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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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New Essay

Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Wi-Fi...Why Fight? The Bad Science of Electrosmog

Friday, June 15, 2007

Ben Goldacre, The Guardian's redoubtable Bad Science columnist, has been dealing with some classic hysteria about electrosmog radiation caused by Wi-Fi. First up is the Independent, with Julia Stevenson describing how she "fought back back after being diagnosed by her naturopath with overexposure to Wi-Fi and mobile phone frequencies." I know what a naturalist is. I know what a psychopath is. Dare I ask what a "naturopath" is? Best piece of bad science goes to engineer and homeopath Gary Johnson, who peddles a therapeutic device:
The heart of the unit is a programmed microprocessor unit that produces a holograph field that is amplified through an internal aerial system. This protection field protects the human system from the negative effects of EMR,” says Johnson. He says he has had great success in alleviating patients’ symptoms, and claims the unit offers unlimited protection from any negative electromagnetic emissions in a 700-square metre radius.
I know maths G.C.S.E.s are not what they used to be, but surely newspaper sub-editors should know that you cannot have a square circle. And what the hell is a holograph field? Oh, that's right, it's that thing they have on Star Trek. Anyway, Goldacre and the commentators responding to his post do a comprehensive demolition job on this article.

That a broadsheet newspaper should give space to this tripe is bad enough. That the BBC's Panorama should also generate hysteria over the Wi-Fi radiation worming its way into our children's brains is simply unacceptable. Goldacre does not have to work to hard to point out that the science was used to provide a technical gloss to essentially a sensationalist piece of tabloid journalism:
“Ooh its well into the red there,” says reporter Paul Kenyon, holding up the detector (19 minutes in). Gosh that sounds bad. Well into the red on what? It’s tricky to calibrate measurements, and to decide what to measure, and what the cut off point is for “red”. Panorama’s readings were “well into the red” on “The COM Monitor”, a special piece of detecting equipment designed from scratch and built by none other than Alasdair Philips of Powerwatch, the man who leads the campaign against WiFi. His bespoke device is manufactured exclusively for Powerwatch, and he will sell one to you for just £175. Alasdair decided what “red” meant on Panorama’s device. So not very independent then.
But why should it take Goldacre to come down on the BBC? Their own editorial policy on accuracy and facts states that:
We should report statistics and risks in context, taking care not to worry the audience unduly, especially about health or crime. It may also be appropriate to report the margin of error and the source of figures to enable people to judge their significance. This may involve giving trends, taking care to avoid giving figures more weight than can stand scrutiny. If reporting a change, consideration should be given to making the baseline figure clear. For example, a doubling of a problem affecting one in two million people will still only affect one in a million.
I have suggested before that we need for scientific evidence the same sort of protection not unlike libel laws. But if media producers such as the BBC cannot get it right, despite being as close to being an objective and reliable reporter as any organisation can be (and to be fair, the claims were attacked on the BBC's own Newswatch), I am not sure what more legal support could do. Of course, my depression could just be the result of those pesky wireless waves...

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Posted by Alistair at 4:25 pm


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