Junkfood Science: Report from the epicenter of woo

June 11, 2008

Report from the epicenter of woo

For those following the tin foil hat story from the City Different, the Santa Fe City Council met tonight to make a decision on the petition from a group of people claiming they are allergic to wifi and trying to block wireless service in public buildings.

Earlier today, the city attorney concluded that there was no legal precedent where electromagnetic sensitivity had been found to be a disability or coverable under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. The organizer of this petition told reporters on KOB-TV evening news, however, that he’s been on social security disability for some twenty years because of his condition.

The Council just ruled against the petitioners. The wifi projects will proceed as planned.

The science received nary a peep on the news. Working against the petitioners was Santa Fe’s tourism industry. While people visit to the city because of its quirky eccentricities, out-of-towners also want to check their email, go online to get airline boarding passes, and check happenings while they're there. Pat Hodapp, the city's director of libraries, said that the library currently turns away 150 visitors a month because it doesn’t have wireless service. A new convention center is expected to open this fall and wifi service will be instrumental in getting convention bookings, according to Simon Brackley, president of the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce, which has lobbied for the proposal.

Cell phone poppers

In other wifi news, you’ve probably heard by now that it was a hoax. Cell phones won’t pop popcorn, any more than they’ll microwave your brain.

YouTube videos seeming to come from France, Japan, and the USA show cell phones popping popcorn when they ring. While millions of people have been taken in by the stunt, it is scientifically impossible. Even when you think you’ve seen the evidence with your own eyes, does not make it true. [Sort of like that epidemic of headless gargantuan fat people taking over the planet as seen on TV.]

The cell phone popper story has been debunked by scientists, physicists and mathematicians around the world, describing the impossibility of the stunt. Snopes debunked it, and a similar hoax years ago with eggs. An electromagnetic electrical engineer even did the math at gametrailers forum, showing it impossible.

“A poor grasp of science leads people to fear the technology around them,” wrote Gawker, adding:

Everyone’s vaguely aware that phones use radio waves, so they misapply the concept. The phones in the video are merely ringing, which only means they're receiving the radio waves that are always around us. If those waves popped popcorn, there wouldn't be an unpopped kernel left in the U.S.

University of Virginia physics professor Louis Bloomfield called it cute, but never gonna happen. He also dismissed theories suggesting that harmonious vibrations were heating the corn. As reported in Blog-wired:

"Ringing the phones doesn't help because they're interfering with each other and receiving a signal [from a cellphone tower] — not transmitting it," he said. Furthermore, while it is possible to heat with sound, it's not likely to happen at the low volume emitted by a mobile phone. "It would be like gathering opera singers together to sing, and trying to make the corn pop," Bloomfield said.

As The Guardian reported today, some who don’t understand science have also used the YouTube videos to support scares of health risks of mobile technology. Both are spurious. “Popcorn kernels need to be heated to around 450º F before the moisture inside them turns to steam, causing them to explode and pop,” they explained. “If mobile phones emitted that much microwave energy, the water in the fingers of people holding them would heat up every time they used them and our ears would literally burn,” they said. For fun, they took every phone in the entire Guardian office, aimed them at a few uncooked popcorn kernels and simultaneously dialed all of the phones and still nothing happened.

PC World also debunked it and reported that people across the internet were similarly unable to replicate the hoax. If you like UFO stuff, though, you might enjoy UFO video spoofs collected on the Real UFO site. Wired.com uncovered the distinct earmarkings of a viral marketing campaign, showing that all of the YouTube editions (from France, Japan and US) were posted by the same users within days of one another.

The science still probably won’t stop people from fearing health problems from wifi and speculate about “what-if” dangers. Some will find a reason to worry because of the fact that it’s impossible to prove a negative and produce evidence anything is totally safe. Even a few health writers have been taken in by recent cell phone scares, unable to recognize research that is credible, fair tests. All studies are not created equal. "Regardless of how convincing the evidence exonerating cell phones may be, there will continue to be those who will argue that the issue has not been completely settled," said Dr. Robert L. Park of the American Physical Society. "The scientific community has a responsibility to put all the evidence into perspective for the public." He answered concerns if cell phones generate the kind of radiation that could even conceivably cause cancer. As he wrote in a 2001 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute:

All known cancer-inducing agents — including radiation, certain chemicals and a few viruses — act by breaking chemical bonds, producing mutant strands of DNA... Not until the ultraviolet region of the electromagnetic spectrum is reached, beyond visible light, beyond infrared and far, far beyond microwaves, do photons have sufficient energy to break chemical bonds. Microwave photons heat tissue, but they do not come close to the energy needed to break chemical bonds, no matter how intense the radiation.

In other words, cell phones do not emit ionizing radiation, the type that damages DNA, he said. Nor will they pop popcorn.

June 12, 2008 UPDATE: A company, Cardo Systems, which sells bluetooth headsets, has come forward saying it is behind the viral marketing videos.

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