17 Feb 2012

Thoughts on WiFi, Science and Science Reporting

Posted by Gillian O’Reilly

Recently, the Ontario English Catholic Teacher's Association called for an end to new WiFi setups in the province's 1,400-plus Catholic schools, saying computers in new schools should be hardwired instead. The union – which represents 45,000 teachers – cites research by the World Health Organization and said the “safety of this technology has not thoroughly been researched and therefore the precautionary principle and prudent avoidance of exposure should be practised.”

Here are two stories on it:

I must admit that I have a little trouble with the WiFi topic because I know someone whose family seems to have been affected by WiFi (grown child with seizures, a grandparent with other issues) and who is very concerned by it.

I am basically agnostic/skeptic on this issue. The only detailed media I have heard about it was a CBC Sunday Edition program that was not very scientifically presented – lots of personal anecdotes from thoughtful and sincere people who have had dramatic encounters with WiFi, one scientist who has talked a lot about this issue and, it seemed, a lack of probing into the scientific details (more the fault of the journalists than the fault of the people concerned about the issue).

On the opposite side, all I have heard are health bodies who say there is no problem. Any one with a memory knows that there have been lots of times that we've been told something was no problem when in fact it was -- but that's history, not science. Again, no real science reporting on how they arrived at that conclusion.

As someone who comes to science from an arts background, my general approach to science is that "there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy." There are all sorts of new and interesting things being discovered all the time (like a sea sponge that makes a structure of glass! cool, eh?) and scientific thinking changes all the time. The point is to try to be intelligent about it, whether or not one has a science background oneself.

For instance, and to take a dramatic example, it wouldn’t have taken a scientist to ask a few questions to the now-disgraced anti-vaccine campaigner Andrew Wakefield; it would only take a logical, intelligent thinker. How big was your sample, Dr. Wakefield? (Twelve.) Is that a useful sample? (No.) Do you have any conflicts of interest in this matter? (Yes.) You wouldn’t even have to ask, Is it possible you falsified the data? (Yes.) It’s a pity the editors of The Lancet, a peer-reviewed medical journal, didn’t ask these questions before they published his report.

So I'm quite prepared to believe that WiFi is a problem and I'm quite prepared to believe that it isn't – as long as I'm told something about the science behind it. I don't want to be told (like my friend) that if I'm concerned, I should go out and get a tinfoil hat. I don't want to be mollified by an official "there is no problem." And I don’t want people feeding me quotes that they haven’t sourced properly.

I simply want science reporters and institutions like OECTA to do what they are supposed to do – ask the tough, logical, scientifically literate questions these issues demand and present the answers to those questions to me clearly. That way I, and the folks making policy decisions on these topics, can do some intelligent informed thinking, whether we are scientists or not.

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