Monday, 31 March 2014

Technophobia Comes From Deep Beneath Our Skin

Adapted from a presentation delivered at the Annual Australian Skeptics Dinner at Ryde-Eastwood Leagues Club, on the 29th of March 2014
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Back when I was studying my science degree, we’d frequent a nearby pub. We had one friend who was full of wisdom, and deeply suspicious of anything that needed electrical current to operate. “Mobile phone radiation” he’d boom over the beers scattered on the table, “can cook popcorn”.

Our young minds instantly generated pictures of our soft, mushy brains popping out of our skulls like kernels of freshly exploded corn. One of my braver friends raised a skeptical eyebrow and asked him how he knew this astonishing fact. He was prepared for the question, and his answer came with the same booming confidence as his original assertion. “Try it yourself” he smoothly declared, “You’ll see”.

I didn't try it, and neither did anyone else. Yet, I felt a little weird, holding a phone to my head.

That feeling, of consternation stemming from some internal, primal mechanism rather than any logical, conscious conclusion, arises with nearly every single technology we encounter, and when it’s combined with misinformation spawned and propagated by vested interests, we suddenly see ourselves ditching careful risk analysis in favour of a fearful approach towards the implementation of technology.

This is a sensation, not a conclusion. It’s driven by something deep under our skin, rather than the machinations of logic.

Though this sensation has rough, indeterminate edges, let's call it ‘anything syndrome’ - a consistent set of symptoms reported when we’re exposed to a technology that emits sound or electromagnetic radiation. These emissions can be quantified, and when they're measured, they're well below the levels at which we'd be harmed.

The syndrome doesn't stem from any physical causal agent. It stems from somewhere deep beneath our skin - something that grows clear when we dig a little deeper into this odd social phenomenon.

Landline Syndrome




In 1889, in the September 21st edition of the British Medical Journal, a doctor wrote:
“The patients suffered from nervous excitability, with buzzing noises in the ear, giddiness, and neuralgic pains ...All the trouble speedily vanishes if  the ear is allowed a sufficient measure of physiological rest; this it can only obtain by the cause of the evil being withdrawn. The victims … seem all to be of markedly nervous organization, and the moral may be drawn that such persons should not use the telephone"
It’s comical and anachronistic to think that landline telephones once posed a physiological threat. But in the early 1900s, as the telegraph system spread, so did a powerful newfound anxiety about their usage. This is something that’s been happening for a long time. It’s embedded in us all.

Microwave Syndrome

Microwaves (aka, the 'science oven') bear the mark of health fears far removed from scientific knowledge. The ‘Global Healing Centre’ website states that:
"Microwave sickness’s first signs are low blood pressure and slow pulse. The later and most common manifestations are chronic excitation of the sympathetic nervous system [stress syndrome] and high blood pressure.
This phase also often includes headache, dizziness, eye pain, sleeplessness, irritability, anxiety, stomach pain, nervous tension, inability to concentrate, hair loss, plus an increased incidence of appendicitis, cataracts, reproductive problems, and cancer”
I used to think that technology that was ubiquitous would be relatively immune to technophobia. We've all been near a microwave, and we didn't suffer sudden hair loss.

As it happens, the ubiquity of microwave ovens seems to be a key contributor to precisely how much they’re feared. Microwave syndrome exists because we’re inherently sensitive to an inescapable threat - it’s powerful not in spite of its ubiquity, but because of it.

WiFi Syndrome 

The clip below is from a British Current Affairs Show called ‘Panorama’. The show has a fairly wide audience, and this episode was about the dangers of WiFi, and ‘electromagnetic radiation’ in general.

Part 1

Part 2


Health fears associated with the spread of technology frequently get traction on media that have a wide audience. This episode of Panorama rated incredibly well; though the science underpinning the show was poor, it still got aired, and it still got a large audience.

Via Treehugger
Contained within media that presents health fears in this way is a set of symptoms that people are told to expect - the consequences of exposure.

Included in listed symptoms of WiFi syndrome are headache, dizziness, memory loss, aches, sleeplessness, digestive problems, face rash, nausea, moodiness and infertility. If you’re concerned, you have no reason to fear. There’s a way to protect yourself.

Via MakeUpAlley
A patented WiFi spray from a company called Clarins is made from ingredients found in undersea volcanoes. They claim that:
"Scientists at Clarins whipped up the "Magnetic Defense Complex" from ingredients found 2000 metres deep in the ocean and were elated-"We exposed our cell cultures to a frequency of 900 MHz in the presence of these two plant extracts and found that their structures hardly changed!"
Does it work? An online review says:
“After 12 months it expires i doubt you would be able to use all of it......It smells like kraft dinner macaroni and cheese”
Selling products to protect people against wifi syndrome, and all of its associated subtypes, is a lucrative market.

It’s natural for us to fiercely protect the thing that sustains our existence. If your work as a presenter depends on a large audience, then why wouldn't you take up a cause that’s likely to bolster your ratings? If your products can only be sold if people are truly scared by technology, you’ll accept the bad science that underpins ‘anything syndrome ’.

Smart Meter Syndrome

Financial and career motivations are only a part of the story. Sometimes, ideology can play a big role, and you can estimate the role of ideology by gauging the ferocity with which health fears are communicated and expressed.

Via the 'Institute for Geopathology'
As the sentiment gets stronger, the fonts gets larger, the colours get more garish and the text size increases in variability. Animated gifs, shouty caps lock and word-salad ranting overtake any need to present a polished, commercial message.

Recently, I came across a great example of how ideology can stimulate the spread of misinformation. A libertarian and privacy advocate wrote an article for the Hobart Mercury back in December 2013, about the 'health dangers' of smart meters. Though the health issue formed the bulk of the article, it was book-ended by concerns about privacy and data-retention. These two concerns are quite different, but they were awkwardly jammed together into a single piece.



A few days ago, the author of the article was challenged on Twitter about propagating health fears, despite our best scientific knowledge indicating they pose no health risk. His response was to simply restate that he's a libertarian.

The spread of ‘Smart Meter syndrome’, through the communication of misinformation, is driven in this case by a strong sense of libertarianism and a passionate advocacy for the right to privacy.

Ideology, in a multitude of forms, can make us drop our guard and translate low risks into high risks, when we’d otherwise be more deliberate in our considerations.

Via the National Toxic Encephalopathy Foundation
There are quite a few symptoms listed for Smart Meter Syndrome. I found a list of 91 unique symptoms of smart meter exposure online - these include childlessness, drug resistancy, treatment resistancy, therapy resistancy, Lupus, Tourettes, Sjorgens disease, Suicide, Depression, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Motor Neurone Disease, Muscular Dystrophy, Cancer, Autism, and somehow, foetal alcohol syndrome.

Mobile Tower Syndrome

This is a clip taken from an episode of Today Tonight, a story which aired in 2010. The man in this clip believes working near mobile phone telecommunications towers has caused him real harm.



This next clip is worth watching in its entirety. A community, now known as Freshwater, used to be known as Harbord, and in this clip they gather to protest a Telstra mobile phone base station built next to a Kindergarten.



There are few things worth considering, after watching footage of the man who drove a tank into a mobile phone tower, and the Freshwater Community panic around the Telstra mobile phone base station.

A community protest in March 2014 against a Telstra mobile phone tower at the Gumdale State School and Community Kindergarten - nearly 10 years after the Freshwater community protest.  Via The Courier Mail 
Control, helplessness and invasion are themes you may have noticed cropping up in the video of the Freshwater Mobile phone tower protest. Sir Tony The Brave rides into town to fight back the hordes of faceless, cold-hearted goons - restoring the rights of the community, over the spread of invisible radiation spawned inescapably from faceless technological terror.

The fellow who drove a tank into a mobile phone base station simply felt he was being ignored, and as a consequence, he made some ‘rash decisions’. "But it was out of sheer frustration, wasn't it?" states the interviewer. It was.

Being ignored or being marginalised is a shitty feeling, and it’s worth considering for a moment what it might be like to be in a similar situation. As it happens, ‘Control’ has been identified as a key component in how we judge the risks posed by the construction of technology. So, it’s clear that anything syndrome can, sometimes, be catalysed by the entirely human sentiment of helplessness.

The clip featuring the Harbord Telstra protest was four minutes and 13 seconds long. The comments from the scientist at the Australian Radiation Laboratory (now known as ARPANSA), take up a grand seven seconds, or about 2% of the total air time. The terminology he used was precise and unambiguous - it was impossible measure any radiation at all from the device. Nil exposure. Nothing.


The fact that the device was literally undetectable is quite important. So why did he get such little air time?

The residents were driven by an incredible passion. The drive to defend their community and their children made them intensely focused, and their declarations were infused with vigour and dynamism. The scientist can't compete with footage like that.

Briefly, a glimpse at the symptoms of exposure to mobile phone towers: fatigue, headache, nausea, appetite loss, sleep disturbance, memory loss, skin problems, dizziness.

Via the 'PowerWatch' blog
NBN Syndrome

This is a clip from WIN news, about a proposed wireless NBN tower in the town of Dereel, in Victoria.



The lady who features in the story is genuinely concerned about her health. It frustrates and angers me that she's been sold products that are likely ineffective, to 'shield' her against electromagnetic radiation. It's predatory, and creepy, and it makes me a little irate.

You'll note that one resident speaks to the reporter, and there seems to be a group of about six or seven involved in a discussion. From the clip, we get the impression that local sentiment against the development is strong.

However, another resident of Dereel, Scott Weston, runs a community website, detailing news about the NBN tower, which has now been built.

An article in The Australian covered the views of the residents opposed to the tower. 
I couldn't find any definitive polling of Dereel regarding support and opposition to the tower, but Scott Weston told Delimiter in 2013 that he’d petitioned the community and received 188 signatures in support, and 5 signatures against.

When it comes to the development of technology, the view of the community as a whole is very, very likely to lose out to coverage of a media-friendly vocal minority, whose words and actions make for compelling footage.

Wind Turbine Syndrome

From what we've seen so far, there are some consistent symptoms that seem to occur as a result of anything syndrome. In the case of wind energy, Professor of Public Health Simon Chapman, at Sydney University, has actually gone to the effort of compiling a list of ailments that people have attributed to wind turbines, and it’s huge. One of the reasons behind the size of this list is a fascinating phenomenon called ‘Patternicity’.

A graphic I made displaying the claimed symptoms of 'Wind Turbine Syndrome', for a prior blog post 
Last year, I wanted to explore the issue of symptom attribution, and I decided to use one of my two pet guinea pigs in a harmless demonstration. This one’s name is Mrs Ewan McGregor. I lived in Redfern, and my house was about two kilometres away from a small wind horizontal axis wind turbine in Glebe. So, I went to a website called ‘Ill Wind Reporting’, which collates reports of ‘adverse health impacts’ from wind energy.

The wind turbine, in Glebe
I submitted a report to their page. Everything I submitted was true - my guinea pigs make a weird rumbling noise when they walk around, and we did, at the time, live two kilometres away from an operational wind turbine. I didn't submit an email address or any further information for verification.

From my blog post
They accepted what I’d written as a valid report of the symptoms of ‘wind turbine syndrome’. You could describe anything in that box, and they’d publish it on their site as a symptom.


They even accepted that I’d classified Mrs Ewan McGregor as one of my children, and they marked it the submission with a big, friendly green ‘VERIFIED’ tag, despite the fact I’d provided no personal or contact details.

An example of a pattern perceived in meaningless noise - something Michael Shermer calls 'Patternicity' 
Michael Shermer, the author of Skeptic Magazine and the publisher of an excellent book called 'Why People Believe Weird Things', defines 'patternicity' as the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise.

It’s classically been viewed as an error in cognition, but that’s not quite the case. It’s an adaptation that evolved in an ancient world, where we had to be risk averse. We hear a noise; is it a rustle in the wind, or is a predator lurking slowly through the tall grass? We were better off assuming it was a predator, because if we assumed it was the wind, we were wrong, and we were dead.

Ill wind reporting” is a website comprised entirely of rustling grass. That sensation that we feel, of an imminent threat, goes back many thousands of years, and that’s why anything that occurs nears technology is a potential candidate symptom for ‘anything syndrome ’.

Recently, the Australian Medical Association released a position statement, reiterating that there’s no evidence wind farms cause any sort of health impacts, low-frequency sound levels are imperceptibly low, and that misinformation can itself cause real issues in communities. This response was posted by Member of Parliament Craig Kelly. He writes:
“It took until around 30 years, until the 1960’s that the adverse health effects of Tabacco (sic) were finally fully acknowledged by the medical fraternity - let’s hope those those (sic) suffering and living near industrial wind turbines don’t have to wait as long”
There’s more to this than just a simple example of a false analogy being motivated drawn by someone with a deep-seated hatred of wind energy (and a lack of knowledge around the history of scientific investigation into tobacco).

Every technology I've considered so far has been compared to tobacco, asbestos or thalidomide, or in the case of wind energy, all three. When scientists and medical experts try to communicate the best available science about whether these technologies are a risk, their statements somehow constitute evidence that those technologies are the 'next tobacco'.


Solar Panel Syndrome

'Solar Panel Syndrome' isn't yet a reality, but it might be, if we're not careful. Small-scale solar has taken off in Australia, passing one million Australian solar homes in April last year. But large-scale solar farms are in their infancy, and already, we’re seeing a set of concerns raised that closely match the pattern of complaints that preceded the emergence of ‘Wind Turbine Syndrome’.

An article in the Canberra Times, where a resident complains of impacts from glare
Like wind turbines, issues of aesthetics, autonomy, control and community engagement are now coming to the fore. Despite the fact that solar PV is designed, as you’d expect, to absorb light rather than reflect it, glare is a major concern for residents living near these developments. Dedicate 15 seconds to some thorough googling, and you can find the symptoms of exposure to solar panels - pain, headaches, mood swings, restlessnesss, diabetes, injury, cancer and death. Solar syndrome isn’t widespread yet, but it has all the makings of a new sub-type of anything syndrome .

The Symptoms of Anything Syndrome

The symptoms that bubble to the surface whenever technological health fears arise are consistent.

Dizziness, headaches, nausea, sleeplessness - these are common ailments, and the physical manifestations of anxiety also tend to be prevalent. I gathered a list of the symptoms that came up. It’s probable you've experienced at least one of the 416 symptoms in the past 12 hours.


To fit the diagnostic criteria for 'anything syndrome', you only need to be alive. So, how do we push back against a syndrome so wide-spread, so ubiquitous, and so easily spawned by human nature?

Stating the facts about exposure to radiation and low-frequency sound is likely to be ineffective, on its own. An assertion born of sentiment can’t be negated by simple facts. Facts combined with a powerful sentiment seem to be a better bet.

Graeme Maconachie is a landowner at the Challicum Hills Wind Farm. He was interviewed for a video produced by the Victorian Wind Alliance. Andrew Bray, who spoke for the Ballarat Skeptics in the Pub was involved in the production of this video.



Listening to Graeme talk frankly about his motivations for hosting wind turbines certainly puts ‘wind turbine syndrome’ in stark perspective. On one hand, he's talking about scientific investigation, but he's also combining it with a strong sentiment. It's important, and it's powerful. I like it.

I'm not advocating against the use of facts. But when you closely consider how deeply human these fears are, then perhaps we need to dig a little deeper, past data and facts, and try to address what's spawned these concerns.

There are some bits of scientific research that serve as incredibly powerful demonstrations that people really don’t need to feel the fear that those with vested interests want them to feel. An utterly fascinating piece of research by Witthoft and Rubin published in 2012 showed that simply receiving negative information about WiFi signals can cause people to report illness when exposed to a sham WiFi signal. The film they watched was the BBC Panorama documentary we saw earlier.
“54 percent of the subjects reported experiencing agitation and anxiety, loss of concentration or tingling in their fingers, arms, legs, and feet. Two participants left the study prematurely because their symptoms were so severe that they no longer wanted to be exposed to the assumed radiation.”
Witthoft and Rubin's results, via Discover Magazine
The story of how we’re so deeply vulnerable to misinformation, to the extent where it can cause real suffering and anxiety, is profoundly important and incredibly interesting, and it’s based on solid science.

We shouldn't shy away from communicating facts - we just need to make sure people feel the same thrill that we do, when we’re diving deep into the world of scientific venture. If we fail to do this, we risk coming across as a little arrogant.

These fears stem from the fissure between the technological output of science and the fairly unavoidable fact that we’re fleshy organisms with hopes and fears and cognitive shortcomings. We are born terrified, and every moment of calm is a temporary excursion from a state of extreme caution.

An effective way to stick it to the merchants of fear is to embed ourselves deeply in that thrilling, violent and dynamic fissure that sits between what we’re told by science, and what we’re told by the primal messengers underneath our skin.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Ketan - getting such an overview of these supposed syndromes and the common elements to them all is very powerful. My husband is a science teacher, and gets so frustrated that in an era in which we are at our peak of scientific knowledge, regular people can be so ready to believe misinformation. That is a great point too about the importance of backing up the facts with emotion and belief. Liz.

    ReplyDelete