Phone alarm

A new book examines how the culture of precaution shaped public fears over mobile phones.

Bill Durodié

Topics Politics

Cellular Phones, Public Fears and a Culture of Precaution, Adam Burgess, Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Risk analysis falls broadly into two opposed camps: those who appeal to scientific evidence to critique what they consider to be exaggerated public fears, and those who focus on sociological data to highlight people’s perceptions, in an attempt to justify a more precautionary outlook. While most recognise that risk contains both a material and a perceptual element, there is rarely a meeting of ways between these methods.

This is where Adam Burgess’ contribution to the debate is to be welcomed. His Cellular Phones, Public Fears and a Culture of Precaution focuses on the panics over cellular phones. Rather than falsely comparing the statistical risk of one activity with another, as many in the scientific camp do, Burgess, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Bath, has produced an explicitly sociological analysis. Instead of taking people’s perceptions of the risks posed by cellular phones at face value, he seeks to explain how these perceptions came about in the first place, as a means of critiquing today’s precautionary climate.

In discussions of risks, focusing on people’s perceptions has become the mainstay of governments, activists, the media and even risk consultants. They suggest that our perceptions of risks are just as important, if not more so, than the actuality of the risks we face, as perceptions often determine behaviour. So it is argued that irrespective of scientific ‘fact’, the effects of fear are real in social consequence, leaving governments with little choice but to regulate accordingly.

This conciliatory approach benefits from appearing to make ordinary people’s views part of the decision-making process. In an age when few participate actively in political life, treating their fears seriously is seen as inclusive and democratic. But, as others have suggested elsewhere, assuming or adapting to popular perceptions is as contemptuous of the public as dismissing them. It may also be more damaging.

In his study of cellular phones, Burgess explores the advent and use of the ‘precautionary principle’ in the European context, comparing it with the notion of ‘prudent avoidance’ in the USA. He argues that these approaches have led to the institutionalisation of marginal concerns, creating a lose-lose situation. Not taking precautions is taken to show a lack of concern, while funding new research suggests either an attempt to influence the outcome, or the existence of a real problem. So irrespective of outcome, any action taken serves to drive public fears rather than assuaging them.

Burgess also shows that once one authority, region or country has adopted a particular standard, others feel under pressure to follow suit. Indeed, the vogue for the devolution of power to regional authorities has accelerated this trend, as new bodies are at pains to prove their purpose and adopt a campaigning agenda to distinguish their role from that of central government. All of this leads to a ratchet-like effect superimposing worst-case regulations on to worst-case assumptions. Consider the role of the European Commission, which has established safety as one of its raisons d’êtres.

The book’s greatest strength lies in its international comparisons. Burgess exposes the extent to which social perceptions of cellular phones were constructed according to varying national priorities and agendas. For example, the sheer size of the USA, combined with the availability of cheap conventional calls and the pre-existing confusion of media and lobby groups, made it much harder for activists against cellular phones to establish a coherence there. This was despite long-standing debates over the impact of electromagnetic radiation. What’s more, efforts to establish a campaign against cellular phones became moderated by the specific responses to the Columbine High School shootings of April 1999 and the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. These events showed a nervous public the extent to which technology could possibly serve a vital social function, thereby undermining moves against it.

In Europe, concerns focused on the siting of transmission towers, or base-stations. Campaigns only really emerged when the masts, reflecting the shift from analogue to digital technology, needed to be located in closer proximity to the users. As more masts were required in hilly or mountainous regions, such as Scotland and Italy, than flat ones, such as the Netherlands, so the campaigns took on different intensities there. Also, telecommunications towers had a different meaning in Northern Ireland, where they evoked memories of a ‘surveillance state’ and the campaign against them was used by the authorities to unite different communities. In the Irish Republic, complaints largely emanated from non-Irish émigrés searching for a rural idyll, and went against the dynamic image of a ‘Celtic Tiger’ that the Irish government sought to project. For rather obvious reasons, in Finland, home of Nokia, such campaigns never really got off the ground.

The role of the media is most rigorously examined in the UK case. Here, far from being a tabloid frenzy, concerns were first raised, and continued to be developed, by the high-brow broadsheet The Sunday Times. Headlines such as ‘Mobile phones cook your brain’ (14 April 1996) and ‘Are we being told the truth about mobile phones?’ (20 December 1998), reflected one particular journalist’s personal obsession. Indeed, the case is well made that once the issue hit the tabloids, it also shifted from one newspaper to another as particular journalists changed jobs. In an interview with Cathy Moran of the Express, Burgess ascertains how her interest in the subject stemmed from her seeing it as a personal opportunity to do something ‘more worthwhile’ than covering celebrity-driven trivia.

It is the interaction between this small number of ‘moral entrepreneurs’, in lobby groups and the media, and governments with differing attitudes to the future that determined the shape concerns took in each country. In turn, this altered the nature of concerns raised by the relatively few members of the general public who got interested in the issue. These originally focused on the aesthetics of transmission masts, the impact they might have on property prices and the lack of consultation as to their deployment and positioning. It was institutional influences that transformed these rather isolated ‘not-in-my-backyard’ concerns into far more effective campaigns about the purported health effects of the phones and their base-stations.

As ownership of mobile phones became more widespread and more likely to occur among younger age groups, so the debate shifted from attacking ‘yuppie status-symbols’ to focusing on the towers and their possible effects upon children. The science, as is often the case, was counterintuitive: the closer you are to a base-station, the less energy your phone requires to receive the signal; so the best place to site masts would be as near to children as possible. But a nervous elite ignored the evidence in favour of hearsay and emotion. So in 1999, Britain’s then education minister David Blunkett called for an ‘urgent investigation’ into the placing of masts on schools, while the National Union of Teachers called upon the Health and Safety Executive for advice and the Metropolitan Police advised their officers to restrict usage of the technology.

The consequence, unique to the British response, was the establishment of the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones in 1999, under the chairmanship of the former chief medical officer Sir William Stewart. This initiative, launched at the behest of then minister for public health Tessa Jowell, to ‘keep ahead of public anxiety’, is seen by Burgess as the paradigm inquiry of our precautionary times. It sought to avoid dealing with the scientists of the National Radiological Protection Board, including instead members with little specific expertise in the field. It concluded that there was no scientific evidence of any harm; but it also sought to give credence to public concerns by advocating further research and urging parents to limit their children’s use of cellular phones.

Unsurprisingly, this attempt to have it both ways, satisfying both scientists and concerned parents, satisfied neither. It generated headlines such as ‘So are mobiles a risk or what?’ in the Daily Mirror. Through this process of demonstrating their sensitivity to what they presumed to be public concerns, or what Burgess calls ‘symbolic politics’, the authorities not only failed to clarify the matter; they made it worse, with the number of campaigns growing in the wake of the Stewart report. Such campaigns felt encouraged by the official endorsement and apparent recognition of their concerns. In fact, as Burgess indicates, parents might well have responded differently in surveys if the scale of the risk and money expended upon it had been put in the context of other options for protecting their children’s health.

In the case of mobile phones, no plausible scientific mechanism has been posited to explain any purported ills. Indeed, much of the research produced has been to explain various associations after they had been noticed, rather than to understand their possible cause. This approach could equally well be applied to other products that produce localised heating effects, such as lap-tops and electric blankets. But apart from generating new fears, as Burgess points out, noting an effect is not the same as assuming harm. And as Frank Furedi suggests in his new book Therapy Culture, ‘if society wants to treat electromagnetic fields as a cause of illness, they will be deemed a cause of illness’. Also, there is a danger that dealing with problems in this way reduces diagnosis to mere description, making the possibility of resolution impossible.

Risk consultants and sociologists suggest that our perception of risk is shaped by such factors as whether the risk is taken voluntarily, the extent to which it is understood, the fear it instils, our level of trust in authority, and the impact the risk may have, particularly on children. Burgess’ analysis suggests rather different factors, including: the degree of political engagement in public life, the confusion of roles and responsibilities between differing authorities, the growing sense of isolation among the political, scientific and commercial elite and their attempts to combat a crisis of legitimacy by promoting public fears.

Situating the rising obsession with the impact of science upon our lives into this context of a demise in broader social and political engagement, Burgess points to the ultimate irony: ‘attempts to reform science have extended the role of science in policy much further.’ In the end, it was the sheer utility of the technology that outweighed the fears that had been constructed and, as people continued to use their mobiles, so gradually the media lost interest. However, Burgess’ book remains a salutary lesson in the social construction of fears, which will undoubtedly be used to inform similar episodes in the years ahead.

Bill Durodié is director of the International Centre for Security Analysis at King’s College London. He is the author of Poisonous Dummies: European Risk Regulation after BSE, European Science and Environment Forum, 1999 (download this book (.pdf 679 KB)). He is also a contributor to Science: Can You Trust the Experts?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and Rethinking Risk and the Precautionary Principle, Butterworth-Heinemann, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Buy Adam Burgess’ book Cellular Phones, Public Fears and a Culture of Precaution from Amazon(UK).

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Topics Politics


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