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Is Progress in Technology Always Beneficial?

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The problem is exacerbated by systematic attacks on those scientists whose research reveals GMO problems [6]. These are not confined to the US. E.g., Arpad Pusztai, a distinguished Hungarian scientist working in Scotland, was forced out of his position when he announced experimental results revealing harm to rats fed GMO potatoes [7].

Nanotechnology is another fascinating new area that is sprouting all kinds of new products. Its applications range from sunscreen lotions to more durable concrete, to improved ways to administer medication. But the same characteristics that make it so interesting and useful, also make it dangerous [8].

Cell phones have become enormously popular all over the world. There are now over 250 million US users and roughly 5 billion worldwide users. With so many people at risk, even a very low probability of harm becomes very significant. The magnitude of the risk is unknown, although it is obvious that harmful effects are unlikely to emerge prior to many years of use.

There are a number of scientific publications indicating biological effects of cell-phone radiation. These include results of laboratory experiments with animals, in vitro experiments with human tissue, and epidemiological studies [9]. But, given that a large majority of the world's population are cellphone users and are therefore exposed to whatever risks this entails, the amount of research in this area is grossly inadequate. And there is good reason to believe that, just as there are "tobacco scientists", paid to obscure the dangers of smoking, there are scientists who are encouraged to do the same for cell phones. (Note that I doubt that cell phones are in the same killer league as tobacco.) Furthermore, just as scientists critical of GMOs have often been the targets of nasty attacks, a number of those who have identified hazards associated with cell phones have also been attacked [10].

To illustrate the need for greatly increasing objective research on possible harms of GMOs, a need shared by an increasing number of other new technologies, let's consider an abstract example. Suppose that, after about 15 years of exposure to some technology X, the probability of a person dying in any particular year from continued exposure is 1/10,000. This may seem to be a very small risk--and it is--for an individual. But, if 250 million people are so exposed, the expected number of annual deaths caused by X would be 25,000, a number that looms large in comparison with the roughly 8,500 annual gun homicides (2011 statistic [11]) that so many people are very upset about. Clearly it would be very important to study X thoroughly before releasing it for general use.

We can learn something here from the American experience with automobiles. In 1924, when autos were still a novelty, with questionable tires and brakes, and rough roads, 24 people were killed per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (vmt). Two decades later, improved roads and cars brought this number down to about 10. In the 1965 the number was down to a bit over 5.

The Highway Safety Act was passed in 1966, stimulated, in part, by Ralph Nader's classic book, "Unsafe at Any Speed". This legislation dealt with such features as seat belts, airbags, brakes, tires, windshields, and headlights, as well as with various aspects of highway design and construction. The result was that the number of people killed per 100 million vmt fell steadily to the present value of about 1.15, with about 34,000 people killed annually. If 1966 conditions had prevailed, we would now be seeing an annual death rate exceeding 156,000 [12].

The tragedy is that it took many decades, during which over a million Americans were killed and roughly 20 million seriously injured, before a systematic effort to reduce the slaughter was initiated. The details are different for the hazards associated with each product of technology, but the attitudes of those selling the products are similar. As a society, we have not learned how to deal properly with the risks, especially at the early stages, when knowledge is sparse.

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Stephen Unger Social Media Pages: Facebook page url on login Profile not filled in       Twitter page url on login Profile not filled in       Linkedin page url on login Profile not filled in       Instagram page url on login Profile not filled in

I am an engineer. My degrees are in electrical engineering and my work has been in the digital systems area, mainly digital logic, but also computer organization, software and theory. I am a Professor, Emeritus, Computer Science and Electrical (more...)

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