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TECHNOLOGY

GIVING AN ACCURATE PICTURE


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on health, public concerns persist. To dispel such notions it is imperative for the
media, mobile companies, government and regulators to work in tandem

T
he question of whether the cancers.” This premise is embellished
media gives an accurate by other sources like the Stewart report
picture of health issues like the UK 2000, “…on the basis of the
associated with mobile evidence currently available, there is no
phones belongs within a need for the general population to be
wider area of research in the social worried about the use of mobile phones.”
VFLHQFHV PHGLD UHSRUWLQJ RI VFLHQWL¿F Health Canada 2003 states, “the weight
issues. Public opinion on mobiles phones of evidence from animal, cell culture and
DQG KHDOWK LV JUHDWO\ LQÀXHQFHG E\ ZKDW human studies does not indicate that the
they read, hear and see in the media and energy emitted by cell phones is strong
an important parallel here is the reporting enough to cause serious health effects.”
RI VFLHQWL¿F UHVHDUFK RQ JOREDO ZDUPLQJ
To put it succinctly, almost all scientists The public perception is far removed
think global warming is happening, yet from such a standpoint. In 2007
the public think this is an area in which Eurobarometer carried out a survey
expert opinion is evenly divided. which involved face-to-face interviews
with approximately 30,000 EU citizens
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on at their homes. The survey found that
Climate Change’s fourth report in 2007 concerns about mobile phones and health
made its strongest ever recommendation had increased since 2002. The results
stating that global temperatures are showed considerable cultural variations.
rising and there is a 90 per cent or For example people in Italy, Greece and
more possibility of this being caused By Martin Sims Cyprus were most concerned while in
by human activity. So scientists agree Managing Editor, PolicyTracker Sweden, Finland and Denmark they
there is a crying need for more action were least concerned. Remarkably, there
to reduce emissions. And no national was little variation within the survey
RU LQWHUQDWLRQDO VFLHQWL¿F ERG\ KDV D Vietnam does the public have anything in the responses of people due to their
dissenting opinion on the topic. 32 approaching the correct understanding. level of education or between the sexes.
national science academies back the UN Across the 15 countries on average only Close to 76 per cent thought that mobile
view and have called for reduction in 51 per cent of the public have a correct phone masts affected their health “to a
greenhouse gases. On the other hand, SLFWXUH RI VFLHQWL¿F RSLQLRQ DQG  SHU big extent” or “to some extent”, while 63
there are a tiny number of individual cent think this is an area in which expert per cent thought the same about mobile
scientists who question the prevailing opinion is evenly divided or not enough phone handsets.
view. is known to justify action being taken.
Overall, around 48 per cent of the
To see how well the public understands Mobile phones and health public was fairly concerned about the
VFLHQWL¿F RSLQLRQ RQ JOREDO ZDUPLQJ WKH So what do the scientists say about implications of mobile phone handsets,
World Bank in 2009 took a poll of 13,000 the impact of mobile phones on while 49 per cent were not very
people in 15 nations. While 99 per cent of health? According to the World Health concerned or not concerned at all. The
the scientists think that the “problem is Organisations’ (WHO) Factsheet 2000, depth of the misunderstanding is shown
urgent and enough is known for action”, ³&XUUHQW VFLHQWL¿F HYLGHQFH LQGLFDWHV by comparing public opinion on global
the general public has a very different WKDW H[SRVXUH WR 5) ¿HOGV VXFK DV WKRVH ZDUPLQJ  DQ LVVXH EDFNHG E\ FRQ¿UPHG
impression. The survey showed that emitted by mobile phones and their base VFLHQWL¿F UHVHDUFK DQG YLHZV RQ PRELOH
only in countries like Bangladesh and stations, is unlikely to induce or promote phone related health risks, where there

112 May 2010


LV QR FRQ¿UPHG UHVHDUFK ,Q WKH 8.
around 52 per cent of the respondents
SCIENTIFIC CONSENSUS ON GLOBAL WARMING
were concerned or very concerned about Is it your impression that among scientists:
mobile handsets, while 65 per cent were
concerned or very concerned about Most think problem is urgent and enough is known for action
climate change.
Views are pretty evenly divided
The perceived risk has made this Most think problem is not urgent, not enough known for action
a common reason for the public to
complain to their elected representatives.
Blank space at end of bars represents Don’t Know /Refused
In 2005 UK MPs like Ian Gibson stated
that constituents raised concerns about
US 38 43 17
health risks from mobile phones and
masts ‘incessantly.’ The constituents of Japan 43 44 13
Andrew Mitchell MP Praised concerns
‘extensively.’ Andrew Stunell MP went on France 53 37 9
record saying, “In the last four years, I’ve
probably had seven or eight communities Russia 23 27 34
send me petitions about mobile phone
technology.” Mexico 48 39 11

6FLHQWLÀFPHWKRG Turkey 52 17 15
In popular perception scientists are seen
DV¿QGLQJµWKHDQVZHU¶RUWKLQJVWKDWFDQ Iran 60 19 8
EHµVFLHQWL¿FDOO\SURYHQ¶,QIDFWVFLHQWLVWV
try to disprove the currently accepted China 57 27 8
orthodoxy. Hypotheses are not ‘true’:
WKH\ KDYH PHUHO\ UHVLVWHG IDOVL¿FDWLRQ Egypt 50 18 28
while scientists who believe a theory
will often try their best to disprove a Indonesia 33 35 16
hypotheses. When a theory is disproved
D QHZ VFLHQWL¿F SDUDGLJP EHJLQV ZKLFK India 43 11 14
UHVHDUFKHUV WKHQ WHVW XQWLO LWV ÀDZV DUH
exposed. Accepted theories rarely explain Vietnam 69 14 8
every conceivable circumstance: science is
far less certain than the public imagine. Senegal 62 5 13
The internet has changed the traditional
Bangladesh 70 14 9
relationship between science and the
media as it has empowered the public
Kenya 61 13 23
WR ¿QG WKLQJV RXW IRU WKHPVHOYHV
Self-diagnosis is a new frontier for
medicine but whether this is a blessing Average 51 24 15
or a curse remains unanswered. The
internet also empowers small groups Source: World Bank (2009) Public attitudes towards climate change
to communicate with each other and it
is a boost for special interest lobbying. to make popcorn? Nonsense, but it has SLFWXUHRIVFLHQWL¿FUHVHDUFKDQGDOHUWWKH
Much of internet content though lacks become an urban myth. It was in fact public about possible health risks. They
the discipline of the traditional media a viral marketing scam by Cardo, a must resist the temptation to exaggerate
like balance and a separation of fact company making Bluetooth headsets for and recognise that one experiment or an
and comment. The growing importance motorbikes and it got nine million views individual experience does not add up to
of search engines further clouds the in 180 days. DFRQ¿UPHGK\SRWKHVLV7KHJRYHUQPHQW
picture – the best researched and most should protect the public, have a legal
balanced views doesn’t necessarily get As these rumours have the power to IUDPHZRUNEDVHGRQVFLHQWL¿FNQRZOHGJH
the most google hits! The power of the adversely affect public perceptions, it and stimulate economic development.
internet does as much to spread false is important for various constituents to Regulators on their part need to ensure
rumours as it does to empower the play their respective roles responsibly. compliance with regulations, stimulate
public. Remember the video showing The media needs to give an independent competition, improve services to public
that you could use your mobile phone critical assessment and an accurate and stimulate economic development. It

May 2010 113


TECHNOLOGY

is tempting for journalists to demonise


the commercial sector: in fact there are WHAT GOALS DO WE NEED TO BALANCE?
SURIRXQGVRFLDOEHQH¿WVIURPLPSURYLQJ
the communications infrastructure and
many members of the public, either ‡ Independent critical assessment
personally or through their pension The media ‡ $FFXUDWHSLFWXUHRIVFLHQWLÀFUHVHDUFK
‡ Alert public to possible health risks
funds are shareholders in mobile
companies.

Scientists on their part need to add to Commercial ‡ Make money for shareholders
knowledge and public safety cannot be
guaranteed without their independent
sector ‡ Improve communications infrastructure

assessment of possible risks. In fact, the


public feel poorly informed and want to ‡ Protect public
know more, preferably on TV, according
to a recent Eurobarometer study. What
Government ‡ /HJDOIUDPHZRUNEDVHGRQVFLHQWLÀFNQRZOHGJH
‡ Stimulate economic development
can public bodies do to address this
lacunae? I would argue that regulators ‡ Ensure compliance with regulations
and governments have the resources to ‡ Stimulate competition
LQÀXHQFH WKH GHEDWH WKH\ FDQ SURPRWH Regulators ‡ Improve services to public
public protection while emphasising that ‡ Stimulate economic development
their risk assessment is based on the
ODWHVW VFLHQWL¿F UHVHDUFK 7KH\ VKRXOG
try to become the public’s No.1 trusted ‡ Add to knowledge
source by promoting a balanced view and Scientists ‡ Independent assessment of possible risks
challenge inaccurate and balanaced media
reporting. They should also make reliable
and easy to understand information
available in print and online. whether it is unpublished or published Developing this idea, what framework
(and therefore peer reviewed) and have people taken from media coverage
Consultation wins friends how much credence it is likely to be of mobiles and health? I would argue
Operators need to realise that applications JLYHQ ZLWKLQ WKH VFLHQWL¿F FRPPXQLW\ that for many members of the public
used to erect base stations are a key Research saying there is no health risk it is the following: there is a scientific
PRPHQW WR ZLQ FRQVXPHU FRQ¿GHQFH should be given similar prominence to debate about whether mobiles harm
In the UK opposition to base stations is that which suggested there was a danger. health, therefore there is good reason
often driven by poor public consultation, The language used by the media should to doubt claims that there is no
mobile companies are often perceived also be well thought out. Lines like “A health risk.
as arrogant – assuming that no-one will new study proves…” does not make a
object to the mast. Many people believe claim incontrovertible? Single studies It is therefore important to provide
that masts are a health risk: so they think are rarely conclusive. It is better to say the public with another framework
it is arrogant if operators try to install one that the study ‘indicates’ or ‘suggests’ and this can come from friends, family
without trying to persuade them that it is rather than implying it is conclusive. or education. For example the study
safe. Failure to persuade feeds into public of mobile phones and health can be
distrust of governments and big business It is important to give journalists better part of the health or science agenda
while openness counteracts claims of training on science issuesas most in schools and colleges. Regulators or
conspiracy. Operators wanting to put journalists are arts graduates. Science government representatives can talk to
up base stations need to put resources is not the same as risk assessment. parents’ organisations, clubs, societies,
into convincing the public by attending Risk assessment is usually done by workplace organisations and trade
or convening public meetings, carrying governments on which they are advised associations about the issue. Combined
RXWOHDÀHWFDPSDLJQVDQG35FDPSDLJQV E\ QDWLRQDO DQG LQWHUQDWLRQDO VFLHQWL¿F with a communications strategy by
The government and regulators need to bodies. It’s not just a question of what governments and regulators, all these
produce information packs for the public the media say…it’s a question of what measures will go a long way in helping
about base stations. the public understands. People don’t the public form balanced assessments
understand the science in detail, they “are of mobile phone health issues based on
There should be media guidelines on aware of the main themes or frameworks FRQ¿UPHGVFLHQWL¿FUHVHDUFK
such matters. New research must be of media coverage” and use these as
reported but journalists should make “building blocks” to make sense of an *Hargreaves, Lewis and Spears (2003)
clear where this research stands in issue, according to a recent academic Towards a better map: science, the
UHODWLRQ WR PDMRULW\ VFLHQWL¿F RSLQLRQ study in this area.* public and the media

114 May 2010