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Wi-fi allergy hoax: do journalists ever check facts?

Posted by Graeme in Wrong at 4:34 am on Friday, 31 July 2009

The recent stories about the man claiming to suffer from an “allergy” to wi-fi were not just, as I initially thought, someone with a psychosomatic problem; it was a publicity stunt that cleverly exploited journalists’ inability to check facts.

There is an excellent debunking of the story at Arstechnica. I am more interested in analysing why journalists are so credulous.

Firstly, journalists do not understand the subjects they write about. The lack of good reporting of science and technology is often bemoaned: there are websites devoted to exposing it. I have often commented on the equally bad coverage of financial news. Given this is is not surprise that journalists did not ask all the obvious questions such as “how can someone be affected by wi-fi but have no problems with mobile phones and microwave ovens that operate at the same wavelengths?” or “are there any blind tests proving that people can even tell when they are exposed to wi-fi, let alone that it makes them feel sick?”

The 2% number for people who are “electrosensitive” was also not credible. Do they realise just how many people that means? It would mean over a million in the UK alone. It would mean everyone would know people who suffered from it. How many people do you know who complain of feeling ill if you turn on the wi-fi on a laptop?

There is also a lack of motivation. If you give most journalists a good story, they do not want to be sceptical. Why should they spoil a good story?

Minimal fact checking would have revealed that this was a hoax. Anyone with the slightest understanding of physics would have realised that this was not credible, and by “slightest understanding” I mean a the level of understanding I would expect school science classes to teach every 16 year old. Did these people think to check any fact with anyone?

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