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Thirty years ago I published this editorial (Where is the EPA’s sense of decency?, Journal of Bioelectricity 3(12):1–2, 1984).

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was founded in 1970 “to protect and enhance our environment today and for future generations.” During the next decade, it earned a reputation as one of the more respected federal agencies. Its decisions were generally well-reasoned, and occupied the middle ground. In 1980 Ronald Reagan appointed Ann Gorsuch as Administrator of the EPA, a choice widely criticized at the time as being based on political grounds. During the next several years there was an exodus of key professionals, and the EPA became a demoralized, do-nothing Agency. Following the Superfund scandal William Ruckleshaus was appointed to head the EPA. He was supposed to replace politics with science as the basis for EPA decisions, and set the Agency moving again. Under his leadership, however, things did not improve significantly.

After examining the way the EPA responded to evidence of formaldehyde’s carcinogenicity, an MIT professor reported in Science (222, 894, 1983) that the Agency’s actions revealed “the interplay between politics and science policy in regulatory determinations. In some cases there were significant and unjustified departures from reasoned decision-making.” The Agency’s decision was, basically, to do nothing. An EPA official delivered essentially the same message to a national conference on toxics in ground-water: “We don’t have any quick fixes. This is going to be a long-term problem.” Much the same thing occurred in the area of lead poisoning. A 1979 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that children with high lead levels scored lower on IQ tests. The EPA then assembled what official of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health called a “hanging jury” (Science, 222, 907, 1983) which strongly attacked the study, thereby destroying the main argument for holding lead pollution to low levels—that is, the main argument for EPA to take action.

The situation reached a new low with the efforts of the EPA in the matter of safety limits for environmental exposure to electromagnetic fields. In its Draft Study, the Agency’s staff arbitrarily adopted the approach that only thermal effects need he considered. But since there are no significant thermal-level exposures in the environment, the conclusion pregnant in the Draft was that there is no need for action to protect the public health. Ruckleshaus himself appointed a panel to review the Draft which consisted almost exclusively of individuals well known for their thermal-effects-only viewpoint. The majority view among scientists world-wide—that there exist biological effects due to non-thermal electromagnetic fields—was virtually unrepresented. It was not surprising when this newest “hanging jury” largely endorsed the staff’s approach. Worse still, was the avowed purpose of the EPA which is to issue so-called guidance to the twenty or so Federal Agencies that have a role in regulating the electromagnetic spectrum, and not to enact regulations pursuant to its broad congressional mandate. The EPA intends to palm off its responsibility to other federal agencies that have vastly less expertise and that are even more certain not to act.

The EPA was created by Congress to protect Americans from risks and threats against which the individual is almost completely defenseless. The public expects the EPA to be honest and fair, and to make decisions that protect the health of the American people. Instead, the EPA’s recent performance has been woefully reminiscent of what occurred at the McCarthy hearings 30 years ago when attorney Joe Welch, in complete revulsion of the Senator’s performance, said ‘You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last have you left no sense of decency?’

During the halcyon days of the early 1970s, I was a young scientist, a young lawyer, and still under the influence of the philosophical outlook I had learned from the Jesuits, especially the ideal of pursuing the common good. When I wrote the editorial, I interpreted the descent of the EPA into mediocrity as a transient aberration wrought by political leaders who had chosen to remain perpetually ignorant of science because that perspective served and fueled their notion of personal freedom that was so outlandish as to be antithetical to the common good. But in the twilight of my still-active career in science, I have a deeper understanding regarding the distinction between the natural trajectories of federal agencies whose primary mission is to protect the public, like the EPA and the FDA, in distinction to federal agencies whose primary mission is to set the rules whereby human beings can function as warring atoms of self-interest, like the FCC and the SEC. I see now that the fate of all protective federal agencies is to sink into mediocrity, because they are inherently at war with powerful interests that promote extreme personal liberty. These agencies avoid operating on a war footing, which is dangerous and unstable, by always seeking a middle ground between common sense and rational science on one hand, and the fervent desires of radical pro-personal-freedom constituencies, whether motivated by money, philosophy, or religion. Thus mediocrity was in the EPA’s genes, and it should not be criticized as harshly as I did in the editorial.

My error back then—and I was not the only one who committed it—was to assume that federal agencies operated primarily on behalf of the public good. They do not. They are primarily arbiters of the eternal war between the Jesuit concept of the public good and the Ayn Rand concept of the private good. What I had perceived in 1980 as a Reagan-led transient period in the EPA’s evolution was actually the end of the transient period between the high hopes we had in 1970, and the attractor of mediocrity that appeared in 1980.

Independent thinking and reasoning was another equally important principle I learned from the Jesuits. If you adopt that perspective, and make an effort to acquire information about the world rather than simply dwelling on the content of your own mind or the vividness of your own beliefs, you will arrive at the notion of personal responsibility. Everyone gets sick and dies. The only salient questions are how long before those processes develop, and what the quality of life will be when they do. If your primary goal is to optimize life and health, the information needed to do so is available, not like an apple to be reflexively picked and eaten, but like something to be discovered after a proper effort. You have the responsibility to seek that information. It would be foolish to expect the government to keep you healthy and lengthen your life. If you choose not to make the effort, then you can still hope that there will be a pill or an operation that will fix your problem.

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Grant Design

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icon-kafkaEach principle of grant design that I could glean from the proposals of my colleagues who were successful at obtaining federal funding for their research struck me as opposite to common sense. This was especially true of the principles that the proposed experiments must already have been performed, and that the expected results have no practical value and admit of no definite conclusion. The System keeps scientists in chains. But the scientists don’t complain. They’re happy. They say, “Give us more money.” Kafka would have understood. “It is often safer to be in chains than to be free.”

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EMF experts sound erudite, but when they make mistakes they do so in characteristic ways, so they always betray themselves. The environmental science of EMFs consists of both knowledge and justice, so each element should be reflected in the character of anyone who is truly an expert. We can classify the different kinds of mistaken experts based on what they lack.

icon-faceThere are industry experts who make their living by providing negative judgments, irrespective of what environmental science requires. These experts love money, which they seek above everything else. They see themselves as completely free to say anything in pursuit of money and prestige. Their minds are formless in the sense that they have no idea what truth is. Erdreich, Miller, and Phillips are examples of toadies.

 

icon-churchmanIf an expert stakes a claim to knowledge that cannot be inferred from evidence by the process normally used to make meaning, he goes past science and into metaphysics. The mind of such a person is hardened against any empirical evidence or inferences that point away from what he believes. He regards any such evidence as necessarily flawed and feels no need to dig into it. such experts emphasize belief over knowledge. Repacholi, Schwan, and Handler are examples of the casuist species of mistaken expert. Rubin recently joined this sad fraternity.

icon-statueoflibertyIf an expert who works for the government becomes too passionately loyal to his bureaucracy, he forgets about justice. From the outside he appears to be following the proper method for interpreting data. On the inside, however, he triages away all inferences that may impede the mission of his agency, irrespective of whether that is the proper result of the normal process for making meaning from data. The testimony of such an expert is not reliable, like a lover who is asked to judge the beauty of his beloved. Flugum, Tyler, and Koslov are examples of the disorder in science that leads men to lie about it because they love the government too much. They want to help the government but, sadly, they succeed only in hurting it.

icon-alchemistOther experts devote themselves to pinpointing the source of epidemics like cholera or lung cancer, which they do by the method of questionnaires. But some questionnaire experts become disoriented and ask questions like “Do cell phones cause cancer?” which cannot be answered scientifically using their method, as gold cannot come from base metals. Like their predecessors, the modern alchemists are frauds. Kheifets is the greatest American fraudulent misuser of epidemiology. The greatest in the world today is Cardis.

These are the four kinds of mistaken experts: toadies, casuists, lovers, and alchemists. Where do they come from? Not from under rocks or out of thin air, but from the same stock that gives rise to experts who maintain the proper balance. In each instance, I suppose there was a crisis where the expert made the wrong choice but nevertheless was rewarded with a publication in a prestigious journal, special attention in the media, a promotion, or some financial benefit. Thereafter, it became progressively easier to put environmental science in the background.

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In my mind I return again and again to Philip Handler, the chairman of the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences and president of the Academy between 1960–1980. For those two decades he dominated and dictated American science policy, and was a premier example of the corrosive consequences of unbridled power, as Lord Acton had warned. The distortion Handler produced in the warp and weft of science still exists today, more than 30 years after he died from cancer.

The groundwork for what Handler did was laid innocently during the Civil War by Congress when it chartered the Academy as an honorific society. The Academy’s character changed profoundly after Handler’s stewardship began. He was ambitious and strong-willed, and believed intensely that science was the supreme form of human knowledge. By force of his personality he subordinated the Academy to the Council and made the Council a powerhouse of scientific jurisprudence, a star-chamber court for scientific advice.

Stakeholders seeking lampshaded analyses of scientific questions could turn to Handler for help. Innumerable times during his long tenure as the czar of American science he scripted narratives whose common plot involved an ad hoc committee of carefully chosen experts that analyzed data and produced a report styled as a product of the committee’s deliberations. Committee critics frequently pointed to the biases of the chosen experts and complained that the conclusions in the reports were foreordained. Such criticism almost always had no legs because in the public perception, which was where Handler and his clients intended that the narrative should have its impact, the Council was synonymous with the Academy, and the Academy was referred to in print so often as the “prestigious National Academy of Sciences” that it seemed “prestigious” was actually part of its name.

Handler wasn’t a lackey for the powerful interests that sought his help. Far from it. He was arrogant and hubristic, a man to be feared, particularly by the more than 1000 employees of the Council, all of whom served at his pleasure. Handler had strong views regarding the important questions that occurred at the interface of science and society. He championed nuclear power, a strong military posture, and the healing power of pharmaceuticals. He was hostile to environmental constraints, social programs, and the general drift of the times, which he claimed subverted the youth of America. His views usually coincided with those of the stakeholders who called upon the Council. No conspiracy here. Just a fortuitous community of interests.

Experts on Handler’s committees were rarely members of the Academy but frequently were financially tied to the stakeholder. By controlling committee membership, Handler controlled the work product of the committee, like a fisherman with a fish on a hook.

My life course collided with Handler’s juggernaut when he was in the process of bending to his will the analysis of the health hazards of the electromagnetic fields (EMFs) produced by a huge antenna, initially called Sanguine but renamed Seafarer, that was under construction by the U.S. Navy.

In the late 1960’s the Navy proposed building the antenna in northern Wisconsin, where it would stretch over parts of 26 counties. Political pressure forced the antenna out of Wisconsin, and the Navy began construction on the upper peninsula of Michigan. The antenna was intended to create an EMF that would be reflected by the ionosphere and then detected by submarines while submerged. Dr. Robert O. Becker, who was the director of the EMF research laboratory where I worked, had served as a member of a panel appointed by the Navy’s Captain Paul Tyler to evaluate EMF animal studies that had been commissioned by the Navy, and to give an opinion regarding potential environmental impact of the EMFs from the antenna. The panel did not endorse the safety of the antenna, which was what Tyler expected. On the contrary, the panel warned of potential dangers and health risks of the EMFs and strongly recommended that the Navy conduct further health-related studies.

But Tyler had other ideas. He contacted Handler and the upshot was his appointment of a committee to reexamine the EMF matter. With unseemly haste, the committed issued the decision the Navy wanted—the antenna EMFs posed no health risks whatsoever to the people in Michigan. Nevertheless the committee’s report gained no traction because the committee members were so obviously biased and conflicted in interest.

Public concern in Michigan over the potential risks of the antenna EMFs continued to grow. During the 1976 presidential campaign, Jimmy Carter promised the people in Michigan that the antenna would not become operational over their objections. Prompted by mounting adverse publicity and political pressure, the Navy approached Handler again, with a far larger budget, and asked him to appoint a bigger committee that did not contain only members with gross conflicts, and that would be perceived as following a deliberative and thoughtful process for issuing a decision. He chose the chairman of biology at Harvard as the chair of the committee. All the other committee members were MDs or PhDs and, at least to naïve observers, seemed suited to the task. Unfortunately almost all of the committee appointees had no experience in the area of health risks due to EMFs, except for the grossly conflicted members from Handler’s first Seafarer committee, whom he had reappointed to his second Seafarer committee.

Dr. Becker and I saw clearly that the ultimate decision would be a clean bill of health for the antenna, even though such a decision was incompatible with the scientific evidence. The chairman of the committee knew that the members who had experience with EMF biology were grossly conflicted, and he tried for several months to persuade Handler to balance the committee by appointing Dr. Becker and me as members. When we decided that simply was not going to happen, we sent a public letter to the committee setting forth our objections regarding the basic fairness of the committee, and arguing that the obviousness of the foreordained conclusion of safety rendered the entire process a fraud on the public. The controversy became widely known following a report in Science (Project Seafarer: Critics Attack National Academy’s Review Group).

Eight months later, during an interview with Dan Rather on CBS’ 60 Minutes, Dr. Becker labeled Handler’s committee for what it actually was, a “stacked deck.” Handler became very angry. In a letter published in the Detroit Free Press, he said that our charge that the NAS committee was stacked was “laughable” and “intolerable.” He suggested that Seafarer was safe, even though his committee, which was supposed to be evaluating the question, had not yet issued its report. The next month we learned that the main government grant which supported our laboratory would not be renewed. We had been warned that would happen if we persisted in crossing the powerful Handler. Nevertheless Dr. Becker had persisted. His fate was to become another heroic casualty in the endless struggle for justice.

Our remaining grant support was sufficient to carry us for almost three more years. Dr. Becker held a staff meeting and told us the date in early 1980 when our laboratory would close.

During our agonal period we both doubled down on our positions regarding the health risks of environmental EMFs. In September, 1979 an article in the Saturday Review retold the antenna story in the larger context of the heath risks of environmental EMFs and the rigging of scientific evaluations of those risks by the stakeholders that produced them. Handler went ballistic when he saw the article and struck at us viciously, but in a way that I saw was dangerous for him because he created a record by which posterity could see what kind of man he was. First he personally called the author and demanded that she retract the article because it attacked the objectivity of the Academy. He said, “I’m going to use every penny we have in the Academy to break you and break the Saturday Review.” Then he wrote the editor of the magazine that the article was “willful and venal” and “insulting to several distinguished scientists and to the National Academy of Sciences.” The letter included a manuscript in which he attacked my research, and he demanded that the article be published in the Saturday Review. I thought that publishing the manuscript was a good idea because it supported my contention that the NAS committee had been pre-programmed to reach the conclusion that ultimately was reached. But the editor of Saturday Review decided not to do so. I waited for Handler to start the lawsuit he had threatened, strongly hoping it would come. I had battle in my heart and believed that the situation would be far better for me if I could confront him directly rather than have him yap at me abominably from his lofty perch. Despite my fervent hope, the lawsuit never came. Soon thereafter Dr. Becker retired and our laboratory closed.

* * * * * * * * *

I prepared to leave New York for my new job. The night before I departed I had a dream in which I saw the soul of Philip Handle walking in the Land of the Dead, which I immediately recognized as such because I saw other souls whom I knew had died. He was pushing a wheelbarrow that supported his penis which was gigantic, roughly the size of his leg, and throbbed perceptibly with each heartbeat. When he recognized me and saw my pink cheeks he paused and pleaded for my help. “For the things I did on earth I must wander here, receiving no comfort from any soul until my sins against science have been disclosed to the living.”

“What do you want from me?” I asked.

“Tell the world what I did while I controlled science.”

“Even were I to try,” I said, “no one would believe me.”

“Please try. Perhaps some enterprising scholar, even yet unborn, will crack the nut of the Academy and reveal its inner workings.”

After saying this he turned and began walking back into the shadows from which he had come. But before he disappeared, he stopped, turned, and approached me a second time. After pausing, as if to gather his thoughts, he said, “Only after my death did I understand that science is the mother of good and evil. Because of me, false notions of science have taken deep root in human understanding, where they beset men’s minds so that truth can hardly enter. Great troubles will ensue unless men are forewarned of the danger.”

I promised Handler I would do what he asked, not out of pity, because seeing his fate did not lessen the revulsion I felt toward him. On any list of men who have done evil to science and the idea of science, no one ranks ahead of Philip Handler. Rather it was because the corruption of science by opinions masquerading as fact that he had cultivated and propagated was the chief impediment to achieving what I sought—the unbiased and rational evaluation of the link between environmental EMFs and human disease.

* * * * * * * * *

Today the internet and the books are largely silent about Philip Handler. I think this is so because he did no good that could be celebrated, and the evil he did is so big and bright that most people still can’t see it. But I can, and I lived to tell what a very small man Philip Handler was, notwithstanding the size of his penis.

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ThinkingThose who know that they are profound strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem profound to laymen strive for obscurity under the theory that laymen believe what they don’t understand must be profound. This is the key reason that lawyers for cell phone companies are so successful in Daubert hearings where judges usually exclude the possibility that evidence showing the environmental EMFs cause disease is excluded from consideration. The judges are floored by the complex eloquence of the hired experts from Harvard and Yale, and the poor lawyers who represent the plaintiff just don’t know what to do.

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EMF Toxicity

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AT&TumorThe EMF industry apologist said, “The claimed association between EMFs and cancer was internally inconsistent because it showed a greater effect at lower EMFs, which is the reverse of what I would logically expect.” I asked her, “Why was it logical to expect that?” and she replied, “Because most agents act that way. Toxicologists use the statement, ‘Toxicity is dose,’ as a rule of thumb.”

“They are wrong,” I told her. “Toxicity is novelty and chronicity.”

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Lack of Resilience

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OstrichI attended a meeting where I was the only speaker who argued that EMFs from high-voltage powerlines were health hazards. The position of the industry speakers seemed to be that the public should be kept ignorant about the hazards, taken advantage of, and then criticized for not being resilient. I thought that most of the public would probably favor my view if they understood what was happening. But they don’t, so they must accept the consequences. What they don’t know determines their fate.

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Perfect Thinker

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ThinkerWhenever you are bested in an argument or an interpretation, adopt the winning position. Someone who follows this strategy long enough, ultimately becomes a perfect thinker.

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WhoreA young man asked the Elders, “What is science?” One said, “It is a quest to understand the world.” A second said, “It is a whore that man exploits for his purposes.” A third said, “It is a mirror that reveals what is in the mind of man.” But the wisest among them replied, “It is all these things.” The young man pondered this response and asked, “Which is it the most?” and the wise one replied, “In your time, a whore.”

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Common Good

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Common GoodScience should be the servant of the common good—something that seeks knowledge and truth for the benefit of all God’s creatures. This goal is not what motivates most scientists.

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