KSJ Tracker January 13, 2014

Paul Brodeur Denies Connection to Destruction of ABSCAM Mastermind’s Microwave Oven

This semi-fictional character cites a fictitious non-fiction story with a real byline

It’s not every day a science journalist gets a shout-out in a blockbuster movie, his name invoked by Jennifer Lawrence, no less. The movie is American Hustle. The science writer is New Yorker veteran Paul Brodeur, and apparently he’s not amused.

The storyline is loosely based on a real 1970s FBI sting known as ABSCAM. The movie doesn’t claim to be a documentary. It opens with the words, “Some of this actually happened.”

The Brodeur reference comes in when a con man befriends the Camden mayor, and the mayor gives his new pal a microwave oven as a gift. The year is 1978 and the way the characters react to this newfangled device is funny. The mayor says something like, “It cooks food with science.”  

Lawrence plays the wife of the con man who receives the “science oven,” as it comes to be called. After dramatically destroying the appliance, she tells her husband she read an article claiming that microwave ovens take all the nutrition out of food. When he expresses doubt, she hands him a New Yorker and says the article was written by Paul Brodeur.

Brodeur really did write for The New Yorker at that time. But movie viewers are aware that this character’s aggressive act toward the science oven may reflect some negative feelings she has toward her husband, while the “article” is an excuse after the fact. And because her character is clownish,  audience members are unlikely to take the reference literally. But according to this piece in the Huffington Post, Brodeur saw the microwave-killing scene in a movie trailer on the site and cried foul, writing a lengthy letter to the Huffington Post and sending the film's producers a “strongly worded letter through his lawyers.”  

The Huffington Post story quoted a statement allegedly sent by Bordeur, 82, in which he says he never wrote that microwave ovens destroy the nutritional quality of food. He wrote that cell phones cook our brains.

Yes, in his rebuttal on the Huffington Post he even quotes an unnamed neurosurgeon saying, "What microwave radiation does in most simplistic terms is similar to what happens to food in microwaves, essentially cooking the brain."

But be reassured that although your brain is now suitable to be served with butter and garlic, its nutritional profile will not be compromised.

The movie’s reference to Brodeur is not completely out of left field. He has written about microwave radiation from cell phones and he is author of a book called The Zapping of America: Microwaves, Their Deadly Risk, and the Coverup. Apparently the “deadly risk” is not related to nutrient loss in the food cooked in microwave ovens.

Assessing the credibility of this book or his power line expose Currents of Death is beyond the scope of this post.  In his book Voodoo Science, physicist Bob Park makes a case against some of Brodeur’s claims on links between cell phone-generated microwaves and cancer. Other physicists are doubful as well. See this piece in the Skeptics’ Dictionary for some of the counter-arguments, and this post by Paul Raeburn in the Tracker. One reason some physicists are so skeptical of the cancer link is that microwaves wouldn’t increase cancer risk through the same mechanism as so-called ionizing radiation, including X-rays and gamma-rays. Microwaves don’t carry enough energy to damage DNA the same way higher energy radiation can.   

Did the screenwriters wrong Bordeur? Is it ethical and/or legal to make a fictionalized character cite a fictitious non-fiction story in a real publication with the byline of a real person? As journalists go, Brodeur is quite famous, so it could be argued he’s a public figure. Bordeur wrote that he worries for his professional reputation, though that concern would seem to hinge primarily on whether radiation from power lines and/or cell phones turns out to pose any serious danger to our health(again, beyond the scope of this post). Should the movie makers have asked Brodeur permission to use his name? Should he get some share of the movie’s earnings?

The Brodeur reference probably won’t register with most viewers who aren’t familiar with him, but I predict that many of us will be calling our microwaves, “the science oven” for some time to come.


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