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Sick from it all
April 13, 2013 7:47 AM   Subscribe

"At night, [Nicols Fox] wears a shirt woven with silver fibers to reduce her radio frequency exposure, and though her house has electricity, she shuts it off and uses gas lamps whenever possible. During our conversation, her voice would occasionally get cracked and raspy if I got too close with my audio recorder. In the five years since she’s moved to the Radio Quiet Zone, she hasn't left once."

Despite consternation from locals, sufferers from electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS) have begun moving to the town of Green Bank, West Virginia, to live in the U.S. National Radio Quiet Zone, an area established to minimize interference with radio astronomy.

In defiance of stereotype, Green Bank "refugees" are often highly educated people who had demanding professions before the onset of their symptoms.

The Electrosensitive Society website, comprehensive but rather scant under the "EHS Medical Specialists" link.
posted by Countess Elena (146 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
Neurosis is amazing, isn't it?
posted by spitbull at 7:50 AM on April 13, 2013 [60 favorites]


What are the odds of both people in a couple developing this?
posted by welovelife at 7:53 AM on April 13, 2013 [7 favorites]


So no free wifi?
posted by blue_beetle at 7:56 AM on April 13, 2013 [18 favorites]


I notice that she is walking in the sunlight...
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 7:56 AM on April 13, 2013 [102 favorites]


Case study in confirmation bias.
posted by supercres at 7:56 AM on April 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


In defiance of stereotype, Green Bank "refugees" are often highly educated people

Actually, that should be the stereotype of any such science skeptic people, be they microwave worriers, anti-vaxxers or other. People who are smart and intelligent enough to see through pop science simplifications and lies to children, but not smart or trained enough to actually understand the real science. Engineer's disease.
posted by MartinWisse at 7:58 AM on April 13, 2013 [147 favorites]


The Salon article does a great job explaining how despite repeated studies, there is no evidence that electrosensitivity actually exists. It's nice there happens to be this place in West Viriginia where these unfortunate people can move to and be happy. But "electrosensitivity" is increasingly being cited as a reason to stop deployment of important infrastructure: cell phone towers, city-wide WiFi, smart electrical meters. Superstitious thinking is particularly dangerous in combination with a legal system that allows any citizen to spend months, years holding up deployment by filing environmental impact actions. At least the electrosensitivity ignorance doesn't directly kill children like vaccine skepticism does.
posted by Nelson at 7:59 AM on April 13, 2013 [47 favorites]


The experiment to debunk this basically designs itself...

...and apparently it has. 17 times. (for example)
posted by Salvor Hardin at 8:00 AM on April 13, 2013 [21 favorites]


welovelife: "What are the odds of both people in a couple developing this?"

Very high, these things spread socially. Publicity makes them flourish as well, which makes articles like this somewhat irresponsible.
posted by idiopath at 8:06 AM on April 13, 2013 [17 favorites]


It's kind of like anti-placebo or disease placebo - they get the symptoms when they are told there's radiation, but fail instantly in a double-blind when they don't know whether the radiation is on or off. Which is pretty interesting, and not limited to this case. There was a previous MeFi thread about another supposed illness which worked exactly like this, too, one where people got "ill" only when they found out that there is this illness. But I've forgotten what it was - anyone remember?

...and apparently it has. 17 times.

The Slate article notes that it has happened at least 46 times.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 8:10 AM on April 13, 2013


Folie à deux.
posted by The White Hat at 8:10 AM on April 13, 2013 [6 favorites]


Nelson: "At least the electrosensitivity ignorance doesn't directly kill children like vaccine skepticism does."

But it can still harm them. The Portland Public School system has had to pay huge court fees defending a suit from a parent claiming that WIFI in public schools is harming the children, directly taking money from classes and extracurricular activities.
posted by idiopath at 8:12 AM on April 13, 2013 [47 favorites]


Mass psychogenic illness is linked to to in the article itself; see also folie à deux.

It'll be tragically interesting what happens to the sufferers moving there for relief. I suspect that for many, it'll be short-lived at best before it flares again.
posted by Drastic at 8:13 AM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Pyrogenesis: "I've forgotten what it was - anyone remember?"

One that came up recently was Morgellons.
posted by idiopath at 8:13 AM on April 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Wait, this isn't in Portland?
posted by schwa at 8:16 AM on April 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


The phrase Folie à deux always makes me think of the (excellent) X-Files episode of the same name.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:16 AM on April 13, 2013 [8 favorites]


There was a previous MeFi thread about another supposed illness which worked exactly like this

Wind turbine sickness?
posted by grahamparks at 8:17 AM on April 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


Why don't they just wear tin foil hats like the rest of us?
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:18 AM on April 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yes, the wind turbine thing. Thanks, grahamparks. That morgellons thing is interesting too. Psychosomatic symptoms through belief.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 8:20 AM on April 13, 2013


The phrase Folie à deux always makes me think of the (excellent) X-Files episode of the same name.

Vince Gilligan of Breakung Bad fame there. He wrote a lot if the best X-Files.
posted by Artw at 8:21 AM on April 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


The Schous use ... an Internet-connected computer

I wonder if it's TEMPEST shielded.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:21 AM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ah yes, Greenbank - where microwaves are just how dwarves say hello to one another.
posted by MuffinMan at 8:31 AM on April 13, 2013 [8 favorites]


For those with previous Metafilter-thread sensitivity
posted by RogerB at 8:32 AM on April 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Green Bank is out of the way, but the NRAO is a great place to visit, if only to see the immaculately maintained fleet of diesel vehicles that service the facility, used for their lack of spark plugs and fancy computin' devices.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:35 AM on April 13, 2013 [15 favorites]


RogerB, I'm so sorry, I don't know how I didn't pick that up. I definitely searched. My bad.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:35 AM on April 13, 2013


When I worked for a local paper in rural Delaware one of the last stories I did was on a county-council fight over whether to approve construction of a new cell phone tower. "E/M will kill you" was a frequent note among the opposition. There was also an argument that coverage was just fine in the area and the cell company was building a tower as a naked profit grab. How building a completely unnecessary new tower was supposed to lead to monumental profits was left to the listener's imagination.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 8:41 AM on April 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


A previous post on the same topic. The radio quiet zone is actually a pretty interesting place. I have toured it and if you are a space geek it is worth the trip. Among other trivia: within a mile of the Byrd telescope only diesel vehicles are allowed. The reason? No spark plugs means less RF interference. When you take the tour there are a lot of other antennas on site, some of which the guides refuse to talk about at all. Apparently other government agencies take advantage of the quiet to do a little listening of their own (some of the more cynical among us might even say that is the real reason for the quiet zone, with radio astronomy providing a convenient cover). Just to add a little extra conspiracy goodness into the mix, the whole thing is not too far from The Bunker at The Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, WV.
posted by TedW at 8:42 AM on April 13, 2013 [22 favorites]


whether or not it's a recognized condition or even real, if people feel better by moving to a particular place, i don't begrudge them that freedom.
posted by fallacy of the beard at 8:42 AM on April 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Looks like there's a good-sized community of people online looking for "safe" housing for things like EHS and MCS, at least one (other) town - Snowflake, AZ - marketing to this audience, and some specialized public housing, too.
posted by Wylla at 8:43 AM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


During our conversation, her voice would occasionally get cracked and raspy if I got too close with my audio recorder. In the five years since she’s moved to the Radio Quiet Zone, she hasn't left once.

I honestly don't know how this reporter kept a straight face.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 8:44 AM on April 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


You've got to be kidding me -- Snowflake, AZ? Someone at the Arizona Department of Housing is skeptical.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 8:46 AM on April 13, 2013 [30 favorites]


fallacy of the beard, I don't think that that's really the issue. Of course, people who aren't fleeing the law should have the freedom to move wherever they please and live however they please without hurting anyone.

The issue here isn't the behaviour of the "EHS sufferers" - it's the behaviour of the hucksters that arise to exploit them by pushing unproven diagnoses and dubious treatments. The article points this out in a backhanded way, by profiling at least one woman who can't afford to make the move she's made and is struggling to keep up any sort of career that can support her.

People can easily be victimized when supposed professionals and 'healers' they trust tell them that the only way to stop their very real suffering is a drastic and expensive lifestyle change.
posted by Wylla at 8:49 AM on April 13, 2013 [6 favorites]


Slarty, I imagine it would similar to keeping a straight face around someone who believes the CIA is stealing their thoughts. The pain is real.
posted by Gin and Comics at 8:49 AM on April 13, 2013 [14 favorites]


These people are not anti-science. Anti-vaccine advocates are not anti-science. They believe they're responding to a scientific issue revealed in scientific studies. They're mistaken, just like believers in evolutionary psychology and neo-eugencists, but unlike members of those groups, the bad taste to have superstitions that do not serve entrenched race, gender and class interests.
posted by mobunited at 8:51 AM on April 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


An entire city devoted to astronomy is now catering to the tinfoil hat crowd. Which just goes to show you the immortal wisdom of Dr. Thompson. "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:53 AM on April 13, 2013 [19 favorites]


Engineer's disease.

Dude.
posted by Zed at 8:53 AM on April 13, 2013 [13 favorites]


When you take the tour there are a lot of other antennas on site, some of which the guides refuse to talk about at all.

I used to work at NRAO, have spent a lot of time wandering around the site and investigating random hardware, and have no idea what antennas you could be talking about. There is lots of hardware scattered around there, it's much more likely that the tour guides just don't know what each bit is.
posted by kiltedtaco at 8:55 AM on April 13, 2013 [13 favorites]


These people are not anti-science. Anti-vaccine advocates are not anti-science. They believe they're responding to a scientific issue revealed in scientific studies.

It's not pro-science to grab whatever works for you and dump the rest. No different really than the true-believer in God who justifies vengeance with an-eye-for-an-eye but has no time for turn-the-other-cheek.
posted by philip-random at 8:57 AM on April 13, 2013 [23 favorites]


It seems it would be really easy to debunk this if one could get some of these people to agree to be subjected to controlled testing. You know, a fully screened room containing a box that may or may not contain an emitter, which may be emitting at differing intensities. How do you feel? How about now? And so on.
posted by Decani at 9:06 AM on April 13, 2013


Conversion disorder is an interesting phenomenon.
posted by deathpanels at 9:07 AM on April 13, 2013


It's been done. People keep believing.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 9:08 AM on April 13, 2013


Did you read the Salon article linked here, Decani? It describes studies exactly like that as well as meta-analysis of many related studies. Electrosensitivity is already thoroughly debunked.
posted by Nelson at 9:08 AM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wylla: "The issue here isn't the behaviour of the "EHS sufferers" - it's the behaviour of the hucksters that arise to exploit them by pushing unproven diagnoses and dubious treatments."

That's one half of it, but these people also agitate for and against public policies based on these assumed sensitivities. The wasted money and opportunities this can cause harm just about everyone in their community.
posted by idiopath at 9:08 AM on April 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Also, is this not the exact plot of Todd Haynes's 1995 film, Safe?
posted by deathpanels at 9:09 AM on April 13, 2013 [12 favorites]


How do you help someone like this? If they are experiencing real distress but are convinced it's for reasons that are completely wrong? Not a rhetorical question.
posted by the jam at 9:10 AM on April 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge." -Carl Sagan

yes, these people are anti-science.
posted by moss free at 9:11 AM on April 13, 2013 [14 favorites]


Apparently other government agencies take advantage of the quiet to do a little listening of their own

FYI, this is what they're listening to.
posted by CosmicRayCharles at 9:11 AM on April 13, 2013


Green Bank "refugees" are often highly educated people who had demanding professions before the onset of their symptoms.

I've wondered about this aspect of EHS. The largest effect it seems to have on people is to force them to move out of crowded cities and stress filled lives and into a slower-paced life in countryside.

It's an honest-to-god excuse to leave the rat race with your chin up, claiming even to yourself that you were forced to leave rather than giving up because you couldn't take it any more.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:12 AM on April 13, 2013 [25 favorites]


Pseudoscience and associated conspiracy theories are absolutely anti-science.
posted by Artw at 9:13 AM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Here are some pictures of NRAO Green Bank, if you're interested.
posted by kiltedtaco at 9:13 AM on April 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Artw: "Pseudoscience and associated conspiracy theories are absolutely anti-science."

But its tricky - like homophobic straight men that love "lesbian porn", they are all about how scientific their information is, and cite carefully cherry picked research, etc. To hear them tell it they are very much pro science.
posted by idiopath at 9:19 AM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Is it possible that they're all just radio telescopes wearing human clothes?
posted by Uppity Pigeon #2 at 9:20 AM on April 13, 2013 [6 favorites]


So what happens if someone who underwent the double-blind study as mentioned in the article is (A) told that it's in their head and (B) shown their own results in recorded time -- here's a camera angle into the screening room showing the device's power light turning on and off when we told you it was, here's the device turning on and off when we did not tell you.
posted by user92371 at 9:24 AM on April 13, 2013


How do you help someone like this? If they are experiencing real distress but are convinced it's for reasons that are completely wrong? Not a rhetorical question.

Apparently for delusional parasitosis some doctors have settled on a medication that has both antipsychotic and anti-itch properties.

The idea, I think, is that you can present it to the patient as something that will help with the condition they believe they have — but you can do it in scientific good conscience, knowing that it will also help with the condition you believe they have.

(Well, that's if I'm remembering this right — I might not be. And anyway, it seems like a bit of a pharmacological lucky break. I'm guessing for most delusions there isn't a convenient belt-and-suspenders pill that will treat both the imagined and the actual problem.)
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 9:26 AM on April 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Being presented with evidence that contradicts your beliefs tends to make your beliefs stronger.
posted by rmd1023 at 9:28 AM on April 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Slarty Bartfast: "You've got to be kidding me -- Snowflake, AZ? Someone at the Arizona Department of Housing is skeptical."

I've been to Snowflake. It's a very special town on the Morgellons Mogollon Rim.
posted by workerant at 9:28 AM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


So what happens if someone who underwent the double-blind study as mentioned in the article is (A) told that it's in their head and (B) shown their own results in recorded time -- here's a camera angle into the screening room showing the device's power light turning on and off when we told you it was, here's the device turning on and off when we did not tell you.

It was some other source from a different part of the building. They're not sensitive to that wavelength. There's sometimes a big of lag between the EMF radiation and the symptoms presenting, although often times it's nearly instant. Some days they feel quite resilient and it barely bothers them. It's the concordance of several different sources, not just one source. Etc.
posted by skewed at 9:31 AM on April 13, 2013 [27 favorites]


A good article about this in the Guardian just the other day: Electrosensitivity: is technology killing us?
posted by verstegan at 9:34 AM on April 13, 2013


Skewed: Is that what people have said in the past when people were presented with videos that show them not synching up their maladies with the machine? Or was that just an educated guess?
posted by user92371 at 9:35 AM on April 13, 2013


To hear them tell it they are very much pro science.

Yeah, its a bit of a problem. Humans very much can detect electromagnetic fields, but only at levels far greater than what's being generated by wifi. But, once the door is opened....
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:36 AM on April 13, 2013


combination of what I've read in other articles like this and guessing. Sorry, should have been clear.

Oh, and not specifically about being confronted with a video, but with just general results of these tests, some by participants and some by non-participants with the sensitivity.
posted by skewed at 9:37 AM on April 13, 2013


Also, is this not the exact plot of Todd Haynes's 1995 film, Safe?

which is a great movie, just replace electromagnetic with "chemical."
posted by ennui.bz at 9:43 AM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


So what happens if someone who underwent the double-blind study as mentioned in the article is (A) told that it's in their head and (B) shown their own results in recorded time -- here's a camera angle into the screening room showing the device's power light turning on and off when we told you it was, here's the device turning on and off when we did not tell you.

This sort of intervention has a poor track record for delusions.

Imagine you get so nauseous you want to throw up whenever someone uses a cellphone near you. This is a major aspect of your life, one that is severely restrictive. Someone is on a cell phone in the next room right now and you are feeling lightheaded and ready to puke and now some doctor is trying to explain that no, you aren't actually experiencing that.

So what are you going to believe, the evidence of your own senses or a doctor who clearly has no clue?
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:45 AM on April 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


It's an honest-to-god excuse to leave the rat race with your chin up, claiming even to yourself that you were forced to leave rather than giving up because you couldn't take it any more.

That would be even funnier. Being forced to leave the rat race for your peace of mind with your chin up is an honest to god excuse already, that just about anyone can understand. In fact, I've known people who've done this. Wrapping this excuse in a layer of EHS tin foil seems to replace the "chin up" part with "delusional".
posted by 2N2222 at 9:49 AM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


These people have invested a great deal in the idea that they have EHS. They've uprooted their lives, left careers, and may have cut off relationships with skeptics in their lives. It would be painful for them to discover EHS isn't real. So, I don't think there will be any eureka moments based on experiments or medical advice. Any change in their outlook would likely be gradual.
posted by Area Man at 9:50 AM on April 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Being forced to leave the rat race for your peace of mind with your chin up is an honest to god excuse already, that just about anyone can understand.

I think you may be underestimating how much of people's ego gets tied up in their ability to handle anything the world throws at them. Particularly the type of people who end up in high stress positions.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:54 AM on April 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Two trustees on our local school board ran on an anti-wifi platform, and won. Now my kids' school has no more wifi. No big deal, I guess, but it's absolutely crazy these people are helping run the show.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:54 AM on April 13, 2013 [18 favorites]


There is lots of hardware scattered around there, it's much more likely that the tour guides just don't know what each bit is.

Since you have first hand knowledge I will defer to you. But certainly the quiet zone works to the advantage of the folks at Sugar Grove as well.
posted by TedW at 9:57 AM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


It would also be great if there was a handy checklist to debunk the anti-wifi people....l
posted by KokuRyu at 9:57 AM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


We've had city-wide WiFi in my city for years now. I wonder if that will make it harder for EHS activists to get traction.
posted by Area Man at 10:04 AM on April 13, 2013


Not really. Smart meters around here use cell phone frequencies and despite the very low rate of transmission and the fact that urban areas are bathed in cell phone frequencies EHS sufferers have managed to get municipalities to uselessly ban smart meters. Uselessly because the authority having jurisdiction isn't subject to municipal by-laws.
posted by Mitheral at 10:11 AM on April 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


user92371 - So what happens if someone who underwent the double-blind study as mentioned in the article is (A) told that it's in their head and (B) shown their own results in recorded time -- here's a camera angle into the screening room showing the device's power light turning on and off when we told you it was, here's the device turning on and off when we did not tell you.

I don't know about that specific case, but interviews and documentaries I've come across of similar cases -- people having an odd belief about themselves contradicted by testing -- were generally along the lines that skewed suggested. The best I can remember and find online within a couple of minutes is this double-blind test of psychics' abilities (you might have to seek around a bit in the podcast to find it).

Comparing what the psychics said before the test, after the test, and after learning that they'd failed the test is absolutely fascinating, if a bit depressing. The general pattern seems to be "I like the test structure, and I'm confident", then "I'm confident that it went well", and finally "I could feel it was going badly; it's because the test structure was flawed in ways x, y and z".

I know psychic power has somewhat different baggage to electrosensitivity, but it's still people failing a test of an unusual sensitivity that's core to their self-image and their (perceived) experience of life. From what I've read and heard, their reactions are pretty much the same: making excuses, favourably misremembering events, and occasionally making accusations of fixing.
posted by metaBugs at 10:31 AM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's one thing to poke fun at an imagined condition and another to act as though there is not and never will be a downside of so much wireless broadcasting. I am fully supportive of people who are worried that a link between electromagnetic waves and cancer might be firmly established and want to increase proliferation more slowly than others. Haven't we found so many other "free lunch" materials and practices to have downsides before?
posted by michaelh at 11:14 AM on April 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


"Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge." -Carl Sagan

yes, these people are anti-science.


Then everyone is anti-science about the majority of their lives. Most of what you call scientific thinking is actually a faith in the social process of science--you do not personally review all experiments that influence your common knowledge, or even know of most of them. You are vaguely reassured that things are right because of vague associations with technologies and historical achievements. Your associations, you vague sense of feeling good, is not scientific in the slightest.

I happen to live near a well-known WiFi alarmist, Magda Havas. Dr. Havas teaches at my alma mater, which is a well regarded, accredited university. Her activist/huckster site includes descriptions of undergraduate courses she teaches on the effects of electromagnetism on living organisms. When people believe this women, they are in now way being "anti-scientific," and I suspect that the rush to those ramparts comes from a significant number of posters wanting to make sure that their fashionable nonsense seems more reputable than her less-fashionable nonsense.

For the typical layperson, this kind of thing is a total crapshoot. Blogs and news sources that might present a skeptical view are adulterated by their own bullshit. You might look at multiple sources and even actual papers, but you don't have the time to do this for everything, and you may come across skewed results, like papers representing a minority view.

And this is all assuming that you do not have an excellent culturally derived reason to distrust majority views in the first place. If you're not white, or have any recent history of medicalized torture, psychiatric imprisonment, or other exploitation linked to the scientific justifications state power uses, you may have much less patience for arrogant commands to trust scientific establishments, no matter how good a track record they have.

So you . . . yes, you, reading this . . . almost certainly believe something as stupid as what the subjects of this article believe. Your beliefs are merely more socially acceptable, or are just so obscure or buried in larger cultural biases they have yet to be unearthed and mocked. But your false confidence in scientific reasoning, which you yourself, like me, like them, barely exercise, will help you inflict your share of damage on society.
posted by mobunited at 11:21 AM on April 13, 2013 [60 favorites]


I think you have it backwards michaelh. There are good reasons to think this technology does not cause significant health problems. There is every reason not to poke fun at people even when they're completely wrong.
posted by edd at 11:27 AM on April 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's one thing to poke fun at an imagined condition and another to act as though there is not and never will be a downside of so much wireless broadcasting. I am fully supportive of people who are worried that a link between electromagnetic waves and cancer might be firmly established and want to increase proliferation more slowly than others. Haven't we found so many other "free lunch" materials and practices to have downsides before?

There is not and never will be a downside of non-ionizing radiation in terms of human health. Well, in energy levels below "hand in a microwave".
posted by Benjy at 11:29 AM on April 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


Whenever I am around a TV that is tuned to Fox News, I am reliably sick to my stomach.

Also, sometimes exposure to high contrast blue and white LCD screens makes me positively insane! A lot depends on exactly how the white part is arranged. Very, very subtle.......

I think there's something to it. No kidding.
posted by FauxScot at 11:30 AM on April 13, 2013 [8 favorites]


Breathing the byproducts of gas lighting — and in particular the ultra-fine particulates — is certainly a lot more harmful than any amount of EMF broadcast by household wiring. But I bet EMF gets blamed for her eventual lung cancer anyway.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:06 PM on April 13, 2013 [9 favorites]


You know, this reminds me ... These tinfoil hat types railing against emissions may as well go down to the beach and try to stop the tides. It's pointless to try. There's no escape. Find something else to be troubled by. This is what really makes them anti-science -- their selective attention.

Look, here's a funny story...

I'm in Banff, seeing the sights, and I take the tram up Sulphur Mountain. There, amidst the tourists, is the Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station. A cosmic ray detector looks like a weird telescope.

The one in Banff makes a little "ping" noise whenever it's struck by a cosmic ray, energetic particles from the depths of space.

They're little death beams, you know. Background radiation. Causes cellular mutations in the cells they strike. Which can lead to cancer. Bummer. It's the high cost of being human.

I'm looking at the detector, talking to my wife.

"Oh, wow..."
PING!
"... a cosmic ray detector."
PING!
"It makes that noise ..."
PING!
"every time it's being..."
PING!
"... hit."
PING!
"Wait."
PING!
"This means I'm getting hit by cosmic rays, too."
PING!
"Holy shit, get away from the detector!"
PING!
PING!
My wife: "Where are you going to run to, exactly?"
PING!
Me: "Oh yeah."
PING!
PING!
PING!
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:19 PM on April 13, 2013 [44 favorites]


Then everyone is anti-science about the majority of their lives.

This. I strongly believe people are so eager to hop onto whatever "feels" right that science has become just another one of those "feels."

Science is evidence, data, yes this [thing we are studying] may be harmful but it's only harmful to this small % of the population who may have an abnormal reaction. Take laundry detergent, the majority of people are not allergic to Tide but with enough of a sample size you're going to find someone who is.

But we are individuals and when we are told only this small % of people gets sick/dies we immediately imagine that we will be in that percentage. We live our lives based on personal experience and personal experience is anti-science.

"The reason is that personal experiences are a terrible way to learn something. As human beings, we are all subject to preconceived notions, personal biases, and differing expectations; and of course any one person's personal sampling of something is, by definition, an uncontrolled, unblinded test subject to external influences and all manner of unknown variables. This is why we all know people who have reached opposite conclusions based on their experiences. They can't all be right, and that's proof enough that personal experience is an unreliable way to learn practically anything"-Brian Dunning
posted by M Edward at 12:25 PM on April 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Then everyone is anti-science about the majority of their lives. Most of what you call scientific thinking is actually a faith in the social process of science--you do not personally review all experiments that influence your common knowledge, or even know of most of them.

I bump up against this all the time. Much of what the laity thinks of as science is nothing but pure folklore. The Bernoulli effect explanation of wing lift, or the gyroscopic wheel explanation of bicycle stability are good examples of folklore passing for fact. Both are essentially false, in that the effect may exist but it is a minor contributor unimportant to the result. Yet both were and to some extent still are promulgated as fact even among those who really have every reason to know better. And despite the fact it has always been a simple matter to call them into question through straightforward observations accessible to anyone.

An awful lot of the most vehement pro-science ranters are half-informed lay persons enjoying themselves at the expense of the dummies. If they're right most of the time it's not because they're informed critical thinkers, it's that we live in an age in which the received wisdom is mostly right. But the mockers are a little too pleased with themselves with too little cause and are often unable to distinguish between what they know and what they only think they know.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:28 PM on April 13, 2013 [8 favorites]


My wife: "Where are you going to run to, exactly?"
Downhill? It's on a mountain for a reason.
posted by edd at 12:33 PM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't believe in this one bit, not one iota. My lived experience contradicts it, and what I understand of the underlying science does too.

Then again, had I lived in the 1930s, I would have had the same reaction to plate tectonics and hygiene theory. A hundred years earlier, and germ theory would have seemed absurd.

Yes, it's most likely that these people are afflicted with a (weirdly communicative) psychological disorder. But there's still a non-trivial chance they are on to something, however misguidedly....
posted by digitalprimate at 12:35 PM on April 13, 2013


Downhill? It's on a mountain for a reason.

Cosmic rays hit everyone, everywhere, all the time. The detector is on a mountain only to detect them better than you can at sea level, but they hit there, too.

That was kind the joke there, buddy. It's the cosmic (ha ha) equivalent of Steve Martin telling you that the sniper hates cans, so you should stay away from the cans to be safe.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:56 PM on April 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


The detector is on a mountain only to detect them better than you can at sea level
It detects them better because fewer make it down to sea level. It's entirely reasonable that if you want to avoid cosmic ray radiation damage to your body you live at sea level (where you may be at greater risk of shark attack or whatever, but that's another story).
posted by edd at 12:57 PM on April 13, 2013


If you go below sea level that's where they put the neutrino detectors...
posted by Artw at 1:17 PM on April 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


So you . . . yes, you, reading this . . . almost certainly believe something as stupid as what the subjects of this article believe. Your beliefs are merely more socially acceptable, or are just so obscure or buried in larger cultural biases they have yet to be unearthed and mocked. But your false confidence in scientific reasoning, which you yourself, like me, like them, barely exercise, will help you inflict your share of damage on society.

So what do we do about it? I still see a fundamental difference here. Yes, we can all be arrogant. Yes, we can all be close-minded. And it's hard to be an expert in more than a single field (if even that) But surely there is a difference between people who are willing to change their minds, and those who will not do so under any circumstances. It is this open-minded skepticism which I think is one of the major benefits of a scientific outlook and education, not possessing all the correct, current data of a particular field, to say nothing of the sum total of all scientific knowledge.

I sometimes briefly talk about parapsychology or alternative medicine in some of my research classes. I openly acknowledge my biases of not finding any it particularly credible, but caution my students to practice the open-minded skepticism I mentioned above. What is the evidence? Would this evidence pass scientific muster? What irregularities exist between the claimed study (if any) and a textbook methodology? What does the entity performing the study have to gain from its acceptance? Can the hypothesis be properly falsified, etc.

It isn't hard to teach this stuff... it's basic scientific methodology combined with a modicum of critical thinking. You don't really need advanced stats or calculus or quantum physics to develop a basic bullshit detector. It's not tied to any particular field.

This is already turning into a wall of text, but the other thing I think is crucial is for people to understand the role of consensus in science. There will always be discordant voices -- sometimes eccentrics, sometimes charlatans -- and sometimes correct. What is important is to show people examples of how once-unpopular ideas that defied the consensus eventually became the consensus -- but they did it by following the rules of careful data collection and scientific inquiry, not posting dubious information on websites or pamphlets, or crying "conspiracy!" and claiming the field had been corrupted.
posted by Palquito at 1:34 PM on April 13, 2013 [18 favorites]


TedW: The radio quiet zone is actually a pretty interesting place. I have toured it and if you are a space geek it is worth the trip.

I went there about 10 years ago as part of the Society of Amateur Radio Astronomers annual meeting. As a SARA member I got to operate the 40 foot telescope which is an old one set aside for educational activites. Observed quasar 3C279, which is about 1/3 of the way across the universe. This year's meeting is July 14-17.
posted by neuron at 1:58 PM on April 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Is it possible that they're all just radio telescopes wearing human clothes?

Impossible. They're made of meat.
posted by chillmost at 2:04 PM on April 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


Strictly speak, land based cosmic ray detectors aren't detecting the cosmic rays themselves - which are charged articles that tend to collide in the upper atmosphere, but rather a 'shower' composed of the shrapnel of various particles that spring into being when the incredibly high energy cosmic rays collide with particles in the atmosphere.
posted by Zalzidrax at 2:07 PM on April 13, 2013


I would like to see the poor musician open a general store. Deliveries to be made - the last few miles - by whatever type of vehicles the radio astronomy lab uses. Financial transactions toted up with paper and pencil. It sounds like there's definitely a need for at least a nearby store for non-perishable necessities.
posted by bendy at 2:15 PM on April 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Engineer's disease.
Dude.
@Zed look forward to this becoming or already being a meme among people who are too posh to have become engineers
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 2:28 PM on April 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


I have a collection of old medicines. Some of them are not that old. What do you smear on an open wound? Why, a dollop of oleate of lead, of course! How do you cure bedwetting? Why, by swallowing a mercury-based concoction! And, of course, Camels are GOOD FOR YOU according to many many white-coat wearing Medical Doctors.

That's one side.

The other side: Many many people were convinced that living inside a house wired with electricity was going to kill you. A lot of people were not very enthused about electric blankets, either (now, that one, I kind of get...it is a little creepy, isn't it, compared to the idea of throwing on another blanket or two?).

I believe in science, generally speaking. But its related entities...such as pharmaceutical companies and food corporations who add chemicals to chemicals to chemicals...

Why is the rate of cancer ballooning? Many scientists believe that the exposure to multiple chemicals with unknown combined effects have something to do with it, but the possibility of studying these effects is veritably impossible, given the number of chemicals we eat and breathe.

Sure, I have a hard time swallowing the claims of EHS sufferers. But the deleterious effects of the last one hundred years of scientific progress - and I'll pass over global warming so as to not further depress myself - tend to push me further toward Buddhism than Scientism as a faith.
Thank you, scientists for everything, but, just the same...
posted by kozad at 2:33 PM on April 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


A lot of this arises out of broken trust. Remember when they told us that cigarettes were good for asthma? Depleted uranium won't do anything. That additive X is perfectly okay? Thalidomide is as safe as milk for pregnant women! No, there's no way this will get in the groundwater, people in white lab coats are holding their clipboards very confidently today. You can take these two things together, we're sure it won't do anything to your heart, promise. Tuskeegee.

After a few decades of industry lying to the public about how this thing they want to do is so safe (and great for the quarterly profits), quite a lot of folks just don't believe what they're told any longer. That's how we got here.

Now we're reaping the harvest of unbelievers we've worked so hard to sow.
posted by adipocere at 2:33 PM on April 13, 2013 [15 favorites]


The "broken trust" theory misses two things:

You can't judge the state of the art of one time period against that of another. A scientist saying "we have no evidence of harm" is not the same as "this is not harmful". Science is about taking observations and figuring out why, and not jumping to conclusions. In 1958, we didn't know thalidomide was tetragenic. They saw the evidence, proved it to the best of their abilities, and changed how the drug was used. (Yet, some pregnant women still tried to get their hands on it for some reason.) Not knowing something before that you know now isn't a lie. That's how we learn stuff.

Even if a scientist lied about one thing, that by no means that a scientist not is lying about something.

You can't judge someone's credibility by what they say or how they say it or whether they claim to be a scientist or not. You have to look at the evidence they present. Scientists will present evidence, anti-science people will cater to some other more base instinct of humanity.
posted by gjc at 2:55 PM on April 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


"Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge." -Carl Sagan
Then everyone is anti-science about the majority of their lives.


How do you get from one to the next? The point of the Sagan quotation isn't the sum of the facts you currently "know", it's that you're always open to the idea that what you know might be wrong or there might be more to it. Your post feels like the typical back-handed "I'm smarter than those of you who look down on these morons because I can also encompass the idea they might be right. (Even though they clearly aren't.)"

It's not helpful. It's fine to not point and laugh, but let's not be so kind we treat this shit as worth discussion.
posted by yerfatma at 3:03 PM on April 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


"people in white lab coats are holding their clipboards very confidently today"

I just borrowed that. :) Thank you.
posted by mrbill at 3:18 PM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's not helpful. It's fine to not point and laugh, but let's not be so kind we treat this shit as worth discussion.

Which is a synonymous with "don't be so open-minded that your brain falls out"; a favorite of the teabaggy anti-climate change crowd and their collection of incontrovertible facts like "the climate has always been changing" and "last winter had record snow at my house". Your opponent thinks they know all they need to know, and they're wrong. Are you so sure you do? Fight fallacy with fact, not with bile and spew; don't tolerate hasty, half-informed smears from your opponent and don't do it yourself.

I'll re-link this video of Neil Degrasse Tyson's kindly takedown of Richard Dawkins' assholery, though he certainly doesn't call it that. There isn't a single thing they disagree on; Tyson is just saying that being a dick is deeply unproductive and unbecoming of an educator.
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:20 PM on April 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


There isn't a single thing they disagree on; Tyson is just saying that being a dick is deeply unproductive and unbecoming of an educator.

I think they disagree about the most important thing.
posted by Area Man at 3:26 PM on April 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


Bert—who gets much milder symptoms of EHS, including tinnitus—still goes back to their farm every summer to conduct corn research.

Uh, yeah, time to do some corn research! Bye!
posted by zvs at 3:58 PM on April 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


> "I am fully supportive of people who are worried that a link between electromagnetic waves and cancer might be firmly established and want to increase proliferation more slowly than others. Haven't we found so many other "free lunch" materials and practices to have downsides before?"

People moving to the quiet zone aren't doing it because of some nebulous fear of cancer. They claim to experience pain due to electromagnetic radiation. A correlation that proves to be invalid every single time it is tested.

> "Remember when they told us [...] Thalidomide is as safe as milk for pregnant women!"

Well strictly speaking that's still true; babies on the other hand. In a weird twist thalidomide is now used as a treatment for cancer. And unlike say freon the problem with thalidomide was identified and the drug withdrawn from the market in less than eight years.
posted by Mitheral at 4:01 PM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: charged articles that tend to collide in the upper atmosphere.

Thought I would never do that.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 4:14 PM on April 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


I spent a few days in Green Bank filming the SETI work there, and Dr. Jill Tarter (the inspiration for Jodi Foster's character in Contact). Its a great place. I even filmed the giant telescopes from a helicopter.

Least populated county east of the Mississippi, and I got to drive one of those diesel Govt. Issue Marathons around while I was there. I'm impressed others know of the place and its quirks.
posted by C.A.S. at 4:30 PM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


There is not and never will be a downside of non-ionizing radiation in terms of human health. Well, in energy levels below "hand in a microwave".

Sure, but can you at least sympathize with a person who wants it to prove itself a bit more? It doesn't cost you anything.
posted by michaelh at 4:42 PM on April 13, 2013


The human mind's tendency to seize upon patterns in random events is amazing, and terrifying.

Since I don't live or work anywhere near Green Bank, encouraging migration to the radio quiet zone seems like an intriguing way to stop these people from derailing our local city council meetings. I do feel bad for the residents and the observatory staff and visitors. (On the other hand, nutter-tourism is still tourism, so perhaps it's good for at least some of the locals?)

The thing that seems particularly odd, though, is that it isn't all that hard to create a human-sized space that's just as radio quiet as one would expect the town of Green Bank to be. As far as I can tell, they still have power lines, fluorescent lights, blenders and all manner of very low frequency sources that are truly hard to get away from in the modern world. Everything else can be shielded to whatever level is deemed good enough. This isn't like mystery chemical toxins, where you can neither detect nor hope to escape from the agent except by leaving.

Would it be unethical to start a domestic Faraday cage building company pitched at EHS crowd? Yes? Well, what if all the proceeds go into science education? Still yes? Ah well.

- After hitting submit - I see that's already been mentioned in the (terrible) third link.
posted by eotvos at 5:17 PM on April 13, 2013


Engineer's disease.

Dude.


The surprising proclivity of engineers towards medical woo, supernatural woo like creationism, conspiracy woo, and semi-woo like objectivism is pretty well-known, even if it hasn't been studied.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:27 PM on April 13, 2013 [7 favorites]


well-known, even if it hasn't been studied

and you're saying it's the engineers who have the problem with science?
posted by normy at 5:35 PM on April 13, 2013 [9 favorites]


I don't see any reason for name-calling and finger-pointing at people who are clearly suffering something. When etiology cannot identify causes, people seek answers for themselves.

Hig-frequency pulsed RF is not a natural feature of the environment. Microwave heating was discovered by accident. Microwave RF does cause molecules to vibrate back-and-forth. Consider that weakened health may somehow allow microwaves to compromise molecular biology. Perhaps the pulses somehow slow the transportation of natural pain-relieving chemicals, or somehow disrupt some brain or nervous functions (which involve a LOT of electrical activity).

Yes people can somehow choose to suffer. The logical response is to continue to study the etiology. The ethical response is to grant a little compassion (doesn't cost much does it?) Of course it's cheaper and more convenient to blame it on psychology. I recall that chronic fatigue was once pooh-poohed by "normals", but the CDC has learned to take it seriously enough.
posted by Twang at 6:06 PM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Twang:
Microwaves do cause molecules to vibrate. You know when this is happening to you because it burns and you are literally being cooked alive.

Psychogenic illnesses are real. I object to the insinuation that someone with a psychogenic illness is "choosing to suffer". I also object to the idea that a psychiatric diagnosis as an uncompassionate or insulting thing. This attitude is dismissive and insulting to those of us who have mental illnesses.
posted by idiopath at 6:22 PM on April 13, 2013 [12 favorites]


EMS isn't anything like CFS in that EMS supposedly has an immediate cause and effect: get hit by electromagnetic radiation and exhibit symptoms. Take away the EMR and no symptoms. This is easily tested and every time it's been proven there is no correlation.

eotvos: "Would it be unethical to start a domestic Faraday cage building company pitched at EHS crowd? Yes? Well, what if all the proceeds go into science education? Still yes? Ah well."

I was going to say it doesn't seem any more unethical than selling someone a house they want because it faces a certain way because of feng shui. Or a red car 'cause they think it goes faster. But I think you are right in this case; this would be pretty well taking advantage of someone with a psychological disease.
posted by Mitheral at 6:30 PM on April 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


How about EMS shielded suits? I envision them as looking like the space suits from Classic Star Trek.
posted by happyroach at 6:34 PM on April 13, 2013


They have tons of shit like that marketed at them - the proceeds all go into more bullshit.
posted by Artw at 6:34 PM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sometimes you just wanna feel special, you know?
posted by Divine_Wino at 6:45 PM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


The next time you're inclined to snicker at the Korean fear of 'fan death', think of the community in Green Bank, West Virginia.
posted by Malor at 6:59 PM on April 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


I object to the insinuation that someone with a psychogenic illness is "choosing to suffer"

Of course I meant nothing of the sort, you've misinterpreted. I was simply anticipating one of the common arguments. The rest of what I said, had you chosen to read it, is clearly in support of showing respect for people with these conditions - not insinuating what you claim I did.
posted by Twang at 7:04 PM on April 13, 2013


The surprising proclivity of engineers towards medical woo, supernatural woo like creationism, conspiracy woo

We like everything to be explainable and better yet already explained. Sometimes we take shortcuts.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:08 PM on April 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


I haven't the faintest idea if this is "real" or not and I'm not overly concerned about it. I'm glad there's somewhere for them to go to feel better--but I am amazed that the locals hate them and want them to go away. I also wonder how the hell anyone moving there is going to make a living of any kind.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:16 PM on April 13, 2013


For centuries there were outbreaks of "madness" in Europe which sometimes afflicted hundreds of people. At that time, witchery and evil daemons were invoked as causitive agents.

A truly scientific explanation (in this case, accidental psychotropic ingestion) can take a considerable time.
posted by Twang at 7:47 PM on April 13, 2013


Oh, these guys account for a lot of Tea Partiers too.
posted by Artw at 8:01 PM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Twang - mass psychogenic illness is real. It has a distinctive set of symptoms and a distinctive pattern in how it spreads. Morgellons, Wind Turbine Syndrome and EMS fit the profile perfectly.
posted by idiopath at 8:12 PM on April 13, 2013


Further items to note: anxiety and low IQ do not correlate to susceptibility to psychogenic illness. The symptoms are real regardless of the cause.
posted by idiopath at 8:17 PM on April 13, 2013


but I am amazed that the locals hate them and want them to go away.

I get the feeling that the attempt to turn the florescent lights off in the community center is the tip of the iceberg in terms of what the newcomers are asking. Not that we'll ever know given that this article didn't make any real efforts to find any locals - honestly, if the best you can do is 'I had a look around and there weren't any locals around, so I just went with these nice middle-class, well-educated people', then you're not really trying. He could set up these meetings in advance with people who don't have cell phones, but not with any of the locals?
posted by lesbiassparrow at 10:30 PM on April 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Further items to note: anxiety and low IQ do not correlate to susceptibility to psychogenic illness. The symptoms are real regardless of the cause.

And my tummy hurts when my parents argue. That doesn't mean that my parents can cause my tummy to hurt.

All crazy people think their reality is correct. That doesn't change anything.
posted by gjc at 10:42 PM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


> There is not and never will be a downside of non-ionizing radiation in terms of human health.

That is not science. A scientist would say that no such effects have been observed, and the following experiments have been done to test it: x, y, z.

Throwing around "non-ionizing radiation" as though it proves anything is also not correct. Non-ionizing radiation can definitely kill you. The microwaves in your oven are non-ionizing; a laser beam in the visual light spectrum is non-ionizing.

And electromagnetism is very important to the human body, particularly healing from injuries - heh, a Google search found an article from the New Scientist I haven't read yet.

Now, there have been numerous studies done of the health hazards of non-ionizing radiation. Most of them seem to be completely negative. A few of them, one or two quite solid, seem to show possible marginal effects. But if I had to bet, I'd definitely bet on "no problems" - and I am betting that way, this house is no doubt full of EM radiation.

But the jury isn't 100% out. And making bombastic, unscientific statements is no way to convince skeptical people. Let us stick to scientifically provable statements, please.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:42 PM on April 13, 2013


A lot of the symptoms sound like what Fibromyalgia sufferers endure. You know Fibro... that syndrome that was all in our heads for many, many years because there was no proof of it's existence.

After a 20 year gap between when I first went to a doc for my symptoms and when I was finally diagnosed (i.e. around the time when it was FMS was finally starting to be accepted as a genuine condition) leaves me in the mind-set that I'm not about to judge these people for their "imaginary" illness. Not so sure I can back their idea of the cause, but that doesn't mean they're not ill. And I can certainly understand their desperate attempt to find a lifestyle that leaves them feeling some form of relief.
posted by _paegan_ at 10:43 PM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


You know Fibro... that syndrome that was all in our heads for many, many years because there was no proof of it's existence.

My friend came very close to being involuntarily committed for her disorder - until she finally was correctly diagnosed with stiff-man syndrome. Considering the profound and very physical changes it wrought in her body, it astonished me that they told her for years it was all in her head, but doctors are often arrogant that way...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:47 PM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


The next time you're inclined to snicker at the Korean fear of 'fan death', think of the community in Green Bank, West Virginia.

EHS is an extreme minority opinion. Not so fan death.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 10:48 PM on April 13, 2013


I make etextiles, and one of my resources for electrically conductive fibers and fabrics is LessEMF, which mostly caters to this crowd. It always tickles me a bit, buying the elements for wearable electronics from a site that sells, for example, the real-world equivalent of the proverbial tinfoil hat.
posted by polymath at 11:10 PM on April 13, 2013


The "woo" people have been fighting smart meter in British Columbia for several years now. The smart meters for the most part have embeddd GPRS/EDGE modems in them that wake up once a day for one minute and transmit less than a kilobyte of data.

If I knew where one of these people lived I would happily sit outside (on the public road/sidewalk) with a high powered 30-34dB gain dual polarity dish and radio and aim it at their house until they called the police. FCC and/or Industry Canada regs trump your mental illness, tinfoil hat wearers.
posted by thewalrus at 11:42 PM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


That seems.... unnecessarily mean?
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:00 AM on April 14, 2013


If it gets press attention and the journalists are subsequently motivated to do their jobs correctly (namely, publish the fact that there is not a single double-blind, peer reviewed study supporting the "electro hypersensitivity" claimants), it would be worth it.

It is not like a single 200 milliwatt radio will do anything to anyone, I can pick up 60 SSIDs in both 2.4 and 5.7/5.8 GHz varying in strength from -33 to -89 by putting my laptop near an open window.
posted by thewalrus at 12:13 AM on April 14, 2013


The surprising proclivity of engineers towards medical woo, supernatural woo like creationism, conspiracy woo, and semi-woo like objectivism is pretty well-known, even if it hasn't been studied.

Yes, we first noticed it on Usenet, when every other quack coming into rec.arts.sf.written or alt.atheism seemed to be some sort of engineer. The general consensus was that engineers are generally smart, bright people, clever enough to realise that the standard lay person explenations of e.g. relativity are not quite right, but that they had a high tendency to overestimate their own understanding of science and therefore where quick to take the leap into quackery based on this.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:21 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hey, don't toss those of us sensitive to high frequency sound and certain kinds of lighting into the EHS-Morgellons-Munchausen box. (or maybe high frequency sound and low/lower frequency light? Or just strobing? I'm not sure how to describe the way a fluorescent works.) I can HEAR many flourescent light ballasts and absolutely could identify unpleasant strobing or too-narrow wavelength in a double blind. Nor do I claim these things are going to do be permanent harm, except maybe in the way that being trapped in a room (possibly day after day, in a workplace) with any unremitting irritant would. And I still get that it's mostly my problem.(And I have a sad about how it makes me into one of those people who is clinging to incandescents and halogen and praying for LEDs that don't suck as normal lights as opposed to insomina-inducing nuclear-bright status indicators.
posted by snuffleupagus at 5:55 AM on April 14, 2013


I hear you, Snuffy. Been there, done that. I promise that as you get older, you'll stop hearing the flyback transformers and other high-frequency sounds. ...I suppose an an optimist might call that a positive, but truthfully, getting old sucks.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:27 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I can HEAR many flourescent light ballasts

This isn't unusual. You just need decent hearing. As for strobing, back in the days of CRT I had to keep my monitor at 75hz because at 60hz there was a perceptible and (to me) irritating flicker, mostly as I recall on white-background sites. Not a problem with LCDs, thankfully!
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 7:46 AM on April 14, 2013


Wylla: The issue here isn't the behaviour of the "EHS sufferers" - it's the behaviour of the hucksters that arise to exploit them by pushing unproven diagnoses and dubious treatments.

This is an important facet of this issue that doesn't get enough attention. Every one of these semi-scientific outbreaks of concern over things EHS and vaccines etc. are mobbed by hucksters, and the Internet only makes it easier to flog their products. So Creationism, which is supposed to be an entirely religious objection to a scientific discovery, thrives on selling books and various theme activities.

I'd say the model is undiscovered cancer cures that Big Pharma/Medicine doesn't want you to know about, but it's a growth industry. People become stuck in multiple interlocking webs of woo. They're paying hucksters to promote the nonsense behind their products, and at the same time they have a very real psychological and financial investment in the "cure".
posted by sneebler at 7:47 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Of course you can get rid of them all with one simple trick...
posted by Artw at 7:58 AM on April 14, 2013


...re-education camps!
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:02 AM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hey, don't toss those of us sensitive to high frequency sound and certain kinds of lighting into the EHS-Morgellons-Munchausen box

I'm sorry. I'm old now and have lost the ability to detect most of that stuff, so I'm going to have to assume you're being psychosomatic. :-)
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:05 AM on April 14, 2013


I think there are two separate statements that are getting mixed up here:

1) Science is our one and only hope of understanding how the world works
2) Science is never ever wrong.

I'd argue that (1) is certainly true. The problem is (2), which is certainly false, but there seems to be a tendency to use the falsehood of (2) to argue that somehow (1) is wrong too, and that is a dangerous thing to do. That line of thinking gives people cover to ignore basic scientific consensus on issues like the efficacy of vaccines, fluoridation of water, contrails are not chemtrails, smart meters are incredibly harmless, etc.

It's hard to counter that argument though (science can be wrong sometimes, therefore maybe it's wrong about chemtrails), because it's true that science isn't a magic box that spits out the right answer when we need it. One has to resort to vaguely probabilistic answers (science is usually right) or science-as-a-process answers (science is self-correcting), both of which are correct but kind of hard to process, especially when you're trying to argue against someone's own personal experiences which they have undoubtably become attached to. Once someone gets into a let's-fight-the-man attitude about smart meters or whatever, saying "science is usually right" just isn't going to cut it.

Unfortunately I only see a few difficult options to counter this tendency. One is to teach science as a process, which is something that scientists and educators have been arguing for and attempting for a while now. It's hard though. I think the other option is really to take stories like this one and make sure we're not treating it as a 50-50 toss up between whether this one person's personal experiences are correct or the bulk of the scientific literature is right. Focus on the facts: none of this 'sensitivity' is reproducible in blind trials. There's no mechanism. The EM flux densities standing next to your microwave in the NRQZ are much higher than the background levels outside the NRQZ. The NRQZ doesn't actually require "radio silence", it just requires that operators of radio stations and point-to-point microwave links ensure they are causing less than a certain flux density at the observatory. There's no ban on wifi, microwave ovens, or cell phone towers outside of observatory property. And most importantly, humans are incredibly susceptible to pattern recognition and confirmation bias. These are the facts that matter, not misunderstandings of ergotism or doctors' misdiagnoses. These things happen. Science is sometimes wrong, but it's also our best possible hope of understanding the world.
posted by kiltedtaco at 8:43 AM on April 14, 2013 [7 favorites]


...re-education camps!

It's what Amnesty International doesn't want you to know.
posted by Artw at 9:02 AM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


A lot of the symptoms sound like what Fibromyalgia sufferers endure. You know Fibro... that syndrome that was all in our heads for many, many years because there was no proof of it's existence.

You will still get an argument that there is an "it" there to exist, but Fibro/CFIDS is the classic example of a fairly privileged community of self-defined victims (and their medical advocates, of course) forcing acknowledgment from a skeptical medical establishment, which now has institutionalized its existence with target therapies and the like.

Plenty of clinicians still do not believe there is an underlying pathology that predictably causes the symptoms of "fibromyalgia." (Or they believe it is due to a primary psychopathology.) But most of them just go along to get along anymore. It is true that FM is now a legitimate official diagnosis, but that does not mean the science is at all settled on what it is or what causes it, and by no means rules out that most cases of FM are psychogenic.
posted by spitbull at 3:23 PM on April 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


Case study in confirmation bias.

Pfffft, who would trust the results?
posted by wenestvedt at 7:18 AM on April 15, 2013


Malor: The next time you're inclined to snicker at the Korean fear of 'fan death', think of the community in Green Bank, West Virginia.

...and then bust out with a noisy horselaugh.

I, too, can hear a high-pitched whine when some TVs are turned on, even in another room. But I don't consider it a disease and I don't seek legislation to ban televisions -- I just figured out what it was, shrugged, and moved on.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:01 AM on April 15, 2013


Heh, I wish I could still hear the transformer whine. Rock music killed that ages ago, though.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:15 AM on April 15, 2013


The cure!
posted by Artw at 9:20 AM on April 15, 2013


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