Science journalists are rightly skeptical of cell phone cancer studies — but they should stay open minded.

A Study in Journalistic Skepticism: Cell Phones and Cancer

A few weeks ago, the federal government’s National Toxicology Program released data suggesting that radiation from cell phones might increase the risk that certain rats will develop certain tumors.


The NTP, an inter-agency program run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, found occurrences of two tumor types — malignant gliomas in the brain and schwannomas of the heart — in male laboratory rats exposed to radio-frequency radiation. While they noted that the new results represented only “partial findings” in an ongoing study, the government scientists also said that the results “should be considered of particular interest, as those same cells showed alteration in earlier phone radiation studies.”

The story received a lot of coverage at the time, though most of it was cautious and tempered with skepticism. In the opening of his story at The New York Times, the biotechnology reporter Andrew Pollack said the study “could reignite the controversy over this issue.” He did acknowledge that the new research found that cellphone radiation appeared to increase the cancer risk in rats, but Pollack also noted: “There are many caveats, and some experts are debunking the study.”

Other news outlets were similarly wary. Scientific American’s approach echoed Pollack’s, noting that the study “reignites cancer questions.” CNN’s online story began, “The issue of whether cell phone use could cause cancer has been mired in confusion.” The Wall Street Journal, Consumer Reports, and TIME all wrote of a cell phone-cancer link in rats, which is perhaps a bit less cautious, but still a reasonable approach. (The operative word here is “link” — which implies some connection, but not a cause.) New York Magazine told its readers to “chill out,” and began with a Reaganesque “Here we go again” before launching into all the reasons why readers should chill out.

It was a study in anti-alarmism, and in the weeks since the findings were released, there has been little media follow up, suggesting that many — perhaps most — science journalists considered the research unworthy of further investigation. In some ways, that might be understandable: Years of research into the potential links between cell phone radiation and cancer have proved, at best, equivocal, and science journalists who have covered such studies — including me — have learned to take a measured approach to new results.

But the resolute dismissal of the new cell phone study would nonetheless seem to raise some potent questions, particularly in an age when the public more than ever needs dispassionate investigations of complex scientific issues, from climate change to Crispr. Are journalists now becoming too skeptical? Have they become too cautious, and too quick to poke holes in a study that might deserve more than a quick nod and shrug? Have they become, as the scholar Declan Fahey suggested some years ago, our leading critics of science?

That was the conviction of Louis Slesin, the editor of the independent and highly-regarded publication Microwave News. Slesin tracks every scrap of evidence on electromagnetic fields and cancer, and he says he is convinced that other science reporters are missing the plain truth that electromagnetic fields are dangerous. “The new results contradict the conventional wisdom, advanced by doctors, biologists, physicists, epidemiologists, engineers, journalists and government officials, among other pundits, that a [cell phone-cancer link] is impossible,” he wrote.

For Slesin, the new study represented a smoking gun, and he felt that reporters were far too quick to dismiss what he thought was a scientific breakthrough. “With only a few exceptions, reporters brushed off the NTP results,” he wrote to me in an email. “It was as if they didn’t want to hear that their cell phones might not be as safe as they had long been told.”

It’s not a point of view likely to gain much traction at this point, and I’m inclined myself to think Slesin overstates the case. But I think he’s worth listening to, and I think he’s motivated by a desire to get to the truth — as any reporter should be.

Still, his take was directly opposed to that of Forbes’ Matthew Herper — one of the most respected and analytical medical journalists today. He began his own short column on the cell phone issue referring to worrisome coverage at Mother Jones magazine, which proclaimed of the new study: “It’s the moment we’ve been dreading.”

Herper’s response: “Stop with the dread, MoJo … Experts say the result may not be true, and even if it is, that the types of cancer involved are so rare that a person’s overall increase in risk would be negligible.”

Herper has written about similar cancer scares many times before, and his story on the new study accurately reflected the new findings. But he also emphasized that even if they proved to be more than a fluke — a distinct possibility, he suggested — the risks remained small. How did he make sure he wasn’t too quick to dismiss the results?

“I started off surprised and a little bit skeptical, but my sources were more skeptical than I was,” he told me. If you talk to enough people, he added, “you can find out what the bounds of possibility are.”

Those bounds, to Herper’s mind, did not provide room for significant concern, and he wrote a second piece, titled “Yesterday’s Cell-Phone Cancer Scare Scares Me a Little About the Future of Journalism,” which criticized some publications — not just Mother Jones but the Wall Street Journal — for alarmist coverage.

But scare-story journalism was definitely not the norm, and Andrew Holtz, a contributor to the reputable watchdog site, said it’s possible that people covering the story have already made up their minds. “I would readily admit that I’ve been reporting about cell phone radiation — and power lines before that — for decades, and it would take a lot to change my mind,” he said.

“It’s human nature to have a set point,” he continued. “If you did have equal evidence on one side or the other, you would tend to stay on the side you favored.” Furthermore, he said, “one study doesn’t change my views” on the full body of evidence. “You can add something new, but that’s one pebble on a rock pile.”

That sort of earned journalistic wariness is evident in other areas of science coverage —  including, notably, climate change. “Yes, there is a tendency for those who’ve covered these things for the longest time to be more circumspect, more cautious,” said Andrew Revkin, author of the Dot Earth blog at The New York Times. “But every time I read a new paper, I’m trying to watch my own biases.” Like Herper and many others, he sends new papers to experts he trusts to get their assessments as he makes up his own mind.

Revkin also worries that the principal problem in science coverage is not excess caution, but the opposite: the thirst to say almost anything to get clicks. “I actually think that still dominates and is actually more prevalent now,” he said.


Still, reporters should be wary of knee-jerk skepticism. It’s not enough to put coverage on autopilot and default into doubt. The journalistic wisdom of today seems to suggest that reporters should understate potential risks – and indeed, it’s important to avoid fear-mongering and hype. But it’s also important to remain open to new research and the potential concerns it may raise.

Some environmental and chemical exposures, after all, were once widely accepted – and their risks dismissed — and yet today are known to pose inarguable health hazards. These include lead in household paint and drinking water, or mercury in seafood. Consumer Reports wrote last year that mercury in tuna is responsible for “about 37 percent of the dietary mercury exposure” in the U.S.

Jenni Gingery, associate director for media relations at the Endocrine Society, a scientific organization whose members have studied controversial industrial compounds from bisphenol A (BPA) to flame-retardants, says journalists are doing a fair job at keeping things in proper perspective. “Even though we work on emerging science regarding endocrine-disrupting chemicals,” Gingery wrote in an email message, “journalists for the most part are very open to hearing from researchers about the latest findings.”

The latter point serves as a reminder that reporters shouldn’t allow themselves to become so jaded by uncertain scientific findings that they miss potentially important results when they do arise. Responsible skepticism and knowledge gained through years of experience should, of course, guide coverage. But that shouldn’t lead journalists to forget that some studies really do change the landscape.

The cell-phone study isn’t one of them. But the next controversial science story could be.