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Linda Feferman, Fluoridation, Placebos and Electromagnetic Frequencies

October 27th, 2010 by Jessika

This week I watched some good videos and read some very bad science. The short videos were from Linda Feferman, a Sundance award-winning director who has produced science related programming for Wired and PBS. The bad science came from none other than the Los Angeles Times.

Let me start in a little more detail with the good.

Linda Feferman

I watched six segments from what I think are some of Feferman’s most recent work, ranging in topic from autism to devices that retrain your brain to the Quiet Zone. Of them, the video that left me the most intrigued was “Mixed Feelings.”

“Mixed Feelings” explores the concept of training the brain to compensate for the loss of a particular sense. The late neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita first developed this idea years ago, but he was met with incredulity by his peers and the public. How could the brain see through any other means than the eye? Today, his protoges carry on his legacy, developing astonishing tools that really do allow blind people to see.

They have developed a device that hooks up to the tongue, rewiring the brain to see through the sense of taste. Had I not seen it on the video, I am not 100 percent sure I would have believed it. But it was pretty amazing. Footage showed a blind man tossing an object into a trash can yards away. Another device using the tongue has been developed to restore a sense of balance to those who have lost it.

The implications of this technology are astounding. Could sight be restored to all blind people this way? What about deaf people? Will a similar device be developed to help them hear?

Another clip that fascinated me was “The Quiet Zone.” This nine minute or so clip explored a part of the country I must confess I had no idea existed. The Quiet Zone, a 13,000 square mile region of the eastern United States, is free of electromagnetic pollution. The government goes to great lengths to keep it that way, employing a “Keeper of the Quiet” to monitor the region and tell residents if what they are using isn’t quiet enough. This enables astronomers using the Green Bank telescope to study the sky without interference.

One other facility receives protection in The Quiet Zone. Specifics of  the operations at the Navy Research Facility at Sugar Grove are kept under wraps, but it’s safe to say they use the quiet to examine intelligence from around the world.

After watching all of Feferman’s clips, a few questions popped into my head: How long did it take her to produce/direct them? Did she write the narration for the ones that had it? What video did she have the most fun producing? Did she find “Mixed Feelings” just as intriguing?

Electromagnetic Frequencies and Fluoridation

Now on to some very bad science writing. When I was first assigned these articles to read, I didn’t think they could be that bad. I was pleasantly surprised and appalled.

The first “Anger fuels water-fluoridation debate in Watsonville, Calif.” by Steve Chawkins (LA Times) left me angry and frustrated. Chawkins’ article spent so much time focusing on the people who didn’t want water fluoridation that he failed to get into the pros and cons of it. He mentioned in passing that the scientific community supported fluoridation of the water supply, but never explained why. I wanted to know what the benefits of fluoridating water are. Does it really help? The Martinelli company was staunchly against it because they said it no one would want to drink products with fluoridated water, implying that it changes the water’s taste. But Chawkins never went into detail about whether it really did change the water’s taste. One other gripe I had with this piece was that he mentioned multiple times that residents of Watsonville have horrible teeth, and in the city’s schools dental decay runs rampant. Fluoridation will help solve this problem. While it’s definitely reasonable to think it will help, it’s just as important to train families in proper dental hygiene. If families can’t afford toothpaste, maybe the school’s could provide it.

“Placebos are getting more effective. Drugmakers are desperate to know why.” by Steve Silberman also aggravated me. While I do think the placebo effect is interesting, I think it’s a little premature to start thinking about hybrid treatments for some diseases and even a little dangerous. A placebo is a sugar pill or a pill with inert material used as a control in clinical trials. Drugs must perform better than placebos to get approval for use. But an increasingly large number of drugs, according to this piece, are failing when pitted against placebos. In many cases, people’s immune systems have responded positively to placebos because the mind thinks they are getting the real drug. The article says this positive effect is occurring more and more and lasting longer. But I can’t help but wonder if this is really true or if researchers now are analyzing the data better or differently. Also, how long are these drugs undergoing trials for? Are they stopping them before the placebo effect wears off in patients? If they stop a trial too soon, of course placebo-taking patients are still going to show signs of improvement. This piece also suggested that studies have opened up the possibility of hybrid treatments, using both placebo and drugs. While this concept is interesting, it is just as scary. Much, much more research needs to be done before any type of hybrid treatment is used. We can’t treat a patient with a sugar pill and hope that their immune system will think it’s a “real” pill. At least not yet.

Chris Woolston gives the LA Times another prize for bad science writing with his series on electromagnetic frequencies. The main piece of the three-part package titled “On different wavelengths over EMFs” opens the discussion with Camilla Rees, who suffers from EMF Syndrome. Woolston tells us that she got physically sick, losing her ability think clearly, because her neighbor put a wireless router in the room adjacent to her bedroom. The waves from the router made her sick. Immediately, I thought this sounded like a load of bs. If a wireless router could make someone so sick, then why aren’t millions of people walking around with these symptoms. Does her body just happen to be hypersensitive to it? Maybe. But if that were the case, then why would she suddenly develop the sensitivity to a router? The rediculousness of this article continues, and the majority of it goes on to point out the danger of EMFs, spending a particularly large amount of time on a professor of environmental health named David Carpenter. Woolston writes, “Carpenter estimates that there’s a greater than 95% chance that power lines can cause childhood leukemia and a greater than 90% chance that cellphones can cause brain tumors.” These numbers are completely insane. How did he even come up with them? If they are true, then all of us are going to die from brain tumors. Ken Foster, a bioengineering professor, is used, though very limitedly, as the scientific counterpoint to Carpenter. Though, when he is first quoted as saying that EMFs don’t cause any danger, Woolston quickly denotes in parentheses that at least one researcher thinks Foster is “full of it.” Who is this researcher? I would argue that that person really is the one full of it.

The remaining two pieces in Woolston’s series are just as bad. Both “Electromagnetic field studies reach different conclusions” and “Victims of electrosensitivity syndrome say EMFs cause symptoms” leave readers again with the feeling that these articles are a complete waste of time. While studies may reach different conclusions, it’s obvious that EMFs don’t pose a threat. By the end of “Victims of electrosensitivity syndrome say EMFs cause symptoms” we see the real cause of EMF Syndrome. It’s all in their head. This idea should have been presented in Woolston’s main piece! How could he leave this out?!

I had no idea, or perhaps I just turned a blind eye, that such horrible science writing existed. I can only hope that I won’t come across anything this bad in the future. Though, I am admittedly not that optimistic.

6 Responses to “Linda Feferman, Fluoridation, Placebos and Electromagnetic Frequencies”

  1. > This piece also suggested the development of a hybrid treatment, using both placebo and drugs, for conditions like cancer or Alzheimer’s. This is downright irresponsible and much, much more research needs to be done. We can’t treat a cancer patient with a sugar pill and hope that their immune system will think it’s a “real” pill. At least not yet.

    Please do cite the lines in my article where you believe I’m suggesting placebo treatments for cancer and Alzheimer’s. I’m very curious where you find them, since I didn’t write them. The idea horrifies me.

    • jrwalsten says:

      Thanks for your comment Steve. There was a paragraph on the last page of the piece that suggested the possibility of hybrid treatments.

      “Studies like this open the door to hybrid treatment strategies that exploit the placebo effect to make real drugs safer and more effective. Cancer patients undergoing rounds of chemotherapy often suffer from debilitating nocebo effects—such as anticipatory nausea—conditioned by their past experiences with the drugs. A team of German researchers has shown that these associations can be unlearned through the administration of placebo, making chemo easier to bear.”

      I apologize if you thought I was accusing you of suggesting these treatments. I will rewrite the sentence to make it clearer that you were not suggesting these treatments but the studies opened the door to their possibility.

      Again, my apologies!

  2. Jessika, that’s fine, and I appreciate that you both read the article and responded graciously. My point in that paragraph was not that a placebo treatment could cure cancer, but make chemo easier to bear. That doesn’t seem like a bad thing. And when I talk in the piece, I’m suggesting that Alzheimer’s patients should get more painkillers if they need them; not that placebos could cure Alzheimer’s. It’s a very important distinction. Thanks so much!

  3. Sorry, a little typo there — I meant “and when I talk about Alzheimer’s later in the piece…”

  4. jrwalsten says:

    So sorry for my misinterpretation! I made sure to correct what I said to reflect your clarification. Thanks for taking the time to comment!