the city of berkley wants you to fear your smartphone

The City of Berkley took on science and the science lost because it was represented by a trade group that argued about free speech rights instead.

smartphone family
llustration by Eric Motang

Every few years, we seem to get paroxysms of warnings about how our smartphones are going to give us cancer one day. Despite being grounded in junk science, they cause a stir because a few people with the right credentials claiming that something they we every day is killing us is a good way to get a lot of attention very quickly. And with large contingents of people all too ready and willing to believe that a few cells in a lab are a good proxy for the human body, and that Big TelCo is just the next Big Tobacco in waiting, the City of Berkley accomplished a feat of quixotic justice that San Francisco and the state of Maine once failed to secure, and is trying to force all stores that sell phones within the city’s limits to carry a vague, scary warning about cell phones emitting radiation and implying that users may be at risk of something malignant if they don’t go through their phone’s manual to find a safe way to use it while shielding their fragile bodies. No scientific work dealing with in vivo studies says this, but hey, there’s pandering to be done so a little something like, say, the medical community disagreeing with you should’t get in the way.

Really, it’s not often that siding with a large industry trade group, such as CTIA, which fought in court to stop the mandate, is the scientifically correct thing to do. Usually trade groups will jump on a junk science bandwagon if it benefits them in a heartbeat and twist facts to suit the desires for higher profit, as in the case of the anti-GMO lobby for example. But in this rare case, CITA’s objections really did have the science on their side and it would’ve been a way more interesting case if science was actually invoked. Despite having the ability to prove that the City of Berkley was simply ascribing to Luddism and anti-scientific fallacies to cast cell phones as evil, cancer-emitting boxes of death, the modern equivalents to a pack of cigarettes in the 1950s, it decided to argue that the mandate just violated their members’ free speech rights. Please join me for a minute of facepalming at this legal equivalent of snatching a defeat from the jaws of victory. It’s yet another example why court decisions should be inadmissible in debates about science.

But hold on, you might say, what’s so bad about the City of Berkley only giving its citizens what they wanted? After all, shouldn’t people be free to make their own informed decisions and this disclaimer only gives them the tools to make up their minds after considering both sides? Well, yes, that would be the case in a scientifically hyperliterate utopia, or when there’s a real debate about an issue in the scientific community. But there’s a reason why we don’t slap labels on the astronomy books sold at Barnes and Noble warning readers that it contains descriptions of the theory of heliocentrism and features multiple references to the Big Bang, or on a medical book to warn readers that it does not consider the theory of the four humors and miasmas alongside germ theory. There are no current scientific debates about whether the universe is static, or the Earth orbits the sun, or that microorganisms invading our bodies are the origin of disease. Why would we want to give the public erroneous information because a special interest group really, really wanted to shout its ill-informed ideas no matter what the experts actually told them?

Make no mistake, this is not about a really lefty anti-establishment city defying corporate villains in court as a victory for the little guy, as the Luddite lobby spins it. It’s not about helping a public at risk make up its own mind on a case by case basis. This is about promoting misinformation a small but vocal group of technophobes believes to be true in order to similarly scare others and using the city to do the dirty legal work. This time they managed to get lucky because the trade group defending the science abdicated its responsibility to wander off into the tenuous lands of free speech where factual standards are non-existent unless you’re lying to damage careers or imply that someone innocent committed a crime while obviously knowing he or she didn’t. All of the labeling and warning the anti-science activists really want aren’t giving people some sort of valuable information they desperately need, but about putting their propaganda right in front of their faces through court-assisted arm twisting, which is why we shouldn’t so much be laughing and joking about them, but actively pointing out what they are and publicly opposing them.

# tech // cell phones / health / junk science / lawyers

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