5 Tech Myths Debunked: Cell Phones Don't Cause Cancer & More
by Matt Smith
Myths are more common than most people will admit. They perpetuate because they sound like they could be true - and nobody has time to fact-check every last detail. Eventually, as the myths are repeated time and time again, they sound more factual than the truth.
Technology is as susceptible to myths as any other niche. The complexity of the subject, combined with the rapid introduction of new, unfamiliar innovations, creates a perfect breeding ground for misunderstanding. Let's set these tech myths straight.
RAM Usage Is Bad
MakeUseOf will occasionally receive a question from a reader that asks about how to reduce RAM usage on a computer, tablet or smartphone. Their alarm is understandable. A user browsing the web in Windows 7 might open their task manager to find over six gigabytes of RAM used. "Ack!" they think, "no wonder my computer is so slow!"
In truth, this relationship should be flipped on its head. RAM is very, very quick. Mechanical hard drives and some forms of flash storage (like most SD cards) are slow. By storing data that might be needed in RAM, a computer can increase the load speed of frequently accessed software. If RAM is not full of data, it's effectively doing nothing, so why have it sit empty?
Smartphone users shouldn't worry for the same reason. Background apps can negatively impact performance on an Android phone, but this usually isn't because of memory. Instead, the culprit is usually an app that's running in the background. Clearing memory appears to improve performance only because the offending app is closed to free up space.
Improperly Unmounting A USB Drive Will Delete Data
Windows has long sounded the alarm about improperly unmounting disk drives. To this day, you may still receive warning messages when you remove a drive that you haven't properly disabled through the operating system. Given the alarm, you'd think that the consequences of disobeying would be disastrous.
Not true. USB drives can be freely removed from a computer without issue in most situations. I can attest to this personally. As part of my work, I often have to move flash drives from one PC to the next, and I've never lost data from a drive because of it.
So why the warning? Microsoft is playing it safe. Data corruption can occur, but only if a USB drive is actively in use at the moment it is unplugged. Most users don't do this. Still, Microsoft doesn't want to be on the hook for the 1-in-1000th time it does occur. And that's why the alarm is raised even when there's no fire.
You Don't Need An Antivirus If You're Careful
Whenever I write an antivirus article I inevitably receive a reply from some smart-alec who claims that you don't need an antivirus if you're careful. Viruses come from infected files, right? So just don't download them! You'll be fine.
Well, actually, that tech myths couldn't be more wrong. A decade and a half ago, most viruses were distributed through infected files, but they've become far more sophisticated since then. Worms, a specific class of virus, can infect any vulnerable computer through networking exploits. Other viruses spread using browser vulnerabilities. And still more are designed to spread via USB drives or local networks.
Clever users might respond by claiming people don't have to worry if their software is up to date. This too is no guarantee. Zero-day exploits are common and even a patched system is a sitting duck. An antivirus may be able to stop such an attack (even though it's unknown) by using heuristic detection to raise the alarm when a file behaves suspiciously. Those without antivirus, however, have no defense.
Cell Phones Cause Cancer
Many consumer technologies rely on energy and therefor emit or use some form of radiation. Even radio waves are a form of radiation, and since cell phones use them, there's been concern that having a source of radiation close to our heads could cause cancer. This has been backed up by an alarming report from the World Health Organization which labeled cell phones a "Class B Carcinogen".
You'd expect that to be based on some fairly hefty evidence, right? Actually, the WHO report is less damning than it sounds in headlines. Class B simply means that a study has indicated that there might be a link, but the link is too weak to be definitive. Meanwhile, numerous other studies have found no link. This includes a massive Danish study involving 350,000 people that was released in late 2011.
Further evidence against the risk of cancer can be found in what we know of physics. Radiation comes in multiple forms, and humans only need to worry about radiation energetic enough to damage DNA. Ultraviolet rays from the sun, which can cause skin cancer, are over 400,000 times more energetic than those emitted from cell phones. Low energy waves like radio can't hurt DNA, and that means they can't cause cancer.
Everything Electronic Causes Cancer
This means that what holds true for cell phones should hold true for other wireless devices, as well. The rise of wireless networks has caused distress about what all those waves bouncing through the atmosphere might do to our cells. The answer is simple - nothing. Sleeping on a bed made of wireless routers would be uncomfortable, but it's not going cause cancer.
Some users become concerned because of another alarming effect. Heat. As electronics are used, they put out heat, and that heat is absorbed by our bodies. That's why your thighs are warm after using a laptop.
Computers can be harmful if they're too hot, but the problem isn't limited to electronics. Dermatologists have long known that constant exposure to heat can cause scaly, discolored skin which is often permanent. A hot computer can cause this - as can a heating blanket, seat warmer, fireplace or oven.
While skin discoloration and minor burns can be a problem to a handful of people, there's no evidence that normal, intermediate use of a computer will cause cancer. The lesson from dermatology is simple. If something is hot, don't hang around it too long.
This is merely a handful of tech myths. There are plenty more out there, ranging from the believable to the utterly outrageous. Have you heard a tech myth that you later found out wasn't true? Tell us about it in the comments.Image Credits: Laura Billings, Unknown, Arthur, Ed Yourdon