The evolution of doubt

On Twitter today, @thattai published a short thread about how framing the ‘debate’ about cellphone radiation harming biological tissue between ionising and non-ionising radiation is not a good idea because even non-ionising radiation (called so for its inability to strip electrons from atoms) can precipitate biochemical effects by interacting with energy reservoirs in the body.

Although he tried to be extra-careful and repeated that he’s said in his thread that studies thus far have been inconclusive, his last tweet advised people against sleeping with their phones close to their heads. At this point, @avinashtn intervened with interesting consequence. @avinashtn said that until scientists were able to come to a definitive (in a relative sense of the term) conclusion, guiding lay people towards a certain course of action was very risky – especially, in his view, if the course would cause them to fear cellphone radiation.

This is obviously a legitimate concern and a major part of the modern scientific zeitgeist: even when scientists have been able to reach consensus over the safety of X or Y product, people have feared that product because they have effectively been taught to do so. Examples include GMO, vaccines and bisphenol. The opposite is also true, such as with (some instances of) climate change communication, fats and – what has been my go-to case study thus far – cellphone radiation. That bad news spreads faster on the social media doesn’t help.

However, in a time when entire sections of scientific inquiry are under scrutiny for their empirical methods and conclusions, scepticism threatens to transform into its more villainous avatar: cynicism. While constantly questioning whether X or Y is no longer safe or unsafe is what will enable us to keep up with the times, we will allow doubts to consume us instead of the firmer footing of belief (and faith) if scepticism becomes cynicism.

In other words, by advocating wariness – as @thattai wishes to do with cellphone radiation – or non-wariness – as @avinashtn wishes to do – we seem to be at a crossroads that will determine the level of public trust in science, particularly in the time of the replication crisis but also (rather more importantly) lesser research funding, weaker public institutions and diminishing instruments to ensure public accountability.

Extrapolating further, it will be interesting to explore how the rise of nationalism around the world has transformed the place of doubt in our daily lives. And even further: to ask what history can teach us about the place of inconclusiveness in society such that we can moderate its place in the public psyche and increase trust in science.

For now, I stand against being wary of cellphone radiation, but I hope a broader view of science and scepticism over space and time can provide a more substantial – and unavoidably nuanced – answer about what would be the better position to take.

Featured image: Straphangers on a train looking intently into their phones. Credit: Hugh Han/Unsplash.