Putting the EMFasis Back on the Scientific Consenus

By now, I’m sure most of you have caught Steve’s piece last week on the Ontario wifi debate.  It turned out to be quite the tempest in a teapot, driving about 10x the traffic of the average post on Skeptic North, and generating dozens of comments, including one from Rodney Palmer himself.

One comment in particular struck me though.  Commenter Curtis Bennett asked “Steve, what part of your technical education are you using to qualify or disqualify anyone?” before proceeding to deliver a lengthy technical discussion of the alleged failings of Canada’s Safety Code 6, which regulates radiofrequency exposure.  From his website, Mr. Bennett seems to be a thermo-electical consultant in BC, and presents himself as an expert.

Now I’ll admit that when I read that comment, my initial reaction was, is it possible I could have been wrong all along? After all, I was an English major in university, and although I work in technology today, it’s in a field very far from electrical engineering.  Plus, I’m in sales, which is enough to tell you that I have domain expertise in precisely nothing.  So where do I get off doubting the words of someone who seems to do this for a living?  Indeed, how is any layperson to form an opinion about such a highly technical subject, and if we can’t, how do we make decisions for ourselves and our families?

Epistem-off and he left
This is about more than just wifi of course — it’s a general epistemological problem we encounter in trying to derive knowledge from science.  Science always leaves open the possibility that new data will be uncovered that changes an answer we’d previously relied on — it doesn’t provide the certainty we humans crave. Yet consider the words of  Bertrand Russell in his essay, On the Value of Skepticism.

There are matters about which those who have investigated them are agreed; the dates of eclipses may serve as an illustration. There are other matters about which experts are not agreed. Even when the experts all agree, they may well be mistaken. Einstein’s view as to the magnitude of the deflection of light by gravitation would have been rejected by all experts not many years ago, yet it proved to be right. Nevertheless the opinion of experts, when it is unanimous, must be accepted by non-experts as more likely to be right than the opposite opinion. The scepticism that I advocate amounts only to this: (1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment.

At the risk of diminishing the beauty of Russell’s compact prose, let me break this down further:

  1. Science does not give us certainty.  It trades in probability and confidence intervals.  Which makes it the worst system of knowledge generation ever, except for all the others.
  2. Science is hard and highly specialized.  It operates beyond the domain and limitations of simple common sense.  This is good for scientists, who have the right tools, but bad for laypeople, whose only tool is common sense.
  3. Luckily for the layperson, consensus often emerges among scientists.  When it does, it’s wholly unreasonable to second guess it.  It’s natural to want to do so, because there will still be questions and uncertainties (see #1), but we must resist the urge because we’re not properly equipped (see #2).
  4. Luckily again, scientists are properly equipped, and there will always be some of them challenging the consensus.  Often, they turn out to be quixotic zealots committed to their position no matter what the science says, and are rightly ignored by their colleagues.  But sometimes, they uncover something that their colleagues missed, and successfully change the consensus.  Yay progress.
  5. In the meantime, we must treat the current consensus as truth because it’s the best answer we have.  That means ignoring those zealots, no matter how shrill or persistent.

Russell goes on to say that, “These propositions may seem mild, yet, if accepted, they would absolutely revolutionize human life.”  No argument from me.

4 out of 4.000001 EMF Experts Agree

So back to the matter at hand — is there a scientific consensus on EMF (power line, wifi, cell phone, etc.) safety that we as laypeople can rely on for decision making?  You bet there is, and here’s a very small sampling of it:

World Health Organization

“In the area of biological effects and medical applications of non-ionizing radiation approximately 25,000 articles have been published over the past 30 years. Despite the feeling of some people that more research needs to be done, scientific knowledge in this area is now more extensive than for most chemicals. Based on a recent in-depth review of the scientific literature, the WHO concluded that current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields.” [Source]

“To date, no adverse health effects have been established for mobile phone use.” [Source]

Health Canada

“Based on scientific evidence, Health Canada has determined that exposure to low-level radiofrequency energy, such as that from Wi-Fi equipment, is not dangerous to the public.” [Source]

“The weight of evidence from animal, cell culture and human studies does not indicate that the energy emitted by cell phones is strong enough to cause serious health effects.” [Source]

“There is no conclusive evidence of any harm caused by exposures at levels found in Canadian homes and schools, including those located just outside the boundaries of power line corridors.” [Source]

“There is no scientific evidence that the symptoms attributed to [Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity Syndrome] are actually caused by exposure to EMFs.” [Source]

European Commission: Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks

“The update considered more than 200 new scientific papers yet the conclusions differ little from the earlier opinion. Based on current evidence the main conclusions remain that radio frequency fields used in wireless communication technologies are unlikely to lead to an increase in cancer in the human population at large.” [Source]

US Food & Drug Administration

Over the past 15 years, scientists have conducted hundreds of studies looking at the biological effects of the radiofrequency energy emitted by cell phones. While some researchers have reported biological changes associated with RF energy, these studies have failed to be replicated. The majority of studies published have failed to show an association between exposure to radiofrequency from a cell phone and health problems.” [Source]

US Center for Disease Control

“In the last 10 years, hundreds of new research studies have been done to more directly study possible effects of cell phone use. Although some studies have raised concerns, the scientific research, when taken together, does not indicate a significant association between cell phone use and health effects.” [Source]

US National Cancer Institute

“Currently, researchers conclude that there is limited evidence that magnetic fields from power lines cause childhood leukemia, and that there is inadequate evidence that these magnetic fields cause other cancers in children. Researchers have not found a consistent relationship between magnetic fields from power lines or appliances and childhood brain tumors.”  [Source]

“We now have studies covering up to 10 years of cell phone usage, and we’re still not seeing any convincing evidence of an increased brain cancer risk.” [Source]

The American Cancer Society

“non-ionizing radiation has not been established as being able to cause cancer.” [Source]

Canadian Cancer Society

“Over the past 25 years, there have been more than 100 studies published on the relationship between exposure to electric and magnetic fields (EMF) and cancer risk.  Researchers haven’t found a conclusive relationship between exposure to EMF (at levels normally found at work, home or in the environment).” [Source]

“Most scientific research done so far (from the INTERPHONE study and other research groups) does not show a link between cell phone use and cancer.” [Source]

UK National Radiological Protection Board

“It is concluded that currently the results of these studies on EMF’s and health, taken individually or as collectively reviewed by expert groups are insufficient…to make a conclusive judgment on causality.”  [Source]

UK Institution of Engineering and Technology

“the absence of robust new evidence of harmful effects of EMFs in the past two years is reassuring and is consistent with findings over the past decade.” [Source]

Health Council of the Netherlands – Electromagnetic Fields Committee

“there is no scientific evidence that exposure to environmental levels of radiofrequency electromagnetic
fields causes health problems.” [Source]

French Environmental Health and Safety Agency

«Au vu de l’analyse détaillée et critique des travaux effectuée par le groupe de travail, et compte tenu par ailleurs de l’état antérieur des connaissances, aucune preuve convaincante d’un effet biologique particulier des radiofréquences n’est apportée pour des niveaux d’exposition non thermiques, dans les conditions expérimentales testées.» [Source] [Google Translation]

French National Academy of Medicine

«Les antennes de téléphonie mobile entraînent une exposition aux champs électromagnétiques 100 à 100.000 fois plus faible que les téléphones portables…   On ne connaît aucun mécanisme par lequel les champs électromagnétiques dans cette gamme d’énergie et de fréquence pourraient avoir un effet négatif sur la santé.» [Source] [Google Translation]

«A ce jour, aucun système sensoriel humain permettant de percevoir ce type de champ n’a été identifié. C’est pourquoi la quasi-totalité des études sur l’électro-hypersensibilité ont montré que les sujets concernés, bien que manifestant des troubles variés en présence de dispositifs émetteurs de champs électromagnétiques, sont incapables de reconnaître si ces dispositifs sont actifs ou non.» [Source] [Google Translation]

Nordic Radiation Safety Authorities (Joint)

“The Nordic authorities agree that there is no scientific evidence for adverse health effects caused by radiofrequency field strengths in the normal living environment at present.”  [Source]

Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency

“The weight of national and international scientific opinion is that there is no substantiated evidence that exposure to low level RF EME causes adverse health effects.” [Source]

“There is no clear evidence in the existing scientific literature that the use of mobile telephones poses a long-term public health hazard.”  [Source]

“No adverse health effects are expected from continuous exposure to the RF radiation emitted by the antennas on mobile telephone base station towers.” [Source]

But What About the Children?

I don’t know what’s causing the health complaints of the children in Meaford and Barrie.  But I do know that the overwhelming body of evidence rules out wifi and other forms of EMF radiation.  There is indeed a strong consensus, and as Russell points out, it is unreasonable for a layperson to do anything but accept that consensus.

Mr. Bennet, however, is not a layperson, and the opportunity to try to change the consensus lies with him.  Certainly Trent University’s Magda Havas, the main expert behind the current wifi debate, seems to have such an aim.  She’s been trying to convince the world about the dangers of EMF since the 1990′s.  Time will tell if her work is being unfairly ignored, or if she’s become one of those Quixote-like creatures I describe above, who let their belief trump the body of evidence.  (Or maybe that question has been answered already).

In the meantime, I’ll side with Russell and the scientific consensus.  Keep surfin’ kids!

13 Responses to “Putting the EMFasis Back on the Scientific Consenus”

  1. Kennedy says:

    Erik,
    Excellent.
    Above and beyond this specific debate, the extensive catalogue of items evidencing the consensus opinion serves as a great example that can be used (and I shall) time and again to show the opponents of reason precisely the depth and extent to which the challenge “where/what is your evidence” is aiming for.
    I expect the people we argue with will still fail to produce better examples than “my friend heard about this guy…” or in the best case “there is a study (always singular) out of (a peat shack in the woods of) Belgium….” But at least with this easy-for-a-layman-to-grok example to cut and paste, they will be doing so with demonstrable neglect to what is being requested.

  2. John Greg says:

    Are Palmer and Bennet still lurking out there somewhere in their respective cthonic shades?

    I thought things were shaping up for a really entertaining skeptic slap-down, i.e., skeptics slapping down their silly palaver, over in that other thread, but it never came about. Pooh, pooh.

    Seriously though, perhaps I’ve missed or overlooked something. Other than his say so about his bonefides, and his endless wandering bafflegab, has Bennet actually supplied any kind of evidence to not only support his “sciencie” claims but to also confirm he is who he claims to be?

    • As a matter of fact, I supplied the evidence as a witness for Canadian Parliament’s Standing Committee on Health related to emf exposure to humans.

      My submission to the committee was based on existing and educated science as a qualified professional, otherwise I would leave it for the professionals. The oversight reported in Safety Code 6 is an oversight for all of the studies you mentioned here if they didn’t compare radio frequency to biologic frequency. Health Canada and the others didn’t know cause so they determined a “safe” heat load to radiate people.

      As I reported to the House Committee, it is Health Canada’s Saftey Code 6 that substantiates the removal of Wi Fi from schools because of the oversight in not considering humans to be electrical. In contacting several professionals including Health Canada, they didn’t consider biologic tissue to be electrical.

      It is very hard to imagine that the frequency conflict was never addressed, it is in the symptoms and is supposed to be avoided according to Safety Code 6.

      Here is a link to another study with links to others showing damage and Health Canada still maintains the politics that there isn’t any science to substantiate it but that isn’t true. The oversight has been represented. http://www.cbc.ca/consumer/story/2010/11/05/con-cell-radiation.html

      Contact provincial electrical standards and ask what happens when you mix frequencies? Especially when one isn’t protected like a coaxial cable would be.

      The oversight in Safety Code 6 on RF interaction with humans will be lectured in medical education in the US in 60 days where doctors and other health professionals get education credits they need for licensing. It will be substantiated education, not opinion.

      I work for a first response consulting company where we only bring science to many professionals so they can see their objectives. We do not dilute our science opinions because it inconveniences anyone.

      The science has changed now that causation is known.

      • Curtis, I am intrigued by your statement that biological tissue is never considered to be electrical – can you provide some textbook references or some original physiological data to illustrate your point? I am not quite clear on your idea. I need to see data about microwaves at the 2.4 gHz range in at 0.1 mW of power. We at CFI have an advisor that has indeed done studies on tissue with EM fields at very high gauss, but the power levels of microwaves for communication are much lower and well beneath this threshold – but I am very curious as to your evidence and ready to change my opinion!

        cheers
        michael kruse

      • Art Tricque says:

        The CBC story reports on a supposedly new Levitt study … that simply summarizes a lot of old research: nothing new at all. Methinks comparing electrical standards and the human body is also a trifle simplistic.

        And continuing education credits are hardly scrutinized science like that in respected journal articles, so less than hard evidence there too. Perhaps Mr Bennett can tell us which firm is offering these courses, and to which institutions / doctor organizations? I would be glad to enlighten them as to how unworthy of their time such a course would be.

  3. Erik,

    A fine follow-up.

    For some insight into why people doubt the science of EMF, allow me to quote my aging, superstitious mother-in-law: “Electromagnetism is invisible, so whatever scientists think is still just a guess because they can’t really know because it can’t be seen. It’s all just abstract theory.”

    Indeed, it is just a theory…and as Dr. Banjo says, “just like gravity or the shape of the Earth.”

    At any rate, to the innumerate invisible == magical/mysterious/unknowable.

    Yours,
    CBB

  4. Mary P says:

    @ Curtis Bennett
    What are your qualifications? I have also looked at Thermografix Consulting Corp which I think is your website but I do not see anything there about qualifications either. You state you are a professional in the field and have given evidence before a Parliament committee but that is something I could do as a non expert but as an interested party. Could you please provide more information.

  5. deever says:

    I did not bother commenting at Thoms’ foolish piece, I already dealt with him at his Post one, I think it was (they published four (useless) topical hit pieces — telling, isn’t it?). But you are backing him up?

    You’d do better to consult one of Russell’s mentors, who witnessed close up the last great age of unshakable scientific (& political) certainties, only to see it shaken, and who went on to philosophical work of enormous and still growing value. A quote from A.N. Whitehead :
    ……..
    It is easy enough to find a theory, logically harmonious and with important applications in the region of fact, provided that you are content to disregard half your evidence. Every age produces people with clear logical intellects, and the most praiseworthy grasp of the importance of some sphere of human experience, who have elaborated, or inherited, a scheme of thought which exactly fits those experiences which claim their interest. Such people are apt resolutely to ignore, or to explain away, all evidence which confuses their scheme with contradictory instances. What they cannot fit in is for them nonsense. An unflinching determination to take the whole evidence into account is the only method of preservation against the fluctuating extremes of fashionable opinion. This advice seems so easy, and is in fact so difficult to follow.
    ……..

    Why does the bringer of Russell not go to the words of dissenting scientists themselves? When someone like Devra Davis even, in her creditable new, Disconnect, reveals fraud behind standards protected by the authorities, it’s time to reconsider just who are one’s experts.

    Martin Blank testified before your House of Commons Standing Committee on Health on Oct 28 (but see esp. the Apr 27 & 29 records for much much more),”you get the occasional report going around from a few committees of mainly politician-scientists, as opposed to active scientists”.

    I have challenged this Bennett fellow on other grounds myself, strange you were taken by what he said. He has not responded to my challenge as to the usefulness of what he claims to offer. He somehow had himself invited to that HESA meeting on Oct 28 as well, adding nothing really of interest, as far as I can tell. I’m suspicious. Maybe in a way totally unexpected to you, we can clarify his position…eh, Curtis?

    But let your pal, Thoms, debate me here, you join in, too. We’ll see who has looked at what evidence & which authorities, & the basis of just reliance on either.

    • Erik Davis says:

      I think the point I made (or at least intended to make) was that I’m not qualified to debate the issue…which is why I rely on the consensus. It may prove to be wrong in the end, but it’s got a much better chance of being right than the alternative…and reasonable people should take those odds.

      • deever says:

        Mot so, Erik, you cannot do “risk analysis” when basic elements are not assessed properly. Fraud is being called. Look into it. Cover-up is being called. Look into that. I am a layperson. I have witnessed the effect of the lies & omissions up close, in dire health effects. I have since heard of umpteen more sufferers. I have seen enough of the dissenting science, anyone who can read well enough can make out the contours and pass judgement. Most people coming to this with a hunch that info about something bad is being withheld or not properly investigated, speak of precaution. From the vantage point of researched onlookers, it is way past the point of precaution. Paul Brodeur way back in 1977 created a public furor with his heroic journalism on these issues. What a far cry from mainstream journalism today, what with pieces by Thoms et al. Did you eg read the Levitt & Lai paper CBC reported on? It’s not hard to read. It is not possible that a reasonable person, even without firsthand experience many have had with great suffering obviously attributable to or contributed to by (esp. latter-day) wireless mania, can come away from yet another report about the dangers (there re cell masts, akin to wifi) coupled with spelled out accusations of fraud & cover-up; it’s incumbent on a citizen to delve into him/herself, not to accept what you list above. You are presumably a capable critical reader, English major and all, it should be easy for you to pick through your quotes above to see weak spots as well.

  6. Sandra says:

    While I do not want to get into the depth of this, this website is turning out to be quite interesting.

    I have a problem with people relieving themselves of the need to make **ethical decisions** and fully trusting the experts and concensus too much.

    Modern medicine ran into up this lane over a decade ago when doctors were telling their patients just to trust them, not to think for themselves. Pharmacy companies are an excellent example — these guys fund many research projects showing how their products are an absolute necessity. Now go argue…
    Pharma companies sold millions of swine-virus injections last year — making a good profit — and convinced everyone this was an absolute necessity and good science. Was it? I don’t know, but it’s legitimate to ask.

    Go further – Nazis were telling their “folk” that Eugenics is the scientific and logical solution to all their problems — their science showed that getting rid of the diseased, imbecile, even German wounded soldiers, was the “correct” way to fix society — not to speak of Jews… and Nazi Public health was truly the leading in the world!

    Whenever people are convinced to shut up because “who are you to make a decision” — beware…

    Another example –somewhat brutal –from a different field:
    and again, I only speak of things I have read. there are many more theoretical examples ( was there time…)
    Using Bertrand Russel’s name, a committee from argentina or Spain, I don’t exactly remember, has put out a learned Resolution declaring that Sinhalese in Sri Lanka committed totally murderous crimes against against Tamils —
    But if you look into what the Tamils themselves did to Sinhalese and others over 35 years, you will discover that in the name of “homeland”/Eelam, Tamil “tigers” regularly recruited 10 and 11 year-olds to their ranks under threats to entire families, that they may have invented the suicide bomb, that they gave arsenic pills to all their fighters and sent them ruthlessly out to kill themselves, that they brutally butchered many many people including buddhist priests, sinhalese, sometimes even their own tamils, everyone, they regualarly assassinated tens of political leaders — in short, they were far from saints.

    So who is right? Must the layman agree with these “experts” who checked out the facts on the battle in Sri Lanka??
    Were Germans in 1939 right or wrong in following their expert leaders blindly? or in retrospect, were crimes committed there?

    My view is that any system which says to people “I know best because I am an expert, and therefore you may not criticize me” — may be potentially misleading… and potentially unethical.

    • Erik Davis says:

      Nazis and Tamils and Jews, oh my!

      Sandra, I didn’t suggest one should trust anyone who happens to hold a position of power, as most of your examples illustrate. What I suggested was that in highly technical fields, ones that require years of education and training — and specifically, in electrical engineering — that someone without such training is not qualified to dispute the experts when the vast majority of them agree. Which is not to say that consensus opinion is unassailable, only that attempts to change the consensus should come from people with the training and background to do it.

      Magda Havas has that training, she has a position of authority, is eloquent and media savvy. She’s in a perfect position to change the consensus, and has been trying to do so for 20 years. I’m asking you to consider that there might just be a reason she hasn’t succeeded, one that has nothing to do with protecting Nokia’s bottom line.

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  • Erik Davis

    Erik is a technology professional based in Toronto, focused on the intersection of the internet and the traditional media and telecommunications sectors. A reluctant blogger, he was inspired by the great work Skeptic North has done to combat misinformation and shoddy science reporting in the Canadian media, and in the public at large. Erik has a particular interest in critical reasoning, and in understanding why there’s so little of it in the public discourse. You can follow Erik's occasional 140 character musings @erikjdavis