Thursday, June 2, 2011

Things that make me grumpy

In case you live under a rock and missed it, the World Health Organization recently announced that cell phones "may possibly" cause cancer.

Now, I'm neither a researcher or statistician, and personally think the jury is still out on this one. I'm not going to take sides.

But here is what I am pissed off about: Notice that the story said "may possibly" cause cancer. But the way we think, it somehow becomes "does cause cancer", and so we panic, and hold our cell phones a yard from our head, and scream into them (that's gonna make driving while talking into one a helluva a lot safer, huh?).




"I can't hear you, Dave, but at least I may possibly not get cancer."


In my opinion a lot of the way this stuff gets played up as the top story on news outlets is just bullshit. It's no different than if I put "SEXXX" in screaming letters at the top of this post. It sure as hell would get your attention, and snag a few search engines, but the post has little, if anything, to do with sex (unless you're into setting the phone on vibrate and...)

This is the nightmare of medical research in the lay press. Let's say Dr. Hodgkin does some research on rat ovarian cells. He finds that in 25% of rats with ovarian cancer, there is a gene that may be able to stop cancer spread.

So he gets published in the journal Genetics Research and Lab Decor. A hungry reporter finds the article, and sees a great way to sell papers with a story on how ovarian cancer has been cured!

Now this isn't what Dr. Hodgkin said. His research had a 25% success rate in curing mice with a certain type of ovarian cancer. The most he might say is that someday this might lead to new methods of treating some types human ovarian cancer.

But, of course, nobody gives a shit about mice with cancer. A headline saying "25% Of Mice with Ovarian Cancer May Someday be Cured!" wouldn't get anyone's attention. But if you make a huge leap of illogic, extrapolate it to humans, and put up "CURE FOR OVARIAN CANCER NEAR!", it will sell newspapers and draw readers, no matter how far off from the truth it is.

For those of you who remember, in the mid-80's there was a HUGE media circus about how Interleukin-2 was THE cure for cancer (an absurdity, if you think about it, considering that cancer isn't even a single disease- it's hundreds). Major news magazines and TV networks ran stories about it. It made the front page... and that was about it. Not to take anything away from Interleukin-2. It eventually did settle down and find a place in malignancy treatment. But was it the miracle breakthrough that it got played up as? Not even close.

By the same token, in the 1970's EVERYONE knew Saccharin caused cancer. So it got a big black box on every product that contained it. And after several years it was quietly found that it DIDN'T. Of course, when the second story came out it was relegated to the back page, and people didn't notice when the warning labels disappeared. Because it's more interesting to scare people, or give them false hope, than to reassure them.

Certainly there are plenty of things that are clearly proven to cause cancer: cigarettes, for example. But hell, at this point we all know that. So it's not going to get attention. But put up a headline about something we believe is harmless (unless you're trying to pass a cell phone talker on the freeway) and it will get a lot of readers.

So let's get back to the cell phones.

What really grates my crank is the use of "may possibly" or "possibly" or "may be linked to..." that the articles about this are so full of. NOT "does" or "doesn't" but simply different variations on ambiguity which, while getting your attention, DON'T REALLY SAY A FUCKING THING!!!

Look at it this way. "Cell phone use may possibly cause cancer". How is that different from "cell phone use may or may not cause cancer"? But if the second sentence was used, you'd say "No shit, Sherlock" and skip the article.

To take it a step further, let's use the "may possibly" phrase in other circumstances, and see how definitive that sounds:

"Mrs. Smith, you may possibly be pregnant."

"Dave, you may possibly be fired."

"You're going to see Dr. Grumpy? I heard he may possibly be competent."

"The Grumpyville Faceplants may possibly win the Super Bowl."

"Congrats, Cindy. You may possibly be getting a promotion."

"Dude! There may possibly be beer and girls at the party!"

"OMG Buffy! Your new boyfriend may possibly be HAWT!"

"KIDS! You may possibly be punished if you don't clean up your damn rooms!"


Doesn't give you a lot of confidence, or clarity, does it?

So next time you see a medical research news story, think about how accurate it may possibly be.

52 comments:

Knot Tellin said...

Execellent post. All that hedging is what I think of as "50% chance of rain" journalism.

wv = mytip. Wish I could think of something clever to say about it.

OldSquid said...

Things like this drive me nuts as well. A website I used to read on a daily basis ran a headline that bottle feeding is associated with obese babies. Going to the article and finding the original journal paper it comes to find that the researchers didn't look what was in the bottle (formula, coke, diet coke, water, etc) or if the infant was allowed to keep the bottle in the crib either. I have come to suspect that the reporter is a breast feeding Nazi through another article as well. Given that most of the general public has the attention span of a fruit fly they probably only read the headline and didn't dig any deeper.

Old MD Girl said...

I read an older study on this for class last night. They were talking about acoustic neuromas in this paper. I think other papers also looked at parotid tumors, etc. We'll discuss it today, but what struck me about it was that the paper never even mentioned the word neurofibromatosis.

Bio Geek with Patience said...

This is why I think you should start writing editorials for newspapers. Granted, some of your language would have to be...uhh...turned into a PG-13 version, but you make "medical reporting" so much more clear for people in the general public.

The average person has no clue that when you read something in the paper (or online) that's medical- or science-based, you should be reading it exactly as you would a scientific paper published in a peer-reviewed journal: with a grain of salt, critically, and if it's the only one then don't believe it until there's more proof.

But, alas, I'll go back to yelling into my cell phone that's across the room. Wouldn't want to get cancer.

Grumpy, M.D. said...

Thank you, Bio Geek! I'm flattered.

But it ain't like they're calling me, either.

Officer Cynical said...

I like the double-layered tentativeness: "may possibly". It's not that it just MAY cause cancer. And it's not that it just POSSIBLY causes cancer. But it MAY POSSIBLY cause cancer. It's like saying it has a small, little chance of causing cancer. And probably causes it at 3 AM in the morning.

Haven said...

Plausible deniability and substantial ass coverageability... if you don't commit to anything, you can't be held responsible for anything... and therefore you may not *smirk* get sued, haha.

Chrysalis Angel said...

Amen!

Anonymous said...

The news media, empty heads with nice hair shoving air out of their mouths to sell crap.

Packer said...

Hey Grumpy, I saw an article.....

Paige Storm said...

No kidding, but I think you're kind of preaching to the choir on this. I'm an epi grad student and for my epi 1 course we pulled headlines out of the news every day then evaluated the article to see what it REALLY said. It's crazy the stretches they make to get a headline.

Neuroscience PhD said...

I SO agree with you! Every time anyone in my department has had media coverage of their research, it's been either horribly sensationalized, mangled/dumbed down to the point of incomprehensibility or both.

There should be a requirement that people who report science or medical findings need to have at least some background in science beyond high school biology. Sometimes it's achingly clear that the person writing the article has no clue what they're writing about.

It's no wonder that the public has a fairly low opinion of science and research since the only "output" they see is garbled, sensationalized, or vague media reports.

Anonymous said...

We all gotta die sometime. I have minimal vices except for the CrackBerry habit. Hope the tumor kills me quick.

SkullCandy

Word vert: squeag: the sound the cell phone tumor will make as it crushes my brain.

bobbie said...

Amen!!!

Kyla said...

Well said!

Sean said...

Amen Doc. I posted something similar yesterday about this shoddy grand standing.

Anonymous said...

Yay! Well put Dr G.

Two things.

Using a handheld mobile phone while driving is illegal in the UK.

Number two



"Good evening ladies and gentlemen and welcome to tonights performance of The Vagina Monlogues. We would ask patrons at this point to ensure that all mobile phones and pagers are switched off. Alternatively, set them to vibrate, sit back and enjoy."

PS. If you've never seen The Vagina Monologues go and see it next time it's in your neighbourhood - whether you have one or not!

Andy.

Erwin Schrödinger said...

So, if you were to put a cat in a box with a cell phone...

Kim said...

Yep. I don't believe pretty much anything I read. Eggs are good! Eggs are bad. Drinking beer is good! Drinking beer is bad. Wine? Yep, it's good for you. Oh wait, no, wine causes cancer. Salt? Don't use salt, it will kill you! Hey, guess what? Salt is good for you!

Drives me nuts. My policy is everything in moderation and all will be well. Don't believe everything you read, in a week the info will change and they'll be saying the reverse will be true anyway.

Battle Weary said...

The semester project and presentation for my undergrad Human Phys. class was to find a medical related article in the popular press, then find the journal article that was sited and find out what it REALLY said (really a bit more involved, but you get the idea). Not one person in my class or in the next semester when I was TA found that the popular press reported accurately.

Mal said...

At the moment, we're getting so many of these articles that just about every think is 'may possibly be linked to' some form of cancer. Including toast, natural light, and breathing.

I'm just assuming that we're all going to die of cancer, unless something else kills us first.

Mallory said...

You know what doesn't get cancer? Naked mole rats. If we live underground in the dark, don't have sex, and eat bugs, maybe we too can escape.

Seriously. The Naked Mole Rat lives about five times as long as it's body size would predict.

Ole Phat Stu said...

The cat in this box may possibly be dead. Or not.

There now, wasn't that easier than trying to spell 'Schroedinger' ? ;-)

Moose said...

Once again I have to wonder why people who call themselves scientists seem to have little training in the actual scientific methods.

Correlation is not causation.

The plural of anecdote is not data.

Thank you for being one of the doctors who gets this.

And the next time I hear or see some doctor talk about "Well I know that X causes Y, because every patient I see in my practice who has X has Y" I will break out my big metal bat and start swinging.

Hospital Lab Tech said...

As part of my Masters in Haematology in the UK I had to find an article in the press about my subject and pull it apart.

The one I found was about a train that had started running in the dead of the night carrying radioactive waste. The trainline passed through a small village. Since the train had commenced, the incidence of childhood acute lymphoblastic leukaemia in that village had DOUBLED. Pretty significant huh? Until you find out that the radioactive waste was actually mud that happened to be naturally slightly higher than average for radioactivity, and the incidence of childhood ALL had gone from 1 child to 2.

So essentially the story was that one child had developed leukaemia and a train went by with mud it in.

Anonymous said...

What happens at the pharmacy is that we would get phone calls from people who wants to know whether we stock the drug.

Really? The news story says the cure is near (which is bad enough), somehow you interpreted that to mean the drugs is available?

Do MD's get these kind of calls too?

Anonymous said...

This could also be said for the medical text themselves. Half of the "scientific articles" that are the basis of the "news" are also flawed. Read with salt always.

Personally, I got the wake up when I read the scientific article about mermaids and it was pointed out to me that no double-blind controlled study exists about parashutes when jumping out of airplaines.

Ryan said...

What are your thoughts on the relationship between vitamin C and cancer? Love the blog!

Anonymous said...

That's it - my next [softball, hockey, bowling, contract bridge] team will be called the Grumpyville Faceplants

a.generic doc said...

The report just confirms the old saying:

Everything good in life is illegal, immoral, fattening or carcinogenic.

And it gets publicity because most news reports follow the dictum:

There are lies, damn lies and statistics.

Caya said...

The news media is nothing more than an arm of propaganda designed to influence/control the masses who have never learned how to think critically.

I never bother with current events in any form- I'm far too cynical to keep my mood out of dangerously low levels if I did listen, and too lazy to try to dissect the lies from the truth. I concentrate on the people around me- and amazingly enough, I manage to live a productive and happy life while never listening to "the news" at all.

Anonymous said...

The main problem is that news reporters generally have little or no understanding of science. An additional problem is that the kind of scientists who scamper to the news media to announce their findings are generally a shonky lot to begin with.

Anonymous said...

Possibly I may be wondering if you've seen this link on cell phones and popcorn. http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x5odhh_pop-corn-telephone-portable-micro-o_news

Anonymous said...

This kind of language is one step up from 'journalism' sold next to cigarettes at the cash register in the grocery store.Those DECLARE that so and so was abducted by green-skinned aliens, so in reporting 'may possibly', 'is distantly associated with', 'may exhibit a correlation', these 'journalist' exhibit a higher ethic.

Truth be told, the local newsrag, cops stories from AP wire and other national sources, and everyone (should) know the town reporters are as in the dark as the customers, or the reporters know less than the readers, perhaps. It's the adult version of popular games for children like 'Gossip', and 'Mystery' and, even 'Spoons', whose poker face can outlast that of everyone else.

ERP said...

I just got a GBM while reading this post on my Iphone. Damn!!!

Kat's Kats said...

Remember that study showing that money causes cancer? No, really!! After all, the researcher put money under the skin of the skulls of rats and they all got cancer! ::snicker:: And some people actually wonder why I always ask to see the methodology section of the study when they mouth off on something.

Of course, those people aren't on my A friend's list either. Hmmmm, correlation there?

Moose said...

And related to the 8:52pm Anonymous, I feel I must comment on how much I miss the Weekly World News. I know they have a website, but it's just not the same as the print paper version. I had a subscription and it was just so awesome to read about how the President of the US was meeting with (or was) a space alien, and, of course, the continuing tales of Bat Boy. And it really did make the best wrapping paper for presents.

Estrelleta said...

That's funny because my mother was asking me about it yesterday. I basically told her that just about anything could be "proven" to be carcinogenic if somebody wanted to. They'be been discussing cell phones for years and honestly, if there's no conclusive research, I wonder why are they even talking about it in the press?

happy internist said...

i thought that guy in the photo was trying to take a picture of his butt.

Ame said...

Aren't cellphone (may possibly) cause cancer already made a big fuss years and years ago? What is with the repetition? Very strange..

GammaGlob said...

Based on your take on the "may possibly cause cancer" getting picked up by the media I think you'll REALLY appreciate this.

http://www.phdcomics.com/comics.php?f=1174

Jane said...

I would totally be a cheerleader for the Grumpyville Faceplants, whether or not they win the Super Bowl. What's their mascot? Gerald Ford?

Anonymous said...

So, let me get this right....you're saying that cell phones DON'T cause cancer? I thought I read somewhere that they do?
;-)

AM said...

The latest on cell phones from Borowitz Report: "a new study shows that when you talk on your cell phone everyone around you can hear every fucking word you’re saying."

The Mother said...

Just another example of the WHO's total incompetence at parsing medical literature. We just couldn't believe our eyes when this story broke.

In my opinion, the jury is NOT still out. The physics is simple--the waves are too low energy to penetrate the skull. Ergo--no physiologic effect possible. No study has ever found anything more than a correlation.

[Ask a patient who has a brain tumor if they use a cell phone. Ask them which side of their heads they hold the cell phone to. Go ahead. I'll wait.]

This is just a travesty. I can't even begin to think what was going through the WHO's heads--but it certainly wasn't cell phone radiation.

Anonymous said...

it's like reading a report stating: all mass murderers ate bread as a child.... therefore bread makes you kill people.
nothing is that simple and definately when dealing with the human body.

RSDS said...

It is my understanding that there are certain strains of lab rats, and mice, that will always develop cancer eventually, no matter what is, or is not, done to them. That is, you could keep these particular strains rats, or mice, in the most perfect, and healthy conditions, and they would still develop cancer. Therefore if these rats, or mice, are used in tests; anything can be proved to cause cancer.

Library-Gryffon said...

You'd like the Joe Jackson song from the early '80s, "Cancer".

I have always loved the news headlines which scream "X Doubles Your Chance of Cancer Y!!!!11!", and then when you read through the article it does indeed double your chance, from .01 to .02. So it's gone from infinitessimalsy small to a slightly larger infinitessimally small chance. Wow.

Anonymous said...

Science cannot prove a negative.
Especially epidemiology studies.
In fact epidemiology studies can't prove cause-and-effect relationships.

Perpetual student said...

Great article...It made me immediately think of the PhD comic:
http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1174

Hal Dall, MD said...

Great post!

As to curing mice with ovarian CA, I don't give a rat's ass!

Anonymous said...

OMG did you just type "HAWT!"
That is too funny, and why would I think a Doctor wold not know about HAWT.. lol

 
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