Tumor Rumors

By Shya Scanlon

The Feed

GQ ran a pretty damning article about the potentially harmful effects of cell phone usage, and how those effects–or rather, studies finding evidence of those effects–has been systematically covered up by the wireless communications industry, regulatory bodies under its influence, and by the government itself.

It’s an interesting piece in its own right–and something all avid cell phone users (not to mention those of us chronically exposed to wi-fi networks) might want to check out. But equally interesting is the meta-narrative about conspiracy, and how we hold onto perspectives and “knowledge” that permits desirable behavior.

“It’s hard to talk about the dangers of cell-phone radiation without sounding like a conspiracy theorist. This is especially true in the United States, where non-industry-funded studies are rare, where legislation protecting the wireless industry from legal challenges has long been in place, and where our lives have been so thoroughly integrated with wireless technology that to suggest it might be a problem—maybe, eventually, a very big public-health problem—is like saying our shoes might be killing us.”

If the article’s author is even half-right, the effort to quash evidence that cell phone usage could be harmful has been very intentional, calculated, and, yes, conspiratorial. But isn’t it strange that, in a way, conspiracy theories themselves might be their own worse enemy? Like the devil convincing everyone he doesn’t exist–I can only imagine how grateful “big business” must be that people tend to dismiss as melodramatic or crazy anything broad and complex and thorough enough to be considered conspiratorial.

How many conspiracy films have that scene in which, when confronted by the “lunatic” hero who’s uncovered the conspiracy but hasn’t yet been able to convince anyone else, the smug CEO leans in over his untouched beef tartar, and says with mock sympathy, “You know how you sound, don’t you?”

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SHYA SCANLON is the Fiction Reviews Editor for The Nervous Breakdown. Scanlon's work has appeared in the Mississippi Review, Literary Review, New York Quarterly, Guernica Magazine, Opium Magazine, and others. His book of prose poetry, In This Alone Impulse, was published by Noemi Press in January, 2010. In 2009, his novel Forecast was serialized online across 42 journals and literary blogs as part of the Forecast 42 Project. Forecast will be published by Flatmancrooked in December, 2010. He received his MFA from Brown University, where he was awarded the John Hawkes Prize in Fiction. Please visit him at www.shyascanlon.com.

14 responses to “Tumor Rumors”

  1. Greg Olear says:

    I met a guy once who claims to have done black ops for the CIA. He told me that the best way to cover up something outlandish that really happened is to make a movie or TV show about it, so that if the truth came out, people would say, “That’s not true; that’s the plot of The X Files [or whatever].”

    I can never know if he really did do such work, although I suspect he wasn’t lying. But that seems like a smart strategy.

    Re: cell phones. Seems akin to cigarettes. I mean, how could anyone in their right mind believe that smoking wasn’t harmful, even before the studies? You’re inhaling fucking smoke. Same thing with cell phones. We know they’re harmful. We just don’t want to think about it.

    • Shya Scanlon says:

      Someone creating a movie about a conspiracy to cover up the real one would make a good movie.

      I’m not so sure your cigarette analogy is sound. Do we think it’s bad for us? I mean, maybe people “wouldn’t be surprised” upon finding out, because we’re kind of half-trained to think all things are bad for us. But I’m not sure I “know” they’re harmful–at least not in an acute, mess with your DNA and blood-brain barrier way. Did you read the article? It’s crazy.

  2. James D. Irwin says:

    I figure I’m safe from the adverse effects of using a cell phone. I use a mobile.

  3. Tawni says:

    Wow. This is a really fascinating article you’ve linked, Shya. I think these seem like valid concerns. It makes me glad I dislike talking on the phone. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Richard Cox says:

    Nice post. I was actually thinking of doing a piece on this until I saw yours.

    The article is compelling, and certainly any of us can imagine cell phone companies and even the military squashing research that threatened their livelihood. Greg’s analogy regarding tobacco companies is valid in that sense at least. I think we the public should demand more research to look further into Frey’s claims (an ironic last name when we think about the truth, haha). A few studies do not necessarily prove the claimed effects of EM from cell phones, including not only the proximity of the microwave radiation to the brain but if/how the radiation affects cell chemistry or electrical fields.

    What I found most interesting about the article were the reader comments. Like this one:

    “So youre saying that a beam of energy shooting straight into a device youre holding against your thick skull is not harmful? Im not a scientist, but I disagree.”

    Or all the anecdotal “evidence” from people who know someone who had a cell phone-shaped tumor behind his ear, or in his groin or wherever.

    These comments illustrate once again gross misunderstanding of the scientific method and the concept of causality. A “beam of energy?” A few word-of-mouth stories of tumors? Like that proves anything?

    Again, the article is great, and certainly it raises awareness about a possible health problem with phones and even WiFi installations. In the meantime, while we await additional research, those who care enough can research the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) of their cell phones and make informed decisions accordingly. The rest of us may waste time trading myths and spreading misinformation that’s probably worse for humanity than the phones themselves.

    • Shya Scanlon says:

      You’re doubtless right, Richard, that there are ways to get information on one’s own–but I don’t see how you expect a layman to understand what’s at stake, let alone the technology involved and the statistical probability of its potentially dire effects. Any society whose technology has reached such an extreme level of specialization critically depends on either the good consciences of industrial organizations, governing bodies which regulate such organizations, investigative journalists like Mr. Ketchum, or, more likely, some combination of these. We simply can’t go around understanding all the things we use every day. I’m not suggesting this is a good position to be in–simply that it happens to be the case. Despite the fact that a small percentage of our population has access to excellent education and specialized knowledge, the vast majority of us are basically cavemen with fancy toys. Whose responsibility is it to protect the cavemen?

      • Richard Cox says:

        You’re absolutely right, Shyla. Only a few truly understand the most advanced ideas in any field. What I mean for the layperson (including myself) is not to understand the particular research in any one field but to understand science and probability in their most basic terms. Cause and effect relationships, proper sample sizes, etc. No advance degree required. All you have to know is not to direct certainty where uncertainty lies. That’s all.

        • Shya Scanlon says:

          Common sense, you’re saying. Sure, I can dig that. But there’s no way around our dependence on sources of information, and maybe that’s where the dilemma of “conspiracy” has it’s source: our ongoing anxiety regarding that dependency. Surely the level/intensity of the dependence varies from person to person, and even within a given person, the dependence changes over time, and is experienced differently–sometimes with calm resignation, sometimes with hateful resentment. Sounds like we both wish it would more often be experienced as an opportunity for personal growth…

        • Richard Cox says:

          No way around it, indeed. I am among the worst offenders. I love my technology and would be lost without it.

          I suppose that’s why the idea of an EMP (see this post by Slade) is so compelling to me. What would life be like if the technology was suddenly gone? Especially since these days we are missing the necessary infrastructure to support our population if the electricity disappeared?

          And don’t get me wrong, I love a good conspiracy story. But when we are being serious and looking for the truth, even if there IS a conspiracy, it doesn’t help anything to introduce even more misinformation into the discussion.

  5. I don’t believe there’s a conspiracy to dupe cell phone customers into continuing the use of their cell phones. And there is, if we can believe stats, more risk to our lives by texting or talking on the phone while driving than by talking on a cell phone. Anybody who can’t put 2 and 2 together doesn’t need to be duped, and that’s the majority of us. Besides, the corporate doofuses covering up something that might be injurious to their consumers aren’t talking to each other, their not huddling with the competition like the hospitals and doctors do who are trying to cure and treat cancer. They’re not “conspiring” against anybody. They’re just desperately looking out for their own assets and their own jobs.

    As for “cellphone shaped tumors” I’m as skeptical about that as I am the urban legends of Glenn Beck shaped tumors on the hearts of his viewers.

    There is a risk-benefit factor to the cause just as there is to the treatment. Everything in moderation, including right-wing talk show hosts and the other two biggest threats to our well-being, often coming from the same insidious source; those who have one hand on our wallets and those who spread the fear that somebody else is in control of our well-being.

    I didn’t use to think much about this. It all came about 8 months ago when my 10 year old son was found to have Medulloblastoma, a tumor on his cerebellum. He was born with this cancer cell, like we all are with various forms of cancer cells, it was waiting for the right time to go mad and explode into his head and our lives, and it did in spite of never talking on a cell phone, his vegetarian diet since birth and every other precaution we took to protect him from man-made cancer causing threats. And it made me reconsider, like nothing else could, the risk-benefit factor and how much a part of life it is. Of course I knew, when he was born, what the risk-benefit was to having kids but I’m glad I did it anyway. I heard a lot of different things about having kids from good and bad parents, grandparents, dog owners and gay men but it didn’t stop me. And this event hasn’t changed much about my job as a parent; it’s to keep my son alive and always has been.

    My son’s brain tumor also made me realize a lot about what is “out to get me”. Yeah, smoking causes cancer, too, and those with any brains don’t do it. But it doesn’t cause cancer in everyone who smokes, any more than crossing the street without looking causes everyone who does it to get hit by a bus. We’re all just pretty much carrying around our own risk-benefit factor and it doesn’t match up to the stats or the supposed conspiracies.

    So good luck with that. Live soberly and you’ll live longer and healthier – and by that I mean in moderation. Remember that nice guys may not finish first but they finish best. And you could also try using ear buds on your cell but make sure you hold the phone away from your body. Just don’t be surprised if you end up with cancer of the hand.

    • Shya Scanlon says:

      That’s a welcome perspective, James. It is certainly true that we’re constantly surrounded by carcinogens–both natural and man-made–it’s simply impossible to live a risk-free life, and an attempt to do so would incur far more inconvenience, anxiety and pain than any sane person could tolerate.

      I’m terribly sorry to learn of your son’s condition.

  6. If the signals affect the flight patterns of birds and honeybees, it is undoubtedly harmful to humans. I’ve always been of that belief. It’s like the sonar and the whale and dolphin. But big business is big business is big business.

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