Tag Archives: communicating science

Scary Mobile Phones and Cancer

A friend on Facebook shared this:

Thermographic images of a headf before and after using mobile phone, from "GreenMedInfo" Facebook page

This was my comment in reply:

You’d get the same sort of thermographic image after drying your hair with a hair dryer: all it’s showing is that your head is a bit warmer! In the case of the mobile phone the warmth is probably mostly because you’ve had your hand (holding the phone) to your head preventing it from losing heat naturally: the phone itself doesn’t produce that much heat. As for the radiation it produces, it’s the same sort of radiation you get from a candle (but at a wavelength we can’t see, like the invisible infra-red warmth from a candle).

To get a risk of causing cancer we have to go to shorter wavelengths like the deep ultra-violet in sunlight that can cause skin cancer, and beyond to X-rays and gamma rays because at these wavelengths electromagnetic radiation has enough energy to break up molecules and damage cells in our bodies (which is why X-rays are used in radiotherapy to kill cancer cells).

There’s quite a good explanation of the various possible effects of radiation on our bodies in Sense About Science’s booklet at http://www.senseaboutscience.org/data/files/resources/8/MSofRadiation.pdf

A few years ago the International Agency for Research into Cancer did classify mobile phone radiation as possibly causing cancers but Cancer Research UK point out that this means there is some evidence linking them but it is too weak to draw strong conclusions from and that “the vast majority of existing studies have not found a link between phones and cancer, and if such a link exists, it is unlikely to be a large one”.

Because people get cancers anyway, and we all do so many different things in our lives, if you do enough studies on anything you can probably find a correlation between that activity and cancer in some group of people you happen to choose even if the activity doesn’t actually cause cancer: this can be because there’s some other cause (e.g. with mobile phones it might be that mobile users tend to have more stressful lives and the stress could be a factor) or it could be pure chance. I bet if you did enough studies of hair-dryer users you’d find some who have more cancers than others!

Native Nutrition Nonsense

everything on the Earth has a purpose, every disease an herb to cure it, and every person a mission. This is the Indian theory of existence.

If I’d been born a hundred years ago I’d probably have thought this ‘Red Indian’ an inferior, less evolved, human being than white Europeans (and especially British) like me. I would also have regarded working class people as inferior, and upper class people as superior to middle-class me.

Growing up in the late 20th century I came across reverse snobbery: the idea that working class people are more authentically human than us effete middle classes. And these days there’s a vein of inverse racism that credits Native Americans like Ms Quintasket – and others of what my grandparents would have regarded as Inferior Races – with Superior Wisdom to ours.

And it’s just as much bollocks as straightforward racism and class prejudice.

There is, no doubt, a lot that Christal knew about the world she lived in that I don’t, and wouldn’t have if I were alive when she was. But there is a lot that she – and my compatriots 100 years ago – didn’t know, that we do now.

Thanks in no small measure to Richard Dawkin’s “The Selfish Gene” far more of us now know what Darwin, Wallace and others were realising a few decades before Christal Quintasket was born: that the purpose of every living thing on the earth is to reproduce offspring bearing its genes as widely and vigorously as possible. For most plants an important part of staying alive and reproducing is not to get eaten by animals, and one way to do this is to poison those that try. To this end plants have evolved a variety of toxins which target the animals that would have them for lunch, according to their predators’ particular biochemistries.

Animals differ biologically and a substance toxic to one particular predator may have no effect on others; it may even be beneficial to some, but as long as it doesn’t turn the beneficiary into a predator there’s no reason for the plant to have evolved out such side-effects. So we find there are plants that produce substances we have found to be medicinal (not to mention recreational!) to us. Nowadays we understand that this is just a quirk of nature but people would once have assumed that such benefits must be the result of divine intention. In our own culture the Bible has God telling His people that He has given them “every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit“. Native Americans of Ms Quintasket’s time probably had no more clue that plants’ medicinal benefits were simply a happy accident of nature than most of their European contemporaries and would have put them down to similar deist or theist benevolence. Ascribing Superior Wisdom to her words because she was a Native American is as racist as ascribing inferior intelligence to her for the same reason. She was just a human being, genetically practically indistinguishable from you and me. She was part of a culture different from ours and lived at a time when we didn’t know much about how life on our planet came about and evolves. And her utterances on medicine and healing are as valid today as my grandmother’s were.

Jeffrey Rowland's 'Overcompensating'