What Does "More Research Needed" Mean When it Comes to Wireless Devices?

04/04/2014 05:46 EDT | Updated 06/04/2014 05:59 EDT

This week, the Royal Society of Canada released a report by their Expert Panel on Safety Code 6. Safety Code 6 is the Health Canada standard that sets recommended exposure limits for radio-frequencies. The last update was in 2013, and Health Canada wanted the RSC's advice on the updates to make sure they were up to scientific snuff. 

Many news outlets reported the fact that the panel recommended that "more research was needed" but the media downplayed the stronger message in the report: SC6 meets international standards and is agreement with the science as it now stands. "More research is needed" is a misunderstood phrase in the public form and needs some discussion, as does the findings of the RSC's new report.

"More research is needed" is an almost automatic phrase in the conclusions of most scientific studies. It is not only there to justify a continuation of a scientist's research programme, it also reflects the current understanding of our knowledge. Einstein's revolutionary concept of relativity caused scientists to admit almost a century ago that our knowledge of the world is not absolute. Newton's laws had been considered universal and absolutely true up until the end of the 19th century. Einstein's update proved this wrong and since then we have been forced to change our thinking of the world.

This does not mean, however, that science is just an opinion like a movie review or sports commentator: science has rules. Granted, they change from time to time based on new information, but these rules help us decide what facts to accept as knowledge: facts that are true, or connected to the real world.  We have relied on these rules to push our society forward and solve many problems and it is a pretty good solution, one of the best we have, really. But it is flawed, and it is at these stress points where attacks on science occur.

Scientists have ceased giving black-and-white answers since then. In our current method, we make a guess called a hypothesis and try to answer the question about its truth. If we gather enough evidence, through calculation or observation, we turn our guesses into theories: models of the world. Therefore a scientific theory, rather than giving us a collection of facts, points in the direction of a conclusion about the truth of the real world. Sometimes that conclusion is strong, like the conclusions of the theory of evolution. Sometimes the conclusions are weak, like the notion that coffee causes cancer.

While we rarely find changes in direction of the theory of evolution, we seem to change our mind often about things like what causes cancer. The question is hard, and complicated, and is affected by many different factors. In both these situations it is obvious why more research is always needed: we are never at our destination, we are only looking at the sign pointing there.

That is why we have "more research is needed" in the RSC paper on SC6. Causes of cancer are hard to discern, and it is still inconclusive as to whether the weak association that has been seen between cell phone use and cancer is real, or if it is just a result of "noise" in a study that is difficult to conduct. Even in the area of IEI-EMF or electromagnetic-hypersensitivity, we have very conclusive evidence that RF does not cause the symptoms, but we don't have a reason why we have a group of people who report sometimes debilitating conditions. The RSC recommended that we need more research to help answer both of these questions and we may always need more research; that is the constant state of science.

We are therefore left in the difficult position to draw conclusions anyway using the information we have. Humans need answers, and we have developed short-cuts in thinking to draw conclusions despite having incomplete evidence. One common cry among critics is that they want definite assurance that a technology is safe before allowing its general use. One look at our fallibility statement above and it becomes obvious why this question can never be answered by science. Science makes a guess then tries to find evidence that it is true. We will never be able to say 100 per cent that a tech is safe; it just is not possible, so more research will always be necessary to continue to look for unwanted effects -- to human health or otherwise. It's along the same lines that the SC6 panel was considering "established adverse health effects" defined here:

The Panel considered an "established adverse health effect" as an adverse effect that is observed consistently in several studies with strong methodology.

Not surprisingly, the panel found none. Using very high evidence standards, represented by the several pages of references (including the bad science of the Bioinitiative report), the panel found that the overwhelming evidence is that RF does not cause any adverse health effects. All the signs point toward cell phones and other wireless devices being a safe technology as long as they operate within the SC6 standards. This does not mean that we should not pursue adverse effects in the future. Rather, we should encourage those researchers trying to identify any changes that cells and organs undergo in the presence of the low level RF capped by SC6.  What is most likely, given all of the evidence, is that these effects are going to be very small and the risks low.

The report also recommends that Health Canada develop a better communications strategy to tell the Canadian public about the effects and any risks associated with this tech. In a society that is increasingly risk-averse, we obsess about an unsubstantiated risk of cell phones for cancer while ignoring the risks of other technology, like cars (there were 2,000 pedestrians killed between 1988 and 2002 in Ontario). These fears are being inflamed by groups who ignore the balance of evidence in favour of a few studies that agree with their ideology. They have the ear of media, and we need to counter their conspiracies.

When pondering the risks of cell phones, consider this: we have all been bathed in the emissions from radio and television for close to 100 years, and in that time our life expectancy has continued to increase. Even more, since the dawn of life on the planet we have been bathed in the constant radiation from the sun including radio-waves. Since the dawn of time we have even been awash in the radiation from the Big Bang: the cosmic microwave background. We need to take a step back from the rhetoric and let science be our guidepost to the truth, not our fears.