Science, Cell Phones and Community

Most of my time in college was spent in humanities and social science classes. I was a History major that had a propensity for wandering into all sorts of disciplines, mostly untrained. Usually it was the topic that drew me into a class (Anthropology of Food, Aesthetics, Bible as Literature to name a few) but, I was also interested in learning how to see things differently. Every discipline has its different lenses for analyzing the world.

I didn’t spend much time in traditional science classes. I took Physics for my gen-ed and ended up enjoying it more than I thought I would (I lucked out with a truly wonderful professor). It was around my sophomore and junior year that my interest in science began to reignite. Most of my interest was in a popular science reading kind of way but, you have to start somewhere. I was drawn to certain characters, like Richard Feynman, who introduced me to the wonder and the joys of science.

During my senior year I started to understand the value of being science literate and I made it a goal (and it is still is a goal) to become as science literate as possible. I started studying biology, astronomy, nutrition science and whatever else piqued my interest. In my quest to become educated I found that the more controversial and political topics are often fraught with bad science. I’ve briefly talked about my interest in food chemistry and the problems I encountered there. Another topic that also interested me was radiation.

Now radiation is kind of a vague statement. Worries and discussion about radiation began again after the earthquakes caused nuclear crises in Japan. With nuclear radiation on the front page it was clear that there was ignorance on radiation in general (I count myself among the ignorant). People started producing helpful infographics to help put things in perspective. Around this same time I was working with someone who was worried about cell phone radiation (and all sorts of electro-magnetic radiation) and it got me interested in what the science had to say about it. Cell phones and cancer is a very popular news item. In fact, not too long ago the IARC classified it as category 2b, which is possibly carcinogenic to humans (you’ll also find things like coffee, picked vegetables, talcum powder there). Spend a little time googling it and you’ll see lots of fear-mongering about the dangers of cell phone and electro-magnetic fields (EMF). So, how does one go about finding good information?

One thing I learned during college was the value of finding scholarly communities. Once you start spending time on a topic you start to see who the scholars are in a community, what general consensus is on a topic, scholarly criticism going back and forth. The more time you spend looking closely at claims you begin to see what is trustworthy and what is not. One of my favorite science-based blogs is Science Based Medicine and they did a wonderful break-down of the IARC classification of cell phones. While this isn’t a journal it is a good place for people to go to have complex ideas explained. The articles are written by people who work in various fields they write about (of course you can’t automatically trust credentials but, it doesn’t hurt). The articles cite their sources and are more than self-referential blog loving. One of the nicest features of it being a blog is that the comments are open and it is there you’ll find good discussions that allow for push-back and also clarification. I won’t explain in detail what science has to say about cell phones right now (go read the post and the comic below). Long story short there is currently no strong evidence that we need to be worried about cell phones. We don’t have any plausible mechanism for cancer (cell phones are non-ionizing radiation) but, science is rarely settled, so in the future we might see long-term effects or effects we didn’t expect (maybe super human powers?! probably not). At this point the most dangerous part of owning a cell phone is driving while using it.

When learning about topics, especially things I am unfamiliar with, I value finding the communities around the topic (those with good and bad reputations) and getting to know them. It makes it a lot easier to see the flawed arguments or it raises the skeptical senses a little sooner when you see certain red flags.

For your viewing and educational pleasure a comic from Sci-ence.org about cell phones and radiation:

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