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.

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