COMMENT: How smart are smart meters? The mysterious realm of information and its sources

Arlen MacLaine
By Arlen MacLaine
October 25th, 2013

I was talking with a friend from out of town the other day, and she was inquiring about ‘smart’ meters.  In her area, smart meters have not been mandatory, but more recently, BC Hydro has produced an ultimatum: either have the smart meter installed, or pay an extra $35 charge each month to keep the analog meter.  This prompted her to really think about the situation and develop a hard opinion on whether smart meters are worth it or not.

The questions of health risk, unexpected costs, and information security all needed to be researched and weighed for their importance.  This article isn’t so much about smart meters, but about a broader topic that concerns how and where we get our information from, the validity of it, and how it shapes our lives.

Smart meters are a perfect example of the trivialness and influence of information.  If we reduce the arguments on either side (for simplicity’s sake), on the one hand, you have the scientific community and the industry producing studies that claim no health risks and that the radiation produced by the meters is far below what we would experience from any number of other appliances.  On the other hand, you have groups and coalitions of concerned citizens, with varying backgrounds, challenging these findings. Part of their view is that governments are not taking the risks seriously and are in the pockets of influential companies who have a lot to gain from installing this infrastructure.

The big question is, who is correct?

There have been many examples in the past of governments misleading their citizens and providing incomplete information, in order to achieve monetary or political gain (usually both).  Unfortunately scientists are often influenced (or muzzled) by the groups that fund the research. If we know anything about statistics, it is that they can be massaged.  One would be right not to trust these sources; however, it is important to be sceptical of all sources of information.  If you’re going to question the results of a scientific, peer-reviewed study, then you should most certainly be critical of the motives behind any other kind of source of information.

As an example, one of the negative health effects that is allegedly caused by exposure to electromagnetic fields such as cell towers and mobile phones is referred to as Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity (EHS).  The symptoms are real and have affected a number of people.  However, there have been a multitude of studies done on EHS, none of which have reported causality between prolonged exposure to electromagnetic fields and EHS.  In more recent experiments, subjects who report EHS were just as likely to report ill health following a ‘sham’ exposure, as they would if they were exposed to a real electromagnetic field.  This evidence points to the nocebo effect, which can help tie all of this together.

The nocebo effect is the polar opposite of the placebo effect.  Instead of positive thoughts influencing your own bio-chemistry, the nocebo effect works against you, with negative thoughts influencing your bio-chemistry.  If you think you’re being affected by electromagnetic fields, you will start to feel the associated symptoms.

If your own thoughts can influence how you physically feel, they most certainly can influence your decisions and beliefs.  We tend to agree with our friends and disagree with people we don’t like.  The same can be said for subjects like smart meters.

If ‘true’ information is almost impossible to come by, how are you supposed to make an informed decision one way or the other?  Who is ‘right’ and who is ‘wrong’? Can it be that simple?  Or is our concept of ‘knowledge’ a kind of amorphous blob, constantly changing with people’s beliefs and attitudes?  I struggle with this concept on a regular basis, and can’t help but be a skeptic. Objectivity is impossible to achieve; therefore true knowledge is impossible to achieve, and all we have to go on are our culturally-influenced beliefs.

You can’t trust what the government or experts are telling you.  You definitely shouldn’t trust what your friends or colleagues are telling you.  You really can’t fully trust any source of information [even your local newspaper–ed.] even your own eyes.  I’m starting to get a bit metaphysical, but it’s true.  Without being able to say truthfully that our eyes and other senses are giving us an accurate picture of reality, you can’t speak truthfully about any subject.  I only need to bring up the examples of mystical experiences, psychotic episodes, and hallucinations to demonstrate that this is so.

Bringing the conversation back to earth, the point I am trying to make is that when it comes to the information that we base our decisions, opinions, and beliefs on, we should be skeptical of it all, and take even our own beliefs with a grain of salt.  We are all influenced by outside sources, whether we realise it or not, and none of us are given an accurate perception of reality.  How are we supposed to make decisions based on all this incomplete information?  That is a good question, one that could also be read as ‘how am I supposed to live my life?’  Which is a question that has been around for quite some time now.

Arlen MacLaine is lead reporter for the Rossland Telegraph.

Categories: GeneralOp/Ed

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