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.

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