Saturday, June 24, 2006

Storm Over Cell Phones

The story was all over the media yesterday -- including the morning CBS network newscasts on KMOX. They quoted an item in the British Medical Journal that warned against using your cell phone in a thunderstorm, because it increased your chance of being hit by lightning.

The headlines on cable news channels went to the typical fear hype, making it sound as if your cell phone was a magnet that made you the most likely target for a lightning bolt -- you shouldn't even carry one, let alone use one, during a thunderstorm, or you risk death!

Unfortunately, that's not what the BMJ article says.

It tells the story of a London teenager who was struck by lightning while talking on her cell phone in a park during a thunderstorm. But it explicitly says that it's not clear what role, if any, her cell phone played in her injuries. It then goes on to highlight the rarity of any such injury, and added that, although possible, doctors have no way of knowing if the cell phone worsened the girl's injuries.

In other words, the stories that were being told got it completely wrong.

It wasn't until after I debunked this on my KMOX show yesterday that the other reports became a little more cautious in their reporting. CBS newsman Lou Miliano did a piece including comments from meteorologists and other scientists who pointed out that the girl was hit by lightning because she was standing outside in a park during a thunderstorm, not because she was on a cell phone. Others pointed out that there isn't nearly enough metal in a cell phone to attract lightning.

That's not quite the same as Dr. Emmett Brown figuring out a new way to know where and when lightning will strike so he can get 1.21 gigawatts into the DeLorean time machine.

Sounds like a perfect experiment for Adam and Jamie on an upcoming "Mythbusters." In the meantime, it would be nice if there were a little more science and reason and a lot less panic and fear-mongering among the rest of the news media.