Imagine that researchers from Laboratory A decide to study the possibility that cell phones cause cancer, assuming for the sake of argument that the hypothesis is false. If the researchers do their study well and find insufficient evidence of carcinogenicity, the story ends. Until, that is, Laboratory B gets involved. These researchers are likely to be slightly less detached than their predecessors. After all, they would not have chosen this line of research had they not believed, in effect, that the work of Laboratory A left open a window of doubt. If these researchers now perform their experiments less rigorously, or interpret their data less rigorously, then they are likely to publish an article suggesting that cell phones may cause cancer. Or if not Lab B, than Lab C, or D, ad virtually infinitum.
This report will be picked up by the press because even the hint of a suggestion that some aspect of everyday life may cause illness or death constitutes news. This is not just the way of the press, it’s human nature, as Francis Bacon made clear. (A recent example is the coverage of a study on exposure to household levels of radon gas that was published in the June issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology. Over the years, a dozen studies have failed to show that household levels of radon increase cancer risk. When the 13th was published claiming the opposite, the newspaper headlines read: “University of Iowa Study Says Radon Greater Risk Than Thought Before.” The Iowa scientists, of course, said they simply used better techniques than their predecessors. They may be right, but the odds are against them.)
When the press publishes such reports, the relevant federal agencies have no choice but to get involved. If they do not, consumer-protection groups will accuse them of taking a cavalier approach to public health. The same goes for the relevant industry. To do nothing is to invite public reproach. Now both the agencies and the industry will respond publicly that little or no scientific evidence exists to support the claims, but they will also admit that the threat can’t be ruled out. Either or both will allocate money to do proper scientific studies. If these studies unambiguously identify a mechanism by which cell phones cause brain tumors, we have a real public health threat on our hands, and the authorities are mobilized. End of fear. We stop using our cell phones, or we stop using them in a way that could be dangerous.
If these studies come up negative, however, the scientists will report that their data suggest it is unlikely cell phones cause cancer, perhaps highly unlikely. They will also admit, if they are rigorously scientific, that they cannot rule out an effect. This may satisfy the public, the consumer protection groups and even the press, although the smart money would bet against it. As one consumer advocate put it in a recent news article on the cell-phone scare: “People just want to know whether phones are safe or not, yes or no.” Neither-the scientifically appropriate response-eases no one’s anxiety.
One other factor will come into play at this point. Experts refer to it as an epidemic of selection. We inevitably search for explanations when tragedy hits. The unfortunate individuals who have had brain tumors or have seen their loved ones succumb, as did David Reynard, will look for explanations and may seize on those that they read about in the newspapers-cell phones, for instance. The news reports on the possibility that cell phones cause cancer are likely to suggest to thousands of victims and their families that cell phones were the cause of their illness. (A number of liability lawyers will come to the same conclusion.) They will start advocacy groups and lobby Congress, and when industry-funded studies come up empty, they will suggest that the industry scientists involved had no motivation to find the truth. When cooler heads suggest that such cover-ups are unlikely, that even cell-phone company employees use cell phones and that these scientists are probably no more likely than you or I to allow innocent people to die needlessly for the sake of a modest paycheck, they will point to the cigarette industry as proof that this has happened before and so it may be happening again. As congressmen realize that votes are on the line, they will push the relevant government agencies to do more studies. But no amount of studies will resolve the residual ambiguity, will allow the scientists to say cell phones are definitively safe. The leftover uncertainty perpetuates itself indefinitely.
Eventually the anxiety-of-the-decade will fade, to be replaced in our minds and our newspapers by a more up-to-date apprehension. It would be nice to think that eventually we’ll outgrow the cycle, but I have to defer here to my late mother, who was a lay expert on anxiety. The time to really worry, she used to say, is when things seem so good you have nothing to worry about.