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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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« Gaining and Losing and Discovering and Selling | Main | Sirtuin Scenarios »

January 14, 2010

Department of Placebo Effects

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Posted by Derek

Or nocebo, in this case, since people were sure that they were being harmed. Residents of a Johannesburg suburb detailed their reactions to a new cell phone tower in the area: rashes, headaches, nausea, disrupted sleep, and more. Electromagnetic poison, for sure. (Clearly they haven't heard that they might be at less risk for Alzheimer's).

What they didn't know was that the tower had been switched off for six weeks before the hearing. Descriptions of symptoms disappearing when the beleagured locals managed to sleep somewhere else for a night, only to reoccur when they came back to their homes, are thus a bit hard to reconcile. . .

Comments (22) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Snake Oil


1. Wavefunction on January 14, 2010 12:49 PM writes...

"What they didn't know was that the tower had been switched off for six weeks before the hearing."

You mean you haven't heard of residual electromagnetic radiation??

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2. TwoYaks on January 14, 2010 1:21 PM writes...

I've heard this one before so many times, that I have a hard time believing it, now that I've seen it in actual print. Either this is a common reaction that's happened in California, Mexico, Arizona, Minnesota, or it's a pernicious urban legend...

Or, truth is as strange as fiction. That could be it, as well.

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3. William on January 14, 2010 1:23 PM writes...

Oh, this is great; thanks for sharing.

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4. metaphysician on January 14, 2010 3:48 PM writes...

#2- Are you disbelieving the symptoms, or that people would report them even in the absence of actual phenomena?

Because I totally believe that people would report vague symptoms if they *believe* their exposed to something they believe is harmful. . . since the belief is the only thing having an effect in the first place.

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5. Sili on January 14, 2010 4:36 PM writes...

I interpreted TwoYaks to say that this is whispering campaign to discredit the people who claim to be electrosensitive.

Anecdotes are lovely - and fun! - but data are better. Ben Goldacre has hammered home the point that the media don't report the results of the doubleblind randomised trials on the subjects. And damningly participants tend to drop out when they realise the don't do better than chance. They know they're ill, and anyone saying differently are cruel and inhumane.

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6. belen on January 14, 2010 7:53 PM writes...

You guys are joking right? The next time that I see someone, without a pacemaker, keel over near an NMR I'll believe it. What about those poor people who get MRI's? I think the effects are so subtle and there are so many other factors involved that diagnosing a vague sense of nausea and unease is impossible. Probably it was just psychosomatic.

Now excuse me while I go inhale some hexane and attribute the dizziness and nausea to the vibrations of my hood.

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7. Jose on January 14, 2010 8:20 PM writes...

"The plural of anecdote is not data." (Frank Kotsonis)

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8. MedInformaticsMD on January 14, 2010 10:12 PM writes...

There's just something about radio.

In yet another story (I have one for every occasion), radio drove hospital executives nuts - the same executives whose attitudes about computers were even more primitive than in pharma research IT. They resisted an emergency shortwave capability based on paranoia and fears of the (to them) unknown.

I note that in the current Haiti tragedy, one of the realiable means of communication has been shortwave (ham radio).

Radio simply makes nontechnical people go nonlinear.

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9. doctorpat on January 14, 2010 10:52 PM writes...


There is a perfectly plausible explanation for you hearing the same story over and over again.

It's a great way to make the complainers look like fools. So every time there is a hearing, the company would do very well to turn the tower off a month or two before hand.

Either that or the presence of a nearby cell phone tower is inducing hallucinations in you.

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10. Bored on January 14, 2010 11:12 PM writes...

I've heard that if you wear an aluminum foil hat the bad effects disappear.

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11. Bob Hawkins on January 14, 2010 11:14 PM writes...

It's well-known that a new high-voltage power line starts causing the birth of two-headed cows when it's installed, long before it's finished and the ends get hooked up to transformers.

It's not the EM. It's the towers.

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12. Scott on January 15, 2010 1:58 AM writes...

Wow, that is some of the best humor I have read or heard in weeks. really funny!

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13. cliffintokyo on January 15, 2010 2:45 AM writes...

#12 Funny?! The comments have me ROTF! Wild!
Nice straight *take* from Derek produces the goodies.
Pernicious case of classic bunkum in The Pipeline...send in the CIA!

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14. JK on January 15, 2010 2:52 AM writes...

I don't have a hard time believing the same story has been repeated multiple times. You don't even need a true placebo effect (which involves a real correlation between intervention and symptoms). Any given population will have many cases of unexplained rashes, nausea, headaches, disrupted sleep, etc. If there is a local campaign against a tower then blaming EM emissions becomes a very easy (maybe even comforting) explanation. Turning off the tower and watching them make fools of themselves is also a pretty obvious response.

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15. Santa on January 15, 2010 8:39 AM writes...

re #10 this would only work outside of the US where the hat must be fashioned out of the more expensive, but easier to spell, Aluminum foil

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16. TwoYaks on January 15, 2010 12:30 PM writes...

@Various people (4,5,9, etc): Not that I doubt people can be very... uh, let's say "Misguided" in the sense of charity. However, to hear almost the exact same story over and over pings my "Urban Legend" radar. Of course, another interpretation (beyond Doctorpat's) is that enough people are "Misguided" even without the cellphone tower owner gaming things that these things pop up with regularity...

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17. mdq06492 on January 15, 2010 12:35 PM writes...

If you guys thinks this funny, you should take a look at this:
talk about taking things to the extreme!

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18. robopox on January 16, 2010 8:22 AM writes...

Aluminum foil hats have absolutely no protective effect. These hats, although decorative, are a cheap post-WWII substitute for the original foil that provides true protection; namely, tin-foil.

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19. DNAjunkie on January 16, 2010 5:29 PM writes...

I assume this is what you were alluding to in your comment about EM fields being good for Alzheimer's.
What do you think of this article?

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20. Jonadab the Unsightly One on January 18, 2010 7:00 AM writes...

Someone should do a rigorous properly controlled double-blind random-sample study on whether the tinfoil hats work better if you make them with the shiny side of the foil on the inside, or with the shiny side out.

@Bob Hawkins: but other kinds of towers (e.g., the Eiffel tower) don't cause the problem, so clearly it's something specific about this particular type of tower, having to do with the design. *Supposedly* these towers are designed to send and receive radio waves, but that's just a cover story, an excuse for building them. In actual fact, the design of these towers, constructed on behalf of the Illumaniti, is intended to Summon the Spirits who will bring about the Glorious Reckoning and usher in the New Age of Reason. The rashes are a side-effect that only occurs in Spiritually Sensitive people.

Our only hope for thwarting their plot is keep the base of each tower surrounded at all times with a circle of finely-ground salt. This is the only way to neutralize them. Even destroying the towers won't work. Once a tower has been built, its Spiritual Presence is persistent. We must maintain the salt circles vigilantly. Otherwise, once the number of the towers is complete, the End will Come.

(I wonder if this could be made into a best-selling thriller novel, in the spirit of Dan Brown...)

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21. Mike Andrews on March 7, 2010 7:32 PM writes...

I'm an amateur radio operator, with antennas in my back yard. I used to be a shortwave listener, before I got my license in 2005. As soon as my very first antenna went up, for shortwave LISTENING, well before I ever got my license and started transmitting, I got complaints of TV interference.

I'm not the only one, either: many of my ham friends tell me that they've had the same experience, with people complaining before the transmitter was ever hooked up to the antenna.

I don't try to explain it.

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22. vending machines in school philadelphia on April 19, 2012 4:26 AM writes...

The content on this publish is really a single of the top material that Ive ever occur across. I love your article, Ill appear back to verify for new posts.

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