Cell Phones, Cancer and the Dangers of Risk Perception
By David Ropeik | Jun 1, 2011 11:00 AM | 5
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
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
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.