Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Celling fear: The cell phone scare that refuses to die

Since there is now some evidence that cellphone emissions HELP prevent Alzheimer's, this is typical of the stupidity and arrogance of people who think they know it all -- evidence regardless. Ignorance is almost always destructive and this is prime ignorance

Soon would-be cell phone buyers in Maine might be checking out the latest models, only to find a jarring red box on each unit with the image of a brain next to a phone. On it, the alarming words: WARNING, THIS DEVICE EMITS ELECTROMAGNETIC RADIATION; EXPOSURE TO WHICH MAY CAUSE BRAIN CANCER. USERS, ESPECIALLY CHILDREN AND PREGNANT WOMEN, SHOULD KEEP THIS DEVICE AWAY FROM THE HEAD AND BODY.

The above notice would be mandated by Maine’s Children’s Wireless Protection Act, which was recently introduced as emergency legislation following a unanimous vote by the state’s legislative council. Does this mean science shows that cell phones really are harmful? On the contrary. The real problem comes from misinformation from activists and a policy called “the precautionary principle” that could be devastating if it makes inroads into public policy.

Unfortunately, the Maine legislature is not the only government body considering such a hysterical action. This month, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is expected to consider a resolution already approved unanimously by a commission as well as by the mayor. Among other things, it requires radiofrequency emission levels for each phone to be displayed as large as the price and asks for “warning labels [to] be placed on all cell phone packaging regarding exposure to radiation, especially for children.”

The idea, says San Francisco Toxics Reduction Program Manager Debbie Raphael, is that since the city cannot require manufacturers to redesign phones, requiring a label presumably warning of health risks will influence them to redesign their products. However, there is no call to require the same labels on other radiofrequency emitting devices, such as televisions and personal computers.


Nanny state can't save us from ourselves

If we choose to accept any risks from (say) getting fat, what right has the government got to tell us not to do that? Comment below from Australia

This month Manly Council erected a surfboard-shaped sign at its most famous beach to instruct board-riders how to behave in the surf. Two years ago the council installed a $26,000 safety fence at the notorious "jump rock", where the young and young-at-heart plunge into the ocean below. This year it pledged to have rangers patrol the area, intent on catching thrill-seekers in the act. But their efforts haven't stopped the kids from jumping, and the fence has simply turned out to be an expensive ratepayer-funded diving platform.

That parents, teachers, doctors, priests, and other assorted experts claim to know best about the potential risks and dangers we face - both individually and as a community - is nothing new. But the expectation that government should legislate to protect us from these risks and dangers is.

This poses some fundamental questions about citizens' relationship with government. Protecting our physical security - for example from threats of war, violence and other types of crime - is at the core of what governments do. But how far does the definition of security extend?

Does it extend to protecting us from diseases, from addictions, or from other risky behaviours? How far should government go in telling us what we can and can't do for our own good? And what happens when, after weighing up the risks and benefits, we decide we don't want to be protected?

There are increasing calls for more regulation of junk food, and ideas such as a junk food tax are frequently floated in the media. The scientific evidence is pretty clear - a diet of ice-cream and chips will probably make you fat and in turn lead to problems like diabetes and heart disease. Your chances of living a long and healthy life diminish.

But what if you cherish the ability to sit down to a nightly Big Mac and Coke more than the prospect of living to 90? Sure, it's self-destructive and short-sighted, but a look around any shopping centre food court will confirm that it's a decision plenty of people make. So should it be the role of legislators to tell them not to?

What happens when, in an effort to protect our health and safety, rules and regulations trample on other things we value?

The stern-faced, beach-ball popping fun police at the cricket have become the stuff of infamy. But the public reaction to their unbending rules suggests many people are willing to risk getting covered in warm beer if it means they get to enjoy the Mexican wave.

Not all legislative efforts to protect us pose a problem. But for rules and regulations to be effective - and legitimate - they must be ones that people want to follow. They should reflect the community's values, not try to shape them. We happily submit to airport security measures, wear seatbelts, and drive on the left side of the road because there is a community consensus that following these rules is beneficial for us individually and as a group.

But risks to our safety, security and health involve trade-offs. While one person will gladly jump out of a plane with a parachute attached, another will decide it's just not worth the risk. When it comes to questions of health, safety and security, individuals will make widely differing decisions.

It's little wonder then that so many efforts to control the public's "risky" behaviour fail so miserably. Despite a long-standing prohibition on drugs, survey data show that nearly 40 per cent of people 14 years and over have tried illicit drugs at least once in their life, with about 15 per cent saying they have consumed them in the past year. The alcopops tax was designed to curb binge drinking among teenagers. The actual effect was not to cut their alcohol intake but to increase their consumption of hard liquor such as vodka. And authorities' unsuccessful attempts to regulate away alcohol-fuelled violence suggest they haven't learnt anything since the days of the six o'clock swill.

When a law is widely ignored or deplored by enough members of the community, we have to ask whether the problem lies with the people ignoring the law or the law itself.

Arguments for or against the nanny state rarely get to the heart of the issue. When, if ever, is it appropriate for government to protect us from ourselves? And when trade-offs between, say, security and enjoyment need to be made, who should decide?


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