How Joanna Blythman got it wrong, part 5

This is the fifth in a series of articles in response to Joanna Blythman’s 8th November editorial from the Sunday Herald. For an explanation of what this is all about, see my first post.

Joanna Blythman is scientifically illiterate. This is not a wild accusation thrown out to smear her, it is my response to her published statements on scientific matters. In the previous post this was illustrated with Blythman’s misunderstanding of systematic review. In post number two Blythman’s selective quoting of evidence demonstrated a lack of understanding of the hierarchy of evidence. This impression is reinforced when she tried to refute the Food Standards Agency’s review with reference to a Newcastle study which it appears was not published in a peer-reviewed journal.

From Blythman’s perspective such arguments may appear to be mere pedantry or obfuscation, designed to discredit her. However they are fundamental and for someone of scientific literacy deal-breaking. Blythman is probably aghast at the arrogance of scientists when responding to non-scientist critiques of their work. Should she be?

Lest this blog should veer towards misogyny (we haven’t got onto Julia Stephenson yet) here is an illustration featuring two male celebrities; Jasper Carrott and Geoffrey Boycott.

Jasper Carrott has lent his support to a protest against a mobile phone mast in Dudley. He is quoted as saying,

“I am very concerned about the damage that these masts can do the health of people, particularly to children and pregnant women.”

He has also appeared in a film about his concern.

Concerns over mobile phones and glioma risk have been around for some time. For anyone familiar with the electromagnetic spectrum they shouldn’t be. Mobile phones operate at a variety of frequencies, but all in the range of about 900 to 2100 Megahertz (million cycles per second). This puts them in the microwave range. We know that the energy in an electromagnetic wave increases with increasing frequency, as given by the expression;

E=hf

If mobile phones (or for that matter wi-fi networks) were to be a cancer risk to humans then all radiation with a higher frequency would have to be a greater risk.
This would include infra-red healing lamps and perhaps more importantly (given their proximity to the head in use) infra-red hair straighteners. I’m not aware that anyone is worried about the tumour risks of hair straighteners.

The next, even more risky activity would be standing on the inside of your French windows in daylight (visible light without UV). Going outside in the sun with adequate UV protection would also have to be hazardous, and the sensible use of UV tanning beds within their safe operating parameters would be worse still.

Addendum. Still unconvinced? Consider this: if you held an infra-red lamp to your rheumatic back for an extemely long time, you would probably get extremely uncomfortable but you would not give yourself sunburn. By contrast a shorter exposure to a UV lamp would carry a high risk of sunburn, as the individual rays are more energetic. A good analogy can be seen in this document on page 5

Geoffrey Boycott famously survived an aggressive tumour in his mouth, and it is not my intention to say anything unkind about the man. Although I can’t reference it, I heard him during a lean spell during the commentary on Test Match Special declare that he avoids mobile phones because of health concerns. Of course the man is entitled to all the caution he wants to take after his ordeals, but the fact that he seems never to venture outdoors without a hat is probably, in an almost literal sense, more than a million times more important (see paragraph “cell phones can not cause cancer”).

This is I think an important issue. For a scientifically-literate commenter who faces the concerns of people worried about mobile phones there is a reasonable theoretical basis for dismissing such concerns. Such a dismissal may have a sound basis but it is easy to see it can be interpreted as arrogant and not considered. Whereas it often seems that scientists will brook no criticism from lay people, many times the concerns falter on scientific principles such as this.

Of course it may be possible that this theoretical justification is wrong. It may be that mobile phones can cause cancer. But if so it will overturn an understanding of electromagnetic radiation which has survived for about 100 years. Thus the bar for concern should be set pretty high. So far nothing very convincing to suggest harm has appeared. The Precautionary Principle is inappropriate here.

Julia Stephenson (told you!) declared war on “electrosmog” after coming to believe her wi-fi network was making her ill. Her article in the Independent was riddled with scientific errors. She said at one point,

Even cordless hands-free home telephones … are now off-limits. Their electrical force-field is nearly as powerful as that of a mobile phone. Since I’m now chained to a phone on a lead, my cupboards are filthy and my friends are neglected. But at least I’m less radioactive.

I would like to think Stephenson was using “radioactive” metaphorically there — as a joke about her “improved state”. But I’m not sure she understands the difference between radioactivity and radiation. A few people made scientifically sound criticisms of her letter (and this rather more trenchant criticism).

Stephenson responded with a whining rebuttal which has in turn been roundly condemned as well. But there seems to be a tendency to characterize all science-based critiques as an ad hominem assault, or an attempt to silence dissent. Where there is no grasp of the technical frailties being exposed, it all seems a bamboozling attempt at attacking you.

What to do about it? I wish I knew.

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