Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What's the buzz? Good science + Bad reporting = A hell of a lot of misinformation

Hello, everyone, and welcome to the latest edition of The Political Bug!

    Politics, as a subject, is rather broad. As a result, some things may not appear to be political in nature, but may ultimately have political ramifications. What started as genuine curiosity can become twisted and warped by individuals expressing an either misguided or ill-informed view of the subject matter, which is what I want to talk about today.

    I had this article sent to me by a non-entomologist friend to get my input. The title read, “Cell phone signals really are killing the bees, study shows,” and my immediate response was, “Hell. No.”

Pictured: Alleged bee poison. Not pictured: It actually killing
    To be clear, I was not immediately disregarding the study’s findings off-hand. However, I felt reasonably sure that the article my friend sent me was not accurately portraying the research that was actually done. I wanted to give the study a good, critical once-over before giving my friend my opinion so I looked up the paper and read it.

    The study in question (link) was conducted by a Dr. Daniel Favre from the Laboratory of Cellular Biotechnology in Switzerland and published in the journal, Apidologie. The study, Mobile phone-induced honeybee worker piping (2010), sought to address one of the proposed factors of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the recent phenomenon that has led to the sudden death of large numbers of bee colonies worldwide. In CCD, the older worker bees (the ones that forage) will disappear from the hive, leaving the queen and young brood behind. As a result, the colony dies without the workers to feed it. While pesticides, parasites like the varroa mite, and farming practices have all been considered factors in CCD, some individuals suspect that new technology, like cell phones, may be to blame. Favre, in his introduction, discussed how honeybees use magnetoreception to help navigate their environment. When this magnetoreception is interrupted, the bee can become lost and fail to return to the hive.

    Dr. Favre wanted to test to see if the electromagnetic radiation of a cell phone was sufficient to create conditions that may prompt the worker bees to abandon the hive. He used as his response variable worker piping: a particular pattern of sound that usually precedes swarming behavior (when bees move on to a new location). His set-up involved three types of treatments: 1) placing two cell phones inside a hive, but having them turned off, 2) placing two cell phones inside a hive, but in standby mode, and then 3) placing two cell phones inside a hive, continuously sending and receiving a signal between one another or a third source. For this last group, the audio devices were removed, but left connected to pick up and emit sound away from the hive. This is a good precaution, since the sound alone may cause behavioral changes and Dr. Favre wanted to limit the number of variables. It also makes sure that the phones are operating properly throughout the study.

    What Dr. Favre ultimately saw was an increase in the worker piping when active cell phones were placed inside the hive in comparison to the two controls used. That suggests that there is something about the phones that is having an effect on the colonies. This is certainly interesting and deserves to be discussed within the scientific community. But here is where I disagree with Dr. Favre’s findings. Ultimately, he does not conclusively demonstrate that it is electromagnetic radiation from the cell phones that is inducing the worker piping. The piping does increase in relation to the controls, but Favre does not provide statistical data in the paper to support that it is a significant difference. Additionally, he fails to show the mechanism for how the phones are inducing the piping. There may be some sort of sensitive vibration that the bees are picking up on that they may be agitating them or it may be another interaction. It does not have to be electromagnetic radiation impacting the bees’ magnetoreception. If he wanted to conclusively show electromagnetic radiation’s impact, he could have used a fourth set up using an electrical devise that was not a cell phone, but whose purpose was to emit electromagnetic waves and compare the results of the trial. Finally, there is no examination of how close a cell phone must be in order to have an effect. Favre acknowledges this point, expressing a need for further studies to determine a cell phone’s effect over increasing distances. Until this is examined, we can’t really say if the cell phone network in place is having any meaningful impact on natural and domestic bee communities.

    Ultimately, the real problem is not with Dr. Favre’s work. It is a worthwhile trail of investigation and I’m interested to see where further research leads. If he can more conclusively show that it is the radiation of the phones that is having an effect, I’d be willing to change my position. The true problem was how Dr. Favre’s study was reported in the media. Standard reporting on science is typically bad in most respects, but the way that the article my friend sent me misrepresented Dr. Favre’s findings was almost criminal. At no point in the study did any of Favre’s colonies collapse due to his cell phone treatments, yet the article claimed that he conclusively showed that cell phones were killing bees. Favre had these phones running for 20 hours at some points and the worst effect he saw was a prolonged period of time before the piping subsided.

    Favre was making a legitimate inquiry in one aspect of a very complex phenomenon. Yet, it is inevitable that his work will now be used by individuals and groups as evidence that cell phones are dangerous or technology is evil or whatever their particular agenda is. This is all thanks to lazy reporting and an audience that does not possess the tools to critically analyze the science stories they read. Without being able to separate the truth from the bullshit, false ideas about our world take root. And that, to me, is very dangerous.

    Well, that’s all for now. Before I go, I'd like to follow up on last week's, "What's That Bug?" While no one guessed the correct answer exactly, Sven was the closest with the guess of a camel cricket. The correct answer is a weta, a New Zealand species of cricket that is in the same family as the camel cricket. For this week's challenge, I would like the name of the family of this predaceous arthropod and a bonus if you can correctly identify where in the world it is located.

 Thank you for listening to my little rant and I hope you enjoyed reading The Political Bug! Catch you next time.


What's That Bug?

1 comment:

  1. Thats not a bug...it's a turtle :) I liked the article a lot. Its better to really read something in detail then to go off of what a headline says.