When media outlets fail to employ reporters with either a grounding in science (no pun intended, as you’ll see), or the wherewithal to contact several sources in writing a story, I furrow my brow and wag my finger. While browsing my Sunday morning blogs, I found a “lovely little story on Fox News’ website regurgitating a letter from British doctors that reports mobile phones increase your risk of death in a lightning strike”:http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,200770,00.html.
I am not trying to vilify Fox here, although in general I find their style of cock-eyed caterwauling more insulting to human intelligence than the breed you get from CNN, or that unspeakable venture MSNBC. “Dozens of news agencies have likewise masticated this story for the human population, then regurgitated it into our largely undiscerning mouths.”:http://news.ask.com/news?qsrc=1&o=0&q=lightning%20mobile%20phone&news=true
However, the story itself points to a weakness in the way media portrays an issue that can be clarified by science.
The “original letter, which can only be read in full if you are a paying subscriber to the journal”:http://bmj.bmjjournals.com/cgi/content/extract/332/7556/1513-b, appears to use a single instance of a girl, using a cell phone when hit by lightning, as a broader cautionary tale: DO NOT HOLD CONDUCTIVE OBJECTS TO YOUR SKIN IN A THUNDERSTORM. She would have been in as much danger if she were walking to her car, car keys clutched in her hand, when the strike occurred. The point is not that cell phones are some new source of danger during a thunderstorm; it’s that human skin is a bad conductor, and it can save us from the full effect of a strike via a phenomenon known as “flashover”. However, any good conductor (keys, iPods, … ) in contact with the skin will change the electrical properties, allowing electricity a freer path through our bodies and, if we are really unlucky, straight across our hearts or our heads. The victim in this case had a conductor pressed against her head, and the lightning used this as a path of opportunity.
The real lesson here is not centered on cell phones – it is centered on taking cover during a storm. The Earth has been generating storms since long before humans existed, and there is little our bodies can do to protect us from them. Shelter is our only safety from the power of a lightning strike, but keeping a conductor away from our bodies is an important first step to preventing more injury than necessary.
I was pleased to see in the “Rapid Responses” to this letter that an “engineer raised the above points”:http://bmj.bmjjournals.com/cgi/eletters/332/7556/1513-b#136415 (we came up with “iPods” independent of one another). I am annoyed that the media used their usual tactics to turn this into a cell phone scare instead of a lesson in electrical safety, or a lesson in statistics:
“It seems to me that since the number of mobile phones registered in the UK now approximates the total population, you’re just as likely to be struck by lightning when phoning or texting as when doing literally anything else.”
– Martin Nicholson, Applications Engineering Manager, Teknoflex Limited, in his “rapid response” to the BMJ letter
The point that Martin makes here is that one had best normalize out the probability that a person struck by lightning is carrying a mobile phone. The probability of being struck by lightning is about 1/1,000,000 [AskAScientistsLightning] [CanadiansStruckByLightning], and is roughly the same for everybody (though there are geographic factors that can change this for small populations). The fraction of the population in Britain that own a mobile phone is 50% (in 2002) [BritishMobileOwners]. Since the chance of being struck by lightning is about the same for everybody, you’d observe that about half the time people hit by lightning were carrying or using mobile phones. You therefore might believe there is a correlation, but because half the population carries one this interpretation is no better than flipping a coin. Since the 50% number is four years old, it’s very likely that more people own such phones, so the fraction of those struck by lightning who have phones has climbed proportionately (through no fault of the phone!).
There is more fault to go around on this story. The doctors involved in the letter writing are calling for cell phone companies to warn us of this danger. However, since they mentioned that three such cases have been found in Britain, but not how many cases *without* mobile phones occurred, there is no basis to judge the reality of the phenomenon. They don’t call for double-blind tests with mobile phones and conductive dummies to be done, but rather for a public health reaction to overinterpretation of limited statistics. As doctors, they were supposed to have taken biology, or chemistry, or even physics. Where is the scientific skepticism, the urge to invoke research? And why don’t they ask car manufacturers to warn us of the danger of carrying keys, or gum manufacturers to warn us about foil gum wrappers, or Apple to warn us about the shiny metal iPod cases?
Regarding the media’s behavior, one tactic here used by Fox News is the old “one scientist dissenting vs. three medical doctors raising alarm” trick in trying to discredit opposing opinions: “One U.S. lightning expert is skeptical, however.” Instead of saying, “We spoke with only one expert, and he was skeptical – therefore, 100% of such experts are skeptical, with a 100% uncertainty on that opinion” they make it sound like only one expert in the U.S. disagrees.
To contrast this recklessness, a few paragraphs later the article says, “The letter in the journal, however, is not backed by the sort of scientific rigor that goes into many published papers.” Why didn’t they say this in the first paragraph? Most casual readers – and I believe most news consumers are casual readers – wouldn’t have gotten this far, or maybe even noticed the line. I didn’t see it until my second read, and I am a scientist looking for such things!
This story is yet another example of how we as scientists and educators have failed the public. We really have to do a better job of disseminating skepticism with a healthy dose of reason and inquisitiveness to back it up…
.. [AskAScientistLightning] “http://www.newton.dep.anl.gov/askasci/math99/math99144.htm”:http://www.newton.dep.anl.gov/askasci/math99/math99144.htm
.. [CanadiansStruckByLightning] “http://www.coolth.com/llp.htm”:http://www.coolth.com/llp.htm
.. [BritishMobileOwners] “http://www.cancer-health.org/”:http://www.cancer-health.org/