Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Announcement

November 27, 2009

Regrettably, for personal reasons I am compelled to suspend this blog until further notice. I apologise for any inconvenience.

How Joanna Blythman got it wrong, part 5

November 19, 2009

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.

How Joanna Blythman got it wrong, part 4

November 16, 2009

The fourth instalment of the series of articles criticizing Joanna Blythman’s editorial from the Sunday Herald of November 8th. For an explanation of what this blog is about, see part 1, or the About page.

Blythman’s article from the Herald is both angry and dismissive in in tone. She describes David Nutt as being “in a huff” and threatening to “flounce off” to form a new advisory body. His colleagues are described as “mutinous and militant”, and “his indignant allies”.

Given this combative approach it might seem surprising that she then takes scientists to task for their poor response to non-scientists who challenge their recommendations. Following her own intemperate language about her opponents, she castigates them for theirs. Never mind, maybe Blythman’s own response to criticisms will teach us how it should be done.

I’m not aware of an article where Blythman has responded to criticism of her own statements (if she ever stumbles across this blog I may find out), but when the Food Standards Agency published a systematic review of the nutritional content of organic foods in July 2009, Blythman wrote a response for the Daily Mail. It starts;

The food industry, in alliance with pharmaceutical and big biotechnology companies, has waged a long, often cynical campaign to convince the public that mass-produced, chemically-assisted and intensively-farmed products are just as good as organic foods, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.
The latest assault in this propaganda exercise comes from the Food Standards Agency, the government’s so-called independent watchdog, which has just published a report claiming that there is no nutritional benefit to be gained from eating organic produce.

That’s pretty much an ad hominem right off the bat, wouldn’t you say? Alliance with industry, a cynical campaign, a propaganda exercise — the tone is set before reaching for evidence to substantiate the accusations. Blythman portrays the FSA as swinging into line behind the Goliath of the conventional food industry against the poor beleaguered organic David with its measly £2.1bn turnover. There’s an expression I can’t quite remember which might help here, something about pots and kettles. Ah, yes…

Hilariously, Blythman then tries to pour scorn on the FSA report by saying it contains nothing new, and is simply a re-hash of previous work–a “second-hand study”, she calls it.

Well, duh. A systematic review is a construct which seeks out all available studies on a topic and evaluates them methodically to provide a comprehensive answer to the research question. See here or here for definitions. A systematic review sets out in advance criteria for inclusion of a study — quality thresholds, for example. If a study is so poorly designed and executed that its findings can be relied on it is not included. The criteria for including and excluding studies are explicitly declared before the study search takes place, rather than being applied retrospectively.

So for Blythman to protest that the review has no new data is to misunderstand or misrepresent completely the aim of the study. If she doesn’t know what a systematic review is supposed to be then she should find out. She’s a journalist, isn’t she? If she does understand the role of a systematic review then she is relying on her readers’ lack of knowledge so she can fool them into thinking the review is unimportant. Which is it to be, incompetence or duplicity? There are no other explanations.

I don’t intend to cover the many factual and statistical inaccuracies in her Daily Mail article, as that’s already been done very well here and here. What I do want to point out is the relentless use of language meant to insinuate the dishonesty of the FSA throughout the piece. If Blythman wants to get better press from scientists, she has to give more honest press to them.

In the next post I will talk about a possible reason why non-scientist critics of science and technology feel they are badly treated by scientists responding to their objections, with a detour into the strange world of Julia Stephenson.