Log in

No account? Create an account
shpalman [userpic]

Taking the moral Hyland

25th July 2008 (21:47)

The recent fuss regarding the University of Pittsburg gives me an excuse to mention something I just noticed about Gerard Hyland's paper in the Lancet [1] on the “Physics and biology of mobile telephony.”

After admitting that the heating effect of the microwave radiation (MWR) emitted by mobile phones is insignificant, Hyland goes on to discuss “non-thermal” effects:

“The possibility that the pulsed, low-intensity MWR currently used in GSM mobile telephony can exert subtle, non-thermal influences on a living organism arises because microwaves are waves; they have properties other than the intensity that is regulated by safety guidelines. This microwave radiation has certain well-defined frequencies, which facilitate its discernment by a living organism (despite its ultralow intensity), and via which the organism can, in turn, be affected. The human body is an electrochemical instrument of exquisite sensitivity whose orderly functioning and control are underpinned6 by oscillatory electrical processes of various kinds, each characterised by a specific frequency, some of which happen to be close to those used in GSM. Thus some endogenous biological electrical activities can be interfered with via oscillatory aspects of the incoming radiation, in much the same way as can the reception on a radio.”

What I've just noticed is that his citation is to “Electromagnetic Man” by Cyril W. Smith and Simon Best [2].

Smith is the one who measures ‘resonant frequencies’ in homeopathic remedies with dowsing the ideomotor effect:

“Measurement by dowsing is no more subjective than early investigators describing what they saw through a microscope or telescope. The author is seated at a table facing the tube of imprinted water, which is resting between the hands and arms (facing West gives best sensitivity). Being left-handed, the author uses the left hand to hold the pendulum and the right hand to tune the frequency source. Where possible the writer prefers to use a toroidal coil fed from the electrical oscillator.

“A dowsing technique that leaves one hand free is essential for these measurements. The pendulum can be any small weight suspended from a length of dental floss (no twist spun in) to provide a period of about half a second. Its movement is sensitive to muscle tremor, and when the oscillator excites a resonance in the water the pendulum indicates this with a recognizable response after much practice. The frequency is read off the oscillator dial.”

I already worked out that a 2 GHz signal pulsed at 10 Hz does not become a 10 Hz signal. But if it really turns out that the idea of non-thermal effects of mobile phone radiation, due to the pulse frequency, was based on a book by someone who thinks homeopathic remedies are neutralized if you put them in a metal filing cabinet then the idea is even more knackered than I thought.

  1. G. J. Hyland. The Lancet 356 (9244) 1833-1836 (2000).
  2. Cyril W. Smith and Simon Best. Electromagnetic Man Constable & Robinson (1996).
free hit counter javascript


Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: 26th July 2008 00:04 (UTC)
Publisher's imprint

I mis-read Amazon's publisher's imprint for Electromagnetic Man as Onion Publishing which made more sense to me than the actual Orion Publishing imprint.

What is it with these people and dowsing?

If I dowsed, of course, I might know the answer except that I don't live in a Faraday cage so my "endogenous biological electrical activities [are probably being] interfered with via oscillatory aspects of the incoming radiation".


Posted by: apgaylard.wordpress.com (apgaylard.wordpress.com)
Posted at: 26th July 2008 12:36 (UTC)
non-thermal effects

Reminds me of the fuss over the de Pomerai paper in 2000 (Nature 405, 417–418) when it appeared that they had found non-thermal cellular stresses in nematode worms (C Elegans). It turned out that a power loss in the RF chamber had caused a small (but significant) temerature rise, which was responsible.

This story and the current state-of-play was nicely covered in last year's MTHR report (http://www.mthr.org.uk/documents/MTHR_report_2007.pdf). So far, there isn't any evidence for a biological basis of a putative non-thermal effect. And, as you say, dowsing is not the way to find it!

Posted by: shpalman (shpalman)
Posted at: 28th July 2008 08:43 (UTC)
Re: non-thermal effects

The de Pomerai paper is at DOI:10.1038/35013144, the paper in which they invalidated it is at DOI:10.1002/bem.20192 and the retraction is at DOI:10.1038/440437a. And I'll also link to the MTHR Report 2007.

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: 27th July 2008 10:34 (UTC)
Martyr's Path

The Pittsburg researchers are trying hard to follow the example of previous martyrs/idols of alternative bad science. If you look at their claim...

    1. It's highly implausible, but badly needed in some alternative fringe communities
    2. It's intended for the press and the general public, not their peers
    3. It's a "big claim", not the careful study description normally employed in the scientific community
    4. It's based on preliminary data...
    5. It's based on data that nobody's seen yet
    6. Just as every health scare in the world, it's based on the misunderstood "better-safe-than-sorry" philosophy

Does remind you of Cold Fusion. Let's wait and see if history will repeat itself and the Pittsburg researchers will become the next victims of the orthodox scientific establishment, their study press release being endlessly cited by some advocates, and if the ridicule that they have brought upon themselves will be used as a proof of the conspiracy that's silencing the lone crusaders for truth & health.

The one thing they almost got right, though, is that cell-phones and the teenagers using them do actually emit harmful radiation. Just not electromagnetic, but acoustic waves.

Philippe Leick

Posted by: shpalman (shpalman)
Posted at: 27th July 2008 11:08 (UTC)
Re: Martyr's Path

Philippe Leick wrote:

“The one thing they almost got right, though, is that cell-phones and the teenagers using them do actually emit harmful radiation. Just not electromagnetic, but acoustic waves.”

They actually emit waves of ‘annoying’. That would be better grounds for calling for limits on use.

Have I mentioned the paper I found “On the exposure to mobile phone radiation in trains” [J. Ferrer, L. Fernández-Seivane, J. M. Hernando, M. B. Castán, L. Garcia, and J. M. Váquez. Appl. Phys. Lett. 86 (2005) 224101]?

Oh, and thanks Mary if you're reading this.

Posted by: Crazy Dave (cdave)
Posted at: 28th July 2008 13:23 (UTC)

My Grandad taught me to dowse.

We'll have to try and replicate the double blind experiment Dawkins did with the upside down buckets with bottles of water under them, next time you're in London.

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: 31st July 2008 12:08 (UTC)
Off Topic

I didn't have an e-mail for you, but I just wanted to let you know the Skeptics' Circle is up, and I included your entry :)

Posted by: shpalman (shpalman)
Posted at: 31st July 2008 12:13 (UTC)
Re: Off Topic

The 92nd Skeptics' Circle at The Lay Scientist, you mean? Thanks, Martin!

8 Read Comments