Dr. Ronald B. Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, has come out and said that cell phone use increases the likelihood of cancer and he has based his advice upon unpublished data into the effects of cell phones on the brain.
What was intriguing was that he has made the conclusions public prior to the publication of the results within the scientific community and he appears to have a noble motivation where he says
“…it takes too long to get answers from science and people should take action now — especially when it comes to children.
Really at the heart of my concern is that we shouldn’t wait for a definitive study to come out, but err on the side of being safe rather than sorry later”
It raises some interesting ethical questions around the role of scientists and their responsibilities to the public. If a scientific study does identify a risk, no matter what it is, what is the best course of action for addressing and dealing with the risk? Ideological motivations need to be carefully weeded out when a single scientist makes such pronouncements on the basis of a single unpublished study. Particularly in the area of cell phones and brain tumours, as there have many studies that have failed to demonstrate a relationship between the two.
It is worth reminding readers that a consensus amongst the experts is rarely reached on the basis of a single study or piece of research. It can take many studies and many years before such a consensus can be reached, and for a variety of reasons there can be studies during this time that can have results counter to the eventual theory or model that is developed.
It is possible that Dr. Herberman is trying to preempt the publication and subsequent critical review by his or her colleagues through the use of the media. If the study did not reach the public in the fashion that it has, and it was subsequently published and found to have major faults in its methodology, statistical analysis or conclusions, then it would have fallen by the way side with a minimal impact. But now it has served to weave its way into the public consciousness.
Perhaps though, Dr. Herberman’s study transpires to be definitive and has identified a real risk. By publically speaking out now he could save many people from unnecessary hurt and pain. However, the public are likely to accept a small amount of risk if a product has social, economic, and technological benefits. One needs to look no further than the motor vehicle and the amount of pain and suffering it causes, but such technology is retained due to its benefits. In this respect Dr. Herberman’s advice is sound as he is advocating an approach that reduces the risk that cell phones can cause rather than taking an extreme stance of having cell phones eliminated altogether. However, unlike cars the risks of cell phones are yet to be scientifically demonstrated.