PR, Radiation And Bad Science
Journalist: Stewart Fist
July 25, 2000
This is the Information Age. Right? And Australia is the Lucky Country, the Smart Country, or the Knowledge Nation, depending on which academic, lobbyist or politician you talk to.
Meanwhile, Kim Beazley’s Labor Party has put out to pasture the only science minister we’ve had in the past century who understood what the term Information Age implies.
But don’t worry, we are governed by a Liberal Coalition, not a dumbed-down Labor Party.
And, as Gerald Henderson (former John Howard minder) has revealed, anyone in the Liberal Party who has read more than one book is considered an intellectual.
So all is right with the world.
Yet despite all this political IQ, according to the experts we lag behind the US in developing computer and communications technologies, and have done so for a number of years.
We also lag behind the US in high-tech training techniques and information technology in schools.
In fact, the experts appear to be saying that unless Australia gets off its backside and invests much more in electronic technology for business and education, our casual way of life will slowly disappear and we’ll sink below the global intellectual horizon.
We might even become a Third World country just mining rocks, growing cheap wheat and nurturing hamburger cattle for a living.
That appears to be the common view, anyway.
Fortunately, we have some US reports to correct that perception – or rather, to modify it in some respects.
The US National Science Foundation (NSF) released a report last month called Science and Engineering Indicators, 2000 (www.nsf.gov/sbe/srs/seind00) that gives us a 480-page glimpse of how the US has achieved success in science and technology over the past 50 years.
It is well worth reading, because it provides an excellent overview of how seriously US politicians treat science and technology issues.
Since Nixon’s time the presidents have established special advisory offices within the White House to ensure that information flows quickly to the top decision makers regardless of which party is in power.
Australia takes the other view.
Our prime ministers and PM hopefuls either ignore science completely or sideline the science minister to the sop job of party president, then push them out over some factional squabble.
Australians tend to think of America as an extreme model of laissez-faire 6.00-market capitalism, and Australia as tending towards a welfare state.
But when it comes to science, technology and R&D, the US is pretty much the world leader in socialistic practices and industry subsidies – when measured in federal budget terms, anyway.
The NSF report concentrates on the past 20 years of digitisation and high-tech development.
In highlighting the benefits, it also throws some doubt on the value of us using all of this high-tech stuff in basic education, to say the least.
It includes a rather depressing survey of American public understanding of science and technology issues. Given their propensity for religious fundamentalism, you might be surprised to learn that more than 70 per cent of North Americans know that the Sun is at the centre of the solar system, rather than the Earth.
Sci-fi television series and documentaries such as The Planets obviously have more effect than itinerant Bible bashers.
And apparently the recent television dinosaur animation shows have also managed to get over the message that humans and dinosaurs never coexisted.
These are major achievements, you must admit. They point to the intellectual benefits of universal primary education via television, and in particular, of animated documentaries put out by the BBC and NASA. By comparison, what has the internet achieved? Only 16 per cent of Americans could even roughly define the internet – up from 11 per cent five years ago.
Yet 30 per cent of Americans are supposed to use it.
The figure that disturbed me most was that only 20 per cent of those surveyed had any real notion of what was meant by studying something scientifically.
They apparently had only the vaguest notion about the need for a systematic approach to determining questions of fact, about the value of statistical analysis, and about the need to provide estimates of precision and to be consistent.
Actually it shouldn’t surprise me, because most Australian journalists fall into the same category – as do a lot of our scientists.
In last Wednesday’s Sydney Morning Herald, for instance, there’s a story about the US Cellular Telephone Industry Association (CTIA) establishing guidelines for the supply of SAR (Specific Absorption Rate) values for cell phone handsets.
The SAR indicates how much energy is absorbed by the head.
The manufacturers won’t be required to actually print the information or supply it as a label, or put it on the box.
They will just point you to a site that will carry the information, so you’ll know – after you’ve signed up for some carrier plan and been given a 6.00 handset – what level of EMF inundation your brain will be subject to for the next few years.
The CTIA is trying to forestall the FCC (US regulator), which intends to follow the UK lead in insisting on informative labels on radiating devices.
The FCC already has some SAR details on its website, but you need to extract your handset battery and check the ID number to match it to the SAR list.
The SMH report says: “The Stewart inquiry into mobile phones, funded by the British Government and released in May, found there was no scientific evidence that mobile phones were a health risk.” No, it did not! It merely found that the evidence wasn’t strong enough to be considered conclusive proof of harm.
That’s vastly different to finding no scientific evidence.
And if a journalist writing about such matters regularly doesn’t understand the distinction, what right have we and the scientists to criticise the general population?
At my website www.electric-words.com I’ve accumulated scientific abstracts of biological RF research done by Motorola, the CTIA’s own Wireless Technology Research (WTR) project, and by independent university researchers in the US, UK and Europe.
There are a few hundred abstracts online now, and I receive two or three new ones every week from researchers around the world.
About 60 per cent of them show some biological effect attributable to cell phone-type radiation.
About half of these show changes taking place at the cell function level that most scientists and intelligent laymen would consider worrying in their implications and suggesting the need for further study.
Most journalists also fail to understand the basic precautions that are appropriate when examining specific scientific evidence of this kind.
Not all research outcomes have the same potential to do harm, so the level of danger should be taken into account when determining the significance of findings.
If something is likely to producing dental caries, it should be much lower on the risk-benefit/research agenda than something that is likely to produce brain tumours.
So, both the research and the reporting of such findings deserve more serious treatment.
Unfortunately, scientists are also entrepreneurs these days, and they often wear two hats; legitimate scientist, and PR agent. They must please the corporations that fund research.
The classic case was the Adelaide Hospital research using GSM phone exposures and 200 transgenic mice.
After 18 months exposure to GSM phone radiation levels, they found the propensity of the exposed mice to develop lymphoma increased 2.4 times against the unexposed, base-line controls.
If chocolate biscuits had been tested and found to produce the same statistical result, chocolate would have disappeared from supermarket shelves overnight.
But because radiation is invisible, our communications minister just made fun of the findings and ignored them.
The scientists themselves pointed out that we should not take isolated findings as proof, and suggested their research needed replication.
That was the scientist with the scientific hat speaking.
At the same time the same scientists also also did a parallel study with 500 of the same mice, exposing them to various levels of power-line magnetic fields.
They didn’t find any change in lymphoma rates (which makes the R/F study appear more significant), but they did discover a dose-related kidney disease problem.
The higher the exposure, the more mice died from kidney problems – and there were five levels of exposure with 100 mice in each.
This was not an insignificant finding in such a large number of mice, and it was totally unexpected.
The question is – which hat were the scientists wearing when they appeared on television explaining that their research proved power lines to be safe? Why was one outcome an isolated finding not to be treated seriously, while the other isolated finding (with complications) was proof of safety? And which hat were they wearing when they failed to explain that the R/F related lymphoma findings weren’t isolated: they were just not replicated?