Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Warning: Radiation Bad, Keep Away From Head.

Dumbasscience: Science is not always smart. Oh no sir-ree-Bob. Sometimes it is just plain stupid. That's okay, I won't judge. I'll just point it out and mock it mercilessly. These articles will contain rants from history and breaking news where scientists are pursuing through-and-through bad ideas. From the 'flying your car to work' pipe-dream, to various plans of how to forcibly reverse global warming, if it's technological and perilous to rationalists, it's Dumbasscience.

You may not be aware of this, but exposure to radiation can contribute to cancer.

Yeah, I know. Thunder in the heavens. Flash of lightning. Tight pants ripping. This must be quite the revelation for the modern world.

See, once upon a time people thought cells were these indestructible blocks, the irreducible core elements of all matter. Eventually, that understanding passed to atoms, and--quickly--to the sub-atomic particles composing them. Now the modern concept of sub-atomic particles is much more fluid, encompassing almost completely theoretical elements we only get brief glimpses of thanks to particle colliders. And, what do you know, we now freely recognize that atoms aren't so indestructible after all. Radiation is a great way to knock your average atom down a peg or two.

There's two types of radiation--ionizing and non-ionizing. In the specialist's eagerness to pose as a political hegemony and not scientists, you'll commonly be told that ionizing radiation is the dangerous radiation. And you certainly should avoid it. Ionizing radiation has the ability to shear the charge off of atoms, creating ions, which changes their fundamental function on a chemical level. If ionizing radioactive material is ingested, a person's entire metabolism can be subverted so that a person's very organs work against itself (see Polonium-210 for the gory history). We're told, in turn, that non-ionizing radiation--including the radio wave and microwave--has no deleterious effect on organisms unless it comes in quantities large enough to cause direct heating.

Of course, since this non-ionizing radiation is stable and natural, it can't be unhealthy right? Sunlight can't be unhealthy (oops, see melanoma). Or what about electromagnetic waves (ignoring childhood leukemia, of course)? Alright, just forget it.

You know what's totally safe, though? Cell phone radio transmissions. No reason to actually think about putting a non-ionizing radio transmitter to your head four times a day.



So it turns out that this panel reporting to the World Health Organization suggests that cell phone use, especially amongst children, can contribute to the development of brain cancer.

Who'd a thunk it, hm?

In fact, the study compares the danger of cell phones to DDT and gasoline fumes. You keep your kid away from those, right? Of course, before May 31, 2011, the World Health Organization was actively promoting the belief that cell phone use was completely harmless. Frak the fact that they hadn't actually done the scientific leg-work yet, apparently it was perfectly healthy to pick up one of the billions of cell phones in existence and give them to your kids. Sure, it turns out that it may lead to glioma, but isn't it worth it to be able to 'connect' with your kid? And so much more fun than actually, you know, spending time with your third grader?

Science is an inherently self-serving pursuit in at least two ways. The pursuit of scientific answers inevitably leads to more questions--the very methodology of experimental rigor showcases this effect. Consider a few centuries ago how limited a body of knowledge you'd need to learn to be considered a scientist; today, even the field of computer science is prohibitively broad, and is accordingly broken down into computer programming and computer engineering fields at the very least. Furthermore, science is self-serving in the sense that science as a pursuit is intended to make people's lives easier, which in turn frees up more people to support the sciences either directly or indirectly by producing and supplying the quality products yielded by science. This is the strength of ethical, rigorous science. And it had been short-circuited in the case of the W.H.O.'s previous stance on cell phones.

When scientists release statements without scientifically examining their own claims, they inherently preclude good rigorous experimentation to examine the process. Scientific experimentation holds that whatever being tested is held to be false until proven under controlled circumstances or observed under exhaustive conditions. In this case, cell phones ought to have been considered a health risk until thoroughly demonstrated and researched to the contrary. Instead, health authorities the world over made hasty conclusions based on short-term research, released a statement of fact, and thereby put the onus on other researchers to thoroughly prove that cell phones could be demonstrated to cause or contribute to brain cancer.

So, allow me to help you out:
Now, before you cast me as an anti-technology alarmist (with a blog), let me tell you that I'm not giving up my cell phone. It's still strapped to my hip everyday, and I don't feel a strong urge to slip into a pair of tin-foil skivvies or anything. But I'm certainly not giving my son one anytime in the next decade, either.

And this makes me think of the minor controversy surrounding people who allege they have electromagnetic hypersensitivity. Virtually all countries say that this is a false condition with no medical support, and Sweden is the only country I know of that actually recognizes some of these claims as legitimate. Those who debunk the EHS claims do so by illustrating that the vast majority of claimants cannot pass blind experimentation--they don't exhibit symptoms in response to EM fields and only EM fields--and the rest of the tests were conducted under faulty conditions or methods. I'd be inclined to accept such arguments if it weren't in the interest of modern countries to actively deny such claims. It does strike me as telling that Sweden recognizes the condition, and that sufferers of EHS there live in the remote mountain regions of the country, safe in their isolation. As it is, though, it seems plausible that certain individuals could develop hypersensitivity to fields that can cause similar problems over the course of long-term exposure in normal people.

In any case, do yourself a favor and think things through before you blithely accept a W.H.O. claim that something is perfectly safe--they might change their tune in a decade or so when they actually do the math.

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