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"Second Guardian journalist joins orchestrated attack on Panorama

Response 2 from the Panorama Extra story from May 2007


Posted by walter on June 1, 2007, 5:22 pm

A well put together May 21 Panorama programme warned of possible risks from Wi-fi in schools - based on previous official warnings about masts near schools and a measured comparison carried out on the programme between exposures from Wi-fi and those from masts. The official whose report said mobiles and masts were safe now has doubts and says the fears about Wi-fi could be justified. And several independent experts pointed out that the health fears were supported by hundreds/thousands of studies which noted biological and health effects at lo levels of microwaves.

I posted here (Response 1) that a mischievous and silly notion was put out the day of the programme (with no evident justification, and without seeing the programme), that a deliberately misleading comparison was being made. It was made by James Randerson of the Guardian, who abandoned the claim after the programme was shown. Nevertheless the bogus claim had been picked up by many in the online comments space, many of whom seemed to mail the BBC to complain. How could Panorama be so ignorant of the basic laws of physics, they said, perhaps not having seen the programme, or perhaps not caring that the smear was nonsense.

A second Guardian columnist joined in the orchestrated attack - Ben Goldacre who writes the Guardian's Bad Science column and related website badscience.net. Whereas Mr Randerson's attack was a bogus criticism of the methodology, Ben Goldacre opened up new fronts with a collection of smears and hyperbole.

The biggest smear was against Powerwatch, the company who took the measurement - even though the measurement was not in dispute. In the programme Panorama explained Powerwatch were a pressure group and that its director Alasdair Philips has good technical credentials. According to Goldacre, Powerwatch was obviously trying to scare everyone into buying monitors for measuring microwaves and expensive devices for screening against them. [Why Panorama would go along with this is not explained]. This red-herring was pursued and developed with great vigour, as if it was the central issue.

Goldacre is an entertaining writer. Add a little embroidery and the story is told with wonderful aplomb. The children were saved from this evil scheme in the nick of time by a teacher who, like Ben, is against Bad Science and managed to spot the ploy, Google the engineer's website and explain the deception to the kids while Panorama were in the school.

It makes great reading. "When the children saw Alasdair's Powerwatch website, they were outraged. Panorama were calmly expelled from the school... because of the Bad Science" etc

This 'shooting the measurer' conveniently distracts from the evidence. In the programme, 3 respected researchers explained there was quite a consistent picture developing of biological effects and illnesses from low-level microwaves, and how they could develop. They mentioned hundreds of studies reporting biological and health effects from low-level microwaves.

The existence of these quite accessible studies is an uncontroversial fact. This should have cued a rush in the media to examine the studies and speculate and get opinions on the implications.

What does Goldacre say about this evidence? Time to smear the researchers. A quote was fished out saying that Olle Johansson, a professor with dozens of research papers, was voted the 'Misleader of the year' in Sweden. Nuff said. No need to consider the evidence, then. In fact, this quote was so good there seemed no need even to smear the other researchers who said the same as Johansson. The standard of Smear isn't what it used to be.

Later Goldacre decries the programme for not presenting the evidence for us to discuss. But he does not discuss it himself.

Goldacre is a medical doctor who works full time in the NHS. He has replied briefly to my emails but as yet furnished no answers, either to my whining about his smears and hyperbole (don't blame him, difficult one to admit) nor to my questions about the studies suggesting health risks.