The nightmare of medical research in the lay press

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.

“I can’t hear you, Dave, but at least I may possibly not get cancer.”

A lot of the way this stuff gets played up as the top story on news outlets is just bull. It’s no different than if I put “SEXXX” in screaming letters at the top of this post. It sure would get your attention, and snag a few search engines, but the post has little, if anything, to do with sex.

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 a journal. 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 cares 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. 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 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 different variations on ambiguity which, while getting your attention, don’t say much.

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 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!”

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

“Doctor Grumpy” is a neurologist who blogs at Doctor Grumpy in the House.

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