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Every so often, old crackpot ideas, hoaxes, cons and plainly silly pseudoscience resurface online under the guise of Trump-like alternate fact. Scary stories about chemicals in your food, fake health tips, and Facebook-stealing-your-photos nonsense compete for attention with actual news and factual stories. The old bromide about wireless signals (WiFi) killing things is just one to come back to life this week on Facebook.
(You already know Facebook isn’t a reliable source of anything factual, even though factual content does get shared now and then. More common are the wingnut conspiracies, hoaxes and codswallop, along with cute kitten videos. Facebook is the place where what was once called the fringe has a cozy place alongside the mainstream, and New Age charlatans prey on fears and fantasies.)
This latest story beings pread on FB comes from a UK site called “Stop Smart Meters” originally published in 2013. SSM is one of those wacky “all wireless is evil and the government is behind it” sites that thrive despite the overwhelming scientific research that debunks their crazy notions. Break out the tin foil hats. These sites are to electronics, physics and biology what the Food Babe is to nutrition and chemistry: bunkum.
While it’s easy to scoff at this as just a fringe community, it’s more tragic that usually reliable media sites and sources (like ABC News) picked up the story and reprinted is, uncritically, without analysis or examination. This only helps spread the bunk and give it a semblance of credibility, while diminishing that of the media itself. It’s worse when these articles use words like proof or proven alongside the conjectures, allegations and fantasies.
Whether they be about chemtrails, creationism, magic crystals, auras, ayurveda, homeopathy, angels, chakras, UFOs or anti-vaccination claptrap, these pseudoscience sites all feed off each other, spreading the viruses of ignorance and fear. They share one another’s stories as if publishing on one wingnut site gives the conspiracy credibility. And they have a huge, gullible audience who treat their version as gospel and any debunking as a Satanic attack. Plus, they usually have some magic potion or bean to sell you for protection against those things that go bump in the night…
Take a look at this article’s claims to identify the nuttiness therein. First the author: Olle Johansson, a self-aggrandizing, alarmist anti-wifi crusader who received the ‘Misleader of the Year‘ Award from the Swedish skeptics in 2004 for his many unproven allegations and statements. He has a clear bias and his work cannot be taken as objective or even accurate.
In the article, he claims:
Foreign researchers are extremely excited for a biology project from five 9th grade girls.
Well that one’s easy to dismiss: the article carefully fails to note a single, credible researcher, company, government or university that were even mildly intrigued – let alone “extremely excited” – by what five girls aged 13 or 14 “discovered.” Sure, some media outlets carried it, uncritically and without checking the facts, but they aren’t researchers. And “foreign”? He adds,
Researchers from England, Holland and Sweden have shown great interest in the five girls’ biology experiments.
Again, those “researchers” or their institutions aren’t named, so we must assume they are the invisible pink unicorns of academia. Those aren’t facts: they’re mere allegations,without any evidence to support them.
Norwegian science journalist Gunnar Tjomlid had a good look at the study design and the report. He found a lot of things which are questionable.
Most of those questionable things were the very basics required in any properly done scientific experiment, like controls, like all of the information and data being released (including results that don’t support your hypothesis), like evident bias, like cherry-picked results, proper data analytics… the list of flaws is long. Embarrassing if this experiment were done by scientists, more or less expected if it was done by teenagers in their first year of high school.
It’s a great experiment. You have to credit them for thinking it up and working out the process. But it isn’t science and it doesn’t prove anything. It’s a school science project, not a doctorate thesis. As Suzi Gage noted of the experiment in The Guardian:
Apparently the researchers (some 15-year-old schoolchildren, in a classroom experiment in Denmark), decided to run the experiment after noticing they had trouble concentrating the morning after sleeping close to their mobile phones…
The suggestion by scientists interviewed about the research is that routers give out heat, and this probably dried out the cress in the rooms with the routers in, so equivalent water was not enough for them.
As for why the girls might struggle to concentrate the day after sleeping with their mobile phones on their bedside, perhaps the lure of late-night Facebook sessions or internet procrastination means they sleep less well?
Sure, wireless radiation and WiFi must be assessed; must be tested and safety assured and on a regular basis, but through proper, SCIENTIFIC methods, not through the homework of teenagers. And for several decades, it HAS been studied, from radio and TV broadcasts to today’s laptops. In no study out of hundreds done to date have any significant, adverse health effects been identified.
But to the true believers, that’s evidence of a huge conspiracy: a cover-up of international proportions, involving governments, scientists, technology companies, doctors, health organizations, media outlets and researchers worldwide. They listen only the outliers, the fringies who feed their fears.
Doesn’t matter that the weight of evidence is heavy against them. The World Health Organization (WHO) has pooh-poohed the wireless scareheads, saying:
The levels of RF exposure from base stations and wireless networks are so low that the temperature increases are insignificant and do not affect human health… In fact, due to their lower frequency, at similar RF exposure levels, the body absorbs up to five times more of the signal from FM radio and television than from base stations. This is because the frequencies used in FM radio (around 100 MHz) and in TV broadcasting (around 300 to 400 MHz) are lower than those employed in mobile telephony (900 MHz and 1800 MHz) and because a person’s height makes the body an efficient receiving antenna. Further, radio and television broadcast stations have been in operation for the past 50 or more years without any adverse health consequence being established.
Health Canada’s web page on RF radiation notes:
Based on scientific evidence, Health Canada has determined that low-level exposure to radiofrequency (RF) energy from Wi-Fi equipment is not dangerous to the public. This conclusion is consistent with the findings of other international bodies and regulators… At the frequencies used by Wi-Fi systems, extensive, long-term studies with biological organisms have been carried out; in particular, long-term animal studies. These studies showed no effects at exposure levels within international exposure limits.
There are people known as “wireless refugees” – a term I wasn’t aware of before I started writing this – many of whom claim to suffer from Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity (EHS), a condition not recognized in the USA or Canada. An article about EHS on LiveScience noted:
The vast majority of clinical trials designed to probe EHS have found that its sufferers are unable to distinguish between exposure to real and fake electromagnetic fields. Both cause them equal pain. In a 2010 meta-study that pooled the results of past trials, James Rubin, a medical psychologist at King’s College London and his colleagues concluded that all the trials that found EHS patients could distinguish between real and fake EM fields were flawed: They either used unsound methodologies, or their results couldn’t be replicated by identical follow-up trials.
In short, Rubin and his colleagues were “unable to find any robust evidence to support the existence of (electromagnetic hypersensitivity) as a biologic entity.”
Ken Foster, Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania is one of the many scientists who have studied the phenomenon of EHS. He wrote a paper about it in 2007, and on the HPS Radiation Specialists website, he wrote of his studies:
…levels of exposure of citizens to RF fields from wireless networks is far below international safety limits. Moreover, in nearly all of the places that I surveyed, the Wi-Fi signals were far below other RF signals that were present from other sources. Given the low level of exposure to people from RF fields from wireless networks in comparison to that from other sources of RF energy that are ubiquitous in the modern environment, any health concerns about wireless networks would seem to be moot.
And a Maclean’s article quoted a Public Health Ontario report (with links to the original) that noted, “A review of the evidence on wireless technology and health outcomes by Public Health Ontario stated, “Wi-Fi exposure are not only well within recommended limits, but are only a small fraction (less than one per cent) of what is received during typical use of cellphones.”
Science blogger Alex Howe reviewed the story back in late 2013, and made this statement that bears repeating at length:
Science in physics is based on mathematical laws. Science in medicine is based on rules of thumb. If you drop a rock off a 49-meter-tall building, it will always hit the ground in exactly 5 seconds (ignoring air resistance), just because that’s how gravity works. If it doesn’t, you almost certainly did something wrong because if you didn’t, then there’s something wrong with gravity, and you had better go back to basics and think long and hard about what that might be, just like Einstein did.
On the other hand, in medicine, if you give the same drug to 10 different patients–or for that matter to the same patient on 10 different days–you’ll get 10 different reactions, and (and here’s the key) you probably won’t fully understand why. We don’t have the basic laws to work from–or at least not in nearly as much detail.
The fact is: based on the well-tested laws of physics as we understand them. Cell phones and Wi-Fi cannot cause cancer because the signals they emit don’t have enough energy. Let me repeat that:
Cell phones can not cause cancer. They don’t have enough energy.
The laws of physics say that. That means if you run an experiment that says they do, you almost certainly did something wrong, because otherwise, something is seriously wrong with the laws of electromagnetism.
This is the problem with the medical studies. They pretty much never postulate a physical mechanism for how cell phone signals could possibly cause cancer. Probably because there isn’t one. Under the laws of physics as we understand them, such an explanation does not exist.
WiFi isn’t the problem. Ignorance is. We live in a complicated, complex, challenging world full of technology few of us really understand, but we are exposed to it daily, use it daily. Headline news and social media posts tell us about the Large Hadron Collider, the Hubble telescope, the search for black holes, the latest processor chip, self-driving cars, spacecraft in orbit around distant planets, new medical discoveries, new viral epidemics, climate change… we’re inundated with it all. And how many of us fully grasp even a part of all of this? You don’t have to be stupid to be overwhelmed by it.
But that doesn’t mean you should fall prey to the conspiracies about it, either.
Ignorance combined with fear make people suspicious, susceptible to scary warnings about things they don’t understand (often uttered by con artists who then sell services or products to “protect” them from these alleged dangers). In a BBC story from 2011 about the condition, there’s a powerful quote from Bob Park, a physics professor at the University of Maryland:
“The bigger problem that we face is that in our society, driven by technological change, people have very little education. There are lots of things people need to learn and they’re not learning it. The thing that’s going to kill them is ignorance.”
We are all entitled to hold our own opinion. But opinions are not necessarily connected to fact, to evidence, or even to reality. We are not entitled, therefore, to share them, uncontested and unopposed, as if they were. The internet and social media have created a platform where everything gets equal weight, where opinions carry as much gravitas as research, where there is no fringe: everything is mainstream. And that leads to confusion, to the acceptance of pseudoscience, pseudomedicine and pseudopolitics as if they were equally valid contenders to intellectual ideas or scientific research. That equality is called ignorance, and as Dr. Park warns, it’s going to kill us.
In fact, it is already doing so. The beliefs of anti-vaccination, “natural” cures and faith healing have caused the deaths of many, often children whose gullible parents bought into the cult-like fringe community that perpetuate these ideas.
The best defence against this is to be skeptical about conspiracy theories or claims: the bigger they appear, the wider their reach, the weaker the proof for them will always be. Check the facts, do some research and use common sense and logic to reason out the claims and the presentation. And please, please read some credible science about the claims.
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