||Volume 23, Number 4, Jan./Feb. 2011
Of science and cellphones
By Greg Payne
For the past few years there has been growing media attention given to the issue of Wi-Fi (wireless internet) and cell phone use and potential links to adverse health effects in humans. These technologies, like radio and television, rely on radio waves to send information. Aside from stories in the news, our very own Teacher featured a two-page article describing these alleged links in its September and October issues (“Should Wi-Fi be used in classrooms?” by Lynn Quiring). It goes without saying that, if the claims made in this article are true, we will soon be facing a modern health crisis that will make all previous ones pale in comparison. However, there are many important and compelling reasons to dismiss Quiring’s extraordinary claims, not the least of which is what the related body of science has to say about this topic. Since there will always be a spectrum of ideas competing for our attention, some of them highly important and requiring our consideration, and others frivolous and distracting, science literacy is more important today than at any time in our history. An understanding of how science works, along with a healthy dose of skepticism, can improve everyone’s ability to distinguish fact from fiction.
How science works
In science, being open to the possibility of being wrong is a necessary virtue because if you don’t find your own mistakes you can be guaranteed that others eventually will, and take great glee in doing so. In order to avoid the biases that allow us to so easily make mistakes, scientists have developed well-established methods that help to reduce errors in research. Where ever possible they ensure their experiments have a control group, are blind/double-blind, have randomly selected subject groups, and use large numbers of subjects. These and other methods help to ensure that research findings are both real and valid.
To ensure important methods are followed, scientific studies undergo an extensive, critical peer-review process. The ones with obvious flaws are denied publication in respected journals. Getting published, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that a scientist has actually yet discovered anything; mistakes may still remain, soon to be discovered by thousands of scientific peers carefully scrutinizing the latest journals. Additionally, scientists who truly understand, respect and follow the methods of science know that a single study, even one with no apparent flaws in it, isn’t worth much by itself. This is because one of the greatest hallmarks of sound science is repeatability. The results of a study have to be independently replicated before an idea can even begin to become accepted. If further experiments in related fields also support the results, acceptance of an idea gains even more strength. This is a powerful point to keep in mind the next time someone tries to sway your views on a topic using a single study rather than addressing the overall scientific consensus.
When it comes to determining the truth behind any extraordinary claim, perhaps no question is more important than, “What do you want to believe?” Our hopes, desires and wishes are powerful forces that constantly and unconsciously prejudice both our thoughts and actions. Perhaps knowledge of this fact led physicist Richard Feynman to state, “Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” Unfortunately, this wisdom is lost upon some scientists, and questionable or inadequate methodology allows wishful thinking to bias their work, casting considerable doubt on the validity of their research. This characterizes much of the work done by a relatively small group of researchers who confidently and vocally assert in the media that radio waves from cell phones and Wi-Fi Internet lead to health problems.
One glaring example of such work is the “Bio-Initiative Report” (BIR). According to the scientists at EMF & Health, the work in the BIR suffers from significant problems, including: a complete omission of research representing the scientific consensus, studies with poor methodology, inadequate peer-review, studies that have not been replicated, and studies that have been refuted. Unbelievably, one of the organizers, authoring seven of the BIR’s 17 chapters, has no science credentials or training whatsoever, and she runs a highly lucrative “EMF protection” business (EMF stands for electromagnetic frequency). Many alarmists, Quiring included, have ties to “EMF Protection” businesses. These businesses charge hundreds to thousands of dollars for unnecessary products and consultations designed to reduce harmless waves—the Emperor’s clothes have never been so threadbare. Even more preposterous, the BIR includes studies guilty of fraud, science’s cardinal sin. How anyone could rely on such a document is difficult to imagine, and yet the BIR is the primary reference used by Quiring in writing his article for Teacher. A thorough indictment of the BIR can be found at EMF & Health, a website created by a group of respected mainstream scientists dedicated to evidenced-based science that follows proper scientific methods.
The scientific consensus
The scientific consensus is what most people rely on most of the time; we agree that the planets orbit the sun, germs cause infection, and that cells are the basic unit of life. We even accept that all matter is made up of atoms, though no one has ever observed atoms directly. So why do we accept these ideas? Not because scientists tell us to, and certainly not because scientists are smart people with impressive degrees from respected universities. All of our knowledge, without exception, is accepted only to the degree with which it is supported by scientific evidence. This is why your first attempt to research any topic should begin with respected scientific organizations that understand science and closely follow its methods. Health Canada and the World Health Organization are two such organizations; both are well-positioned to provide the most accurate information regarding radio waves and health. These organizations, which together have studied more than 25,000 research papers over the last 30 years, tell us there is no reason to believe radio waves (from cell phones, Wi-Fi, base stations, TV, radio, etc.) cause any adverse health effects at the levels that the public is regularly exposed to. Also, there is no convincing evidence to suggest that exposure guidelines need to be further lowered. Other major science-based organizations and regulatory bodies are in agreement on this, including the Center for Disease Control, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The scientific community acknowledges that there are unanswered questions, intriguing questions, and questions that require further study in this field, but the present consensus at the moment, based on considerable evidence, is a reassuring one.
Science as a candle in the dark
In a society as complex, large and technologically dependent as ours, reality matters. To give just one example, it is only a question of time before our earth is hit by an asteroid larger than the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. Somewhere in our solar system or beyond, a giant rock with our name on it speeds silently through space—it’s not a question of if, but when. Assuming we’re still here when it arrives, there’s little doubt that, without science, our species will perish in this event. The same could be said about any number of other crises that will most certainly face our descendants. Science, however, could change all that. In just 400 years, science has evolved to a point where it provides us with a fighting chance of locating and redirecting such asteroids. But will it? Do we understand the value of science enough? Will we more fully embrace it and allow it to flourish? Carl Sagan, the greatest advocate for science the world has ever known, was uncertain if society as a whole—our politicians, organizations, leaders, citizens and media—would possess the scientific wisdom required to muster such necessary feats. In his final book, The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Sagan wrote,
“I worry that pseudo-science and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic and national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us—then, habits of thought familiar from the ages past reach for the controls. The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.”
All educators, regardless of scientific training, have a role to play in protecting that candle. We can work collectively to create scientifically literate citizens—students who enjoy reading, work comfortably with numbers, learn critical thinking, develop a healthy skepticism, and understand the methods of science. Such students will ensure the flame survives and continues to illuminate genuine concern from imaginary folly. And, of course, they’ll be far less likely to make stuff up about the candle’s light and heat waves.
References available on request.
Greg Payne teaches at Princess Margaret Secondary School, Surrey.