STANDISH – Physician and science writer Ben Goldacre says that “Science stories usually fall into three families: wacky stories, scare stories and ‘breakthrough’ stories.”

Staff Writer John Richardson’s March 6 article, “Foes of smart meters resist and insist: Health effects are real,” falls decidedly into the “scare” category.

As Goldacre puts it, such a story is “based on minimal evidence and expanded with poor understanding of its significance.”

First off, the alleged harmful effects of normal levels of electromagnetic radiation (EMR) are old news, but the article makes the reader think the reports are a recent phenomenon associated with smart meters and wireless devices.

The introduction of just about every new electronic device is followed by stories of its harm.

Reported “links” between cell phones, cancers and leukemia date back to the early ’90s.


Canards about microwave ovens causing everything from memory loss to immune deficiencies go back at least a quarter of a century.

Power lines were believed in the ’70s to cause cancer.

According to The Skeptics Dictionary, this phenomenon even has a name: Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity Syndrome (EHS).

This “illness” continues to persist despite a complete lack of scientific evidence for a cause-and-effect relationship between EMR and the symptoms described.

The biggest failing of the article is its near-total reliance on anecdotal evidence and self-diagnosis in describing the syndrome.

Testimonials and anecdotes are acknowledged by scientists to be of such little value by themselves that it’s not even controversial to say so anymore.


There is even a wry axiom to describe the weakness of such testimony: “The plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data.’ “

There is a well-known explanation for people’s symptoms that falls well within the realm of the plausible which the article does not even mention. It’s called the “nocebo” effect.

Unlike the placebo effect, whereby people report the alleviation of symptoms upon being administered fake doses of medicine, the nocebo effect describes how a subject will develop symptoms under the belief or mere suggestion that something will cause such symptoms.

This does not mean people’s symptoms are unreal or “all in their heads.” Far from it. These effects are very robust observations in science and show how suggestible we all are.

For example, when subjects with known allergies to plants have the leaves of harmless plants brushed against their skin while being told that they’re the leaves of toxic plants, they break out in actual rashes.

Likewise, if one thinks something causes harm, one’s stress level rises.


Some of the symptoms of stress are sleeplessness, palpitations, headaches and anxiety — the exact symptoms reported by sufferers of EHS.

They should be relieved to hear this, as it means the technologies around them are not as dangerous as they have been led to believe.

There is no embarrassment in this. If someone tells me that there is a large spider on my back, without my being aware that there is in fact no spider on my back, my heart rate will increase, my blood pressure will rise and my pupils will dilate.

Similarly, if someone tells you that X causes a number of symptoms, and you suddenly find yourself exposed to X, then you could very well present with those symptoms.

By not placing this issue in the proper scientific context, the Maine Sunday Telegram comes dangerously close to provoking panic among people who are not aware of these very ordinary explanations for EHS.

My question is this: If publication of the article is followed by an increase in reported EHS symptoms by those who have read it, will this newspaper and Mr. Richardson accept responsibility for their role in it?


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