Brave New Age and wi-fi

The wifi panic looks set for a long run, by the standards of modern technofear terrors. Ben Goldacre’s column more or less says everything worth saying, between the text and the comments. I am going to stick in a couple of links to the Register and even to Powerwatch – the opposite side.

So there. That’s a flourish of even-handedness, before I do exactly what Ben Goldacre says not to, somewhere on the Bad Science site, and slag off the people with the electro-sensitivity symptoms.

These symptoms aren’t things like bleeding from the ears or collapsing or losing control of their bladders. i.e., symptoms that would get you past an ER triage nurse. They are the sort of symptoms that might drive you to take a paracetemol.

Sleep disturbances. Or headaches? Well, I doubt there’s a person alive that doesn’t get these. At the risk of seeming completely compassionless, maybe these symptoms are just part of the human condition.

Are these different from the sleep disturbances and headaches (Bugrit, I’m going to call them “head disturbances” to save the typing) people had before the invention of wifi? I can’t see why wifi is different in kind from radio, electric power cabling or any other of the sources of electro-magnetic waves that we are surrounded by.

So, are we going to blame electricity and all its works for every head disturbance? This would be fine if anyone could prove that head disturbances didn’t exist a few hundred years ago.

“Common sense” – usually a poor guide to anything – comes into its own here, in its Occam’s Razor variant. The simplest explanation is usually the one to choose.

If you suffer from head disturbances, why not summon up the courage to look at your own life? Are you eating or drinking things that don’t suit you? Are you unhappy about something? Are you worried? Do you hate your job, family, neighbours, friends, yourself or whatever?

Julia Stephenson (Independent) seems a case in point. OK, it’s basically an entertainment article – well, it certainly caused some mirth in the Bad Science columns. Even the most cursory reading of her column suggests that she is a hypochondriac (and proud of it). She is lucky enough to have enough money to get her hypochondria regularly serviced, adding “alternative practitioners” to the roll of people who are prepared to pay attention to her for money. (The phrase placebo effect is over-used, so I won’t use it)

There is little mileage for the naturopath in saying words to the effect of “Do you feel neglected? Are you expressing that through your body?” No fat fees for that. Probable loss of a lucrative “patient.” Hence, some unreasonable but flatteringly fashionable diagnosis instead.

(Implication: You are so sensitive.! But you are also cutting edge! You are getting sick because of your very modernity. You have wifi broadband to keep up with your crazy pressured 21st century lifestyle. But, you are too sensitive to resist its brash unnatural energies. Even the magical powers of the imported Chilean blueberry or Carol Vorderman’s detox tea are powerless against this threat. Get rid of it, now.)

Only after you have ruled out all the likely personal causes for head disturbances, then you might try the more unreasonable ones.

If I had to rank impersonal things according to their likelihood of of causing head disturbances, I would put radiation from a wifi network as having a probability much lower than global warming, the famine in Darfur and the war in Iraq, a fair bit lower than the national ID card and even a little lower than residual pesticides in food.

However, wi-fi would probably rank as a more likely cause for head disturbances than someone three counties away painting their fence and much more likely than a dust storm on a planet orbiting Aldebaran 5. Although, let’s credit the Butterfly Effect, here, who can tell?

The point here is there are some things that we might get angry or worried about, whether personal or impersonal. Anger and worry disturb our heads for a purpose. We are supposed to be spurred to act.

We have come to expect the world to be like lifelong Prozac. So, at the first sign from our bodies that we are feeling uncomfortable human feelings – expressed as head disturbances – we have to run away and find a spurious target. It’s the turn of wi-fi this week.

[tags]bad medicine, bad science, ben goldacre, independent, julia stephenson, powerwatch, wi fi, wifi, woo[/tags]