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"Further reply" (including another reply from Ben)

Response 4 from the Panorama Extra story from May 2007

Posted by walter on June 1, 2007, 5:40 pm

Dear Dr Goldacre

Sorry you appear to take a negative view of my email about the Panorama programme. I particularly want to have your view on the many studies mentioned reporting biological effects or illnesses from low-level microwaves (links repeated below). I hope I have asked reasonable questions.

In your short reply you refer me to the Bad Science website, but I don't understand why you do not answer the questions on the piece I am actually asking about - the column in the Guardian.

If the strongest, validest criticisms are only on the website, then why weren't they in the paper?

But to answer your implied rebuke, I actually buy the paper - and the two most electrosensitive people I know are both unable to use computers. It is the paper they are shaking their head sadly at - not the website. Also, while websites can punt a viewpoint, newspapers are supposed to be balanced, especially those articles referring to science. And newspapers are also supposed to have some accountability.

But you don't have to defend your article if you don't want to. Following your response I looked again at the stuff on the website as you suggested. You seem to be referring mainly to this page on Bad Science.

I am not saying you do not make any valid points or criticisms. Like this one:

"the children made valuable criticisms of Panorama's methodology, such as "well, we're not allowed to download files so it wouldn't be that strong", "only a couple of classes have wifi", and,"we only use the laptops a couple of times a week"."

This is certainly a valid point, those children currently get less exposure than the value in the programme. But it's not perhaps a major criticism of the methodology as Panorama were making a point about exposures, not claiming to have shown these children would get ill. In a year's time, teaching material could be downloaded in almost every subject and exposures could rocket. Why not, if its so safe? If the point that Panorama made led to rules limiting exposure, the programme would have been justified.

As you point out, they could have taken a selection of different readings, some close, some further away etc - a weighted average - but how would they have weighted them? Would you have accepted their weightings? The measurement they took was somewhere in between and there was a further factor of three to play with.

To me, these informative points of yours qualify as criticism of the constructive, not destructive, kind.

But you refer to "the great many very serious scientific failings", "heinous scaremongering and bias", "Panorama were unambiguously scurrilous" etc. I can't see much that justifies this description. There are a lot of criticisms like this:

"Instead, while throwing around accusations of other people being biased, to produce a scare, Panorama - quite unnecessarily - took an "electrosmog" pressure group campaigner, let him decide what to measure, how, where, and with what equipment. They completely failed to come clean on this."

Failed to come clean on what? The programme explained that Philips was the engineer who would take the measurements and that he runs a lobby group called Powerwatch that raises awareness about electrosmog, and that he also takes measurements for industry and advises the government.

And "throwing around accusations of other people being biased"? One very weak question (as I explained the first time) put to the industry's top man in the WHO.

Sorry, I can't really see the substance of this hyperbole.

In your short response to me you re-iterated your stance on smear (personal attacks?!) saying that Panorama started it but my point was that you launched similar personal attacks on Philips and Powerwatch before.

I want to move on to the evidence. I am sure you approve. Unfortunately there is more of this in the web piece you recommended, and right where the discussion of the evidence should be:

"There is the issue of Panorama's other experts, like associate professor Olle Johansson, awarded Misleader Of The Year 2004 in his native country."

Why do you not say "There is the issue of the EVIDENCE they mentioned" i.e. hundreds of studies that suggest mobiles and other sources of low-level microwaves cause biological effects and even illnesses

But you merely fished out a smear on Prof Johansson, a man with dozens of publications.

Is it really a 'Good Science' answer to the issue of published evidence of health effects? It was Henry Lai who reviewed all the mobile studies. He hasn't been smeared, so the evidence must be true...

Isn't it simpler to discuss the evidence rather than make uncorroborated personal attacks on everyone who mentions it?

Incidentally Dr George Carlo, who was head of Wireless Technology Research, writes today that "Professor Olle Johansson is truly a uniquely courageous scientist who for years has put the protection of public health above his own personal and professional reputation. His scientific work is honest and impeccable, published in the open, peer-reviewed literature and cited by myself and others in the field of EMR protection as definitive reference."

If anybody knows a 'misleader', its Dr Carlo. He knows it's a smear. "We have come to a very sad state of affairs where pressures from the mobile phone industry can be used to turn saving the lives of children into a perceived vice."

Moving on at last, you make rather a big deal of the Electro-sensitivity sufferer. "Instead they showed us just one subject in an unfinished, unpublished study: Why? Apparently she has guessed if the signal is on or not, correctly, 2/3 of the time. Is that statistically significant? What about the other subjects in the study? It's meaningless: it's an anecdote dressed up as science with some pictures of some measuring equipment."

In a TV programme they surely have to feature somebody actually suffering, to say what they are suffering from (whether or not they represent 'statistical significance'). Not "an anecdote dressed up as science" as no scientific claim was made. Panorama in my view explained the position adequately - her results were "unclear".

Is this one of the "very serious scientific failings"? Let's turn to one of the "far bigger issues", where you say Panorama were "unambiguously scurrilous" - the electrosensitivity studies. You say:

"There are over 30 double blind studies of people who believe that their symptoms, such as dizziness and heaches, are caused by immediate exposure to electromagnetic signals: essentially these studies all show that sufferers cannot tell when a source of signal is present or absent (full story and references here)",


"It will be very interesting if the results of this study overall are positive, and it will be very interesting to try and understand why theirs were positive, given that over thirty other studies were negative."

and you conclude "But there was no mention of these studies in Panorama."

But Dr Goldacre, the statement that you make twice is not true. Over thirty studies were not negative. The results were that seven out of the 31 were positive, statistically significant. I also believe you know this.

Perhaps this is why the Panorama team didn't feature it? It is unclear which side of the argument is supported by the results. Why is it 'scurrilous' of Panorama not to mention these studies, while you misrepresent them?

This obviously does not cover all of what you wrote, but I've banged on enough. I hope you will answer some of my questions, particularly as regards the evidence of biological and health effects. Being a doctor interested in the issue, you must be able to express a view on medical evidence.


PS Here is some miscellaneous evidence (repeaeted) of biological effects from low levels of microwaves, mobiles and phone masts. This is presumably the kind of evidence that Johansson and Lai were talking about in the programme.

1) There are about 100 studies biological effects from low-level radiofrequency radiation.

2) You'll know about the Pubmed medical database - well it lists hundreds of papers - simply type 'cell phone effects' and have a browse. [Pubmed]

3) A letter to the WHO pointing out eight studies in peer-review journals reporting adverse effects from mobile base stations. [View on Next Up (french EMF organisation)]

i'm sure you will feel a great sense of injustice that i cannot answer your 1400 word email in full. there are lots of people to talk to at badscience.net and badscience.net/forum

Further bits

To Ben Goldacre
No sense of injustice nor loneliness.
What about answering the first 40 words.

From Ben Goldacre
what were they?