Cherry Picking and the Professional Association of Teachers

June 20th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, electrosensitivity | 56 Comments »

It’s a small thing, but if Wi-Fi and reality editing interest you, then here is a quick letter I just pinged off. Before you accuse me of being a little too interested, I can write veeeery quickly, and this kind of phenomenon really does fascinate me.

Dear Professional Association of Teachers,

I have just received a small avalanche of emails from teachers advising me about an article that appeared on the front cover of your magazine: unfortunately it’s not available online, but it would be great if you were able to send me a copy. Visiting your website I must say I am absolutely fascinated by what you have chosen to link, and not link, from your page on electrosensitivity.

www.pat.org.uk/index.cfm/page/_sections.contentdetail.cfm/navid/126/parentid/0/id/278/_sa/17

It would appear that you have decided to cherry pick only those articles and websites that support your chosen hypothesis that electromagnetic exposures do cause the symptoms complained of. For example, you link to a wide range of campaigning websites, and videos, and even obscure local newspaper articles, but you diligently do not link to my criticisms of the Panorama program.

Amusingly, however, you do link to the response by lobby group (and ES protective equipment retailer) Powerwatch on their website, to my criticisms.

At www.badscience.net, a resource widely used by science teachers and to promote the public understanding of science, where my work has won such prizes as best science feature, best health freelance, and the Royal Statistical Society’s inaugural award for Statistical Excellence in Journalism, you will find not only my Guardian articles on the way that the evidence for ES has been deliberately and selectively distorted by people such as yourselves, but also my piece in the British Medical Journal (to which – again, rather amusingly – you link only the responses!); many other informative posts on this and other instances of the media and lobby groups with financial vested interests distorting abd misrepresenting scientific research; and most crucially, free and open discussion forums where all are welcome to post their views, and where there is a surprisingly high level of discussion and debate, something which is actively verboten on for example the Powerwatch site to which you link many times.

I am writing this not to promote my own work but really because I am genuinely fascinated by the tortuous lengths which people will go to in order to present only one side of a story. It saddens me greatly that a teachers organisation should promote such heinous and irresponsible cherry picking of scientific information, and in my view you do your members a great disservice.

I shall very much enjoy using this example in my sessions at the Royal Institution next week working with science teachers on how to promote critical thinking in science.

yours faithfully,

Dr Ben Goldacre


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If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

56 Responses



  1. Ithika said,

    June 20, 2007 at 2:05 pm

    Nyuk nyuk indeed.

    Did you know that if we turn off all the wifi transmitters in our schools, we will in fact be increasing the homeopathic dose of radiation!! – a disturbing thought, no?

  2. elfy said,

    June 20, 2007 at 3:16 pm

    Not totally on topic, but this article about a local councillor (Conservative, Merton) who “suffers from a rare allergy to phone masts” might interest you: www.thisislocallondon.co.uk/news/topstories/display.var.1477682.0.phone_mast_signals_give_me_headaches.php. It’s not that it cherry-picks its sources, so much as it doesn’t cite any at all. It just accepts everything he says at face value.

  3. Nanobot said,

    June 20, 2007 at 3:19 pm

    Ha Ha! That’s a good kick in the teeth for them. Good work, Ben.

  4. miked said,

    June 20, 2007 at 3:35 pm

    Ben, no offense but you do come across as smug, and the tone of your letter does read as if you think the reader is intellectually inferior.

    Look, I agree with your criticisms, and I want to banish the world of pseudo-science as much as you do, but try and do it with a bit more humility.

  5. Ben Goldacre said,

    June 20, 2007 at 3:36 pm

    the PAT back Brain Gym? Are you for real? That might make it an actual story, where do you get that from?

    @miked: fair point. will address smug vibes, poss side effect of pinging things off in a rush. behold how i am criticised on my blog! hurrah!

  6. prescience said,

    June 20, 2007 at 3:50 pm

    Ben,

    Have a look at PAT journal Autumn 2004 (excerpt on PAT’s site here:

    www.pat.org.uk/files/General/PiPConference2004.doc

    Demonstration of Brain Gym followed by the comment “…bound to come in handy this term.”

    Actually, I wasn’t referring to PAT, but to all the teachers who have emailed you objecting to your debunking of both topics.

  7. Ben Goldacre said,

    June 20, 2007 at 3:53 pm

    ace.

    www.pat.org.uk/files/General/PiPConference2004.doc

    Exercise for mind and body: Conference Seminars 2004
    Once again, Conference participants had a wide range of interesting, informative and fun seminars to choose from, dealing with issues from across the educational spectrum.
    Delegates learned how to ‘Exercise the Brain’ – never a bad idea! – in a fascinating session led by educational kinesiology consultant Bobby Wintour. She demonstrated the Brain Gym, a system of physical activities designed to prepare the brain and nervous system for optimal performance in all areas: intellectual, creative, athletic and interpersonal. Having been advised to ‘wear appropriate attire and footwear’, participants tried out some simple movements to support them in ‘reconnecting’ to their ‘true potential’. The session was enjoyed by all and is bound to come in handy this term!

  8. Jut said,

    June 20, 2007 at 4:26 pm

    Meh, as a teacher I’m ashamed to have groups like the PAT and GTC represent me. They are all about the latest fads for the classroom and less about focusing on the problems in schools.
    It’s absolutly heartbreaking to see schools go downhill so fast.

  9. SteveNaive said,

    June 20, 2007 at 4:55 pm

    Not only did they link to the responses to your BMJ article and not your article, they also very carefully linked to negative responses halfway down the page! Blatant bias.

  10. Phage said,

    June 20, 2007 at 5:16 pm

    Hilarious !
    If only I knew whether to laugh or cry. I could recount the sorry tale of the EDF spokesperson who came to the local school, but didn’t understand the difference between energy and electricity…

  11. Ambrielle said,

    June 20, 2007 at 6:11 pm

    I can’t wait for the response from PAT.

  12. maninalift said,

    June 20, 2007 at 6:19 pm

    This sort of hysteria actually prevents a real discussion about concerns over mobile phones/WiFi etc. Linking to a radio 5 discussion? I believe that it is quite likely that no intelligent statement has ever been made on radio 5.

    The only reason for concern at the moment appears to be the unknown (i.e. there is no evidence of harm). The debate is then whether it is better to delay the widespread use of a particular technology for years until there is an accumulation of evidence. If we don’t we risk making the sort of mistake that was made with asbestos. If we do, well hand in your mobile phone, your wireless router, your bluetooth headphones and your personal RADAR.

    I was amused by the blurb for the other speaker at the “Annual Conference for Teachers of AS Science for Public Understanding” which tried to make Brownian motion sexy by calling it “the science of the ‘middle world'”.

  13. Ben Goldacre said,

    June 20, 2007 at 6:41 pm

    Ambrielle: “I can’t wait for the response from PAT.”

    i wrote this letter because i was genuinely interested in what they had to say.

    bazzargh: “Being charitable, maybe they didn’t link to the BMJ article because it’s not free to access it.”

    well it’s free here now, i will be very interested to see if they link to it.

  14. Deano said,

    June 20, 2007 at 8:13 pm

    Ben you could do a little cherry-picking of your own from the National Curriculum requirements for Science:

    tinyurl.com/ormrb

    For example this at Key Stage 4:

    ” Data, evidence, theories and explanations
    1) Students should be taught:

    1. how scientific data can be collected and analysed
    2. how interpretation of data, using creative thought, provides evidence to test ideas and develop theories
    3. how explanations of many phenomena can be developed using scientific theories, models and ideas
    4. that there are some questions that science cannot currently answer, and some that science cannot address.

    Practical and enquiry skills
    2) Students should be taught to:Click to view notes

    1. plan to test a scientific idea, answer a scientific question, or solve a scientific problem
    2. collect data from primary or secondary sources, including using ICT sources and toolsClick to view notes
    3. work accurately and safely, individually and with others, when collecting first-hand data
    4. evaluate methods of collection of data and consider their validity and reliability as evidence.

    Communication skills
    3) Students should be taught to:Click to view notes

    1. recall, analyse, interpret, apply and question scientific information or ideas
    2. use both qualitative and quantitative approaches
    3. present information, develop an argument and draw a conclusion, using scientific, technical and mathematical language, conventions and symbols and ICT tools.

    Applications and implications of science
    4) Students should be taught:

    1. about the use of contemporary scientific and technological developments and their benefits, drawbacks and risks
    2. to consider how and why decisions about science and technology are made, including those that raise ethical issues, and about the social, economic and environmental effects of such decisions
    3. how uncertainties in scientific knowledge and scientific ideas change over time and about the role of the scientific community in validating these changes.”

  15. joanna.angel said,

    June 20, 2007 at 11:18 pm

    I woudln’t worry too much .. they’re the third tier of teaching unions.. have about 5 members :)

  16. Robert Carnegie said,

    June 21, 2007 at 1:39 am

    You cover over as a little self-important, I think (so? this is a blog after all), and strongly accusatory. I don’t see that the Professional Association of Teachers really has any interest in hawking up a health scare that they know to be spurious, unless it’s so that they get danger money or industrial injury compensation or just aren’t caught out not knowing how to use the computer… all right, at least two or three “good” dishonest potential reasons.

    However, if, as you say, you are close to the heart of the electrosmog storm at the moment and they have carefully and creatively scissored around your outline, metaphorically speaking, leaving exactly a Goldacre-shaped hole in their outlook on the matter… then I’m only sorry that you didn’t put the argument better.

    I think you ought to have said something like “I am sure that your officers and members would not wish to perpetuate a fictional scare issue even if some financial or professional benefit incidentally comes to you as a result”, thus daring them to prove you wrong…

  17. stever said,

    June 21, 2007 at 9:31 am

    Ive said intelligent things on radio 5 quite often, even if the dunderheads interviewing me rarely do.

  18. Ambrielle said,

    June 21, 2007 at 11:11 am

    I too am genuinely interested in what they have to say. It seems a rather obvious case of cherry picking, perhaps the work of one person with their own agenda? Any reply yet?

  19. Quercus said,

    June 21, 2007 at 11:32 am

    I think the tone of the letter is fine. All the stuff about awards and the RI session makes the points that (1) Ben is not just some random blogger with a micro-audience of nerds and (2) that if they do ignore him, the world will hear of it as a case study.

    [Token criticism: blimey, the fourth paragraph of the letter really is all one Cheddar Gorge-esque sentence. Truly heroic use of subclauses, parentheses and semi-colons there]

  20. Quercus said,

    June 21, 2007 at 12:32 pm

    Gimpy 26 – we happy few, gathered here probably *are* a micro-audience of nerds, but the readership of the Grauniad and the BMJ probably provide a wider audience. Admittedly a wider macro-audience of twits, but still.

  21. Dubby said,

    June 21, 2007 at 1:01 pm

    Miked (response #6,), anybody who cherry-picks to this extent about important issues IS intellectually inferior.

    The PAofT should hang its collective head in shame.

  22. used to be jdc said,

    June 21, 2007 at 1:04 pm

    Noticed that someone has done a Wiki page on Electrosmog:
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electrosmog
    Includes reference to Rubin’s review (but has nothing about Ben’s articles in the Guardian).

    BTW – love the mini-blog, some crackers on there.

  23. Nanobot said,

    June 21, 2007 at 1:05 pm

    Also, since when do quoting numerous newspapers who are all running the same story constitute evidence? There is a lot of wasted space on the webpage.

  24. RS said,

    June 21, 2007 at 1:40 pm

    Links to the BMJ article now at least (following the link to the comments it says “The BMJ article”).

  25. Tontine said,

    June 21, 2007 at 2:21 pm

    Which reminds me…

    If I search for Götene and WiFi or WiMax I find a load of circular references to the dreadful effects of turning on a WiMax system.

    The problem is that they are just that, circular. No primary sources quoted; I’d like a newspaper article or two, a statement by the mayor, something from the staff of the hospital about the influx of patients that day, some direct statements from the people who had health problems on that day. I haven’t been able to find a thing. (There is a Swedish TV show, “Debatt” but the sound quality on the version I found on the web is too poor to allow me (as a German speaker) to attempt to follow it. Maybe someone knows of transcripts or translations?)

    Does anyone know of worthwhile links that don’t just report other reports of reports…

  26. superburger said,

    June 21, 2007 at 2:30 pm

    Their spokesman says”I am writing to the Education Secretary to ask for a full scientific investigation into the effects of wi-fi networks in schools.”

    Why not get it done cheapy and quickly by asking some physics teachers for the opinion.

    Or some of the more clued up 6th formers.

  27. Andrew Clegg said,

    June 21, 2007 at 3:30 pm

    Gimpy:

    ‘Quercus 25. – “Ben is not just some random blogger with a micro-audience of nerds”

    Hmmm. Hands up who is not a nerd?’

    Yes, but we’re a macro-audience.

    Andrew.

  28. pv said,

    June 21, 2007 at 6:33 pm

    superburger said,

    June 21, 2007 at 2:30 pm

    “Their spokesman says”I am writing to the Education Secretary to ask for a full scientific investigation into the effects of wi-fi networks in schools.”…”

    She might well say that but their attitude/policy appears to be pe-empting the outcome. Anyway, there are wi-fi networks all over the place so what so special about schools. They’re mad!

  29. Weirdbeard said,

    June 21, 2007 at 8:33 pm

    Try searching for ‘Brain Gym’ on this site. It was covered extensively a year or so back.

    As for PAT, I wouldn’t worry about them too much. In my experience most of its members keep their membership quiet while those that don’t are often barking mad and/or somewhat Daily Mailishly right wing.

  30. Aspiring Pedant said,

    June 21, 2007 at 8:33 pm

    Gimpy,
    I’m putting my hand up; I wouldn’t describe myself as a nerd.

    r3m0t – On the left hand side of this page, towards the top under categories, you should find brain gym. Click on that and you’ll find the answer to your question.

  31. monkeychicken said,

    June 21, 2007 at 10:33 pm

    It was a good letter, though if i say say i find something amusing in a letter/email, it normally means it has seriously f*cked me off….

  32. mmckenzie said,

    June 21, 2007 at 11:42 pm

    Thank goodness there’s now a solution:

    hubshield.com/

  33. stever said,

    June 21, 2007 at 11:47 pm

    hahahaha

    tell me thats spoof, please.

  34. pv said,

    June 22, 2007 at 12:25 am

    Hubshield is:

    Registrant:
    ctvn
    23 barham avenue elstree
    herts herts wd63pw
    United Kingdom
    Registered through: GoDaddy.com Inc. www.godaddy.com
    Domain Name: HUBSHIELD.COM
    Created on: 23-May-07
    Expires on: 23-May-08
    Last Updated on:
    Administrative Contact:
    weinstock jonathan j_weinstock@hotmail.com

    ctvn
    23 barham avenue elstree
    herts herts wd63pw
    United Kingdom
    07765256690
    Technical Contact:
    weinstock jonathan j_weinstock@hotmail.com

    ctvn
    23 barham avenue elstree
    herts herts wd63pw
    United Kingdom
    07765256690
    Domain servers in listed order:
    NS49.DOMAINCONTROL.COM
    NS50.DOMAINCONTROL.COM

    Just thought you’d like to know. :-0

  35. pv said,

    June 22, 2007 at 12:28 am

    By the date of registration it looks as if Hubshield was set up specifically to capitalise on the current mindless hysteria.

    Unless of course it is a spoof.

  36. Littleshim said,

    June 22, 2007 at 7:55 am

    The Wikipedia page (surprisingly unrabid at the time of writing) includes a reference to studies at Landau with honeybees, but naturally doesn’t say which one. It looks like it’s one of Kuhn and Stever’s, but I can’t tell which.

    There’s a list here:
    www.hese-project.org/hese-uk/en/heseuk/profile.php?id=hst
    if anyone wants a look and/or feels like improving the Wiki article.

  37. pv said,

    June 22, 2007 at 11:03 am

    I don’t think it’s a spoof. They do promote other useless gadgets if you follow the links on the web site.
    If you google Jonathan Weinstock you can find an article from 2003 about a certain 23-year old “activist” gentleman, from Hertforshire, who was involved in a fracas at a bookshop in Camden. Could be someone else of course. :-)

  38. pv said,

    June 22, 2007 at 11:05 am

    “…the bee brain is very similar to the human brain”

    Is it really?

  39. malcolm said,

    June 22, 2007 at 12:27 pm

    re: 45/46 -I’ve just looked at hubshield and it must be a spoof musn’t it? Are they trying to see how gullible the press are by seeing if they will report it and then telling them what a load of bollocks it is – the killer sentence for me is “Also the special treated cloth solves electric waves and magnetic waves together.”

    It will be fun to see if they manage to get anyone to take the product seriously – I’m tempted to see what happens if I make an email sales enquiry – do I just get told not to be such an idiot?

    What fun!

  40. jimothy said,

    June 22, 2007 at 1:53 pm

    If the hubshield is a spoof then does that mean this is too? It’s thh same people.

    www.phonebuster.co.uk

  41. malcolm said,

    June 22, 2007 at 2:27 pm

    re 53: having only done ‘O’ level physics in 1971, I can’t comment on the supposed technical spec of the phonebuster – “The phonebuster actually detects where the signal is comming (sic) from and allows the administrator to zone in to find the illicit handset.” sounds pretty unlikely to me.

    Are you sure these guys aren’t just pranksters trying to wind up teachers and school administrators? – there is nowhere on the site you can actually buy these things.

    I’ll complete an enquiry form and let everyone know what happens – seems like the only way to find out for sure.

  42. Pax Vobiscum said,

    June 22, 2007 at 2:51 pm

    Having excoriated Computer Weekly a couple of weeks ago for publishing an editorial suggesting that there ‘might be something in’ em-sensitivity, I’m pleased to say they printed my letter setting out the reasons why this is unlikely. It (somewhat) restores my faith in technical journalism.

  43. Dr Monkey said,

    June 22, 2007 at 10:11 pm

    re 56

    “The phonebuster is 100% legal to use in all international countries”

    What about all those poor non-international countries?

  44. pv said,

    June 22, 2007 at 10:16 pm

    The Daily Mail is popular too. Science A levels aren’t popular though, but I know which one I’d rather have.

    I’m curious. If you shield a wireless router how can anything communicate through it? What’s the point of shielding it?
    Or have I missed something very obvious here?

  45. Robert Carnegie said,

    June 23, 2007 at 12:14 am

    I’m intrigued by the claim that if you paint over your wifi transceiver with Hubshield (evidently HubCap.com was already taken) then you can tell anxious parents that this has reduced radiation emissions by 99%. That could possibly be worth the money. Especially if the school sells on the paint for the parents to use at home.

    I also observe from the picture that this seems to be a black gloss polythene paint. Now how would that cut down radiation…

    The paint is stated to include PCB. Wikipedia says “PCB production was banned in the 1970s due to the high toxicity of most PCB congeners and mixtures. PCB’s are classified as persistent organic pollutants.” But presumably they had some left over. Or it’s a different “PCB”.

  46. Robert Carnegie said,

    June 23, 2007 at 12:54 am

    …because that sort of “PCBs are also classified as probable human carcinogens”. Which makes a claim that the product protects against cancer, sound … no, it -must- be a confusion of terms.

    Speaking of which, when I read “bound to come in handy this term” (not to do with PubShield) I forgot that schoolteachers were involved and thought that the meaningless impressiveness of the actual phrase “Brain Gym” was being commended. “3B is not running around out of control, they are having a Brain Gym krazotherapy session. And then I’m going to have one.”

    (Note: I don’t know Greek either.)

  47. billgibson said,

    June 24, 2007 at 4:19 pm

    If I could be arsed, I’d send the HubShield people a copy of the Cancer Act, 1939;

    4 prohibition of certain advertisements

    (1) No person shall take any part in the publication of any advertisement—

    (a) containing an offer to treat any person for cancer, or to prescribe any remedy therefor, or to give any advice in connection with the treatment thereof; or

    (b)…

    (2) If any person contravenes any of the provisions of the foregoing subsection, he shall be liable on summary conviction, [to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale] or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months, or to both such a fine and such imprisonment.

  48. Dubby said,

    June 27, 2007 at 9:34 am

    Has anyone from the association replied to the article?

    Has there been any response at all?

  49. Ben Goldacre said,

    June 27, 2007 at 11:08 am

    not a squeak in reply.

    and i sent it to every recipient on the contacts page, their press office, the head, etc.

    JULY 16 I JUST FOUND THEY REPLIED IN A BLOG COMMENT (SLIGHTLY BIZARRELY) ON JUNE 21ST, ABOVE, IT WAS TRAPPED IN THE SPAM QUEUE, NO IDEA WHY, AND THEY NEVER EMAILED ME. SORRY ABOUT THAT. ODD THO. oh, and the reply was pretty silly.

  50. tom1 said,

    July 16, 2007 at 11:09 pm

    Groan…..

    education.independent.co.uk/news/article2771019.ece

    My local council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee have recommended chucking out WiFi. They’ve sloped final responsibility onto head teachers. The Professional Association of Teachers must be thrilled.

    Won’t this get in the way of government ICT policy? Why is it OK in libraries? Do the books absorb the radiation, or are they phasing on the libraries and the WiFi in the libraries as one holistic enterprise?

    What I presume to be the report to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee that was overruled can be found below:

    www.minutes.haringey.gov.uk/Published/C00000128/M00002236/AI00008120/$Overview and Scrutiny Committee.docA.ps.pdf

    I haven’t yet found the minutes of the committee that rejected it. I’m so angry I could spit.

    Tom

  51. tom1 said,

    July 17, 2007 at 2:36 pm

    Darn it! I can’t watch from work, but they have a webcast of the wifi council meeting:

    www.haringey.ukcouncil.net/site/#pp9238

  52. tom1 said,

    July 17, 2007 at 11:09 pm

    I’ve finally gotten around to watching this. My old primary school Teatherdown is at fault.

    The council’s own report said the council didn’t have the resources to assess the dangers of wifi and should rely on the HPA report. Some parents then came on and explained that computers were associated with low attainment levels, the HPA were part of a conspiracy and had hushed up their own chair, clinical trials had been rigged, they quote the Professional Association of Teachers etc…..

    One interesting thing is that they talk about organizing a public seminar over the summer…. :-) I am SO there! Ben?

    Tom

  53. tom1 said,

    July 18, 2007 at 2:51 am

    I haven’t been this disenchanted by the way the system makes decisions since I did jury service. Stuff it, I’m writing to my councillor.

    Tom

  54. tom1 said,

    July 18, 2007 at 12:06 pm

    Much of this was based on statements that the concerned parents thought Ben’s mate Dr Andrew Goldsworthy would have said, had he been there, which he wasn’t. Everybody was very vague about whether he had been due to show or not.

    Is there a view on this forum on Dr Goldsworthy? I’ve read his response to Ben’s “Why don’t journalists mention the data?” article at the BMJ, but I don’t recall seeing him discussed here.

    Finally, if anybody has any reccommended reading list to bone up on EMF I’d appreciate it.

    Tom

  55. tom1 said,

    August 6, 2007 at 11:20 am

    art16,

    Oh I agree. The problem is convincing people.

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