The New Daily

ABC slammed for ‘scientifically bankrupt’ report

Episode aired by national broadcaster relied heavily on what one expert labelled ‘fringe views’.

wifi child

The episode suggested children are at risk. Photo: ABC

The ABC’s flagship science program Catalyst has drawn fire from scientists and health experts for a “scaremongering” and “misleading” report linking mobile phone use and Wi-Fi with brain cancer.

Tuesday night’s episode was heavily criticised by some of Australia’s leading experts on cancer and electromagentism, who claimed the report was “incorrect” and “scientifically bankrupt”.

The episode titled ‘Wi-Fried?’ was reported by Dr Maryanne Demasi, whose 2013 episode on the safety of statins, commonly prescribed to lower cholesterol, was found by the ABC to have breached impartiality guidelines (and by independent experts to have prompted more than 60,000 patients to reduce or stop taking prescribed statins).

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Tuesday’s 30-minute report on Wi-Fi relied heavily on a US cancer epidemiologist Dr Devra Davis, who claimed that mobile phone use could cause brain cancer. In one segment, Dr Davis refuted the lack of increase in brain cancer rates by claiming the spike would only manifest after 40 years of widespread phone use.

demasi davis

The reporter, Dr Demasi (r), relied heavily on the quotes of Dr Davis (l). Photo: ABC

Public health expert Dr Simon Chapman, one of two Australian experts who declined to be interviewed by the ABC for the episode, was critical of the “scaremongering” report, saying it contained many “simply wrong” claims that would make viewers unnecessarily afraid.

“There will be parents demanding that Wi-Fi gets shut down in schools, there will be people who will probably stop using mobile phones as a result of it, and the net effect of that across the whole population is likely to be profoundly negative,” Dr Chapman told The New Daily.

The reporter, Dr Demasi, has herself written about the issue. In an opinion piece published by Guardian Australia ahead of the episode airing, she wrote that: “I’d rather take precautions in the absence of all the evidence rather than sticking my head in the sand.”

‘No spike in brain cancer’

Dr Chapman rejected Dr Davis’ claim that brain cancer rates might suddenly “shoot up” after years of remaining steady because of phone exposure. In particular, he refuted Dr Davis’ claim that such a cancer spike occurred after the nuclear blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“Now that’s not what we see with cancer epidemiology. We see gradual increases in the early years and then we see the incidents starting to rise more steeply until we get to what we call peak incidents,” Dr Chapman said, citing a 2004 study showing a steady increase in cancer rates in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

demasi abc catalyst

Catalyst’s Dr Demasi says she has been convinced to take “precautions”. Photo: ABC

“The take home message is that brain cancer is not rising in Australia in any age group other than the very oldest group – that age-group has seen a rise in brain cancer since well before Wi-Fi or mobile phones were introduced, therefore that rise in that particular age group cannot be explained by the advent of Wi-Fi or mobile phone, and it’s more to do with advances in diagnosis.”

‘Cherrypicked data’

The ABC episode correctly noted that the World Health Organisation lists Wi-Fi as a “possible” carcinogen (as opposed to “known” or “probable”).

Even so, Cancer Council Australia spokesman and scientific advisor Professor Bernard Stewart, who also refused Catalyst‘s request for interview, labelled the episode “scientifically bankrupt” and “without scientific merit”.

“I think the tone of the reporting was wrong, I think that the reporter did not fairly draw on both sides, and I use the word ‘sides’ here reluctantly,” Professor Stewart told The New Daily.

He claimed that viewers of the episode would have been exposed to “cherrypicked” data.

“I think many of [the studies used] were taken out of context and not consistent with what is actually stated in, for example, the abstract or the overall summaries by the authors of those papers.”

‘A fringe position’

Professor Rodney Croft, director of the NHMRC’s Centre for Research Excellence in Electromagnetic Energy, warned the public to be cautious of the “fringe position” of Dr Davis, the episode’s key interviewee.

abc catalyst

The ABC is defending the Catalyst episode.

“I was particularly disappointed to see ‘Wi-Fried’ air in the guise of science journalism, and felt it important to reassure other viewers that the fringe position provided by Dr Davis and associates is merely that, a fringe position that is not supported by science,” Professor Croft wrote for The Conversation.

“Instead of science journalism, Catalyst aired a misleading program, which followed the views of a few individuals in arguing that radiofrequency emissions from wireless devices were harmful.”

In response to the program, the nation’s radiation regulator, ARPANSA, issued a statement reiterating its current position: that there is “no established scientific evidence” that phones or Wi-Fi cause any health effects.

“Some studies have reported a weak association between heavy mobile phone use against the head and brain cancer, but this is not substantiated by the bulk of scientific evidence from the many studies that have been performed,” ARPANSA said in the online statement.

But the regulatory body also offered suggestions on how to reduce phone radiation exposure for those still concerned by wifi.

ABC defends episode

The ABC responded to questions from The New Daily with a statement saying the program had represented “a diverse range of views” and “covered the issue appropriately and in accordance with the Editorial Policies”.

“It is also important to note that at least two of the current critics of the program (Drs Bernard Stewart and Simon Chapman) were invited to participate in the program but declined. Had they agreed to be interviewed, their views would have been included as well,” the ABC statement said.

“Against that background and those constraints, the program team included a diverse range of views and remains confident that it covered the issue appropriately and in accordance with the Editorial Policies.

“As is always the case with all ABC content, any complaints about the program will be promptly and appropriately investigated by the independent Audience & Consumer Affairs team.”

-with Jackson Stiles


  • Augustus

    Bollocks ABC, next you’ll do a programme supporting homeopathy!

    • MaudeLynne

      good argument, Augustus! Meaningful.

      • Augustus

        Just as meaningful as the unscientific justification for homeopathy.

    • Sailorboy

      Hopefully they do! You know there are homeopathic remedies for disgruntled temperaments, don’t you?

      • Augustus

        And if you look really really carefully on a night with a full moon, you’ll find fairies at the bottom of your garden!

  • seajay23

    The ABC recently ran a totally nonsense story about the cancer risk of Glyphosate exposure, this is what happens when you have scientific illiterates posing as investigative journalists and no editors.

  • Dr Rosemary Stanton

    The problem for genuine authorities appearing with particular reporters is that the reporter with a pre-conceived idea can cut their comments in such a way that their explanation may be lost. The program’s choice of some people with a particular viewpoint may appeal to the public but the public is not told that some of these people’s views have been discredited. The statin program on Catalyst, for example, included some questionable nutrition advice from a ‘nutritionist’ (with qualifications that would not be acceptable in Australia) and several of his co-authors. It was not surprising that these guests were in agreement and as well as their book, they also sold a range of expensive supplements, some of which they promoted on their websites as ‘natural’ alternatives to statins. None of this was mentioned on the program. Sadly, the ABC’s commitment to accurate science was not evidence in this program.

    • Seb

      If the phones themselves carry warnings (which they do – I checked while watching) then it would seem the manufacturers have some regard for the science discussed. Whatever people’s views might be, it would be a sorry state of affairs if the ABC did not air various views to allow the populace to think and research further. ‘Nutritionists’ have discredited themselves with years of continued contrary advice, not to mention their failure to consider the prana/spiritual elements of food or the varying requirements of individuals based on genetic differences or even blood types. Essentially, it is good to hear from anyone who has researched any specific issue in detail so that we can decide what to consider and inquire into further. The ABC should not pander to any one group or viewpoint.

    • Martin Cheney

      It is better to be safe rather than sorry when it comes to the wellbeing of our children. If Dr Charlie Teo a respected neurosurgeon is so strict on the way that his children use mobile phones, I feel that it is wise to follow his example.

  • MaudeLynne

    WHO lists “The electromagnetic fields produced by mobile phones are classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as possibly carcinogenic to humans.” (from their website).
    So if Simon Chapman and Bernard Stewart refused to appear on the program, when they could have said what they did above, and defended their positions, why should we listen to them now?

  • Seb

    Dr Chapman declined to participate in the documentary. Why? Surely he could have provided his alternative view if he had cooperated… Australia churns out loads of scientists who deny climate change – too many are lackies to their corporate sponsors or local Conservative reality-denier political parties.

  • Rosie

    The ABC Catalyst program presented and quoted a number of scientific studies. Perhaps Professor Rodney Croft
    does not understand “the science” presented. Prof Croft is a psychologist (with degrees is in philosophy and psychology). Dr Devra Davis is an epidemiologist who is internationally known for her work on disease prevention and environmental health factors. Dr Davis’ earlier work on the health effects of smoking and asbestos, also called ‘fringe positions’ by “experts”, have proven to be true, and saved lives.
    Our government must, as a matter of urgency, fund impartial expert researchers with appropriate scientific qualifications to examine this issue and not allow corporate funded research centres and “psycientific” opinion to cloud this important area of health risk.

  • May

    Gave up watching the ABC a long time ago. Boring !!

  • MaudeLynne

    “Energy of electromagnetic waves is directly proportional to the frequency.” is true.
    But not really relevant.
    EM (micro) waves cause heating, and this alone is undesirable in human tissue.
    Your microwave oven definitely causes changes to molecular structure of proteins.

  • MaudeLynne

    Thank you for the link.
    As Rodney Croft said on the ACEBR site:
    “Of course it is impossible for science to demonstrate that anything is absolutely safe, and so regardless of whether we’re talking about Wi-Fi or orange juice, science cannot demonstrate absolute safety.”
    ACEBR are also starting a 5 year study into electromagnetic hypersensitivity, which may reveal new information.
    Mobile phones have been pressed up against the head for twenty years now, but it would be a very brave (or foolish) person who said they are absolutely safe, and do not cause cancer or some other deleterious change in humans. The time frame is still too short for that.

    • g-lock

      Mobile phones have been in Australia for 29 years. How long do you want?

  • Maggie Adeney

    The devices all have warnings (hard to find, at the bottom of the legal section). It’s there to cover the industry against lawsuits, as they know they can’t get insurance. Lloyds of London have an exclusion on any claims arising from wireless technologies.

    Here’s a letter from the American Academy of Pediatrics to U.S. Congress Dec 26th 2012. Representing 60,000 primary care pediatricians, pediatric medical sub-specialists, and pediatric surgical specialists. I defy anyone to call this group unscientific, or fringe!

    “The use of wireless technology has proliferated dramatically in the last 15-20 years, yet the guidelines have been unchanged for decades. The AAP strongly supports examining the
    effects of radiofrequency (RF) energy on vulnerable populations, including
    children and pregnant women.
    Children are disproportionately affected by environmental exposures, including cell phone radiation. The differences in bone density and the amount of fluid in a child’s brain compared to an adult’s brain could allow children to absorb greater quantities of RF energy deeper into
    their brains than adults. It is essential that any new standards for cell phones or other wireless devices be based on protecting the youngest and most vulnerable populations to ensure they are safeguarded through their lifetimes.

  • Rosie

    Absence of proof of harm is not proof of safety. WIFI (especially at the current excessive levels most people live in now) has not been proven to be safe and so we need to apply the PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE. Its usage should be limited (especially around children) until it is proven safe, or at what levels it is safe.

  • Bygauld Byrd

    I was with the story whilst the message was “heavy users” with the phone stuck against the head, but it lost credibility when it started conflating that evidence and implying the same impacts occurred with Wi-Fi Routers and Cell Towers. The latter situations are markedly different, as is the evidence relating to light users of phones. I expect much better balanced reporting from Catalyst – it would appear no such serious effort was made in this program.

  • Clare Rudkin

    Why should the ABC only view accepted views? We need alternative views as well. Is this PC at work?

  • Dr Rosemary Stanton

    Nutritionists have also been telling us to limit sugar for years (in every issue of Australia’s Dietary Guidelines since the first ones in 1979). And no one suggested ‘cutting out’ animal fat but reducing it.

    Official guidelines also suggested more vegetables and fruits, choosing wholegrains and legumes. (Sadly no one followed this long-standing advice and just 7% of Australians eat the recommendations for vegetables.) Guidelines have never suggested highly processed foods with sugar and refined starches replacing animal fat. That was what the processed food industry saw as a marketing opportunity.

    There is a wealth of evidence showing a diet that favours plant foods – with some animal foods – confers the lowest risk of common health problems. More vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, legumes, nuts, seeds. Less processed junk food. Currently junk foods contribute 35% of adults’ and over 40% of children’s kilojoules. No nutritionist ever suggested that!

    • Mike at Old Bar

      Do the Heart Foundation still endorse products such as Milo Cereal and Nutrigrain that contain up to 40% sugar or did that end with the adoption of the new star rating system?
      With bodies such as the HF encouraging sugar consumption how is the average family supposed to make healthy food choices?

      • Dr Rosemary Stanton

        Mike, The Heart Foundation no longer runs the Tick program. Although I think the Heart Foundation does some wonderful work, I was critical of the Tick program, partly because it did not follow the official, evidence-based dietary guidelines. As you point out, one of the biggest problems was that the sugar content in products did not count against them being able to use the Tick. I also did not like a program that required companies to pay to use it. I would advise people to follow the official Dietary Guidelines from the National Health & Medical Research Council.
        Sadly, the Health Star rating system has been twisted in such a way that many foods I’d regard as ‘junk’ get stars they don’t deserve.

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