The Stewart inquiry into mobile phones shows the danger of taking public fears over science too seriouslyby Dick Taverne / April 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
Science is too elitist and needs to be more democratic, or so it is often said. A House of Lords committee on science and technology argued in 2000 that it is condescending to talk about a lack of public understanding of science, when public ignorance is mainly the fault of scientists failing to communicate. What is more, since science is not value-free, scientists will more readily gain public confidence if they declare the values which underpin their work and engage with the values and attitudes of the public. The public should be more involved in the direction of scientific research and risk assessment, since it “understands uncertainty and risk well.” Only if science and technology is made more accountable and democratic can we restore public trust. Above all, we must be cautious. In order to avoid the mistakes made over BSE, we must pay more attention to public apprehensions and apply the precautionary principle.
The deep flaws in this approach are exposed in an important book by Adam Burgess, Cellular Phones, Public Fears and a Culture of Precaution. The focus of the book is the 1999-2000 Stewart inquiry into the safety of mobile phones. Most of the book is a meticulous analysis of the origins of fears about microwaves, the reasons behind the creation of the inquiry, the evidence or lack of it about the harm microwaves cause and the very different reactions of different countries. The inquiry was a bizarre episode in the history of public inquiries, since there was no compelling reason for setting it up and because some of its recommendations seemed to contradict its own findings.
Before the safety of mobile phones was questioned, there had been a number of alarms about microwave ovens and VDUs. But much more important was a protracted dispute in the US, from the 1970s until the mid-1990s, over whether electromagnetic fields (EMF) from overhead power lines were a cause of leukaemia in children. Despite exhaustive epidemiological studies, no evidence that this was so was ever found. (The White House science office estimated the cost of the scare, mainly from re-siting power lines, at $25bn.) Similar fears surfaced in Europe about possible harm from mobile phones. These fears spread when analogue phones were replaced by digital ones requiring more phone masts, which attracted greater attention. Articles appeared in the British press claiming that mobile phones “cooked your brains” (Sunday Times), caused…