Tag Archives: mobile-phones

Carrot Conspiratorial

Over at Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science Blog, he has a Daily Politics piece by Jasper Carrot about the eeeevils of mobile phone masts. It’s all very nudge, nudge, wink, wink, conspiracy theory laden stuff with virtually no rebuttal (apart from a good dressing down by studio guest Gwyneth Dunwoody). About the only thing he gets rights is his choice of ELO for the incidental music (and I accept I may be in a minority here).


(and if you don’t understand that, you’re too young)

The Great Wi-Fi Swindle (redux)

Last week I blogged about Panorama’s then upcoming programme about the supposed dangers of wi-fi. Nich Starling castigated me for criticising the programme before having watched it, which was fair enough. So, having watched to programme this lunchtime, what do I think?

What I think is that TV programmes that investigate potential health risks ought to spend at least 25% of the time explaining the science behind the issue. What I think is that the motto that should be plastered above the monitors of the whole production team should be ‘remember the MMR scare’. What I think is that they should avoid using loaded terminology, such as insisting on the sensationalist word ‘radiation’ instead of the more mundane ‘radio waves’ (same number of syllables, natch) and shouldn’t use hyphenated portmanteau nonsense words like ‘electro-smog’ which were coined by the anti-lobby. What I think is that you shouldn’t question the independence of one scientist while swallowing whole the agenda of another, as Ben Goldacre has pointed out.

I don’t think you should use an alleged health condition like electro-magnetic sensitivity as proof of another alleged health condition that radio waves give you cancer. I think that you shouldn’t take the isolated results of one woman who appears to be able to sense radio waves as proof when the whole study has not been published yet. I think you should take note of the researchers of that study who appear to think that the best ‘cure’ for electromagnetic sensitivity is cognitive behavioural therapy. I think that if 3% of the UK population suffered from electromagnetic sensitivity, we might have noticed before now.

And finally, I agree with Guy Kewney: Sir William Stewart (not to be confused with William G Stewart, lest Will Howells accuse me of blasphemy) should indeed ‘shit or get off the pot‘. Yes, by all means have another review. In fact, with new technology like this, it is probably a good idea to have a review every five years or so for a good half-century. But let’s have a bit of perspective, eh?

The Great Wi-Fi Swindle

Last week, BBC’s Panorama did an expose on the Scientologists, a cult that believes we are all imprisoned space aliens. This week, the same programme is purporting to prove that wi-fi fries your brain. And so, the cosmic balance of the BBC’s sensible/face-slappingly idiotic halves is once again restored.

I don’t really know where to start. James Randerson gives it a gentle booting in the Guardian, which broadly sums up the response, but no words can quite describe the sheer appallingness of comparing a mobile phone mast signal from 100m away with a wi-fi signal from 1m away and coming up with the scare statistic that the latter is 3 times more powerful than the former. So I have to get this off my chest. Indulge me.

If the two signals were exactly the same strength, the inverse square law would mean that with a distance differential of 100, the 1m away signal would be 10,000 times more powerful. So, taking that into account, you can conclude from these figures that the wi-fi signal is more than 3,000 times weaker than the mobile phone mast (3,333 point 3 recurring, but who’s counting?). The mobile phone mast which, lest us forget, there is no evidence causes any harm in the first place.

It beats me why they stopped their. If they had compared a wi-fi signal from 10 cm with a mobile phone mast signal from 1 km away, they could have shouted about wi-fi being 30,000 times stronger than mobile phones. That sounds much scarier. And why not? There’s nothing particularly significant about 1m and 100m – just two numbers they plucked out of the air.

Compared to all this, Scientology sounds positively evidence-based, and at least Martin Durkin can come up with a couple of impressive looking graphs. On which point, I recommend everyone picks up a copy of this week’s New Scientist, which rather satisfyingly eviscerates the Great Global Warming Swindle point by point (in fact, the online version appears to have even more myth debunking).

A single cluster (or even seven) does not prove a link to phone masts and cancer

The Times has an article today about how a cancer clusters have been identified around mobile phone masts. Quick! Panic!

Or don’t. I’m frankly amazed that, even taking into account the general appalling reporting of science in the UK press, that a journalist would fall for that one. The story is about seven , isolated clusters, all of which have been ‘discovered’ by anti-phone mast activists around phone masts. They don’t appear to have found a link to a specific cluster, but rather a vague linkage to “cancers, brain hemorrhages and high blood pressure”. Anyone who knows anything about statistics (and I would never claim to be an expert) knows that clustering is a fact of life.

I play a lot of board games, and thus I’m accustomed to the fact that people can roll 12s on two dice with alarming frequency. It doesn’t happen neatly once in every 36 throws. On the road my parents live on, which has around 20 houses, there were 6 instances of breast cancer in a two year period. They have no mobile phone mast nearby – a fact which causes me great inconvenience when I come to stay.

The point is, not only do statistically insignificant ‘clusters’ happen all the time, but our very existence depends on it. If the universe was uniformly spread and had no ‘clumps’ in it, there’d have been no big bang, no universes, no stars, no us. While cancer clusters can indeed suggest there is something in the environment causing it, most don’t: they are simply brutal reminders of reality.

Who is this ‘scientist’ who has co-ordinated this study? Well, Dr John Walker, it emerges, “spent 40 years in statistical research for Dunlop.” I’m afraid that isn’t reassuring. You don’t send a glorified tire number-cruncher in to do an epidemiologist’s job. The biggest nonsense is when he is quoted as saying:

“Masts should be moved away from conurbations and schools and the power turned down.”

The man is clearly as much an expert in radio communications as he is in disease control. You can’t have both. Either you move them away and ramp up the power (in which case, individual phones will have to use more power to work – right next to your ear where they would be doing more damage), or you turn the power down and have them nearer conurbations and schools. I actually quite like the latter idea, but I suspect it has a snowball in hell’s chance of finding favour with Dr Wilson and his anti-mast pals.

UPDATE: Bad Science this week is relevant here.