In another typical news day we are told that a "Major New Study Reveals Cellphone Radiation Causes Cancer." If, like most people, you react to headlines, your first (perhaps only) thought is "HOLY SHIT!!!".

The news story begins with:

The $25 million study, conducted over two and a half years by the U.S. National Toxicology Program, found significantly higher instances of two types of malignant tumors on male rats exposed to the same radio-frequency radiation currently used in the United States.

Hmmm. Sounds pretty serious. But track down the sources and you discover that

  1. The radiation used in the study was "similar" to cellphone radiation.
  2. The rats were exposed to nine hours of continuous radiation per day.
  3. The radiation was up to five to seven times the intensity of a typical cellphone.
  4. Only the male rats developed cancer.

Also not mentioned in the "news" story is that while the rats that were (over) exposed to the (similar) radiation did have higher rates of cancer, they also lived longer than the rats in the control group.

Each link I followed (until I found the original study report) softened the headline from "causes cancer" to "may cause cancer" to "suggests a link between...".

When the media reports a story that has the potential to scare millions of people and even disrupt an entire industry they must report it responsibly even if such reporting might go over the heads of some of their audience. For a story like this it would obviously include the above numbered points. It should also include information such as the size of the target and control groups, and most importantly, who is funding the study (are you listening, anti-vaxers?).

Too bad Jon Stewart has retired. I had much more respect for his "comedy" news than I have for "real" news".

To be fair they did report who funded the study: the US Toxicology Program which if you Google it is a national program part of the Department of Health and Human Services and involves the NIH, FDA and CDC.

But the biggest problems with this particular study which neither you nor the media picked up on is that:

1) This is just partial findings in a preliminary report, which raises the issue of multiple testing (if they checked for tumours in 20 tissues but are only reporting 2 where they found statistical significance chances are they are false positives) this is further complicated by the fact that since the significances reported are just barely significant (p < 0.05) and multiple comparisons were made just in this report: lesions-male, lesions-female, malignant-male, malignant-female for both heart & brain (really p should be <0.01 to be called significant in this report even before the possibility of other tissues being tested and not reported is factored in).

There is also the issue of the low rates of tumours in the controls given the historical rates for the same mice strain for the NTP are 2% but they observe 0%, again suggesting this is likely a false-positive because they happened to observe low rates in the controls.

2) It was put on biorxiv which just a pre-print server it does no quality checks or peer-review. The only review the work has had is from "expert peer reviewers selected by the NTP and National Institutes of Health (NIH)", considering that the NIH & NTP is involved in funding & running the study and we have no idea how the reviewers we chosen or if it was anonymous that is not even close to meeting review standards for scientific publication in any respectable journal.

I had much more respect for his "comedy" news than I have for "real" news".

When The Onion reports things and you can't tell the difference between them and "real" news, there's clearly a problem. Journalism these days is more about pushing agendas than informing people.

Fox "News" has also been caught on more than one occasion re-reporting stories as actual fact even though the original source was The Onion". Apparently Fox "News" does not understand satire.

Journalism these days is more about pushing agendas than informing people.

There are two strategies as far as I can tell. The "chasing clicks" approach (maximum clicks for minimum effort) which has ridiculously hyperbolic headlines for almost completely contentless articles which is where most scientific studies become so misconstrued the news stories look nothing like the actual results. And the "pushing a narrative" approach (feed the outrage echochambers) which can have in depth articles and somewhat researched content but it is hopelessly biased and cherry-picked information. Then you have the intersection of the two with things like FOX "News".

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At least the article's source was traceable (after some digging). The press in this country print whatever load of shite they want despite a new shiny IPSO (Independent Press Standards Organisation). Journalistic rigour (oxymoron?) is seemingly absent when dissecting scientific findings. Some scientists or/and their financial backers must also shoulder the blame for so many misleading public articles.

Unfortunately there is so much pressure on even legitimate researchers to publish that preliminary results are often rushed to (e)print. And the large numbers of studies being funded by vested interests watering down the actual science doesn't help. Some researchers (the biased ones) are now using what they call "enhanced recruitment" which is a euphemism meaning "we rejected people/subjects we thought might give us results we don't want."

Add to that the possibly large number of people who don't read past the headline and the situation becomes even worse.

In many cases it is actually the university Press Offices or government "Communications Officers" who are most to blame (though there are a few lime-light craving scientists who are to blame as well). Their job is just to get as much attention as possible to the study in order to "raise the profile" of the university or gov't department not to be honest & realistic about the study. They are the ones who write the first dumbed-down press release which most journalists just copy or paraphrase - because there are virtually no science-journalists left who would actually understand the original article. This is also why online pre-print isn't a bad thing, usually papers sit there unnoticed except for people actively working in the field who are looking for the latest results. The problem is press-releases about pre-print and preliminary results - I would be quite happy to see that banned.

Industry partners of scientific research (aka the "evil biased funders") aren't actually as evil or biased as you would expect (though it depends on the purpose of the study). Often times industry partners with academia to work on very early development stuff to guide their own in-house research so they actually want accurate results so they don't waste their own resources on a project that is doomed to fail. Othertimes they will work together with academics to turn a research result into a patentable product - this generally not published at all until the patent claim has been filed. Finally the only case which produces misleading papers & media attention is when the research is to be used for advertising or fulfilling regulatory requirements (aka proving the effectiveness of something they've already created), but usually that type of work is done in-house rather than by partnering with university academics - because there is always the risk the academic will decide publishing finding against your product is better for their career or their conscience than pubishing what the company wants them to publish.

And as John Oliver recently pointed out "no one ever won the Nobel Prize for replicating a study". Nobody wants to pay for a study to verify the results. The best we can do, apparently, is something like the Cochrane Organization, formerly known as the Cochrane Collaboration. For an example of the work they do you should read the excellent book, Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial.

Just going to post this article on attempts to deal with conflicts of interest here due to its surprisingly good timing.

noMedias always do this,. They give such shocking titles to grab the readers attention. It when we read the full story we get to know what happened fo real.

They also use the "question in the headline" tactic such as "Is Obama a secret Muslim who wants to implement Sharia law? The shocking truth". The shocking truth is always, "no".

Yep, as a journalist myself I have to admit it's no secret that if the headline poses a question the answer is always no. Saves a lot of reading time when doing research... :-)