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Electrohypersensitivity and Bad Reporting

by Brian Dunning

April 3, 2015

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Donate The April 2015 issue of Popular Science includes a bizarre feature article that might give many readers cause for a double take: a detailed promotion of a thoroughly debunked pseudoscience. It is largely a profile of one woman, Diane Schou, and a few of her friends, all of whom have diagnosed themselves with electrohypersensitivity (EHS). EHS is psychogenic, and very treatable; but you would never guess that from Popular Science's treatment. According to Schou—and to writer Steve Featherstone's unfailingly credulous presentation of her misinformation—it is a physical and growing public health threat. As such, the article accomplishes exactly the opposite of what those who would hope to help EHS sufferers want: to reduce their very real suffering. In this response to that article, I'll offer a tool to help EHS sufferers better understand the root cause of their affliction, and hopefully find a path toward treatment.

Psychogenic conditions can cause a wide variety of potentially debilitating symptoms. These can include headaches, nausea, insomnia, weight loss, hair loss, painful and itching skin rashes, chronic fatigue, high blood pressure, and other cardiovascular issues. For the worst sufferers, these symptoms can be dramatic and, rarely, even fatal. It is common for sufferers to be unable to work or function normally.

The root cause is acute stress, a very dangerous customer. Stress can and does cause all of these very real physical symptoms. In a psychogenic manifestation of chronic stress, the sufferer has misidentified some physical cause that they believe triggers the symptoms. Whenever they perceive the presence of that cause, their stress level rises, and the symptoms along with it. It can be a vicious cycle. Germophobia, sick building syndrome, and wind turbine syndrome are just a few psychogenic conditions that have established themselves in the popular discourse in recent decades. Moving away from the perceived trigger, as expected, can indeed alleviate the symptoms, because the stimulus, and the fear and anxiety it produces, is removed.

The treatment of stress is relatively straightforward and generally very successful, usually involving psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and/or antidepressants or tranquilizers. But few sufferers of psychogenic conditions like EHS will accept any but their own diagnosis or agree to treatment for stress. All too often, they misinterpret a psychogenic diagnosis as being told that they're "crazy" or "it's all in their head." Thus, many sufferers go through life untreated and hiding themselves from whatever it is they've misidentified as the "real" cause of their affliction. The Popular Science article describes Schou's journey to the National Radio Quiet Zone in West Virginia, a region where radio transmissions are restricted to minimize interference caused to the Green Bank Telescope, a large, steerable radio telescope located nearby.

The article is full of clues reminding us that EHS is psychogenic (see the full Skeptoid episode on EHS if you want to learn more). All but one of the sufferers profiled are female, and for reasons not well understood, psychogenic patients are overwhelmingly female. The devices to which Schou believes herself sensitive do not make sense to someone more familiar with the technology: electronic cash registers bother her, though they essentially emit no radio waves; but the video card in a computer or the coil of a gas engine, which emit significant radio, do not. Featherstone's article is full of other misinformation about radio, citing claims like, "if you were to take a cellphone and place it on the moon in standby mode, it would still be the most powerful EMR source in the universe from the perspective of Earth." This is not even close to true. GPS and communications satellites are far stronger (and are just as strong inside the National Radio Quiet Zone), but they are dwarfed by natural sources such as the sun, solar flares, and the ubiquitous cosmic background. The static that radios receive inside the Zone is junk radiofrequency, including both natural and manmade RF. But Schou and her friends seem to only be sensitive to those signals they happen to be aware of, or suspect the presence of—a tantalizing clue that whatever they're suffering from has more to do with their expectations and perceptions than with the actual physical world.

The simple fact is that human tissue does not interact with RF at the frequencies EHS sufferers claim, thus humans cannot detect or be affected by them. And this brings us to the tool I promised in my introduction to help an EHS sufferer get onto the right track toward useful treatment: to prove to yourself that your self-diagnosis, while honestly arrived at and with the best intentions, might be misleading you. Conduct a blinded test on yourself with scientific controls. Many sufferers have tested themselves, but without controls; whenever proper controls have been applied, the claimed ability to be electrohypersensitive has disappeared. Every time. Without exception. This fact should encourage you: if true, it means you're suffering from something we know how to treat. And you won't have to move to West Virginia.

The first thing you have to do is design a test, and to do this you must first be able to explicitly and unambiguously describe your ability. If it's painful to be within a certain distance of a Wi-Fi router, and this pain is unmistakable and comes and goes reliably when the device is powered on or off, then go with this. The idea of being explicit and unambiguous in advance of conducting your test is to eliminate any "outs" for yourself: if you fail the test, you do not want there to be any opportunity to excuse the failure, such as "Sometimes it takes awhile to feel anything," or "maybe it's not the right brand of router."

Similarly, you must certify the conditions of the test. We're going to put the router in the next room, with a person to turn it on or off. You need to certify, before the test, that you can absolutely tell whether it's on or off, in this room, at this time of day, with this person. And you need to do so with no other clues, like hearing its power switch, seeing the room lights dim, or seeing the glow of a power indicator. You must validate that your ability is real and that it functions according to your belief under the actual test conditions. If you are unable to get even this far, you should being to seriously question your self-diagnosis.

To take the test, perform ten trials. Have you associate in the next room roll a die. If the number is odd, turn the router on; if even, turn it off. Have them do this silently enough that the switch is not perceptible where you are. The associate then must ring a bell or tap on the wall, indicating (in a way that conveys no other information) that you should write down whether you think the router is on or off. That's all there is to it. If your condition is real, you should be right every time. If not you should be right about half the time, according to random chance. If you do fail, and you find the reason was that the light was wrong or that you were in the wrong frame of mind or anything else, or you find any rationalization for the failure whatsoever, then you must redesign the test to control for that variable as well, and re-perform the experiment.

It is my sincere hope that some sufferer might follow this process and gain sufficient insight into their condition to put them on the road to recovery.

And this, Popular Science, is science. There is a good reason that Catholic psychologists petitioned the Vatican in 1984 to forbid exorcists from directly speaking to the demon by which the patient believes herself to be possessed, since doing so only confirms the patient's erroneous self-diagnosis and makes a psychogenic illness harder to treat. By publishing Featherstone's article upholding and promoting the EHS sufferers' wrong self-diagnosis, and giving no more than hand-waving token mention of what scientists actually know about EHS, you've pushed these people farther into their exile in the National Radio Quiet Zone, and thus done a disservice to them and to the public understanding. The title "Popular Science" can be interpreted in different ways; I hope that "Popular Real Science" ends up being the one that sticks.

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by Brian Dunning

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