Thinking is Power

Brad Roth
8 min readApr 26, 2024
Are Electromagnetic Fields Making me Ill? by Brad Roth.

Recently I stumbled on a YouTube video about critical thinking in education, featuring Melanie Trecek-King (of the website “ Thinking is Power”), Bertha Vazquez (with the Center for Inquiry) and Daniel Reed (the West Virginia Skeptics Society). I wasn’t expecting much, but as I listened I became enthralled. I highly recommend you spend some time exploring Thinking is Power, and perhaps follow it on Facebook. Trecek-King’s mantra is “Teach Skills Not Facts,” and she is trying to teach the skills of critical thinking. As I listened, I began to ask myself if I am doing all I can to teach critical thinking? In particular, are critical thinking skills emphasized in Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology, and in my popular science book Are Electromagnetic Fields Making Me Ill? I decided to use Are Electromagnetic Fields Making Me Ill? as a test case.

One of the key ideas in my book is the clinical trial. Critical thinking lies at the heart of such trials. In the chapter about the health effects of magnets, I discuss the importance of clinical trials being double blind, randomized, and placebo controlled. Why are these features crucial? They keep you from fooling yourself. In particular, a study being double blind (meaning that “not only the patient, but also the physician, does not know who is in the placebo or treatment group”) is vital to prevent a doctor from inadvertently signalling to the patient which group they are in. One of Trecek-King’s favorite sayings is the quote by Richard Feynman that “you must not fool yourself-and you are the easiest person to fool.” That sums up why double blinding is so important.

Placebos are discussed several times in my book. My favorite example of a placebo comes from a clinical trial to evaluate a new drug. “If a medication is being tested, the placebo is a sugar pill with the same size, shape, color, and taste as that of the drug.” One reason I dwell on placebos is that sometimes they are difficult to design. When testing if permanent magnets can reduce pain, “this means that some patients received treatment with real magnets, and others were treated with objects that resembled magnets but produced a much weaker magnetic field or no magnetic field at all.” It is hard to make a “fake magnet” or a “mock transcranial direct current stimulator.” Yet, designing the placebo is exactly a situation where critical thinking skills are essential.

Critical thinking overlaps with the scientific method, with its emphasis on examining the evidence. In Are Electromagnetic Fields Making Me Ill?, my goal was to present the evidence and then let the reader decide what to believe. But that’s hard. For instance, the experimental laboratory studies about the biological effects of cell phone radiation are a mixed bag. Some studies see effects, and some don’t. You can argue either way depending on what studies you emphasize. I tried to rely on critical reviews to sort all this out (after all, where better to find critical thinking than in a critical review). But even the critical reviews are not unanimous. I probably should’ve examined each article individually and weighed its pros and cons, but that would have taken years (the literature on this topic is vast).

Trecek-King often discusses the importance of finding reliable sources of information. I agree, but this too is not always easy. For instance, what could be more authoritative than a report produced by the National Academy of Sciences? In Are Electromagnetic Fields Making Me Ill? I laud the Stevens report published in the 1990s about the health hazards (or should I say lack of hazards) from powerline magnetic fields. Yet, I’m skeptical about the National Academies report published in 2020 regarding microwave weapons being responsible for the Havana Syndrome. What do I conclude? Sometimes deferring to authority is useful, but not always. You can’t delegate critical thinking.

I have found that one useful tool for teaching and illustrating critical thinking are the Point/Counterpoint articles published in the journal Medical Physics. In Are Electromagnetic Fields Making Me Ill? I cite three such articles, on magnets reducing pain, on cell phone radiation causing cancer, and on the safety of airport backscatter radiation scanners. Each of these articles are in the form of a debate, and any lack of critical thinking will be exposed and debunked in the rebuttals. I wrote

When I taught medical physics to college students, we spent 20 minutes each Friday afternoon discussing a point/counterpoint article. One feature of these articles that makes them such an outstanding teaching tool is that there exists no right answer, only weak or strong arguments. Science does not proceed by proclaiming universal truths, but by accumulating evidence that allows us to be more or less confident in our hypotheses. Conclusions beginning with “the evidence suggests…” are the best science has to offer.

One skill I emphasized in my teaching using IPMB, but which I don’t see mentioned by Trecek-King, is estimation. For instance, when discussing the potential health benefits or hazards of static magnetic fields, I calculated the energy of an electron in a magnetic field and compared it to its thermal energy. Such a simple order-of-magnitude estimate shows that thermal energy is vastly greater than magnetic energy, implying that static magnetic fields should have no effect on chemical reactions. Similarly, in my chapter about powerline magnetic fields, I estimated the electric field induced in the body by a 60 Hz magnetic field and compare it to endogenous electric fields due mainly to the heart’s electrical activity. Finally, in my discussion about cell phone radiation I compared the energy of a single radio-frequency photon to the energy of a chemical bond to prove that cell phones cannot cause cancer by directly disrupting DNA. This ability to estimate is crucial, and I believe it should be included under the umbrella of critical thinking skills.

In the video I watched, Trecek-King discussed the idea of consensus, and the different use of this term among scientists and nonscientists. When I analyzed transcranial direct current stimulation, I bemoaned the difficulty in finding a consensus among different research groups.

Finding the truth does not come from a eureka moment, but instead from a slow slog ultimately leading to a consensus among scientists.

I probably get closest to what scientists mean by consensus at the close of my chapter on the relationship (actually, the lack of relationship) between 5G cell phone radiation and COVID-19:

Scientific consensus arises when a diverse group of scientists openly scrutinizes claims and critically evaluates evidence.

Consensus is only valuable if it arises from individuals independently examining a body of evidence, debating an issue with others, and coming to their own conclusion. Peer review, so important in science, is one way scientists thrash out a consensus. I wrote

The reason for peer review is to force scientists to convince other scientists that their ideas and data are sound.

Perhaps the biggest issue in critical thinking is bias. One difficulty is that bias comes in many forms. One example is publication bias: “the tendency for only positive results to be published.” Another is r ecall bias that can infect a case-control epidemiological study. But the really thorny type of bias arises from prior beliefs that scientists may be reluctant to abandon. In Are Electromagnetic Fields Making Me Ill? I tell the story of how Robert Tucker and Otto Schmidt performed an experiment to determine if people could detect 60 Hz magnetic fields. They spent five years examining their experiment for possible systematic errors, and eventually concluded that 60 Hz fields are not detectable. I wrote “One reason the bioelectric literature is filled with inconsistent results may be that not all experimenters are as diligent as Robert Tucker and Otto Schmitt.”

After listening to Trecek-King’s video, I began to wonder if the Tucker and Schmidt experiment might alternatively be viewed be a cautionary tale about bias. Was their long effort a heroic example of detecting and eliminating systematic error, or was it a bias marathon where they slaved away until they finally came to the conclusion they wanted? I side with the heroic interpretation, but it does make me wonder about the connection between bias and experimental design. The hallmark of a good experimental scientist is the ability to identify and remove systematic errors from an experiment. Yet one must be careful to root out all systematic errors, not just those that affect the results in one direction. The conclusion: science is difficult, and you must be constantly on guard about fooling yourself.

I reexamined Are Electromagnetic Fields Making Me Ill? to search for signs of my own biases, and came away a little worried. For instance, when talking about 5G cell phone radiation risks, I wrote

The 5G cell phone debate strikes me as déjà vu. First Mesmer’s “animal magnetism” treatments ascended in popularity and then declined. Next the use of magnets for therapy rose and fell. Then came the power line debate; a crescendo followed by a diminuendo. Later the dispute over traditional cell phones came and went. Now, we are doing it all over again for 5G.

After listening to Trecek-King’s video, I am nervous that this was an inadvertent confession of bias. Do my past experiences predispose me to reject claims about electromagnetic fields being dangerous? Or am I merely stating a hard-earned opinion based on experience? Or are those the same thing? Is it bias to believe that Lucy will pull that football away from Charlie Brown at the last second?

I tried to focus my book on the evidence and not on personal opinions, but can we ever be sure? If I was a proponent of the idea that cell phones cause cancer, I might point to the above déjà vu quote as evidence that the author of Are Electromagnetic Fields Making Me Ill? was biased. Yet, if you asked me now if I still believed what I wrote in that quote, I would say “you betcha I do.” Does my statement have relevance to the 5G cell phone debate? I think it does, although it’s no substitute for hard evidence. Can we ever truly free ourselves from our biases? Perhaps not, but at least we can be aware of them, so as to be on guard.

All this discussion about critical thinking and bias is related to the claims of pseudoscience and alternative medicine. At the end of Are Electromagnetic Fields Making Me Ill? I ponder the difficulty of debunking false claims.

The study of biological effects of weak electric and magnetic fields attracts pseudoscientists and cranks. Sometimes I have a difficult time separating the charlatans from the mavericks. The mavericks-those holding nonconformist views based on evidence (sometimes a cherry-picked selection of the evidence)-can be useful to science, even if they are wrong. The charlatans-those snake-oil salesmen out to make a quick buck-either fool themselves or fool others into believing silly ideas or conspiracy theories. We should treat the mavericks with respect and let peer review correct their errors. We should treat the charlatans with disdain. I wish for the wisdom to tell them apart.

I’ll give Trecek-King’s the last word. Another of her mantras, which to me sums up why we care about critical thinking, is:

I am not saying that all of our problems can be solved with critical thinking. I’m saying that it is our best chance.

Critical Thinking in Education, featuring Melanie Trecek-King, Bertha Vazquez, and Daniel Reed
Lucy, Charlie Brown, and the football.
And another.
A Life Preserver for Staying Afloat in a Sea of Misinformation.

Originally published at



Brad Roth

Professor of Physics at Oakland University and coauthor of the textbook Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.