The American Physical Society’s electronic newsletter carried a rather damning headline last week: The New York Times Revisits The “Debate” Over Electromagnetic Fields, Reviving Baseless Fears, While Ignoring What Has Been Learned.
The piece, from a Forbes blog, lit into the Times over a new Tuesday science section occasional feature called Time Machine.
The idea behind Time Machine is apparently to revisit stories from a quarter century ago. In early July, Kenneth Chang revisited a 1989 story about the dangers of electromagnetic fields generated by appliances and power lines.
There’s a great opportunity here to come back and explain how with 25 more years of data in hand, there’s still no correlation clear enough to convince the American Physical Society, the American Cancer Society, or the scientific community at large.
But that’s not what the Times chose to do with the 2014 update, Debate Continues on Hazards of Electromagnetic Waves. The original story featured a concerned cancer epidemiologist named David O. Carpenter. The new story revisits Carpenter, who hasn’t changed his mind. He’s still concerned about the threat of electromagnetic fields. People with fringe ideas rarely recant, whether their belief involves cold fusion, alien abductions or ESP.
The new story points out that since 1989, the world became attached to cell phones and wi-fi permeates our living spaces. And yet, cancer cases have not skyrocketed along with our exposure.
There are a couple of caveats in the story, including the fact that scientists can’t find a plausible mechanism by which the relatively low frequency EMF emitted by cell phones, power lines, etc. would cause cancer. But there’s an important distinction that wasn’t clear.
There are cases where a drug, for example, works through an as-yet-unknown mechanism. Scientists may know it works through come kind of chemical action the specific nature of that action hasn’t been identified. And then there are cases such as homeopathy, cold fusion, or various forms of “energy” healing, which would require a rewriting of the laws of chemistry and/or physics in order to work. Claims that fit into that latter category are generally far less plausible. The lack of a plausible mechanism is one of the symptoms of pathological science, as defined by chemist Irving Langmuir.
The EMF cancer scare seems like a textbook case for Languir’s pathological science. It fits several other criteria:
- The maximum effect that is observed is produced by a causative agent of barely detectable intensity, and the magnitude of the effect is substantially independent of the intensity of the cause.
- The effect is of a magnitude that remains close to the limit of detectability; or, many measurements are necessary because of the very low statistical significance of the results.
In a post earlier this week I wrote on a report that criticized the BBC for so-called false balance in their climate change coverage. This Times story represented a particularly egregious case of the false balance disease, since the fringe elements were not just brought in to balance the mainstream science, they dominated the story.
The piece was roundly slammed on in the Forbes blog post circulated in the APS newsletter. The author was cancer epidemiologist Geoffrey Kabat. Here’s the conclusion:
The New York Times does its readers a disservice when, in the guise of updating a highly-charged issue, it features someone whose alarmist mantra has not changed in 25 years, but who ignores a mountain of accumulated evidence amassed over that time period.
According to his bio, Kabat is writing a book about health scares, and he’s associated with a group called STATs. I am not sure of that group’s funding situation or political agenda, though it seems focused a lot more on minimizing or debunking alleged health risks than calling attention to legitimate ones. You can read about its affiliations and its not altogether transparent funding here at Sourcewatch.
Still, Kabat has good points. Instead of a critical examination of a vintage health scare, Times readers get the same scare in a new package. – Faye Flam