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Wednesday, 21 May - link

Duelling Scientists

Here's a new experience for this working journalist -

I'm on assignment for TheFeature to write about mobile phones and corporate social responsibility. Some people believe there are harmful side-effects stemming from the use of mobile phones. Those people are trying to fight the rapid planting of new cellular antennae.

There have been thousands of studies on the effects of mobile phone radiation. As I was interviewing both mobile antenna makers and activists, each side recommended me to talk with their scientists. The mobile industry had scientists saying there was no harm, the activists had scientists who said look out - mobile radiation could be frying your parts.

So I tracked down two of these guys, one from each side, and asked them a few questions over email. The industry-recommended guy was friendly, a good storyteller, generous with his information. The activist-recommended scientist responded curtly, with suspicion, finally sending me a short summary of his research.

Then this morning, each of them continues the correspondence. I forward the industry-recommended guy the report written by the activist scientist, to ask for his opinion. He replies with information refuting the claims of the article and following up on the track-record of the activist scientist. Unbidden by me, the activist scientist emails to explain that he is the victim of a mobile industry-smear campaign.

A web search on their names and the issues at hand reveals this article "Smells Like Smoke," which is attributed to Meg McGinity from Ziff-Davis, but it only exists online today as it has been reprinted on anti-antennae activism sites. The journalism seems sound there - she's done a thorough examination of the parties and the history and the inevitable comparisons to tobacco.

In all my brief work as a journalist, I don't think I've written about a subject that has such bitter disagreement. Never have I had two people emailing me at once to debunk each other and claim a conspiracy of debunking. Must be high stakes.

As I was working on it, trying to cover all these issues, I realized I was rewriting a portion of my thesis from college. Back then I explored "Technology and Citizen Choice" - how people are able to control and not to control the devices and technologies that surround them. People who want to control the placement of mobile phone antennae remind me of people who want to control fluoride in water, or mandatory vaccination for schoolchildren. What if a very small segment of the population is susceptible to dramatic, sad side-effects of society-mandated technologies? How do we secure their well-being and still proceed with our paving? And what if, in the end, they're right, and we can't survive the results of our cybernetic mutations?

This article won't be posted for another week or two; in the meantime, Jane and I finished this piece describing the lessons mobile phone game developers have for the videogames industry.

Posted on 21 May 2003 : 08:53 (TrackBack)
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Justin's Links, by Justin Hall.