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Ignorance is spawning a climate of tech fear
From mobiles frying brains to limits on the mobile spectrum - it's all tosh
Written in a Vancouver diner and dispatched to silicon.com via a free wi-fi service in London a week later.

Why are people predisposed to being damagingly negative rather than curious and rational? Perhaps it's because it's a lot easier and people really like bad news.

During a typical year I will attend and present at numerous professional conferences, as well as at company, government and university events. Of late I have noticed a very definite trend in the rise of negativity and hopelessness.

Frequently, a presenter will take his or her chosen topic and deliver it according to the following general formula:

  • The bogeyman is coming to get you
  • He is big and ugly
  • He is going to do bad things to you
  • It really is going to hurt
  • And there is nothing you can do about it
  • And there is definitely no escape

Having sat through at least 30 such sessions over the past months, I have noticed something very significant. The nay-sayers have all been wrong. Not in a small way, but in a big way. Indeed, they have been so wrong that I have been moved to challenge the presenters.

What then transpires is mildly astonishing. We are subjected to badly researched materials and facts, misunderstood data and statistics, distributions for data and phenomenon that are assumed to be Gaussian - bell-shaped or normal - but which clearly are not, vested interests and axe-grinding, and a general ignorance of the technology and current developments at the core of the topic.

I know I am not a polymath and I like to think that I know what I don't know, but I have always read widely, asked a lot of questions, challenged, and been happy to be challenged. To me, being wrong or off-centre is a learning opportunity and not an excuse to side-step or leave early. If I don't know, or I'm uncertain, I say so.

Let me give two examples from the same sector to highlight the problem.

Statement one
Everyone knows that mobile phones and radiation from phone masts will cook our brains

Response
Wrong. There is not a shred of evidence to this effect - quite the reverse. Roughly speaking - and highlighted by Bernard Leikind in Skeptic magazine - chemical bonds in the human body require well over 100 kJ/mol depending on temperature and type. Mobile phones and mobile masts, however, only deliver 0.001 kJ/mol - that's a 100,000:1 discrepancy.

Question
Why isn't this information published and widely accepted? Why do those chasing their tails looking for this non-threat continue to research and conclude that they haven't proved that there isn't a problem, and there could possibly be a problem, and therefore we need to do more research?

Answer
Scientifically - it is impossible to prove a negative. Sceptically - there is a lack of interest in the truth on top of self-interest and ignorance.


Statement two
The mobile spectrum is being eaten up by demand and soon the network will collapse as demand overtakes availability.

Reality
Wrong. There is effectively an infinity of spectrum available. Not only can we continue to subdivide the existing spectrum spatially, with more and more micro and pico cells, the vast majority of the radio spectrum is unused. A radio-dense city such as London or Chicago typically exploits less that 20 per cent of the spectrum allocated below 30GHz.

Go above this frequency and magical things occur. First, the attenuation due to atmospheric resonances limits propagation to a few kilometres down to 100m, which is ideal for frequency reuse, and a great example of working with nature instead of against it.

Secondly, the bandwidth available above 30GHz is more than 1,000-fold that currently allocated for mobile operators below 3GHz.

Question
Why isn't this information published and widely accepted? Why do people perpetuate the myth?

Answer
Scientifically - they don't understand the physics of radio and are unable to look beyond the systems of today. Sceptically - could their position be a political play for more easy spectrum?

Beyond these two specific examples I really feel under threat from global warming, raw materials running out, technology warping our brains and much more. Am I terrified? No.

There are likely to be solutions to all these bogeymen because most of them are mistakes, misconceptions, or the product of incomplete thinking. But they do get speaking slots and the audience gets visibly worried.