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.