Low prior + frightening implications = inflammatory epidemiology?

Publication Date: 
Jun 18, 2008

It is often difficult for the media and the public to appreciate the role of flawed but contributory epidemiologic research. A study of cell phone use and children's behavior problems (published in this issue) illustrates the ingredients of "inflammatory epidemiology"--there is a common exposure and a common health problem, a very low prior probability of a biologic effect, and a statistical association between the exposure and outcome. The authors acknowledge the study's limitations, and the reviewers and editors share the view that these findings are worth disseminating to the scientific community for their evaluation. This report moves the evidence from an extremely low prior probability to a slightly higher (but still extremely low) posterior probability. The potential for misinterpretation can be mitigated by appropriately cautious interpretation of the findings, and by reliance on expert panels to integrate evidence and to draw the behavioral and policy implications of such studies.