August 19, 2010

The (not so) great wi-fi debate

You probably haven't been able to turn on your computer and surf the Internet the last few days without running into a story about Barrie, Ontario area parents claiming their children are being made sick by Wi-Fi radiation in the schools. The media is giving all kinds of attention to one or two scientists who are saying there might be a health concern. Unfortunately, it is giving little more than lip service to the vast bulk of the scientific community who say the opposite.

Sure, many publications have expressed some more or less skeptical opinions - in a wishy-washy kind of way, but no one, anywhere, is telling it straight. No one is saying what should be said. No one is saying that there isn't a shred of credible evidence that there is any harm whatsoever from Wi-Fi signals. No one is saying that the cell phones all these kids have glued to their heads twenty-four hours a day emit considerably more radiation - in the same frequency range - than Wi-Fi transmitters. Heck your DVD player emits more RF radiation than your wireless router, but I don't see any of these parents cutting up their Blockbuster cards.

What needs to be said - loud and clear - is that, in order for the claims of this group to be in any way valid; in order for there to be a health risk from Wi-Fi signals, everything we currently understand about physics would have to be wrong. I'm not talking about a minor correction to our scientific understanding of the world. I mean we'd have to throw the laws of nature out the window and start all over again. Microwave radiation is non-ionizing. That means it doesn't have enough power to damage cells beyond heating them. A typical microwave oven is about 1000 watts. A typical cellphone is less than one watt. What that means is, in order to reheat your cold cup of Tim's to a piping hot, drinkable state (what your microwave would do in about one minute), you'd have to hold your cell phone up to the cup for around seventeen a shielded box that didn't allow any of the radiation to escape into the environment at an insulated cup that didn't allow any of the heat to escape into the air. OK, let's be honest, it's impossible. And your average Wi-Fi transmitter is about half the power of a cell phone - and typically not held up against your head.

This idea - that Wi-Fi radiation can somehow be harmful to people's health - is what we, in the skeptical community refer to as, "not even wrong." What we mean by that is it is an idea that is so far out of the realm of reason that it's like asking how many pot-roasts the Yankees scored last night. It's a statement that doesn't even make sense in the context of a reasonable discussion. No, these parents are barking up the wrong area rug. They're "not even wrong."


Bucko (a.k.a., Ken) said...

How dare you introduce science and logic into the argument :o)

Anonymous said...

This is why the mainstream media is becoming more and more obsolete. They run stories for shock value without even a basic investigation to determine if there is any basis for the claims.
The National Enquirer might as well be ranked right along side the NY Times. Look Ma, no difference!

Anonymous said...

Ooops... sorry, I be anonymous.

Beth said...

It really bugs me that there is a tendency to give equal time to both sides, when one side if obviously and glaringly wrong. Sometimes you just have to say "That's stupid" and be done with it.

Thomas Doubts said...

Beth is totally right...and I'm a reporter. Too often actual balance in news stories is replaced with token balance, that is appearing to be neutral by giving equal weight to opposing views regardless of the source/value/accuracy of the source providing the viewpoint. This is just bad reporting. That being said, those parents in Barrie have swallowed a big dose of stupid, and their sharing it with their kids. Aargh!

Thomas Doubts said...

I should have written "they're sharing it with their kids". Bad reporting. Aargh!