Image Credit: Irina Gelbukh [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Image Credit: Irina Gelbukh [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Once again there's a fresh round of blaring headlines and nervous chatter about potential links between cell phone use and cancer, this time based on a recent study purporting to show that a group of rats exposed to radio waves had greater incidents of tumors compared to a control group.

The radiation emitted by cell phones is not at the right frequency to ionize, excite, or even vibrate the stuff you're made of, so there's little to provide a causal link to cancer. So the standards of evidence for a study like this ought to be incredibly high. And then you read the study and find that the radiation-exposed rats lived longer, as a group, than the control rats. Since cancer rates correlate with age, something tells us that the research was not conducted well.

Sometimes scientists are their own worst enemies. There are the genuinely unscrupulous ones, willing to lie and cheat to advance their careers. And there are scientists who are, let's face it, inept at experimental design and statistical analysis. While we'll always have to be vigilant against those characters to make progress, they are thankfully in the minority and we can assume that most researchers, including the ones behind this study, have good intentions and are decent at their jobs.

But there are flaws in the modern scientific system that we must acknowledge. The unrelenting pressure to publish and the exhausting lifelong chase for funding create incentives for poor research to make it into journals and into the public discourse, muddying the waters and hurting science in the long run. This is especially harmful in fields that study extremely complex systems, like epidemiology, where good statistics are naturally hard to come by.

Scientists are just fighting for their careers, but when we need another round of discussions to (re)explain how to spot mistakes in metholodogy, something needs to be fixed.