A Report on Non-Ionizing Radiation

25 Years Later: Same People, Same Controversy

The New York Times Looks Back… And Then Gets Slammed

July 8, 2014
Last updated 
July 19, 2014

Today’s New York Times revisits the EMF controversy, with reporter Kenneth Chang looking back at a Science Times story about power-line EMFs and cancer that ran in July 1989.

Both now and then the Times quoted David Carpenter. Here’s what he said in 1989: “The whole thing is very worrisome. We see the tips of the iceberg, but we have no idea how big the iceberg is. It ought to concern us all.”

This is what Carpenter told Chang for the update: “Almost nothing has changed in 25 years in terms of the controversy, although the evidence for biological effects of electromagnetic fields continues to grow stronger.”

The only other person interviewed for the new story was Emilie van Deventer of the WHO EMF Project in Geneva, who said, in part: “I am calling you, talking to you using my cell phone. I have a microwave. I have everything. It doesn’t change anything for me. But from a professional point of view, it’s important that we stay on top of it.”

July 18, 2014

There is a disheartening postscript to this story.

Soon after the Times story appeared Geoffrey Kabat, an epidemiologist, who claims to be able to detect pathological science when he sees it, posted a comment on the Forbes magazine Web site slamming the Times for “reviving baseless fears.” Here’s part of what he wrote:

“The New York Times does its readers a disservice when, in the guise of updating a highly-charged issue, it features someone whose alarmist mantra has not changed in 25 years, but who ignores a mountain of accumulated evidence amassed over that time period.”

Kabat’s comments might have passed unnoticed outside the business community but today Faye Flam, a columnist for a Web site that tracks and critiques science journalism, based at MIT, joined in with an even more strident attack on the Times and on Carpenter. Flam charged that the Times made “the same mistake twice.” Not only should the newspaper not have run Chang’s piece a few days ago, but it shouldn’t have published the original piece back in 1989.
Then Flam went weird. After mistakenly describing Carpenter as a cancer epidemiologist (he’s an MD neurophysiologist), she told her readers what kind of scientist Carpenter really is:

“The new story revisits Carpenter, who hasn’t changed his mind. He’s still concerned about the threat of electromagnetic fields. People with fringe ideas rarely recant, whether their belief involves cold fusion, alien abductions or ESP.”

How’s that for character assassination! Flam went on to offer her own tutorial in pathological science.
To add a dash of salt in Chang’s wound, Boyce Rensberger, a former Times science reporter who works for the same outfit as Flam at MIT, commented that Chang had done a “true disservice to Times readers,” adding, “What we want to know in a look-back is not whether one zealot has changed his mind but … what the latest science says.” Surely, that was Chang’s point: There is very little new science.
We [Louis Slesin] posted our own comment, calling Flam’s piece “bewildering and disappointing, at best.”