More on 5G and COVID Masks
As we do periodically here on Skeptoid, we're going to revisit some previously covered topics to go over some additional information, which generally comes in the form of listener feedback. As you know, a fundamental of the way science works is that it's a constantly iterating process of accommodating new information to improve the current conclusions, and we try to do exactly the same thing with Skeptoid episodes. Today we're going to cover some updates to a number of past shows, in particular, two that are especially timely: some historical details about mask mandates in pandemics like COVID-19, and also a response to one very popular objection that a number of you raised after our episode on 5G cell phone data networks.
We'll get started with an update to our recent episode about the long history that pandemics and conspiracy theories share together, how every pandemic throughout history has had some version of the conspiracy theories we're seeing with COVID-19. Listener Maynard in Australia mentioned one such cultural movement that I hadn't even heard of, and that surprised even me for its similarity to today's malcontents. (Well, in point of fact, we're all "malcontents" in that none of us is really content to have a pandemic on, but I'm referring to those intolerant of the cooperative public health measures the rest of us are following.)
Once we were several months into the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, researchers worldwide learned that the disease spread via exhaled particulates much more than had been previously realized, and so requirements popped up all over the world that everyone should wear a face mask in public. Well, many people objected to that, on the grounds of freedom or ego or whatever it was. What Maynard told me about was something that happened during the 1918 influenza pandemic, when similar mask requirements were implemented. Most famous (or infamous, rather) among the malcontents in that case was the Anti-Mask League of San Francisco. Thousands of San Franciscans cited their civil liberties as a reason not to wear a mask. Inspired by the movement, similar anti-mask leagues began to appear all around the world, wherever mask requirements were imposed. Let those who think that today's anti-science movement is any larger than it's always been look at the Anti-Mask League of San Francisco as another example of their error.
Next we have a rather important addendum to our episode on 5G cell phone data myths. We can summarize that entire episode with the sentence "There's nothing remotely harmful about 5G data transmissions", but listener Tom (as well as quite a few others) wrote in with one thing I failed to mention: that there is one legitimate area of concern over 5G frequency bands. It has nothing to do with health, but rather with weather forecasting.
Water vapor in the atmosphere emits a very weak microwave signal at 23.8 GHz. This is useful, because there are currently two weather forecasting satellites using a sensor called the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder (ATMS) that can detect this, painting us a picture of where moisture is highest in the atmosphere, and improving our weather prediction. At least three future satellites are also planned to use this system.
The problem is the one of the frequency bands on which 5G can operate is 24.25 to 24.45 GHz, and that's pretty close to 23.8. The concern is that each 5G transmitter tower that uses that band might appear to these two satellites to be a little speck of water vapor.
There are two main reasons 5G will not be a serious problem for weather forecasting. First, 5G's range is tiny, about one city block, so it will only be used in the most densely populated areas, and it's quite easy to discriminate between lots of little specks that never move in a city, from great vast statewide weather fronts that constantly move. Second, to avoid the interference, regulations calling for the tolerances on 5G transmitters to be tightened will continue rolling out over the next several years, creating a reliable 450 MHz margin between water vapor and 5G.
Cries that 5G will throw us back to 1950s-era weather forecasting are silly. Even if 5G completely eliminated our ability to detect water vapor from satellites, that would only send us back to 1998, when the very first satellite with this capability was launched — not to the 1950s.
The Hammersmith Ghost
Now we have a bit of a larger shift in gears, and we're going to go back to episode #714 on the Hammersmith Ghost, a famous case from 19th-century London in which there was a ghost scare terrorizing a town, and a vigilante shot and killed a white-clad man whom he erroneously took to be the ghost. Listener Steve advised me of an interesting footnote to the story of which I had not been aware. After the poor white-clad man was killed and the accidental murder shocked the town, another man came forward and confessed to having dressed up as the ghost to frighten his three young apprentices — who apparently richly deserved it. His name was John Graham, a shoemaker from Hammersmith.
Graham stated that scaring his apprentices had been so much fun and so effective that he then began going out at night and scaring other random people, and it turns out that a person wearing a sheet is indeed just what some of the early eyewitnesses reported the ghost looked like. Graham was arrested, but apparently there is no surviving record of what he was charged with or what punishment he may have been given.
Yet Another Solution for STENDEC
Listener Dean, a retired US Air Force Lt. Colonel, wrote in with another proposed solution for the STENDEC mystery. This was the 1947 plane crash in the Andes Mountains in which, just before crashing, the radio operator keyed and even repeated the meaningless word S-T-E-N-D-E-C, triggering a mystery that aviation enthusiasts have been trying to solve ever since. We've had several proposed solutions sent in by Skeptoid listeners, and this was Dean's:
I don't doubt Dean's experience, but I did all the checking on this I could. I dug up at least a dozen or so conventions for military and aviation shortcuts for Morse code — Q codes, brevity codes, prosigns, and others — and found none of these. It's perfectly likely that I wasn't looking in the right place. But it's also hard for me (or for Dean) to know what conventions were in common use in South America in 1947.
Two things make me doubt Dean's suggestion, though. First of all, it relies on a misspelling of descent, which starts with DES not DEC. And second, if STENDEC was correctly keyed by the plane's radio operator and was correctly received and logged by the airport's radio operator, and was simple cleartext for common jargon in use at the time, then there would be no mystery. But a mystery does exist, and it's because on that night in 1947, other air and ground crews immediately began wondering about the meaning of STENDEC; it made it into newspapers of the day and into the offices in England, and into the 1947 official accident report, still nobody had answers; and today only the mystery persists.
Know Who Your Friends Are
Finally, I want to close with a general response to another type of feedback that I get pretty often, which is a call for me to do an episode that's an exposé of some failing or another of some luminary who shares my pursuit of science education. Bill Nye said this; Skeptics Guide to the Universe said that; Neil deGrasse Tyson laid this giant turd. Well, please save your breath, because I'm not going to do that. The pro-science lobby is at enough of a popular disadvantage as it is, without turning our guns on each other. Of course nobody's perfect and of course nobody is above criticism, but we can all do only so much and we need to maximize the efficiency of our messaging. There is a massive, massive economic machine driving the anti-science engine in this world, whether it's selling alternative medicine, selling pseudoscience programming on television, or turning public opinion away from climate science to protect fossil fuel profits — there is virtually no support for the pro-science side. And when any of us takes an inevitable misstep, believe me, we already get the criticism. Tons of it. There is no benefit to be gained by amplifying our ill-intentioned critics.
Especially in times of great political division, it's important that we focus on presenting a unified front as we all try to make the world a better place through science literacy and critical thinking. I once pointed out on the old SkepticBlog — which included writers from across the political spectrum — that some of us paddle on the left, some of us paddle on the right, but we're all driving the same canoe forward. Diversity of messaging is also important to reach the largest audience. So, in conclusion, no, I will not turn Skeptoid into an advocate for either narrower messaging or attacking those who are still doing their share of the paddling, even if they do splash water on us sometimes. If a friend trips, you help him up, you don't step on him.
Anyway that's my soapbox on that subject. It's not the way everyone rolls, but it's the way I roll. Next week we'll be back to another regular Skeptoid episode, pointing our skeptical eye at some popular pseudoscience or urban legend. And as always, if I get something wrong, let me know, and I'll correct it or add the appropriate feedback — keeping the focus on always driving forward.
Correction: An earlier version of this put the date of weather satellites detecting water vapor in the 23.8 GHz band at 2011. Such satellites have actually been flying since 1998. —BD
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