The importance of skepticism
Recently, Washington University was part of a larger study that contradicts the World Health Organization’s (WHO) statement from earlier this year that suggests a correlation between cellular phone usage and cancer. Prior to the WHO release, numerous studies failed to find any link between the low-frequency radio waves used in cellular phones and any sort of cancer. Wash. U. researchers found evidence, using laboratory rats, that agrees with the previous consensus regarding cellphone usage. Occasions like this reiterate the importance of the scientific method and the reproducibility of data. The number one rule in statistical analysis is that correlation is not causation—even though one study shows that two things often occur together, such a relationship does not prove that the one causes the other.
This is where data reproducibility becomes incredibly important. It may be incredibly difficult to find the causation mechanism that links the two. In this case, a mountain of evidence contradicts the WHO announcement and, therefore, the release should be treated with great skepticism. Indeed, with regard to medical studies, such cases have occurred before, notably with research that linked estrogen with heart disease prevention in women and also with the study that linked vaccination to an increased chance of autism. In the first example, estrogen was later found by the National Institutes of Health not to decrease the risk of heart disease but instead to increase the risk of stroke and deep vein thrombosis.
Perhaps a better-known example of a medical study being overturned upon closer examination is the link between vaccinations and autism. First published in 1998 in The Lancet, British researcher Dr. Andrew Wakefield reportedly found evidence for a link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and an increased risk of autism in children. Over the next decade, repeated studies failed to find any additional evidence to support this connection. Evidence was discovered that suggested Dr. Wakefield, who worked at University College London and for the pharmaceutical companies Immunospecifics Biotechnologies Ltd. and Carmel Healthcare Ltd., falsified some of the data for the study. The case of Dr. Wakefield, who has since been discredited and decertified, is a reminder not only of the importance of academic honesty, but also about the importance that others be able to find similar results when conducting the same experiment.
Almost no one will deny the medical benefits of vaccination, just as very few would willingly give up their cellular phones. In order to encourage such drastic changes, scientific data must be certain. Therefore, as consumers, we should be doubtful of such studies that seem to contradict the larger body of known evidence, rather than believe everything that is printed, even in supposedly reputable sources.
Instead of attempting to live without cellphones because they may cause cancer, it is much better that we remain wary and skeptical, remembering that the vast body of scientific evidence refutes this claim.