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Where are the bodies?

The slow heat-death of RF bioeffects research

pile of bodies

A claim often made by those opposed to mobile phones is that Swedish scientists have found increased risk of head and neck cancers, with temporal correlation with phone use. Here's the link (opens in a new window)

TL; DR: It's a dangerous misinterpretation of official statistics.

Note that the headline is only possible by including cancers in regions not exposed to phone signals, such as the thyroid and pituitary, and for which other risk factors in the target demographic are known other than RF.  If one avoids the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy then the claimed association vanishes.

When we dive down into the glioma data, we uncover another problem. There is no overall increased risk of brain cancer but instead some temporal differences in rates of gliomal subtype classification. Now, this could be an effect of RF changing the ferocity of gliomas, but if it were we should expect to see temporal bunching associated with the introduction of phones, i. e a spike as slower growing cancers are accelerated and then a dip as those cancers drop out of the statistics. And we don't. The more likely explanation is better diagnosis, tighter classification and more careful recording with time.

Of course one can never be certain, but Occam's Razor applies, and p-mining to find minutiae of data to support an a priori hypothesis, as this is, makes me rather sceptical.

One must also note that the Swedish Radiation Protection Foundation is not an official body, and not to be confused with the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority, which is.The Foundation is an anti-RF campaign and not an independent expert scientific body. Its claims should be read in that context.

Two more recent analyses  bring more to bear on this issue. The first is from Australia (opens in new window).

Main findings:

  • The overall brain tumour rates remained stable throughout this period and showed no increase when compared with the increase of mobile phone use in Australia.
  • There was an increase of glioblastoma during 1993 and 2002 which was attributed to better diagnostic techniques with advances made in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology.
  • Although mobile phone use has risen rapidly since 2003 there has been no increase in any brain tumour types since then.
  • Since 2003 there has also been no increase in brain tumours of the temporal lobe, which is the location most exposed when using a mobile
    phone.

The second is a detailed analysis by Frank de Vocht of his own published work on brain cancer rates, which has been claimed by Microwave News as being evidence that phones cause brain cancer (opens in a new window).

Frank's own analysis draws rather different conclusions. He says:

"I think the main points from these analyses are clear, and indicate that mobile phones use is increasingly unlikely as an important risk factor for the observed trends in glioblastoma multiforme while they further are suggestive of improvements in medical procedures over the last 30 years being a plausible cause for the observed effects, at least in part."

So there we have it. It seems that neither in Sweden nor Australia not UK nor anywhere else we look are we seeing the bodies piling up from phone use. We can conclude that it's at most a risk that is too small to show up after 20-30 years of half the planet being used as guinea pigs, and in fact appears indistinguishable from zero. Given that there is no plausible biophysical mechanism for RF to cause cancer this should not be a great surprise, but it's interesting that we really are reaching the point where any risk should definitely have shown up by now, and as the data come in that risk fails to materialise.

At what point do we say "enough is enough" and move on to worry about other things instead? In practice that point has already been passed for most public health professionals and research funders. After all, there is no shortage of real stuff that actually causes demonstrable health issues to spend money researching and ameliorating and research funding in this area has dropped away to almost nothing.  Is this this slow fade going to change the world? No. Is it going to significantly affect the consensus on RF/EMF ? No. There are thousands and thousands and thousands of published papers on the subject now, across many decades. We've spent billions of <insert currency of choice> on it, making it one of the most researched agents there is. Every new paper that emerges, whatever it says, just gets added to the substantial pile that already exists. That great mass, taken as a totality, really doesn't suggest there's a huge public health problem there, and that's why the flow is slowing to a trickle and the research funding has all-but-ceased. The real question now is not "what more research do we need?" but "what do we do with what we've got?"

Unless there's a "game changer" (more on that later) we're never going to know any more than we do now about this subject; the search for "certainty" is a chimera in any biomedical type research, with false positives, false discovery and p-mining throwing up a fog around the whole thing. It's most likely that in the absence of any new major research effort, this is pretty-much it and we just need to get on with deciding what, if anything, we do with the data we have.

We really do have to recognise  that the subject is a low public health priority, and getting lower by the day. It's got to compete for funding (and interest) with things that demonstrably affect health, like UV, obesity, alcohol, loneliness, poverty etc - and as far as public health goes, that's a zero-sum game. If we ask for funding for EMF research then it comes from a finite pot of money and means that one of those other things gets defunded accordingly. I think that 20 years ago that might have been justifiable, since back then there were a lot fewer data, but these days it would be a hard sell to any government minister - or indeed to public opinion. So absent that "game changer" the outcome is going to be: nothing. The subject will gently fade, with people whose careers depended on it raging at the dying of their particular light, and no-one else much caring, or even noticing.

One feature of that fade will be a higher proportion of "positive" studies. The reason is that the big well-funded programmes tend to insist on the highest quality dosimetry and experimental design, and when they are removed from the picture the general quality goes down. And we know that research quality is inversely proportional to finding an effect: when the early work that "found something" was repeated with good experimental technique, the "something" tended to evaporate completely. Plus, big funding attracts independent researchers and expertise. A poorly-funded subject tends to become the haunt of people who are looking for something in which they already believe.

That "game changer"? Well, it would need to be a pretty big bang to completely eclipse the mass of existing evidence of not-much-at-all.