Official calls ring alarms

Cellular Phones, Public Fears, and a Culture of Precaution
November 5, 2004

This book on cellular phone culture by the sociologist Adam Burgess struck several chords with me. In 1984, I was editing an environmental magazine and published a short article on radio communications in the London area, which highlighted both radio spectrum scarcity and the visual intrusiveness of radio masts. At the time, there were gloriously few masts, and I could not imagine the revolution to come.

I also recall a succession of curious salespersons who visited my offices in County Hall intent on selling devices that, they claimed, would counter staff sickness and promote alertness and productivity. Ozonisers, ionisers and other little boxes would restore the natural background of everything including the radio frequency waves that were, deplorably, absent from modern buildings. Their claims were backed by quasi-scientific evidence.

Twenty years on, a report in a serious national newspaper notes that "Study links mobile phones to tumour", while another red-top newspaper, characteristically more strident, cries "New phones cancer fear". Whereas in 1984 some claimed it was unhealthy to deprive people of exposure to electromagnetic radiation, in 2004 such exposure is cause for alarm.

Stories such as these are, of course, not uncommon, but their underpinnings are seldom investigated with the thoroughness of Burgess. Whether one's interest is in mobile phones and radio masts, or in an entirely different technological hazard, the author's analysis of the factors behind public concerns and official responses to them is illuminating.

In particular, Burgess points to what might be called a partial erosion of the nation's objectivity by postmodernist tendencies. It is now almost axiomatic in environmental sociology that one should proceed from a position of sympathy with the wider "community" rather than from the stance of corporate business or government.

Government-appointed independent expert groups are often selected in such a way as to marginalise accepted scientific orthodoxy in favour of "free thinkers", whose agenda is to demonstrate, writes Burgess, that "good science is compatible with an understanding attitude toward public concerns, irrespective of how unfounded those concerns may be".

Whether the issue is cellphones, railway safety or radioactive waste, the only officially sanctioned way to debate it is increasingly seen to involve the participation of those affected. By contrast, most of the public still see a bigger role for technical expertise in decision-making about health risks than they do for themselves.

An implication of this official tendency is the need to invoke precautionary action at every turn, in an attempt to replace inevitable uncertainty with a "holistic" approach that in practice evades the problem of establishing cause and effect. Although it is customary to attribute concerns over "phantom" risks of whatever kind to the public, Burgess - rightly in my opinion - attributes some blame to official agencies and their press offices.

His book offers a salutary lesson to anyone engaged in the management of technological risks. Its relevance goes well beyond the cellular phones of its title.

David J. Ball is professor of risk management, Middlesex University.

Cellular Phones, Public Fears, and a Culture of Precaution

Author - Adam Burgess
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 301
Price - £45.00 and £17.99
ISBN - 0 521 81759 5 and 52082 7

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