Tag Archives: Electrosensitivity

Assault on Science

As I write this, it is the end of an interesting week where the western worlds decline to pre-enlightenment understanding of science has continued. Obviously, when I said “interesting” I meant sad…

The really annoying leader of this decline has to be Mary Midgley, as Heather previously addressed, who seems to think that “Science” is some dark art that has no relevance on any other aspect of society. Oddly she seems to be calling for the implementation of social policies, laws and the like without any scientific input. Obviously the idea that laws should be formulated without any experiemental reason to think they would ever work – I mean we are innundated with such laws now… Who cares if it can be demonstrated that Law X doesn’t work, as long as we “feel” it is a good law… Well done Mary.

Next in the firing line is the case of Dawn Page and here “nutritional therapist,” Barbara Nash. In a nutshell Page followed Nash’s frankly crazy advice and suffered major brain damage. Bad Science has an excellent take on this – the media as a whole has ignored the general trend of crazy advice by self appointed “Nutritionists” and focused on Nash as a one-off crank… The sad reality is the western world is inundated with fruitloops like this who go on about Chakras, Detox and the like. The even sadder part is that we fall for this nonsense without having the basic scientific reasoning ability to question their basically insane claims. I am all for sticking it to “professionals” who abuse their position (and I think £801,000 was a trivial sum in this case) but, for Toutatis’ sake, why on Odin’s Earth didn’t Ms Page go to the bloody doctors when she felt sick. When uncontrollable vomiting set in, most normal people (you would hope) would go to the hospital, probably via a 999 call to an ambulance. Not Ms Page, who returned to her nutritional therapist for more advice. As I see it, this is where Nash commited the greatest crime. Rather than telling Ms Page to seek real help, she stuck to her woo. Stupid or greedy? Who knows? Who cares – it still screams criminal negligence as far as I can see.

Closing on the heels of the above, and a strong candidate for the worst abuse of scientific illiteracy is the media’s “feeding frenzy” on the decision by Ronald Herberman (Director of the University of Pittsborough Cancer Institute) to issue a warning to his staff to limit their use of mobile phones due to the risk of cancer. Now, I am going to assume that Herberman is a scientist and aware of the nature of scientific reasearch – and indeed, he did say the “evidence is controversial” that phones cause cancer. The same can not be said for the media vultures that descended on this…

First off, often decisions have to be made on “inconclusive” evidence, so that in itself is not a bad thing. By its very nature a scientific proof is still liable to be disproven at any moment. In this manner, it is perfectly reasonable (there is that word again) for Director Herberman to send a memo to his staff saying that, in his opinion, they should limit their use of phones. Does this count as “evidence” there is an increased risk of cancers forming in users of mobile phones. No. Does this mean the “scientific community” (in as much as one can exist) thinks there is a greater risk today than they did two weeks ago – again, no.

If you were to absorb any news from the UK this week, however, you would think this was fundamental proof that mobile phones are dangerous. New calls are all over about how phone masts cause “electrosensitivity” and similar woo. It seems that people have assumed, that because Dr Herberman has sent out this message it must be true and obviously because Dr Herberman works at a Cancer Institute he must be correct, notwithstanding the fact that Cancer Research UK reported (in February) that phone users were no more likely to get cancer than someone who had never touched a phone. Obviously, as journalists are functionally incapable of reading research they go with what ever seems to have the power to sell as many issues as possible…

The Guardian newspaper on Saturday identifies what it sees as the logic at work here (and sadly this is where Dr Herberman seems to fall down). First off, it explains the problem in trying to find out what is a “cause of cancer” with:

Here’s the thing. Almost everything that causes cancer does so by causing mutations in our cellular DNA that accumulate over years and often decades before culminating in a tumour. So to prove something increases a person’s cancer risk, scientists must often not only wait for years to see a significant peak in the disease, but also be able to rule out any other possible cause. That could be changes in diet, environmental factors, lifestyle, the list goes on.

Yes. It it hard trying to work out what causes cancer, this is one of the reasons we have so many “institutes” around the world looking into it. I don’t seem to recall any of them having solved the problem yet though. The Guardian finishes with: (emphasis mine)

The independent Stewart review into mobile phones in 2000 advised children to limit their use as a precaution. Dr Herberman is following the same logic. “We shouldn’t wait for a definitive study to come out, but err on the side of being safe rather than sorry later,” he said.

Wow. A fail for science there. I think that funding research institutes causes cancer. Rather than wait to see if any study can agree with this, why don’t we withdraw the funding now so we can err on the side of being safe rather than sorry later.

Shame on you Dr Herberman, you have opened the floodgates to woo….

Phone Masts Not Harmful

In today’s Guardian newspaper (and online and here) there is an article explaining how the fears and worries of the “electrosensitive” woo-mongers is unfounded.

Sadly, the Guardian’s “news” editors have chosen to go with the headline:

Research fails to detect short-term harm from mobile phone masts

Now, it may just be my pedantry, but surely that strongly implies there is a short term harm and the researchers simply failed to detect it? The second link above is better and carries the tag line:

Yet another study shows no link between mobile phone radiation and ill health

Which pretty much captures the repetitiveness of this as a research result. The overwhelming weight of science shows there is no evidence of any short term harmful effect from communications masts and the only proven long term risk is from the most popular source of electromagnetic energy itself – the Sun.

In a nutshell, this seems like a well designed study which, like all the others, has resulted in no evidence that people who claim to be sensitive to electromagnetic radiation actually are – this is even something I have mentioned in the past. Repeated tests have shown that if you get an “electrosenstive” and tell them there is a transmitter near by, they evince the effects they claim are caused by “EM.” If they dont know the transmitter is near by, they don’t have the effects. In my unsympathetic, un-medical opinion this is pretty good proof it is all in their mind – for various reasons they are completely making it up. Part of me concedes the symptoms may be real, but it is only a small part of me. Either way, targeting phone masts as the culprit is doing no one any favours. As the Guardian comment on the topic finishes:

What sufferers experience is real and in many cases very unpleasant. But in the light of this evidence we can be pretty certain that phone masts do not cause short term health problems for the vast majority of people. Electrosensitive support groups should recognise this and begin to look harder for other causes of the condition.

Well said. Stop fighting a bogeyman and find the real cause – if there are real symptoms.

As always, there are those who are so wedded to a concept that no matter how much evidence to the contrary is presented, they will refuse to accept it. Sounds a bit religious to me, but never mind. The wonderfully named “Mast Sanity” website is a cited opponent of the recent study, and shows many of the traits you would normally associate with creationists trying to debunk evolution.

Unsurprisingly, Mast Sanity is a screaming example of bad science and a place where spurious arguments are used to dispel the results of the most recent study — I assume similar tactics were used on older studies, I didn’t look into the site that much, what I did read seemed like a check list of logical fallacies and debate-scoring tactics rather than anything reasoned. Some examples include:

We question why psychologrists are doing this research at all since physical changes to the skin and heart rates have been found in other research. Presumably the psychologists ‘believe’ this is all in the mind and this is what they set out to ‘prove’.

Yeah, and when you read the research notes it shows the psychologists set out to measure the physical responses. This smacks of a combination of appeal to ridicule and the laypersons perception that educational disciplines exist in complete isolation of each other. If the researchers had set out to prove the Electrosensitivity was in the mind, this would be obvious from the experimental design, not from what discipline the people who run the experiment come from.

Their conclusion was made possible by eliminating 12 of the most sensitive electrosentive volunteers who had become too ill to continue the study. Even a child can see that by eliminating 12 of the original 56 electrosensitive volunteers – over 20% of the group – that the study integrity has been completely breached.

Wow. First off the 12 people withdrew themselves, they were not eliminated to make the experiment possible. If the other 44 “electrosensitives” were actually electro sensitive, then what would the loss of those 12 change? As for the great “even a child” comment — well really. I have not met many children who can do the statistical analysis required to account for the changed sample sizes, but most would probably make a random assumption as to the status of the experiment. Does that mean they would be correct? Critically, the “study integrity” has certainly not been completely breached, it just gives a larger error bar to the findings.

There is more bad statistics with this bit of meandering nonsense:

One participant in the study questions Professor Fox’s assertion that only four people got all six test correct. He said “I got five [out of six] as during the first three five minute tests on session one, I stated ‘not sure’ after the first five minutes, which was marked as NO, but on session two, three and four I got it 100% right and actually identified the type of signal, so are the Essex [study] numbers meaningful?

I will confess to not really understanding what this is trying to say. One person thinks that more (or less) than four people got all six tests “correct” because he got five out of six in one of them. Blimey. The whole experiment must be flawed then… I would really appreciate it if someone could explain what the above means to me — I must be having a bad understanding day today. Talking about a previous study, quoted by the BBC, Mast Sanity continues:

… We don’t think Dr. Rubin [author of previous study] is qualified to comment on the Essex study as he didn’t even use a shielded room for his own experiments at King’s College and the so called ‘sham’ (zero) exposure was not a zero signal as people have been led to believe.

What makes me laugh about this, is the “pro-sensitives” leap on the shielding issue, and largely it is a cornerstone of their defence against the real science. In a nutshell, it explains why the “sensitives” report effects when no mast is transmitting, but they are led to believe it is. The problem with this is that when the “sensitives” believe the mast is off, they report no symptoms. Is the shielding belief-powered?

With no signs of irony whatsoever, Mast Sanity finishes its tirade with this wonderful bit of woo-spin:

Mast Sanity Spokesperson Yasmin Skelt says “All in all the Media release of this study has been an exercise in spin and propaganda and a poor one for science.

It is the long term health effects where people are forced to live near real Mobile Phone Masts that count and this study in no way covers those.

Great isn’t it? They refer to themselves in the third person and claim the science is spin and their spin is science. New Labour must love the world they have created.

The study was solid science. It certainly was not a perfect experiment, but few ever are. The conclusions drawn are sound and the reasoning is valid. The Woo-Monger reactions have been an exercise in spin and bad-logic, rarely coming close enough to science to be thought of as bad science. The study was very upfront — as have been the media reports — that this didn’t look at long term effects. Sadly, spinning the goal posts to a new location does not invalidate the research — not that the woo crowd have ever worried about that.

Asking if there are long term health effects is a good question, and an area where the research is sketchier which results in less certainty over the answers. That said, the common cries of the “electrosensitives” is that they suffer short term effects (which is why people buy “shielded curtains” and the like) and on this, it is quite probable that they are wrong. Redefining the criteria each time one is falsified is typical of another group who hold to nonsensical beliefs in the face of all evidence. Will Electrosensitivity become the Woo of the Gaps?

[tags]Media, News, EM,Woo, Science, Bad Science, Statistics, Bad Statistics, Electromagnetism, Guardian, Electrosensitivity, Nonsense, Society, Belief, Research, Experiment, Evidence, Logical Fallacy, Spin[/tags]

Danger WiFi!

Computer magazines, being monthly, are often behind the curve of the news. This is a shame as the internet must be hammering them but still, for some reason, they seem unwilling to adapt and offer much in the way of unique selling points (other than you can read them sitting on the toilet, which is hard to do with a website…). But I digress.

For reasons which will become apparent soon (in a different post), I am was still subscribed to PCW today and, with the wonders of the Royal SnailMail, I got the August 2007 issue in the post. Now for the last few months I have been more and more dissatisfied with PCW, but out of some weird mindset I always hope the next issue will be better. So far it hasn’t failed to disappoint me… Anyway, on to this issue.

Turning to the news pages and wow – there on page 11 is the news “WiFi in ‘fried brains’ scare.” Well, cutting edge news, isn’t it, I mean it isn’t as if even this blog has mentioned it once or twice in the past … The news item briefly mentions the Panorama woo-ish nonsense and, as you can imagine with a PC magazine, PCW falls in the “Use WiFi” camp.

What is odd though, is how they defend WiFi. The main claim of Panononsense seems to be that radiation 1m from a WiFi point was greated than 100m from a mobile (cell) phone mast. PCW does not go to any lengths to dismiss this as such, nor does it comment on the massive “so what” that this carries. All PCW does to defend WiFi is say:

It did not spell out that the maximum WiFi power radiated is of the order of a thousand times less than that from the mast and a tenth that of a phone handset held right next to the head.

All well and good you may think, it is even probably factually correct (I don’t know off hand and can not be bothered to google it). This response has been echoed elsewhere on TV tech programs and in the computer press. Basically they are saying the WiFi danger is less than holding a phone to your head over and over to justify all manner of WiFi networks being put in everything from your PC to your underwear.

Amazingly, this is a sign the electro-woo cults have managed at least the divide bit of a divide and conquer. If the phone companies respond with saying their phones are less dangerous than WiFi, it will all be over…

Seriously, saying WiFi is “Ok because it is less dangerous than XYZ” is nonsense, especially as the danger from XYZ is almost comical. The downside, though, is it reinforces the idea in the listeners mind that XYZ is bad, and is almost certain to lead to “research” (or at least calls for a stupid “public enquiry”) which hypes up the dangers even more. It happens in almost every industry (GM is a good example) and often gets to the point at which people are confused over what is Woo and what is research. At this point, the “alternative practitioners” with their beads, EM-proof curtains and the like have truly won.

More than anything else, for me, this highlights that “Computer Science” is not a science…

[tags]computer science, computer magazines, computers, culture, electrosensitivity, em, idiocy, mobile phones, nonsense, pcw, personal computer world, philosophy, scaremongering, science, society, wifi, woo[/tags]

Wifi Dangers

I dont have much time online, so I have pick and choose my ranting carefully now… The Will of Toutatis seems to have decreed that while I am mostly offline, the news is full of things which almost make my blood boil over. Bah. Humbug.

There is a long list of things which are stupid beyond belief in the media this week. I picked the post headline based on the furore from the BBC’s Panorama program which claims Wifi is three times more “dangerous” than mobile phone masts.  I didn’t watch the program myself, so my comments about it are based on the (mostly radio) news which picked it up.

For years there have been minor scare stories about mobile phone masts (cellphones for you colonials) causing all maner of problems to the people who live in their footprints. There has even been a considerable amount of rigourous scientific investigation into this. Sadly, for both the frightened and the media causing the scares, there is little to support the claims. Now, call me old fashioned but if you have 99 studies which show no ill effects and 1 which does, it probably means there are no ill effects.

Why in Odin’s Name do people focus on the outlier and demand that be considered as the “real evidence?” It is insane. It really is madness, and the BBC radio news about it was a cringeworthy example of it. There were “concerned citizens” calling on the Government to carry out an “inquiry” (as is the case today, if a dog craps on the pavement there needs to be a government inquiry into how and why it happened) and, predictably, there were “scientists” who wanted 15 mins of fame, demanding the same. All based on the same lack of evidence.

When I see things like this, I like to remember a pop-science programme I saw on television a few years ago (it was something like Brainiac but it wasnt brainiac), in which a group of “electrosensitives” were put in a house for two weeks. Outside was a broadcast tower. The subjects were told the tower would be on for the first week and off for the second week.

All subjects reported the “electrosensitivity” problems during the first week, which miraculously cleared up in the second. As they predicted. The kicker of it all was, the experiment was reversed. The tower was off when they thought it was on, and on when they thought it was off.

Now, I am not for one second saying that is the sort of thing which should be published in the Journal of EM Woo or whatever, but it goes a long way to showing how people convince themselves about something – and once they do it manifests itself in other effects.

This recent nonsense about WiFi is prime example, but pure comedy value can be gained from the “three times as dangerous” phrase. Radio towers are not dangerous, so what is three times zero.

I think I can agree with that.