Last week the Observer published an article by Mark Hertsgaard and Mark Dowie on a disturbing topic – the idea that telecoms giants might collude to suppress evidence that wireless technology causes cancer. The feature was well written, ostensibly well researched, and deeply concerning. Its powerful narrative tapped into rich themes; our deep-seated fears about cancer, corporate greed, and technology’s potentially noxious influence on our health. It spread rapidly across social media – facilitated by the very object on which it cast doubt.
Yet as enthralling as Hertsgaard and Dowie’s narrative might be, it is strewn with rudimentary errors and dubious inferences. As a physicist working in cancer research, I found the authors’ penchant for amplifying claims far beyond that which the evidence allows troubling. And as a scientist deeply invested in public understanding of science, I’ve seen first-hand the damage that scaremongering can do to societal health. While it is tempting to rage into the void, perhaps this episode can serve as a case study in how public understanding of science can be mangled, and what warning signs we might look out for.