CNN's story led with a provocative and possibly-alarming header: "Cell phones can affect sperm quality, researcher says". That's distressing by virtually any rational standard, no?

Cellular phones have a long history of being feared and mistrusted. There is an abundance of people who believe they cause brain cancer, despite lack of anything like hard evidence; a few years ago they were being blamed for fires at filling stations (something ably debunked by MythBusters in episode 14); they've even been blamed for lightning-strike deaths. The one thing we know is dangerous about them — using them while driving — is still stubbornly pursued by people who really ought to know better.

By now, many of us have probably heard about the egg supposedly cooked when it was placed between two active cellular phones. That, as it turns out, is also a hoax. The RF (radio frequency) energy emitted by a cellular phone is in the milliwatt range, and often it's not even in the microwave frequency zone (1 to 40 GHz; most handsets operate between 600 and 900 MHz, just below the microwave spectrum). There are 1.2 and 2.4 GHz cordless telephone units that operate at higher frequencies than cellular phones — and many people don't think twice about picking up a unit like that and talking for an hour or more.

Nevertheless, cellular phones appear to be spooky technology to many, even though they're little more than person-to-person walkie-talkies. But CNN's headline, and the story they ran, clearly are pandering to this technological fear from which many of us suffer. It's when we dig down into details that things begin to fall apart.

In the small study, [Cleveland Clinic scientist Ashok] Agarwal's team took semen samples from 32 men and brought them to the lab. Each man's sample was placed into small, conical tubes and divided into two parts: a test group and a control group. The control group was unexposed to cell phone emissions, but kept under the same conditions and temperature as the test group. The semen in the test group was placed 2.5 centimeters from an 850 MHz cell phone in talk mode for 1 hour. Researchers say that 850 MHz is the most commonly used frequency.

I can see several problems here, right off the bat. For starters, 2.5 cm is one inch. No one carries a cellular phone within one inch of his testicles unless he's stuffed it right into his briefs. ("Say, is that a BlackBerry in your shorts, or are you happy to see me?") Next, how many people actually operate a phone in talk mode — when RF emissions are highest — for one hour solid while the phone is in their pocket? Finally, 1" of empty air and a test tube is not the same thing as 1" of flesh and bone.

To be fair, the study's authors admit some of the same problems:

They used the measurement of 2.5 centimeters to mimic the distance between the trouser pocket and the testes. Agarwal reasoned that many men keep their active cell phones in their pants pocket while talking on their headsets. […]

However, the study does have major limitations, he acknowledged, such as the small sample size. It also was conducted in a lab and so cannot account for the protection a human body might offer, such as layers of skin, bone and tissue.

I don't know where Agarwal got his 1" measurement. You don't even need to pull out a ruler to understand what a ludicrously small distance that is; from your fingertip to your first joint is approximately one inch. Is your phone ever that close to your groin, even when it's set on vibrate?

I also don't know how or why Agarwal "reasoned" that men who use Bluetooth do it for an hour at a time — think of most conversations you have with a BT headset and imagine doing that for an hour — but it appears this isn't the first time his team has come (!) up with bizarre results.

In a previous study, Agarwal and his team found that men who used their cell phones more than four hours a day had significantly lower sperm quality than those who used their cell phones for less time. Those findings were based on self-reported data from 361 subjects.

Self-reported data. So there was no chance at an objective, controlled metric there at all. I have no idea how they collected their samples nor what "self-reported data" actually means, and since the CNN piece didn't backlink to this previous "study", there's no easy way to find out.

I'm not entirely sure why Cleveland Clinic is keeping this guy around. His reasoning is shaky at best; his methodology is deeply flawed; his conclusions are, to put it kindly, questionable. To borrow from Pauli, they're not even wrong. I sure as hell wouldn't want him diagnosing any conditions I thought I had.

Crossposted from my dive.

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