And science said atom bombs were safe too…

June 7th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, bbc, electrosensitivity, independent, powerwatch - alasdair philips | 51 Comments »

I’m in a dash, but I thought you deserved these two brave rebuttals of the peripheral criticisms that the ubiquitous electromagnetic radiation scaremongers have received.

Jasper Carrott of all people on BBC2 (funny how despite being such a massive source of electromagnetic radiation they still have such a thing about beating people up over the subject)


And Green Party politician Julia Stephenson issues a full rebuttal to all critics of the wrong facts in her previous lengthy feature on EM, in her column today. Oh, no she doesn’t, she attacks people for saying things they didn’t, ignores all the entirely valid criticisms, and reiterates her previous errors and omissions. Oh, apparently, she says, at one time scientists assured us that the atom bomb was safe. AND THEY WERE WRONG ABOUT THAT. Etc.

Julia Stephenson: The Green Goddess
Published: 07 June 2007

The men in white coats are on my back. They’re not lurking at the door with straightjackets, but they want me locked up all the same. Let me explain. Last week I sparked howls of protest from boffins when I described the negative effects of installing Wi-Fi in my flat. Many were absolutely apoplectic.

Two years ago I got Wi-Fi. It was convenient, as I could work anywhere in my flat. But within a few weeks began to suffer from a lack of energy and insomnia, and had difficulty concentrating. Other factors could have caused this, but I suspected that the Wi-Fi had something to do with it, so I returned to fixed broadband. My symptoms disappeared.

When I wrote about my experiences I incurred the wrath of a vocal few, who claimed that as I’m not a scientist I couldn’t possibly make such assertions. I am, its true, no scientist; I was simply recounting my experience. Disconnecting my Wi-Fi made me feel better. End of. I don’t need a degree in physics to work out if I feel well or ill.

It’s a hot potato. The telecommunications industry generates around £13bn a year and brings in large amounts through taxes and licences. It’s a powerful and influential business, which obviously doesn’t like being threatened.

Meanwhile, a considerable amount of the research into the safety of mobile phones, masts and Wi-Fi is carried out by groups funded by phone companies. They say they are unbiased, but how can we be sure? How many of us would dare bite the hand that feeds us?

I’m not alone in my concerns. Sir William Stewart, chairman of the Health Protection Agency and the Government’s former chief scientific adviser, has publicly voiced concerns about the possible effects of radiation from phone masts and Wi-Fi installations.

The Stewart Report, published in 2000, concluded that while there was no proof of health dangers, some studies suggested possible risks and that precautions should be taken with children, because they are more vulnerable to radio frequency radiation emissions than adults.

Despite this warning, Wi-Fi networks have since been installed in nearly 50 per cent of primary schools and 70 per cent of secondary schools, giving millions of children access to computers.

If people want Wi-Fi I can’t stop them. All I can do is recount what happened to me, and if it makes anyone consider the possible implications, I’ve done my job. I’m not claiming everyone could be affected; some may be more sensitive than others.

At one time scientists assured us the earth was flat and that mercury, asbestos, the atomic bomb and cigarettes were harmless. Today many assure us that GM crops, mobile phones and pesticides are safe. Yet history must surely advise caution before we rush headlong to embrace all that technology has to offer.


Meanwhile elsewhere – in case you thought this was one lone opinion in the paper – the Independent news pages are actually quoting Stephenson

although they still cannot bring themselves to discuss the 37 provocation studies. There is some activity on their letters page

Standby for torrent of personal abuse from the electromagnetism campaigners as they dodge the factual issues.

Now for all the ridiculousness of what she’s written, I think this is also really interesting in terms of rhetorical devices and new media. In print, you can get away with saying “I wrote something quite reasonable, 10 days ago, and then I was wrongly accused of X [when actually it was Y] and to these people I say Z, and therefore I win.”

In print, because nothing is linked, on the page, it is more plausible to do this.

Online, however, with the original article and the criticisms all transparently linked to the “rebuttal” – and free comments under the article – you would be hard pushed to get away with that. In all likelihood you’d become an instant laughing stock.

I think this is an example of where blogs can actually be more reliable than newspapers for some forms of information, and in particular for “who said what” comment and discussion. Even online, I often find that people who blog about something someone else has written, but studiously avoid linking to it, are misrepresenting the person they disagree with.

It’s also an excellent example of why comments are a good thing. I am always very suspicious of people who do not have a simple comment option on their page. If anyone here points out here that I am factually wrong, and why, I will have a good old think about it. If it happens – I’m sure it must have already – then I’ll cheerfully correct my claims and my opinions.

I’ve never been into taking risks or writing recklessly with regard to the truth. Obviously I like to imagine that my integrity alone would keep me on the straight and narrow. But I also know that almost everything I write is linked to primary sources that can be easily checked, or can be google with a few clicks on the screen, and I know that an army of pedants – you darlings – is out there waiting for an opportunity to bite me. God bless you.

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! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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