Recently a friend mentioned that he was concerned about health effects from wifi. I pointed out that this was likely an overblown concern, fed by the media echoes of a scare mongering BBC Panorama program, and pointed him at the coverage at Ben Goldacre’s blog Bad Science for a through takedown of the whole issue.
To my surprise he came back more worried than ever. He had watched the program on the Bad Science page, but not looked very much at the damning criticism surrounding it. After all, a warning is much more salient than a critique. My friend is highly intelligent and careful about his biases, yet fell for this one.
There exists a feedback loop in cases like this. The public is concerned about a possible health threat (electromagnetic emissions, aspartame, GMOs) and demand that the potential threat is evaluated. Funding appears and researchers evaluate the threat. Their findings are reported back through media to the public, who update their risk estimates.
In an ideal world the end result is that everybody get better estimates. But this process very easily introduces bias: the initial concern will determine where the money goes, so issues the public is concerned about will get more funding regardless of where the real risks are. The media reporting will also introduce bias since the media favour reporting newsworthy news, and risk tends to cause greater interest than reports of no risk (or the arrival of reviews of the state of the knowledge). Hence studies warning of a risk will be overreported compared to risks downplaying it, and this will lead to a biased impression of the total risk. Finally, the public will have an availability bias that makes them take note of reported risks more than reported non-risks. And this leads to further concerns and demands for investigation.
Note that I leave out publication bias and funding bias here.There may also be a feedback from the public to media making media report things they estimate the public would want to hear about. These factors of course muddy things further in real life but mostly seem to support the feedback, not counter it.