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Sounding like an anthropologist studying victims of voudou, the lead scientist of a three-year study of people who claim “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” (EHS), summed up her research:

Belief is a very powerful thing. If you really believe something is going to do you some harm, it will.    — Professor Elaine Fox, Univ. of Essex1

No one argues that the “electrosensitivity” people are not suffering. But Professor Fox’s robust study2 joins a long line of other studies suggesting the illnesses are psychological.

I admit it: I’m a hypochondriac. But I manage to control it with a placebo.   — Dennis Miller

Alleged “electrosensitives” cannot detect when signals are on or off. The few who could detect signals during the study were within the proportion you would expect based on chance alone, the researchers say.

The statistical power was thrown a bit when a dozen of the study participants had to drop out because they were (by their own admission) too ill to continue. Professor Fox estimates a 30 percent chance that the experiment missed a real effect.4 A one-in-three chance of missing something? Those are terrible odds! There’s not much of a glimmer of hope for believers, because this major study joins two other big double-blind studies that point to electrosensitivity not being caused by technology.

If people are convinced that they are suffering because of mobile phone masts they don’t investigate other causes.– Professor Elaine Fox2

There has to be a mechanism in the human body to cause the illness of electrosensitivity. Moreover, the body must be able to differentiate between background radiation, the types of radiation that our bodies need to be healthy, and these extraordinarily narrow frequencies that people claim are making them sick. So far, research consistently indicates the common mechanism is the brain.

It would be fascinating to see what parts of an “electrosensitive” brain start firing when sufferers feel they are awash in a toxic soup of electricity and magnetic fields!

A needle in a haystack — or a pea between mattresses

I wonder whether the sufferers of “electrosensitivity” aren’t just manifesting their agitation about the technological and cultural changes they have witnessed in their lives. You read about these people and talk to them, and their mindset resembles a tribal belief system.

Consider the analogy of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale of the princess and the pea. The swooning delicacy of the “electrosensitive” types stands apart from the rest us coarse, boorish techno-louts. A greater sensitivity to distress, indeed.

Or consider how, in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, you could spot King Arthur from far away because he was the only person who wasn’t covered in dung (to put it delicately).

Whether people can detect electromagnetic fields is a scientifically interesting question because as far as we know humans don’t have any receptors to do that.–Professor Elaine Fox5

References

  1. BBC News. Phone mast allergy ‘in the mind’. 25 July 2007.
  2. Stacy Eltiti, Denise Wallace, Anna Ridgewell, Konstantina Zougkou, Riccardo Russo, Francisco Sepulveda, Dariush Mirshekar-Syahkal, Paul Rasor, Roger Deeble, and Elaine Fox. Environmental Health Perspectives. 115:7. July 2007.
  3. BBC News.
  4. James Randerson. Research fails to detect short-term harm from mobile phone masts. The Guardian. July 26, 2007.
  5. Caroline Williams. No evidence for cellphone mast illness. New Scientist. 25 July 2007.
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