EMFguru #5-96, "Consensus"

"The enemy of the conventional wisdom is not ideas but the march of events..."
John Kenneth Galbraith

Hi everybody:

This message is written with the lawyers and scientists of our group in mind. We are pleased to say that we appear to have a good representation of both "on board." Hope we will hear from you.


We all know what "consensus" means. It is the prevailing view of the ideology or "reality" held by the group or community on any given subject. Webster defines it as "a general agreement or accord." It usually connotes something more than a simple majority, but of course it usually does not mean "unanimous" either.

There is almost always an alternative view (or more than one) ... that may lurk in fear out of sight of the consensus ... or it may be very visibly challenging the consensus.

No doubt the latter is a fair description of the situation today within that portion of the scientific community that concerns itself about the possible health hazards of EMF.

When Galbraith wrote his classic AFFLUENT SOCIETY in the early 1950s, he devoted an entire chapter to a discussion about consensus -- which he called the "conventional wisdom." He did this because it was the inertia of the conventional wisdom that he saw as the problem that had to be overcome. He went to great length to ensure that his readers saw that, too. Much of Galbraith's economic treatise is now argued (by some) to have been overtaken by events. But his chapter on the conventional wisdom -- its destructive as well as legitimate qualities -- remains a classic.


Guru is calling the notion of the conventional wisdom to your attention at this stage in the EMF controversy because he perceives that legions of lawyers (and, sadly, many scientists too) on both sides of this issue are "playing that game" -- the consensus game -- for all that it is worth. And guru, like Galbraith, is going to suggest that it isn't worth very much.


A good place to start is with the legal system. In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision (actually an interpretation of a law Congress had passed some years before) in a case called Daubert vs. Merrel Dow Pharmaceuticals. We won't brief the facts of that case here. They have no direct bearing on EMF matters. But we do note that the reason the court handed down this particular decision was to provide federal judges with a set of guidelines to use in admitting scientific evidence into federal trials. Some (mostly big corporate defense attorneys) felt this was necessary to put an end to so-called "junk science" testimony and witnesses.


In the Daubert decision the Court identified four factors (or "tests") that a federal judge should consider in determining whether the scientific methodology underlying an expert witness' opinion is valid:
  1. Whether the expert's theory or technique can be (or has been) tested.
  2. Whether the theory or technique has been subjected to peer review and publication.
  3. What the known or potential "rate of error" is for any test or scientific technique that has been employed.
  4. Whether the technique is generally accepted in the scientific community. (i.e. "consensus")
Reviewers of this decision tell us that the court's intent was to add precision where it was thought that imprecision had prevailed in the past. Whether the Court succeeded in improving the state of the law or whether it made matters worse is now being hotly debated in legal circles.


However Daubert is finally interpreted and applied in cases of scientific testimony, guru's interest in the decision here is less with its legal ramifications than with the extent to which much of the scientific community apparently has embraced its philosophy. In the end, we think it will prove to be bad law ... but it is surely worse science!

Most of what has been written about Daubert to date starts with the belief that what the Court tried to do was narrow the scope of scientific testimony by "screening out" so-called new and/or untested science, theories, applications that do not enjoy the approval of the consensus of the scientific community.

The whole idea poses a "new" science vs "old" science dichotomy.

Along with screening out "new" ideas, of course, goes the likelihood of screening out their advocates -- the witnesses who would present such new ideas.

Stop and think about it ... Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin (even Einstein in his early years) ... all would have been "screened out" under the Daubert criteria.


Guru suggests that what we are seeing in the behavior of many in our scientific community today is a frenzied retreat to consensus -- a "circling of the wagons" -- against the challenge of a new reality.

At the same time, the scientific "march of events" is surely revealing that nonionizing alternating-current magnetic fields can do harm to human cells and organs.

They do interact biologically ... sometimes with deleterious results. The research evidence that has been accumulated since Nancy Wertheimer's historic 1979 study in Denver leaves little margin to argue against the conclusion that EMF "electromagnetic radiation" clearly can pose a health hazard at certain -- as yet not well understood -- parameters of exposure.

We know far less than we need to know about those parameters. But we will never know ... if we continue to deny the existence of this health hazard.


That denial -- from within a circle of wagons called the "consensus" of the scientific community -- is the philosophy that we see being embraced by a rather large segment within the science community.

They have not bothered to inquire deeply for themselves; but nevertheless they are willing to deny the potential harmful effects of nonionizing radiation (EMF) because it is more comfortable (and certainly easier to obtain research money) when one identifies with the "politically correct" consensus view.

Unhappily, that seems to be the "reality" of the American scientific community today ... in the post-Cold War era.


These detractors are not dealing with the many epidemiological studies which consistently show a risk factor association of 1.5 to 3.0. Even the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis (very solidly part of the "consensus" circle of wagons???) has recently published a table of epidemiological study results which partially confirm that 1.5 to 3.0 association.

In the past decade, the epidemiological results have been bolstered by a series of biological studies.

According to Dr. A. R. Liboff, professor of physics and director of medical physics at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, "....weak ELF magnetic fields have been found to cause alterations in embryonic development, brain function, growth rates, regeneration and immune response."

There is also biological evidence suggesting abnormal cell behavior and an increase in the levels of free radicals.

To counter this scientific evidence, the consensus crowd resorts to "junk science" charges aimed more at the courts than at the scientific realities.

They criticize this biological research as not replicating conditions in the real world. Therefore, they argue, the results are not valid ... should not be admitted in court ... should not be taken seriously by the public. (Here's a fair question: How does one replicate in the laboratory the EMF environment of a child living in the shadow of a power-line for years?)

This 'apriori' kind of a judgement enables some of them to continue to claim that nonionizing radiation is having no biological effects even as the volume of observed effects continues to mount.

Professor Liboff recently wrote: "The physics community once claimed that the biological reports implicating ELF magnetic fields were good examples of 'pathological science.' Those allegations have apparently died down as the laboratory evidence continues to mount."

This unscientific criticism of the EMF research may be dying down, says guru, but it has not disappeared. And the continued presence of this very unscientific kind of thinking discredits the rest of the scientific community.

The Daubert philosophy has given it renewed momentum. And the Daubert philosophy does not belong in science.

It is but another in a long line of futile attempts by mankind to smother the "march of events" by arguing from the warm cozy confines of the conventional wisdom rather than coming to grips with a cold new reality. Galbraith had it right.

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