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Phoney basis to panic

Again the UK authorities find no evidence that mobile phones are a threat to health - and again they warn us to be cautious anyway.

Sandy Starr

Topics Politics

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There is no scientific evidence to suggest that the radiation emitted by mobile phones or mobile phone base stations poses a risk to our health. Yet the UK authorities have published a new report that can only confuse the public, by concluding that in spite of the lack of evidence that mobile phones are a risk, we should nonetheless take care when using them.

This isn’t the first time that such irresponsible advice has been given. The new report, Health Effects from Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields follows an earlier, highly influential report along the same lines published in 2000, Mobile Phones and Health. This is more commonly known as the Stewart Report, after Sir William Stewart who oversaw the publication of the report and who is now chair of the Health Protection Agency, which works closely with the radiation regulator that has produced Health Effects from Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields.

After reviewing the available scientific evidence, the Stewart Report concluded that ‘there is one substantial established risk to health from mobile phone technology, namely through the increased incidence of motor vehicle accidents when drivers use mobile phones’. In case readers persisted in fearing the effects of mobile phone radiation, the report made the point absolutely clear: ‘This effect is almost certainly due to the distracting effect of the conversation, rather than to interference with steering the vehicle or to a direct influence of radiofrequency radiation on the brain.’ (1)

But rather than reassuring the public on the basis of its scientific conclusions, the authors of the Stewart Report recommended ‘that a precautionary approach to the use of mobile phone technologies be adopted until much more detailed and scientifically robust information on any health effects becomes available’ (2). By imposing an impossible burden upon science to disprove a risk to our health before mobile phones could be presumed safe, rather than waiting for science to prove that there are any grounds for mobile phones to be considered dangerous, this advice did nothing to counter the panic.

Among the Stewart Report’s recommendations was ‘that the issue of possible health effects of mobile phone technology should be the subject of a further review in three years’ time’ (3). So now we have Health Effects from Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields. Does this new report put paid to fear, by stating the scientific truth, one way or the other, about health risks from mobile phones? Does it hell.

Predictably the new report concludes what we knew already – that ‘the weight of evidence now available does not suggest that there are adverse health effects from exposures to radiofrequency fields’. But as before, this scientific conclusion is undermined by the warning that ‘the published research of radiofrequency exposures and health has limitations, and mobile phones have only been in widespread use for a relatively short time. The possibility therefore remains that there could be health effects from exposure to radiofrequency fields’ (4).

This possibility does, indeed, remain. The possibility also remains that the sun will not rise tomorrow, that the sky might fall on our heads, and that the universe is governed by a supreme being. We do not look to scientists to entertain possibilities; we are quite capable of doing that for ourselves. What we look to scientists for, and what we expect our governing institutions to support scientists in doing, is to tell us what they understand to be true.

That scientific truth is, from a philosophical perspective, contingent upon future discoveries and developments is self-evident. This is an observation you might expect to see in a philosophical dissertation on the scientific method, but it is not warranted in the conclusions of an investigation into the health risks posed by mobile phones. It warrants no place in such an investigation, because it applies to everything we know about the world, and therefore adds nothing useful to what we know about mobile phones in particular.

Unlike our primitive ancestors, we are not forced to organise society on the basis of non-specific fears about future possibilities. Modern science provides us with specific conclusions, from existing evidence, that are our best available guide to the world we inhabit. Mentioning an unsubstantiated ‘possibility…that there could be health effects from exposure to radiofrequency fields’ in a report on mobile phone safety can only lead the media and the public to mistrust your evidence and conclusions. And if you do not believe that your evidence and conclusions deserve to be trusted, then you have no business issuing them in a public report.

If nothing can be presumed certain, and science isn’t believed to hold the answers, then anybody’s ill-informed opinions about risks to our health become valid. I discovered this when, on the day that Health Effects from Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields was published, I was invited to speak in defence of mobile phone technology on the Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2. Vine challenged me with an anecdote about a colleague of his who refuses to speak on a mobile phone for longer than a minute, on the grounds that ‘I can just feel there’s something wrong, it’s heating up my head, it’s obvious it’s a problem’.

We ‘feel’ all sorts of things of which science has disabused us. We ‘feel’ that heavier objects fall more quickly than lighter ones, but our scientific understanding of gravity has shown us that this is not the case. We used to ‘feel’ that leeches and bloodletting were effective remedies for various ailments, but fortunately medicine has long progressed beyond that assumption.

If you ‘feel’ that a mobile phone is ‘heating up my head’, then either you trust in science to inform you whether or not your feelings have any basis in established reality, or you do not. If you do not trust in science, then no amount of reports concluding that mobile phones are safe will change your mind about the danger. And reports which conclude that mobile phones are safe, but then tell you to be careful anyway, are positively guaranteed to undermine whatever trust in science you do have.

Another way in which scientific research is compromised by such half-baked reports is through the elevation of non-experts to the status of authorities. Rather than recognising that scientists are the people best qualified to tell us whether mobile phones pose a risk to our health, the Stewart Report recommended ‘that national and local government, industry and the consumer should all become actively involved in addressing concerns about possible health effects of mobile phones’ (5). Attempts like this to involve non-scientists in scientific research are ostensibly democratic, but in truth they remove democracy from its proper sphere – politics – and transplant it to a sphere where only expertise should rightly prevail – science. Both politics and science suffer as a result.

My opponent on the Jeremy Vine Show, arguing that mobile phones are a threat to health, was Karen Barratt of the Byron Avenue Mast Action Group – a lobby group that has campaigned against the erection of a mobile phone base station in Byron Avenue in Winchester. The Stewart Report has enabled such eccentric and unrepresentative lobby groups to dress up their genteel objections at the prospect of another eyesore on the horizon in bogus scientific terms, and to pose as the people’s champion on the question of health risks from mobile phones.

In fact, it was the capitulation of the UK authorities to minority campaigners that produced the Stewart Report in the first place, and it is the inability of the authorities to hold the line on issues of scientific rationality that has now led to Health Effects from Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields adding to the public’s confusion. The media and single-issue campaign groups both tend to be blamed for contemporary health panics, with some justification (6). But in this instance, we can see that it is the authorities who write the script for the other panicmongers to read from.

You don’t have to come to Health Effects from Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields equipped with cynicism about science, in order to read it and find science wanting. As with the Stewart Report that preceded it, the report’s conclusions are essentially cynical about science, in that despite finding no scientific evidence of risk, the report advocates precaution anyway. It’s about time the authorities showed a bit of respect for science, and a bit of respect for us, by telling us the known facts about health risks from mobile phones and then standing by those facts.

Read on:

Phone alarm, by Bill Durodié

Mobile moans, by Joe Kaplinsky

(1) Scientific evidence (.pdf 467 KB), Mobile Phones and Health, Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones, 11 May 2000, p101

(2) A precautionary approach, Mobile Phones and Health, Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones, 11 May 2000, p114

(3) Scientific evidence (.pdf 467 KB), Mobile Phones and Health, Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones, 11 May 2000, p103

(4) Health Effects from Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields (.pdf 1.21 MB), Advisory Group on Non-Ionising Radiation, 14 January 2004, p148

(5) A precautionary approach, Mobile Phones and Health, Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones, 11 May 2000, p114

(6) See Shooting the messenger, by Rob Lyons; Immune to the facts, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

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Topics Politics

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