Wi-Fi, Quackery and the MPs

Well, today’s news has had lots of Wi-Fi scares being reported. Tonight’s Panorama is going to look at the ‘dangers’ of bringing Wi-Fi into schools. Let’s wait to see what they have to say, but early reports do not bode well as they are claiming that their ‘independent tests’ showed WiFi produces EM levels three times higher than mobile phone masts. It is difficult to think up a more meaningless statement. But such is the quality of debate at the moment in the hysteria being whipped up about the dangers of all things electrical. Will Panorama fuel or dampen the flames? We shall see.

But the news has prompted me to do a little more looking at the subject, and in particular, one campaign group that I have not looked at before, the EM-Radiation Research Trust. Campaign groups, like this one, crop up regularly and appear to be behind the spread of fears around mobile phones and radiation. The quackometer has already looked at Powerwatch and how it is selective in its use of evidence, and Electrosensitivity-UK and its rather shrill condemnation of anyone who dares to suggest that electrosensitivity symptoms might not be caused by radiation

The Radiation Research Trust is an interesting one though, in that it appears to have the support of several members of parliament and an MEP. The trustees of the charity include Andrew Mitchell, Conservative MP for Sutton Coldfield, Mark Oaten, MP for Winchester, Dr Ian Gibson, Labour MP for Norwich North and MEP Dr Caroline Lucas, of the Green Party. Its nice to know from the start that I cannot be accused of political bias for showing how this rabble of politicians has got itself involved with quackery. An organisation that has such cross-party support has surely has mustered some important clout and so it is worth delving a little deeper in Radiation Research to see what they are up to.

So, who are the other trustees and movers within the charity?

We have an Eileen O’Connor who contracted breast cancer whilst living close to a phone mast. How she knows the mast was the cause of her illness is not clear. But it looks like one of those modern equivalents of the village witch hunts. Everything from villagers’ nose bleeds, headaches to cancer is blamed on the mast. Now, cancer clusters do happen, even just by chance. When clusters are spotted it is natural to look for a cause, whether it be the nuclear power station, mobile mast or old woman living with a black cat. It is easy to jump to the wrong conclusion here and personal testimony, although heartfelt, should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Next, we have Brian Stein, Chief Executive of Samworth Brothers Ltd., manufacturer of motorway service station staple, the truly miraculous Ginsters range of pasties. Brian suffers from electro-hypersensitivity and, as we have seen, by the very nature of the problem, the last people to have broad opinions about the causes of the condition are the suffers themselves. I wonder if Mr Stein refuses to microwave his pasties?

Mike Bell is the chairman of the organisation and is often seen reporting the groups views to HPA committees and the media. The only scientist in the group is Dr. Gerard Hyland, honorary associate fellow of Warwick University. Having a scientist is undoubtedly good as it gives credibility to the charity and a voice of authority.

Now, Dr Hyland is the poster pin-up boy of the electrosensitivity lobby as he is doing something most important for them. The problem with showing that Wi-Fi and mobile phones are dangerous is two-fold: first, the evidence for the range of problems associated with EM-fields is in many areas non-existent, and in others circumstantial and incoherent; the second, that there is little plausibility of non-ionising radiation causing the range of problems reported at the levels found in domestic settings. The ‘plausibility problem’ causes many scientists to dismiss the claims of the lobby out of hand. It places a strong burden of evidence on those making the claims and the evidence is not convincing.

So, Dr Hyland is working on the plausibility problem. Solving this plausibility gap is essential if the anti-Wi-Fi lobby is to make a convincing case. However, the idea that radiation from a Wi-Fi transmitter can cause damaging localised heating in brains and bodies is easily discounted – the emitted powers are usually far too small to have any meaningful effect. Hyland, is working on so-called ‘non-thermal’ explanations. An example of a non-thermal effect of a mobile phone is the stuttering interference you hear on your car radio. This ‘pulsed’ radiation does not heat the radio, but interferes with the electronic signals inside. If it can do this to a radio, can it do the same to the ‘electrical’ parts of the human body? That is essentially the non-thermal pulsed effect theory and it has been leaped upon by the anti-mobile, anti-wi-fi, anti-hi-fi lobby.

But, EM simply interfering with your neurons is not enough for plausibility. It is quite clear that mobiles do not induce something like epileptic fits, so a simplistic radio-interference type model is not enough. No, Dr Hyland, and similar researchers, propose that something much more subtle is going on at the cellular level, causing problems at the microscopic scale. And this is where it all starts to get a little strange.

One starts to get a sense of unease when Dr Hyland insists that his research is looking at ‘aliveness’, somehow implying that the fact that cells are alive is overlooked by other researchers. To the quackometer, this missing ‘aliveness’ starts looking like the talk of new-agers or energy quacks with their bonkers ‘subtle energies’, not that of a serious researcher. Dr Hyland comes from a theoretical physics background so we might forgive for strange biological language. However, a little more delving adds to the concerns. Dr Hyland is now retired from Warwick and has been for a while. But, his effort appears to be focused with a group called the International Institute of Biophysics based in Neuss-Holzheim, Germany.

The institute is researching into something called biophoton emission. This effect is supposedly different from bioluminescence, where bright light is created by living cells in creatures like fireflies and deep sea creatures. Biophotons are ‘ultraweak photon emission[s] from living systems’. These photons somehow transmit information ‘within and between’ cells. And so, here we start to see the necessity of biophotonics to the anti-mobile lobby – a tentative but plausible mechanism of how non-thermal radiation effects can interfere with cellular processes. Can Emsignals of the right frequency interfere with the ‘coherence’ of inter-cellular biophotonic emission? Only, the problem is that the whole concept of biophotonics is extremely controversial and is treated as ‘fringe’ by most researchers. Indeed, biophotonics carries the many tell-tale signs of classic pseudoscience and pathological science. It pits itself against well established science such as the ‘central dogma of genetics’, that cellular communication occurs through the DNA-RNA-protein transcription and translation mechanism. It suggests that ‘Russian science’ has been aware of this for many decades, and we in the West have not woken up to it yet. (Look up Lysenkoism to see the problem with this.) Its ‘subtlety’ and ‘ultraweakness’ means that it deals with effects at the limits of detectability, where noise and poor experimental set-up can wreak havoc with results and interpretations. (Look up N-rays for a comparison).

Worryingly, the research interests of people associated with the Institute starts to make the quackometer get a little jumpy. They include:

  • holistic concepts and the understanding of consciousness
  • schrödinger’s definition of food quality
  • biophoton field reflecting biological rhythms
  • molecular basis of stress and the concept of self-healing
  • self-healing and the principles in homeopathy
  • studies and medical applications of biophotons especially in connection with acupuncture and cancer
  • anatomical structure of acupuncture meridians and its physiological significance

and so on…

In fact, the whole concept of biophotons is used by all sorts of quacks, from Professor Dame Mossop’s Phytobiophysics, to homeopaths and energy healers to add a veneer of (pseudo)science to their musings. Biophotonics is used as a one-size-fits-all, off the shelf explanation for all sorts of outlandish quackery. It is so ‘subtle’ and ill-defined that it can be moulded to explain any freakish health theory. Is this really the sort of company that the Radiation Research Trust wants to keep? Is this what the ‘research’ in their name refers to? If plausibility is what you are after, then surely mechanisms that share explanatory powers for homeopathy and cancer-busting acupuncture may well end up back-firing on you?

But the Radiation Research Trust’s associations get a little worse.

The group makes a big play of thanking their Cornish sponsor, a company called Ecoflow, for their generous financial support. In a mind boggling twist of irony, the company that campaigns against the harmful effects of electromagnetic fields is supported by a company that manufactures and distributes magnetic healing products.

Amongst their products are the full range of quack and crank magnetic devices including magnetic bracelets, pet collars, water softeners, wine conditioners, car fuel conditioners, gas pipe energy enhancers and (of course) mobile phone protectors. In a satisfying inversion of the nutri-pill-peddler turned EM-crank (see Patrick Holford and his QLink pendants), these EM cranks also sell vitamin food supplements to help the magnets work better. No, its true. Follow the link.
Ecoflow reassure us that their products work though their patented ‘Central Reverse Polarity’ technology, which is not available elsewhere. I am reminded of the famous Doctor Who line, ‘”reverse the polarity of the neutron flow”. Can you physicists reading this please stop laughing now? You are annoying the rest of us.

The company works through recruited independent sales agents who are given training in their products. One little insight is how they sell their fuel enhancer magnets. According to one report, they get their mark to see how long they can hold their hand over a gas lighter flame, with and without the magnet applied to the gas lighter. This is a fairly straightforward con. Pain is highly suggestible and as a result is very placebo responsive. Give someone the idea that a flame will hurt more than before and it will. A much more objective and easy way to demonstrate that a flame is hotter when a magnet is attached is by using a thermometer. But this company chooses Derren Brown style conjuring tricks.

As you might expect, Ecoflow has been slapped hard by the Advertising Standards Authority for its unsupported claims and sales approach.

So, why do MPs and MEPs lend their support to this charity? Maybe, if you live in their constituencies you could write to them and ask why they are wasting their parliamentary time on such matters. Maybe our politicians like dealing with frightening things that can’t be detected like harmful wi-fi rays and Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. It saves having to deal with real and pressing problems like poverty, poor education and how to organise access to health care without destroying it in continuous re-organisations.

Email addresses below:

Mr Andrew Mitchell Sutton Coldfield

Mark Oaten Winchester

Dr Ian Gibson Norwich North

Dr Caroline Lucas MEP South East

Let me know what they say.

10 Comments on Wi-Fi, Quackery and the MPs

  1. But magnetic healing products are good! And they have nothing to do with electromagnetism! Particularly that nasty bad evil electromagnetism that Big Pharma have designed mobile phones to emit (and, now that we’re wise to that ploy, wifi transmitters as well).

    You can’t fool the consumer with something as dodgy as science.

    The lighter game would be interesting if the lighter itself was hidden from view (and, hence, whether the magnet was present or not). EoR’s hypothesis: perceptions of pain with the magnet vis a vis perceptions of pain without the magnet would be no greater than chance.

  2. “So, Dr Hyland is working on the plausibility problem.”

    As well he might. Here’s a case in which he had something of a “plausibility problem”:

    Petursson & Anor v. Hutchison 3G UK Ltd.

    Sorry, can’t get the link to fit on the page (or to work as a link), but go to http://www.bailii.org/ and search for Gerard Hyland.

    At paragraph 74:

    “Dr Hyland lacked balance and impartiality in relation to his evidence in this case. He did not adopt the objective approach which a court expects from an expert witness. Dr Hyland claimed that all the expert bodies (apart from the SSI (Sweden) and Zmirou (France) reviews as to which he had no evidence) lacked honesty, independence and were economical with the truth. This is a bold and startling contention. It would, for example, cast doubt on the integrity of Sir William Stewart (who chaired the IEGMP, and who is now the Chairman of the National Radiological Protection Board) who referred in the foreword to the Stewart 1 report to “the fierce independence” of the group he chaired. I have no hesitation in rejecting Dr Hyland’s statement with respect to these eminent and expert bodies. Dr Hyland produced no evidence in support of his contention. His unjustified criticism of national and international groups reflects poorly upon himself and must be viewed in the light of his own partiality in giving evidence in this case. In his reports to this court, Dr Hyland failed to draw attention to the COST 281 Statement. That paper, dated November 2001, is titled Scientific Comment on Individual Statements of Concern About Health Hazards of Weak EMF. It was prepared by an international committee of scientists in response to a submission which Dr Hyland made to the European Parliament. It contains the following: “It is postulated by Dr Hyland that GSM radiation affects the organism. This is supported by the argument GSM ‘has rather well defined frequencies’ which can interfere with ‘a variety of oscillatory electrical biological activities, each characterised by a particular frequency, some of which happen to be close to those used in GSM’ in particular 8.34Hz and 2Hz, which ‘correspond to those found in the human EEG – especially in the ranges of the alpha and delta brain waves, respectively’. This is non-scientific argument by analogy.” The paper sets out those matters, which it says Dr Hyland has ignored, and continues “Therefore postulating that weak GSM signals would affect brain activity just because there is a similarity in the frequency components ignores well-established knowledge.”. It goes on to express strong criticism of Dr Hyland’s approach eg “not based on generally accepted scientific rules. It is of dubious scientific nature and does not reflect the view of the majority of the accepted scientific experts in the field.” This indicates strong condemnation by peers as to his own objectivity and scientific rigour.

    In cross examination, Dr Hyland was asked about evidence he had given in a case heard by Ripon and Leeds Consistory Court in March 2003. He questioned whether he should have been asked about that evidence. His concern was rather odd. He had in fact referred to it in his own reports and, in any event, his opinion expressed to that court was plainly a matter which would be of relevance and assistance to this court.”


  3. Hmm, that’s rather worrying.

    I had thought Ian Gibson was a sound sort, he used to be something high up in biology at UEA. He visited my old department a few years ago and seemed quite sane then.

    • I met Ian Gibson at a conference for Clinical Oncologists once. My impresion of him was of a very rational and well motivated man. He didn’t seem particularly sympathetic to to “alternative therapies” either.

      I was supprised to see him associated with this.

  4. I challenge those who argue that wifi is safe to produce research studies that demonstrate its health. Unfortunately, many are adversely affected by the microwave radiation emitted from wifi/ dect phones/ bluetooth devices harmful. It has been estimated that electrosensitivity affects 3% of the population.
    Many have to flee from their homes as a result of nearby phone masts, or DECT/wifi/ mobile phones from next door. That if they can afford to do so. many cannot do so. Others have lost their jobs.

    It is not the thermal [heating] effects that are the problem, as Prof. Gerard Hyland correctly stated. It is the non-thermal effects, which have been known about for decades in the scientific literature.

    The Bioinitiative Report, whose findings have been accepted by the European Parliament, found that the current ‘thermally based’ ICNIRP guidelines are obsolete and do not protect health.
    The currently permitted guidelines need to be reduced by a factor of 1000x. I suggest that you read the Bioinitiative Report in full.

    This was infact also the recommendation of a previous EU Parliament STOA report, by Prof. Gerard Hyland,years ago.

    [edited to remove cut and paste material from report]

    Le Canard Noir – I suggest that you inform yourself and actually read the research literature. The campaign groups are doing a valuable job. By the way, the German Government has recommended that citizens use wired internet connections in preference to wireless connections, where possible.

    • Hello. I am well aware of the bioinitiative report and how it was compliled by a consultancy specialising in ‘protecting’ people and businesses from the evils of EMF.

      The Dutch government came to the conclusion: “In view of the way the BioInitiative report was compiled, the selective use of scientific data and the other shortcomings mentioned above, the Committee concludes that the BioInitiative report is not an objective and balanced reflection of the current state of scientific knowledge”

      My own appraisal of it is that it is pseudoscientific nonsense.

  5. In France they are reducing the limits in certain towns:

    In her speech on the first conclusions of the Round Table, Chantal Jouanno, the new Secretary of State for Ecology, declared today in an interview that she is in favour of trying out a reduction of relay antenna emissions in certain towns to 0.6V/m (by implication in accordance with the BioInitiative consortium recommendations [petition 10 000] and the demands of the action group Robin des toits), while awaiting the results of a new study from AFFSET (French government health agency).
    26th May, 20

    Among the 10 points announced by the government are, among others, banning mobile phones in primary schools and for children under 6, and putting on the market mobiles that can only be used for SMS (thus avoiding any radiation exposure), as well as models without a loudspeaker, which require the use of an earpiece..

    A step in the right direction.

    The fact is that people are being damaged by the pulsed microwave radiation [and/or the low frequencies in them] and this is happening across Europe.

    In 2007, a group of GPs in Oberammergau complained about the number of patients who became ill following the upgrading of a T-Mobile phone mast. The power output remained the same but a local building biologist observed a new’tack, tack’ noise from his equipment.

    It was eventually discovered found that T-Mobile had added a 8.34 Hz signal to their emissions. It was only after the mobile operator was forced to remove the 8.34 Hz signal that the majority of patients improved, according to the local doctors.
    It is hardly surprising that adverse effects occur with low frequencies in the area used by the brain. We know this happens from research.

    The problem is that the ICNIRP guidelines were set by engineers and not by doctors/physiologists with expertise in treating patients who are affected by the radiation.

    If you look at the WHO and PubMed data bases you will find that the majority of studies carried out at mobile phone base stations DO show adverse effects.

    The Bioinitiative Report -Pseudoscientific nonsense it is not.
    Biologically based limits are needed.
    For everyones sake – including yours.

    • The fact that some European politicians are being fooled by the Bioinitiative Report is great cause for concern. The one thing that this report is not is an independent review of the evidence. It is clearly partisan, biased and unreliable, as reviews of the report have fully pointed out. The report is written by people who stand to gain from a scare about EMF and health fears.

      Perhaps, North, you would like to declare what interest, if any, you have in the report or other area?

  6. I suggest you look at some of the results of the studies in the Bioinitiatoive report, particularly the ones that demonstrate biological effects caused through non thernmal mechanisms. You may want to call is quackery because it doesn’t fit your preconcieved world view, just like attitudes to people 500 years ago saying the earth was round. No, people aren’t being fooled by the Bioinitiative report. People are however being fooled by the mobile phone industry who have billions of pounds to spend on ‘altering the public mindset’ on this issue. Read the science and consider where the money is coming from. It might actually open your mind.

  7. I wonder if and when humanity will ever be free of nasty condescending individuals puffed up with their own narrow highly intellectual and supercilious expertise who see fit to ridicule others ‘ experience and perceptions and suffering just because it doesn’t fit in with their own arrogant assumptions or within the extremely narrow compass of their own imaginations and ability to empathise and find compassion . The write of this wifi and quackery post should be ashamed of himself : if he had any real humanity he would be.

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