Saturday May 26, 2007
Won’t somebody, please, think of the children? Three weeks ago I received my favourite email of all time, from a science teacher. “I’ve just had to ask a BBC Panorama film crew not to film in my school or in my class because of the bad science they were trying to carry out,” it began, describing in perfect detail the Panorama which aired this week.
[ you’ll need to skip through the last two minutes of Eastenders to watch it…]This show was on the suppressed dangers of radiation from Wi-Fi networks, and how they are harming children. There was no science in it, just some “experiments” they did for themselves, and some conflicting experts. Panorama disagreed with the WHO expert, so he was smeared for not being “independent” enough, and working for a phone company in the past. I don’t do personal smear. But Panorama started it. How independent were they, and the “experiments” they did?
They had 28 minutes, I have under 700 words. Here we go. In the show, you can see them walking around Norwich with a special “radiation monitor”. Radiation, incidentally, is their favourite word, and they use it 30 times, although Wi-Fi is “radiation” in the same sense that light is.
“Ooh its well into the red there,” says reporter Paul Kenyon, holding up the detector (19 minutes in). Gosh that sounds bad. Well into the red on what? It’s tricky to callibrate measurements, and to decide what to measure, and what the cut off point is for “red”. Panorama’s readings were “well into the red” on “The COM Monitor”, a special piece of detecting equipment designed from scratch and built by none other than Alasdair Philips of Powerwatch, the man who leads the campaign against WiFi. His bespoke device is manufactured exclusively for Powerwatch, and he will sell one to you for just £175. Alasdair decided what “red” meant on Panorama’s device. So not very independent then.
Panorama did not disclose where this detector came from. And they know that Alasdair Philips is no ordinary “engineer doing the readings”, because they told us in the show, but they didn’t tell the school that. “They wanted to take some mesurements in my class room, compare them to the radiation from a phone mast and film some kids using wireless laptops. They introduced ‘the engineer’, whom I googled.”
He found it was the same man who runs Powerwatch, the pressure group campaigning against mobile phones, Wi-Fi, and “electrosmog”. In Alasdair’s Powerwatch shop you can buy shielded netting for your windows at just £70.50 per metre, and special shielding paint at £50.99 per litre. To paint a small eleven foot square bedroom in your house with Powerwatch’s products you would need about 10 litres, costing you £500.
When the children saw Alasdair’s Powerwatch website, and the excellent picture of the insulating mesh beekeeper hat that he sells (£27) to “protect your head from excess microwave exposure”, they were astonished and outraged. Panorama were calmly expelled from the school.
So what about Panorama’s classroom experiment? Not very independent, and not very well designed, as the children pointed out. “They set about downloading the biggest file they could get hold of – so the Wi-Fi signal was working as powerfully as possible – and took the peak reading during that,” says our noble science teacher. It was a great teaching exercise, and the children made valuable criticisms of Panorama’s methodology, such as “well, we’re not allowed to download files so it wouldn’t be that strong”, “only a couple of classes have wifi”, and, “we only use the laptops a couple of times a week”.
Panorama planned to have the man from Powerwatch talk to the students for about 10 minutes about how Wi-Fi worked, and what effects it had on the human body. Then they were going to reveal the readings he had got from the mast, compare them to what Powerwatch had measured in the classrom, and film the kids reaction to the news. So not very independent then.
“Surprisingly enough the readings in my room were going to be higher (about 3 times higher I believe) and with the kids having been briefed by the engineer from Powerwatch first they were hoping for a reaction that would make good telly.” Sadly for them it didn’t happen. “We told Panorama this morning that as they hadn’t been honest with us about what was going on and because of the bad science they were trying to pass off, we didn’t want them to film in the school or with our students.”
The images you see of children in the show are just library footage. I’m sure there should be more research into Wi-Fi. If Panorama had made a 28 minute show about the scientific evidence, we would be discussing that. Instead they produced “radiation” scares, and smears about whether people are “independent”. People in glass houses are welcome to throw stones, at their own risk.
A BBC Spokesperson said: “Alistair Phillips is one of a handful of people with the right equipment to do this test. He was only used in this capacity and was not given an opportunity to interpret the readings let alone campaign on them in the film. We filmed the tests taken at the school and didn’t return.”
Please send your bad science to firstname.lastname@example.org
There’s some more general criticism of the program and a response here, and if you were going to make a complaint, you might be disappointed by the response, since it was written before you complained.
To me this is a very uncomplicated situation of heinous scaremongering and bias. For a start, since the BBC is a broadcasting organisation, they will be absolutely chockablock full of radio frequency engineers who could have helped them do a proper sensible show.
If they really had wanted to measure exposure in classrooms, for example, they could have simply taken some readings up close, a metre away from a laptop (some while it was downloading hard, some while it wasn’t), and lots of ambient measurements from around the room, and combined them. This would have provided a meaningful, naturalistic, real world figure describing what a child is actually exposed to during a day. I can’t see any sense in measuring anything other than that.
Instead, while throwing around accusations of other people being biased, to produce a scare, Panorama – quite unnecessarily – took an “electrosmog” pressure group campaigner, let him decide what to measure, how, where, and with what equipment. They completely failed to come clean on this. The reality is, the producers probably didn’t even know what they were having measured. They say it was because there was nobody else to ask: the BBC is the biggest broadcaster in the UK, probably one of the biggest employers of engineers who know about that kind of thing.
And that’s just looking at those parts of the program.
There is the issue of Panorama’s other experts, like associate professor Olle Johansson, awarded Misleader Of The Year 2004 in his native country.
But there are far bigger issues, and ones where Panorama were unambiguously scurrilous. They spent a long time covering “electrosensitivity”. There are over 30 double blind studies of people who believe that their symptoms, such as dizziness and heaches, are caused by immediate exposure to electromagnetic signals: essentially these studies all show that sufferers cannot tell when a source of signal is present or absent (full story and references here).
But there was no mention of these studies in Panorama. Instead they showed us just one subject in an unfinished, unpublished study: Why? Apparently she has guessed if the signal is on or not, correctly, 2/3 of the time. Is that statistically significant? What about the other subjects in the study? It’s meaningless: it’s an anecdote dressed up as science with some pictures of some measuring equipment.
It will be very interesting if the results of this study overall are positive, and it will be very interesting to try and understand why theirs were positive, given that over thirty other studies were negative. If the Essex results are negative, will Panorama broadcast that too? I’d guess “no”, and here’s just one reason why.
Then they talk about how the Swedish government officially “recognises” electrosensitivity. They praise Sweden for paying for special paint (like that sold by Alasdair at Powerwatch at £50.99 a litre).
But in fact Sweden simply pays disability benefits for some people who believe they have the condition, in a spirit of compassionate pragmatism (and quite right too). They seem to be making a spectacular fuss about some largely administrative differences in the generous Swedish disability benefits system.
Let’s remember that 13% of Sweden’s working age population claim disability benefits, and the Wall Street Journal reported prominently just two weeks ago that they are cutting back, and specifically on payments for electrosensitivity.
I could go on.
Of course you should be vigilant about health risks. I don’t question that there may be some issues worth sober investigation around Wi-Fi safety. But this documentary was the lowest, most misleading scaremongering I have seen in a very long time.
It gets trashed on BBC24 here:
transcript of that program here.
Meanwhile over the past few days badscience.net has been just one small part of the mass destruction in the blogosphere:
To name just a few.
Paul Kenyon Podcast
I’ve had a fairly long chat on the phone with the presenter, “stilted” while the tape was on, cheery when it wasn’t. He conceded essentially what he conceded on News24, along with some new stuff on electrosensitivity, and generally passed the buck in a polite fashion. Unfortunately it’s recorded off the phone and onto what I can only describe as “audio cassette” – not posh podcast recorder – because you stingy bastards don’t ever spend anything here or here, and god bless you for it, ideas were meant to be free. I’ll try and transfer it over if I can buy this weird audio cable and grab an hour or two, I think it should be just about audible.
You’ve, er, heard the quality of the previous recordings of course.
Anyway [holds pistol aloft]: “Discuss”. Except it’s a balmy bank holiday weekend, so maybe discuss in the park instead. I’m going to an Indian wedding. Cheers!
Update BBC24 Newswatch:
The BBC’s Newswatch show has got onto this – since so many of you got in touch over the week – and called the presenter in for a drubbing. Panorama don’t come out of it looking too good. Although the presenter Paul Kenyon still manages to add to the nonsense.