The dangers of bad science journalism

There is a piece of what some might pass off as journalism in our newspaper today which is so infuriating that I cannot ignore it. It is a breathtaking exemplar of the dangers of bad science reporting.

Under the strange headline “Scorched tree poser for cellphone giant”, the Saturday Star purports to take on the controversy over whether cellphone signals are causing damage to humans and the environment.

It turns out the story is about “a Johannesburg woman who believes the roll-out of 4G cellular telephone could have massive health implications for anyone in the path of the signal”. This is splashed all over the front page, with big bold pictures.

The article does not tell us what would qualify the woman to make this claim, except that she is chair of something called the Electromagnetic Research Foundation which she runs apparently single-handedly from her Craigavon, Johannesburg, home. The newspaper even got that wrong, since a Google search tells me that it is the Electromagnetic Radiation Research Foundation. It does not claim to do research, only gather and make available the latest information on the dangers of this problem for the purpose of education. There is not indication that this woman has any scientific knowledge, skills or experience.

She may well be doing valuable information and educative work, but the website seems alarmist. It tells me that if I have any of 21 symptoms ranging from dizziness and headaches through to gastric disturbances and disrupted sleep patterns (ie absolutely anything), then “you may be sensitive to one or more frequencies in your environment”. She is right: I may be.

The effects of cellphone and other signals is a real and important issue, a source of much scientific dispute and debate. As far as I know, there has been no conclusive evidence either proving or refuting the problem. That means it is worth telling people about and encouraging awareness of the issue. No harm in that. In fact, quite a lot of good to be done in challenging the giant cellphone companies.

But the evidence presented is that this woman’s trees are going black, and you don’t need to be a biologist to know that there can be many causes for this. She is quoted saying things like, “Children are experiencing severe shooting pains in their muscles and joints”. Well that may be so, but to carelessly link this to cellphone or wifi signals is reckless scaremongering. She says the industry is self-regulated, when it is common knowledge it is regulated by the statutory body, Icasa.

All the signs are that one should – at the very least – be cautious about these claims, think twice about publishing them or at least show some scepticism if you decide them worthy of reporting. A real piece of journalism would have explored her qualifications and record, and told us more about the science and claims and counter-claims around the issue. The article does cite a WHO warning of last year, but does not put this in the context of the debate about the issue. It quotes a representative of the cellphone company, but no real or independent experts who might put it in perspective.

I read lots of poor articles, but this one infuriates me more than most because I think that the degradation of science and the absence of scepticism is dangerous and harmful, probably more so than cellphone signals. The publication of dross of this sort is harmful, not just to journalism and the credibility of the newspaper, but to our capacity to deal with these issues.

9 thoughts on “The dangers of bad science journalism

  1. I agree that the article is poor reporting, especially given the central character’s history.

    A little research would have indicated that the iBurst tower that she mentions was not operational during a 6 month period that she continued to suffer symptoms of “Electro-magnetic sensitivity”. In addition the article states that she has been diagnosed with this malady, despite the fact that there is no such syndrome recognised by medical science.

    A recommend that the editor of the Star and the journalist read Dr Ben Goldacre’s great book, Bad Science before putting this type of shoddy journalism on the front page of a newspaper.

  2. There is nothing like a good story to sell News Papers however. Sensationalism aside there is no smoke without fire. http://www.rrjournal.org/ this is I believe a reputable website I believe and lists numerous papers on the effects of RF radiation relating to cellular high sites and base stations. Maybe the article could have used some referenced, rather than here say.
    I would never want to live or work under a High RF device. Users of Cellular Phones should take simple precautions. Use the earpiece that comes with the set and refrain from keeping close to your body.

  3. Thank you for speaking out against sloppy journalism. The general public learns a great deal about scientific findings from the press, and bad science journalism, as you point out, is dangerous.

  4. It gets worse. The article mentions a similar battle with iBurst, as proof of a sort. But it fails to note that iBurst, in a rather smart move, turned off the tower in question for months – without telling residents. Inculding The Star’s primary source. The fact that their symptoms, and her’s, continued (at least until they were told) became an international case study. What kind of journalist misses that?

  5. Dorny is an Events Organiser ( who believes in crystal healing). She has no formal qualifications in the field at all. She is the woman who claimed a cell tower next to her house made her sick. When it became apparent the tower was off for months she looked like a complete fool and disappeared from public.

    Clearly she got a second wind.

  6. The worst bit of journalism in this blog is in this statement: “She says the industry is self-regulated, when it is common knowledge it is regulated by the statutory body, Icasa.”

    Dorny is obviously referring to health, and in this case, she is perfectly correct. The Dept of Health suspended all its regulations with regard to this radiation in 2002, telling the industry verbally at the time just to abide by the ICNIRP guidelines. These guidelines are explicitly only for short-term exposures of a few minutes. They are not adequate for 24/7 exposure to masts.

    Industry spokesmen have said that they don’t like this unregulated environment, and have repeatedly asked the DoH for proper regulations. None are in sight.

    If Harber had done a little research on this, he might have found the facts. I really challenge him to take a PROPER look at the cellphone industry and health in SA, and in the Third World in general, investigate the double standards, and say there is no problem. At the very least, we deserve the same health warnings.

    And Harber can look at the copious evidence of microwave damage to trees, and come up with any other possible explanation for these charred pines in the middle of a residential area.

    But the really funniest part is where Harber says that the industry is ‘regulated by Icasa’. Icasa have admitted that they have absolutely no clue what is being radiated out there, and they absolutely don’t care. I know from the most bitter experience that just informing us what technology is being deployed, is completely beyond Icasa’s capabilities. And this is well within their brief.

    Everyone in the industry knows that being “regulated by Icasa” is just about the biggest joke in the known Universe.

  7. When it comes to poor journalism around the cell-phone/tower radiation issue the examples are endless.”Proof: No link between celltowers and cancer”!! As though one study with a small sample set can ever constitute proof.

    Or this coverage of a protest against the erection of a cellphone tower less than 15m from the nearest neighbours without any consideration of their rational objections resulting from 14 years of objections:
    http://www.iol.co.za/scitech/technology/telecoms/no-proof-cellphone-masts-are-harmful-1.1117531

    There’ve been hundreds of thousands of similar headlines / one-sided reports on this issue worldwide in the last decade, mostly reassuring the public that all is well.

    So it’s high time the other side of the story is properly debated and remains focussed on the real issues without stooping to character bashing (which can convincingly be done to anyone).

    It’s thanks to people who’ve borne ridicule and the labels of reckless scaremongers / alarmists / tree huggers / loonies…. for so long that the public is finally being alerted to the dangers.

    I often wonder what it was like for people labelled Commie tree hugging scaremongers a few decades ago for suggesting a link between tobacco and cancer, despite the accumulating published evidence. “It’s not like it’s going to kill me, Ma”, ran one ad.

    The brave “loonies” of that time were up against Good Science, Good Doctors and Good Press. More doctors smoke Camel than any other cigarette:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCMzjJjuxQI.

    And it took the World Health Organisation 50 yrs of “good” science to finally classify tobacco as a carcinogen. At what cost? And at what profit to industry?

    It’s a botanical fact that pine trees secrete resin onto the surfaces of sensitive tissues to protect against harmful ultraviolet radiation so instead of bashing people like Dorny why not apply your intelligent mind to seeking the truth behind the concerns without dismissing all out of hand.

  8. Read reference in My Broadband quoting you slating Dorny on raising concerns about dangers of Radiation form towers. Your concerns are her lack of Scientific Background and therefore rubbish her viewpoint.
    Firstly, I did the long path via Tech Eng via C&G london, Microwave Engineer, British CEI part1, Grad SAIEE, and worked on microwaves, radar etc. Most Engineers in business have reason not to shout too loud about dangers, dont have time or just cannot be bothered.
    I, with a “scientific” background, have concerns and always have about microwave radiation. SA Dept Health uses outdated, now untrue facts to set regulations. ICASA do not limit number or power output on towers ie CEll industry is self regulating. Danish reseach is very flawed. I can go on and I do have a lot of facts…. Dorny just takes the time as a concerned citizen to try and do the David act against Goliath, and I find it commendable that she is trying to make aware dangers of Radiation. To keep it simple, for the simple minded, one needs to listen to nature to read the signs. Bees and plantlife do not have a vested interest…
    B MacMillan

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