Cancer, Cell Phones, and Chimpanzees

There’s a good scare when a columnist needs one?

The announcement last week was so promising. “Cellphones may cause cancer.” Fabulous. Few consumer goods are as common as cellphones and few diseases are as frightening as cancer. Connect the two with some arcane and tenuous science, toss in brains wired to cope with lunging lions, spice with innumeracy, salt with bad journalism, and you have a recipe for a delicious moral panic.

Which I would denounce. At great length. Because I have a lot of space to fill. Plus, denouncing moral panics is really fun.

But then? Nothing. No panic. Not even a little scare. What a disappointment.

Sure, there was some bad journalism, like the TV spots showing people texting as an illustration of the risk when the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) specifically recommended texting and the use of hands-free devices as simple and easy ways to shrink the risk – if indeed there is one – to almost zero. But that was pretty minor stuff.

In fact, there were lots of good articles carefully explaining that the evidence is weak and the risk – if it’s real – is small.

Where was the shrieking? The complete loss of perspective? The unhinged rhetoric?

Reading The Globe and Mail on the weekend, I was briefly hopeful. “One of the go-to cellphone experts is Joel Moskowitz, who was interviewed this week by both ABC and the Huffington Post,” wrote a columnist. “‘If I were a consumer I would take this extremely seriously,’ he warned, and went on to say that despite the lack of evidence, cellphones are potentially as bad as smoking.”

Wow. That’s nutty. The evidence to date suggests there may – emphasis on the “may” – be a link between holding a cellphone to the head for long periods of time and an increased risk of a very rare form of brain cancer. Even if the link is real, the risk posed by cellphones would be a thimble next to the elephant of smoking.

But I noticed that the columnist hadn’t actually quoted the nut. She paraphrased him. So I contacted Moskowitz, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and found that while he thinks there’s more to the alleged risk than many other experts do, or than I do, he was disappointingly reasonable. And not at all pleased with the Globe’s columnist.

Moskowitz does not believe the risk could turn out to be as bad as smoking. Nor did he say anything like that. What he said was that much more research needs to be done and it will take a very long time because this sort of science is slow and difficult – a point he illustrated by noting that it took decades for science to confirm that smoking causes cancer.

You know there’s not a lot of panicky nonsense around when columnists have to invent panicky nonsense to smack down.

Why did people generally take the news with such equanimity? It was puzzling. Until I remembered that I wrote a book about the psychology of risk perception. Cool, I thought. I’m an expert.

So I contacted myself at my office. There are many factors at work, I explained to myself. But the critical factor is the cellphone’s ubiquity.

Cellphone are everywhere. For most people, their cellphones are more familiar than their toothbrush. And that elementary fact has an important effect on their perception of its risk.

Imagine you are a chimpanzee. One day, you and your fellow chimps are chewing leaves in the sunshine when a tall, pale, hairless animal suddenly appears. You’ve never seen such a creature before.

You hoot an alarm and the whole band rushes about, chattering and glaring at the intruder. You are very, very nervous.

Unknown to you, the intruder is primatologist Jane Goodall, who wants to observe chimpanzees doing whatever it is chimps do in the wild. But she won’t get to do that today because you are all too focused on her to go about your business.

So she comes back the next day. Same reaction.

But she keeps coming back. Gradually, you get less alarmed by her presence.

Eventually, you don’t even notice her. And she gets to observe you going about your business.

What happened here was not a conscious calculation. It’s primitive wiring. As familiarity grows, perceived risk declines, even to the point where something that was once alarming is completely ignored. True for chimps, squirrels, and birds. True for people.

Just look at the history of technology, which is littered with new advances that made people very nervous but which faded into the background as they became familiar.

In the late 19th century, when electrification started to spread, people were terrified of fires and electrocution – reasonably enough given the lax safety standards of the day – but they also worried that electricity in the home caused depression, headaches, and countless other ailments, including “the premature exhaustion of life.” Time passed. Novelty became familiarity. And today the only time we think about the electricity flowing through our walls is when it stops.

This elementary cognitive mechanism makes it very difficult to get people worked up about fixtures in their daily lives. With some items – cigarettes, salt, fat – that’s a problem. But with most others, it’s not.

Your cellphone belongs to that econd category. As IARC sugested, there is enough evidence o warrant further research and to ake essentially costless steps like exting more.

But beyond that? Your inner chimpanzee was right to shrug.

Previous post: