Can radio waves harm trees?

Katie Haggerty, a woman who lives near Lyons, Colorado, thinks it is a possibility. Ms. Haggerty, who claims no academic or scientific credentials whatsoever, has performed some experiments to test this hypothesis.

According to an article by Bruce Leaf in today’s Boulder Daily Camera, Ms. Haggerty has thought for years that radio waves might be harming her geraniums. So she put some plants inside a Faraday cage, an enclosure that blocks radio waves, and thought she saw improvement in the growth of plants.

A few years ago, she graduated to aspen trees, which are dying in Colorado. Thinking that the cause might be radio waves, not drought, she performed a controlled experiment in which she placed some aspen seedlings into a Faraday cage and some in a fiberglass cage (which will not block radio waves), and also grew some seedlings in the absence of a cage.

The result was that the seedlings in the Faraday cage outperformed both groups of control seedlings: by the end of June, they had produced more biomass. In addition,

“The leaves in the shielded group produced striking fall colors, while the two exposed groups stayed light green or yellow and were affected by areas of dead leaf tissue,” Haggerty said. “The shielded leaves turned red, which was a good sign. The unshielded leaves in both exposed groups had extensive decay, and some leaves fell off while they were still green.

“It appears that there may be negative effects on the health and growth of aspens from the radio frequency background.”

Ms. Haggerty’s work attracted the attention of Wayne Shepperd of the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, and she ultimately published a paper in the International Journal of Forestry Research. I have not looked at the actual paper.

Ms. Haggerty probably does not think she is a scientist, but I would disagree. She has formulated what my colleague Paul Strode calls a research hypothesis: “If hypothesis X is true, and I perform method Y,then I predict Z as a specific, measurable outcome.” Specifically, Ms. Haggerty said to herself, “If radio waves are harmful to plants, and I perform a controlled experiment in which some plants are enclosed in a Faraday cage, then I predict that those plants will produce more biomass than the control plants.” She is the first to admit that her experiment is preliminary, proves nothing, and only suggests future experiments.

I am frankly very suspicious of the result. It is hard to imagine that electromagnetic fields so weak that we can detect them only with gobs of electrical amplification can have any effect on biological systems, even if there is a cell-phone tower nearby. The point, however, is that Ms. Haggerty used anecdotal evidence to provide a hunch and then followed up on that hunch by formulating and testing a research hypothesis. She did not consider the anecdotal evidence conclusive, nor does she consider the results of a single preliminary experiment conclusive.

The contrast between Ms. Haggerty and evolution deniers (not to mention global-warming deniers, vaccination deniers, and HIV deniers) is striking. It is hard for me to imagine, for example, many of our favorite PT trolls ever getting past the “hunch” stage. Instead of saying, “If I believe it, then it must be true,” our heroine said, “If I have a hunch, then I must test it.” Ms. Haggerty has provided a model for how to do science properly. She is a better scientist than certain creationists with advanced degrees in biology or mathematics.