American Health Society Features Adair

ROBERT ADAIR OFFERS OPINION ON EMF POLICY AND SCIENTIFIC ERROR

Yale University’s Sterling Professor of Physics Emeritus, Robert Adair, who is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences, recently contributed a column titled, “Health Effects of Low-Intensity Electric and Magnetic Fields (and Scientific Error),” to the American Council on Science and Health for its Website. In it, he asserts that public focus on threats to children’s health should not include power-frequency electric and magnetic fields, because, in his words, “many published results of scientific research are wrong.”

Adair’s column opens, “We know that the health we enjoy and cherish follows largely from science—especially from fundamental biological research and from the applied biology of medicine. Hence we look to scientific research—and especially biological research—or the identification and relief of those matters that may still impinge on our health. But, for most non-scientists—and too many scientists!—that ‘look’ is based on a flawed understanding of the scientific process. People believe too easily and too much.”

He continues, “Many published results of scientific research are wrong: let’s look at a subset of papers on weak electromagnetic fields (EMFs) phenomena as an example. There are at least 300 papers reporting biological effects of EMFs generated at low frequencies by our power distribution system and at higher frequencies by radio, TV, radar, and communication devices such as cell phones. But there are no such effects. As with many other scientific hypotheses, such as cold fusion and polywater in physics, all of the many positive results showing biological effects of weak EMFs, many published in reputable journals, are wrong.”

He goes on to cite the influential 2005 paper by John P. A. Ioannidis, “Why Most Published Research Findings are False,” in which Ioannidis, from the University of Ioannina School of Medicine, Greece, and Tufts-New England Medical Center, Boston, discusses epidemiology’s strengths and weaknesses. Adair notes that “The results of epidemiological studies are an especially important source of lay evaluations of health effects of EMFs because of the simple form in which the conclusions are presented,” but it is also often “a source of misunderstanding if not misrepresentation.”

Overall, in a wide-ranging discussion of various scientific errors, Adair affirms that error is a part of good science. ”An important part of research leads to the generation by competent scientists, proceeding correctly, of tentative conclusions that are understood to be on shaky ground—and thus are often ‘wrong’, he notes. “Scientists sometimes find what might be important clues to the properties of nature that are not definitive but should, properly, be brought to the attention of the community as ‘hypothesis- generating results,’ in distinction to the more definitive results that form the solid bases of scientific knowledge. But the results of such science, more often wrong than right, are no guide to policy,” he contends.

“In summary,” he concludes, “though individual published research findings, like those which report biological effects of EMFs, are very often wrong—either because they are badly done, dishonestly conducted, or are well-done hypothesis-generating experiments with uncertain conclusions—the body of science is almost never wrong. But no concept is admitted into that body except after a process of establishing well-defined patterns by sifting and winnowing. That process has led to the firm conclusion that weak EMFs cannot generate biological effects and, hence, cannot affect health.”

The full text of Adair’s remarks are available at the American Council on Science and Health Website: <http://www.acsh.org/factsfears/newsID.862/news_detail.asp>

Full text of John P.A. Ioannidis’s article is also available online, at the PLOS Medicine; Public Library of Science Journal Website: <http://medicine.plosjournals.org/perlserv?request=getdocument& doi=10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124>

– submitted by Janet Lathrop