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310. Influence (VII)



At the beginning of the year, a post-rat—a post-rationalist, someone who has left that fraternity and now regards them as “rats”—appealed to Twitter for views on mobile phone masts; at the time, the purported link between Covid-19 and 5G—usually characterised as a conspiracy theory—was at its height. The post-rat wanted to test his skills on the problem.


I dropped into his DMs on Twitter and related my experiences with mobile phone masts. I once walked very closely past a mast in a field near my home and experienced an intense pressure on the right side of my head, as if it were about to explode—a similar sensation occurred on my other passes by the tower. Now, there is no doubt a lot of what I say could be characterised as, frankly, “mad”—perhaps eccentric if someone was generous and in the mood to be friendly, perhaps mental illness if they were not. Indeed, one of my editors once characterised me as, “Mad. Just mad.” Another, a woman, said: “Some of the things you say are shocking. Shocking.” The latter should be taken to mean, “Some of the things you say are true, I think them myself, but I’d never say them out loud.”


All this taken as granted, for once my views on mobile phone masts are entirely pedestrian. I have no views, no strong feelings either way and have never really investigated the issue; nor do I have any interest in it. I was not about to propose, in a manner typical of my style, that mobile phone masts symbolise the Egyptian god Set and correlate with Orion’s position in the sky. I quite like mobile phones and find the whole topic of masts to be largely without interest. What I did have was my experiences; and I take my experiences seriously.


The post-rat’s response to my story was to immediately note that it was impossible for the waves emitted by a mobile phone mast to penetrate the skull. He then began to talk about cognitive biases and to suggest various ways in which I might have been confused by my experience. This is the soft version of saying someone is mad; since I was not raving about a Chinese plot to spread Covid-19 via 5G mobile phone masts I did not deserve to be ignored or given the full mental health treatment. Instead, it was the soft talk about cognitive biases.


Now my anecdote was evidence; not much evidence, granted—yet it was something. I know nothing about science, I did not even do the most basic qualifications in physics or chemistry at school—I just did biology. Yet I do know science is about experiment. So if someone tells you about an experience why not go and experiment? Why not walk 20 undergraduates past the mobile phone mast and ask what they feel? Then talk about sample size and cognitive biases. Why not get off your fat arse—for this man was pudgy—and walk by a mast yourself and see what happens? Not interested. No curiosity. He had what he knew was possible as regards wavelengths, statistics, and cognitive biases and that was enough to intimidate the plebs out of their experiences. Rather like a priest, no?


A few months later I saw the same guy bragging on Twitter about how he received a first-class degree from Cambridge in an advanced scientific subject without doing any work; it was a humblebrag, of course—thinly worded to self-deprecate, a little too thinly. Now Twitter users are probably more narcissistic than most, but it says something about what institutions like Cambridge really are: full of smart people who know the lingo and the statistical methods but are more interested in their status than in actual experiment and investigation of the world—insufferable braggarts deluded by arrogance and a convoluted thought style and jargon designed to signal “science”. In other words, the people who run our country and set policy.

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