A single cluster (or even seven) does not prove a link to phone masts and cancer

The Times has an article today about how a cancer clusters have been identified around mobile phone masts. Quick! Panic!

Or don’t. I’m frankly amazed that, even taking into account the general appalling reporting of science in the UK press, that a journalist would fall for that one. The story is about seven , isolated clusters, all of which have been ‘discovered’ by anti-phone mast activists around phone masts. They don’t appear to have found a link to a specific cluster, but rather a vague linkage to “cancers, brain hemorrhages and high blood pressure”. Anyone who knows anything about statistics (and I would never claim to be an expert) knows that clustering is a fact of life.

I play a lot of board games, and thus I’m accustomed to the fact that people can roll 12s on two dice with alarming frequency. It doesn’t happen neatly once in every 36 throws. On the road my parents live on, which has around 20 houses, there were 6 instances of breast cancer in a two year period. They have no mobile phone mast nearby – a fact which causes me great inconvenience when I come to stay.

The point is, not only do statistically insignificant ‘clusters’ happen all the time, but our very existence depends on it. If the universe was uniformly spread and had no ‘clumps’ in it, there’d have been no big bang, no universes, no stars, no us. While cancer clusters can indeed suggest there is something in the environment causing it, most don’t: they are simply brutal reminders of reality.

Who is this ‘scientist’ who has co-ordinated this study? Well, Dr John Walker, it emerges, “spent 40 years in statistical research for Dunlop.” I’m afraid that isn’t reassuring. You don’t send a glorified tire number-cruncher in to do an epidemiologist’s job. The biggest nonsense is when he is quoted as saying:

“Masts should be moved away from conurbations and schools and the power turned down.”

The man is clearly as much an expert in radio communications as he is in disease control. You can’t have both. Either you move them away and ramp up the power (in which case, individual phones will have to use more power to work – right next to your ear where they would be doing more damage), or you turn the power down and have them nearer conurbations and schools. I actually quite like the latter idea, but I suspect it has a snowball in hell’s chance of finding favour with Dr Wilson and his anti-mast pals.

UPDATE: Bad Science this week is relevant here.


  1. Yeah, heard about it on Today this morning.

    I bloody wish wifi was as powerful as these teachers seem to think it is! Then my PC at home would work somewhat better than it does and I wouldn’t have to constantly resist the urge to chuck the thing out of the window. On the other hand, maybe I’m thinking that because the radiowaves are putting the thought in my brain.


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