Getting Roger Coghill to Show His Working

I fisked the Sunday Express’ story on Roger Coghill’s notion that the Bridgend suicides are linked to mobile phone masts here. Since then, Ben Goldacre has covered the issue twice, including asking Mr Coghill how he calculated the average distance a home is from a phone mast.

Not only did Roger Coghill refuse this basic information, he got extremely stroppy about it. On Comment is Free, which ran for over 380 posts, he constantly refused to give this information, preferring to verbally abuse his critics, such as calling one a “spongiform creature” in the pay of”commercial interest”. Since he did not know who the critic was, this is clearly without foundation.

Interestingly, in the comments following Ben Goldacre’s blogposts linked to above, he returns to this theme, accusing Ben of reflecting “the ideology of powerful industrial, technological and political vested interests” and of having a “hidden agenda”. He gives the impression that he can concieve of no reason other than personal gain for holding an opinion. I cannot imagine why this should be.

He refers to his critics as “all Ben’s creatures” and accuses us of making ad hominem attacks. He does not appear to see the irony in him making such an accusation.

Finally, he does show his working here. He begins by assuming the area of the UK to be 30 million hectares (it is actually 24 million). He divides by the number of masts in the country to get an area per mast, treats this as a circle, calculates the radius and halves this to obtain his average.

The first problem with this is that it could only work if people and phone masts were evenly distributed across the country. In fact they tend to cluster in towns and cities.

The second problem is that while this gives a mean, it does not give a distribution curve of distances, thus no standard deviation and thus it is impossible to say whether or not a particular home is significantly nearer a mast.

A third problem is that, as Phayes points out, the average distance by this method would be 2r/3, not r/2.

El Pollo Diablo hammers the final nail into the coffin of Mr Coghill’s idea when he uses his methods to calculate that homes in Manchester are about the same distance from masts as are those in Bridgend. Given the population of Manchester, he points out that if Mr Coghill were correct in linking masts to suicides there would have ben 1760 suicides in Manchester over the last 18 months. The UK as a whole over that period had approximately 10,000 suicides, so Manchester – with less than 1% of the population – would have had one sixth of the suicides. Such an enormous cluster would not have escaped anyone’s notice if it existed.

It does not, of course, thus demonstrating that Roger Coghill’s idea is arrant nonsense.

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5 Responses to “Getting Roger Coghill to Show His Working”

  1. dvnutrix Says:

    The first problem with this is that it could only work if people and phone masts were evenly distributed across the country. In fact they tend to cluster in towns and cities.

    I can’t begin to tell you how cross this makes all the haggis as they run up and down the Highlands. They have friends and family that they need to call. Many would relish the opportunity to text other friends on the cryptozoology network but they just can’t get the reception.

    I would say however that if an extra 6 million hectares have turned up – you can’t demonstrate that the unknown inhabitants of that aren’t living in unplottable areas (in the manner of JK Rowling) where Coghill’s theories are true. *whistles*

  2. jdc325 Says:

    “Not only did Roger Coghill refuse this basic information, he got extremely stroppy about it. On Comment is Free, which ran for over 380 posts, he constantly refused to give this information, preferring to verbally abuse his critics”
    It was incredible wasn’t it? At one point he also claimed to have offered to share his data with Ben Goldacre [albeit only in private, see blog comment on BadScience] – yet he still won’t answer the simplest question on his data [about the average distance from the mast that he was comparing against in his study]. Peculiar that, isn’t it? He’ll let someone see all his data, but he’ll not let anyone see the single piece of information that everyone is interested in. He also contradicted himself by later explaining that he will not give Ben the data because it is sensitive.

    At one point, Mr Coghill comments that “the problem really is that distance is a very crude parameter of RF/MW exposure and biological effect”. OK, it’s a crude parameter – but let’s hear about it anyway Mr Coghill. I mean, the press release states that:

    the victims lived significantly closer to masts than normal.
    They found that the average distance of nearby new UMTS (3G) masts, which radiate at 2.1 GHz, a similar frequency to that of microwave ovens, was only 356 metres from the homes. The usual mean distance is around 800 metres, so the masts were twice nearer than normal.

    Coghill’s work, the press release and the newspaper story are all based on the difference between the average distance in Bridgend and the ‘usual’ average distance. If he’s saying that distance is a crude parameter and therefore it wouldn’t be appropriate to discuss the average distance as some have requested [countless times, if your name is puzzlebobble], then how does he square that with the fact that the whole story is based on distance?

    Anyway – good post JQH. Enjoyed reading it.

  3. Roger Coghill Says:

    I have been resading the blogs with interest. Among them there are several good points:

    1. Distance is only a crude parameter because the bioeffector is the radiation frequency and power density, which can be influenced by object in the way of the beam.

    2. The method of calculating averages is only theoretical as a first approximation, and needs to be supplemented by areas. Using Manchester is not very valid becuas it does nort match the kind of building density seen in the Bridgend area. A more suitable region might be e.g. east anglia.

    3. I keep having to repeat that my suggestion should not be regarded as a peer review publishable study but a call, based on the realisation that there are 13 out of 15 peer reviewed and published studies linking EMF exposure to suicide and depressive illness. The bloggers’ obsession of demanding to know the average distance of a home from a cellphone base station fails to recognise that there are other RF/MW and ELF exposure sources which also need to be taken into account, as I said in my original press release. Has anyone thought of asking the cellphone industry for these data, a topic on which they are maintaining an abdicatory silence.

  4. jaycueaitch Says:

    Bloggers were not obsessed with knowing the average distance from a home to a base station, they were keen to know how you had calculated it, since the Sunday Express story made so much of it. And as I stated above, your method of calculating the average is not an approximation. It’s plain wrong.

    If EMF exposure is so important it might have been more useful to go to Bridgend and measure the intensities – and measure it in other areas for comparison

  5. A Year of Steam « Letting Off Steam Says:

    […] Roger Coghill also put in an appearance. I had initially fisked a story from the front page of the Sunday Express which claimed that there […]

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