There is no doubt that I highly value the ability of science to bring our understanding of the world forward. But that doesn't mean our perception of science can't be abused.
Good scientific research is objective and conducted by people who devoted years of their life to learn the ropes and intricacies of their field.
That is why in the end we award the best of them with the prestigious title "Doctor", look up to them as authority figures, and hold the sentinels that guard the quality of science and its champions - our universities - in high regard.
Usually this works very well for us - the assumption that a professional gives us qualified advice takes a huge chunk of decision-making off of our shoulders, no matter if that is the plumber who fixes our kitchen pipe, the doctor who prescribes us a medicine against our illness or the scientist whose research leads to a discovery that betters our lives in general.
But this blind reliance on authority can be turned against us, if an individual exploits it. Consider the following video:
At 0:06 the video identifies the speaker as "Dr. Magda Havas, Professor, Trent University", giving us three strong indicators that turn off our safeguards against unconditionally accepting someone's opinion: she has a Ph. D., she is a professor and she works at a university. For most people that is enough to accept her credibility, especially when she talks about a subject we instinctively fear and concerns something highly abstract: radiation.
A Botanist Far Away From Home
To truly qualify Dr. Havas we have to examine her credentials much more closely. Her Ph. D. is in botany, giving her no qualifications in the field of medicine or physics. She is indeed employed as associate professor at Trent University, but we don't have to strive far to see how valued her opinion is there; her colleagues felt it necessary to dissociate themselves from her in a comment posted on the above video:
On the issue of health effects of radio frequency waves, a large body of evidence now exists, and the international consensus is described in the references listed [on the physics website]. Based on these considerations, we do not believe that electromagnetic waves associated with WiFi in schools pose a health risk to children or teachers.
Profs Bill Atkinson, Peter Dawson, David Patton, Ralph Shiell, Alan Slavin and Rachel Wortis
Members of the Department of Physics, Trent University
It makes you wonder when what looks like the entire head of Dr. Havas' university's physics department, and therefore scientists truly qualified on the subject of radiation, feel it necessary to publicly voice their dissent.
Research Shows That...
But Dr. Havas peculiar use of science, its processes and the value we place on them doesn't end here.
Whenever I post a video or article on the subjects of nutrition, fitness and all the rest, I try to give you links to the research that backs my opinions. Due to their highly technical nature these papers aren't easy reading, but they are there, open to your scrutiny.
However, some of you may simply take my opinion as correct and don't bother with going through them. Because you see me as an authority on these fields and having the links to the research seems enough to further bolster my credibility. I feel very honored by this trust, but I also see it with a lot of unease. I try to be objective, but what if I'm wrong or try to exploit your faith in me?
To see my point, we have to watch another of Dr. Havas' videos:
It took me a bit of time, but I managed to dig up the study whose headline is overlayed at 0:55 and which, according to Dr. Havas, backs her opinion that microwave radiation is dangerous. Surprisingly, the paper comes to the exact opposite conclusion:
Microwave exposure of 100 male rats (and 100 sham-exposed controls) at SARs of 0.4 to 0.2 W / kg (pulsed, 2,450 Mhz circularly-polarized microwaves at 21.5 h / day, for 25 months) showed no biologically significant effects on general health, serum chemistry, hermatological profiles, longevity, cause of death, and lesions associated with aging and benign neoplasia.
On the video's comments, I confronted Dr. Havas with this quotation, to which she replied:
They go on to state that there were changes in corticosterone levels and immunological parameters at 13 months (which were not found in a follow-up study) and that there was an increase in primary malignancies in exposed animals. Experiment was terminated after 25 months. Had it gone on longer whether the cancers were relevant biologically could have been determined.
In other words, according to Dr. Havas, if the experiment had just gone on long enough, it would have shown that she is correct. That is a rather weak defense. The average life expectancy of rats is 2 - 3 years and it would have taken some pretty strong necromancy to let the experiment go on further - it simply ended when the rats reached old age, having been exposed to strong microwave radiation all their life.
And Dr. Havas is still not finished.
In the scientific community, a lot of emphasis is placed on publishing your work in peer-reviewed scientific journals, where other professionals in your field evaluate the soundness of your work before they give their ok for publication.
Getting your paper into one of them, especially those very respected, therefore isn't an easy task and requires you to put quite a bit of quality into your research before submitting. If a journal published a paper that later turns out to be false, it would lose a lot of its credibility and its entire review process would be questioned.
But this whole procedure and the journals whose opinions are really trustworthy are only familiar to those involved in scientific research - nothing keeps you from funding your own scientific journal, that specifically exists to accept papers that would never make it through the quality control of the real ones.
As long as Dr. Havas more or less stayed within her field of botany, she managed to get published, but the more outlandish her claims about radiation became, the more unlikely they were to appear anywhere. Her last paper published in a journal that can be taken seriously dates from 2008.
That is a grave impediment for any scientist worth his salt and given her credibility at that point it also didn't look like this would have changed for the better any time soon.
To her rescue came the European Journal of Oncology, founded in 1997 by the Italian Ramazzini Foundation, whose research on cancer and aspartame was discredited by the health authorities of both the US and EU. They had been so unhappy with being shunned by the scientific community, that they did what I described above: start their own journal to get their research published.
The Foundation was more than happy to accept Dr. Havas' 2010 paper, "Provocation study using heart rate variability shows microwave radiation from 2.4 GHz cordless phone affects autonomic nervous system" (PDF), although it violates most principles of real research, eg. the randomization of test subjects and having a control group (an in-depth look at the study can be found here).
But Dr. Havas finally could rest assured that the paper that may mean the most to her got published. Somewhere. Because to anyone outside the scientific community she added another notch on her belt of credibility. Who not familiar with these journals can tell the European Journal of Oncology apart from the respected European Journal of Oncology Nursing?
Havas' Scientific Crusade
All this hard work on creating respectability of course was done for a purpose. Especially in Canada, where Dr. Havas resides, she uses it to put pressure on decision-makers and create anxiety. Canada's Green Party cites her work in a fight against "wifi pollution" and her open letters to parents have them fear for their children's health. It even goes as far as influencing public policy concerning cell phones.
Dr. Havas hands out a belief disguised as science and - ironically - it is modern technology like the Internet that makes it possible for her to reach much further than she could have in previous decades. If people like her take advantage of platforms like websites and online video, the scientific community better catch up, or it may have public perception of science dictated by "researchers" of similar ilk.
Addendum, May 14, 2013: My comment and Dr. Havas's reply mentioned above have been removed, presumably by herself.