Most fairly well educated people recognise pseudoscience as bunkum when they see it — astrology, young-earth creationism, alien abduction, pyramid power … Yet some of these same people are now being sucked into a movement that is, according to all rigorous scientific analysis, as equally without foundation as the ones listed above: the anti-smart meter movement.
Smart meters – in case you’ve missed it – are devices now being installed by electric and gas utilities in millions of homes and apartments internationally. A few times a day the meter briefly sends a report on usage, via a wireless system entirely similar to that used by mobile telephones.
Obviously such devices have advantages, both for the user and for the utility. One of the present authors discovered, using his smart meter, that his swimming pool filter pump was using roughly 450KWhr per month, costing more than US$100 a month. He then replaced this with a new highly efficient, multispeed pump, and has now reduced this cost to roughly US$40. Happy? He was pumped!
Yet there is a rapidly growing movement opposing the installation of these meters. In the US, an organisation known as Stop Smart Meters claims to be “fighting for our health, privacy, and safety".
Unlike other pseudoscience, the anti-smart meter movements are not, for the main part, being organised in right wing, fundamentalist or not-well-educated circles. In Marin County, California, a trendy suburb north of San Francisco (and hardly a hotbed of pseudoscience!), county officials have criminalised the installation of smart meters, citing “health effects” of their usage.
In Canada, the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal has accepted a complaint from Citizens for Safe Technology, a group dedicated to “protect[ing] children and nature from unsafe wireless technologies".
Canadian tribunals often investigate dubious complaints, so this does not necessarily mean that BC is about to ban smart meters.
What are the health risks? As mentioned above, smart meters worldwide use conventional cell phone networks to transmit their data. In the largest study conducted so far, researchers in Denmark found no increased risk of brain tumours from long-term usage of cell phones.
But even if some minute health risk is ultimately found for heavy cell phone usage, microwave exposure from smart meters is only a microscopic fraction.
Smart meters only transmit data for roughly 1.4 seconds per day, at very low wattage. According to B.C. Hydro in Canada: “Exposure to radio frequency during a 20-year life span of a smart meter is equivalent to the exposure during a single 30-minute cell phone call.”
Even this reckoning is exceedingly generous, since the typical cell phone is held to the ear, whereas smart meters are typically many feet away from humans, and thus microwave exposure is tens of thousands of times lower.
Meet the “experts”
All these rational and reassuring facts do not stop the anti smart meter “experts” from revealing all the terrible things being covered up. They always sound impressively scientific to the uninitiated.
We should also note that privacy concerns — real and imagined — quickly join the list of scary things about smart meters.
They have never met a conspiracy theory they could not exploit. Many are explicitly or implicitly antisemitic. Such names are increasingly showing up in “legitimate” right-wing contexts, partly thanks to Ron Paul’s brand of “libertarianism.”
Swerdlow even blogs for the Huffington Post and tells us that:
Stewart A. Swerdlow has the ability to see energy fields and personal archetypes as well as read DNA sequences and mind-patterns. A powerful intuitive, he uses and teaches Universal Law to help others resolve life issues, even reaching into simultaneous existences and beyond.
Similarly, William Deagle – who uses the honorific Doctor despite no longer being allowed to practise his “medicine” – can spout superficially compelling nonsense on weaponised viruses, chem trails, micro-nuclear weapons, the Oklahoma city bombing, shape-changing reptiles, the Illuminati, the new world order, and smart meters, all while claiming to be one of the witnesses from Revelations and leading tours to the Holy Land.
An inadvertently amusing peek at a season in the life of the Deagle family can be seen from the following smart meter letters to and from San Diego Gas and Power, a peace offering from the Deagles, and a fine final letter from the power company.
But there is nothing remotely amusing about this crowd. Almost certainly, most opponents of smart meters have no idea of the company they are keeping.
Ignorance or disingenuity?
In any event, it strikes the present authors that the proponents of the anti-smart meter movement are, at the least, being highly inconsistent. If they truly believe their health is at risk from microwave exposure via smart meter broadcasts, they should immediately cease using cell phones (including smart phones and iPads), and should not permit anyone to carry or use such a device on their property.
For that matter, such persons should avoid any public place, including grocery stores or restaurants, where someone might use a cell phone, or where a WiFi hotspot might be in operation.
What’s more, they should stop using microwave ovens, which, even if in compliance with governmental regulations, emit thousands of times as much microwave radiation as a smart meter.
But somehow the present authors do not think the trendy anti-smart meter fans in the upper middle-class suburbs of San Francisco, Vancouver or elsewhere are going to give up their cell phones any times soon; nor are they going to give up microwave ovens or leisurely lunches with friends at the local WiFi-enabled bistro or cafe.
And therein lies the problem — either such persons are massively misinformed as to the relative risks, or else they are being highly disingenuous in their public declarations on the subject. The reader can decide which is the more likely explanation.
Either way, it does not speak well for the level of scientific education worldwide that such movements can gain traction. We can only hope a sceptical press will finally take this movement on.
But in a world where extremists are considered mainstream, don’t hold your breath.
A version of this article appeared on Math Drudge.