Saturday, 12 March 2011

Human Technology Versus Human Nature

Fear about mobile phone masts, power cables, and communications equipment in general is generally misguided, but, perpetuated by sensationalist newspapers, and occasionally by mass hysteria. Partially as a result of these fears, scientists have investigated the effects of electromagnetic radiation in great depth. EMF radiation connects all forms of radiation - X-Rays, ultraviolet rays, gamma radiation, radio waves, microwaves: these all have different frequency ranges, and scientists have studied the effects of all of them on living things. Over 25,000 articles have been published in the last 30 years and no risks have been found to result from exposure to fields associated with everyday human technology. Major scientific bodies including the World Health Organisation, the eu, and the American fda and cdc have all come to similar conclusions.
We know exactly which areas of the electromagnetic spectrum are harmful (ultraviolet rays, gamma radiation, extended exposure to x-rays), and much of the rest of it is safe and has no effect on our health. The energy in the photons that make up a mobile phone's (and mast's) radiation is a million times lower than the radiation you are bathed in from natural yellow light from the sun, and, are also much less likely to interact with anything in your body. Ultraviolet rays from the sun cause skin disease as they are absorbed, but, mobile signals travel through walls and everything else, so do not get absorbed by the body - and when they do get absorbed, the energy is still 1 000 000 times lower than the energy of yellow light.2
A continuous fear of something, or expectation that it is bad, can cause symptoms that are called 'psychosomatic' because they are caused by the mind. Such symptoms most prominently include headaches, nausea and rashes. These are also the most common symptoms suffered by those who believe that radio masts, mobile phones, etc, are causing them harm1.Neophobia is an additional psychological factor that comes into play, where people fear new technology. Evidence for neophobia is that people protest against putting mobile phone masts near schools (which is safe) but happily take their children to a beach under the sun (where ultraviolet rays cause skin cancers). Scientific reassurances don't tend to work with some people, because they lack understanding of the underlying physics. The best cure for psychosomatic illnesses andneophobia is education and understanding, a process that is unfortunately hindered by sensationalist papers and general scientific ignorance.


These links contain further discussions on some of the concepts alluded to above:
  • "Psychosomosis: Curing and Causing Disease with the Mind" by Vexen Crabtree (2008)
  • "General Neophobia in Everyday Life: Humankind's Fear of Progress and Change" by Vexen Crabtree (2009)

1.2. The Popcorn Hoax and Other Products: Profiting From Scares

These negative feelings are not only the result of mass hysteria, neophobia or other subconscious patterns. Sometimes they are the result of public relations campaigns and politics. An article in the Skeptical Inquirer traced the history of a few hoaxes concerning mobile phones:
In June 2009 a new urban legend was born - that the power generated by cell phones can cook popcorn. A series of videos on YouTube appeared to show four users popping a table full of corn kernels simply by points their ringing phones at them. [...] The media has been reporting for years on alleged links between cell-phone usage and brain tumors, and alarmist headlines continue to excite the public regardless of the facts. As far back as 2000, spoof videos were being created of eggs being cooked by cell-phone power. The creator of the first of these, electronics expert Charlie Ivermee, created his video to poke fun at media scare stories but was surprised when it was taken seriously. [...]
So who would benefit from pandering to public concerns? [...] The brains behind the popcorn video had another motive: profit. Cardo Systems describe themselves as "an established world leader in the field of wireless Bluetooth communications." In other words, they make the wireless headsets that help you avoid putting your mobile phone to your ear. [... The creative team at Cardo] exploited existing concerns about cell-phone radiation and made them legend. [...] Cardo claims that traffic to its Web site doubled in the days the videos were active. [...] For those wondering, the secret of the video is mundane. Popped kernels were dropped onto the table as the phones rang, and the unpopped kernels were simply edited out. [...] Viewers may have their own motives for purchasing a headset, but if reducing cancer risk is one of them they should perhaps consider themselves misled.
Tracy King (2009)3
A whole host of weird and wonderful products always manifests itself around irrationality, and mobile-phone-radiation fear is no exception. Because the symptoms are caused by the mind rather than by reality, 'cures' that work simply by reassuring the user that they are protected tend to work to reduce and remove those symptoms. Tricks of the mind can cure tricks of the mind, but the result is that quack remedies often have followers who go around telling everyone else that some ridiculous product actually works.
A growing industry of fraud artists is taking advantage of the fact that many of the supposed symptoms of EMF appear to be psychosomatic. They are offering a broad variety of quack remedies that will absorb "harmful" EMF or otherwise shield the user. These products range from pendants worn around the neck to a patented $727.50 "i-H2O activator" that "structures all the water you use."
Lorne Trottier article "EMF and Health: A Growing Hysteria" in Skeptical Inquirer (2009)1
The industry is fuelled by confusion and irrational fear, but, the existence of these gadgets furthers public concern. Some of the producers might also think their own gadgets work, but it would be better for all if industries such as these shut-up shop. The surest way to achieve this aim is to educate people about the futility of their products, and educate people more on the physics of electromagnetic radiation, and of course, improve sceptical thinking in general.

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