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The dregs of 2009, part 3: good science writing from December

January 24, 2010

Here are some links to recent articles that I liked, with excerpts.

Cellphones and cancer: Interphone can’t end the debate by Michael Repacholi for New Scientist (December 2, 2009).

It is therefore likely that Interphone will give cellphones a clean bill of health except for the small possibility of a risk of glioma or acoustic neuroma from intensive and long-term use, which requires further study before reaching any such conclusion. Unfortunately, it is also likely that the media will report this possible risk without any caveats, such as it probably being due to the limitations of the study, of which there are many.

…Can you recall how much you used your cellphone five or 10 years ago? Of course not, and that is Interphone’s biggest flaw. Scientific studies on RF health risks are only as good as their ability to assess RF exposure. For Interphone, this is plagued by “recall bias” that can affect the accuracy and reliability of the results.

Tiger Woods drives sales of physics book sky-high by Richard Lea for The Guardian (December 4, 2009).

“It’s not a book you sit down and read from cover to cover,” said Gribbin, “you can dip in and out of it. Tiger Woods is absolutely my target audience. He’s busy, hasn’t got a lot of time, but wants to catch up on what’s happening in physics.”

…[Gribbin’s] latest book is In Search of the Multiverse, which charts ideas about alternative realities from Hugh Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics to recent developments in M-theory pointing to a landscape of alternative universes in string theory.

“Perhaps Woods will see if he can find a universe in which none of this ever happened,” suggested Gribbin.

Cancer From the Kitchen? by Nicholas D. Kristof for The New York Times (December 6, 2009).

I asked these doctors what they do in their own homes to reduce risks. They said that they avoid microwaving food in plastic or putting plastics in the dishwasher, because heat may cause chemicals to leach out.

Mammogram Math by John Allen Paulos for The New York Times (December 10, 2009).

Much of our discomfort with the panel’s findings stems from a basic intuition: since earlier and more frequent screening increases the likelihood of detecting a possibly fatal cancer, it is always desirable. But is this really so? Consider the technique mathematicians call a reductio ad absurdum, taking a statement to an extreme in order to refute it. Applying it to the contention that more screening is always better leads us to note that if screening catches the breast cancers of some asymptomatic women in their 40s, then it would also catch those of some asymptomatic women in their 30s. But why stop there? Why not monthly mammograms beginning at age 15?

The answer, of course, is that they would cause more harm than good. Alas, it’s not easy to weigh the dangers of breast cancer against the cumulative effects of radiation from dozens of mammograms, the invasiveness of biopsies (some of them minor operations) and the aggressive and debilitating treatment of slow-growing tumors that would never prove fatal.

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