said. “I’ve talked with several people who are experts, and everyone I’ve talked to who has seen the data say there is clearly at least a two-fold increase in tumors on the side of the head where the cell phone tends to be used.

Even if this characterization of the Interphone study is completely accurate, I still can’t figure out what on earth possessed Dr. Herberman to allow it to be issued now. Even if the unpublished data are as alarming as implied (unlikely, given the number of previous studies that found either no risk or a questionable very slight risk and the low number of brain tumors seen in the U.S. each year to begin with) and the National Research Council in the U.S. is mistaken about its being highly skewed due to selection bias, as a responsible leader in public health and cancer, you don’t pull something like this. It’s irresponsible. A few months to get the data published in a peer-reviewed journal or, if that’s taking too long, presented at a major meeting (where the peer review process is usually less rigorous for abstracts) are not going to make a difference, given the long lag time of cancer. After all, cancer is a disease that develops over years, and even under the worst-case scenario, hypotheses for cell phone use causing cancer postulate years of heavy use as being necessary to result in cancer. Waiting until the data can be published would at least allow scientists and physicians to vet the data and decide if, on balance taking into account its limitations, it warrants such a strong warning. Alternatively, if you really believe you can’t wait a few months because the risk is so compelling, then release the data with the warning, so that scientists can judge whether the warning is warranted.

Of course, that the study authors are having trouble getting their results published makes me wonder whether their findings are as strong as advertised in this warning. No doubt the conspiracy crowd will claim that cell phone companies are somehow “suppressing” the evidence, but nothing’s stopping the authors from publishing their data and conclusions on an open access journal like Public Library of Science Medicine. Doing so would make the data public much faster, and I urge the study authors to consider this option; that is, if getting the data out where it can be evaluated by the cancer community is more important than publishing it in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Fortunately, many Americans seem to have more common sense than our cancer leaders:

“I think if they gave me specific numbers and specific information and it was scary enough, I would be concerned,” Loughran said, planning to call her mother again in a matter of minutes. “Without specific numbers, it’s too vague to get me worked up.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

In the meantime while we’re waiting for the data to be published, I hope my boss isn’t one of Dr. Herberman’s golfing buddies.

Posted in: Cancer, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

Leave a Comment (27) ↓

27 thoughts on “Cell phones and cancer again, or: Oh, no! My cell phone’s going to give me cancer!

  1. Joybobington says:

    Beautiful post. However, you still haven’t answered what Dr. Heberman was smoking.

  2. David Gorski says:

    I don’t know that he was smoking anything; it was just a rhetorical gambit. :-)

  3. weing says:

    Maybe the the cell phone services are pushing for this to get more kids to text message? This way the phone is kept away from the head and they get to charge more for texting. Now I sound like a conspiracy theorist.

  4. Fifi says:

    weing – That would be a business strategy not a conspiracy. It just looks like a conspiracy to the uninitiated! ;-) Though, kids text anyway so it would really be aimed at getting the oldsters who still view their phones as devices for verbal communications texting and using 3G. North America is incredibly behind the rest of the world in terms of mobile technology (in terms of we pay more for less) – some of this is quite strategic and some is just lack of necessary infrastructure.

  5. DBonez says:

    If there were any truth to cancer being associated with cell phone use, wouldn’t there be a disproportionate rate of cancer or tumors of the hands and/or fingers? After all, given how cell phones function and their construction, the ear-piece only contains the speaker and the RF transceiver (the evil part that pumps out the radiation) is located farther away from the user’s head in the body of the phone. In flip/slider phones, the transceiver is in the main body of the phone, as much as 5cm away, and in one-piece designs, the transceiver is still located slightly further away in top/side of the phone, maybe 1cm away.

    This would mean that the user’s hand while holding the phone is much closer to the transceiver than is the head. With hands-free use, the transceiver would be close to the hips or abdomen. Even with texting, the phone is cradled in the hands and the fingers fully exposed to the full brunt of the RF signals.

    Have we seen spikes in hand, finger, or pelvic cancers? Oh wait, finger cancer doesn’t sell newspapers as well as big scary diagnoses like brain cancer or brain tumors. It seems clear that this entire issue is based on fear and what sells or gets names in the headlines. Were there any repeatable and reputable science involved, I would think the evidence would be available by now.

  6. Fifi says:

    DBonez – Wasn’t there some stuff about testicular cancer or low sperm counts and mobile phones floating around at one point?

  7. weing says:

    I thought that was laptops.

  8. overshoot says:


    In my totally unscientific observations, people tend to preferentially use their off hand (left for right-handers, right for southpaws) to hold telephones. Perhaps because it frees up the dominant hand for other tasks such as writing.

    However, I can think of a few excuses for brain malignancies being related to handedness in some cases. So, comes the question, is there any data correlating brain malignancies to handedness?

    Has anyone looked?

  9. Fifi says:

    weing – Oh, I’d heard cell phones. Though laptops are good for an urban myth too (though a Mac laptop is more likely to cook your balls with the overheating batteries, so the added heat if one sits with one’s ibook on one’s lap probably DOES contribute to low sperm count and mobility). Honestly all I really remember is giggling about foiled wrapped nuts! THAT seemed like the most relevant and important thing to take away from it all!

  10. Fifi says:

    Er, sorry, that would be “foil wrapped nuts” (though they may also have been foiled before being, er, foil wrapped).

  11. Joybobington says:

    On a more serious note. I think the point about non-ionizing radiation should be fleshed out a bit more. How strong of a correlation between cell phone use and brain tumors would be necessary to counteract the fact that there simply isn’t a plausible mechanism?

  12. Jules says:

    I take the train for four hours a day, and I have to confess I wouldn’t be above telling people they’re going to get brain cancer from yakking on their cell phones if it gets them to shut up.

    For what it’s worth: I have a cell phone, but it hasn’t worked in ages. I keep it around because I can’t afford a decent watch, and there aren’t enough outlets in our bedroom for an alarm clock.

  13. qetzal says:

    Joybobington asks a pertinent question:

    How strong of a correlation between cell phone use and brain tumors would be necessary to counteract the fact that there simply isn’t a plausible mechanism?

    Add to that – what if the animal data overwhemingly shows no link either?

    At least, that’s what my cursory search on PubMed suggests.

  14. llysenwi says:

    Wouldn’t it be a simpler experiment to show that the radio frequencies increase mutation rates in a non-animal/non-cell culture model organism? Perhaps one that can grow on a solid phase media, like yeast. Mutation rate experiments in these types of organisms have been done a lot, are easy to control, and quantitative.

  15. wertys says:

    The cell phone debate is now one of those cultural rubber ducks that won’t sink. Just as the power line-leukaemia link which took literally billions of dollars to show that it was just a random statistical cluster, as would be predicted by the law of large numbers. I think that the scientists quoted above are being very conservative in their opinions, and I would go so far as to say that mobile phone use is a bigger threat to users’ health because of the distraction it causes during driving, which has good evidence to support an increased risk of crashes (recently in BMJ). Another example of spooky technology cancer thing vs mundane, but more deadly threat which doesn’t have such an outrage factor…

  16. lee says:

    It would seem that if cell phones are related to cancer, then the correlation for same-side tumors on head and hand would be higher than for opposite side tumors. Admittedly, this would be a second order effect and relatively rare, but it ought to show up if you mine the vast number of medical records available in the nation’s hospitals. The advantage to such a study is that it is fairly objective – it doesn’t depend on patient’s recollection. A good statistical analysis can extract a fairly weak signal from the noise….

  17. qetzal says:


    That’s actually what some researchers are claiming. For example:

    Int J Oncol. 2008 May;32(5):1097-103.

    Meta-analysis of long-term mobile phone use and the association with brain tumours.

    Hardell L, Carlberg M, Söderqvist F, Hansson Mild K.

    Department of Oncology, University Hospital, SE-701 85 Orebro, Sweden.

    We evaluated long-term use of mobile phones and the risk for brain tumours in case-control studies published so far on this issue. We identified ten studies on glioma and meta-analysis yielded OR = 0.9, 95% CI = 0.8-1.1. Latency period of > or =10-years gave OR = 1.2, 95% CI = 0.8-1.9 based on six studies, for ipsilateral use (same side as tumour) OR = 2.0, 95% CI = 1.2-3.4 (four studies), but contralateral use did not increase the risk significantly, OR = 1.1, 95% CI = 0.6-2.0. Meta-analysis of nine studies on acoustic neuroma gave OR = 0.9, 95% CI = 0.7-1.1 increasing to OR = 1.3, 95% CI = 0.6-2.8 using > or =10-years latency period (four studies). Ipsilateral use gave OR = 2.4, 95% CI = 1.1-5.3 and contra-lateral OR = 1.2, 95% CI = 0.7-2.2 in the > or =10-years latency period group (three studies). Seven studies gave results for meningioma yielding overall OR = 0.8, 95% CI = 0.7-0.99. Using > or =10-years latency period OR = 1.3, 95% CI = 0.9-1.8 was calculated (four studies) increasing to OR = 1.7, 95% CI = 0.99-3.1 for ipsilateral use and OR = 1.0, 95% CI = 0.3-3.1 for contralateral use (two studies). We conclude that this meta-analysis gave a consistent pattern of an association between mobile phone use and ipsilateral glioma and acoustic neuroma using > or =10-years latency period.

    PMID: 18425337 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

    However, I’m skeptical of Dr. Hardell’s objectivity. He is first author of a chapter on the same topic in the BioInitiative Report, the document that was repeatedly cited in Herberman’s memo in support of the claimed link; see here.

    In that chapter, Hardell repeatedly criticizes studies that found reduced odds of cancer with cell phone use, arguing that such findings are evidence of methodological flaws! In other words, if a study found increased odds of cancer with cell phone use, it’s evidence of that cell phones cause cancer. If a study finds the opposite, the study is flawed.

    Talk about assuming your conclusion!

    (You can see some quotes from the Hardell et al. chapter in my comment on denialism blog here.)

    Of course, Hardell’s apparent bias doesn’t automatically mean he’s wrong. It just means I’m unwilling to trust his conclusions.

  18. Fifi says:

    I agree with Wertys, there’s more established dangers like using mobiles while driving. People are more likely to kill or injure themselves (and others) while using their phones inappropriately and just not paying attention. That, however, is all about being personally responsible – something people seem to shy away from. Blaming technology for getting cancer makes the dangers someone else’s responsibility – much more appealing to many people.

    I wonder if there’s some biological underpinning to the fear of invisible powerful rays or energy waves “doing” things to us? It existed before we even had electricity so there’s something a bit more primal going on that technophobia.

  19. qetzal says:


    Interesting point! Bad air, magical or satanic curses, evil spirits, mind control rays, etc.

    Maybe it’s as simple as the desire to assign a cause to everything. If we know the cause of something, we are in a better position to control and/or avoid it, which has obvious evolutionary advantages. For those things that have no visible cause, an invisible one gets invented to satisfy the desire.

  20. Fifi says:

    qetzal – Well I suspect that’s a large part of it. Our brains/minds are essentially meaning machines. We’re very good at connecting dots AND creating imaginary dots to fill in the blanks. If you look at some mental disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, part of what’s going on is an overactive ability to detect patterns (to the point where no pattern, or meaningful pattern, exists). In essence, it’s a useful trait that’s not so useful when expressed as a genetic extreme.

  21. Calli Arcale says:

    I believe that is correct — that it isn’t evidence of some shared psychosis or perhaps even actual harmful rays somewhere but simply a result of our brain’s fantastical learning abilities. Pareidolia happens because of our brain’s powerful image processing abilities, which can deduce shapes from surprisingly limited amounts of data. Basically, occasionally seeing shapes where there aren’t any is the price we pay for being able to spot the tiger lurking in the weeds.

    We suffer from a sort of ideological pareidolia too. We are astonishingly good at learning. We go from knowing absolutely nothing to understanding a communication system so complex and multi-layered that it still eludes the capabilities of the best computers. And we do that without any formal training within just a few years. We learn other things too, developing a gut-level understanding so deep that we mistakenly believe it to be instinctual. And we invent and innovate on a staggering level unmatched by any other species on Earth. (Dolphins and termites are impressive in their own ways, but it’s just not the same thing.) We couldn’t do that if our brains weren’t especially good at figuring out patterns, and motivated to seek them out. The price for this is that sometimes we engage in fruitless quests for patterns which don’t actually exist.

    Animals can also reach wrong conclusions; they have similar learning processes, albeit not as powerful. This is why a dog may become afraid of an object that he saw while being beaten once, even if the object had nothing to do with the beating. But as with everything in evolution, it’s a fair tradeoff, because most of the time, the patterns we perceive are real, and detecting them improves our survival odds.

  22. daedalus2u says:

    I think the neurodevelopmental tradeoffs among humans are somewhat unique in degree, but not in kind, as the tradeoffs that other social animals make during their neurodevelopment.

    All communication only consists of the exchange of data, such that a mental state from the sending individual is encoded and transmitted to another individual such that the data invokes “the same” mental state in the receiving individual. Communication is no more, and no less than the transfer of one mental state to another.

    Both communicating individuals have to have neurological machinery that can encode “the same” mental state in order to communicate. This is true for humans, for animals, for any organisms that are communicating. It is essentially pattern matching, the data in the communication stream, be that words, gestures, text, or what ever, is decoded and matched to a mental state either one already existing, or one generated de novo.

    Any type of pattern recognition has two types of errors, the type 1 error, the false positive or the type 2 error the false negative. For the most part there is a trade-off between these two types of errors. Decreasing type 1 errors causes an increase in type 2 errors and vice versa.

    In humans it is the “theory of mind” that allows emulation of the mind of another human and so allows for there to be communication.

    What I am working on now in my autism research is what I see as the fundamental tradeoff along the autism spectrum, a theory of mind for a theory of reality. A theory of mind is necessary for communication. Imputing the mental state of other humans is a critical part of communicating with other humans. Imputing mental states to non-human entities or even objects (such as spirits inhabiting trees, rocks or other objects) is clearly a type 1 error, falsely projecting anthropomorphic attributes onto non-human objects. I think this is the main source of supernatural beliefs, trying to think about and explain reality using cognitive structures that have evolved to allow humans to communicate with each other.

    It has been said that if your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. If the only cognitive structures you have to think with are those which are optimized for understanding other humans, everything you try and understand will look like a human and the only explanations you will be able to come up with will be in human terms.

    I think that is the fundamental reason why the autism spectrum disorders have to disrupt communication. To accurately think about reality you have to be able to think about reality in non-human terms (because reality is fundamentally non-human).

  23. llysenwi says:

    Any kind of epidemiological study will be fraught with complications (e.g., amount of usage or which hand is used). The hypothesis that cell phones cause cancer is based on the hypothesis that electromagnetic radiation emitted by cell phones causes mutations of genomic DNA. This hypothesis can be easily tested and should be before research money is used on more complex studies.

  24. qetzal says:


    It has been tested, but it seems the results are inconsistent and in some cases irreproducible.

    For example, Diem et al. reported that EMFs induced DNA strand breaks in cultured human fibroblasts. However, Speit et al. were unable to reproduce their findings.

    The interesting part about these two studies that the Diem study was performed as part of an EU program called REFLEX (Risk Evaluation of Potential Environmental Hazards From Low Energy Electromagnetic Field Exposure Using Sensitive in vitro Methods). The coordinator of the REFLEX project then asked Speit et al. to independently reproduce Diem et al.’s findings. Speit et al. were given the same cells and the same EMF equipment to use. The equipment was even independently checked to confirm that its EMF output was the same as when Diem et al. used it.

    Despite these elaborate efforts to ensure comparability, Speit could not repreduce Diem’s findings. Speit found no significant increase in DNA damage, using the same method Diem used (comet assay) or an independent method (micronucleus test).

    What makes this even more bizarre is that both Diem and Speit were apparently blinded to which cells were EMF exposed and which were sham exposed. The EMF equipment had two chambers, and a 3rd party programmed it to randomly select which chamber to expose. Diem and Speit analyzed the cells, but didn’t know which were exposed until the analysis was complete.

    Speit basically had no explanation for the discrepancy. Interestingly, it seems Speit even had someone from the Diem study come to their lab to independently analyze the comet assay results (it’s not a very objective test). Both groups agreed that Speit’s results were negative for any effect of EMF on DNA damage.

  25. Egaeus says:

    But won’t somebody think of the children?! Oh, wait, sorry.

    If the cell phone alarmists are afraid of a 1.9 GHz cell phone operating at a couple of watts, wait until they find out about the hundreds of watts of 500,000 GHz radiation emitted by devices in every room of their house! It penetrates human tissue so well that it is used to measure blood oxygen levels without piercing the skin! Your eyes and brain are being assaulted by it RIGHT NOW as you read this very post! Light! it’s everywhere! Run away!

    I’m an RF engineer, and I’m not impressed.

  26. BILLCOUZENS says:

    Dr. Gorsky

    A quick Google search will reveal time and time again Dr Herberman stating, “I don’t know cell phones are dangerous”. It comes up almost 2000 times.

    The AP story you are working from is flawed and it is well known that some of the details are inaccurate.

    You did not do your homework.

    And you unnecessarily slammed a great man.

    Dr. Herberman as I understand it was most concerned about children and cell phones.

    It makes sense to me that a lack of data does not translate to safe. especially in the case of children.

    Here’s the headline, we live in a time now that while the cure for cancer is on the rise, so is the incidence of cancer.

    Every school day we have 46 children diagnosed with cancer.

    Approximately 1.4 million people will be diagnosed with some form of cancer in the United States this year.

    Those numbers for a layman like me are too much, and if someone like a Ronald Herberman- says we don’t know what cell phones do to human health-specifically children – lets use precautions.

    I say why not?

    Dr. Heberman was the key discover of “natural killer cells” revolutionized the field of cancer.

    The phenomenon of natural killer (NK) cell-mediated cytotoxicity against tumors was first discovered in Dr. Herberman’s laboratory in the early 1970s, at a time when most cellular immunologists expected to find T cell-mediated cytotoxicity against experimental and human tumor cells.

    Herberman’s pioneering investigations of NK cells have demonstrated that they play an important role in resistance to the metastatic spread of cancer and that stimulation of NK activity by various immunomodulators leads to inhibition of metastases.

    Dr. Herberman’s pioneering research and aggressive clinical translation has had a profound impact on many patients around the world, and his innovation and leadership has resulted in life-saving outcomes to many patients.

    Lets not lose site of the times when there was a day when scientists, not unlike Dr Herberman were unfairly treated for suggesting precautions for cigarette smoking.

    Collaboration and Support is the way we are going to turn the tide on cancer-not name calling. And while ideas may not be shared we need to be on the same side when fighting the war on cancer. The “cure” for cancer is critical-but we must expand our view to include prevention.

    Since Richard Nixon first declared the war on cancer in 1971 Americans have poured roughly $200 billion, in inflation-adjusted dollars, into cancer research and cancer drug development between 1971 and 2004.

    Clearly with incidences of cancer not related to smoking are on the rise we can be doing things differently.

    I admire that Dr. Herberman’s works to prevent cancer. In a place like Detroit the cancer treatment industry seemingly is outrunning the automotive industry.

    Some may construe that as indeed having a dog in the hunt.

    Bill Couzens, Founder

  27. qetzal says:

    Although this thread is well beyond it’s “use by” date, I thought I’d add this interesting addendum to the comments I made on 30 Jul.

    Seems that those “positive” data claiming that EMF’s induce DNA strand breaks are now suspected of being fraudulent. Here’s a Science news item on the story.

    Briefly, the strand break raw data is suspected to have been fabricated. That should have been impossible, because the researchers were supposedly blinded to which cultures were irradiated, and which were sham treated. However, it turns out that one of the researchers had recorded the code keys in her notebook before they were supposed to have known them. Apparently, she discovered that the irradiating controller would disclose the treatments if she turned a particular knob to an “unused” channel.

    More reason to doubt any link between cell phones and cancer. (Although, to be fair, some of the study authors still maintain that at least some of the results are still valid.)

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