Embarrassing Engineers #3

I go away on a business trip plus vacation day and what do I find when I get back, more embarrassingly irrational posts on an engineering mail list. Since this is becoming a regular occurrence I’m stealing the The Bronze Dogs’ idea of a numbered series of posts. These old posts are numbers one and two of the series.

The first thread I read started with someone linking to this news item where Dr. Herberman uses the pseudo scientific practice of getting publicity by engaging in science by press release. Sorry Doc, if you want to be taken seriously you need to wait until you publish a useful study before you go to the press. Two blogging Doctors I read, Orac and PalMD, have posted good information on this press release.

The first crazy reply post contains this glaring lack of the rational thought and curiosity needed for good engineering.

15 years ago I ditched my one and only ever mobile phone (a Motorola M301) when I got worried by the way it seemed to heat my eyeballs up and leave my face tingling strangely. The land line suits me fine thanks!

WTF, heating up his eyeballs and a tingle in his face and he doesn’t investigate this phenomenon. If he does a simple test to show this isn’t just in his mind then he’ll be making a big step towards some new science. Here’s a quick and easy test design that will work for preliminary testing.

  1. Have a friend in another room randomly set the phone on or off, record the setting and put it in a cloth bag to hide what state the phone is in
  2. Another friend who doesn’t know whether the phone is on or off brings the phone near his head.
  3. He tells this second friend what state he thinks the phone is in and the friend records the result.
  4. The 2nd friend now returns the phone to the first friend in the other room.
  5. Repeat steps 1 through 4 enough times to make sure there is a statistically significant sample of test runs to rule out random chance.

If he is truly sensitive to the tiny signal from a cell phone he’ll be able to tell whether the phone is on or off almost 100% of the time, after all his eyeballs will warm up when it’s on. He wouldn’t even need to get it right every time, just significantly better than random chance to be well on the way to proving he can feel the EMF. To be certain he feels the field he’ll need to replicate the test a few times eventually using trained scientists to confirm the test procedure is correct. The next sentence from him shows why he doesn’t do it:

The website I most often referred to when encouraging people to explore this issue was http://www.powerwatch.org.uk/ , which appears to be quite academically and scientifically rigorous.

Now it makes sense, he believes he is electrically hypersensitive, a mixture of hypochondriac and conspiracy theorist. Once you fall this deep it’s no wonder you never want to do even a simple test to see if your beliefs are true. If this condition really existed then it can be very simply and accurately tested similar to the way I outlined above. People have been claiming this phenomenon is real for decades and all the properly conducted tests I’ve seen results from show it isn’t real. A few papers are here, here and here, the FDA’s Cell Phone Facts page is also a good source of information on this topic. Another list member added this to the thread:

I am not sure why cell phone only. To me every things wrong.

1. TV, Microwave, thirty water, drugs any kind, PC monitor, food specially meat, artificial drinks etc. main reason for cancer:

1. weak immune system
2. too much toxic in body
3. not enough oxygen in body
4. I am sure there are more

Oh no, it’s everything popular with the newage crowd including the toxins, I wonder if he’s buying Kinoki pads or using some of the dangerous quackery. Dr. Novella just did a nice blog post covering some of the dangers of this kind of thinking.

There is no such thing as legitimate “detoxification” treatment. Anyone claiming that a treatment detoxifies the body is a charlatan of one type or another. The concept has a psychological appeal – it is easy to imagine bad stuff being drawn out of or purged from our bodies. We evolved an emotion of disgust to help us avoid true toxins and harmful substances in our environment and food – so the detox scam is just playing off of this emotion. But there is no science behind it – so beware.

Fortunately for me a rational list member replied changing the topic title to “Cell phones causing cancer nonsense” and including no comment other than a link to the very rational Professor Bob Parks’ reaction. Whew I didn’t want to write a reply and delve into this level of craziness myself.

Then I start reading a thread about Al Gore’s latest project to try to get us off our butts and do something about fixing our pollution creating energy addiction. A nut job who has appeared in previous blog posts and shown over and over again on the list that he is incapable of rational thought posts this gem.

It would be cheaper to simply invade Saudi Arabia and take the oil. Sooner or later, somebody else will if we don’t.

Wow, the stupid it burns.