Mobility

'Cell phones kill bees' stories create buzz but the internet pays the price

Beware sensational tech and science headlines and blog-based claims that are counterintuitive or outrageous - they exact a high toll in internet credibility.

Bloggers across the planet tend to grasp one-liner panic statements and amplify them without checking sources or the original material. Photo: Shutterstock

Written on BA284 flying San Francisco to London and dispatched two days later from a London coffee shop via a free wi-fi service at 20Mbps.

A news item has just popped up on my screen asserting that cell phones are killing bees. My immediate response is incredulity. If this effect were real, why haven't broadcast radio, TV, microwave radio, all forms of walkie-talkie, CB radio, police, taxis and the military been wreaking apian havoc for years?

It is now fashionable to try and find things to blame on cell phones. Thousands of articles and blogs have cited everything from brain cancer to headaches and birth defects - but none of it has been proven and nor is it likely to be. The claims generally defy the laws of physics and chemistry. Consequently, the statistical odds of these stories being correct are long.

And yet, here is a précis of the web post on my screen:

"It's official - cell phones are killing bees...scientists may have found the cause of the world's sudden dwindling population of bees - and cell phones may be to blame...bees' buzzing noise increases 10 times when a cell phone is ringing or making a call ..."

After a few seconds' consideration, and few minutes' investigation, I decide the piece is rubbish. First, "It's official". Official where? Next, it doesn't take much insight to realise that making any kind of noise near to, or inside a hive - especially a mobile phone ring or vibrator - will agitate the swarm. The bees will automatically go into defensive mode and search for the intruder.

Digging deeper into the material, it appears the original article was published in a scientific journal, and was picked up by a UK tabloid, which did state correctly, if not clearly: "The study did not show that mobile phones were deadly for bees."

So what happened after the original coverage? Writers grasped some elements and amplified them.

It appears that in this new fast age of the internet, it is volume that matters, not the quality, and certainly not the truth.

So, here we are, in a new age Babel and in dire need of a truth engine that will continually comb the net and check out facts, figures, statements, reports and articles, automatically identifying, flagging and destroying all the material that's in doubt or incorrect.

The blogosphere certainly won't do it, and people aren't capable of doing it alone. So until that time comes, proceed with caution - and one story at a time.

About

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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