WiFi Won't Make You Ill, but Thinking that It Will Really Can
What happened when researchers strapped fake WiFi routers to people's heads to test if electromagnetic sensitivity is real or imagined?
The French government recently took a small step back toward the dark ages, implementing a ban on WiFi in schools based on no evidence whatsoever, a move cheerleaded by parts of the press including British newspaper The Telegraph.
Only recently, I debunked a similarly absurd claim in the same newspaper, many of the same arguments apply.
I won't waste too much of your time and mine debunking this nonsense directly. Without wishing to repeat myself, I shall simply cite the World Health Organisation (WHO) position:
"Despite extensive research, to date there is no evidence to conclude that exposure to low-level electromagnetic fields is harmful to human health."
Indeed there is not even any known biological mechanism through which the signals used in WiFi could cause illness. WiFi operates at non-ionizing frequencies, which cannot cause molecular changes at a genetic level. As the WHO points out, due to their lower frequency, the human body actually absorbs five times as much of the signal from FM radios and TV, as it does from a similar amount of exposure to mobile phone base stations, let alone WiFi! Obviously, no adverse effects have ever been observed from FM radios or TV, so there is no scientific reason to believe WiFi would be any different.
Here's Where Things Get Interesting
A growing body of research is shining a light on a phenomenon called the nocebo effect — which is the direct opposite of the placebo effect. In the same way that we can get better when we are given a placebo pill, we can also suffer severe side effects.
In one study, researchers strapped a fake WiFi router to people's heads and found that over half of the participants genuinely believed it was making them feel ill! The participants complained of anxiety, head pain, and a tingling feeling.
The researchers found that particularly anxious participants could actually be manipulated into feeling unwell in response to the fake WiFi by showing them a documentary that described so called "electromagnetic hypersensitivity." Interestingly, the TV show had the opposite effect on less anxious individuals.
This was by no means the first study to test "electromagnetic sensitivity." A comprehensive review of 46 blind or double-blind studies has shown that people who claim to be sensitive to electromagnetic radiation experience symptoms regardless of whether or not they are exposed to real electromagnetic radiation. Studies that suggested otherwise could easily be explained by methodological problems, or chance, or both — and have been well debunked by larger, better-controlled studies.
Furthermore, the review showed people who claim to be electro-sensitive are no more likely to correctly identify electromagnetic radiation than control participants; indeed in some experiments, the control participants were actually more likely to correctly identify electromagnetic radiation than people who deem themselves to be sensitive, as you would expect to sometimes occur by chance.
In one incident in South Africa, residents threatened to take a wireless broadband provider to court over health complaints from 40 people in response to a new base station. It only later emerged that during the period the health complaints were received, the tower had never actually been switched on!
Even though it is clear as day from the evidence that electromagnetic radiation itself is not having any detectable health effects on people, the symptoms some people experience from the nocebo effect are clearly very real indeed. In Greenbank, West Virginia, home of the world's largest steerable radio telescope, in a designated National Radio Quiet Zone used for military and scientific research, there exists a small group of "WiFi refugees," who genuinely feel their symptoms are so severe that they can no longer continue to be a part of modern civilization. Some even live without any electricity whatsoever!
But pills and radio signals are certainly not the only sources of the nocebo effect. If you need any more convincing that the problem of electromagnetic sensitivity is all in the mind, consider for a moment the variety of diseases and symptoms that have been attributed by various individuals to living near something as benign as wind farms:
"Accelerated aging, ADHD, aggression, alcohol abuse, allergy-like sensations, anger, angina, appetite loss, arthritis, asthma, autism, back pain, balance disturbance, behavioural changes, benzodiazepine abuse, birth defects, blurred vision, bowel cancer, brain tumours, breast pain, breathing difficulties, bronchitis, bruxism..."
...and that's just some of the list up to the letter C! In total, an astonishing 244 diseases (and counting) have been attributed by people to living near wind farms, in a list collated by professor Simon Chapman from the University of Sydney School of Public Health originally jokingly titled "Is there anything not caused by wind farms?"
Obviously, there is no evidence that wind farms actually cause any of these diseases and just like with WiFi, there is no clear mechanism through which they even could. It is however, an interesting illustration of our capacity to worry ourselves sick. My biggest take-away from the wealth of research into both of these fields, which includes an absolutely giant stack of research demonstrating the nonexistent negative health effects of wind farms, is that the findings demonstrate just how difficult (if not completely impossible) it is to prove a negative.
In next week's blog post we'll be looking at another nocebo effect, that this time you, yourself, are likely to have fallen victim to. Follow Neurobonkers on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, RSS, or join the mailing list to get each week's post straight to your inbox.
Rubin, G. J., Nieto‐Hernandez, R., & Wessely, S. (2010). Idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields (formerly ‘electromagnetic hypersensitivity’): an updated systematic review of provocation studies. Bioelectromagnetics, 31(1), 1-11.
Witthöft, M., & Rubin, G. J. (2013). Are media warnings about the adverse health effects of modern life self-fulfilling? An experimental study on idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields (IEI-EMF).Journal of psychosomatic research, 74(3), 206-212.
What would happen if you tripled the US population? Matthew Yglesias and moderator Charles Duhigg explore the idea on Big Think Live.
Is immigration key to bolstering the American economy? Could having one billion Americans secure the US's position as the global superpower?
A strange weakness in the Earth's protective magnetic field is growing and possibly splitting, shows data.
- "The South Atlantic Anomaly" in the Earth's magnetic field is growing and possibly splitting, shows data.
- The information was gathered by the ESA's Swarm Constellation mission satellites.
- The changes may indicate the coming reversal of the North and South Poles.
Is the Magnetic Field Reversing?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e3e0b16dac3b05dab808a4ddf04d198b"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/51usJ74pPP8?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
"Nothing but naked people: fat ones, thin ones, old, young…"
"The Yellow Sands", 1888, John Reinhard Weguelin; source: Wikimedia Commons<h3>Naked revolution</h3><p>Yet long before anyone knew about beach fashion, naturism was trendy. Bathing naked in the sea was going on in England as early as 1840. However, during the reign of Queen Victoria, this pleasure was outlawed. But it popped up again among the conservative Germans. In 1898, the first Naturist Club was founded in Essen and in 1900 the Wandering Birds group (<em>Wandervögel</em>) was scouring the country for uninhabited places and naked sunbathing. In the same year, Heinrich Pudor wrote <em>The C</em><em>ult of </em><em>the </em><em>Nud</em><em>e</em>, winning the hearts of contemporary supporters of naturism.</p><p>In the 1920s, on the back of this, members of the Movement for Natural Healing (<em>Naturheilbewegung</em>) organized naked sunbathing for the improvement of health. Persuaded by Pudor's theory of the healing properties of the sun and wind, which could be absorbed through the skin, they launched the naked revolution.</p><p>Pudor's book became the naturists' manifesto and soon after, not far from Hamburg, the Free Body Culture (<em>Freikörperkultur</em>, or FKK) movement was founded. This spread through other German centres and brought together thousands of people. The FKK still operates under the same name today.</p><p>The cult of the naked body even wrote itself into the ideology of fascist Germany, which advocated a pure, Aryan race. But in 1933, Hermann Göring issued an order that defined nudity as "the greatest threat to the German soul" and, with that, criminalized naturist organizations. But this wasn't the end of the movement. The naturists went underground, continuing their activities under the guise of improving physical fitness.</p><p>In 1936, the idea was even floated of having a naturist display to open the Berlin Olympic Games. It was quickly dropped. Despite this, in 1939 the naturists managed to organize their own Games in the Swiss village of Thielle.</p>
Would you ever have sex with a robot?
- In 2016, "Harmony", the world's first AI sex robot was designed by a tech firm called Realbotix.
- According to 2020 survey data, more than one in five Americans (22 percent) say they would consider having sex with a robot. This is an increase from a survey conducted in 2017.
- Robots (and robotic tech) already play a vital role in speeding up manufacturing, packaging, and processing across various industries.
From homemade dildos to Harmony, the AI sex robot<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="3f7451615568e74c6a839f04329c9902"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/-cN8sJz50Ng?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><em>"...amid an economic crisis, with restaurants and retailers closing their doors and larger companies laying off and furloughing employees, the sex tech industry is booming."</em><br></p><p>A Bustle <a href="https://www.bustle.com/wellness/the-sex-tech-industry-is-booming-amid-economic-crisis-22819801" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">article</a> published in April 2020, weeks after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, explored the drastic boost in the sex tech industry. According to the research, <a href="https://www.dameproducts.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Dame Products</a> (a popular sex toy retailer) experienced a 30 percent increase in sales between the months of February to April, and popular sexual wellness brand <a href="https://unboundbabes.com/?utm_source=%7Bsource%7D&utm_medium=%7Bmedium%7D&utm_keyword=unbound%20babes&utm_matchtype=e&device=c&utm_campaign=%7Bcampaign%7D&utm_adgroup=%7Badgroup%7D&gclid=CjwKCAjw1v_0BRAkEiwALFkj5qYbdEwANUjCdRkCeVZ2HZzHjcGmpYbsOXYcMcNneLc2nySvrbaalBoChEsQAvD_BwE" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Unbound</a> reported selling twice as many toys as normal in this period.</p><p>While the new coronavirus was crashing the economy in other ways, the sex tech industry was one of the few that actually saw improvements, likely due to people all over the world being advised, encouraged, and in some instances forced to stay at home.</p><p>Something similar happened in 2008, <a href="https://www.villagevoice.com/2010/08/23/the-great-recession-is-a-turn-on-for-the-sex-toy-industry/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">during the recession</a>: the sex toy industry was one of the only industries at the time that didn't gravely suffer. </p><p><strong>The evolution of sex tech from stone dildos to artificial intelligence.</strong></p><p><a href="https://sofiagray.com/what-is-the-history-of-sex-toys-from-stone-to-silicone-and-beyond/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The history of sex toys</a> is quite interesting. A 28,000-year-old siltstone dildo was uncovered in Germany in 2005. Luxury bronze dildos have also been found in China that are at least 2,000 years old.</p><p>Aside from various materials being shaped into dildos, there has always been an interest in how to advance sex technology, even before it involved actual technology at all.</p><ul><li>The 1700s: Steam-powered vibrators (such as the Manipulator).</li><li>The 1800s—1900s: The invention of the first electric vibrator (the Pulsoson) and "beauty tools" being used for sexual satisfaction (such as the Polar Cub massager)</li><li>The 1920s—1940s: The introduction of hand-held massagers (the Andis Vibrator) and compact devices (such as the Oster Stim-U-Lax)</li><li>The 1940s—1960s: Japan introduced the "Cadillac of Vibrators" (The Hitachi Magic Wand), which eventually made it's way to America.</li><li>1965: The invention of silicone, which most modern sex toys are made of.</li><li>The 1980s—1990s: The invention of the rabbit-style vibrator, made more popular with one of the first showings of a sex toy on television ("Sex and the City"). </li><li>The 2000s: Visual porn website Pornhub launched and sex toys became increasingly popular. Erotic literature also became more common and popular, with "50 Shades of Grey" and others like it. </li><li>The 2010s and beyond: Sex toys and technology start to blend, and the world's first internet-controlled sex toy was launched in 2010 by Lovense.</li></ul><p>In 2016, "Harmony", <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-cN8sJz50Ng" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the world's first AI sex robot</a> was designed by a tech firm called Realbotix. </p>
From television shows to real-life applications, artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming more and more popular in all areas of human life.
Credit: Willyam Bradberry on Shutterstock<p>In 2020, more than one in five Americans (22 percent) say they would consider having sex with a robot. <a href="https://today.yougov.com/topics/science/articles-reports/2020/03/19/2020-both-men-and-women-are-more-likely-consider-h" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">YouGov conducted a study</a> in February 2020 that compared results from a similar study from 2017.<br></p><p>According to the results, 6 percent more people in 2020 are comfortable with the idea of having sex with a robot than in 2017.</p><p>YouGov points out that the increase in consideration is particularly significant among American adults between the ages of 18-34 years old. Additionally, how people feel about having sex with a robot has also changed. In 2020, 27 percent of Americans said they would consider it cheating if they had a partner who had sex with a robot during the relationship, compared to the 32 percent reported in 2017.</p><p><strong>"If you had a partner who had sex with a robot, would you consider it cheating?"</strong></p><p>The results from this interesting study also reveal that many people (42 percent) believe having sex with a robot is safer than having sex with a human stranger.</p><p>Robots (and robotic tech) already play a vital role in speeding up manufacturing, packaging, and processing across various industries. From television shows to real-life applications, artificial intelligence is becoming more and more popular in all areas of human life.</p><p>According to YouGov, "a <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-07-12/amazon-plans-high-end-echo-ramps-up-work-on-alexa-home-robot" target="_blank">Bloomberg</a> report outlining Amazon's plans for an Alexa-powered robot that follows and helps you around the home may redefine how these machines service humans in the near future." </p>