Student Experiment Proves RF Kills Plants… or not…

December 18th, 2013
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A recent story that has been making the rounds is one that seems to have it all:  brilliant young aspiring scientists, underdogs shaking up the world and fear of wifi and phone RF radiation.

Via the Daily Dot:

Your wireless router could be murdering your houseplants

Are you slowly killing your houseplants? Probably! But there might be a reason (other than neglect) why they’re all yellow and wilty: your Wi-Fi router.

An experiment by a handful of high school students in Denmark has sparked some serious international interest in the scientific community.

Five ninth-grade girls at Hjallerup School in North Jutland, Denmark, noticed they had trouble concentrating after sleeping with their mobile phones at their bedsides. They tried to figure out why. The school obviously doesn’t have the equipment to test human brain waves, so the girls decided to do a more rudimentary experiment.

They placed six trays of garden cress seeds next to Wi-Fi routers that emitted roughly the same microwave radiation as a mobile phone. Then they placed six more trays of seeds in a separate room without routers. The girls controlled both environments for room temperature, sunlight and water.

After 12 days, they found the garden cress seeds in the routerless room had exploded into bushy greenery, while the seeds next to the Wi-Fi routers were brown, shriveled, and even mutated. See for yourself:

Teacher Kim Horsevad told the Daily Dot that her students did the test twice with the same results. She was quick to point out that while the students did the experiment to test only one variable to the best of their ability, it is a high school experiment and this isn’t a professional study.

“Some of the local debate has been whether the effects were due the cress seeds drying up because of heat from the computers or Access Points used in the experiment, which is a suggestion I can thoroughly refute,” Horsevad said. “The pupils were painstakingly careful in keeping the conditions for both groups similar. The cress seeds in both groups were kept sufficiently moist during the whole experiment, and the temperature were controlled thermostatically. The computers were placed so that the heat would not affect the seeds, which was verified by temperature measurements. Still, there may be confounders which neither the pupils or I have been aware of, but I cannot imagine what they would be.”

Well, the photos are certainly pretty dramatic, but that does not mean that this should be considered hard confirmed science. After all, it was not peer reviewed and was done by high school students. That said, it’s the message rather than the messenger, and it’s not impossible that non-professionals could discover something to shake up the scientific world.

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The Problems With This Experiment:

I am all for teaching students about science through hands-on demonstrations.  But in this case, there are a few things missing that are critical.   One of the most important is the basic idea that all experimental results should be viewed critically, but especially when they fly in the face of established science.  It can be summed up in the statement “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.”  If something is well established by science and your experiment seems to indicate something else, you should probably examine your experiment critically and repeat it (perhaps several times) before jumping to the conclusion that you have valid results.

Even professional scientists who try very hard to control their experiments.  For example, last year, scientists at a neutrino observatory in Italy took measurements which seemed to indicate the neutrinos were traveling faster than light.  They scratched their heads and checked their equipment repeatedly, repeated the experiment and finally concluded there were no flaws in their methodology and indeed they did record neutrinos exceeding the speed of light.  Then, however, they found there was a loose cable.  Oops.

Many studies have been done on RF radiation and biology and the results refute this.  Even if we assume that there could be an effect, it is all but unthinkable that it could be this dramatic.  If this was the case, then it would seem impossible that plants could grow near high power transmitters, which they clearly do.

Given that it flies in the face of logic and established science, anyone who gets these results should look at them with an abundance of caution and only consider them valid after repeated examination and conducting the experiment several times.

There are a few obvious things that could account for this:

  1. The seeds were apparently in different rooms, so it’s impossible to know that the conditions were the same.  One room may have had higher or lower humidity or more or less sunlight.  Apparently temperature was measured, but we have zero info on other factors.   The experiment should be repeated under more controlled conditions or by switching the rooms repeatedly.
  2. It’s possible that the behavior of those who were caring for the seeds comes into play.  Since this was not a blind experiment and since we don’t know the procedure for measuring water or other factors, it’s entirely possible one sample received more or less than the other.
  3. It could be fraud or dishonesty.  No, I am not saying that it was, but it would result in more press.  As a result, it is important that this be conclusively ruled out before the results can be considered reliable.
  4. One of the batches of seeds could have problems.  It might be dead or infected with fungus or any number of other things.   It’s impossible to tell because this was only done ones, so there is no large sample to compare.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 18th, 2013 at 6:39 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Education, inverse square, Misc. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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14 Responses to “Student Experiment Proves RF Kills Plants… or not…”

  1. 1
    DV82XL Says:

    In science, it is the ability to evaluate evidence, not the ability to pronounce something as true or false that is important. The credibility of a claim lies in the quality of the science, not the raw results of the experiment. Another part of part of the problem is that most people don’t understand what proof consists of and fail to understand that proof is a standard that science does not aim for. Proofs are limited to logic and mathematics. Of course in colloquial speech “proof” and “evidence” get used interchangeably.

    Unfortunately these are not concepts that are emphasized in what little science education kids are getting today in mainstream programs.

    Frankly, IMHO these results were manipulated, it’s just too pat and too much what the EMF cranks want them to be and that always should raise suspicions.


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  2. 2
    Joffan Says:

    So, when they repeated the experiment, did they switch the rooms?

    Of course for improved credibility, both rooms should have routers switched on with one batch inactivated, by someone not in contact with the students.


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  3. 3
    Brian Says:

            DV82XL said:

    Frankly, IMHO these results were manipulated, it’s just too pat and too much what the EMF cranks want them to be and that always should raise suspicions.

    I vote for either dishonesty or just luck with a bad batch of seed.

    But why on earth was this reported as news?

    Hell, I did experiments in high school and some of them were so messed up that they probably went against established science. Why no reporting of that?

    “High school student using a tape measure, a stop watch and a brick shows that the acceleration of gravity has been miscalculated by scientists for centuries”

    Yeah… something like that.


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  4. 4
    Dogmug Says:

    Well, the kids Did The Science, and have created a minor controversy among the Peers of Review fame. It’s likely that their experiment will not be replicable, and they’ll probably repeat it themselves with methodological suggestions from the Peers.

    Sometimes, we don’t get results we want, but no matter what an individual experiment may show, significant findings will always be deeply examined and re-studied. The flukes that defy their null hypothesis hurdles are part of statistical noise, and over time, it becomes obvious.

    Let the cranks exult; their glee will be brief. But those teenagers have just gotten their “baptism” in the world of Science, and it will stay with them for their entire lives.


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  5. 5
    James Greenidge Says:

    Seasons Greetings:

    The greater problem here is that you have groups and rag blogs such as “Nuclear News” that pass off unverified amateur findings and “experiments” as research breakthroughs that influence or muddle public perception in vital issues. I think verification and peer-review of any such science/environmental findings is essential and should be _immediate_ to nip any erroneous or coyly biased research in the bud. Remember how “cold fusion” and “Interferon” once so $$ raised hopes around the world?

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY


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  6. 6
    drbuzz0 Says:

            James Greenidge said:

    Seasons Greetings:

    The greater problem here is that you have groups and rag blogs such as “Nuclear News” that pass off unverified amateur findings and “experiments” as research breakthroughs that influence or muddle public perception in vital issues. I think verification and peer-review of any such science/environmental findings is essential and should be _immediate_ to nip any erroneous or coyly biased research in the bud. Remember how “cold fusion” and “Interferon” once so $$ raised hopes around the world?

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

    Agreed, but remember: This is not hard science. This is not being taken seriously by the scientific community. This is not a rigorously controlled experiment.

    This is a high school experiment. Nothing wrong with teaching students with hands-on methods, but it’s just not of the quality or oversight necessary to be taken seriously.

    It just should not be reported as news.


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  7. 7
    ReBoot Says:

    When it’s reported like here it becomes news.


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  8. 8
    Alan(UK) Says:

    Would anyone have published, or shown the slightest interest in, the results of this experiment if they had been the other way round?


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  9. 9
    drbuzz0 Says:

            ReBoot said:

    When it’s reported like here it becomes news.

    Really? Are you saying this is a major newsbreaking site that sets the tempo for the media in general?

    You make me blush!


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  10. 10
    Anon Says:

            drbuzz0 said:

    Really? Are you saying this is a major newsbreaking site that sets the tempo for the media in general?

    You make me blush!

    It’d be nice if it were.


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  11. 11
    Sigivald Says:

    Test?


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  12. 12
    Sigivald Says:

    Ah, there we go! Sorry, Captcha has prevented me from commenting for WEEKS now. (Maybe it’s just case-sensitive now, in the stupidest possible way.)

    Anyway:

    The irony of this is that it could actually be an excellent way to teach the scientific method and proper experiment design.


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  13. 13
    Calli Arcale Says:

    The “next to WiFi routers” bit has me curious. Some WiFi routers get pretty hot. It’s entirely possible the seeds were just plain cooked. I remember in my sophomore year of college, I tried growing a little herb garden in the window of my dorm room. It was so cute. Then, one night, they turned on the heating. I realized too late that the windowsill was also the radiator. Brown, dry, absolutely dead plants. Whoops.


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  14. 14
    DV82XL Says:

            Calli Arcale said:

    The “next to WiFi routers” bit has me curious. Some WiFi routers get pretty hot. It’s entirely possible the seeds were just plain cooked.

    Good observation Calli, definitely a potential confounding variable.


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