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What drives people, what does it means to be disinterested, and are any of us actually so?


"Interest" is multidimensional, but there are two primary axes. The first one is whether we have a direct financial or career interest, and that's the one that often fires people up when they looks for "industry influence" in EMF studies. But it's more complex than that; anyone who has made a career in EMF has a vested interest in it continuing to be an issue - including the people who make a living out of promoting it as a concern just as much as the people who make a living out of trying to dampen down that concern - and also the people who have made a career out of *research* on EMF. There's likely not one person currently active in EMF research, consultancy or advocacy - academic, industry person or activist - who'd be more secure and financially better rewarded if the issue died.

And then there's the other kind of "interest". This one is less tied to career or money and is more about how we identify ourselves. When we take a stance on an issue, we invest our personal and professional integrity in that stance. If something comes along that challenges our position, we usually react by trying to maintain that stance, and indeed people can become entrenched when challenged by new evidence. Nothing new there; Karl Popper nailed this in his descriptions of how paradigms (eventually) come to shift.

What's particularly interesting is how those two kinds of "interest" interact to define how we react to new studies on EMF; it's a matter of the extent to which they align to reinforce or to cancel. If you're someone who makes a living out of promoting EMF as a concern and a study appears that suggests that the concern may not be warranted, then your direct pecuniary interest aligns with your "belief/position" interest - and you're going to have a strong driver to criticise the research. On the other hand, if you make a living from EMF but you perhaps don't think there is a real health issue, the two types of "interest" pull in opposite directions. You like the confirmation of your biases, but you don't much like the idea that the issue that pays your mortgage may be evaporating. It's a heart vs head conflict, and head usually wins, but the outcome is perhaps less strong than those for whom the twin stars of "interest" align to reinforce. And then there's the people with no or little direct pecuniary interest. Maybe amateur campaigners/activists or people on a mission to explain.  No pecuniary interest = no conflict of interest, right? Well, not really. Although their interest is purely of the second kind - the "belief/position" interest - it can be every bit as powerful a driver as the first kind, more so in some cases. It certainly does not leave these people "disinterested".

"It is well-known that scientists who have worked in a specific area can develop a stake in believing that this area is important and that their results are important.  It is virtually impossible to do work on a problem without feeling that it is important.  Thus, it takes rigorous specialists in the relevant disciplines who are not directly involved in a specific area to evaluate the evidence. For this reason, the best panels set up to provide an impartial review of a given issue usually have a balance between researchers involved with the specific question and distinguished ?outsiders? who have the relevant expertise to evaluate the evidence critically. If this kind of balance is missing, a review panel can arrive at faulty conclusions, thereby doing a disservice to society.

There are areas of science where the impetus for further research is not so much the inherent scientific interest but rather the mobilizing of public anxiety, which creates a demand for research to assess the problem.  This is the case with research on cell phones, and it was the case earlier with research on EMF. A whole body of research was energized by public alarm stoked by researchers whose titillating findings ? featured in the media ? generated enormous -- though unfounded fear, which in turn made more funding available for research."

Says Geoffrey Kabat in Forbes Magazine (opens in a new window)