The most accurate of scientific facts, the best done research in the world and the most legitimate of movements can be instantly discredited if the people involved are seen to have conflicts of interest and credibility issues.
A couple of years ago, STS called me for advice. People in his building and neighborhood led by some activists were planning a session on the ill effects of mobile towers. Since I have some knowledge of x-ray radiation related issues, he thought I would be able to give him a more balanced viewpoint. At the time, I did not know much about cellphone and cellphone tower radiation related issues, though I had seen the non-scientific noise that one of our national dailies was drumming up to get some “social responsibility” mileage. That spurred me to research the subject, which eventually led me to write the piece “Questionable Cause and the Nocebo Effect of Mobile Towers” in August 2013.
STS had also told me about one Mr. Girish Kumar from IIT who was to be the expert at that meeting, and whose daughter was running a company selling radiation shielding materials. This “conflict” immediately raised our “suspicion” antennae.
This Tuesday, the Indian Express featured on the front page, what many of us have known for some time now. That by not making a full disclosure of his commercial interests, and by making unsubstantiated statements regarding the possible ill-effects of cellphone towers, Mr. Kumar compromised the “anti-cellphone tower” movement. Even if the misguided activists had been correct in their assumptions, it was doomed to fail because of Mr. Kumar’s associated money making activities.
Here is my “full disclosure”.
A few months after the “nocebo” article was published, I was approached by officials of an umbrella organization of cellphone operators called COAI that wanted to publish my article in a compilation they were bringing out on the subject. I gave my acquiescence. No money exchanged hands and I had all of one meeting with the COAI officials because they wanted to understand my point of view better.
Each time I praise a brand in this column, someone or the other writes in asking me how much money that company has paid me. This is how cynical people have become of the press, especially because of the insidious use of “paid news” that many of our major dailies indulge in. Which is also why, since I started this column, I have never written about my profession and subspecialty, because anything I say about my work would immediately be construed as an act of solicitation for clients and customers and compromise my credibility if not in front of the general public, definitely in the eyes of my peers and colleagues.
Credibility in today’s day and age where people assume that everything and everyone is up for sale is a highly valued asset that can be eroded virtually instantaneously by any act of conflict of interest. The truism that it takes years to build a reputation and just seconds to destroy it has never been so true.
The anti-cellphone tower activists were anyway barking up the wrong tree. To top it all, they had with them a person of disputed credibility and significant conflicts of interest. While we have very low expectations from our politicians, we hold our teachers, professors and scientific experts to higher standards.
Credibility and reputation! They are still very relevant in our “kalyug” world and the less we have of them around us, the more valued they and the people who have them automatically become.