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Retour au Latour

In the realm of conspiracy theories, one branch is particularly difficult to unseat – suppositions of technological risks to health – or what I am naming “technocankery”, since a good number of them attribute cancer to the use of technology. Why, it is clear to see : cancer is caused by small, unseen mutations, and it’s hard to pinpoint causal effects. “Carcinogen” is therefore a useful accusation to hurl at any technology you don’t like, even if you have no proof or evidence.

But we’re doing science. How we know what we know is through a long chain of experimentation and monitoring, data gathering that can lead to reasonable claims that can then be subject to further testing and assessing. People rightly assert that we need to keep our minds open to possibilities unconceived, or mistakes unknowingly trodden. As the Dalai Lama Tweeted 25th May 2011 : “To arrive at certainty, you need to start from a skeptical posture. The best scientists are impartial, not swayed by their own beliefs.”

Yet we need to always be mindful that others have likely walked where we are stepping, conceptually, and may have devised and isolated the evidence that confirms or denies our pet theory du jour. There is a body of knowledge on which we can for the most part completely depend. And so we have computers that work (for the most part), motor engines, washing machines, heart surgery, laser surgery, Ibruprofen, vaccine shots, Moon shots, aeroplanes, Teflon, polyester, biodiesel, cryptography, wind turbines, photovoltaic cells, LED light bulbs. How open do our minds need to be about well-established bodies of knowledge ?

All science is constructed, in some sense. We have to name things, describe things, explain them to others. We need to work coherently, so we build a framework for the knowledge, a trellis all the little beanplants of our neuron activity can all curl around and ascend. What we call something does not necessarily completely define it or describe it. There may be two causes in one, or one causes in two. Things may work for reasons as yet ill-determined. Effects may mingle or disperse. Sometimes, established thinking has to be overturned or re-written – but very rarely.

Just because scientific knowledge is a narrative and scientific institutions a self-contained brotherly network, does not mean that the scientific endeavour can be invalidated. It may need editing, or re-scripting, and sometimes elements need to be nipped in the bud, but the main body of knowledge is still strong and reliable, still producing evidence to justify it, still aiding human progress. Watching again Adam Curtis’ “Pandora’s Box” from 1992 reminded me that I needed to refresh what I am aware of from Bruno Latour’s thinking, so I got hold of his “Pandora’s Hope” of 1999, which I shall plough through.

The way that people work, we need a story, a legend to work with. We are asked to believe in the intrinsic value of little scraps of printed paper so that we can form an open system of trade and exchange that make social and industrial production more efficient and raises our quality of life (until a recession). We generally accept that some people need to occupy positions of executive authority in matters of law and behaviour. We look after our old and young and sick and otherly-abled because of our values of compassion. We have the edifice of medicine, which is easing suffering second by second around the world. We have the furnaces of industry, which make light, and cars and heat and bring us our food. A lot of this is good, although there are some serious side-effects that need to be addressed.

I have interfaced with enough human systems to know that we are all much more efficient if we have something we can all agree on, and agree to work with and within. For the majority of people in these systems, this is their social reality. They know that it is constructed, but they are pragmatic and accept it, and get on with making the best of it. They can see the value in stability and cooperation. The same must also be true in the laboratories and design offices of the scientists, engineers and clinicians – but here, the social constructs should not be confused with ethical demands. For example, if you design and manufacture electrical equipment, you need to make sure it conforms with a raft of international and national standards and obligations. By following safety and design standards in engineering, you are accessing the accumulated wisdom of humanity’s research into the effects of technology on people and the environment – you are at the top of the knowledge mountain.

And so we know, for example, that large electrical currents are not safe close to the skin. We know that non-ionising radiation, such as radio waves and most microwaves barely interact with the human body, but may cause localised heating. We know that deep brain stimulation by electrical currents requires deep implants, and that it can be beneficial in the struggle to fix depression. We know that electromagnetic effects from radio antennae have an intensity that drops off with a cube of the distance. We also know about the induced electrical currents from power transformers. We know, from experience, that all the components of a mobile telephone, as long as it conforms to the standards, are safe.

So where did the scare story that mobile telephones cause cancer come from ? Who proposed a putative causative link ? Why is this even being studied ? And why do certain public institutions feel they need to issue conservative guidelines ? What is being proposed is that very small biological reactions are potentially causing very low frequency mutations. It’s going to be extremely hard to demonstrate any kind of causal connection – and if somebody thinks they’ve found something, it’s not ever going to have the same kind of real reality as, say, the widespread evidence of excess human-activity-sourced excess atmospheric Carbon Dioxide causing Climate Change, as documented in the IPCC’s 2007 report.

Looking at commentary on the “mobile telephones cause cancer” scare spread by the technocankery activists reveals that even intelligent, knowledgable people can be swayed from the path of true light. The challenge is, as ever, to stick to what we really know is real, and to consign dubious causation to the “awaiting trial” bin, and not allow it to cloud our learning.


One reply on “Retour au Latour”

the story of the boiled frog comes to mind…

the distinction between foolishness and wisdom is somewhat difficult to determine in any “objective” sense
but when we multiply up our ignorance to global scale
clearly we can see that our scientific and techonological living
is proving harmful for the planetary environment…
it would be wise to err on the side of caution or safety
something we are clearly not doing

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