Why Catalyst’s ‘Wi-Fried’ will stoke fear

Ketan Joshi
Feb 27, 2016 · 18 min read

“I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened”

You probably felt it too, when a few scientists (and science-enthusiasts, like myself) on Twitter cried out in terror, during the airing of an ABC Catalyst episode entitled ‘Wi-Fried’. The episode urged caution around wireless technology —guests on the show claimed WiFi is causing a hidden epidemic of cancer in school children.

It felt terrible to watch and I suspect many other felt the same. With ‘Wi-Fried’, our only widely-watched science show strengthened misconceptions about science, rather than challenging them.

Quite a few refutations to the claims of the show have been published. Check out The Guardian, Gizmodo, SBS, SMH, Crikey ($), The Australian (with an unsubtle dig at the ABC, of course), The New Daily and The Conversation — all featuring comment from scientific experts, and explanations of why the warnings presented in the show were incorrect.You can also read this comment piece from a professor of medicine at UNSW, or this really great evidence review in The Guardian, explaining why there’s no good reason to be scared of your wireless router (I wrote a bit about this as well, here and here).

Maryanne Demasi, the reporter behind the program, has written a defence of it in the face of criticism:

“Dr Davis has previously appeared on most other networks and papers in Australia without attracting the same hysteria that occurred on Twitter. But science isn’t settled in 140 characters. And Twitter is renowned for being more of a lynch mob than a considered jury. The online backlash was irrelevant to the more important scientific debate”

The program featured on the ABC’s Media Watch, including a longer response from the program:

“The backlash by a small minority on social media has robbed the public of an important health debate….In a rush to discredit this program many critics on social media have sought to personally smeared the reputation of Dr Demasi and Dr Davis, two highly qualified scientists and females in the media”

You can see some snippets from the commentary I’ve curated here, or you can search the hashtag and have a look for yourself. Dismissing criticism by highlight the worst of the medium on which it was published is weird, and illogical. It would be like dismissing televised investigative journalism, because Today Tonight chained an old lady to a radiator.

It was a humble network of good-natured nerds frustrated by the episode, not a hysterical lynch mob of anonymous sexists. They were sad, because Catalyst ought to be at the helm of science, not fear. Criticism doesn’t cease to be relevant due purely to the fact it’s published on social media.

So, what was the harm from the show? Why the great disturbance in the force? I’d like to try and explain, below, why it inspired such a strong response.


You can’t prove a negative

The standard the show sets, right from the outset, is that wireless technology must be proven to be safe. Demasi wrote in The Guardian, on the day of airing, that

“To my mind, “no evidence of established health risk,” is not the same as saying it’s safe. Sadly, guaranteeing safety is something not even our safety authority is willing to do”

Guaranteeing safety is something no scientific organisation should ever be willing to do.

To illustrate: it’s impossible to prove that no cats are brown — you might always have missed a cat, right? Point at a nearby feline, and assert that it’s brown, and we can check this. You can prove a positive — you can’t prove a negative. This is why scare-campaigns, like the one around electromagnetic radiation, grant themselves eternal life by setting an unattainable standard of proof. It’s the same as saying “you can’t disprove that there’s a teapot orbiting Earth, therefore there’s a teapot orbiting Earth”.

I’ve seen this at work in the ‘wind turbine syndrome’ campaign — proponents of fear flick between ‘it’s proven to be harmful’ and ‘there’s no proof it’s safe’ depending on the line of questioning, and in the same breath. One of the interviewees in ‘Wi-Fried’ demonstrates this:

“My industry is on a campaign to bury the science and to confuse the message on the harmful effects of wireless devices,” says Mr Clegg. “I’ve seen the tremendous benefits that technology can provide. My concern is nobody can say that it’s safe.”

The heavily reliance on this fallacy is outrageous precisely because it taps into a common misunderstanding of the scientific method — that you can prove a negative. One would expect a science show to combat scientific misunderstandings, not reinforce them.

It’s an appeal to shift the burden of proof away from the claimant, towards the skeptic, and for the absence of evidence to constitute evidence of harm. It’s science miscommunication. Hence, the outrage.

People trust the ABC

People trust the ABC more than any other outlet. This should drive an extreme caution when reporting on scientifically contentious claims, and usually, it does. This time, it didn't. That feels terrible.

from here

In defending the show, the producers cite Dr Davis’ appearance on other networks, and other ABC shows:

“It’s surprising that Dr Davis provoked such a visceral response online. Dr Davis has previously appeared on most other networks and papers in Australia without attracting the same hysteria that occurred on Twitter”

The reason those other appearances didn’t provoke the same reaction (note that it did provoke some reaction) is that we trust the ABC to report science accurately and responsibly. Also — Catalyst had a large audience , far greater than attendees at her lecture or readership of the articles:

We expect a show about science to adhere to science, more than a newspaper or even an ABC current affairs show. The message is more potent, and more impactful. Hence, the outrage.

The episode strengthens pre-existing fears

Though ‘Wi-Fried’ focused solely on claims of chronic health impacts, namely tumours, there’s a pre-existing industry around the propagation of health fears around acute impacts — symptoms that are perceived immediately upon exposure to an implied stimulus.

As I’ve explored elsewhere, there’s consistent scientific evidence showing that the emergence of acute symptoms isn’t related to the level of exposure. People report symptoms despite WiFi signals being faked. The ‘acute’ component — labelled ‘electromagnetic hyper-sensitivity’ (EHS), was a ‘positive’ claim, in that it could be disproven. And it has been. Repeatedly.

‘Wi-Fried’ didn’t explore the pre-existing component of health fears around electromagnetism, and how they’ve been shown to be false. Consequently, the Catalyst Facebook page was flooded with comments thanking the show, and referencing their own acute symptoms:

There are many more examples — some posted merely in response to the trailer. ‘Wi-Fried’ was seen as further proof of a causal link between the vague and enormous list of symptoms and exposure to modern technology.

Parents are already seeking meetings and action to remove wireless technology from schools:

Dr Charlie Teo, one of the interviewees in the program, took to social media to defend the program:

“The best we can do is release this type of information to the public and let them decide. If, however, we show that there is NO link then what have we lost? The answer is reduced exposure to EMR, more responsible usage of wi-fi, and less reliance on artificial communication tools. Are these such terrible consequences?”

This is a clear illustration of blindness towards this particular format of harm — we have lost a great deal, if people suffer fear, anxiety and concern for bad, miscommunicated reasons. We have lost far more than any individual involved in the production of that program realises. Warnings based on weak, unverified evidence are not free. They come at a cost.

Urging caution, in the manner that Catalyst did, results in more than mere caution: it results in nervousness, and anxiety, and the emergence of health impacts.

Hence, the outrage.

Presenting risk in a certain way can hurt

There is research that can explain the effect discussed prior -the emergence of fear far removed than what is justified by weak scientific evidence.

The media presentation of what has been termed a collection of ‘fright factors’ can amplify and catalyse fear, concern and anxiety:

Involuntary exposure
Inequitably distributed
Inescapable by taking personal precautions
Cause hidden or irreversible damage
Pose particular danger to small children or pregnant women
Arousing dread due to death, illness or injury
Damage to identifiable victims
Poorly understood by science
Subject to contradictory statements from responsible sources
Arise from unfamiliar or novel source
Result from man-made sources

“A diagnostic checklist of fright factors has helped to explain why some environmental health risks are more likely to trigger alarm, anxiety or outrage than others, independently of scientific estimates of their seriousness (Bennett 1999). Media stories that contain a large number of these fright factors provoke a strong public reaction (Bennett 2010)”

‘Wi-Fried’ featured most of these, and as such, is an excellent candidate for inclusion in this model. To discuss, briefly, each point:

Involuntary exposure

NARRATION
You can’t see it or hear it, but wi-fi blankets our homes, our cities and our schools.

Inequitably distributed

In wind energy, my field of experience, this theme almost always relates to the forced expansion of a technology through a government scheme — seen as an inequitable burden on some. It’s the same, below.

Kevin Rudd
This is the toolbox of the 21st century, OK?

NARRATION
The 2008 education revolution under the Rudd Government led to the roll-out of wi-fi routers in public schools across the country, but some parents are concerned about their children’s exposure to wi-fi in the classroom.

Libby Laura
Basically when a child starts high school, they’re at school from anywhere from four to six years, and they’re sitting in radiofrequency microwave radiation, the 2B possible carcinogen, and the routers are pulsing all day, every day. On top of that, you’ve got mobile telephones, you’ve got their laptops, so you’ve got this whole layering of radiofrequency microwave radiation that we’ve never been exposed to before in the past. With regards to that layering effect, who’s to say what the consequences of that will be for that child’s long-term future?

and (emphasis my own):

NARRATION
Libby says parents should not be forced to choose between educating their children and safeguarding them.

Libby Laura
It’s almost a case of involuntary consent. In a world where we sign permission slips at school for absolutely everything, no parent has given their child permission to sit in the 2B possible carcinogen, but yet they’re unaware that’s what they’re sitting in.

Inescapable by taking personal precautions

This was largely contradicted by the producers — precaution was emphasised as a possible reaction to the purported harms of wireless technology — which doesn’t quite fit with this model of fright factors, and hopefully served to cancel the impacts of some others:

Dr Devra Davis
We do need to create digital citizens and we want children to know how to use the internet, how to find information — that’s all very important. Wherever possible, the Israeli government advises using wired as opposed to wireless. For schools, we need to go wired whenever possible. Routers right now are programmed that they’re on 24–7. There’s no reason for that. They ought to have an on-off switch.

It’s worth noting, though, that Dr Davis wrote a book called ‘Disconnect’, which you can buy from merch tables outside her lecture events:

Cause hidden or irreversible damage

This hinges on the idea that some as-yet undiscovered biological mechanism is causing latent tumours that will only become noticeable in the coming decades:

Dr Maryanne Demasi
Are you cherrypicking the data to suit your argument?

Dr Devra Davis
No, I’m not cherrypicking my work. With respect to mobile phones and brain cancer, the reality is every single well-designed study ever conducted finds an increased risk of brain cancer with the heaviest users, and the range of the risk is between 50% to eightfold. That’s a fact.

NARRATION
These are rare brain tumours like malignant glioma. And in children, there’s virtually no data available.

and:

Dr Devra Davis
Those who say the lack of increase in brain cancer tells you cell phones are safe don’t understand brain cancer. It has a long latency. When the bombs fell at the end of WWII on Japan, we followed every person who survived. 40 years is how long it took for brain cancer to develop after that exposure.

NARRATION
Since cell phone use has exponentially increased only in the last five to ten years, Dr Davis says it’s far too early to rule out the possibility that mobile phones are causing a problem in the general population.

Pose particular danger to small children or pregnant women

This was a major focus, and I’ve written about it in the SBS piece linked above. Some examples, in additions to the mentions shown above:

Dr Devra Davis
You wanna experiment on your children? Go ahead. I don’t think we have any reason to think this is a good idea, and in fact, manufacturers are now advising, Samsung has a statement — a cell phone is not a toy.

Dr Charlie Teo
The kids didn’t get them until they were older, post-pubescent. I absolutely forbid them to use it holding it up to their head. They’ve got to put it on speakerphone or use a device. When they go to bed at night, they have to have it at least one arm’s length away from their head, not to be under the pillow, not to be on the bedside table.

Dr Devra Davis
Children today are growing up in a sea of radiofrequency microwave radiation that did not exist five years ago. A child’s skull is thinner, its brain contains more fluid. Things cook in a microwave oven if they have more fluid and more fat in them, so because the skull is thinner and the brain contains more fluid, a child will absorb more radiation relative to that of an adult.

Arousing dread due to death, illness or injury

The spectre of cancer and tumours feature heavily, but it’s also worth noting the role of tobacco and asbestos as tools for arousing dread and anxiety, particularly around conspiracy theories of corporate suppression of scientific evidence:

Dr Devra Davis
You really wanna see proof that we’ve got millions of people with cancer like we did with tobacco and asbestos? Is there any question we should’ve acted sooner? We would really make a huge mistake if we continue to take the repeated assurances, ‘Everything is alright.’

Damage to identifiable victims

These stories often lean heavily on anecdotal evidence and personal testimony — see the Hungry Beast story on ‘wind turbine syndrome’, below.

I expected this episode to be the same — I was wrong. One could suggest that the heavy focus on children fits this diagnostic criterion, but I feel that’s cheating — this story didn’t focus on ‘acute’ EHS, it focused on latent, chronic issues like cancer. Identifiable victims don’t really feature in the program.

Poorly understood by science

This is the ‘jury is out’ argument, that again, has featured heavily in the ‘wind turbine syndrome’ debate. It’s potent, which explains why it’s instanced with such regularity:

Dr Maryanne Demasi
Wow, so that penetrates almost to the other side of the ear.

Dr Devra Davis
Correct.

Dr Maryanne Demasi
That’s incredible. Do we know that this translates into health effects for the child?

Dr Devra Davis
No. We don’t.

Dr Maryanne Demasi
So should we be concerned?

Dr Devra Davis
You wanna experiment on your children? Go ahead.

Subject to contradictory statements from responsible sources

NARRATION
Our safety agencies dispute that wireless devices like mobile phones cause harm.

Dr Ken Karipidis
Don’t think it’s good enough to say at the moment that mobile phone use does cause cancer.

Dr Devra Davis
Cell phones emit pulsed radiation…

NARRATION
But some of the world’s leading scientists and industry insiders are breaking ranks to warn us of the risks.

Professor Bruce Armstrong
There is an association between heavy mobile phone use and brain tumours.

Arise from unfamiliar or novel source

NARRATION
You can’t see it or hear it, but wi-fi blankets our homes, our cities and our schools.

Dr Devra Davis
Children today are growing up in a sea of radiofrequency microwave radiation that did not exist five years ago.

In my experience, I’d argue that ‘cannot be detected through visual inspection’ ought to be a component of this model. It’s the same with ‘infrasound’ from wind turbines, or nanoparticles in sunscreen. It taps into a very deep nervousness about not being able to visually mark a threat to our safety — remember, vision evolved as a feature designed to detect threats and food.

Result from man-made sources

This is a simple one — WiFi is man-made, not natural. In ‘Wi-Fried’, the focus is more on the rate of technological change and ‘undiscovered’ harm, rather than the artificiality of the agent.

That 9 of 11 ‘fright factor’ featured in the program. It’s worth noting that if the assertions of the guests are correct — that WiFi is causing latent cancers through some invisible, undiscovered mechanism — then you could still apply this model and get positive hits.

But, the model isn’t a tool for assessing technological safety or actual risk. It’s a way of predicting whether community reactions will follow the strength of scientific evidence — in this instance, a small amount of weak evidence, when mixed with the fright factors above, leads to the perception of a serious risk.

This is a terrible, destructive way of exploring the nuances of scientific uncertainty, and risk perception. There is a fascinating story to be told here, and Catalyst opted to fit the mold of every ‘fright factor’ laden story of the past. Hence, the outrage.

Probability and risk were badly confused

A recurring meme among those who attempt to spread concern about wireless technology is the classification of radiofrequency radiation as a ‘class 2B possible human carcinogen’ by the World Health Organisation.

Look, this really does sound scary. Here, the fault lies entirely with the World Health Organisation, and their inability to clearly explain what they mean by the classification system.

This article in The Atlantic explains the situation quite clearly -it’s come up recently, with regards to bacon and glyphosate:

“Two risk factors could be slotted in the same category if one tripled the risk of cancer and the other increased it by a small fraction. They could also be classified similarly even if one causes many more types of cancers than the other, if it affects a greater swath of the population, and if it actually causes more cancers.

So these classifications are not meant to convey how dangerous something is, just how certain we are that something is dangerous”

When explained clearly, it’s relatively simple. The classification doesn’t imply that mobile phone usage or your iPhone’s WiFi module are risky. Simply, the slot indicates that the evidence is yet to converge on a conclusion. WiFi’s roommates in section 2B of the WHO’s classification system really ram the point home — you won’t be seeing any of these feature in upcoming half-hour slots on Catalyst:

  • Styrene
  • Coffee
  • Carbon black
  • Nickel
  • Cobalt
  • Bitumen
  • Kava extract
  • Talc-based body powder
  • Bracken fern
  • “Carpentry and joinery”
  • Dry cleaning (occupational exposures in)
  • Firefighter (occupational exposure as a)
  • Pickled vegetables (traditional Asian)
  • Printing processes (occupational exposures in)
  • Textile manufacturing industry (work in)

The IARC’s next-level group, 2A, which following Catalyst’s logic ought to inspire even more nervousness, includes:

  • Shiftwork that involves circadian disruption
  • Hairdresser or barber (occupational exposure as a)
  • Frying, emissions from high-temperature

With all of the might of global scientific research, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has only classed a single agent as “probably not carcinogenic to humans” — Caprolactam. You haven’t heard of it? Neither have I. It’s mildly toxic, and an irritant, but it’s the only thing that’s ever met the criteria mentioned earlier — of being ‘proven safe’. Consider, also, this New York Times article that claims smartwatches are as harmful as cigarettes, based partly on this confusion.

IARC essentially shoves every single other thing into the other categories:

from here

As delineated so perfectly in The Atlantic:

“..what we have is a classic ivory-tower mentality: a group of academics who hole up in a room, make proclamations to the world, and ignore the chaos that consistently ensues. Perhaps we need a separate classification scheme for scientific organizations that are “confusogenic to humans.”

So why the anger? Our chief science show, on our most trusted media outlet, has an amazing opportunity to explore, deconstruct and denature some of the more potent and damaging misconceptions about risk and probability. ‘Wi-Fried’ simply imbued ‘confusogenic content’ with new life. Hence, the outrage.

“Balance” doesn’t work for science communication

A defence put forward by the ABC and the program’s producers appeal to the presentation of a ‘range of views’

“The report into wireless technology broadcast on 16 February set out to investigate the legitimate and ongoing debate between radiofrequency microwave radiation and health effects like cancer.
However the program and its producers recognise there’s a debate, understand that the science is not settled and that it is an issue of public concern. That’s why the Catalyst program spoke to those who consider the increased risk to be significant and concerning, and to others who do not consider it to be significant, including extensive quotes from a spokesman for ARPANSA and the industry body AMTA”

The way in which scientific uncertainty is reported is skewed heavily towards a ‘precautionary approach’ — it’s okay to over-egg risks, because it’s better than suffering harm from a new technology.

This stems from the broader idea that ‘balance’ is the gold standard of journalism — present both sides, let the viewers decide.

This has worked terribly, in science reporting. Consensus and convergence of evidence is always too complex to present in a ‘balanced’ format. Unlike a political debate, in which several groups mindlessly repeat a collection of terribly-written short sentences, the process of scientifically investigating the safety of new technology will never feature clear answers. As Ian Lowe writes:

“In the real world of natural systems, there will always be areas of uncertainty, in some cases impossible to resolve on the time-scale required for big decisions”

In a room devoid of clear answers and strong evidence, weak and unreliable evidence will be inflated to fill the empty space. This is exactly what happened with ‘Wi-Fried’.

The standard model of investigative journalism is deeply problematic, when applied to new technology and perceived health risks. It skews content to a format that inspires disproportionate concern, and it still links into the idea that science is able to prove a negative, if we just wait another decade, or two , or ten.

Hence, the outrage.

Companies are cashing in on anxiety about WiFi

One of the problems with a show that leans too far towards an emotional reaction is the fact that there are quite a few companies that offer products they claim can protect people from wireless radiation.

‘Wi-Fried’ was seen as a major opportunity for quite a few of these companies:

There’s a relatively established industry around this. You can buy anti WiFi paint, or if you’re worried about wind turbines, you can pay tens of thousands of dollars for a machine that protects you from ‘wind turbine syndrome:

from here
from here

You can’t control who decides to hijack your message, but some knowledge of the stakeholders in this debate, and similar types of health scares, can empower you with the ability to pre-empt reactions. ‘Wi-Fried’, as you might expect, served as a wonderful substrate for those wishing to sell products that they believe protect you from the ‘hidden’ dangers of mobile phones. Hence, the outrage.


‘Wi-Fried’ was the symptom of a problem, not the cause. The program served to reinforce falsehoods, which is tragic. The outrage was fully justified. In its current state, the program ought to have been never aired. Demasi argues that is censorship, which is false. It is not censorship to consider the human cost of warnings presented in a format that maximises fear, concern and anxiety, and based solely on weak, unreliable scientific evidence.

There is virtue in exploring the fuzzy edges of scientific inquiry. The phenomena that feature in stories like ‘Wi-Fried’ are caused not by the invisible outputs of machines, but cyclical, never-ending patterns in the communication of risk. People react; authorities reassure, the cycle continues.

Part of this cycle is the injection of a catalyst for pre-existing fear — usually, potent media warnings. Of course, these feature on tabloid-style current affairs show (or, not), such as Today Tonight. They’re not meant to dominate our chief science show.

Many have questioned the science in the show, but the largest problem lies with the way in which information was presented. There is much to explore within the bounds of technology, fear and risk. Catalyst chose to participate in that cycle, rather than examine it. Hence, the outrage.

Ketan Joshi

Written by

Anecdata analysis, research, writing, caffeine. Science, tech and data communications professional in Sydney.

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