Baseball legend Yogi Berra is said to have fretted, “I don’t want to make the wrong mistake.” As opposed to the right mistake? A mistake that is both wrong and right is the alleged connection between cell phone use and brain cancers. Reports of a link between the two have periodically surfaced ever since cell phones became common appendages to people’s heads in the 1990s. As recently as this past May 17, Time magazine reported that despite numerous studies finding no connection between cell phones and cancer, “a growing band of scientists are skeptical, suggesting that the evidence that does exist is enough to raise a warning for consumers—before mass harm is done.”
Their suggestion follows the precautionary principle, which holds that if something has any potential for great harm to a large number of people, then even in the absence of evidence of harm, the burden of proof is on the unworried to demonstrate that the danger is not real. The precautionary principle is a weak argument for two reasons: (1) it is difficult to prove a negative—that there is no effect; (2) it raises unnecessary public alarm and personal anxiety. Cell phones and cancer is a case study in the precautionary principle misapplied, because not only is there no epidemiological evidence of a causal connection, but physics shows that it is virtually impossible for cell phones to cause cancer.