Posted by: bkivey | 24 August 2011

The Certainty of Ignorance

Humans do an amazing number of things well, some things very well, and a few things not well at all. One consistent human failing actually comes in two parts: the inability to judge relative risk, and the corresponding inability to know that they can’t do Part 1 very well. While it’s certainly possible to be trained in the art of risk-assessment, the average person tends to let preconceptions substitute for judgment.

The 13 July issue of Willamette Week published an article that illustrates this shortcoming. A Mr. David Morrison was so convinced of the ill effects of Wi-Fi signals that he sued the Portland Public School district over its use of Wi-Fi on campuses, claiming the radiation from transmitters was “genotoxic, carcinogenic, neurotoxic and otherwise…harmful” to his daughter. Thankfully, and little surprisingly, U.S. District Judge Michael W. Mosman denied Morrison’s request for an injunction.

Morrison claims to have researched the subject and found a number of studies claiming a detrimental health impact from Wi-Fi radiation, and the World Health Organization has deemed EMF radiation a ‘possible’ carcinogen. Somewhat contradictoraly, the EMF section of the WHO website states that

All reviews conducted so far have indicated that exposures below the limits recommended in the ICNIRP (1998) EMF guidelines, covering the full frequency range from 0-300 GHz, do not produce any known adverse health effect.

In the U.S. FCC guidelines fall well within those standards. This hasn’t stopped an entire cottage industry in EMF-remediation and reduction devices from springing up. I don’t know if tin-foil hats or Faraday cages are for sale.

As sincere and convinced of health risks as Mr. Morrison may be, I would bet that he and his family routinely use cell phones and have a microwave oven in the house. Both emit radiation, and the microwave emits radiation in the same spectrum as a Wi-Fi transmitter at 2.4 GHz. There have been at various times scare fads over both devices, and no long-term adverse health risks have been found for normal, healthy people.

One can argue that cell phones and Wi-Fi devices operate in different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, but they both use high frequency radiation to do their job. The concern activists have is that neither technology has been around long enough to study long -term effects. Cell phones have been available in the U.S. for nearly 30 years and widely available for about 20 and Wi-Fi has been around for nearly 20 years, so there is a reasonable base for long-term study. I don’t know that there has been a sharp upward spike in health problems clustered among users of those devices.

If people like Mr. Morrison want to be taken seriously, they would do well to spend less time shouting and waving their arms, and more time thinking about testing their hypothesis. If what they say is true, they might want to ask themselves what the effects would be. Would there be a rise in certain types of cancers among device users or those living near towers? Would people exhibit mental or physical deviations beyond the statistical norm? There have been peer-reviewed studies done with sufficient sample sizes and time lines to make them statistically valid. The results have been that there are far more acute dangers to health among the impactors likely to be found in everyday life, including sunlight.

Unfortunately, people like Mr. Morrison are not really concerned with the evidence. It’s more about making a loud noise and drawing attention to themselves than thinking a problem through, gathering information, and testing a hypothesis. How much more satisfying to be loud and ignorant than quiet and thoughtful.

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