Commentary and photos by ERIC SHULTZ
Was such a temper of mind likely to accompany that wise estimate of consequences which is the only safeguard from fatal error…?
A recent exchange in the columns of The New Mexican sheds light on the debate over electro-magnetic radiation (EMR). But the light it sheds is not the light of science and this raises important questions about how environmental issues should be addressed in a democratic society.
First was Dorothy Klopf. Her “Mad science thrives in Santa Fe” uses a recent lawsuit to ridicule those who claim that EMR affects health. According to Klopf, the judge ruled against a plaintiff who had presented “no hard scientific evidence” to make a case. Denying the existence of “evidence from any reputable scientific source” supporting EMR concerns, she forgoes a discussion of science in favor of mockery, calling those whom she opposes a “pseudoscientific fringe” afraid of “death-rays.”
Next was Victoria Jewett. In “Nothing fake about EMF sensitivity,” she promptly identifies herself as an advocate for those who “have been sensitized to electromagnetic fields (EMFs).”
Responding to Klopf, Jewett sets out to inform the public about a situation she knows through her advocacy work and she does not attempt to mount a scientific proof for EMF sensitivity. She is, after all, writing a column for the New Mexican, not the journal Science. She does claim that her organization’s library holds over 1,000 scientific studies “showing harm at the cellular and organ levels from even the smallest doses of microwave radiation, and elevated risk for cancer, Alzheimer’s, autism, ADD, diabetes, heart disease and sleep disorders.”
To support her general description of the EMF sensitivity problem, Jewett quotes James Raggio, General Counsel for the U.S. Access Board, “the federal agency that administers the Americans with Disabilities Act,” who said in a letter, “We have heard from thousands of people across the country who are sensitized to chemicals and electromagnetic, radio and cellphone emissions….” When Raggio says “have heard from,” clearly he is reporting anecdotal evidence. But anecdotal is not a synonym for rubbish. In many of the health sciences, anecdotal evidence can play a vital role both for the information it contains and by suggesting further study.
Jewett also quotes from a 2011 resolution by the Council of Europe that recognizes “electrosensitive” persons and recommends steps such as using only wired internet connections in schools. Words from a political body are not scientific proof, but again, Jewett isn’t attempting one. It may be more important to point out in this context that Europeans increasingly guide their environmental policy decisions with what is called the Precautionary Principle.
In simplest terms, the Precautionary Principle states when the risks from an activity or technology are uncertain, err on the side of caution. But of particular relevance here is a specific guideline: in debates over the safety of an activity or technology, the burden of proof should be on the proponents and not on those who oppose.
Which bring us to the third column. In “Truth isn’t a matter of opinion,” retired physicist Jim Garland sets out to show how Jewett’s claims about the reality of EMF sensitivity are mere assertion with no scientific basis. He speaks for the ages when he says that she “fails to grasp the single most important science lesson that human beings have learned in the past 4,000 years: Truth about the physical universe cannot be established by assertion alone.”
He proceeds to place the burden of proof on the opponent, so we can already infer that Garland does not subscribe to the Precautionary Principle, and it will soon become clear just how much he is part of the problem that it was devised to address. But leaving that issue aside for the moment, let’s examine his argument.
Garland’s burden of proof consists of two requirements that I will look at one at a time. “First, she needs to propose an explanation. What is the scientific mechanism that purportedly causes harm?” He follows up this challenge with discouragement: “That’s going to be a tough assignment, because EMF has been studied exhaustively by many thousands of scientists for 150 years and nobody has found any such mechanism.”
The long history of research he refers to has surely left behind such a vast body of literature—books, scientific papers, correspondence, even notebooks—preserved in far-flung libraries and archives and written in diverse languages, that no single person could give it a critical review. Garland cannot be making his claim on the basis of personal knowledge. Even for teams of reviewers in the major scientific countries, the task would be huge, but Garland makes no reference to any such effort. Regarding the state of the question in the scientific literature, Garland is arguing “by assertion alone.”
Being a science insider, perhaps Garland assumes that such review takes place automatically, since every paper for publication begins with a literature review on its topic. But realism cautions that what is found has something to do with what is looked for. Invoking the entire 150-year history of radio wave research may have rhetorical value, but it is largely irrelevant to the present discussion because precisely the question at hand—effects of low-level EMR on living organisms—is precisely something science is only now beginning to investigate. In asserting that radio wave research to date has been “exhaustive,” Garland is saying that at least in that field, the work of science is complete. For a scientist, that is a remarkable thing to imply.
What about the “more than 1,000 studies” that Jewett refers to? Do they uniformly fail to meet the standard of credible science? Garland doesn’t say, and we are left to assume that he studiously avoids the issue, because to dispute the validity of such studies would acknowledge their existence. But such studies do exist, and I’m not making this claim by assertion alone. To see for oneself, the reader need only scroll through the 1,479 page BioInitiative 2012 report. Garland addresses the issue of validity—still without applying it to actual research—in part two of his burden of proof.
“And second, she needs to point to rigorous double-blind experiments showing a cause-and-effect relationship between disease and non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation — experiments broadly accepted by the scientific and medical community.” Garland doesn’t directly say that the research Jewett points to fails to meets his standard of experimental proof, even though he implies as much insofar as his entire argument is that Jewett’s claim lacks scientific backing. Again, to address such research directly would acknowledge its existence—something Garland and non-scientist Klopf avoid. More troubling is his requirement that claims proven by rigorous experiment must also be “broadly accepted by the scientific and medical community” before they can be a part of public discussion. On this point, the Precautionary Principle especially applies.
Consider the following assertions: physics knows that EMR penetrates the body, and that it interacts strongly with matter. If it didn’t interact strongly with matter it would be useless for communications, microwave ovens, or any other practical application. To deny that it interacts in significant ways with the subtle and complex matter of organisms is a leap of faith. Even if we take Garland’s denials at face value that no evidence of such interactions exists (a claim he makes by assertion alone), elementary logic tells us that “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Environmental health science already knows that health effects can take years or decades to develop (as with cancers), and that effects can have multiple causes (e.g. cancers, again) so knowing that one thing causes a syndrome or disease doesn’t rule out other causes of the same effect. We may already be seeing health effects from EMR without realizing it. Further, the health sciences must grapple with the reality that health issues involve not just multiple causes, but varying combinations of causal factors, combinations whose effects are different from those of the constituent “causes” in isolation. Looking for effects of EMR in isolation, the way experimental science normally begins, necessarily excludes most of our real-world situation. This would seem like a place to invoke Occam’s razor, commonly paraphrased as “the simplest explanation is usually the best.” But a truer translation would be “don’t propose complex explanations unnecessarily.” The great complexity of both human physiology and of our chemical and radiological environment necessitates increasingly subtle and complex explanatory models. Finally, the increasingly dense EMR of today is a new addition to our environment to which we cannot hope to have adapted through evolution.
None of these assertions proves or even claims that EMR causes health problems. But all are grounds for a rational person to suspect EMR as a matter of concern and to doubt unsubstantiated assurances to the contrary. And this is the point. The Precautionary Principle provides guidance precisely for dealing with uncertainty. In essence, its guidance is simple and clear: when in doubt, err on the side of caution and place the burden of proof on the proponent. But the Precautionary Principle is not an anti-science, back-to-the-stone-age prescription. Far from it.
In today’s world, university science departments increasingly do research as the R in R&D for commercial interests. Real-world considerations of funding and future employment incentivize research that leads to a patent—the legal shell of a commercial interest—and are a disincentive for less materially rewarding work in the public interest. When the Precautionary Principle counsels “exploring a wide range of alternatives to possibly harmful actions,” nothing could be more pro-science. Likewise, nothing in this prescription precludes alternative technologies’ commercial viability. Adopting it would of course involve changes in priorities and in practice, but the European and Scandinavian countries where it was developed and where it is increasingly followed have hardly suffered economic collapse or reverted to hunting and gathering.
Finally, the Precautionary Principle calls for “increasing public participation in decision making.” It is in this context that Garland’s column is especially offensive. He closes his column with a sentence both insulting and misguided: “Let us all agree to put this foolish EMF debate to rest and get on to more important matters” (emphasis added). He declares the science on EMR to be already concluded, when the relevant science on health effects is only getting started. So regarding health effects, one might say, “the jury is still out” and this expression calls the question. We have built a system of justice that relies not on the opinion of an expert but on the judgment of citizens. Our democracy follows a similar principle on decisions of public concern. Both in the jury room and in the meeting hall, public participation is often cumbersome (and tiresome) and decisions are sometimes mistaken. But in both instances, public participation can provide safeguards even the best-intentioned expert can overlook.
Jim Garland justifies a “full steam ahead and don’t look back” approach to wireless technology on the basis of assurances he backs up with nothing but a resounding tone of finality: “What we can say with certainty is that electromagnetic radiation from cellphones is not a public health issue. There is no need for legislation, no need for new public policy, no need for lawsuits, no need for further opinion pieces.” He tries to discredit a genuine dissenting voice in a highly political debate by showing that she argues by assertion alone. In fact, Victoria Jewett refers her assertions to research, research Garland treats with contempt of a most unscientific kind: he rejects it sight unseen by ignoring that it even exists.
And in countering Jewett, in instance after instance, it is Garland whose arguments boil down to mere assertion and faulty logic. But besides failing in his stated purpose, he fails the public by urging blithe acceptance where reason counsels caution. What Garland brings to market turns out to be bad science, but I reject concluding from this that he was a bad scientists when he devoted his energies to science. Here he has entered a political fray, and we should not be surprised that his science suffers when used as a bludgeon to squelch democratic debate.