The dubious science behind Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s $5K anti-radiation ‘tinfoil tent’

By | June 24, 2019

Jack Dorsey — Twitter CEO and aficionado of dubious “wellness” trends — has revealed he likes to sit in a US$ 5,499 tent in his garage.

The “Faraday sauna” is made of steel-infused “grounding fabric” designed to block electromagnetic fields (EMF). Dorsey claimed on a recent podcast that his regular 30-minute retreats into the sauna help him “feel a little bit different” because he’s “not getting hit by all the EMF energy.” Also, there’s no Wi-Fi or cell signal in there. Sounds peaceful, actually. His device of choice is marketed as an “EMF-free ancestral space.”

Now, with such a high-profile endorsement, the company that makes it is having trouble keeping up with the demand.

But Dorsey’s tinfoil tent is definitely not EMF-free, nor was our “ancestral space,” whatever that means.

The electromagnetic field is a property of space resulting from electromagnetism, one of the four fundamental forces of the universe. Saying something is “EMF-free” makes exactly as much sense as saying it is matter-free, energy-free or gravity-free. Not even the vacuum of space is EMF-free.

To understand what makes EMF pseudoscience wrong, you need to understand the real science of electromagnetic fields. This beautiful animation from physicist Neil Turok is an excellent introduction:

To sum up: electromagnetic fields are generated by electromagnetic radiation, energy that travels through space in a wave at the speed of light. Different types of radiation exist along a spectrum, but they’re all fundamentally made of the same thing: tiny particles called photons that make up what we call light. Low-frequency, low-energy waves such as radio waves are at one end of the spectrum. Visible light is somewhere in the middle. At the other end are higher-energy, higher-frequency ultraviolet rays, X-rays and gamma rays. These are called ionizing radiation, because they can detach electrons from atoms and mess with human cells, causing everything from sunburn to fatal radiation poisoning.

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The electromagnetic spectrum NASA

Reading between the lines of its marketing materials, SaunaSpace, the company that makes Dorsey’s tent, doesn’t actually claim to generate a totally “EMF-free” alternate universe devoid of matter and energy. Rather, it’s using EMF in the colloquial sense, to refer to certain low frequencies of electromagnetic radiation — specifically cell phone and Wi-Fi signals, which are both types of radio waves.

Since the 1990s, a whole subculture has emerged made up of people who believe they’re being harmed in one way or another by exposure to these radio waves. In fact, the acronym “EMF” is itself a bit of a tell. You only really find this term on websites that either promote pseudoscience or explain why it’s wrong. Scientists tend to use more specific language to describe electromagnetic frequencies and the fields they generate.

Dorsey’s tent, which you might have guessed from the name, is simply a very pricey Faraday cage, a device that distributes charged particles around its exterior to protect what’s inside from certain frequencies of radiation. Faraday cages are used to prevent electronic devices from being wiped remotely after they’re collected as criminal evidence, and protect people in hospitals from the radiation surrounding an MRI machine.

But is there anything to the idea that putting yourself in a Faraday cage for a few minutes each day, cocooned away from Wi-Fi and cell phone signals, could be beneficial to your health?

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All signs point to no. Scientists are inherently cautious, and it’s impossible for them to prove a negative, so it’s been hard for them to say definitively that these signals never cause health problems for people. Recurring worries about possible biological effects of cell-phone towers, routers, and even smart electricity meters, have been impossible to completely dispel. They’ve been proposed as culprits for everything from headaches to cancer.

Some people believe they have a particular sensitivity to radiation that makes them more susceptible than others. This is a convenient explanation for why we are not all extremely sick all the time, because we’re all being hit with all kinds of electromagnetic radiation all day, every day: Radiation from the sun and other stars, radio waves from radio, routers and smart TVs, the light from light bulbs, and even small amounts of ionizing radiation from radioactive minerals in our soil and drinking water.

So many studies have looked into health effects of non-ionizing radiation, especially from cell phone towers — at least 25,000 in the past 30 years, according to the World Health Organization — that a few have, inevitably, turned up some potentially worrying results. This means people who believe they’re sensitive to EMF have lots of literature to cherry-pick from. But according to the best reviews we have of the existing science, there’s no health risk associated with these frequencies of radiation, for “sensitive” people or anyone else. Most importantly, the stronger the study designs were, the less likely they were to find anything of concern. And people who believe they are sensitive to harmless frequencies of radiation consistently cannot tell, in experiments, whether the devices they believe are causing problems are turned off or on.

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The more likely explanation for their symptoms is the nocebo effect: a psychosomatic experience of pain or discomfort related to the expectation that you’re not going to feel well.

It seems Dorsey, sequestered in his tent, may be experiencing the very real, anxiety-reducing benefits of screen-free time. He could try — here’s a radical idea — turning his phone off. That’s definitely cheaper than a Faraday sauna.

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