WAVEEX: How a journalist took an ethical stand and risked her job

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Posted 11 April 2018

This article published on GroundUp, focusses on two strands:

  1. WAVEEX – a small plastic chip, which its manufacturers and peddlers claim can be attached to cell phones and other mobile devices to reduce harmful radiation. 
  2. How a journalist took an ethical stand and risked her job: Natasha Bolognesi refused to edit a bogus article

The manufacturers claim that WAVEEX, a small plastic chip attached to cell phones, “is ‘scientifically proven’, when in fact it is all fruitloopery – pseudoscience masquerading as science to confuse and convince consumers“. 

How a journalist took an ethical stand and risked her job

By George Claassen   9 April 2018

GroundUp

One of South Africa’s most notorious quackery-promoting publications has, after 18 years, closed down. And it took a brave science journalist, standing up for evidence-based science, to help bring about the end.

Daleen Totten, owner, publisher and editor of Natural Medicine has announced that the January/February 2018 edition was her last, both in print and online.

But before quackbusters start uncorking the champagne, Totten will continue in her old quackery ways by marketing and selling a pseudoscientific product on the Internet and through social media, despite the resistance of science journalist Natasha Bolognesi, a master’s science journalism graduate at Stellenbosch University, and South African correspondent for the prestigious science journal Nature.

Totten’s magazine was riddled with quackery and pseudoscience and operated in conflict of interest, which she inadvertently admits in her “important announcement” recorded and released to public view through her new online company Natural Medicine World.

Over the last two years, Totten intensified the promotion, marketing and sale through her publication of a scam product developed in Austria, called WAVEEX – a small plastic chip, which its manufacturers and peddlers claim can be attached to cell phones and other mobile devices to reduce harmful radiation:

“WAVEEX for mobile devices is a composite chip of seven superposed layers, outside of plastic, inside five layers with silver ink printed circuits, which, if they are exposed to the electromagnetic waves, weaken the passing harmful radiation and balance it with the magnetic field of your body,” the marketing material claims.

The manufacturers claim the product is ‘scientifically proven’, when in fact it is all fruitloopery – pseudoscience masquerading as science to confuse and convince consumers. All research quoted on its website reflect an absence of evidence that the product works.

WAVEEX follows the ancient methods of quacks by using scare tactics to sell a scam product. It is manufactured and sold using inaccurate and misleading information regarding low-frequency electromagnetic fields (EMF), non-ionising radiation emitted by cell phones and other mobile devices: “During an active mobile phone call, a low-frequency electromagnetic field (EMF) is generated in the vicinity of the cellphone … Abrupt changes in the magnetic field can result in body stress and DNA damage,” WAAVEX claims.

But low-frequency EMF radiation is non-ionising and to date there is no conclusive scientific evidence that it causes DNA damage that leads to cancer; these claims are bogus (it is the ionising radiation in X-rays and cosmic rays, for example, that pose a potential risk for cancer). For years Totten through her magazine has been selling a false product based on false claims by using scaremongering techniques to coerce the public into buying a scam product. She has advertised it and promoted it in flagrant conflict of interest in her magazine, and continues to market and sell it both online (here and here) and on Facebook. It is sold for R399 through her company, Dreamcatcher Trade.

The product from the start raised red flags for Bolognesi, Totten’s copy editor at the time. “I was sure the product was a scam and I was worried about the effect it would have on the publication if she continued to sell it.”

As Totten’s sale and marketing of WAVEEX intensified, Bolognesi became increasingly concerned. Totten used every issue of Natural Medicine to promote WAVEEX. Troubled, Bolognesi sent her an email on 14 June 2017 alerting Totten to the fact that the research behind WAVEEX was not peer reviewed and that organisations such as the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warned against such devices.

In her email to Totten, Bolognesi stressed that the “flawed scientific research and negativity surrounding this chip and others like it, that are sold to a vulnerable and ignorant market, as well as the possibility of being charged with fraud, can only have a detrimental effect on you further down the line and detract from your company’s credibility… I think it is our duty to present the correct facts to our public and not use scare tactics to sell a false product.”

The role of a good copy editor (subeditor) is vital in journalism. These unsung heroes of the profession, besides seeing to it that sound grammar is used, also act as watchdogs to prevent libel and defamation creeping into copy. And they often act as quackbusters when products are marketed using false claims.

Bolognesi’s email was ignored and two weeks later she received an instruction from Totten to “copy edit” a lengthy and pseudoscientific study, Protective effects of Waveex chip against mobile phone radiation on the model of developing quail embryo by Igor Yakymenko, et al. from the Ukraine.

Bolognesi refused to perform the instruction: “The study was obviously not peer reviewed and I knew that studies from the Ukraine were unreliable and had a low impact factor. I explained that I could not be held responsible in any way for promoting a product that was potentially fraudulent. I did not want to play a part in lying to the public on this matter.”

Bolognesi was correct to doubt the credibility of the Yakymenko study. It could not be taken seriously as, most significantly, the research is done on quail embryos and therefore study results cannot be satisfactorily related to humans. In fact, rodents are first used for scientific medical research because they closely resemble human biological, genetic and behavioural characteristics. Thereafter studies are done on humans.

The study also concluded that “These findings allow recommending WAVEEX chip as a promising approach to reducing adverse effects of mobile phone radiation for human health”. Totten was already selling WAVEEX directly to the public. By featuring this study in her news and notes section of her publication, she placed herself in an unfavourable and unwise position as the study, by stating “promising approach”, implies further research is needed.

Totten threatened Bolognesi with disciplinary action should she refuse to perform the instruction. Bolognesi, however, “preferred to face disciplinary action and have faith in the outcome, rather than write a summary of a non-objective, flawed study that misled the public. She made it clear that Totten operated in conflict of interest. “I was not only trying to protect the public, but, ironically, Totten herself. I warned her again that by advertising WAVEEX in her publication and publishing content on it, she risked putting herself into disrepute.”

The South African Press Council’s ethical code clearly states: “The media shall not allow commercial, political, personal or other non-professional considerations to influence or slant reporting. Conflicts of interest must be avoided”. Also: “The media shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.” It goes even further: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation, material omissions, or summarisation.”

On 5 July 2017 Bolognesi was suspended from her work duties – with no recourse to self-representation which in this case amounted to an unfair labour practice – with immediate effect pending a disciplinary hearing “relating to [her] refusal to carry out a reasonable and lawful instruction in [her] capacity and duty as copy editor”.

The disciplinary hearing took place in Stellenbosch at the offices of Totten’s lawyers with Advocate Piet van Staden presiding as chairman. Bolognesi represented herself with two expert witnesses on call, a media ethicist and expert in science journalism from Stellenbosch University, as well as an electrical engineer, both witnesses having PhDs in their respective fields. The hearing was confidential and witnesses may not be named.

At the hearing Bolognesi made it clear that:

  • Out of a sense of duty in her role as copy editor she had tried twice to warn Totten of the risks involved with WAVEEX and how important it was to give the public accurate information;
  • Totten’s instruction was not lawful nor reasonable because it requested content on the Yakymenko study, non-validated research, which would involve making false and misleading representations to the public about WAVEEX, the product which Totten advertises, markets and sells as a “scientifically proven” product; and
  • The instruction was also unlawful because it involved conflict of interest: not only did Totten sell the product, but an advertisement on the product would run alongside mentioning the Yakymenko study, without mentioning that numerous other peer reviewed scientific studies have contradicted the Yakymenko study.

The two expert witnesses testifying for Bolognesi made strong points, unfortunately ignored by the chair. The media ethicist testified that Totten’s instruction to Bolognesi was not reasonable or lawful as it was in contravention of the Code of Ethics and Conduct for South African Print and Online Media by relaying inaccurate information to the public, as well as a conflict of interest.

The electrical engineering expert was not even given a chance to testify but as an expert witness for Bolognesi, he endorsed the scientific study, “Radiated Electromagnetic Interference Evaluation of Waveex Mobile Technology Enhancement Device”, dated 25 July 2017, and which was handed in by Bolognesi as a hearing document. The study was by Drs PS van der Merwe and AJ Otto of the internationally respected scientific organisation MESA Solutions, which “consults, innovates and educates in the wide-ranging disciplines of electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) and metrology, both locally and abroad”.

WAVEEX is marketed as a product that levels out “gaps and peaks, the so-called gradients” of electromagnetic cell phone radiation “into smooth progressions” to “make electromagnetic fields tolerable for our bodies” by weakening the passing radiation. The MESA technical report showed that WAVEEX does not do what it claims to do. The report results show that: “The magnitude of the time domain pulses induced in the magnetic field pick-up loop antenna did not change when the Waveex device was installed or not” and its conclusion rejected the claims made by Waveex. “The device was evaluated in terms of its effect on both the radiated E- and H-field levels of a mobile phone when a call is made. The up- and down-link frequencies of the PUT were calculated from the phone’s service mode information and confirmed during the measurements. Radiated E-field and H-field measurements were made without the Waveex device installed, and then repeated with it installed. In no scenario did the device affect the measured E- or H-fields in either the frequency or the time domains,” that it claims. It therefore did not give the protection to cell phone users it claims.

Bolognesi was found guilty of insubordination, despite sound evidence produced at the hearing. In the assessment and findings of the chairman, “Ms Bolognesi was appointed as a copy editor … The fact that she has the qualifications alluded to or that she performs work other than what she was appointed for does not absolve her from following the instructions of her employer, irrespective of her personal and ethic [sic] concerns,” Van Staden found.

“Ms Bolognesi was not asked to write an article in her own name. She merely had to furnish a summary of a scientific report. The fact that she regarded the report as inferior or scientifically inadequate does not absolve her from executing her duties for which she was employed.

“I am satisfied that the task allocated to Ms Bolognesi fell within the scope of her appointment. It was a lawful instruction and a fair one. Her subsequent refusal to follow the instructions of Ms Totten was without merit despite the grounds that she raised in support of her defence. She is accordingly guilty of insubordination.”

Van Staden’s final recommendation was that although Totten wanted Bolognesi’s dismissal, she was given a final warning but she chose to resign rather than stay at the magazine. She says the magazine was “clearly not acting in the interest of the public and was selling a product, claiming things it could not do, as testified by experts. I was surprised by the chairman’s findings in light of the expert evidence given at the hearing.” She notes that the chairman did add, however, in his outcome report that “There are other avenues she [Bolognesi] can follow to have her concerns addressed.”

Says Bolognesi, “So I am happy that we can start with our Fourth Estate bringing this matter up in the public interest. The public must be made aware of scam products; they should not become emotional and financial victims of false and misleading claims.”

About the hearing: One can only ask when the legal profession will one day decide that scientific expertise on the value and potential harm of a product weighs heavier in the public interest than the rights of quacks to mislead gullible consumers. That the electrical engineering expert was sent home without even being allowed to testify says a lot about the legal profession’s dismissal of the important role scientific findings can and should play to protect consumers. This is confirmed by a recent study in the Stellenbosch Law Review by Dr Arnold Muller, mathematics expert at Stellenbosch University, severely criticising our courts of law in the way they deal with forensics, showing the legal fraternity’s ignorance about science.

Claassen is a former head of the Department of Journalism at Stellenbosch University and public editor of News24 and Media24’s Community Newspapers. He is also a board member of the international Organization of Newsombudsmen and Standards Editors.

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