Faced with the prospect of funding cuts from the new anti-intellectual government (“We don’t pay you to think, Mister Scientist!”), apparently someone at Wageningen University’s PR office has decided their results need to make more waves.
The university’s press release on their website is unfortunately only in Dutch, but in it they say that while observing young ash trees growing for three months, close proximity to six wireless routers seemed to cause discoloration and death of leaves. They then go on to say [translation mine],
Although the effects were observed using various sources of radiation and various trees, the researchers think it desirable to repeat the experiment, preferably during a longer period and on a larger scale.
This is code for “Our results were not statistically significant,” which in layman’s terms means “It might or might not be true, but we proved jack.” Now this research has the potential for far-reaching consequences in our modern society that depends on wireless internet and other sorts of electromagnetic waves, and the subject is also a touchy one, about which many people have a strong opinion which is totally unsupported by facts.
Let me state here once and for all that I don’t know the facts either. I tend to start out skeptical of these “studies” because of all the nonsense floating around, but like any good skeptic, I am open to being convinced by sound science. Several serious mistakes indicate, however, that while the as yet unpublished research may be sound, the press release doesn’t even come close:
- Mistake #1. Sending out a press release before the experiment was finished, apparently. What if this premature conclusion is disproved when the experiment is repeated over longer periods and with more trees, as the researchers say they need to do?
- Mistake #2. Misrepresenting collaborating parties in the press release. Only the city of Alphen is mentioned in this version of the press release, at whose request (and presumably, on whose dime) the research was carried out. However, other news items also list Delft University and the independent research lab TNO as parties in the research. That indicates to me that they must have been mentioned in an earlier version of the press release. Turns out, TNO issued a statement on their website explicitly distancing themselves from the conclusions! Let me assure you, this does not happen lightly in science.
- Mistake #3. Including numbers in the press release to inflate its importance, without explaining what they mean so that readers can understand.
Let me elaborate a little on Mistake #3, since numbers are important in this game. The exact words are [again, translation mine]:
…frequencies varying from 2412 to 2472 MHz, and a power of 100 mW EIRP at 50 cm distance.
So this just means that they used wireless routers, transmitting at 2.4 GHz, and placed them half a meter away from the trees. The frequency “variation” here means nothing. The researchers didn’t vary anything, those frequencies are just the standard channels used by 802.11b and 802.11g wireless. Why didn’t they test 5 GHz, which is also a common frequency used by wireless routers? Couldn’t they afford more than six routers?
I also had to look up the abbreviation EIRP, which stands for equivalent isotropically radiated power. This is too technical for me to get into in this post (although if you’re curious I’d be happy to explain it) which means it had no business being in a press release for the public. Also, it makes no sense to quote the EIRP in this case, so I’m guessing the PR office just got it off the side of the box the router came in. For nerds who know what I’m talking about, the power the tree is actually exposed to, depends not only on the distance to the source (and it falls off as 1/r²) but also on the surface the tree presents to the source!
The figure of 100 mW, besides being dubious, also means nothing to the average reader when taken out of context. Let me illustrate: a 100 mW green laser beam will blind you if you look into it. It might sting you if you stick your hand into it, and it might burn paper, all depending on how tightly it’s focused. But a regular 40-watt lightbulb, which radiates both light and heat, lights up your room nicely and harmlessly, despite radiating four hundred times as much power as the laser beam.
All this has led to a spate of news articles with titles like “Wireless internet makes plants sick!” The irresponsibility exhibited here just astounds me. Hippies everywhere are going to don their tinfoil hats, and mobile phone users are going to be subjected to the kind of crusade that smokers have already had to face: “Put away that phone, you irresponsible jerk!” concerned mothers will scream at us. “Your secondhand radiation is giving my kid cancer!” Of course I’m exaggerating, but the damage is already done.
The worst example of this is Spits’ (a freely distributed newspaper, i.e. you get what you pay for) take on the article: you might as well stop reading when you see the giant radioactivity signs in the photo! Conflating ionizing nuclear radiation with non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation is pure fear-mongering, because they are as similar as Santa Claus and Parmesan cheese. If you do read beyond the photograph, bravely risking the loss of several IQ points, you see that Spits can’t even avoid contradicting themselves within the three-paragraph extent of the article! [translation mine.]
Whether radiation is really the cause of these phenomena, did not become clear in the study. […] In the study, the possibility that ultrafine particulates caused the phenomena was not ruled out. In any case, it is certain that the dead leaves and stunted growth were caused by radiation, according to the researchers.
The last sentence is also an outright lie, if I’m to believe the university’s press release. All because some PR monkey or fame-crazy researcher couldn’t wait for conclusive, publishable results and decided to fan the flames of the public’s fear instead. Sorry people, but when the results are not conclusive, that means the results are not conclusive. That’s the way science works. Suck it up and deal with it.