To snark or not to snark?

What do you do when someone who should know better says or writes something outrageous? And how do you tell them that they’re wrong? I would use snark.

I’m a big proponent of using snark when setting people straight, but not all people. I tend to use snark with people who either should know better (because of their education, experience, or position at work) or those who claim to know better. I don’t use snark when someone who doesn’t know better or isn’t supposed to.

However, I’ve been told that snark is not always the way to go. I’ve been told that I will hardly ever change a person’s mind if I’m snarky at them in explaining to them why they’re wrong. But I tend to believe that the True Believers™ are the ones whose mind won’t change no matter what. That is, I could be the nicest person in the world to them, understand them, put my arm around them as I explain to them a principle of science or reality, and they would still not change their minds. That’s how True Believers™ are.

My wife showed me an article written by a colleague of hers in which it was asserted that “electromagnetic frequency (EMF)” was the likely cause of several ailments. It’s “electromagnetic radiation,” by the way, not “EMF”. That was only the first red flag. The author of the article wrote other things about “electronic pollution” and such.

I’ve heard it all before, and it’s all an exaggeration based on some bad understanding of how the universe works. Is electromagnetic radiation bad? Yes and no. Like any other thing in the world, the dose matters. First, electromagnetic radiation is non-ionizing radiation, meaning that it doesn’t have enough energy to cause irreparable damage to your DNA. The only way this kind of radiation can cause damage is by heat, and it would take a very strong source of it to heat up your insides to the point of causing damage.

All of this I learned in high school and college physics and by reading “Physics for Future Presidents” by Richard Muller. I also learned some of it from my dad. He was a scout for a uranium mining company when he was young. So he got to chat a lot with people knowledgeable about these things.

I wanted to respond to the person who wrote that “EMF” article, and I wanted to be very, very snarky. Not only am I tired of the “electromagnetic sensitivity” stuff, I’m also tired of people who should know better doing things like this. Some may ask what the harm is in an article in a newsletter for physician assistants like that article. But there is a harm when people with actual medical conditions are led — by people who should know better — into treatments and remedies that will do nothing. Delaying treatment while chasing a phantom disease is not a good idea.

But I was discouraged from responding because the author seems to be a True Believer™, and there’s little to anything you can do with them… In my experience.

  1. The teacher in me always wants to assume the person does not know any better and hence not to use snark.
    Or if the writer knows better, the reader of my comment who is not the writer might not.

    I do, sometimes, digress into snark. But I usually try to go for educational, at least as a first choice.

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  2. That was a strange error you made.
    Electromagnetic radiation can be non-ionizing or ionizing. It all depends on the energy of the photon. Ultraviolet radiation isn’t very ionizing, but can burn your skin and change the DNA in the dermis. X-ray and gamma radiation is ionizing and can cause DNA damage deeply into one’s tissues. For each, it still comes down to exposure levels, how much energy is being directed into one’s body for how long.

    Now, for the more technical side, it all comes down to energy. The means that physicists measure energy of most things is in electron volts.
    Radio waves are less than 10^-5 electron volts. Not really all that energetic. One would have to pretty much sit on an antenna tower of a major radio or television station to suffer damage and what damage one would suffer! RF burns are nasty.
    Microwave energy is a lot higher, around 10^-5 to 0.01 electron volts. Still not really high, but a 1kw microwave oven does really nice cooking.
    IR is a lot more energetic at 0.01 to a more significant 2 electron volts.
    Visible light is around 2-3 electron volts.
    UV is anywhere from 3 to 10^3 electron volts. We’re starting to get somewhere nasty there! Fortunately, we’re reasonably protected from the higher level UV radiation, courtesy of our atmosphere. For space travelers, it is a big deal though. As a matter of interest, people who have had cataracts removed can see the lower end of UV. The natural lens in the eye filters UV out, but many synthetic lenses do not.
    X-rays are 10^3 to 10^5 electron volts. That’s quite a smack there, especially at the higher levels that we don’t even use industrially.
    Gamma radiation is above 10^5 electron volts and is really, really nasty.
    Again, courtesy of our atmosphere, x-rays and gamma won’t travel. Indeed, oxygen ionizes quite nicely and becomes opaque to gamma and x-rays quickly. It’s why that nuclear fireball hesitates briefly before it gets gigantic and turns into the famous mushroom cloud, that ionized oxygen not letting the high energy photons out of the fireball.

    Now, we come down to other factors of exposure. The inverse square law, where intensity of radiation is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the source. Remember that nuclear weapon? It’s why men were able to survive watching the devices go off, distance diluted the energy reaching them.
    Now, we are in a veritable soup of electromagnetic energy. We evolved in a soup of the stuff, cosmic microwave background energy, solar radiation, even some cosmic rays can cascade down to Earth. Lightning sends RF around the world, as well as strong strikes generating x-rays and gamma bursts.
    We’ve added pollution of radio energy, but that only really matters to electrical engineers, lest interference create problems. Well, also to network folks, who have to content with interference with wireless devices as well.

    Now, considering the miniscule amount of energy that does get to one’s body, the notion that everyday people would receive any health impacts from electromagnetic energy is above and beyond the call of absurd. People working on antenna towers and microwave feedhorns have health concerns, but that is why the devices are powered down when they work on them.
    But then, ignorance of basic science is horrifically common and that ignorance creates fear. Fearmongers can sell their nonsense far and wide in the vacuum of ignorance.

    Physics is F=µN. 😉

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    1. Oops… Yes. All radiation is electromagnetic. Then it breaks down to ionizing versus non-ionizing. I guess I mean the radiation coming off radio transmitters in cellphones and wifi modules.

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      1. Well, there *is* electronic pollution, but that is more generally called radio frequency interference.
        Microwaves, at high intensity, such as right off of a feedhorn or close to a radar dish, can cause genetic damage. That is due to heating effects though.
        I remember a unit in Germany that had the radar techs point their FAAR radar dishes into the valley, in order to prevent interference with German radar.
        The problem was, the valley contained their barracks. Initially, nothing amiss was observed until a young couple tried to have a baby.
        Then, the damage was spotted. The Army then tracked all members of the units that were barracked in that valley, feeding the information to the VA. There were quite a few leukemia cases from those units.
        Needless to say, upon first ascertaining what was happening, the Army also saw to it that those dishes were pointed in a safe direction!

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