Roger Coghill and the Aids test

June 28th, 2008 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, competing interests, electrosensitivity, express, herbal remedies, magnets, PhDs, doctors, and qualifications, roger coghill, statistics | 72 Comments »

imageBen Goldacre
The Guardian,
Saturday June 28, 2008

It’s the big stories I enjoy the most. “Suicides linked to phone masts” roared the Sunday Express front-page headline this week. “The spate of deaths among young people in Britain’s suicide capital could be linked to radio waves from dozens of mobile phone transmitter masts near the victims’ homes.”

Who is raising these concerns? “Dr Roger Coghill, who sits on a government advisory committee on mobile radiation, has discovered that all 22 youngsters who have killed themselves in Bridgend, South Wales, over the past 18 months lived far closer than average to a mast … Masts are placed on average 800 metres away from each home across the country. In Bridgend the victims lived on average only 356 metres away.”

These are extremely serious issues. There is reasonable evidence of a possible link between power lines and childhood leukaemia, being generous, and we may not yet know the long-term physical risks posed by phones to those who use them, since mobiles haven’t been around too long (do send me a better reference than this for the “latent period” in epidemiology if you have one).

I contacted Dr Coghill, since his work is now a matter of great public concern, and it is vital his evidence can be properly assessed. He was unable to give me the data. No paper has been published. He himself would not describe the work as a “study”. There are no statistics presented on it, and I cannot see the raw figures. In fact Dr Coghill tells me he has lost the figures. Despite its potentially massive public health importance, Dr Coghill is sadly unable to make his material assessable.

This – if he truly believes his results – is a bit off.

It also leads to obvious problems with interpretation: details are important, after all, like “what is your control group” or “which averages are you using”? Perhaps the average distance from a mast in any urban area is less than the average distance for the whole country, because masts tend to be clustered in urban areas, where the people are. Maybe densely populated poor areas with less political influence have more masts foisted upon them by planning committees, and maybe these poor areas also have more suicides. Or maybe he is on to something? Clusters on maps have been the beginning of several interesting stories in epidemiology, including the Broad Street Pump. I asked Dr Coghill which “averages” he meant, but he did not tell me.

Who is Dr Coghill? He says he doesn’t have a doctorate and that the Express made a mistake. Does he “sit on a government advisory committee on mobile radiation”? Sort of. Mr Coghill participates in something called Sage, a “stakeholder” group which discusses power cables (not mobile phones) and is run at the request of the Department of Health by RK Partnerships Ltd, who specialise in mediation, facilitation, and conflict resolution. People who campaign on stuff are rightly invited on to consultation panels run by the government, so that their concerns can be heard. Sadly, such participants seem to be misrepresented as government advisers with remarkable frequency.

As an example of the kind of discussion you might find at SAGE, here is Mr Coghill’s contribution to their last document [pdf], in the section where people who disagree with the group can state their own views. “Whilst this first interim assessment is a welcome step, it contains three important omissions… the powerfully electro-protective effect of exogenous melatonin supplementation, particularly among the UK’s 20 million elderly population, and the adverse effects of EMFs on melatonin synthesis within the body have not been addressed.” Mr Coghill recently received £125,000 of angel investment for his business selling Asphalia melatonin pills.

Readers worried by the front page story on Mr Coghill’s inaccessible research may have visited his website for more information. There they could buy his electromagnetic field protection equipment at competitive prices, and a £149 device called the Acousticom for “finding out if your home is being exposed to microwaves from e.g. cellphone masts”, as well as several other interesting products, including a magnet that makes wine taste nicer, and the “Mood Maker” treatment for impotence at just £22.32 including VAT (“the small unit discreetly attaches to your underwear… the Mood Maker will gently and gradually increase circulation in the pelvic area”). You might also enjoy his books, including Electrohealing, “using electric and magnetic fields for alleviative and curative ends”, and of course Atlantis: “a new look at the Plato legend with a grim conclusion re global warming and ozone depletion”.

It gets better.

Regular readers will know that someone’s ability to police their own enthusiasm can often be assessed using something called “the Aids test“. Here is the Express’s front page expert Mr Coghill on Aids: “The idea that Aids is caused by a virus is a well-protected fiction.” Is there another cause? “The possibility that immune deficits … can be acquired through over-exposure to non-ionising electromagnetic fields is, however, real, and proven in the laboratory.”

Because, remarkably, suicide is not the first problem Mr Coghill has attributed to electromagnetic waves, and he built his earlier hypothesis on the same evidence as his current one: “Aids cases seemed to correspond closely to the numbers of RF, VHF, and UHF station densities.” Mr Coghill discovered 11 of the 12 cities in America with the highest incidence of Aids also had the highest level of electromagnetic activity. A disease of dense urban areas, perhaps? He even had some exciting ideas about treatment. “One first step might be to demagnetise the haem in an attempt to improve the signal to noise ratio of the immune signal …”

We should be glad that there are individuals out there with such esoteric views. We should respect and admire their tenacity and self-belief, if not their ability to provide us with actual data. But from the front page of a national newspaper, we might be able to expect something a little more robust.

Please send your bad science to bad.science@guardian.co.uk


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72 Responses



  1. mjrobbins said,

    June 28, 2008 at 6:08 am

    First!

    My God, that is a real stuff up, but it makes you wonder who on Earth is responsible at the Express?

  2. CDavis said,

    June 28, 2008 at 9:34 am

    Oh, lawdy. There was a time when one might have asked, “Who’s he working for?” So often now, the answer seems to be ‘himself’. Am I imagining it, or has the drive to sell papers has rendered nearly all papers no more self-critical than National Enquirer?

    You gotta wonder how press freedom ever worked. Because it must have, once: no-one, surely, would have supported in principle the freedom of the press to do things like this. FotP laws are supposed to *support* democracy. So were newspapers once bound by a some code to check facts before printing? Were journos restricted in some way in what they were prepared to submit? Or were ‘newsmakers’ of Coghill’s ilk less able to get their advertainment reported on in the first place?

    Because it ain’t working now. The information flow hierarchy now has tabloids at its pinnacle, feeding crap to a voracious public, who then attack establishments (companies, HMgovt., NHS, science) that – whatever their true venality – have to put resources into defending themselves against groundless rubbish. This specific monstrosity is a case in point: Sunday Express – sells papers – richer; Coghill – sells magnetic woo – richer; Mobile telcos – have to refute fallout at considerable expense, paid for by increased charges – unchanged; public – pays for the whole mess – poorer and bamboozled. And unvaccinated.

    CD

  3. Chris Edwards said,

    June 28, 2008 at 9:50 am

    I was a bit disappointed Coghill’s sites were down this morning. I’d be fascinated to find out how he manages to publish a book on electrohealing with low-level EM fields while simultaneously believing that low-level EM fields cause harm.

    Do you have to lay off the melatonin to benefit from electrohealing, do you think?

    And who could have guessed that southern Africa would have the highest concentration of radio transmitters in the world?

  4. factician said,

    June 28, 2008 at 12:04 pm

    “I will have to put up with my wine non-exogenous melatonin supplementationated.”

    So say we all.

    Heh.

  5. Dr Aust said,

    June 28, 2008 at 12:34 pm

    Crikey – scatter gun nonsense indeed.

    Although “Dr” Coghill clearly shares some common ground with the rest of the EMF loons, the single person I am most reminded of is the evidence free “corpse dowser” Danie Krugel.

    Incidentally, although our EMF-averse friends over at Powerwatch link to the Express story on their front page, it seems that even they think “Dr” Coghill is wrong: see here.

    {In their view it is the WiFi and cordless phone base stations in your house that are re-adjusting your circadian hormones, not the phone mast up the road – pass the tinfoil hat, say I).

    PS The CiF comment thread for this column is mildly amusing, if you wish to disengage the brain for a few minutes.

  6. apgaylard said,

    June 28, 2008 at 12:49 pm

    The Texas Sharpshooter strikes again.

  7. arctral said,

    June 28, 2008 at 2:30 pm

    Just had a look at his website (which is truly bizarre – read his bio).

    Amongst other gems was this:
    Pet Coaster, £20
    “Given the choice your pet will always choose to drink magnetic water, they can tell the difference. Magnetic water is more natural. Using a pet coaster ensures that your pet receives maximum benefit from their drinking water. They will love the taste.”
    Where to even begin…

  8. Ben Goldacre said,

    June 28, 2008 at 2:54 pm

    heh you could begin here:

    www.badscience.net/2006/03/magnetic-sex-appeal/

    nhsblogdoc.blogspot.com/2008/05/new-treatment-for-menopause-makes-dr.html

  9. superburger said,

    June 28, 2008 at 4:27 pm

    “The man is clearly an habitual lier, and any newpasper quoting him ought be reported to the PCC.”

    Newspapers only exist to sell advertising space. The articles in between adverts are just there to keep you interested long enough to read the next advert. That’s the business model of print journalism.

    Cancer scare stories, however innaccurate sells copies of the express. The truth, or at leat accuracy, doesn’t come into it.

  10. Danel said,

    June 28, 2008 at 9:18 pm

    “Suicides ‘linked to Mobile Phone Masts’” actually sounds like something rather more esoteric and interesting.

    But what an appalling article. It just seems to be getting worse and worse.

  11. Lafayette said,

    June 28, 2008 at 10:28 pm

    Coghill has produced what I think is the funniest bits of research I’ve yet to see. It involved testing the ability of a cluster of crystals to block out radiation from mobile phones. Try, just momentarily, to imagine what such an experiment might be like, and then see how close you get to Coghill’s gem.

    www.talksafenow.co.uk/downloadableDocuments/Coghill_Research_Report_PDF.pdf

  12. Sili said,

    June 28, 2008 at 10:33 pm

    It gets better.

    Have you been reading Pharyngula again?

    Thank you by the way for introducing me to that lovesome blog.

  13. Owen said,

    June 29, 2008 at 1:42 am

    I note from that talksafe.co.uk pdf that he styles himself MA(Cantab). This is awarded to anyone who successfully gets a BA from the University of Cambridge as long as they make it 3 years without being convicted of a crime (I should know, I have one – the degree, that is, not the conviction).
    Even without his abject quackery, this usage is a sure sign of a poseur.

  14. Robert Carnegie said,

    June 29, 2008 at 1:53 am

    [The Daily Show] used a new Googleable slogan – “Be Patient, This Gets Amazing”. For this.
    www.nytimes.com/2008/06/25/washington/25epa.html

    Now this indicates, I suppose, that [The Daily Show] invests significant time in re-reporting things that they read in their newspaper. But, being a large U.S. newspaper, it had checked facts. And I presume the show asks around as well to make sure a hideous and embarrassing mistake wasn’t made.

  15. wench said,

    June 29, 2008 at 12:31 pm

    What amuses me is the fact that a man who says magnetic fields fields cause cancers then flogs the things on his website.

  16. cailean said,

    June 29, 2008 at 12:38 pm

    Strange that Coghill didn’t mention the simple fact that Bridgend was the first city in England or Wales to have blanket Wi-Fi cover. Perhaps he did mention it but the Express article didn’t report it. If he has failed to highlight such an obviously significant aspect of the investigation that would certainly affect my view of his credibility. Definately bad science!

    See article here:

    inthesenewtimes.com/2008/06/29/bridgend-makes-wifi-history/

  17. DSThomas said,

    June 29, 2008 at 12:51 pm

    This whole things just makes me wonder if the science correspondents at many major newspapers have actually studied any science? I hope for the sake of the nation that all this only made the front page due to a cock up by the work experience kid

  18. phayes said,

    June 29, 2008 at 2:51 pm

    DSThomas, given the crap that gets into specialist science journals and magazines (Benveniste, Wakefield, Shawyer…), perhaps we should count ourselves lucky the country isn’t full of measly people wearing EMField headnets, rioters throwing bricks through the windows of shops selling stuff made of chemicals, demonstrators demanding their local NHS hospitals go homeopathic etc… Yet.

  19. pv said,

    June 29, 2008 at 7:51 pm

    “Poor academic performance linked to reading Sunday Express” and pretty much most of what passes for news in the “look at me” British news media.
    But who cares in a Country where you can get a University degree in wishful thinking?

  20. raygirvan said,

    June 30, 2008 at 5:06 am

    Wonko > www.suicideinfo.ca/csp/assets/alert36.pdf

    I notice that bulletin from the Centre for Suicide Prevention – however wise the advice may be – buys into the idea that suicide clusters are “real” in the way the tabloids take them to be (in the sense of the idea of suicide being “contagious”) rather than a statistical feature you’ll see for anything with a randomish time-space distribution. How accurate is that epidemiologically?

  21. SpiderJ said,

    June 30, 2008 at 9:32 am

    Worth noting the first section of the PCC Code of Conduct (kindly linked from the Express website: www.express.co.uk/pdfs/The%20PCC%20Code%20of%20Practice.pdf)

    1 Accuracy
    i) The press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted
    information, including pictures.

    ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised
    must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an
    apology published.

    iii) The press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment,
    conjecture and fact.

    iv) A publication must report fairly and accurately the outcome of an action for
    defamation to which it has been a party, unless an agreed settlement states otherwise,
    or an agreed statement is published.

    Seems like the article certainly goes against i and iii

    Complaints can be made here: 020 7831 0022

    Also – real shame that the Express turned off the comments section for this story… would have been nice to take the fight to them

  22. Rattus said,

    June 30, 2008 at 12:13 pm

    You can also complain about ridiculous journalism online: www.pcc.org.uk/

    This story was so poorly reported that I’ve complained for the first time in my life. Sunday Express – shame on you!

  23. BrickWall said,

    June 30, 2008 at 4:15 pm

    First point re suicide clusters as Wonko points out above Bridgend is rather sadly pretty normal for Wales – no cluster just some very sad people.

    And on a less sympathetic note, slightly sicker note. If there were a cluster and if there were any link to phone masts might it not be related to having more places from which to hang oneself?

  24. quietstorm said,

    June 30, 2008 at 8:23 pm

    SpiderJ – interesting that you point out the code of conduct – as it begs a bigger question, how do we ensure that the newspapers do more fact-checking and drive up standards? (i.e. stop publishing tripe?)

    Seems to me that most of them are operating on the assumption that we’re all as gullible as they are, that truth is subjective, and if it sounds sensational and therefore sells newspapers then that’s all that counts.

    Those of us who do think the truth is important, that evidence should be presented objectively, that charlatans should be identified – are we prepared to see this all through? How many complaints does a paper need to get before it would make a prominent retraction? How much work would we have to do to redress the balance here? And are the more cynical editors simply assuming that no-one is willing to put in that work, and so they can continue to publish things which are badly researched and disturbingly wrong? In other words, whilst I am very willing to battle crap journalism when I see it, the sheer enormity of the task sometimes makes me want to weep. Are there enough hours in the day to rebuff every single health/science-related story?

  25. perspix said,

    June 30, 2008 at 9:03 pm

    You’ll easily find yourself becoming irate if you choose to see the Daily Express in the same category of publication as the Guardian. It’s not. It seems to occupy a space between The Times and VIZ. (Which is a short distance.)

  26. guthrie said,

    June 30, 2008 at 9:39 pm

    A complaint from the POlice would be nice. ABout 2 months ago, I heard a medium ranking policeman, very sober sounding, talking about Bridgend on radio 4. He went through the things the newspapers were saying, and proceeded to say what was wrong with them all.

    The next day, I borrow a workmates Sun to glance at at lunchtime, and get really annoyed when they repeat all the rubbish that had been de-bunked by the policemand the day before.

  27. JQH said,

    July 1, 2008 at 8:15 am

    SpiderJ

    I emailed the Sunday Excess last week about the crap science in the article. No reply. I don’t know if it was published as a letter as I refuse to use my hard earned cash to raise their sales figures. But I doubt it.

    I might give that number a call if I can find the time.

  28. bootboy said,

    July 1, 2008 at 2:00 pm

    woops, forgot link from above. All time classic research.
    www.talksafenow.co.uk/downloadableDocuments/Coghill_Research_Report.pdf

  29. IainStrachan said,

    July 1, 2008 at 6:46 pm

    Went to the website. Right after the book on “Electro-healing” there’s an advert for an “EMF Protector Net” to block out Electromagnetic Fields.

    Priceless. I’m tempted to buy one in case anyone tries to “heal” me with electromagnetic fields.

  30. Malcolm Eggs said,

    July 3, 2008 at 3:42 pm

    Roger has made such odd claims before, including his infamous “challenge” to the Electricity Companies. This has been withdrawn, but he discusses it here:

    forums.randi.org/showthread.php?t=23150

  31. heavens said,

    July 3, 2008 at 6:09 pm

    Wonko,

    I’m inclined to believe the contagion idea for suicide, but I suspect that the effect is (a) small and (b) affects younger kids more than older people.

    Shortly after I changed schools at age 14, my old school introduced a suicide prevention program. The old school’s suicide rate was 0 (yes, zero) for the last fifteen or twenty years. It was a school with mostly well-off kids, no drug or gang problems, normal drinking problems, and fairly small (75 or 80 kids each year).

    Then they introduced the suicide prevention program. The main thrust of the program was that everyone should feel sorry for the suicidal person, because they just wanted to be loved and have attention.

    Therefore, the kids concluded, if you wanted to people to treat you like you were very special, you needed to kill yourself. For at least the next five years, the school had one “successful” suicide each year and several attempts.

    The investigation on the death showed it was an accident, meant to scare his parents but not actually harm himself. I’ve heard that the boy, who was about thirteen years old, told his best friend that he was going to set up a rope just before his mum got home, so she’d see him stick his head in the noose as she opened the door. According to his plan, she’d be so relieved that he was still alive that she’d let him do anything he wanted, which was to attend the big party that weekend. Apparently, though, he slipped, and it killed him instantly.

    They had several memorial events during the school year and generally turned him into a hero for being the stupidest person in the school. I wonder now how different the subsequent years might have been if just one of the teachers had deviated from the “poor kid” story and just said, straight out, “That was THE STUPIDEST thing I’ve ever seen a student do! I can have no respect at all for a person who literally risks his life over going to a party. How selfish and uncaring of him to treat his family and all of us like that.”

  32. jeffo1 said,

    July 4, 2008 at 3:09 pm

    Hi all.
    First post from a regular voyeur.
    For an explanation of how stories like this can get into papers see `Flat earth news’ by Nick Davies
    www.flatearthnews.net/

  33. JonDurham said,

    July 5, 2008 at 3:46 pm

    Well,

    I went ahead and lodged a PCC complaint anyway (under 1 iii) but I agree that it stands little chance of success. It seems that as long as you put ‘ ‘ marks around a bit of text, as in “Suicides ‘linked to mobile phone masts’” you can effectively suggest any nonsense you like and absolve yourself of responsibility.

    Perhaps the more people complain, the more likely some kind of success? Who knows.

  34. Jamie Horder said,

    July 6, 2008 at 12:17 pm

    The Israelis once killed a militant by rigging his mobile to explode, and then calling him. Does this mean they needn’t have bothered with the bomb because he would have topped himself anyway due to the radiation?

  35. Toenex said,

    July 8, 2008 at 8:48 am

    Roger Coghill appears to follow the maxim “when all you own is a hammer it’s suprising what looks like a nail”.

  36. cogreslab2 said,

    July 14, 2008 at 9:30 pm

    Another series of gratuitous insults from Ben’s creatures. The increasing number of deletions from these connected blogs persuade me that good old Ben has become little frightened about the libels and slagging he has unkindly bestowed upon me. I would not be surprised if his economo-political column will shortly be terminated as a result of PCC pressure upon the Guardian, assisted by Martin Walker’s shrewd and detailed analysis of Goldacre’s underlying agenda (support for vested intersts).

  37. Ben Goldacre said,

    July 14, 2008 at 9:44 pm

    Roger, again, I have not deleted any comments from this blog, and I have no control over what happens on commentisfree, but i think when they moderate libel etc they leave a stub thread.

    i notice, reading CiF, that you still refuse to answer even the simplest question about your research, in one of the most astonishing threads i’ve ever read.

    www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jul/12/medicalresearch?showallcomments=true

    what was the average distance from the masts, Mr Coghill? You tell us you did a study, and all 22 suicide cases lived closer to a mast than average. what do you mean by average?

    Why will you not answer this?

    Your bizarre and unfounded attempts at smears and conspiracy theories will not wash. You should be very aware that I do not support any vested interests. I have not libelled you, I have simply said what is absolutely true. you do sell ridiculuos magnetic therapy products for cash; you do sell asphalia melatonin pills to protect against the scares you elicit on the front page of the express; you did claim that aids was caused by power cables; the list is endless. i do not run businesses like you, and i do not support any vested interests. if you are saying otherwise, then you are a liar.

    once again, mr coghill, why will you do anything but discuss your research? do you want your work to be taken seriously?

    www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jul/12/medicalresearch?showallcomments=true

    what was the average distance from the masts, Mr Coghill? You tell us you did a study, and all 22 suicide cases lived closer to a mast than average. what do you mean by “average”? why will you not answer this simple question?

  38. cogreslab2 said,

    July 14, 2008 at 9:46 pm

    And finally…
    for those above who claim that I offer a single cause expalation of the Bridgend suicides, here is the text of the actual press release I issued in February 2008:

    A South Wales research laboratory specialising in the bioeffects of radiowaves on people has investigated whether there is any link between cellphone mast exposure and the recent spate of suicides around Bridgend, and discovered that the victims lived significantly closer to masts than normal.
    They found that the average distance of nearby new UMTS (3G) masts, which radiate at 2.1 GHz, a similar frequency to that of microwave ovens, was only 356 metres from the homes. The usual mean distance is around 800 metres, so the masts were twice nearer than normal. As for GSM (2G) masts, which radiate at 900 or 1800 MHz, the average distance was only 540 metres compared with usual distances of a kilometre.
    Three transmitters were within 200 metres, 13 transmitters within 400 metres and no less than 22 transmitters were within 500 metres of the victims’ homes. TETRA masts by contrast were two kilometres distant on average.
    Commenting on these results Roger Coghill whose lab carried out the research, said. “This does not mean that the masts were responsible for the deaths. They may however have been a predisposing co-factor, because thirteen of fifteen other studies published over the last twenty years have already linked depressive illness to electric field exposure. In most of those studies the electric fields were from powerlines, not from radio masts however.
    “But a Bern University study also found evidence of significant depression among residents living near a radio mast in the Schwarzenberg valley, which disappeared when it was switched off. And last year an Egyptian University study of 80 residents near newly installed cellphone masts found that a quarter of them suffered also significant depression compared with controls living nowhere near masts. The underlying depression caused by this constant weak RF/MW exposure might be exacerbated by other electric field sources such as PCs, cellphones, Wi Fi, and even bedside radios, and then a single unconnected event could trigger the tragic responses seen around Bridgend. Technical problems of achieving acceptable signal strength in enclosed valleys might only add to the problem: I came across similar effects in Andorra some ten years ago.
    “The Bern researchers also found that one reason why the depression occurred was because electric fields and radiations have been found by seven separate labs to inhibit melatonin, an important brain hormone responsible for sleep, Melatonin is connected with serotonin (sometimes called the happiness hormone), and another large study in North Carolina suggested the same thing. It might be prudent for those believing themselves at risk to add melatonin-rich foods to their diet, such as porrage oats, barley and oatmeal biscuits, peanuts, bananas, cherries, and walnuts. Meanwhile a larger study should be undertaken as a matter of urgency, not just taking measurements as proposed by the HPA, but investigating the health condition of a selected population living near masts”.

  39. cogreslab2 said,

    July 14, 2008 at 9:57 pm

    Ben,

    Why do not you sit down with me and look at my figures outside the public arena? The only way one can asess their validity and statistical significance is by working from the raw data (i.e. the actual addresses of the suicidees, and the actual locations of WiFi/Cellphone masts). Do that, and I will begin to beleive you do not have a hidden agenda. I am simply not prepared to disclose these addreses publicly on sensitivity grounds, and most reasonable people would agree with me on that.

    If I come up with the t-test results of significance (the data is not skewed so non-parametric tests are not needed) without the raw data I guess some of your creatures would say I am lying.

  40. cogreslab2 said,

    July 14, 2008 at 10:06 pm

    Well, replying to your 9.58 post, the Sunday Express got it wrong, not me. Remember my original press advisory was dated February 2008, so there was no way I could have known there would be 22 cases foru months later. I think there will be more. The quicker the Local Authority acts in this, as with the case of John Snow and the Old Street pump, the better.

    Note: John Snow worked out a few centuries ago that a water pump at Old Street, London was connected with the outbreaks of cholera and the death of those drinking from it. He persuaded the Local Authority to remove the pump, and the cholera deaths subsided thereafter.

  41. cogreslab2 said,

    July 14, 2008 at 10:20 pm

    The issue of average distances from cellphone masts.

    The problem really is that distance is a very crude parameter of RF/MW exposure and biological effect, even though at first approximation it’s all we have to go on. The more important parameter is arguably a combination of the radiated frequency and its power density, and these are not always directly related to distance, though with a large enough sample they will draw closer. For example a home very near a mast might be shielded by trees or buildings.

    There are instruments which can collect data across a broad spectrum of frequencies (spectrum analysers: we have some in our lab) and thereby gain an impression of the total radiated power and where the frequencies are strongest in any particular location. This can be done for each of the suicide addresses, but it needs a good deal of time and effort to do this. I don’t have these resources, but the Local Authority does, and should be doing it to confirm or refute the crude distance data suggested by my original analysis. If I start going into the technicalities of all this it will lose most people, and involve them in an understandign of microwatts per square centimetre, specific absorbtion ratios (SAR) and a whole bag of literature stretching back to the Moscow Signal arguments of the 1950s.

  42. Ben Goldacre said,

    July 14, 2008 at 10:23 pm

    Roger, I am being both patient and polite, but you are not answering the question.

    We are not discussing what research could be done, we are discussing what research you did.

    You said that all the suicide cases in Bridgend lived closer to a mast than average.

    What is the “average” you were using, here?

    It’s a very simple question. Why will you not answer it? There are 400 posts on CiF with you not answering it. Are we going to have 400 more here?

    www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jul/12/medicalresearch?showallcomments=true

  43. cogreslab2 said,

    July 14, 2008 at 10:51 pm

    Well, out of interest I looked at the press article from the Inverness Courier you have just pointed to, and I see that in it on four occasions they call me Mr. and on one single occasion they call me Dr. All in the same article! I can’t say that this is strong support for your case (apart from the fact that I had’nt actually seen the piece before, so didn’t exactly jump to correct the author).

    It doesnt matter a fig, actually, whether I am a doctor, vet, biologist or, like James Randi, a professional conjuror. Let’s just stick to the data.

  44. cogreslab2 said,

    July 14, 2008 at 11:05 pm

    Ben, Get your facts right: I never claimed AIDS was caused by power cables, but pointed to an association between RF/MW radiation as reported by a US Government funded study (Rick Tell and Ed Mantiply, 1981)and the numbers of registered AIDs patients per 100k pop. comparing 15 of the highest and lowest radiated US cities. Rick Tell sits on a US RF/MW committee with me incidentally (ICES), and has done a prodigious amount of work in this area, though he probably would not agree with my conclusions.

    Underpinning that epidemiology is the work carried out by Lyle et al at Loma Linda University, and by other labs in Europe, showing that immune system cells (cytotoxic lymphocytes) become incompetent after even a few hours exposure to both RF/MW and ELF EMFs. There is a whole host of studies more or less saying the same, incidentally.

    Arguably the best review of the live animal studies is that of Morris, Kimball et al (1989)which reviewed the results of 40 experiments from six labs. They also found a significant deleterious effect on lymphocytes from EMF exposure.

    Readers of this blog should read Jad Adams book “The HIV Myth” to get more detail.

  45. pv said,

    July 14, 2008 at 11:22 pm

    It doesnt matter a fig, actually, whether I am a doctor, vet, biologist or, like James Randi, a professional conjuror

    Oh, I think it does matter a fig Mr Coghill, especially to someone trying to flog gadgets of dubious worth to the public under the guise of health protection. In marketing names and titles are of paramount importance. People thinking you are a Doctor might get it into their heads that your words and opinions are beyond reproach because of the authority with which they imagine you are invested. Or that you might know more about a subject than you actually do. Names are important Mr Coghill, as are honest declarations of conflicts of interest. :-)

  46. pv said,

    July 14, 2008 at 11:29 pm

    Apologies to Ben.
    Mr Coghill could you please answer the question about the “average ” mast distance used in your study. If you can’t answer the question, which one would think should be a simple matter, perhaps you could at least be good mannered enough to explain why you cannot or will not answer the question.

  47. Mojo said,

    July 14, 2008 at 11:32 pm

    Mr. Coghill:

    Note: John Snow worked out a few centuries ago that a water pump at Old Street, London was connected with the outbreaks of cholera and the death of those drinking from it. He persuaded the Local Authority to remove the pump, and the cholera deaths subsided thereafter.

    It’s a bit more original than Galileo, I suppose. But I’d query whether 1854 was “a few centuries ago”.

    The pump was in Broad Street, by the way.

  48. cogreslab2 said,

    July 14, 2008 at 11:34 pm

    Thanks for the corrections, Mojo! But you got the point.

  49. Ben Goldacre said,

    July 14, 2008 at 11:36 pm

    Oh for god’s sake.

    Firstly, can we be clear, I would strongly prefer people not to be rude to Mr Coghill.

    I would like Mr Coghill to answer questions about his research study which found that all the Bridgend suicide cases lived closer than average to masts.

    Mr Coghill, could you please start by telling us what you used as the “average” distance you were comparing with.

    I notice that you’ve been refusing to answer this very simple question for some time.

    www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jul/12/medicalresearch?showallcomments=true

    Can you please tell us why this is?

  50. sockatume said,

    July 14, 2008 at 11:46 pm

    The simple answer is that there is no research, and Mr. Coghill is coaxing you into a private review of the enigmatic “raw data” as a prelude to a romantic encounter. You’ve pulled, Ben.

  51. Mojo said,

    July 14, 2008 at 11:47 pm

    Mr Coghill:

    It doesnt matter a fig, actually, whether I am a doctor, vet, biologist or, like James Randi, a professional conjuror.

    I take it, then, that you are withdrawing the complaint you made a couple of days ago:

    www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jul/12/medicalresearch?commentid=5dd6d2e9-132f-4f82-a673-cf923c2dc5e0

    He is also wrong to omit that I have a number of degrees from senior Universities (Cambridge, The University of Wales) and am a Chartered biologist, thereby persistently and harrassingly detracting from my credibility as a scientist.

  52. sockatume said,

    July 15, 2008 at 12:25 am

    “a number of degrees from senior Universities (Cambridge, The University of Wales) and am a Chartered biologist”

    The number in question being “2″. I’m rather perplexed at his phrasing here. Is he terrified of making quantitative or mathematical statements?

  53. Ben Goldacre said,

    July 15, 2008 at 12:40 am

    Seriously, I really would prefer people not to be rude to Mr Coghill.

    He is a serious research scientist who has performed a research study which found that all the Bridgend suicide cases lived closer than average to masts, and his worrying research findings were reported on the front cover of the Express.

    It would be wrong to dismiss these concerns and so I am eager to learn more about what he found in his study, which I understand was completed as long ago as February.

    Mr Coghill, could I start by asking what you used as the “average” distance you were comparing with?

  54. JQH said,

    July 15, 2008 at 8:35 am

    Ben, you say that Mr Coghill’s business interests and his failure to declare them are amusing but not the story. I beg to differ, over on CiF he accused a critic of being in the pay of the mobile phone industry (without evedence as far as I could see). If his critcs affiliations are important then so are his. Why does he assume that peoples views are bought? Can he imagine no other reason for having them.

    But as he said, let’s stick to the data:

    Mr Coghill, what value did you use as the average distance from a mobile phone mast and how did you calculate it?

  55. puzzlebobble said,

    July 15, 2008 at 1:53 pm

    And finally the answer to the question of ‘average’.

    www.badscience.net/forum/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=5575&st=0&sk=t&sd=a&start=30

    nuff said.

  56. sockatume said,

    July 15, 2008 at 7:31 pm

    For anyone who’s wondering but doesn’t want to read the forum: he decided that the people were closer to masts “than average” by taking the total number of masts in the United Kingdom, the total surface area of the United Kingdom, and thereby calculating the number of masts per unit area. He then decided that half the distance between the masts was equal to the average distance from any person to a phone mast.

    He then took the mean of the distances between the suicides’ homes and the nearest mobile phone masts, and made his comparison.

    Of course, you could argue that his only mistake was failing to consider the uneven distribution of phone masts, but that’s just the start of where he went wrong. He forgot the human part when calculating his average distance to a phone mast. Humans are unevenly distributed too! In fact, humans and phone masts are heavily clustered together. His value completely fails to account for the great swathes of country with few people or phone masts to be found, which barely feature in the mean. Perhaps he should’ve used a different kind of average?

    In the interests of SCIENCE, I’ve done a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation like his, but instead of doing the entire country (which would be moronic, as discussed) I’ve elected to only use the surface area, population density, and cell phone mast density of Glasgow. In this way, we exclude areas of the country which have neither people nor mobile phone masts, and which therefore only exist to screw up the average. By my calculations, you are never more than three hundred metres from a mobile phone mast in that city, on average. A far cry from Mr. Coghill’s average, revealing the latter’s utter uselessness.

    Alas I don’t have the Top Secret Data For Bridgend so someone else will have to do the maths for there to confirm, but I suspect it’ll say what we’ve come to expect given Coghill’s evasiveness. Even the most basic bit of forethought or hindsight would’ve revealed this mistake. It’s apalling.

  57. sockatume said,

    July 15, 2008 at 7:43 pm

    Hmm, I borked that, but I think you can all see where (ZOMG transparency in research). The average “plot” per phone mast is about 0.3km^2, which if they were all circular (they wouldn’t tesselate, but I’m cludging here) would mean each mast has about a 300m radius around it which is clear of masts. However that means there may be a mere 300m spacing between masts, or in other words you’re at best 150m away from any given mast at any given time.

    I just did the maths, and based on council estimates, the population density of Bridgend is nearly equal to that of Glasgow, with about 300m2 per person, or 10m between people. So I expect that the cellphone mast density will probably be pretty similar. For Mr. Coghill’s estimate to be correct, Bridgenders would have to get by on one tenth of the cellphone infrastructure that Glasgwegians use. Maybe they’re just not very talkative, or they don’t mind having gigantic blackspots?

  58. sockatume said,

    July 15, 2008 at 7:56 pm

    Nope, I borked it again. Here we go:

    Each mast in Glasgow, if evenly distributed in the city, would have a plot 0.3km^2 around it. If the plots were hexagonal (to allow tesselation in my mental model while approximating uniformity) that would be hexagons 340m on the side, so for someone walking the perimeters of the hexagons that’s a distance of about 300 to 340m from the mast at any given time. This seems to me a reasonable measure of the maximum distance you could be from a phone mast, on average.

    It’s also surprisingly close to the suicides’ distances, and about a third of Mr. Coghill’s esimate. As we’ve established, Bridgend has about the same population density as Glasgow, so we may expect the same cellphone tower density. Unless Bridgend’s remarkably patchy, then it appears that the suicides were actually further from mobile phone masts than average.

  59. Pipsqueak said,

    July 16, 2008 at 5:44 am

    Mr Coghill,

    “The quicker the Local Authority acts in this, as with the case of John Snow and the Old [sic] Street pump, the better.”

    You seem to be comparing yourself to John Snow – one of the first people to apply spatial analysis to disease. If you would like to emulate his methods, perhaps you could provide a map of masts, houses and suicides (using one of the many available methods to anonymise addresses) to give us a sense of the distribution of suicides? If the suicides really are as obviously clustered as you claim, then we should all be able to see it, without any of us needing any maths. Of course, testing the significance of the clustering would need a little bit of effort, but any halfway decent Geographic Information System software would have all the tools to do it for you.

  60. Ian H said,

    July 16, 2008 at 10:06 am

    Can I be the first to congratulate Sockatume? Not only have you offered a more useful calculation of the average, but you have nicely demonstrated that sharing your methods – and, where necessary, changes and corrections to your methods – is as important as the numerical answers.

    The scientific process in action…

    By the way, Sockatume, would you mind me using your working (and the source of your numbers, if you could share them) for my classes? One group did spot the error in the original ‘average’ as described by Mr Coghill, but then I have been trying to train them, with varying success, in the scientific method and logical reasoning.

    Ian H

  61. Nero said,

    July 16, 2008 at 10:52 am

    It’s not really the proximity of actual masts that’s surely important but exposure to the radio waves. In areas with a higher density of masts they will be operating at lower power levels than in less densely “masted” areas. So pervasively a higher mast density might actual work against Mr. Coghill’s hypothesis.

  62. sockatume said,

    July 16, 2008 at 5:56 pm

    Ian H: Sure, it’s not like a special method I invented. ;) I think a few dozen people on the forum did the same sort of calculation anyway.

    It might be a fun exercise to see how the distance from the centre to the perimeter of each plot converges to a single value for tesselating shapes with increasing numbers of sides: triangles, squares, hexagons… by extrapolation you could maybe get the circumference for an idealised circular plot, although the circle does not tesselate and therefore this method would not work directly.

    While I don’t have a solid chain of reasoning, intuitively I suspect that this centre-perimeter distance for the plot is equal to the average distance from any point to the nearest mast, and not just the furthest possible distance you can be from a mast. For any given point, there are at most three neighbouring masts, forming an equilateral triangle. So the proof of this would involve demonstrating that the average of the distances from a point inside an equilateral triange to each vertex is a constant equal to some constant regardless of the position of the point.

    Hmm, that means my talk of having to extrapolate from hexagons up makes no sense…

  63. sockatume said,

    July 16, 2008 at 6:00 pm

    Oh, the sources of my numbers were just Wikipedia (population and surface area), visionofbritain.org.uk (population density) and the area totals on sitefinder.ofcom.org.uk. Note that I’m not sure that the areas summed for the City of Glasgow on sitefinder.ofcom.org.uk and Wikipedia’s area for the City of Glasgow are equal, but they should be close enough for this exercise.

  64. sockatume said,

    July 16, 2008 at 9:30 pm

    *does maths*

  65. mdimmick said,

    July 17, 2008 at 5:13 pm

    I know exactly where my local mobile phone ‘mast’ is, in Caversham, Reading (north of the river). It’s on top of the phone exchange, which I can see out of my kitchen window – the roof is littered with aerials. It’s 114m away in a straight line, according to www.samknows.com/broadband. (Enter RG4 7SH as the postcode.) I’m not even the closest residence to this. I’m not aware of lower Caversham being a hotspot of suicides.

  66. plastictastic said,

    July 17, 2008 at 11:24 pm

    Wow. This is extraordinary. This thread, along with the jaw-dropping content on CiF, has compelled me to sign up to badscience.net to add a post.

    Mr Coghill: What on EARTH are you doing? I have sat here and watched, in disbelief, your reputation dissolving as the threads progress. It is true that criticism of you and your position has become increasingly vicious and personal from some posters, which is a shame because this is an important debate. However, this is entirely of your making. You have provoked, provoked and provoked some more, in what can only be described as an ill-considered battle of words and will. You yourself have dismantled your credibility. Why?

    It is clear that, for reasons known only to you, you will not be revealing any pertinent information about your study. Shame. Perhaps I may try asking you a different question: Why do you see fit to treat the general public with such contempt? The headline published by the Sunday Express surely has the capacity to have a profound affect on some people? There could well be people who, as I write, are considering moving house, away from a mast, based on that headline. Uncertainty playing on their minds. Under current economic conditions, considering such a move must be incredibly stressful. Would you sympathise with someone in this position? Can you, through this forum, help them to understand this headline better?

    You have been given the opportunity to back-up your claims in a way that is beneficial to all involved, including yourself, and you have chosen, bizaarly, not to.

    You have said yourself, in these threads, that you wish to bring the issues you are passionate about to the public, to try to urge authorities to take action. You see yourself as a modern-day John Snow. Do you not realise that your behaviour here has surely blown your chances? To succeed one must look after their reputation.

  67. brainduck said,

    July 18, 2008 at 12:06 am

    To Mr Coghill,

    I’d be more than happy to spend a couple of weeks collaborating in research with you around Bridgend.

    I’ve recently graduated in Psychology, so I’ve a reasonable understanding of research methods in the field. My family live in Bridgend, I’m about the same age as some of those who have died, so I’ve local knowledge. I don’t need paying, I’d be interested to do it for the experience, and I can work out my parent’s shed.

    It’d probably take me a while to arrange access to a spectrum analyser, I’d have left the area by then, but if you can lend me one I could probably sort out a deposit or something, and I’ve family in Bridgend who know how to use them so I’d be more than happy to wander round for a couple of weeks and take some actual measurements for you. I’m fairly used to handling tricky electronic equipment.

    I am completely serious about this. I realise I’m not a national newspaper columnist and my name isn’t going to provide instant credibility, but on the other hand I have got a few weeks to spare and I am on the ground.

    If you are interested bung me an email, brainquack at gmail dot com.
    Thanks.

  68. Robert Carnegie said,

    July 20, 2008 at 11:57 am

    Incidentally, longtime readers of the “Bad Science” column have seen other researchers’ work heavily criticised in the media and ultimately shown to be right in the first place, or more-or-less, and have been able to observe, through public statements (which it is best to make few of, except in the course of a back-and-forth discussion, but make them count), how those researchers conduct themselves – the question of “grace under pressure” is one way to put it.

    On the other hand, many of those have a full-time salary and can afford to wait for truth to come out in the end, which is different to running a business, where your income depends immediately on your credible reputation.

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