Wednesday, 3 February 2010

WiFi woes and the wonders of woo

I was hauled over to BBC Wiltshire yesterday to speak up against rumours of the malignant influence of WiFi. Swindon is outfitting the entire town with free WiFi, and it seems there was a discussion of this on a local TV show the night before. Ranged against a single voice of sanity were apparently two people from organizations campaigning against WiFi and phone masts (who are very happy to sell you meters to detect 'electromagnetic radiation', or tinfoil hats to protect your brain), and two concerned mothers. Very measured response, BBC.

I have every sympathy for the concerned mothers because the sort of information they get if they search the web and hit these campaigning organizations is really scary. To start with the websites always refer to radiation, making sure that WiFi is tarred with the same brush as nuclear reactors. They don't bother to point out that electromagnetic radiation is just stuff like light and radio. Then they cite multiple studies showing how electrosensitive people can feel the damage being caused by WiFi or mobile phones. What they don't point out is all these studies are anecdotal and uncontrolled. Whenever a proper, controlled, double blind test is done, these 'electrosensitives' aren't influenced by the WiFi. I'm not saying they're lying, but rather it's an example of the nocebo effect, the negative version of the placebo effect, where if you think something will give you a headache etc. it probably will.

What isn't pointed out is that WiFi is just another contribution to all the radio, TV, phones, and other electromagnetic traffic zapping around us all the time. And they're relatively low power, typically thousands of times weaker, for example, than the sort of transmitter used by radio hams.

The other concern explicitly mentioned to the radio show host was whether WiFi could influence pacemakers. Someone had been warned that the Swindon WiFi might mean he couldn't leave the house. But pacemakers have been thoroughly tested with stronger WiFi than is allowed in Europe without damage. When you think about it, a computer is much more likely to be upset by WiFi than a pacemaker, and they aren't - so it's not entirely surprising. A local surgeon who fits pacemakers pointed out that they have WiFi in the operating theatre where they fit them. Not a worry, he says.

I've saved the most horrendous allegation until last. Apparently, on the TV show, one of the campaigners claimed that the rise in lung cancer in the last century was not due to smoking but to the introduction of FM radio. Leaving aside just how bizarre a claim this is, flying in the face of some of the most detailed and persuasive research ever, I can't decide if this is silly or sick. It certainly should alert anyone who is worried by the material put out by these campaigners to the fact that their concerns aren't exactly rational. Now where did I put my tinfoil hat?

Postscript - If you want to see just how bad things can get in terms of the rubbish cited on electrosensitivity, see this article in the Independent, kindly pointed out to me by Austin Elliott. I really can't believe a respectable newspaper published that.

1 comment:

  1. Although I agree with your comments, I keep looking over my shoulder at the Law of Unintended Consequences - ie there's bound to be something (good or bad) that we don't yet know about the cumulative effects of electromagnetism. I wouldn't like to speculate on what that could be though I imagine if you could have a conversation now with Marie Curie about radiation she might have some thoughts about what she wished she'd known before she started work with pitchblende ores.

    I can't help thinking that we're not looking in the right areas; but there again I can't suggest where to look.

    Maybe some of your creative thinking might help?