Am I just a skeptic, or what?

(Yes, this entry is about physics, but it takes a little while to get there, so please bear with me…)

Last night I attended a talk on nutrition. It was focused towards a particular health issue, but was also reasonably general in places. Now, I emphasize that I am a physicist not a nutritionist, so I will refrain from commenting on the specifics of what was said in that regard.

I must admit I walked through the door with my skeptic hat on (maybe a bad attitude to have) and it became clear very early that the speaker was from the school of thought that equated ‘artificial’ with ‘bad’ and ‘natural’ with ‘good’ (what, like deadly nightshade and the death-cap mushroom?). But it was when the word ‘homeopathy’ appeared on the  power point slide that my pseudo-science radar really jumped into action and I paid quite careful attention to what was said.

Thinking about it, there were two things that really concerned me as a scientist. First, she gave  little evidence that her advice was worth following. If someone is asking me to make major diet/lifestyle changes, I’d like to know that what they are saying is backed up by properly controlled studies. And secondly, just momentarily, she ventured into a subject I do know about – electromagnetism.

I’m sorry, but I just do not believe putting a peace lily or jar of epsom salts  by your television will protect you from its harmful radiation. (First of all, I doubt the radiation harms you, secondly, if it did, I don’t see how a plant is going to stop that.)  And then  telling people that they should on no account live near overhead power lines is not a clever statement.

For the record, I would not like to do that myself. They are ugly things, and, since the recent incident in Auckland, I would be worried about them breaking. Two hundred kilovolts is certainly a health hazard if the line falls on you, but when suspended correctly in the air?  There have been many scientific studies on the effects of electromagnetic fields (e.g. see the review by Feychting et al. Annual Review of Public Health, Vol 26: 165-189 (2005), doi:10.1146/annurev.publhealth.26.021304.144445); no consistent evidence has emerged that they are harmful; if there are adverse effects on health they are likely to be slight.

But, I would imagine, not as slight as instilling fear into a young couple who live next door to a pylon because they can’t afford anywhere else.

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