Thursday, May 24, 2012

South African Crank of the Week: Tracey-Lee Dorney

Listeners of the Consilience podcast will know that I have a somewhat unhealthy obsession with people claiming that cellphones cause cancer, or whatever similar claim. That and bees. And especially when people say that cellphones give bees cancer.

As far as I know, this week's Crank hasn't claimed that cellphones kill bees, but you never know when she might start. It's certainly the sort of thing she might say. This week I present to you Tracey-Lee Dorney!

"It killed my tree ded!"
Tracey Who?

Dorney has appeared in the news several times over the last few years in which she actively and aggressively promotes the claim that cellphones (and related technologies) are killing you, and making your family (and even your trees) sick.

She is the spokesperson (and apparently the only member) of the Electromagnetic Radiation Research Foundation of SA. And she has a website full of all kinds of stories about how cellphones, cellular towers, WiFi, and just about any wireless data connectivity is bad for you. It's complete with upsetting images of babies being irradiated and lists of scary symptoms.


Two notable stories where she was involved was in trying to get an iBurst tower taken down in Fourways (she succeeded, even though the people complaining about symptoms had no idea that the tower had been switched off for months). She also claimed that MTN's LTE pilot was scorching the trees in her garden.

Why Is She a Crank?

Because she's promoting nonsense. Unlike Danie Krugel, who I wrote about last week, I don't think Dorney is a deliberate fraud. I think she sincerely believes the stuff she says. And it's understandable... cellphones are complicated, and if you lack a certain level of scientific literacy, it's easy to mistake any scary-sounding claim as science. That seems to be what Dorney does.

The "research" part of her website's name seems to refer mainly to her doing research on the Internet - looking for anything she can find that lends support to her a priori conclusion. She also had a tangential involvement in a "study" that was misguidedly conducted by a couple of high school kids, that proved exactly nothing.

But let's look more closely at her specific claims. It's tricky, because there are a lot of them. But the basic idea seems to be that cellphones and similar technologies make you sick. The idea isn't crazy on the surface... I mean, it's radiation, right? Problem is, real science is usually more complicated than scary words.

Real science - no scary words

But it's not so complicated that we can't understand it. See? Pretty colours!

The elecromagnetic spectrum includes all kinds of radiation made up of photons. That includes light, radio, infrared, ultraviolet, X-Rays, gamma rays and microwaves. There's nothing qualitatively different about these different forms of radiation - they're all basically the same thing, just at different energy levels. Once a given beam of radiation has an energy level of a certain value, we call it "infrared" instead of "microwave". That's it.

But, on the higher end of the spectrum, the waves have so much energy that they can actually cause an atom to shed one of its electrons - thereby turning it into an ion. This is called ionising radiation, and it includes the parts of the EM spectrum from the upper ultraviolet, through X-Rays up to gamma rays. Ionising radiation can be bad, because it can damage your DNA, leading to coding errors which can potentially lead to cancer.

Not that kind of X-rays
So, as a rule you want to minimise your exposure to ionising radiation. A little bit every now and then is probably fine, but the less the better.

Non-ionising radiation doesn't hurt you like that. Too much infrared or visible light can dump energy into a surface. If that surface is your skin, it could potentially burn you. But again you'd need quite a lot of it to get that effect - like a high-powered laser or sunlight focussed through a lens.

Microwave ovens use, as the name suggests, microwaves. But it's a little more complicated than you might expect. The oven doesn't just bathe its contents with microwaves and heat your food that way. Instead it emits a high level of microwave radiation, but it switches the orientation of the field back and forth at high speed. This causes the water molecules in your food, which are slightly magnetic, to vibrate back and forth. That vibration is what causes the heating. It's also what causes metallic objects to spark in there - they build up a hell of a charge from the alternating field. Even though microwaves emit quite a lot of radiation, you'd have to be inside the oven, with your molecules vibrating, to have any ill effects from it.

How does that relate to cellphones? Well they also use microwave radiation. Microwaves are just higher-energy radio waves, and they're suitable for high-bandwidth data transmission within the Earth's atmosphere. Cellphones, and most similar technologies, use signals encoded in microwaves (like morse code in a beam of light) to talk to each other. They don't alternate their fields like microwave ovens do, and they use orders of magnitude less energy than ovens (your cellphone uses about 2 Watts,compared to your oven's 500 Watts).

In other words, if we're talking about electromagnetic exposure, a few minutes in the sun will expose you to way more radiation (including some ionising radiation) than talking for hours on your cellphone.

The whole premise is flawed.

But we don't need to understand the premise if there's epidemiological data to support an effect. If people are getting sick from cellphones, then something must be causing it, even if we don't know what. So are people getting sick from cellphones?

No. Study after study after study shows no link between cellphone use and mortality or cancer. Although cellphones have only been popular for 15 years or so, and long-term data is still coming in, so far there's no reason to conclude that cellphones cause any harm whatsoever. There's no effect. None.

So Dorney's well-intentioned crusade is fundamentally wrong. She's promoting bad science, but for a good reason. Although I tip my hat to her intent, her passion would be better served if she weren't blinded by her own inability to understand what science shows us about the world. A good person she may be, but as long as she scares people with nonsense, she remains a crank.

Have someone you'd like to nominate as a Crank of the Week? Head over to Google Moderator, submit your suggestions and vote for your favourite.