Mobile phones still don’t cause cancer

No it can’t.

When it comes to conspiracy theories, there are two kinds of theorists: the batshit insane, and the people who genuinely believe they’ve stumbled on a conspiracy.

There was a good example of what I assume is the latter last week in The Observer, which published an astonishing piece about the link between mobile phones and cancer. It turns out that mobile phones really do cause cancer, and there’s a global conspiracy to cover it up.

No they don’t, and no there isn’t.

This is something I know a fair bit about, because I’ve covered the subject a lot over the last two decades. Whether it’s phones or wireless networks, every now and then someone comes along and misunderstands the science to conclude that our brains are being cooked and there’s a conspiracy to cover it up.

Part of the problem is the word “radiation”. We assume that all radiation is ionising radiation, the kind that gives you skin cancer. But radiation also includes the radio waves that bring you Radio Scotland and the light waves coming from your light bulbs.

The radiation from phones and wireless routers is very low powered, non-ionising radiation. As far as science is aware, there is no possible way the radiation from these devices can cause cancer.

The Observer has run a follow-up piece this week, this time by somebody who knows the science. It gives the authors of the previous article a very polite but very thorough kicking.

That the authors attribute this lack of evidence for their claims to the machinations of a nebulous big telecoms is indicative of a mindset more conspiratorial than sceptical… Scaremongering narratives may be more alluring than the less sensational, scientific findings, but they are not harmless. We need only look at any vaccine panic to see the cost in human life when superstition outpaces science. In an age where misinformation can perpetuate rapidly, it can be difficult to parse fact from fiction, but it’s imperative that we hone our scientific scepticism rather than succumb to baseless panics – our very wellbeing depends on it.

If you’re a journalist considering writing an “ordinary thing causes cancer!” piece it’s worth applying Occam’s Razor, which suggests that the simplest explanation is the most likely. Which is more likely: a) there’s a global conspiracy that’s willingly sacrificing thousands or even millions of lives and which has operated for decades without leaving any evidence whatsoever, or b) you’ve got it wrong?

A journalist’s job is to report what the evidence says, not to cherry-pick the evidence to support the story the journalist wants to tell.

“Open Your Hands, Here Is Some Light”

This piece made me cry.

Every evening when the sun starts to set, my daughter picks me a bouquet of light.

The front door of our house is glass-paned, so she crouches in front of it, where lines of sun are drifting across the wood floor. She pretends to scoop something up — the motion very much like picking a flower — and then runs to me with empty hands.

“Here is some light,” she says, matter-of-factly.

Promises we can’t keep

I blogged a few days ago about the problem with mental health services: it’s all very well to urge people to get help, but the help needs to be there for them.

This excellent piece by Vic Parsons explains how the system is failing many LGBT people.

People are still being left in limbo, on waiting lists, for more than two years – largely because of the tiny pool of resources.

I live in Scotland, where the NHS is considerably less beleaguered than it is in the rest of the UK: there are fewer people in the whole of Scotland than there are in London, and as a result our services are under considerably less pressure. But even then things move glacially slowly.

I had an initial assessment for counselling services yesterday, some 19 months after I first self-referred to the Gender Identity Service (in Scotland you don’t need to go through a GP to access such services). The counsellor felt I’d benefit from six sessions or so, and put me into the system. I can expect my first appointment approximately nine months from now.

That’s February 2019, from a referral in October 2016.

I’m not in crisis. I’ve already had private counselling that I found very helpful; counselling I was fortunate enough to be able to afford. And I’m currently being treated via a private GP, again because I’m fortunate enough to be able to pay for it. But a system that effectively forces people to go private or go without treatment is a system that’s broken. It’s particularly bad for trans / NB people, but it’s bad for everybody.

As Vic Parsons writes:

I know that I can wait for that appointment. But what if I was a teenager, young and alone and afraid?

Talk is cheap

The death of Scott Hutchison has lead to a lot of discussion about mental health on social media, which is good and important. But what talking doesn’t do is fix an underfunded, overwhelmed health service.

So you’re sad, and you talk to your friends, and you make an appointment with your GP. That’s all good.

Now what?

If your GP takes you seriously, and some don’t, you wait. You wait for months, sometimes years – my own mental health was tied in with the gender stuff and I’m currently 19 months into that system without any treatment; the various general mental health services have long waiting lists too.

And when the wait is over, sometimes you still don’t get the help you need.

The drugs didn’t work. Your counsellor is incompetent, tells you there are black babies in Africa who have worse lives (that happened to me), tells you they’re not going to record that you’ve been seriously considering suicide because it makes everything more complicated (that too), signs you off as sane and healthy because your six sessions are up and there’s no availability for any more. You’re not any better, but boxes have been ticked.

And my experiences have been better than many people’s.

It’s crucial that people aren’t scared to ask for help. But it’s crucial that when they do, the help is there. All too often, it isn’t.

As Stephen Butchard points out, Scott Hutchison wrote very beautiful music that sometimes talked about his mental health issues, and he did so for two decades. But those issues still killed him.

Talk is cheap, and doesn’t fix the cracks people are falling through.

As I’ve written before, we need to do better, be better.

Our fathers and sons, our lovers and brothers

This photo made me cry.

It’s #Project84 from the Campaign Against Living Miserably, which aims to reduce the number of men who kill themselves. 84 is the number of men in the UK who kill themselves every week, and there are 84 of these sculptures on the London skyline. It’s stark and beautiful in a horrifying way.

We hear a lot about toxic masculinity these days, and sometimes it’s interpreted as “men are toxic”. They aren’t. But the stereotypes of masculinity – boys don’t cry, men can’t show weakness or talk about their feelings etc – can be toxic to men if it prevents them seeking and getting the help they need.

Women are much more likely to suffer from depression and related mental illnesses, but men are much more likely to kill themselves or die slowly through self-destructive behaviour.

As CALM puts it:

Every two hours a man in the UK takes his own life. Male suicide and mental health is a big issue that can’t be ignored any longer. It’s unacceptable that so many men are dying from suicide on a daily basis, yet so few people are talking about it.

These men are our fathers and our sons, our lovers and our brothers, our friends. For all their sakes we need to do better, to be better.

If you’re worried about somebody, there’s good advice here.

And if you’re worried about yourself, help is here.

I haven’t got lazyitis

Quack! Quack! Quack!

There’s a well known trick in the bullshit community: if you give something a scientific or medical sounding name, you can persuade some people that bullshit isn’t bullshit. It’s a technique used by quacks and scoundrels and rapacious corporations alike.

Today’s example is “rapid onset gender dysphoria”, which is appearing in various right wing newspapers and on social media.

The idea is that the sudden visibility of trans people isn’t because visible role models, online information and social media support encourages people to come out (hello!) when they’d previously stayed miserable in the closet.

No, it’s because trans is a magic space disease you can catch from internets.

The short version: bullshit!

The longer version: bulllllllllllllllllllllllshit!

The Advocate does an excellent takedown of the supposed science:

The entire theory is based on a single poster abstract in 2017 by Dr. Lisa Littman. Poster abstracts are often published when not only is the material too weak to be a journal article, but of insufficient quality to even be accepted for oral presentation at a conference. As such, the academic bar for a poster abstract getting accepted is very low. It was, however, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Littman’s abstract suffers from so many methodological flaws, logical errors, and unacknowledged biases that it fits firmly in the category of junk science.

Please do read the whole thing, but the executive summary is this: so-called rapid onset gender dysphoria is based on a survey of anti-trans activists on three anti-trans websites. Asked whether they believed being trans was something kids caught from the internet, those activists – who suggest being trans can be cured by yoga, among other nonsense – said yes. Those responses were then used to “prove” that being trans is something kids caught from the internet.

The same “social contagion” argument was used to describe the increased visibility of left-handed people in the 20th Century. Look at the scary graph!

The answer was simpler: when we stopped bullying left-handed people, left-handed people felt safer and stopped pretending to be right-handed.

As the BBC reports, quoting Chris McManus, professor of psychology and medical education at University College London:

“The natural rate of left-handedness is around 10% or 11%, but the rate was pushed down artificially during the Victorian period,” says Chris McManus.

“You can see it going down from about 1800 onwards through to about 1900.”

Not only would left-handed people have been encouraged not to be during this period, life was also pretty difficult for them and they quickly became very conspicuous.

“They went to work in factories using machines designed for right-handers – and the left-handers looked awkward,” says McManus.

“And then compulsory schooling came along and they were obliged to sit in classrooms and try and write with their right hand using an ink pen and they made a mess. The result of all of this was that left-handers became stigmatised – regarded as cack-handed, stupid.”

So, some of the people who had died on those Californian lists may well have been born left-handed, but spent most of their lives acting and identifying as right-handers.

What this so-called theory is trying to explain is something we already have a perfectly good term for: coming out.

Trans people are quite used to other people’s pseudoscientific bullshit. For example, a long-discredited theory called autogynephilia posits that all trans people fall into two categories: gay men who want to be women so they can have sex with men, and straight men who are turned on by the thought of being women. What about trans men? They’re all confused lesbians.

That one has been kicking about since the 80s and is still used by anti-trans activists today despite being repeatedly and comprehensively debunked; if rapid onset gender dysphoria doesn’t gain similar traction we’ll get some other pseudoscientific bullshit claiming we have madeupitis, Shatner’s Bassoon Deficiency or some other invented condition that the quick to print and slow to think can put in their articles.

Whatever they call it, it’ll be flummadiddle, skimble-skamble and arkymalarky.

(The blog title’s from Lazyitis by Manchester band Happy Mondays)

The drugs do work

The BBC reports that a new study, published in The Lancet, finds that anti-depressants really do work.

The study, which analysed data from 522 trials involving 116,477 people, found 21 common anti-depressants were all more effective at reducing symptoms of acute depression than dummy pills.

It’s timely given the massive and largely uncritical publicity recently given to admitted plagiarist Johann Hari, whose book Pull Your Socks Up You Miserable Bastards (I’m paraphrasing) argues that everything we – that is you, me and the medical establishment – know about depression is wrong.

Dean Burnett’s critique is worth your time; it’s a rare bit of common sense in a sea of credulous coverage. He debunks many of Hari’s key claims, such as the idea that anti-depressants are the only treatment offered for depression or that nobody but Hari has considered the link between life events and depression.

I’d always assumed the role of life events was widely accepted, and has been for decades. In psychiatry/medicine/psychology, this is often known as the Biopsychosocial model, and any decent professional will be very aware of it. Far from being a revelation of Hari’s, it was mooted back in the 70s, and has been part of standard teaching for at least 20 years.

Anti-depressants work. They work differently for different people, and some people respond differently to different antidepressants. Others develop a tolerance or intolerance. Regimes may need changed, or doses adjusted. Some people experience side-effects, or don’t get the outcomes they expect. But that’s medicine for you.

What anti-depressants don’t do is magically make everything okay, and nobody sensible claims that they do.

They’re medicine, not magic. If part of your depression is because your life is shit in every conceivable way, a course of Sertraline (or whatever drug) isn’t going to change that.

Think of it this way. Forget what you know about depression and just imagine being followed around all day by

WHACK

a man who

WHACK

for no reason

WHACK

keeps punching you

WHACK

in the face.

WHACK

It’ll take more than

WHACK

Nurofen to stop

WHACK

him from doing that

WHACK

but it’s impossible

WHACK

to think about what

WHACK

you need to

WHACK

do to make him

WHACK

stop when you’ve

WHACK

got a constant

WHACK

headache.

Anti-depressants don’t stop life from punching you in the face, but they can help you feel less punch-drunk. They can give you the clarity to see where the punches are coming from and to maybe dodge the next one, and the one after that.

I was on anti-depressants for a couple of years. I don’t need them any more. The drugs didn’t cure me, but they gave me the space I needed to see what had to change.

A bad take on good news

Good news! Advances in diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer means fewer women (and men: men get breast cancer too) are dying! Also, men are living longer!

Daily Mail:

“When I arrive in Hell, the Devil will sound like a headline”

I’m indebted to my old friend, the inimitable Professor Batty, for telling me about this excellent essay on the internet and reality and our feelings and quite a lot of other things too.

Do it now. Fight the new pace of thinking designed to keep us in Facebook fights and make Facebook more money. Resist getting so wound up by every story that you accelerate off a cliff into apathy. Lengthen the circuit between a candid thought and your anticipation of how it will be received, a circuit constantly shrinking in fear. Try your ideas out with people you are not desperate to impress, so there’s less ego clouding your discussion.