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 was seen 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.
Some readers may remember that, around the turn of millennium, the health scare over mobile phone EMFs was front-page news. More than a decade later, worries have largely abated. A YouGov survey in 2013 measured public concern about mobiles among the population at 9%, down from 27% in 2000. Over the same period, mobile phone ownership went up from 50% of the population to almost 100%.
Percentage mentioning handsets/masts as a concern
The science of mobile phone risks has not advanced substantially. New studies continue to raise questions. Advisory bodies continue to draw attention to troubling epidemiological data, criticising industry bodies for their ‘inertia’. In 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified mobile phone EMFs as a ‘possible human carcinogen’ (placing them alongside bacon and almost every other enjoyable food). Officially, the jury is still out of the risks of EMFs, and most of us seem to be OK with that.
In 1999, an expert committee was established to deal with a rash of headlines about mobile phone dangers. A few people had blamed their brain tumours on their new mobile phones. Some who claimed to be ‘electrosensitive’ argued that mobile phones were making them dizzy or ill (an extreme version of this is the subject of this brilliant Guardian film). Local communities were becoming more vociferous in their opposition to mobile phone masts that were springing up around them. Licences for third generation mobile phone bandwidth had just been auctioned, giving the Government a £22 billion windfall.
The response to public concerns had until this point been to reassure people that all technologies complied with guidelines that were based on the scientific fact of the heating effects of microwaves. As long as phones and phone masts were legal, they were therefore safe. As one regulatory spokesperson put it, “If it doesn’t heat you, then it doesn’t harm you”. End of conversation. Many concerned citizens were not satisfied by this response. They asked why the regulators appeared to be ignoring suggestions of so-called ‘non-thermal effects. They asked why long-term exposures hadn’t been investigated. They asked whether some groups may be less safe than others.
Experts were no longer answering the questions that were being asked of them. The Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones was created to fill the credibility gap. It was chaired by Professor Sir William Stewart, who had been the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser at the tail end of the Mad Cow Disease (BSE) outbreak. This crisis had shaped Stewart’s response to the mobile phones controversy. He told a parliamentary committee 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.
Expert groups are often relied upon by politicians to tidy up the facts on contentious issues. It rarely works. People don’t like being patronised with easy answers where there are none to find. With mobile phones, a group of experts took a different approach. They instead admitted that there are uncertainties and trusted in citizens’ ability to navigate them. When it comes to climate change, Wi-Fi, GM crops, vaccines and mobile phones, there will always be scientific grey areas. If experts want to regain their credibility, they urgently need to find ways to talk about them.
This post is based on a new paper, ‘Scientific Advice on the Move’, published as part of a special issue of Palgrave Communications.