This edition: Are cell phone antennae dangerous to your health and how can we explain an apparent success of an electrodermal screening device.
By Harriet Hall, MD
I’ve read about people who got sick because there were cell phone antennas on the roof of their apartment buildings. They developed headaches, brain tumors, and other health effects. There is a cell phone antenna close to my apartment. What kind of radiation do they emit? Should I be worried?
Answer: No. You should stop worrying.
This summary by the American Cancer Society explains the issue very well. The radiation cell phone antennas emit is not the kind of ionizing radiation that can cause cancer. It is non-ionizing radiation, the same kind of radiation we get from FM radio waves, visible light, and heat. At very high levels, non-ionizing radiation can heat body tissues the same way it heats food in the microwave. The radiation from cell-phone towers might heat your tissues if you climbed the tower and hugged the antenna for hours at a time; but even then, heating tissues is not likely to cause headaches or brain tumors. At the usual distance from a rooftop antenna or cell phone tower, the level is far too low to expect any effect on people. The incidence of brain tumors is not rising, and people get headaches all the time; a causal link with cell phone towers or cell phone use has not been established and is highly improbable. I would not be the least bit worried.
I was suffering all sorts of symptoms, from fatigue, hot burning feet, itchy skin, no motivation to do anything, just craved sugar like out of control. Did not really care about cleaning my car or house and just sad most of the day and actually had the bizarre thought that rags were riches. Along comes this guy with this computer with a little blue plate and probe all hooked up to it. He wets my hand and begins to push very gently on these points which give a read out on the screen, he said that he was just going to get a read out and go from there. So he prints out this graph and does a quick read and says that my kidney energy is very low. So he uses a point on my little toe and well I really cant remember to much more about what happened next except he gets this bottle and puts it on this plate and says the computer will make up a homeopathic remedy tailor made for me. Now I remember what it was, Sulphur. That was all he puts in this bottle. So I take this stuff as he instructs and I go and research this Sulphur. All I can say is that it was the story of my life. Man it was so accurate it was freaky. Well if that was not enough I start to feel better straight away virtually. Yeah I was a skeptic but when my feet stopped burning and my skin got better and I started cleaning everything I was just blown away. My motivation returned and I was actually feeling happy again. Now I don't know what did it, but I do know it had such a profound change on my life I really just accepted it and now all these years later enjoy really great health and the best part is I keep a bottle of that sulphur around and just take a drop every now and then.
Answer: Sure, I can explain it; but it will be a waste of time because you won’t accept my explanation.
A rational explanation couldn’t possibly compete with the impact of your personal experience. I’ll just say that anecdotes like yours are very common for every kind of snake oil and for all kinds of tests and treatments that science has shown not to work. If you really want to understand what might be going on, you can read Barry Beyerstein’s explanation of why bogus therapies can seem to work. In the first place, illness is not the same as disease: the perception of being ill is not the same as objectively verifiable pathology in the body. In the second place, the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy may fool us into thinking that just because we took a pill and got better, the reason we got better had to be the pill. Beyerstein lists these ten errors and biases:
- The disease may have run its natural course.
- Many diseases are cyclical; symptoms fluctuate.
- Spontaneous remissions can occur, even with cancers that are usually lethal.
- The placebo effect, which relies on expectations, suggestion, conditioning, the therapeutic ritual, and contextual effects of the provider/patient encounter.
- Some symptoms arise from psychosocial distress and can be alleviated by support and reassurance.
- Symptomatic relief is not the same as cure. Suffering can be relieved by psychological means even when the underlying pathology is untouched.
- When more than one treatment is used, one may falsely get the credit when the improvement was really due to another factor.
- Misdiagnosis (by self or physician). Many people can be induced to think they have diseases they don’t have.
- Derivative benefits. An enthusiastic healer can elevate the patient’s mood and expectations, can reduce stress, and can motivate patients to take better care of themselves.
- Psychological distortion of reality in the service of strong belief. (Beyerstein explains some of the ways this can happen.)
Evolution equipped us to survive reality, not to understand it. Because the human brain is prone to errors and biases like these, even the most intelligent, honest people can become convinced that a treatment has caused a cure when it has not. The only way we can avoid such errors is to test treatments with the scientific method.
Electrodiagnostic devices, the diagnosis of “low kidney energy,” and homeopathic remedies are all bogus. But I suspect science and reason will be powerless to persuade you, because you “know” what you experienced and you “believe.” You are in good company; science doesn’t come naturally to us fallible humans. We are far more impressed by stories than by studies, by anecdotes than by analyses. As Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” That’s a lesson that even some scientists have not yet learned. I’m afraid you fooled yourself when you fell prey to the quack with the computer.
Harriet A. Hall is a retired family physician, former U.S. Air Force flight surgeon, and health advocate who writes about alternative medicine and quackery for Skeptic magazine, Skeptical Inquirer and Science-based Medicine.