Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Bad Science: Catalyst's Radioactive Waste Dump on Reason

ABC Catalyst's fear-inducing "radiation" absorption of a child's face is little more than a heat map – Source: ABC
It began like an A Current Affair story into 'Australia's Dodgiest Builder Who Cons Retirees Out of Their Life Savings by Posing as an Injured Person While on Welfare'...
You can't see it or hear it, but wi-fi blankets our homes, our cities and our schools...
 Our SCHOOLS? But...but...the Children!?
Dr Devra Davis: Children today are growing up in a sea of radiofrequency microwave radiation that did not exist five years ago...  
Cell phones emit pulsed radiation...
"Our" safety agencies don't reckon there's a problem with this dangerous sea of Wi-Fi pulsing and throbbing THROUGH our children, we're told, but:
some of the world's leading scientists and industry insiders are breaking ranks to warn us of the risks.
THANK YOU "leading" experts for being brave enough to come forward! I HAVE NO IDEA who or what would be stopping you from doing so otherwise, I guess the others are in league with Big Wireless or something, but THANK YOU for being so BRAVE!

Sadly this wasn't 6:30pm schlock on the commercial networks, it was Catalyst, once Australia's premiere science program, now run purely for ratings and controversy. This loaded use of language from the first thirty seconds of the programme was (literally) just the beginning. Viewers were conditioned at almost every point reject the opinion of our safety agencies (and mainstream scientific consensus because, I dunno, conspiracy or something) and accept the scary things the fringe researchers are saying because CHILDREN, damn it. DO YOU WANT YOUR CHILDREN DEAD FROM CANCER?

After watching the episode and reading through the transcript for this piece, I've had to prevent myself from rebutting line-by-line the nonsense peddled by some of the alleged 'experts'. You can find comprehensive and accurate rebuttals here, here and here. But the gist of it is this: Catalyst devoted the majority of this episode to promoting harmful effects of electromagnetic radiation, effects that are rejected by mainstream science and our fundamental understanding of radiation.

It is not my goal to go tit-for-tat on the claims made in the episode – it was a very bad episode of Catalyst and is the final nail in the coffin for the show as far as I'm concerned – but I do want to discuss the average person's strange relationship with science.

Cognitive Dissonance (no, it's not a form of deadly radiation)
Whether we realise it or not, science forms the basis of entire lives. From your alarm clock to your breakfast cereal to the milk in your coffee to the ignition of your car, all exist today in their current forms because of the knowledge science has provided us and continues to provide us with.

To take just a single example, look at a GPS navigation unit. You have the technology of the device itself: (liquid crystal display, touchscreen, microprocessors, memory, miniaturised componentry etc), the manufacturing process of the device (computerised global supply chains, global shipping, automated fabrication systems etc), the 3–4 satellites which calculate your position through trilateration, and then, underpinning it all, Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Believe it or not, but without proper application of relativity, GPS would be useless within 2 minutes. As lay people, we might not be familiar with the theories underpinning the functionality of the GPS, but we accept that someone somewhere has worked it out far better than we ever could.

Contrast this with radiation. The very word is prejudiced. But it's actually quite a simple concept: radiation is energy that goes from one place to another, with an associated electric field and magnetic field, also known as electromagnetic waves.

The Electromagnetic Spectrum – Source: CDC

In physics classes, you probably remember it as a spectrum. At one end, you have weaker low frequency, longer wavelength radiation, through to visible light, then stronger higher frequency, shorter wavelength radiation. These weaker forms of radiation are known as non-ionising radiation , while the stronger forms are ionising. In short, it's ionising radiation that is known to damage cells, while non-ionising radiation lacks the power to do so. It's non-ionising radiation we find in many of our appliances at home, from microwave ovens, cordless phones, mobile phones and, yes, Wi-Fi routers.

All the devices mentioned in the episode of Catalyst – mobile phones, Wi-Fi routers, cordless phones, tablets, microwaves etc – generate a comparatively tiny amount of low-energy non-ionising radiation. After quite a few decades of devices operating at this frequency (usually around 2.45ghz) there's little in the epidemiological record to indicate an effect on humans. This is the crux of the issue and why the World Health Organisation, after reviewing some 25,000 papers on the matter, found that "despite extensive research, to date there is no evidence to conclude that exposure to low level electromagnetic fields is harmful to human health".

That said, non-ionising radiation does affect the body. It might not be powerful enough to damage cells, but it does leave its mark by way of heat. When you sit outside in the sun, you feel warm because the non-ionising radiation from the sun (visible light) is acting on you by warming you. Unfortunately, sunlight brings with it ultraviolet light which is damaging. Sit out in that for too long without protection, and you've got sunburn – ionising radiation acting on and damaging your cells.

There is also preliminary evidence to suggest that non-ionising radiation does have some other yet-to-be-discovered non-thermal effects. This has been leapt upon by anti-radiation activists to demonstrate that Wi-Fi devices are indeed dangerous and "mainstream science" is yet to catch up. But the research is at such an early stage and the alleged effects so minor that it is extremely unlikely to cause cancer in the way these proponents claim.

The Rise of Big Telco, Coming to Kill Your Children
My goal here is not to go on about radiation (although I do love it), but rather to demonstrate it is something scientists have studied for a long time and have a pretty good idea about. We know ionising radiation can harm humans because we have studied exposure and seen the results. Just as I am content to leave relativity to the physicists, so too am I content to leave radiation to physicists who understand the practice and the theory in far greater detail than any of us could possibly hope to. Couple these experts with the oversight of national and international governmental and non-governmental regulatory agencies and you've got a pretty good setup for a safe world with safe products. Of course, humans being humans, things aren't always perfect, but the worst is usually averted.

Going back to climate change for a moment, who among you has ever read a scientific paper on climate change? I bet hardly any of you have. I know I haven't. Instead, we've read interpretations of that data written by scientists and science communicators for lay audiences. Take the IPCC: they produce an assessment report every few years based on the most up-to-date science on climate change. The most widely-read section of that report is the Summary for Policymakers, which explains most of the assessment in plain English (an even more concise 2 page summary is also available for the time-starved). Reading the raw data that underpins the conclusions simply isn't an option for most of us.

Yet most of us "accept" climate change as a thing that is happening. Sure, we're divided on what and how much to do about it, but only a lunatic fringe entirely doubts its existence (such as our erstwhile Prime Minister's chief business advisor who called climate change a UN conspiracy for a new world order). Most of us accept the science. Yet the same people who accept the science on climate change, relativity and other sciences fundamental to our everyday lives charge national standards  organisations, such as our own ARPANSA, as being in league with "Big Telco" on some conspiracy to conceal the alleged dangers Wi-Fi routers and mobile phones pose.

Thinking of the Children
This is the difficult position scientists in all disciplines find themselves in these days. They are having to re-explain the fundamentals they thought were settled years ago by Pasteur, Curie, Röntgen, Planck, Hertz or any other number of researchers to an audience that barely grasps high-school level English, let alone physics, biology or chemistry. But because this audience read something on GuiltyMommy.com or HuffPo, sources that regularly end up on mass media outlets, science must indulge their ignorance.

Imagine, for a second, if Catalyst ran a story on global warming that promoted the views of Christopher Monkton above those of James Hansen? Or if they broadcast a space special devoted to promoting a moon landing hoax? There would be understandable outrage. In the case of Wi-Fi and cancer, perhaps the content was not so inflammatory, but it does plant a seed of doubt in people's mind that does not need to be there in the first place.

But this isn't just about Catalyst, it's about a general scientific illiteracy in an era where science has never been more important. If we are to overcome the struggles of life in the 21st century, we are going to need science firing on all cylinders: agriculture, healthcare, power generation, manufacturing, resource management...the list goes on...and not indulge the paranoid fantasies of an illiterate few. In fact, if we are to give our children the best possible future, as the Wi-Fi Fearmongers and others claim is one of their main causes, we're going to need every weapon in the technological arsenal to overcome mankind's own stupidity and selfishness. Otherwise low-level non-ionising radiation will be the least of their worries...