When an Assurance is a Lie

An activist resisting the imposition of Smart Meters asked for my help a few days ago. She had been invited by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) to participate in what it called a customer advisory forum. She attended one and is being invited back for another. At the first meeting, she was given a binder that included two so-called fact sheets published by the World Health Organization. One fact sheet concerns electromagnetic hypersensitivity; the other concerns the health risks from wireless networks.

Both issues are central to the struggle to prevent PG&E and other utilities from installing wireless Smart Meters at will and creating the mesh networks that will tie them all together. The story that PG&E is telling with the support of the World Health Organization is that there’s nothing to worry about.

The World Health Organization’s position on electromagnetic hypersensitivity is that it “has no clear diagnostic criteria and there is no scientific basis to link [its] symptoms to EMF exposure.” Its position on the health risks of wireless networks is that “[c]onsidering the very low exposure levels and research results collected to date, there is no convincing scientific evidence that the weak [radio frequency] signals from … wireless networks cause adverse health effects.”

So I was asked for help in how to respond to these documents. After all, it’s the World Health Organization.

What I told her is that both statements are false—not because I disagree with them but because the statements take the position that contrary evidence doesn’t even exist. It’s disgraceful. They should be ashamed.

With regard to electromagnetic hypersensitivity, there exists a large and growing body of scientific evidence (not to mention personal experiences reported by individuals) that EMF exposure causes symptoms and illness. Moreover, with regard to an absence of diagnostic criteria for the condition, the Swedish government and medical community have established them: for many years electromagnetic hypersensitivity has been recognized as a functional impairment there. And with regard to the health risks of weak signals from wireless networks, again there exists a substantial body of scientific evidence (and, again, reports by individuals) that exposures to these signals damage health—for example, in causing breaks in the protective blood-brain barrier, breaks that allow toxins to reach brain tissue.

Both statements by the World Health Organization are part of a story that everything is OK. This story intentionally leaves out the many good reasons to believe that everything isn’t OK. Other national and international organizations, including the FDA, are telling the same story as the World Health Organization.

Why would they ignore evidence and say something that isn’t true?

The charitable explanation is that these people—and these are actual flesh-and-blood human beings, not an abstraction called the World Health Organization—these people think they’re doing what’s best. They’re experts, after all. They’re trained to make sound judgments in science and public policy. They know better than you. That this is shamelessly self-conscious is described most recently in Don Maisch’s PhD dissertation, which analyzes the standard setting process for exposure to radio frequency radiation that has gone on since the 1950s.

The uncharitable explanation is that the EMF people at the World Health Organization are in a revolving door with the telecommunications and other industries for which wireless technologies are essential. So it’s basically about career advancement and job security. The website Microwave News has quite a bit to say about this issue.

None of this is new. And, of course, none of it is peculiar to the regulation of wireless technologies.

Beginning in the 19th Century, a movement led by some of the most progressive-thinking activists of their day successfully created a culture of expertise. As the technologies of Western societies advanced and their politics became increasingly corrupt, the activists believed that only neutral experts trained in the scientific method and qualified to impartially evaluate evidence could be entrusted with the public interest.

The alternative seemed to be further descent into the mire of laissez faire capitalism controlled by robber barons. Other, equally horrifying alternatives lurked in the shadows, such as socialism, communism, and syndicalism.

The culture of experts would bring progress—hence the Progressive Movement. And progress is good, isn’t it. So anything that thwarts progress is bad, isn’t it. Nod your head in agreement, of course it is.

It is this storyline, the narrative of progress, that the EMF people at the World Health Organization are telling themselves and you. This is also the story that the Smart Meter people at PG&E are telling themselves and you. It’s progress. It’s good. Don’t worry. We’re experts.

Me? When I hear that story, I worry. When I hear someone who is supposed to be speaking from a scientific perspective say something such as “no scientific basis to link this with that” or “there’s no conclusive evidence of harm” or “there’s no convincing research,” I think: no scientific basis? what stack of research is being ignored? not convincing or conclusive? for whom? based on what? what’s the storyline here?

So I don’t just worry about them. I don’t believe them. I don’t trust them. I don’t like them. And I don’t like their story. I want us to start telling a better story.