Wi-Fi Wants To Kill Your Children… But Alasdair Philips of Powerwatch sells the cure!

May 26th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, bbc, electrosensitivity, powerwatch - alasdair philips, scare stories, very basic science | 163 Comments »

Hello visitors from boingboing/slashdot. I’m a doctor and I write in the Guardian and the BMJ about quackery, health scares, and pseudoscience in the media.

Ben Goldacre
Saturday May 26, 2007
The Guardian

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 bad.science@guardian.co.uk

More:

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:

news.bbc.co.uk/newswatch/ukfs/hi/default.stm

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:

www.badscience.net/?p=414

www.badscience.net/?p=415

www.badscience.net/?p=416

www.badscience.net/?p=417

qurl.com/njqhh

www.theregister.co.uk/2007/04/24/open_letter/

www.twonilblankblank.com/2007/05/22/panorama-electrosmog-waves-as-particles/

wongablog.co.uk/2007/05/22/panorama-on-wi-fi/

www.wellingtongrey.net/miscellanea/archive/2007-05-27–the-truth-about-wireless-devices.html

education.guardian.co.uk/schools/story/0,,2084525,00.html

www.quackometer.net/blog/2007/05/wi-fi-quackery-and-parliament.html

news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/6676129.stm

newsforums.bbc.co.uk/nol/thread.jspa?threadID=6357&&&edition=1&ttl=20070521165820

timworstall.typepad.com/timworstall/2007/05/wifi_is_killing.html

commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/james_randerson/2007/05/why_fear_wifi.html

blog.bibrik.com/archives/2007/05/wifi_fears.html

keithprimaryict.blogspot.com/2007/05/more-on-wi-fi-health-debate.html

p10.hostingprod.com/@spyblog.org.uk/blog/2007/05/bbc_tv_panorama_conflates_wifi_radiation_fears_with_mobile_phone_masts_ignores_handsets_in_schools.html

blogs.guardian.co.uk/technology/archives/2007/05/21/the_dangers_of_wifi_radiation_updated.html

news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/6676129.stm

media.guardian.co.uk/broadcast/story/0,,2084219,00.html

newsvote.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/default.stm?dynamic_vote=ON#vote_vote_wifi

www.ts0.com/labels/media.asp

www.qnoodle.com/public/blog/2396

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.

www.badscience.net/?p=369

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.


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163 Responses



  1. Nanobot said,

    June 6, 2007 at 1:59 pm

    It is a shame that we seem to have seen the great tactic used throughout the centuries to dismiss criticism of unfounded or incorrect comments. First we see the individual attempt to rebuff criticism by claiming that his opponent lacks sufficient technical knowledge of the area:

    topazg82: “Sorry Ben, but you simply are out of your depth on these EMF issues.”

    And then when that fails we see that the individual resorts to an appeal to ‘common-sense’ to untangle what was truly meant by a comment that was in fact untrue.

    topazg82:’I mean, just apply a bit of common sense.’

    So Mr Philips (either will do) which is it to be? The issues in the programme are either complex or they are common sense, which is it?

    And what is common sense? Is it really common sense to know the inverse relationship of signal strength with distance? Of course it isn’t for most people. Common sense is in fact far from common, it is totally individual. I’m afraid blaming the editing procedures of making TV programmes just shows that you aren’t capable of representing yourself properly on television – your fault.

  2. pv said,

    June 6, 2007 at 10:26 pm

    “Considering he has been asked multiple times …”

    You can’t even write in English can you! But your lack of literacy aside, Ben Goldacre clearly has responded and no amount of shouting and denials from you will change that, much as you wish that it would.

    Keep digging!

  3. topazg said,

    June 8, 2007 at 9:35 am

    No, my comment was addressed at Ben’s ability to counter our response to his column, linked to multiple times (mainly by Ben) in the comments in this thread.

  4. ayupmeduck said,

    June 8, 2007 at 11:22 am

    @Alasdair – Again, fair game for making further corrections, although I’ve not yet managed to find the updated document on your site.

    However, you are still making schoolboy mistakes – I don’t use the term “schoolboy mistakes” in an attempt to insult you, rather I mean it literally 🙂 I have already said I’m 100% sure that you have misunderstood or misrepresented the ECOLOG reports. Your response to this is to go to another “e-smog pressure group” website and quote them. School children would get marked down for such poor research. Here are some things that you should have noticed:

    1) The Hese site did their own translation of the ECOLOG report. Hey, and guess what? They twisted the translation, especially the summary. For example, Hese use the term “base station” in the translation in places where it’s not present in ECOLOG report. In fact the ECOLOG report mainly refers to Handsets, not really base stations.

    2)You could have checked the ECOLOG site itself. Then you would have noticed that they also have a 2006 report that contradicts your claims.

    3) You could have checked other sources and you would have noticed that the author of the ECOLOG report, Dr. Peter Neitzke, has said the people should not be worried about mobile base stations. In fact he has on occasion stated that there could be a case for more base-stations to be built.

    4)Best and easiest of all, you could have simply contacted ECOLOG or Dr. Neitzke. Checking the source is rule number 1 in this game.

    Rather than do any of these things you searched for a site (Hese) that provided “evidence” that would fit your prejudices.

    BTW: I would say that ECOLOG are pretty credible. They present a pretty good case for more studies. They are healthy sceptics, they take a scientific approach, they don’t scaremonger and they don’t sell “e-smog” products. Should ECOLOG ever issue a “WiFi is a danger to school children” report, I would take it seriously.

  5. pv said,

    June 8, 2007 at 4:35 pm

    “..linked to multiple times…”

    I know. It’s nothing to do with wi-fi, but it’s still fashionably illiterate, absurdly pretentious and in keeping with your desire to “complicate” matters and sound vaguely intelligent.
    I’m sure that for years you would have used the word “many”. It is a good word and more appropriate – but probably not cool or pretentious enough for you any more. It’s a small example but it says a lot about your communication skills and your motives that you want to dress up your language in this way.

    For your information, here is the difference.

    Multiple:
    adj 1. having or involving more than one part, individual, or element
    n 2. a number or polynomial which can be divided by another specified one an exact number of times; Example: 6 is a multiple of 2

    Many:
    adj 1. a large number of; numerous; Example: many times; many people think the government is incompetent
    pron 2. a number of people or things, esp. a large one; Example: his many supporters; have as many as you want
    3. many a each of a considerable number of; Example: many a man
    n 4. the many the majority of mankind, esp. the common people.

  6. topazg82 said,

    June 8, 2007 at 9:40 pm

    Ben has not yet responded to our response to his column, either on these comments or to us directly. I presume he is busy on other things (there have been numerous further BS entries recently) and this is not his job, so whilst I would appreciate a response that is also fair enough.

    I not accused anyone of being stupid (in fact, the only comment I can see along those lines is your question as to whether I was deliberately being thick), nor have a set out to patronize anyone on here. Some people have been particularly on topic and raised extremely good points that have caused us to update some of the things we have said, and that is undoubtedly a good thing.

    We recommended Microwave News because they have been covering the issue for over 25 years and at the very least, have cited numerous relevant papers in their archives than have been brought up here – it was more a “further reading” exercise than pointing to the definitive authority on the subject. Mike Repacholi has publicly criticised Louis Slesin on multiple accounts, and likewise Louis Slesin has accused Mike Repacholi of the same – it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other, so it’s no less biased siding with one side than the other: if you read the criticisms in detail you will find both are fairly well cited.

    What exactly does “You people” mean? I have not accused WHO of corruption, industry bias, hidden funding, mass genocide or anything else – where are you getting this claim from exactly?

    I do think that your comments are often rude, and it isn’t a matter of sensitivity, but one of productivity. Your comments are not particularly constructive nor are they directed at much other than your perception of our motivation, and it is becoming tiresome reading post after post of ad hominem attacks at either myself or Alasdair.

    If I have been patronizing or condescending, then I apologise, but responding in kind is not particularly helpful to anyone.

  7. humber said,

    December 3, 2007 at 10:10 am

    Re” Weety July 8
    It must be annoying to have others deny your illness, but there is no hard evidence to support your claim.

    It seems to me that you are unusually aware of the location of radio masts. There are many causes for scalp complaints, and the very common experience of occasional lightheadedness. The ubiquity of radio masts in the UK will almost certainly allow you to associate any occurrence with them.
    Knowledge that the transmitters aren’t there, as was the case in the IoM, will allow you to make a countering case, but how many times have you been unaware of even stronger RF fields, yet suffered no effects?

    You saw the mast opposite your work place, but was it radiating your direction or even switched on ?

  8. CILIPInfo said,

    September 17, 2009 at 5:32 pm

    This story is back in the news again and people are going into libraries asking if the WiFi is harmful to their children.

    I’ve just blogged about it here: communities.cilip.org.uk/blogs/informationadvice/default.aspx

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  12. motherandteacher said,

    April 11, 2013 at 1:20 am

    In May 2011 IARC, agency of the World Health Organisation reclassified electromagnetic radiation from all devices (wifi, mobiles, towers, cordless phones) as a 2B possible carcinogen, on the same list as DDT, engine exhaust etc.
    This is Alastair Philip’s response to you, Ben Goldacre: www.powerwatch.org.uk/columns/aphilips/#33

    I am very disappointed with what I have read on this page of your site. It makes me doubt the rest of what you have to say, but I will check it out. Perhaps you are the one who is making money out of misinformation? I will have a closer look at you, though. Perhaps you do have some good information, we will see.

  13. sciencetruthseeker said,

    May 12, 2015 at 10:05 am

    This article and the information on this page is typical of the kind of the arrogance that befalls so many scientists. It seeks to promote it’s own agenda and fails to look at the facts in a balanced way, bias is as unscientific as some of the experiments you describe. And it is clear from this article that badscience understands very little about the effects of weak Electromagnetic fields on biological systems.

    What I find most strange is that those engaging in this debate have so little understanding of interacting electro-magnetic fields. Life expresses itself via electrovalance. Any electrical field how ever weak at this level will interfere with a biological system. This is scientific fact and has been known since the 60’s. The effects of interacting EMF’s has been known since the 1900’s.

    How harmful it is remains to be seen, although we are already seeing that it makes some people feel ill, but it doesn’t take a genius to work out that life could do with out being interfered with at that level. Life itself is profoundly complex and what affects it is so little understood, surely even the most conceited of scientists would accept they know little of how it works and what affects it.

    If only we could all recognise where we seek to subscribe to the view that suits us in these debates we would more likely come to the conclusions that are appropriate rather than argue for and against what we do not yet understand.