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"Email to Ben Goldacre, and reply"

Response 3 from the Panorama Extra story from May 2007


Posted by walter on June 1, 2007, 5:33 pm

Dear Dr Goldacre

I am puzzled at the slant taken in your often amusing Bad Science column on Saturday. The Stewart report did warn about potential risks from phone masts near schools. As Panorama was asking a legitimate, related question about potential Wi-fi risks, I hope you can spare a few minutes to shed some light on your thinking.

In denigrating the Panorama programme, your column contained no science that was good or bad, nor any real criticisms of any science. Yet, two professors on the programme referred to hundreds of studies that suggest mobiles and other sources of low-level microwaves cause biological effects or even illnesses.

1) As a medical doctor, do you not agree that the 'claim' of biological effects/illnesses from mobiles/masts is a serious one? Why was the evidence they mentioned not the focus of your column, rather than an attack on the integrity of those who merely took the measurements - an attack you more or less admit is a smear?

(A small part of this evidence is given for your perusal at the end. Is it Bad Science?)

You excuse your colourful attack on Powerwatch by saying: "I don't do smear. But Panorama started it."

But didn't you write similar stuff about Powerwatch a year ago?

"Powerwatch might be your first step: ....When you got to their website, you'd pay £28 to sister organisation "EMFields", run from the same address, to get full access to their vast array of complex scientific material. This might lead you to believe in the need to shield your house out. Luckily they can help you there too.

... But I do think we're spotting a theme here: the people selling us the idea that we have a medical problem often, at the same time, seem to be selling the solution...." etc etc.

[from "I have nothing to declare but my cheekiness"]

Back to Saturday's column, where you continue: "How independent were the "experiments" they did?"

You then went to town on the alleged lack of independence. But the independence only matters if you are questioning whether the outcome of the experiment (a simple measurement) is valid.

So I would like to ask you this: Are you actually questioning Powerwatch's measurement, or not? If you do question the measurement, why you do not actually call for the 'experiment' to be repeated by a body you regard as 'more independent'? And if you are not questioning the measurement, why then did you decide to 'shoot the messenger' rather than discuss the serious implications of the message?

2) Did Panorama really smear the man from the WHO? The WHO gets a lot of criticism from independent scientists for pro-industry bias. Here's two studies showing why:

(i) Conflict of Interest and Bias in Health Advisory Committees: A case study of the WHO's EMF Task Group [View on EMFacts

(ii) Use of evidence in WHO recommendations. May 2007 (study in the Lancet, no less) [View on Pubmed]

Dr Repacholi represents industry in court cases. Dr Repacholi didn't merely 'work for a phone company in the past' as you say - he represents the industry in court cases and was until recently top man at the WHO. According to the industry watchdog Microwave News, the funding for the entire WHO EMF project has been shrouded in secrecy, and Repacholi is the man who knows the score:

"Mike [Repacholi] has repeatedly refused to disclose who is paying for his EMF project and all its conferences and workshops. We do know that WHO does not foot the bill.. Mike has to raise his own budget and travel funds. We also know that he found a way to skirt the WHO rules that bar direct industry support - the mobile phone manufacturers have said that they provide him with $150,000 a year with additional money for meeting and travel expenses.... Show us the money, Mike." View on Microwave News

Given this common criticism of the WHO, the BBC could hardly have asked less of a man who represents the industries to confirm his involvements. This was hardly a smear, when they could legitimately have asked him to 'show us the money'!

Would all this - conflicts of interest, ignoring evidence of risk, hidden funding (money laundering?) at the WHO - not make good material for a Bad Science column?

Yours sincerely

Reply from Ben:
i am surprised you go to great lengths to limit your vision to the short column, rather than my very long badscience.net entry where i go into much more length on the great many very serious scientific failings of the panorama documentary, as i suspect you already know.

regarding smear: i do not do smear on the basis of "who funded it". if people choose to smear others on that basis, as the anti-wifi movement have, then as i made extremely clear i will return it in kind. i would hope that lessons have been learned.

i shan't list the criticisms of the actual science that i made in the column adn on the blog because if you have chosen to ignore them already there is clearly little hope.,

best wishes,

ben