Updated with lobby feedback – A thought experiment for the electrosensitivity lobby

July 24th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, electrosensitivity, powerwatch - alasdair philips | 29 Comments »

The electrosensitivity lobby are famously selective about the evidence they quote. They simply ignore the large body of data finding that electrosensitivity symptoms are not worsened by e-m waves, and they selectively quote only data which supports their hypothesis, in a pattern which can be seen throughout the internet.

I fear this may mislead their readers, and so here is a modest proposal.

On Wednesday, the results of yet another provocation study will be published. Even before its publication, this is already a famous study. It has been discussed on the internet among the electrosensitivity community as a valid study. There has been much written about the methodology, and prominent memebrs of the campaign have discussed their experience in it. Most famously, the results of one subject have already been described as positive in the recent and spectacularly flawed Panorama program on Wi-Fi.

So my question is to all the campaigning groups, Pow£rwatch, Ala$dair Philips (who sells these but hates this), Electrosensitivity, Rod Read, George Carlo, Panorama, the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, the Independent, and more.

Will you commit, here and now, before the study is published, to cover these results, regardless of whether they support your hypothesis or not?

And most crucially, will you make your criticisms of the methodology – will you decide if you think the methods represented a fair test or not – here and now, today, before the results are known?

It is a modest proposal, and would make for an interesting experiment. I look forward to reading posts discussing the methodology on each of your respective websites, some time between now and Wednesday morning.


Evening Update:

My personal prediction is that tomorrow, although there have been well over 30 negative provocation studies already – and god knows how many electrosensitivity scare stories – tomorrow will bring a new era in proper news coverage of provocations studies. The results of this research will be discussed in the media, and the electrosensitivity lobby such as Ala£dair Philips will not be able to deny its existence. At best there will be a sensible discussion of the methodology, instead of the results simply being swept under the carpet.

This will be an absolute first for the coverage of this subject, and I think the joyous outpouring of mockery that surrounded the ludicrous Panorama documentary on the subject is in no small part responsible. To me this is a classic example of overstretch: when the claims of aggressive lobbyists become too prominent, and are covered too widely, they cease to fall beneath the radar: eventually they are assessed not just by favoured, friendly, credulous correspondents, but also by the wider community of journalists, which contains a fair few clear thinkers.

I do not expect Panorama to cover this story in their “following up previous stories” slot.

Nothing from Rod Read of Electrosensitivity sadly.

A cracking press release from “Mast Sanity“, who I often forget to mention, because they’re so rabid, but that of course is quite wrong:

Updated with lobby feedback – A thought experiment for the electrosensitivity lobby

Alasdair Philips of Pow£rwatch (bespoke detectors and beekeeper hats available at very reasonable prices, and cheap for the BBC) says:

Although we have been involved before the project began and helped design the exposure system for the experiments, we cannot possibly comment on the methodology or anything else until we read the full paper tomorrow. The analysis of the results will be key, and we have no early insights into what, if anything, that will show.

He would say no more, although I sent him details of the exposure as described by the team publicly already, but he has personally assured me in an email that they will be covering this research on their website, whether it supports their hypoth£sis or not. This is a first, as they have routinely ignored provocation studies that went against their hypothesis in the past.

Meanwhile George Andrew GoldacreCarlo has also very kindly replied:

Here are my thoughts:

1. Based on what we have learned from our clinical experiences and the symptoms reported by patients in our registry, a key to the integrity of the Essex study is in how a ‘sensitive’ person is defined at the outset. We believe that the pathology of these sensitivities is cell membrane based, but that the same pathology is present in conditions including multiple chemical sensitivities, alcoholism, drug addiction, and neuro-behavioral syndromes like ADHD and Autism. In addition, there appears to be a familial predisposition component that involves inability to clear metals from the system through methylation and an inability to adapt to oxidative stress. Thus, the definition of patients selected in the Essex study is a key point. And, in the analyses, it would be important to categorize the patients on the severity scale in terms of these other conditions that have similar underlying pathology. The point is that there is a continuum we are seeing in terms of severity of effects, and the level of hypersensitivity to the various types of EMR also scales along that continuum. Thus, without either controlling for these other conditions statistically or through subject category restriction, it is likely that associations that are present would not be identified…..false negative findings because of imprecision in the measurement of the dependent variables. That is one of the main difficulty with the majority of provocation studies that have been done. Measurement imprecision.

2. The other key is that depending on the severity of the hypersensitivity…and that in large part is related to the points raised above….different EMR effect windows will have varying effects on the persons being provoked with EMR. Thus, the EMR that is used in the exposure scenario needs to be precisely defined as well. We know, for example, that ELF operates through a field intensity dependent mechanism that exerts direct magnetic effect on tissue (including disruption of gap-junction intercellular communication) and thus the ensuing pathology. But there is a threshold for ELF effects. RF has two different pathology mechanism components: raw microwaves or RFR act through thermal mechanisms dependent on field intensity — there is a thermal effects threshold; microwaves that carry information from wireless devices act through a biological mechanism that is triggered as a protective cellular response — for this response, there is no threshold. Thus, in the Essex study, the provocation exposures need to be defined along these effect windows, otherwise there is a likely bias also toward false negative findings because of the lack of precison in the measurement of the independent variables. For example, from what they define, the question of base station ‘on or off’ is key. For the effect windows of ELF and raw microwaves, ‘on or off’ would have an effect if there was adequate field intensity to provoke the mechanistic pathways — in other words to go above the threshold. However, for the information carrying radio waves, there would have to be talking on the signal or there would be no biological protective pathway triggered. It is the modulation associated with the carried information that we now know triggers the non-thermal effect pathways. So, without talking on the signal, the biological pathway would not be triggered. The result in the study would be a false-negative finding.

3. Overall, the electrohypersensitivity response is dependent then on the severity of the patients cellular pathology — and that from all sources including the conditions detailed in Number 1 above. The observed response is also dependent on the mechanism that the EMR exposure provocation likely will act through. At this point, we don’t know how they defined the patients recruited other than ‘sensitive or not’. We don’t know what the exposure provocations actually were in terms of EMR effect windows and the likely pathological pathways triggered by the provocations.

In short, there is not enough information given in their explanation to really know whether it was fair or not.

Hope this helps.


Dr. George L. Carlo
Science and Public Policy Institute
1101 Pennsylvania Ave. NW — 7th Floor
Washington, D.C. 20004

This is excellent, and very good of him to take the time (although one might argue that all that “cellular” stuff is a bit of a smokescreen on the simple issue of “do the signals elicit the symptoms?”).

However, in the “Mast Sanity” press release he is more up front:

As Dr Carlo, Safe Wireless Initiative and former Chairman of the US $28 million research programme into mobile phone research, says:

” Because of the imprecisions in the Essex study [4],[5], findings of ‘no effect’ are likely to be false negatives in that the study was not designed well enough to pick up all of the effects among the participants. ”

” Any findings of ‘effect’ are likely underestimates of the true risk for the same reasons of imprecision in the study design. “

Well fair enough.

All in all, this genuinely represents a new era in popular discourse on the issue of electrosensitivity.

Bravo to all. Looking forward to the paper tomorrow morning.

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

29 Responses

  1. Ithika said,

    July 24, 2007 at 9:03 am

    Good luck with that…

  2. shpalman said,

    July 24, 2007 at 10:01 am

    Where is it going to appear?

  3. Ambrielle said,

    July 24, 2007 at 10:56 am

    At best, you’ll get a positive response from the quacks, who will then proceed to ignore negative results after the study comes out.

  4. Ambrielle said,

    July 24, 2007 at 10:58 am

    ^^Sorry, negative in terms of their interests.

  5. pseudomonas said,

    July 24, 2007 at 11:25 am

    What, if any, are *your* criticisms of the methodology?

  6. Ben Goldacre said,

    July 24, 2007 at 11:48 am

    v briefly: this is known

    more is about on the net elsewhere


  7. Kells said,

    July 24, 2007 at 12:54 pm

    Good plan Ben – I like it. They will ignore you and when the results disagree with them they will bluster their way round them. just like the Observer did with its rubbish “clarification” on autism when faced with the truth.

  8. bootboy said,

    July 24, 2007 at 2:38 pm

    But what if it turns out that the results are positive?

    Will we get bad-science branded tinfoil hats?

  9. dbhb said,

    July 24, 2007 at 3:03 pm

    I predict that, if they answer at all, they will dismiss the research methodology as inadequate, for one reason or another, just to be ‘on the safe side’.

  10. Zoomin said,

    July 24, 2007 at 4:25 pm

    On a bit of a side note, i saw this article on the Imperial College website that mentions increased chances of infections developing in people who are exposed to intense electrical fields. I know it’s not the same thing as those who claim to feel worse the moment a field is switched on, but i thought it was interesting nevertheless.


  11. raygirvan said,

    July 24, 2007 at 4:46 pm

    I know it’s not the same thing as those who claim to feel worse the moment a field is switched on

    It’s also about electrostatic charge – big static fields that make airborne guck stick to you the way VDU screens get dusty – not electromagnetic radiation.

  12. Ben Goldacre said,

    July 24, 2007 at 8:46 pm

    press release just in.

    good to see “Mast Sanity” wading in with their mast sanity.

    Mast Sanity Press Release 24th July 2007

    MTHR Essex University Study

    The results of the Industry and Government funded Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme (MTHR) study ” to investigate whether emissions from mobile phone base stations can elicit a variety of symptoms in those exposed to them ” [1] run by Professor of Psychology Elaine Fox at the University of Essex [2] is to be published on Wednesday 25th July at the Science Media Centre.

    Firstly we should state that we don’t know why this research is being done by psychologists as there is already evidence showing changes in the important mast cells in human skin upon exposure to microwaves [3] .

    This Essex study will not be able to give us any insights into the long term effects such as cancer and genetic damage as has been highlighted in other research and so we think is just tinkering at the edges.

    In doing this research one is subjecting the volunteers to harm. As such this research is unethical. We know of at least one person who had to stop doing it because it made him so unwell. Lab tests have already identified disruptions to the immune system, surely if this were a drug we would not go on to do further tests on human subjects as there is already enough evidence?

    Some subjects of the study were sent summaries showing 90-100% ability to identify the 3G(UTMS) and 2G (GSM) signals from the SHAM (No signal) conditions without prior knowledge of which was which. Additionally, physical markers such as anxiety was 2-4 times higher, tension and arousal 1.5 times higher, discomfort 4-6 times higher and fatigue 3.5 – 5.5 times higher under the 2G and 3G signals. Clearly these individuals experienced real effects, not psychological problems.

    Yet being unable to complete the study has led to the exclusion of these individuals from the results, we believe.

    As Dr Carlo, Safe Wireless Initiative and former Chairman of the US $28 million research programme into mobile phone research, says:

    ” Because of the imprecisions in the Essex study [4],[5], findings of ‘no effect’ are likely to be false negatives in that the study was not designed well enough to pick up all of the effects among the participants. ”

    ” Any findings of ‘effect’ are likely underestimates of the true risk for the same reasons of imprecision in the study design. ”

    We also do not know how much of a part has been played by the so-called ‘Wessely School’ of psychiatry in separate earlier comparable studies with sufferers from farm Organophosphate Poisoning, Gulf War Syndrome and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME / CFS) [6] . In each case the researchers’ conclusion was that each condition was just a case of unfounded mental anxiety, which would be relieved by their form of psychotherapy and exercise. This in spite in every case findings of physical evidence of nerve system damage. In the case of electrosensitivity studies undertaken in Sweden are able to pinpoint the sort of damage that sufferers endure [7] .

    Mast Sanity Spokesperson Yasmin Skelt says “Isn’t it time that the Government woke up to the reality of electrosensitivity instead of attempting to persuade sufferers that it is all in their minds?”

    “History has shown that many now commonly accepted physical conditions were initially dismissed as psychological, with the patients subjected to all kinds of tests and quack remedies.”

    “Electrosensitivity has been recognised by medics in Sweden since 2000, and its government calculates 3.1 per cent of its population – 200,000 people – suffer from the condition. In fact this figure has more recently been revised upwards to nearer 9%. That is an awful lot of people.”

    “This study has been such a waste of money. The World Health Organisation already recognise electrosensitivity [8] . Why was the money not used to translate the 1500-subject Russian long-term epidemiological studies into English?”

    Mast Sanity reiterate their call on the Government to stop talking and start doing something. The UK should adopt the Precautionary Principle and halt the roll-out and proliferation of microwave transmitters of all types. If the new Brown Government is serious about protecting public health then they will readily accept our recent request for urgent talks and take action. Too many lives have been blighted or completely ruined already.

    END .

    The Mast Sanity Press Office can be contacted on 08704 867 807 .

    Notes and References:

    [1] www.essex.ac.uk/psychology/EHS/pages/MTHR%20press%20release.htm

    [2] EMH Lab: www.essex.ac.uk/psychology/EHS/pages/emh%20lab%20launch1.htm

    Professor Fox Profile: www.essex.ac.uk/psychology/psy/PEOPLE/fox/foxResearch.html

    [3] www.radiationresearch.org/pdfs/olle_johansson.pdf

    [4] Previous electrosensitivity studies: www.electrosensitivity.org.uk/Travesty.htm

    [5] The electrosensitive volunteers’ degree of electrical sensitivity and sensitivity to other environmental factors such as chemicals and heavy metals combined with imprecise measurements has invalidated the results from many previous so-called “provocation” studies (see [4] above) . With only 56 electrosensitive volunteers the sample in the Essex study is certainly not large enough to even out the degree of sensitivity.

    Electrosensitive people are not all sensitive to the same frequency ranges, so the use of only two ranges for 2G/GSM and 3G/UMTS, might not trigger a response in some genuinely electrosensitive volunteers. Also multiple research studies have found that using empty “carrier” signals without speech or data does not trigger the “biological pathway” that a non-empty signal does. The Essex study appears to use “scaled” signal strengths, which are unlikely to be realistic.

    [6] Previous “psychological” studies: www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmselect/cmhealth/503/503we79.htm

    [7] Physical evidence of electrosensitivity (Search on “You mention mast cells in the skin”) www.feb.se/ARTICLES/OlleJ.html

    [8] The World Health Authority recognises that EHS ” symptoms are certainly real

    and can vary widely in their severity “. The WHO urges that Governmentsshould provide appropriately targeted and balanced information about potential health hazards of electromagnetic field to EHS individuals,

    health-care professionals and employers. Ref: Fact sheet N°296 December 2005


    Contact List:

    Please contact any of the following scientists for comment:

    Roger Coghill


    Admin: Joanne Strange


    Dr Grahame Blackwell


    Alasdair Philips



    Barry Trower

    Ex government scientist and author of the TETRA Report for the Police



    Dr med. Gerd Oberfeld

    Salzburg Public Health Dept

    Austria +43 06 62

    Prof Olle Johansson

    Karolinska Institute

    Sweden +468 524

    Dr George Carlo


    Science & Public Policy Institute,

    Washington, USA

    Secretary Personal Mob

    Voice mail: (202) 756-

    Also you can contact the following Electrosensitive people:-

    Phil Watts (took part in the Essex study) 01782 599

    Andy Davidson (took part in the Essex study) 01273 678

    Karen Wren (applied to take part in Essex study) 01333

    Brian Stein 01807 0

    The Mast Sanity Press Office can be contacted on 08704 .

    (Please See Attached Version in PDF/Acrobat format)

    Yours faithfully,

    Mast Sanity Press Office

  13. bootboy said,

    July 24, 2007 at 9:54 pm

    You know, something makes me think that mast sanity have already arrived at their conclusion and aren’t really interested in evidence.

  14. simongates said,

    July 24, 2007 at 10:07 pm

    Well, we should all be happy if the study shows that electrosensitivity is real because they have told us what a load of rubbish it is, so we can safely ignore that result.

  15. simongates said,

    July 24, 2007 at 10:15 pm

    I don’t understand the repeated references by George Carlo and Mast Sanity to “imprecise measurements”. The subjects (in the “electrosensitive” group obviously) claim to have electrosensitivity. In the test they will have symptoms or they will not. The question is whether there is an association between their symptoms and the presence of electromagnetic radiation.

    If nobody gets any symptoms at all obviously the experiment won’t be able to test the association. Probably the researchers have built into their design something demonstarting that symptoms occur when sufferers know they are being exposed to radiation.

  16. dbhb said,

    July 24, 2007 at 11:05 pm

    Do I win a monkey? 😉

  17. le canard noir said,

    July 24, 2007 at 11:08 pm

    Dr George $arlo also has a nice line products to compete with the likes of Pow£rwatch.


    A nice range of magic boxes to neutralise EMF in the home:


    Some qlink pendant rip offs:


    and the compulsory vitamins.


    It would be rather a shame if the electrosensitivity evidence started coming back negative.

  18. jodyaberdein said,

    July 24, 2007 at 11:23 pm

    PS oops, actually there were 2/10 significant results overall from the fishing trip. Could go on about multiple measures and defined end points but it’d be much better to wait for the reply.

  19. Dr Aust said,

    July 25, 2007 at 12:34 am

    Good digging, Le Canard.

    For anyone interested, check the following verbals from the site – refers to one of the cheapest of BIOPRO’s products, the US$ 34.95 BIOPRO Cell Chip:


    “Day in and day out, you may be exposing yourself to more stress than you thought by simply using your Cell Phone, PDA or Bluetooth headset, etc. Electromagnetic radiation (EMR) emitted from these devices has been linked to various stress-induced problems and illnesses and could very well be compromising your health and well being. As a leader in the field of bioenergetics, BIOPRO has introduced the BIOPRO Cell ChipTM, the most advanced dual action technology designed to significantly address this newest source of stress in our daily lives.

    BIOPRO’s Cell Chip combines the benefits of two powerful, innovative and scientifically substantiated technologies: BIOPRO’s patented noise field nano-technology MRET (Molecular Resonance Effect Technology), and its proprietary subtle energy innovation ERT (Energy Resonance Technology). Individually and collectively, these cutting-edge technologies offer a groundbreaking and effective way to deal with the cumulative stress associated with living in today’s electronic environment.”

    Not immediately clear what you are supposed to do with the “Cell Chip”. I wondered if you were supposed to swallow it so that your body would repel the evil rays, but since they sell it in multi-packs I think you must be meant to stick one to each of your evil EMF emitting devices.

    My scientific bullsh*t detector was ringing at the combination of “nano-technology” with “Molecular Resonance Effect Technology”, and the following site about the latter speaks for itself:


    This woeful (Woo-full?) site uses the classic “bogus science” trick of dragging in the names of some eminent real scientists, here Alfred Gilman and (the late) Marty Rodbell, who won the Nobel Prize in 1994 for their discovery of GTP-binding proteins (G proteins) and their role in signal tranduction.


    Needless to say their work had nothing whatsoever to do with “resonance effects”, or “magic water”.

  20. Jut said,

    July 25, 2007 at 7:16 am

    heh sounds like the excuses are flooding out from the EMS lobby before the paper is even released.
    Unfortunatly Ben I believe your prediction is either sarcasm or over optimistic, I doubt this will see coverage in many national papers, if any.

  21. topazg said,

    July 25, 2007 at 11:46 am

    Ok, that’s ours done, feel free to shoot it down as you see fit:


    Best Regards,
    – Graham

  22. Gimpy said,

    July 25, 2007 at 12:06 pm

    Found it.


  23. bootboy said,

    July 25, 2007 at 12:24 pm

    Actually, in fairness to them, the powerwatch people have actually broadly accepted the findings:


    Following this paper, it is becoming increasingly likely that there is a significant proportion of self-assessed Electrically Sensitive people whose response is entirely nocebo – whether induced by fear of harm or other reasons, the cause is not radiofrequency EMFs.

    There are fundamental flaws in the idea of evaluating subjective responses in a double blind system that simply cannot be avoided regardless of the care taken on experiment design (such as the potentially large proportion of nocebo responses). There is also a chance that chronic exposure may give rise to genuine symptoms whereas acute exposure may not, but that cannot be addressed by this study.

    So whilst it cannot be entirely ruled out that a small minority are truly sensitive, the proportions of any truly sensitive people are likely to be far lower than the 3% – 35% that has been quoted.”

    Have they been “got at” by the telcos?

  24. Despard said,

    July 25, 2007 at 12:27 pm

    Thanks, Gimpy. It’s a nice little paper.

  25. superburger said,

    July 25, 2007 at 12:27 pm

    hi topazg (you are associated with powerwatch iirc?)

    can you describe an experiment that would convince you that there are no ill effect associated with exposure to wifi/mobile phones?

    what experiment would kill your hypothesis dead and change your position on wifi/moible masts etc?

    There must be one, otherwise you are operating from a fixed position along the lines of “mobiles can cause illness in some people” which nothing can change.

    interesting to hear your thoughts.

  26. jj_hankinson said,

    July 25, 2007 at 12:40 pm

    The conclusions about the study from the PowerWatch website are interesting:

    Para 1: “Following this paper, it is becoming increasingly likely that there is a significant proportion of self-assessed Electrically Sensitive people whose response is entirely nocebo – whether induced by fear of harm or other reasons, the cause is not radiofrequency EMFs.”

    That’s a massive concession to make given the veracity of previous arguments made by Powerwatch.

    Para 2: “So whilst it cannot be entirely ruled out that a small minority are truly sensitive, the proportions of any truly sensitive people are likely to be far lower than the 3% – 35% that has been quoted.”

    Like 0%? This is of course always true – no study can definitively disprove a hypothesis… but you can’t prove to me that there aren’t fairies at the bottom of my garden either.

    Perhaps its time for Powerwatch and the associated organisations to embrace the idea of there being a psychological cause of the symptoms suffered by some individuals. Perhaps buying a £70/m^2 piece of screening material isn’t the most cost effective method of dealing with these symptoms after all…

  27. IanWac said,

    July 25, 2007 at 1:27 pm

    It’s one of the odd things with RSS feeds on something like iGoogle; you get interesting juxtapositions. So, with the BBC and the BadScience feed running, I get, in one column,
    “Phone mast allergy ‘all in the mind'” – from the bbc. news.bbc.co.uk/go/rss/-/1/hi/health/6914492.stm
    And then of course, in the next column, Ben’s much kinder approach here – which is that the symptoms are real, and deserve our sympathy, but the aetiology is wrong.

    Still, I guess the former approach saves having to actually think about why all these unfortunate people are so distressed – no need to have to think about complicated things like Why Humans Feel Unwell, etc. It’s really hard to explain to people that simple questions – which ought always to be welcomed – don’t always have simple answers.

  28. BSM said,

    July 25, 2007 at 3:39 pm

    “Isn’t it time that the government woke up to the reality of electrosensitivity instead of attempting to persuade sufferers that it is all in their minds?” said spokeswoman Yasmin Skelt

    What reality?

  29. Robert Carnegie said,

    July 28, 2007 at 3:44 pm

    “Of course it is happening inside your head, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

    …from a recent work by Ms Joanne Rowling, a housewife in Edinburgh…

    The fear of electronic appliances is a real disease with persuasive symptoms, but that doesn’t mean that it has a non-cognitive basis. I used to be scared of the microwave. really.