Dial-a-scare

The mobile phone panic is fuelled by politics, not science.

Adam Burgess

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Topics Politics

‘I don’t think we can put our hands on our hearts and say mobiles are safe.’ This quote from Sir William Stewart was reported on the front page of the Sun, beneath the headline ‘Mobiles “a danger to children”’.

With these words, Stewart – former chief scientific adviser to the government and author of an influential report on mobiles back in May 2000 – launched a report by the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB), the government’s advisory board on radiological issues, on 11 January 2005. There was little new in the report, which is simply a restatement of the existing knowledge that there is no evidence of human harm from mobiles. The report didn’t even recommend the enforcement of new restrictions on the erection of mobile masts, as many in the industry had feared.

The only thing for news editors to hang their headlines on was Stewart’s personal intervention at the conference, when he took it upon himself to ‘speak from the heart’ and say that children under eight shouldn’t be allowed to own a mobile. He reiterated his personal restriction of his grandchildren’s mobile usage, and suggested that mobile companies were irresponsible for encouraging such a growth of usage among children.

This split between a scientific and more personal face is at the heart of the mobile phones saga. The original Stewart Report back in 2000 was essentially two reports in one. The first was an exemplary scientific review of knowledge in this particular field, which concluded that there was no significant evidence of harm. But the other aspect of the report was about self-consciously acknowledging public anxieties.

Public meetings were held – although these were attended only by a handful of anti-mobile activists. Through the course of these meetings Stewart established himself as a darling of the anti-mast campaigners (even they were taken aback at some of his precautionary recommendations). At the same time, the established scientific authority on the subject, the NRPB, was attacked in the report for not being sufficiently proactive in relation to public anxieties. The upshot was, in the mind of many, a clever blending of science and public fears that blandly stated that there was no evidence of harm, but precautions were nonetheless advisable.

Everybody was happy – except perhaps the billions of mobile phone users (the Stewart findings were publicised around the world) disconcerted by the ‘no problem, but there may be a problem’ message.

The protagonists in the Stewart Inquiry were aware that their survey was taking place in the shadow of BSE. The mad-cow disease experience came to stand as a lesson in the authorities never being seen to underestimate risk, no matter how improbable. In fact, better to overstate the potential risk or uncertainty, because you can’t subsequently be admonished should the improbable turn out to be possible. William Stewart embodies the response to BSE, burning his fingers badly as chief scientific adviser to the Tory government from 1990 to 1995 (although he was never personally implicated).

The mobile phone issue was the right issue at the right time to act as an exercise in demonstrating the new precautionary politics of decision-making. This was a relatively trivial issue (compared to the MMR controversy, for example, where the stakes were high), but was also high profile. And the mobiles issue came along conveniently after the ‘lessons’ of BSE had been prepared and rammed home by the Phillips Inquiry into BSE. One of the key themes of the inquiry, for example, was that of listening to victims and their relatives, a lesson clearly translated into the Stewart Inquiry’s determined entertaining of anti-mast campaigners.

It is important to point out that the ‘public responsiveness’ supposedly demonstrated by this precautionary exercise remains a conceit. Neither this latest intervention nor the original Stewart Inquiry were simply responding to public concerns. The public has demonstrated its enthusiasm for the mobile phone in the face of a barrage of alarmist media coverage in the UK over the past decade. Instead, official interventions were a response to media pressures and, to a lesser extent, risk-activist campaigning, in the post-BSE climate.

The mobile phone scare was kicked off by the London Sunday Times back in 1996, with the infamous headline that mobiles could ‘fry the brain’. Subsequently the issue became a campaign focus for newspapers such as the Daily Express, with the media publicising any study that suggested some form of problem associated with mobiles, from disorientating homing pigeons to weakening sex drives or giving us cancer.

It was made clear in parliament that the Stewart Inquiry was set up in response to this media campaign (although the letters MPs were receiving from those angry at nearby mobile phone mast sitings also helped to create support). As some newspapers crowed, the seriousness with which the UK authorities took the mobile risk issue was testament to the power of the media in influencing a government that is clearly nervous about the extent of its connection to public concerns.

The ridiculous thing about this saga is that everybody knows that nothing will change – the mobile network is here to stay, and even the anti-mast campaigners only object to the specific location of masts. Sounding off about possible risks can therefore only be posturing without consequence; raising an alarm, but aware that the inevitable anxieties raised have nowhere to go.

But it is not strictly true that the scare is without consequence. One can safely speculate that levels of parental anxiety have increased. Many people now wrestle with the dilemma posed between warnings from an apparently definitive voice of science, and more direct experience that suggests no problem with allowing their children to use society’s most popular means of communication.

The emphasis upon the risks posed to children has far more to do with presentational politics than it does with science. Instead of reflecting some new research involving children, it reflects the way in which a focus upon children’s welfare is becoming de rigeur in contemporary Anglo-American science policy.

How does Stewart know that mobiles are safe for adults, a bit less safe for teenagers, and potentially dangerous for those under eight? The cut-off of the age of eight seems arbitrary, as if it had been picked out of a hat. Stewart says that if there were a threat then children might be most vulnerable because of their still developing biologies and thinner skulls. Yet the whole point about non-ionising radiation, such as that emitted from mobiles, is that it is too weak to directly harm tissue.

Even assuming the hypothetical danger was real, it would have to come from an as yet unknown interaction triggered by these radio waves. In this case, issues of how strong the signal and how thick the tissue through which it needs to pass would not necessarily be the key. And there is no reason to believe that the effect of non-thermal electromagnetic fields (ie, not a direct effect) would have any particular relationship to the thickness of a skull. As the handful of mainly non-conventional scientists who believe in non-thermal EMF effects will explain, their theory is not really about the power of the signal, but something about its character and its relationship to the complexities of human biology. The child angle, like everything else in this precautionary tale, is based in politics, not science

Meanwhile, the mobile phone companies have been set up as pantomime villains, hawking dangerous devices to toddlers. Stewart has frequently attacked their ‘irresponsibility’, putting himself on the side of the innocent public. Yet it is a myth that children have ever been specifically targeted through advertising. They don’t need to be, given that texting in particular is so central to teenage social life. In any case, children can’t get a mobile phone without parental consent and financing. The much-publicised MyMo phone that has been withdrawn in the wake of Stewart’s pressure was not a serious mass-market device, but a gimmick pushed by a small group of entrepreneurs. (I was on a Scottish radio phone-in when a spokesman dramatically announced MyMo’s withdrawal, after explaining it was a Chinese product they had picked up at a trade fair in Germany.)

There is one key mistaken assumption that it is particularly important to challenge. In a ‘what every user should know’ article in The Times (London) on 13 January 2005, for example, it was explained that the latest report ‘noted gaps in the scientific literature and, accordingly, recommended a precautionary approach’. In fact, there is actually no necessary relationship between an issue of scientific knowledge, and the politics of precaution. Gaps in scientific literature might represent a case for further scientific research but they are certainly not grounds, in themselves, for advising precautionary changes in people’s behaviour.

The world’s leading experts in the field have themselves warned against the application of non-science-based precaution, making clear that some proof is required of a hazard (1). Even the consumer safety-obsessed European Commission, for its own reasons, has felt obliged to explain in an important communiqué that one cannot simply invoke precaution without some kind of identifiable hazard, as opposed to mere uncertainty (2).

It is difficult to imagine anything less useful than restating that something is ‘uncertain’, if for no other reason that, as the old saying goes, the only thing that is certain is (eventual) death. Yet this has become the fashion, first in academic circles and now, increasingly in policy.

In today’s scientific terms, mobile phone radiation cannot be declared ‘safe’, even if there seems no reason not to believe this is so. In more contemporary sociological terms, mobile phone radiation could still be said to constitute another case of scientific ‘uncertainty’ where, with regard to possible harm, ‘the absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence’. But ‘uncertainty’ must be quantified and qualified if it is to retain any real meaning – and it is clear that ‘uncertainty’ is very limited in this instance.

There will be no scientific ‘magic bullet’ that can resolve this controversy – the saga will continue for as long as those involved want it to. The call for ‘more research’ may be understandable on the part of some scientists who want to pursue any uncertainty for reasons of intellectual curiosity and/or further research funds.

There can be some progress towards discounting unexplained effects suggested by some studies, as is the case with the EMF effects. It can be predicted that most of these effects will be explained by mistakes in the design or conduct of experiments, and will not be reproduced in other circumstances. But in a field concerned with what is only a minor risk factor that may play some contributory role in the development of health problems, there will be no ‘Eureka moment’ where we can definitively discount the possibility that the energy fields generated by mobiles are, in strict scientific terms, ‘safe’. Even distinguishing this source of radiation from the countless others all around us – both natural and unnatural – is deeply problematic.

It is now unavoidable that science should engage with society. But in an age of continued media-driven scares, energies would be better directed towards putting media reports in a proper, comparative context. For example, unlike the mere uncertainty with regard to mobile radiation, there is a risk from mobiles in relation to distraction while driving, and there is a risk from the ‘ionising’ radiation in the form of x-rays.

And everything need not be framed purely in terms of competing risks – with parents facing a dilemma between mobiles’ health risks to their children, and (paedophile-related) anxieties about their children’s safety and whereabouts. These competing risks can present a no-win situation for parents, which is likely to increase uncertainty and anxiety.

Were this saga just about mass anxiety or even media alarmism, it is likely that it would have ended long ago. What is fuelling the issue is the race to prove precautionary credentials on the part of particular science-related institutions. Having previously been a voice of reason on the matter, the International EMF Project of the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been busily pushing for a more precautionary line on mobiles in the past couple of years – to the dismay of some scientists who see no reason to change advice without compelling new evidence. Brace yourself for new headlines and anxieties when the WHO stages its own precautionary PR show in the near future.

Adam Burgess is lecturer in sociology at the University of Kent and author of Cellular Phones, Public Fears and a Culture of Precaution, Cambridge University Press, 2004 (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA).

(1) Foster, K, Vecchia, P and Repacholi, MH, ‘Science and the Precautionary Principle’, Science 288: 979-981, 2000

(2) Commission of the European Communities, Communication on the Precautionary Principle, 2 February 2000, Brussels

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Topics Politics