Citizen science as peer review

Op-eds Opinions

One of the goals any citizen scientist should have is to obtain the clearest information possible, before making any decision on an important issue. Obtaining information crucial to making decisions on important issues should be a paramount goal for any citizen scientist. By tracing reports back to original scientific studies, citizen scientists can perform their own personal quasi peer-review. Unbiased examination of scientific reports enables citizen scientists and other interested individuals to understand the available information. Moreover, particularly engaged citizen scientists can determine whether certain studies have committed any errors that may cast the science into question.

For example, in a lawsuit launched against B.C. Hydro by Citizens for Safe Technology (CST), the CST commented: “The World Health Organization/IARC has classified wireless radiofrequency radiation, such as that from B.C. Hydro’s Smart Meters, as a class 2B possible human carcinogen.”  B.C. Hydro is claiming in response that “[. . .] 20 years’ worth of exposure to a smart meter would be equivalent only to a 30-minute-long cellphone call.”

To know who’s right, one must demand studies that demonstrate how much radiation is actually emitted per second from a Smart Meter. Then one could determine if B.C. Hydro’s claims are accurate. More pressing, however, is just how great a risk there is for cancer caused by cellphone use or Smart Meter exposure. To quote only a classification by an organization (the WHO, in this case) as a sufficient basis for possible cancer risk, without presenting the odds, exposure times, or how those conclusions were arrived at, is a logical fallacy.  One may want to examine any available original studies in order to determine what was actually said by those conducting the experiments.

In attempting to trace the WHO claim, I discovered a press release from 2011 stating that a meta-analysis performed at a meeting of scientists had concluded that cellphone use as a factor in the onset of cancer was possible, although further research was required. The group also stated that the working group did not actually quantify the risk—if there was any. The same group mentioned a study demonstrating a 40 per cent increase in gliomas (a type of malignant tumour that grows in the brain or spine), but no actual reference to said study was provided in the press release. The only usable reference given in the press release, from the American Journal of Epidemiology, was a study that used case-case, and case-specular (a hypothetical tumour location) techniques. The study found no statistically significant distribution of gliomas in association with cellphone use. The study’s hypothesis was that gliomas should show up more concentrated around the part of the brain nearest the cellphone, because cellphone radiation is absorbed by the first five centimetres of the brain. However, gliomas showed up throughout the entire brain; there was no significant clustering near the cellphone usage sites, indicating evidence contradictory to the idea that cellphone radiation causes cancer.

So, how does a citizen scientist respond in a situation like this? First,  demand more data in situations concerning health; second, express concern that data from important organizations is unavailable either because it is expensive to obtain, or because the publication it belongs to cannot be found online. We must find ways to be able to access the original sources of scientific claims, if we are to make informed decisions both for our lives and the lives of those around us. If people are unable to fully access data related to the public interest, how are they supposed to make good decisions and take the best course of action?