BMJ Column – Why don’t journalists mention the data?

June 15th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, electrosensitivity | 28 Comments »

BMJ 2007;334:1249 (16 June)
doi:10.1136/bmj.39245.510718.59
Observations
Media watch
Why don’t journalists mention the data?

Have stories about “electrosensitivity” simply been lifted from those promoting this new diagnosis?

Sometimes, as a doctor who also writes in the newspapers, a dark thought comes across me: wouldn’t it be so refreshing -secretly, wouldn’t it feel so free – to leave the medical thing behind, and just make stuff up, say what I want, spin any story that pleases me, or any story that sells, and gaily ignore the evidence?

For two years now the British news media has been promoting the existence of a new medical condition, called electrosensitivity, or electromagnetic hypersensitivity. The story – or in medical terms the hypothesis – is that a wide range of symptoms are caused by acute exposure to electromagnetic signals, and that these symptoms are ameliorated by this signal being removed.

The features have a lot in common with what might often conventionally be called “medically unexplained symptoms”: tiredness, difficulty concentrating, headaches, nausea, bowel complaints, aches in the limbs, crawling sensations or pain in the skin, and more, for which no explanation is found. Such symptoms have existed since long before the appearance of “electrosensitivity,” and the absence of a clear cause is extremely troubling to both patients and doctors.

If these symptoms were caused by electromagnetic signals, then it should prove possible to study that, ideally in double blind conditions: and yet the media coverage invariably focuses on the scandal of how research into this area has been neglected. But the research has been done. In fact, dozens of double blind studies have been performed, but they have been systematically ignored by almost every single journalist covering the issue.

A typical experiment would involve a mobile phone, hidden in a bag for example, and each subject—chosen from people who report that their symptoms are caused by electromagnetic signals—recording their symptoms over time, without knowing if the phone is on or off.

There have now been 37 such double blind “provocation studies” published in the peer reviewed academic literature, and they are almost all negative, although you could argue that the evidence is unanimous. There are, to be clear, seven studies that did find some statistically significant effect for electromagnetic signals: but for two of those, even the original authors have been unable to replicate the results; for the next three, the results seem to be statistical artefacts (one tailed t-tests—presumptuous, you might say—and problems with multiple comparisons); and for the final two, the positive results are mutually inconsistent (one shows worsened mood with provocation, and the other shows improved mood: still sure a one tailed t-test is reasonable?).

These studies test the very hypothesis reported on repeatedly in the media: symptoms are brought on by exposure to a source of electromagnetic signals, and cease when the source is removed. And not only are the studies ignored, but sometimes it feels like the media are actively teasing us. A recent Panorama documentary on BBC 1 covered the possible dangers of Wi-Fi computer networks, and what little evidence the programme did present was flawed in a number of ways.

A large chunk of the programme was devoted to electrosensitivity. It covered the question of testing the phenomenon, in a double blind study. The programme makers even followed someone into a lab at Essex University where they had participated in one provocation study. We are told that this subject did correctly identify when the signal was present or absent two thirds of the time, to a visual backdrop of sciencey looking equipment.

But this was anecdote dressed up as data. The study is currently unpublished. We don’t know the protocol, or whether 2/3 for one subject would be statistically significant (there may be only three exposures in total, for example). We don’t know the results of the other subjects. But most crucially, there is no mention that this single selected subject in a single unpublished study produced a result that seems to conflict with a literature of 37 studies that have been completed, published, and are overall negative. If this whole Essex study was positive, while it might make an interesting small splash next to the other 37, it would need to be replicated and considered in the context of the negative findings. The alternative is chaos, and being blown in the wind by every Type I error.

So why doesn’t the media ever mention this data? Perhaps they deliberately and mischievously leave it out. Perhaps they never came across it, and are incompetent. Or perhaps they simply lifted their stories verbatim from aggressive and well coordinated lobbyists who promote this new diagnosis (some of whom also sell expensive equipment to sufferers, such as insulating paint at £50 a litre, and insulating beekeeper hats for trips outdoors).

Not only do these lobbyists observe a monastic silence on the issue of the provocation studies, but they also viciously attack anyone who even dares to mention the data, accusing them of insensitivity, of attacking sufferers, and of denying the reality of their symptoms. Symptoms, of course, stand as real, regardless of their cause; and if you were going to offer guilt trips around, you could fairly argue that those who obfuscate on the causes are themselves hindering better understanding and treatment, and so harming patients.

Ben Goldacre, doctor and writer, London. ben@badscience.net

References

I have written a lengthy summary of the 37 studies done so far, which is constantly updated, and resides here:

www.badscience.net/?p=239

.

For added interest, here’s an image of how my article appears on the page in the BMJ.


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28 Responses



  1. evariste said,

    June 15, 2007 at 10:46 pm

    Maybe type I errors and multiple comparison correction just don’t make good copy in the daily X’s editor’s office? Constantly impressed by how well medics understand statistics, but they must only be a small fraction of the newspaper buying public. Still a fight’s a fight and I’m glad you’re taking them on; more power to your elbow (as long as it’s not EM of course).

  2. Mojo said,

    June 16, 2007 at 12:29 am

    “I have told everyone who has written to make sure that if they write about what I have said, they link to the actual full text, which is now available for free below, or even reproduce the full text for themselves (I can’t imagine the BMJ would mind). This will allow their readers to decide for themselves about whether my article is reasonable.”

    Now why would they want their readers to be able to do that?

  3. prescience said,

    June 16, 2007 at 4:27 am

    Ben,

    Of course you are getting abusive emails. Those who make pots of money out of their electrosensitivity “cures” aren’t going to take this lying down.

    An interesting thesis topic suggests itself for a final-year mathematical economics student: Is there a significant correlation between the volume and abusiveness of emails reveived by Dr Goldacre, and the value of the income of CAM practitioners his articles threaten?

    Are the emails coming from the quacks, or from the hacks who puffed the quacks? Enquiring minds need to know.

    Keep it up, and thanks.

  4. le canard noir said,

    June 16, 2007 at 9:28 am

    Its not all commercial. I think that for some of the lobbyists, the lure of being a hero to the sufferers in the face of mainstream doubt is the driving factor. Expressind doubt and caution, exposing the quackery building up around the issue and helping to understand what it is all about (say by careful critique of the data) is rather less glamourous.

  5. raygirvan said,

    June 16, 2007 at 11:13 am

    Are the emails coming from the quacks, or from the hacks who puffed the quacks?

    Don’t forget sufferers. People with somatisation-type syndromes get very hostile (and develop a remarkable burst of energy for arguing the toss, despite being so ill) when some fashionable diagnosis gets questioned.

  6. woodchopper said,

    June 16, 2007 at 11:16 am

    Years ago I worked for a PR company. The usual form was that we would send out a press release and a day later the same text would appear in a newspaper. Just this time with a journalist listed as the author.

    Lots of times I was told that they would be happy to print or broadcast, as long as I supplied them with the story.

    My conclusion was that a lot of journalists were either horrificly overworked, or just extremely lazy. I’m not surprised at all that they would just lift a story from some lobbyists. Thats what happens in every other field.

  7. Dr Aust said,

    June 16, 2007 at 12:00 pm

    Woodchopper is right. According to my friends in news journalism:

    (i) non-star reporters on TV companies and papers often have to file a story a day, plus having other jobs. Time for re-write, fact-checking and context-finding thus rather limited (to say the least).

    (ii) The PR operations have ex-journalists working for them who know precisely what the journalists need to put in a short news article (“hook” in the first 25 words, typically including eye-catching stuff AND “human interest”, “why it matters” in para 2, quotes and colour paras 3 on so it can be easily cut by the subs, etc. etc.). So the press release is written to correspond exactly to what a harrassed journo will look for.

    The question, in a sense, is not why the news page science/ medical stories look how they do, but why the papers run so few more extended analysis pieces (like Ben’s column, or other longer science pieces).

    The standard answer from hard-bitten journos is that this is not what sells, and thus not what the public wants.

  8. Dr Aust said,

    June 16, 2007 at 12:25 pm

    Ben – are they sending these Flame-mails direct to you? They aren’t appearing in the BMJ Rapid Responses to your piece.

  9. prescience said,

    June 16, 2007 at 4:33 pm

    Drowned: good for you. I’ll see if I can come up with an objective (and automated) measure of “abusiveness”.

  10. Jut said,

    June 16, 2007 at 10:26 pm

    Ben, would you happen to have a reference list of those 37 studies that you could post for those of us too lazy to trawl through the journals:p

  11. Fighting_Sailor said,

    June 17, 2007 at 10:43 am

    For well over half a century, sailors of the Royal Navy (and indeed many other maritime services around the world) have been wandering around in fairly strong EM fields created by RADAR and RF Communications. The fact that ships are made of metal (usually) means that as they proceed to and from the upper-deck they would experience the symptoms of ‘electrosensitivty’ coming and going (faraday cage, etc). Clearly these debilitating symptoms would have affected work on the upper-deck and fighting effectiveness and thus led to a string of medical reports across the ships of the Fleet and across the years of sailors being affected in this way. Similar clusters would have been reported by people living around dockyards where systems were trialled and set to work. This mass of data would show convincingly that ‘electrosensitivity’ is a real issue – except that this data doesn’t exist! Exposure to EM fields at RF frequency is not new. ‘Electrosensitvity’ is. Causality?

  12. pv said,

    June 17, 2007 at 3:48 pm

    What about the pilots of the world’s air forces? I presume they would be subject to EMF, flying around as they do in tubular metal projectiles, with all those sophisticated electronic communications…

  13. BobP said,

    June 17, 2007 at 7:42 pm

    …. and people working or moving near radar installations (e.g. everyone at Heathrow Airport, after emerging from the Tube and before entering the plane). And anyone passing near the BBC Crystal Palace Transmitter. And so on…

  14. drowned said,

    June 17, 2007 at 11:49 pm

    Prescience: Please email me at drownedscience@gmail.com if you wish to discuss further.

  15. Ben Goldacre said,

    June 18, 2007 at 12:23 am

    feel free to discuss here or in the forums, no need to take it off board.

    i’d have to have a think about whether i would feel comfortable releasing the hatemail. i think for the most part when mail is abusive, unsolicited, and about something i have written then there is no obligation on me to observe privacy to the sender, but legalisms aside i’d have to have a good think about whether i personally thought it was appropriate. (having said that – for the benefit of those sending them especially – i have every intention of publishing edited highlights, and if anyone claims i have misrepresented them i will very happily publish full letters).

  16. Teek said,

    June 18, 2007 at 9:22 am

    good points made above about journos being lazy/overworked/incompetent – as always we’re probably looking at a combo of these factors when we read stories lifted verbatim from press releases.

    as for being insensitive when you mention the data, that amlost smacks of McCarthyist anti-scientific knee-jerk fear of the truth – just what you’d expect from woo-mongers!!

  17. nekomatic said,

    June 18, 2007 at 10:50 am

    “the lure of being a hero … in the face of mainstream doubt”

    This is exactly what motivates climate change deniers and any number of other controversialists, surely?

    “People with somatisation-type syndromes get very hostile (and develop a remarkable burst of energy for arguing the toss, despite being so ill) when some fashionable diagnosis gets questioned.”

    Harsh… but very, very, very funny :-)

  18. ACH said,

    June 18, 2007 at 11:52 am

    Note also that the George L Carlo rabid response also says:

    Competing Interests: none declared.

  19. andy123 said,

    June 18, 2007 at 3:45 pm

    Sailor talks about radar on warships. I saw about 10 years ago a documentary from the USA about the effects on sperm count of large radars in USA warships. This programme could be shown in the UK, but not in the USA. It said that there was a similar programme in the USA from a britsh documentary crew…who said their film was not allowed to be broadcast in the UK, but could be shown in the USA. I worked in radar for 8 years from the age of 18. Just when you look to start a family. My sperm count was very low, until I left the navy, when it recovered, and we had children. I dont think the navy has ever done research to check these things. It is not in their interest to do this research. How much money have the big cellphone companies spent on research on the electro-magnetic effects of mobile phones. When did they start to put money into this research? Certainly not when the first lawsuit in the USA was launched about 15 years ago.
    Note the pattern, companies dont spend money on research on things that they dont like. There is no profit in that.

  20. j said,

    June 19, 2007 at 5:09 pm

    “Note also that the George L Carlo rabid response also says:

    Competing Interests: none declared.”

    Does he have commercial interests in the area, or does he ‘just’ work for a research institute?

  21. JRW said,

    June 19, 2007 at 9:04 pm

    Science and Policy Research Institute’s “latest project” is something called the “safe wireless initiative”. Here it is:

    ” Do you believe you have been harmed by radio waves from your cell phone or other sources of radio frequency radiation?
    If so, please confidentially share your information with us so that we can continue our studies aimed at identifying the means to protect you and your family.”

    The safe wireless initiative has a couple of Carlo’s books for sale. What’s more:
    “The Safe Wireless Initiative proudly supports the International Journal of Clinical Bioenergetics. This peer-reviewed journal publishes original research addressing interventions for EMR related-health effects.”

    And even better::
    “Now you can donate to SWI without spending a dime! Just book your business or personal travel through our new travel site”

    No competing interests declared, but plenty exist.

    www.sppionline.org
    www.safewireless.org

  22. drowned said,

    June 19, 2007 at 10:02 pm

    I see Ben’s point about not wanting to make public the hate mail etc. Still would be happy to look into the relationship between volume and degree of nastiness in emails and the potential economic implications for the respective industry. Any suggestions?

  23. stever said,

    June 19, 2007 at 10:03 pm

    Ive had press releases printed in local papers that included the notes to editors and my contact details. followed by the name of the jourrnalist. Now THAT is lazy.

  24. BobP said,

    June 20, 2007 at 7:15 pm

    .. on the subject of radiation sources, I’ve just realised that there are all these GPS satellites in the sky which are bathing the whole globe in radiation. Just to be safe, perhaps we should all live in caverns a mile underground where only the neutrinos can get us?

  25. TroyKnight said,

    June 29, 2007 at 2:00 pm

    Ben, you talk so much junk these days.

    For anyone actually interested in the health effects of electromagnetic fields, see www.electrosensitivity.org/.

    Troy

  26. art16 said,

    July 21, 2007 at 9:06 pm

    I find all this anecdotal information on symptoms nothing more than a symptom looking for a disease, an effect looking for a cause, and the present trend to pin blame for everything on something. As Albert Einstein once said:

    “The law of causality has not
    the significance of a statement
    as to the world of experience,
    except when observable facts
    ultimately appear as causes
    and effects.”

    (The Foundation of the General Theory of Relativity, A. Einstein, Annalen der Physik,49, 1916, trans.W. Perrett & G. B. Jeffery, The Principle of Relativity, p113, Dover, 1923.)

  27. stevejones123 said,

    August 7, 2007 at 4:24 pm

    If somebody sends you an email or a letter you can do what you want with it.

    This even applies if you were sent it by mistake — those ridiculous demands at the bottom of corportate emails telling you to delete them immediately if you are not the intended recipient can be treated as the nonsense they are.

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