Dec 30 2013

Wi-Fi in Schools

Sometimes scientific issues are fought by people in local communities who may not be (and probably are not) experts. This becomes a lesson in applied scientific skepticism, and highlights an important reason why we need a scientifically literate and critically thinking populace. Such issues include: fluoridation of public water supplies, allowing vaccine exemptions, teaching evolution vs creationism in science class, whether or not a public building really is a “sick building,” allowing students to attend class with a “facilitator”  to help them communicate, and countless others.

Add to this list whether or not it is safe to have wi-fi in public schools. (This is part of a class of issues surrounding the health risks of various electronic technologies – electromagnetic fields, “dirty” electricity, high-voltage power lines, etc.) It’s possible to work up irrational fear over just about anything. We seem to be hard-wired for fear. It makes sense, in a way, to err on the side of caution (the so-called precautionary principle) but it is also easy to misapply this principle and cause more harm than good.

Recently a New Zealand school buckled to pressure from two fathers, Damon Wyman and David Bird, who have been campaigning to remove wi-fi from the local schools. Wyman recently lost a 10-year old son to brain cancer, and his subsequent search for a cause led him to misinformation on the internet about wi-fi.

He also claims he has been “flooded” with information from experts. I highly doubt this – more likely he received information from the usual suspects, those in the fringe who present themselves as experts but do not represent the consensus of scientific opinion.

I understand the desire of a parent who lost a child to prevent other children from suffering the same fate. I applaud those who take a tragedy and turn it into activism. Unfortunately, sometimes that activism is misplaced.

I have covered the issues of health risks from wi-fi before – the bottom line is that there is no evidence of any health risk from wi-fi. Current levels found from the use of wi-fi for internet access are far below safety limits.

The Te Horo school in New Zealand found itself in a dilemma. The scientific evidence shows that wi-fi is safe, but they had angry parents on their hands. So, in a way, they punted to public opinion. They removed wi-fi from the junior classes because a majority of parents of junior students desired its removal, but they kept it in the senior classes. They then justified their decision by saying that wi-fi is safe, but they were caving to public opinion of the parents of their junior students.

This is an unfortunate decision and a bad precedent. As I mentioned above, there are countless issues that can be brought by well-meaning but misguided parents. School systems should follow a proper process when dealing with such concerns – adhere to established standards, which are themselves hopefully informed by proper science. Then stick to the science. You satisfy parents with the process, not by making a bad decision.

In a way the Te Horo’s school system’s decision was a worst case scenario – they admit the science says wi-fi is safe, and then set the precedent that they will cave to the unscientific demands of parents.

Perhaps one solution is for local governments, school systems, etc. to have a scientific advisory committee to review and issue recommendations on any policy decision that is informed by science. There is more than enough work to keep such a committee busy. They should be formed of local residents who have general scientific expertise, who are free of conflicts of interest (at least for a specific issue on which they are rendering an opinion), and who are not part of a scientific fringe advocacy group. As much as possible you want qualified neutral evaluators of the science.

Such committees exist at higher levels, of course, (World Health Organization, for example) and there are often published opinions on any such scientific controversy. It is a shame when panels of experts review mountains of evidence to come to a solid consensus opinion, and then their opinions are ignored.  The primary job of local science advisory committee could be to simply review the findings of larger organizations to interpret and communicate those findings -what do they really say, and how confident are the conclusions?

But again, all this does not matter if local school boards and governments are not willing to stick to what is right in the face of irrational public opinion.

16 responses so far

16 thoughts on “Wi-Fi in Schools”

  1. gammidgy says:

    If the alternative is that children of misinformed parents are denied a decent education by being kept out of public schools then, sad as it is, the decision to bow to irrational public opinion is probably the correct one, at least in the short term. I hope the school will continue to attempt to convince the parents of the scientific truth.

  2. ccbowers says:

    “Perhaps one solution is for local governments, school systems, etc. to have a scientific advisory committee to review and issue recommendations on any policy decision that is informed by science.”

    It’s hard for me to be optimistic about such a process at a local level, mainly due to quality control. I guess it could take some of the pressure off the local school boards to make decisions that are rational, but may be controversial amongst the local community. The problem is that if such a committee is contaminated with fringe-y advocates, it may worsen otherwise non-issues. For the US, perhaps if these committees have a structure that goes from local representatives of a local school district up to a state level comittee this could work to help ensure that they are functioning as they should.

  3. BillyJoe7 says:


    It can never by “correct” to make a decision based on misinformation, irrationality, or public opinion as opposed scientifically established facts and the consensus opinion of experts. You mention a short term gain by preventing parents from withdrawing their children from schools. But what about the long term pain. How easy is it going to be to re-introduce something that has been stopped because of health concerns? Surely it would be better to state firmly to parents that there is no evidence that wifi is harmful to your children’s health and lots of reasons why it could not be harmful. Put out a leaflet to all the parents explaining this. Address whatever concerns the parents may have but stay firm on the scientific evidence.

  4. BillyJoe7 says:

    Steven Novella,

    “I applaud those who take a tragedy and turn it into activism”

    Is this your opinion based on personal experience or based on the evidence? (:
    In my opinion and based on my personal experience, it’s a damn nuisance to have parents or spouses of individuals who gave died of preventable illness spearhead a campaign to prevent similar deaths in others. What you get is disproportionate public attention and money spent on “sexy” diseases such as breast cancer and childhood leukaemia and less on other just as worthwhile or more worthwhile diseases such as bowel cancer an dementia.
    In other words, what you end up with are decisions based on misinformation, irrationality and public opinion. Not as bad as the wifi decision but still…

  5. BillyJoe7 says:

    Steven Novella

    “He also claims he has been “flooded” with information from experts. I highly doubt this – more likely he received information from the usual suspects, those in the fringe who present themselves as experts but do not represent the consensus of scientific opinion”

    One of these “experts” was probably the European Council (or the “Council of Europe” mentioned in the video at your link). Are they a fringe group?

    According to this link, the European Council based their decision on information supplied by the European Environmental Agency:

    According to the EEA, there is sufficient evidence or scientific evidence levels of harmful biological effects, sufficient to invoke the application of the precautionary principle and of effective, urgent preventive…Among the measures proposed is banning the use of mobile phones and Wi- Fi networks in schools and kindergartens…[we propose] targeted information campaigns aimed at teachers, parents and children to alert about the specific risks of early use, reckless and prolonged mobile phones and other devices that emit microwave.

    The European Environmental Agency seems to be overzealous in the application of the “precautionary principal” as per the following link:

    Although the EEA does not have specific expertise in EMF, the case studies of public hazards analysed in the ‘ Late lessons’ publication show that harmful exposures can be widespread before there is both ‘convincing’ evidence of harm from long-term exposures, and biological understanding of how that harm is caused.

    ‘There are many examples of the failure to use the precautionary principle in the past, which have resulted in serious and often irreversible damage to health and environments. Appropriate, precautionary and proportionate actions taken now to avoid plausible and potentially serious threats to health from EMF are likely to be seen as prudent and wise from future perspectives. We must remember that precaution is one of the principles of EU environmental policy,’ says Professor Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director of the EEA.

    The EEA based their opinion on the report titled “Bioinitiative: A Rationale for a Biologically-Based Public Exposure Standard for Electromagnetic Fields” compiled by the “BioInitiative Working Group” which is described as “an international group of scientists, researchers and public health policy professionals”. The EEA has contributed to this new report with a chapter drawn from the EEA study “Late lessons from early warnings: the precautionary principle 1896–2000” published in 2001.

    Unfortunately that report compiled by the Bioinitiative Working Group is not available on the Internet.
    The study “late lessons from early warnings: the precautionary principle 1896-2000” is available here:

    It is an extensive review which I’ve skimmed but haven’t read (the conclusion, on its own, is 20 pages long!) But I think it demonstrates their zealotry in the (mis)application of the “precautionary principle”. They seem determined to never make a mistake. But, as you say, there is downside. And the application of science is all about balancing risks, costs, and benefits.

    More specifically, where their is lack of any plausibility and, at best, conflicting evidence, action against wifi/mobiles should be deferred unless and until that evidence is forthcoming. And, considering the lack of plausibility, that evidence had better be convincing.

  6. Sherrington says:

    A “science advisory committee” for a school system could be kept busy simply dealing with the use of teaching methods based on nonscientific concepts such as “learning styles.”

  7. locutusbrg says:

    Great plan, and when these students are at the senior level or they have siblings that are younger advancing in age. Your going to constantly change the internet system to suit their whim. You have set a political precedent I will bend to your whim if you make enough noise. Even in this limited context this is not a “solution” is not anything other than make nice, deal with it tomorrow.
    More idiotic idea? “Now they want to move the school because it is too close to high tension power lines”, cancer risk. Ban all diet drinks the aspartame is deadly, or we can’t teach kids about the moon landing it’s only a hoax.
    Fear is the enemy, giving in to unsubstantiated fear will only lead to more anxiety and more fear, not a solution.
    Political nonsense.

  8. Davdoodles says:

    They could have just sent their kids to school wearing tinfoil hats.

  9. BillyJoe7 says:

    “They could have just sent their kids to school wearing tinfoil hats”

    What a solution!
    The school could have made a compromise in which they kept wifi but offered tinfoil hats for free to the children of any parent who felt their child was at risk!

  10. ConspicuousCarl says:

    But wait, “tinfoil” contains ALUMINUM, which we all know causes autism. Of course if your kid dies from pertussis, you don’t have to worry about wifi. Thanks, Jenny McCarthy!

  11. steve12 says:

    These are the hardest cases to deal with because it’s local pressure asserted by a guy who lost a child.

    I usually have little sympathy for people pushing nonsense, but these situations just make me sad. Putting myself in the Father’s place is unimaginable – but I don’t envy the administrators either.

    I reserve my anger for those feigning expertise to push these wacky ideas on the most vulnerable among us – the grief stricken, the terminally ill, etc. I’ll be honest: there’s a chance I would cave if approached by someone going through such grief, especially if I knew them. The people who just authoritatively sit there and tell people their kid died from WiFi (or don’t go to the doctor, or whatever) seemingly have no such cares. Which is ionic, because the skeptics are the one always portrayed as heartless.

  12. BillyJoe7 says:


    “I’ll be honest: there’s a chance I would cave if approached by someone going through such grief, especially if I knew them”

    You would be doing him a disservice.

    You don’t help a person with schizophrenia by going along with their delusions as if they might be real. You tell him that they are delusions. And that is the starting point in his long path to recovery.

    Similarly with this father. You don’t help him by going along with his mistaken idea that wifi could have caused his son’s brain cancer. You especially don’t encourage his view by acceding to his unreasonable request to remove wifi from the school. You explain to him that there is no scientifically plausible way this could be so, and that there is no scientific evidence to support such a claim. You give him all the support and consideration that he needs and deserves, but you stand firm.

    This father is, I believe , irrecoverable at this stage. He has had a major “win”. He will be encouraged by this caving in by the school to take the next step. He has already encouraged other parents to do likewise in their own schools and has already declared that he will continue the fight until the senior school also removes wifi. And he will have tons of support from those around him.
    (He has also found a “cause” to assuage, and distract him from, the pain of having lost his son).

    In the long run, someone will have to take a stand and stop this nonsense, whether it be the state board or New Zealand’s health minister. This father will then become a victim for a second time.

    So, Steve, if you ever do have a friend in this situation, do him a favour. Do what a good friend should do…tell him the truth.

  13. skepdick says:

    How exactly was the wifi in the school assigned the blame? In my house there are no fewer than 25 wifi signals that my computer picks up with enough signal strength to use as a connection to the web. How many cafes and places of business in town provide wifi as well? Does the parent want then to all shut down their wifi? Also, what is the time frame for the progression of the child’s brain tumor/cancer?

  14. steve12 says:

    “So, Steve, if you ever do have a friend in this situation, do him a favour. Do what a good friend should do…tell him the truth.”

    That’s very easy to say. And ultimately, you’re right – someone will have to put a stop to the nonsense, I agree.

    But that guy lost his kid. And he may never be able to see WiFi for what it is because of that. And that’s OK. I don’t think I would be a good friend to lecture someone after something like that. Maybe in time. I don’t see this as being like going along with a schizophrenic friend – believing some crazy shit about wifi to help you through tragedy is not likely not likely to lead to a lifetime of untreated mental illness. The real problem, as you point out, is when it turns to activism. Obviously, we can’t get rid of wifi out of deference to his belief, regardless of our sympathies toward him, which I know you share fully.

    I put the blame squarely on those who dream this shit up, knowing at some level that they really don’t know what they’re talking about, and have the temerity to tell these people that they know what killed their kid. For them, no quarter to be sure. I’m more delicate with those I see as their victims.

    I guess I know that I would feel very conflicted about dealing with someone in his place, as I’m sure anyone would.

  15. BillyJoe7 says:


    “I don’t think I would be a good friend to lecture someone after something like that”

    Well, I don’t think I said that I would lecture him. I said I would give him all the support he needs, but that I would stand firm on the scientific plausibility and evidence. I don’t think I would be helping my friend by encouraging his belief that wifi caused his son’s brain tumour. I would rather he become active in promoting research into the causes and treatment of brain tumours than waste his time and resources and everyone else’s time and resources by becoming an activist for removing wifi from schools.

  16. steve12 says:

    No, you didn’t say that at all. But that’s how I would feel about it. And I certainly don’t mean to say that I have more sympathy than anyone else. I just know I would have trouble challenging a person I knew in that position, and would have that much more enmity for those “advising” him otherwise.

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