Prudent avoidance

Science - Ziauddin Sardar suggests that we use common sense more than our mobile phones

My daughter, who is 21, is addicted to her mobile phone. Like most parents, I worry about the possible health effects that extensive use of a cellphone could have on her brain. We know that these phones, even though they operate at radiation levels well within current safety limits, still have some sort of biological effect on the brain. So, I keep asking myself, are mobile phones really safe? Can they lead to serious problems in the long term? And how long is long? When are we likely to discover that mobile phones have indeed done serious harm to our children?

Many of the hazards of new technologies in general are similar to those from mobile phones. The risks are likely to be minimal, if not totally negligible - but, then again, they might prove to be really big and serious. The effects might be uniform, but then they might be very variable, depending on the circumstances of use and particular susceptibilities. So the harm might turn out to be just a few cases appearing randomly in the population; but it might hit vulnerable minorities. And real evidence of harm, if any, is likely to be difficult to gather and long delayed in its appearance.

So, what happens in the meantime? Behaving prudently with these new technologies is as difficult as deciding on a good, healthy diet. The scientific evidence is remarkably weak, the experts provide contradictory advice, and research reports produce inconclusive results with annoying regularity. What, then, is the consumer to do?

The first thing is to recognise that the immediate practical problem of safety is not likely to be resolved by science. Objective, scientific experts can disagree because of the way that they pose questions for research. Normally, their experiments are designed to exclude spurious results, to avoid what we call "false positives", but then these experiments might exclude real but very weak effects. Those more concerned with public health might design their experiments to discover all reasonable cases where there might be an effect, however weak. They then face the risk of spurious correlations that could lead them in totally the wrong direction. Although most researchers don't realise it, their experiments are designed around statistical methods that guard either against oversensitivity or against over-selectivity; you can't have it both ways.

So, if we wait for science to tell us whether mobile phones are safe or not, we will have to wait a very long time. But our problems as consumers are as nothing compared to those of regulators and lawmakers. Confronted with the question "Is it dangerous?", our systems of thought don't allow the answers "Maybe", "We don't know" or "Wait and see". The fiasco over beef on the bone, where the risk, however microscopic, could yet be calculated, shows the ridiculous straits into which we can be led by the need for certainty.

But common sense may have an answer to the conundrum that scientists, philosophers and regulators find insoluble. The American physicist and public safety expert M Granger Morgan has coined the phrase "prudent avoidance". About ten years ago, Morgan was involved in a study on the possible health effects of electromagnetic fields from such things as power lines. He realised that there was no way, in the short term, of producing a conclusive result. So he suggested that if people were worried (and they were right to be a little worried, at least) then, in response to a small risk, they could easily incur a small expense to reduce it. At the most mundane level, if you fear that you are being zapped by your electric alarm clock at night, then just move it away from your head. You might have to reach further in the morning to turn it off, but then you might be reducing the radiation reaching your brain for those eight hours.

Morgan offered similar advice to industry. It is only prudent, he argued, to avoid siting power lines and transmitters very near to where people congregate. In Britain, we face the same problem now from mobile-phone masts that are placed on top of school buildings. As a recent report by the National Radiation Protection Board suggests, most of the radiation from these masts is soaked up by concrete roofs; children in the classroom absorb very low levels of radiation. However, this does not mean, as the NRPB suggests, that parents should not be worried. There is still a small risk; and "prudent avoidance" would suggest that, at an extra but small cost, we should keep the phone masts away from schools to ensure safety in the long run.

In the litigious American context, the big firms were most unhappy with Morgan's recommendations. It seemed to them that going along with precautionary avoidance could be taken as an admission of there being a risk, and then, when being sued (as they inevitably would be), it would be held against them that they knowingly indulged in risky behaviour. There would be no defence in saying that they did it "just in case" there were a risk. In the law courts, as in old-fashioned science, there must be a single answer to the question: "Is there, or is there not, a risk?"

But now the courts, as well as industry and parents, must learn that scientific knowledge is swamped by ignorance. Research into mobile phones, GM crops, Xeno-transplants, gene therapy and so on will not give us certain, one- dimensional, yes-and-no answers. We don't know, we can't know and we won't know in time to take decisions based on science. And the "sound science" that some rely on to solve the questions is itself designed around the context of the laboratory, rather than that of the field and safety. So, in the absence of conclusive facts, we have to rely on general policies. We may decide that the absence of evidence of harm means evidence of the absence of harm, and let technology rip. Or we may learn that being mature about science involves accepting its uncertainties along with all the other uncertainties that life throws at us - and accepting that there is no substitute for precaution and prudence.

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 28 August 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Secrecy laws will never be the same