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How to prove innocuousness?

Research

Can science prove that a technology is harmless?

Science attempts to expand our objective human understanding. It should therefore be possible to decide whether or not a particular technology is harmful. At least, you’d think so.

Hugo Lehmann monitors and analyses research on mobile telephony and the environment on Swisscom’s behalf

16 September 2020

If a scientist wants to find out whether a theory is correct, he defines an experiment. Based on the outcome of the experiment, he can decide whether the theoretical prediction was correct. If the theory is confirmed after one attempt, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it describes reality absolutely correctly. Perhaps there are situations in which the theory doesn’t hold, but which couldn’t be verified in the experiment. However, if the experiment refutes the theoretically predicted results with metrological certainty, it can be assumed that the theory is wrong (of course this result must be reproducible). The philosopher Karl Popper spoke of falsifying a hypothesis. The theory must then be adapted and the game starts all over again.

 

Let me give you a simple example of falsification. The hypothesis: That light moves at the same speed as sound (of course this is false, as scientific theories sometimes are). The simple experiment: We fire a cannonball from a hill 2 kilometres away. An observer measures the time it takes until i) He sees muzzle flash; and ii) The bang reaches his ears. The measurement results should clearly show that the hypothesis was wrong and that sound and light move at different speeds. With sufficiently accurate time measurement, you could even calculate the respective speeds. In this way, knowledge is created.

Unfortunately, there is no single specific experiment that would enable us to evaluate the theory that mobile telephony is harmless. The same applies to the theory that there is no extra-terrestrial life.

In both cases, you could never test every single parameter. Nevertheless – and luckily – appropriate experiments are being conducted on cells, animals and (where feasible) humans to try to determine whether the electromagnetic fields involved in mobile telephony are harmful. This has been done for more than 50 years. Indeed, thousands of studies have been conducted on the issue.

 

Although there have occasionally been indications that exposure to wireless radio waves does bring about change, there has so far not been any scientifically substantiated evidence of harmful effects below the permissible threshold values. Contemporary critics will argue that hundreds of studies show an effect and in some cases damage. However, it must be remembered that sound scientific analysis must also take factors into account such as the quality of a study, the reproducibility of its results and statistical significance. This is precisely what the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) did in March 2020. According to the ICNIRP’s assessment, the theory that mobile telephony is harmless has not been falsified.

 

This is what science can do. No more, no less. Of course this doesn’t satisfy everyone, and politicians and the general public expect clearer statements. However, science cannot provide conclusive proof on this issue.

 

Nevertheless, science is one of our most important tools. It also helps with risk assessment – at least, as far as it can. We use scientific experiments to avoid the consequences of risk. Science is thus a weapon in our risk management arsenal. As modern as we are, were we not to rely on science, it would be akin to stepping back into the Middle Ages. Science cannot provide 100% proof of harmlessness, but it can make a valid assessment of whether a risk can be taken or not.



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