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25 September 2016

How to Think about the Risks of Mobile Phones and Wi-Fi

The U.K. government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir William Stewart, at the tail end of the Mad Cow Disease (BSE) outbreak, told a parliamentary committee [Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones] that, after BSE, ‘Never again will any scientific committee say that there is no risk.’ His group took seriously the uncertainties surrounding mobile phone risks and saw people’s concerns as legitimate ones. He recommended that children should be advised not to use mobile phones, that phones should carry labels with their Specific Absorption Rates (a measure of how much energy is absorbed by body tissue over a certain time) and that mobile phone networks should be more careful with how they place their masts. He demanded that industry and government fund more research to fill gaps in knowledge on things like electrosensitivity. Following the Stewart report in 2000, the UK officially became more uncertain about the risks of EMFs.

How to think about the risks of mobile phones and Wi-Fi
by Jack Stilgoe, The Guardian, 17 August 2016

Experts need to talk about uncertainty as well as simple fact. The rise and fall of the controversy over the safety of mobile phones offers some useful lessons

The US Green party presidential candidate Jill Stein has come under fire for supposedly ‘anti-science’ statements relating to the risks of vaccines, genetically modified crops and electromagnetic fields from Wi-Fi. She said that there were ‘real questions’ about the dangers of vaccines, that GM foods have ‘not been proven safe’ and that ‘more more research is needed’ on the risks of electromagnetic fields.

For many American liberals, who have often feel that science is on their side in an increasingly polarised political war, her statements seem like a betrayal. While she is hardly endorsing a conspiracy, Stein is a Harvard-trained doctor and she is expected to know that these things are pretty safe.

As with climate change, it is tempting to claim that the science is certain, the evidence is clear and the debate should move on. Things are rarely so black-and-white. In politics, the facts don’t speak for themselves, so it falls to experts to make sense of the shades of grey.

Experts have been having a tough time recently. Among the casualties of the Brexit campaign was the status of experts and their hard-won evidence. Michael Gove’s response to elite institutions’ predictions of economic calamity was that ‘we’ve had enough of experts’. Much to the frustration of the Remain camp, the Leavers showed little interest in who knows what. For them, it was about who was in control. In the US, Donald Trump’s ascendancy has led some to concludethat we are now in an era of ‘post-truth’ politics. (We shouldn’t ignore the irony that many fans of conspiracy theories label themselves ‘Truthers’).

So what should experts do? How can governments make good decisions when any scientific claim is likely to be torn to shreds?

Take electromagnetic fields (EMFs). We are surrounded by them. They are invisibly emitted across a range of frequencies by overhead power lines, microwave ovens and mobile phones as well as Wi-Fi routers. Scientists have known for decades that high-frequency EMFs like ultraviolet light can cause cancer. And they also know that powerful, low-frequency EMFs can cause health problems by heating up wet body tissue, which is how microwaves cook food. These well-known mechanisms provide the basis both for the regulation of new technologies and for advice that we should wear sun cream to prevent skin cancer and limit our exposure to X-rays. However, there are also some unknowns, some hints that long-term exposure to low-power EMFs may cause trouble. When these uncertainties are aired in public, scientists and campaigners have in the past been accused of scaremongering. Earlier this year, the Australian broadcaster ABC wasseen by some as irresponsible for its broadcasting of a clumsy documentary on EMF risk called ‘Wi-Fried’.

In 2000, however, scientific uncertainty was seen as sufficiently troubling to justify a new approach to the regulation of mobile phones in the UK. In a new paper, I revisit the controversy over mobile phone risks and conclude that it provides a useful model for how experts should deal with complex issues.

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