Suppose a guy holds two doctorates in physical sciences from prestigious institutions, has a long history of academic and industrial research, and has published over 200 scientific papers. Can it be assumed he isn’t a bat-shit crazy nut? What about THIS guy? That’s the guy who wrote THIS article that appeared on SALON the other day. From what I can tell, it’s the only article he’s written for Salon, and it seems to be intended to plug a book he has coming out (surprise surprise). It’s another article on the purported dangers of microwave radiation from cell phones.
There are a couple of very special diagrams that offer insane amounts of information crammed into a very small space. One of those is the periodic table of the elements, which provides a dazzling amount of information on the elements beyond just their names and atomic numbers and masses. The location of an atom on the table also tells us a lot about it’s atomic radius, electronegativity, electronic configuration, and other such properties. The periodic table tells us a lot about the physical world in which we live.
There is another diagram that complements the periodic table, and that is a simple diagram of the electromagnetic spectrum. For the most part, it’s an easy diagram to remember and to be able to reproduce from scratch, especially if you remember the obscure (though surprisingly easy to remember for some reason) mnemonic acronym “ROYGBIV,” which just stands for the visible spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet). Outside this visible region of the spectrum are infrared, next to red, and on ultraviolet next to violet. Beyond those wavelengths, there are only a few to remember: Radio and microwave radiation are just beyond infrared on the left, and x-rays and gamma rays are beyond ultraviolet on the right. This is pretty basic information, and it’s fairly obvious in looking at the electromagnetic spectrum that microwaves from cell phones or microwave ovens don’t cause cancer. Microwaves are on the low energy end of the spectrum: They jiggle atoms about a bit which produces heat, but they are incapable of anything more. They simply cannot break chemical bonds or cause cancer. Moreoever, if they DID cause cancer, the entire visible spectrum, which is higher energy, would be lethal. We would be vampires, only able to come out at night after the Sun goes down. And even then, star light and the light reflected by the Moon would be dangerous to us.
The author of the Salon article seems to acknowledge much of this basic science, even as he goes off the rails on the dangers of microwave radiation. It’s not a new argument, nor is it one confined to microwaves. The author rails against the dangers of electromagnetic fields and magnetism is general. If he were just uneducated, it wouldn’t bother me so much. But a guy with his background really ought to know better. Then again, I’ve met more than one Ph.D. scientist who believes that 900-year-old Noah packed pairs of all the animals on the Earth onto a boat, so that God could flood the globe in a cataclysmic toilet flush. So there’s that.
At one point, the author relates a story about how he was once challenged over his shoddy work after he had given a presentation to the US Department of Energy. But then he concludes with: “I later discovered that both men were paid consultants of the power industry—one of the largest generators of EMF.” And that’s the tell isn’t it? Actually, there are many “tells” in the article, but that’s a big one. Whenever people push pseudoscientific nonsense like this, their detractors are always part of a secretive powerful organization bent on suppressing the truth. “Big oil,” the banks, the government — there is always somebody looking to keep the little man down and prevent the truth from being revealed. One finds similar arguments from cold fusion enthusiasts and those who believe the automotive industry is suppressing knowledge of a secret engine that operates entirely on unicorn farts.
Just a few weeks ago, I wrote about some of my experiences in the area of microwave chemistry. It’s a bit of a dubious field, but at least the scientists doing microwave chemistry acknowledge that there is no magic behind their work and that microwave chemistry is fundamentally the same as thermal chemistry. And there are some areas where microwave thermolysis is an improvement over conventional heating techniques, simply because heat is transferred to it’s intended target in a slightly different way. It can (and has) led to better, more efficient equipment for performing some functions in industry and in laboratories.
It’s not always the case that fraud is not involved. Twenty years ago, a guy named Guido Zadel published a paper titled “Enantioselective Reactions in a Static Magnetic Field“ in the journal Angewandte Chemie. For those of you who don’t know, Angewandte Chemie is a highly reputable journal. It is in fact one of the best journals one can publish in as an organic chemist. Yet Zadel’s paper, in which he reported being able to run enantioselective reactions using only a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer (NMR) to induce that selectivity, passed peer review in that journal and was published. And it was entirely bullshit. It’s not that it was just a little bit off or had some minor issues. The paper was based on complete fantasy, and no known physics could account for the author’s observations. Yet it was peer-reviewed and published in a prestigious journal. The author’s Ph.D. was later revoked after he was caught doping a reaction mixture with the desired enantiomer. Humorously, he later sued the university because nobody would hire him. D’Oh!
So, if you happen to find yourself reading some crazy shit one day in Salon or another online magazine and you have a nagging feeling that something isn’t quite right, don’t dismiss that instinct! Even if you look up the author and discover he or she has multiple Ph.D.s and a long list of publications, don’t dismiss that instinct. If you find yourself thinking “this is fucked up,” while reading an article that is enthusiastically touted as peer-reviewed or announced to be supported by a consensus of scientists who have published peer-reviewed papers on the subject, don’t dismiss your instinct. Your instinct is probably right. Argumentum ab auctoritate (argument from authority) is one sure sign of a bullshitter. Denigrating those presenting an opposing view as as being in the pocket of “big energy” (or pharma, oil, government, banks, etc.) is another.