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Posts Tagged ‘wireless’

Enough Griping. Time For Some Active Skepticism

January 12, 2011 Leave a comment

I started this blog to talk about poor science reporting and try to put some good information out there. Usually though, it comes off as complaining.

This has been true a number of cases, and recently because of the Wi-Fi scares going on in Canada.

There have been a number of stories, mainly on the CBC, about parents from 2 communities in Canada who do no want Wi-Fi installed in their children’s schools for fear of adverse health effects.

It is quite clear from a large body of scientific evidence that Wi-Fi is completely safe, and these fears are unwarranted. However, the fears are given credence because of a few crackpot “scientists” and poor media coverage.

It isn’t much, but I wrote an email to the CBC asking them to provide more accurate information in their reporting. Here is the email in its entirety:

I am writing in regards to the CBC’s recent reports regarding Wi-Fi technology in schools.

In recent months, there have been several news items written on the CBC news site regarding the health effects of wireless internet technology. These have mainly consisted of stories from Ontario and Alberta in which a group of parents has approached its local school board and requested that Wi-Fi not be installed in their children’s schools.

While I agree that it is important to report on these issues, I strongly disagree with the lack of background information and tone of the articles themselves. They give the average reader very little sense of the current body of scientific evidence, which overwhelmingly indicates that wireless technology is safe for both adults and children.

The articles fail to show this large disconnect between the mainstream scientific community and the views of a very a small fringe group. Blanket statements such as “Health Canada and the World Health Organization have said Wi-Fi is not dangerous” are simply not adequate to provide readers with an accurate picture. This is of concern to me since it may cause undo panic to parents across the country that are only looking out for the well-being of their children, and may be frightened by the poor representation of the scientific consensus in these articles.

Microwave radiation, at the powers and frequencies used by wireless systems has been thoroughly researched and the evidence is clear that it is quite safe. I respectfully ask that in future news items you provide more information on the research done on Wi-Fi which shows it is safe in order to put the minds of parents at ease.

I decided to write directly to the CBC because I generally respect its reporting and it is my primary source for news. However this issue has troubled me as I’m sure it has troubled many other readers.

Thank you.

Will I get a response? Probably not. Will it make a difference. Ha, probably not. But it is DOING something rather than just complaining, so maybe the skeptic gods (?) will smile down on me and make a difference.

 

Do Cell Phone Towers Make Women Pregnant?

December 23, 2010 3 comments

A Typical Cell Phone Tower, via Wikimedia Commons.

That is what the data is showing.

Using publically available data on the birth rates of communities, Matt Parker, who writes for The Guardian, did an analysis of the data and found this remarkable correlation. On average, there were 17.6 more babies born above the national average in the area around a cell phone tower.

So are cell phone towers actually causing women to get pregnant?

No.

And that’s the point.

On his blog, Parker is trying to make the point that correlation does not equal causation, which is almost a mantra for skeptics. Recent hysteria regarding WiFi and Cell phones has prompted many skeptics (including yours truly) to blog on the subject and express their displeasure. Not only with the quack “scientists” promoting this idea, but also with the media for callously reporting on it without proper research, only furthering the spread of misinformation.

Parker says,

There is no causal link between the masts and the births despite the strong correlation. Both the number of mobile phone transmitters and the number of live births are linked to a third, independent factor: the local population size. As the population of an area goes up, so do both the number of mobile phone users and the number people giving birth.

This is what is known as an observational study. The study is not performed in a lab where variables can be controlled. It is performed by observing the real world and attempting to make sense of the data.

As you can see, it is quite easy to come to a false conclusion despite good data. Accounting for all variables in such a study is extremely difficult, and sometimes damn near impossible. Firm conclusions on a topic should never be drawn based solely on a study of this type.

It should go without saying, but there is no credible evidence linking wireless internet or cell phone use to health problems. This is junk science promoted by junk scientists, and spread through the naive media who care more about ratings and readers than reporting truth.

I really like that someone took the time to get make this point using real data. Hopefully, this will get as many headlines as stories about cell phones causing cancer do.

Do Cell Phones Cause Cancer? See What a Real Expert Says

November 24, 2010 6 comments

I’ve written about the issue of cell phones and Wi-Fi and the supposed health risks associated with their use. The resounding scientific evidence shows they are perfectly safe, but the media continues to stoke fear in the public with unbalanced coverage.

When reading a news story about this sort of thing, I always wonder why they don’t ask an actual expert. The answer is that an expert would say how implausible the story is, and that they are silly for reporting it.

That doesn’t sell newspapers.

Instead, they find the one person on the fringe who maintains that there is a magical mechanism by which non-ionizing radiation can harm us. But thankfully, Phil Plait posted on his blog today something I have been looking for a long time.

I’m not a researcher (anymore). I don’t have a Ph.D, so I can tell you what I think, and I can tell you I know what I’m talking about, but I will never have as much credibility as a real university professor in physics or electrical engineering.

Enter this talk by Professor Christopher Davis from the University of Maryland’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. It was given at a National Capitol Area Skeptics meeting, and posted on YouTube. It’s in 5 parts and each part is about 13 minutes long.

It is a fascinating talk and not too technical, so you don’t need a science background to understand the main points. He even touches on backscatter x-ray scanners which have been in the news quite a bit lately. Enjoy!

Happy Halloween!

October 31, 2010 1 comment

Here are a few things to be afraid of today:

1. The WiFi hysteria in Ontario is still going on, despite an overwhelming scientific consensus that WiFi is perfectly safe.

2. While its fun to go to movies about the paranormal, it seems actual belief in the supernatural may be getting even more common.

3. Christopher Walken reading Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”. (Thanks to Zee’s Wordly Obsessions for bringing this video to my attention).

Be Afraid of Your Wi-Fi! Be Very Afraid!

September 1, 2010 Leave a comment

Wow. I cannot believe this is still in the news.

Its one of those things you hope only happens once and you never hear about it again. Like the Star Wars Holiday Special.

But unfortunately, the Wi-Fi hysteria remains in the news. This time with a couple of new foot soldiers. They include a drama teacher from Brock University, and a self-proclaimed specialist named Barrie Trower.

And perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, but the reporting of this story in the CBC is really starting to irk me. Lets explore shall we?

I wrote previously about the parents in Simcoe county in Northern Ontario were claiming that Wi-Fi was making their children sick. The supposed dangers of Wi-Fi has been dismissed by teachers, the World Health Organization, Health Canada and scientists worldwide; as it should be.

But proponents of the evils of technology continue to drag the story out and spread fear throughout the community. With a little help from their friends, the news media.

Take, for example, this audio clip of an interview on CBC with Barrie Trower.

Barrie Trower on CBC Metro News

Trower claims to have worked for the British military in the 1960s on experiments dealing with low-level microwave radiation. He claims that they caused adverse health effects; everything from affecting the blood brain barrier to the immune system. He is quite vague and never explains what frequencies or power levels of microwaves he studied.

A couple of my favourite quotes from the audio file are these:

I have a document here…it lists all of the illnesses that  children and adults can get from very low-level microwave radiation. And it specifically says on the top…this must be kept secret…the ordinary general population must not be told because it will affect industrial profit.

What is this document? Who wrote it? There are no specifics given about the origin of this mysterious document. Trower claims he gets it from the freedom of information act, but if that were true he should have given us the specifics so we could look up the document for ourselves. I am skeptical…

When I saw Wi-Fis being put in schools at the same powers and the same levels that were used in the 1960s for experiments, I knew straight away that there were hidden dangers to the young children.

You knew straight away, did you Mr. Trower? What about when Wi-Fi was being put into offices, Universities, laboratories, airports, and coffee shops? Did you not think there was a danger then? It seems interesting to me that only when the story about the Simcoe area parents came out, did Mr. Trower decided that he should reveal to everyone about the secret 50 year old experiments that he did with microwaves.

Nor has Mr. Trower provided and clear arguments or evidence (at least, to the news outlets) that Wi-Fi poses any sort of threat to anyone.

And what about the other British scientists that performed these experiments? I find it odd that they all wouldn’t want to come out and save chidren’s lives if they thought that Wi-Fi was dangerous.
While the interviewer sounds slightly skeptical, he fails to ask the right questions to point out the weaknesses in what this man is saying, so thats YOUR fault CBC.

Now lets move on to the drama teacher from Brock University, one David Fancy. Said Fancy,

It’s not necessarily up to me to say that they cause harm. I think there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that they do. But we certainly can’t say with any conclusive level that they’re safe.

Actually David, yes we can. There is a large body of literature which has studied and reported the effects of exposure to microwave radiation. The conclusion is that at the frequencies and powers associated with cellular phones, cell phone towers and Wi-Fi, the exposure level does not pose any danger.

In fact, 1 years worth of exposure to a wireless signal is roughly the same exposure as you would get in a 20 minute cell phone call. And in a recent large scale study, the long term effects of cellular phone use has not shown any mal-effects over the past 10 years.

Now, just to be fair, there is a small smattering of studies which suggest a health effect from low level microwave exposure, which these fear-mongerers can spout of the top of their heads. However, one has to take into account the entire volume of literature, not just a few isolated studies (most of which have had their conclusions contested).

You see, when a subject is studied as much as RF radiation, there is bound to be some random noise in the results of individual studes; particularly if the studies involve small sample sizes. This is completely expected. What is important is what the overall picture of the studies is, and that picture is that Wi-Fi is safe.

You can all relax now.

This all would be clear in the news stories, if the news outlets bothered to get an actual expert opinion. Why haven’t the CBC gone and interviewed physics Professors or doctors or biologists or RF engineers? Doesn’t this seem like an obvious thing to do?

Apparently not, and its having an effect. On a CBC poll about 1/3 of parents are concerned about Wi-Fi and its health effects. Kudos CBC on causing fear in these parents minds.

Sadly, talking to Physicists doesn’t boost ratings (unless maybe its Phil Plait) so we won’t get those opinions in the news. You have to go and search them out yourselves.

Wi-Fi the New Danger to Children…Apparently

August 16, 2010 2 comments

Well, as if we didn’t have enough to be afraid of in the pseudoscientific world, now we have to be afraid of our wireless internet connection.

Parents in Barrie and other northern Ontario towns have called the public school board to remove its recently installed Wi-Fi system because, they claim, it is making their children sick.

The symptoms include memory loss, trouble concentrating, skin rashes, hyperactivity, night sweats and insomnia.

These are extremely non-specific symptoms, and most of them can describe pretty much every young child I know at some point in their lives.

Said one of the parents:

“I’m not saying it’s because of the Wi-Fi because we don’t know yet, but I’ve pretty much eliminated every other possible source.”

Really? You’ve eliminated EVERY possible source? Thats quite a bold statement when it comes to environmental factors.

Now, its hard to blame these parents for looking out for their kids, but this is a clear cut case of poor understanding of technology and media hysteria.

Oh yes, I’m talking about YOU CBC!

For example, take the “expert” they got to comment on this story, one Professor Magda Havas from Trent University (in my hometown of Peterborough, Ontario, incidentally).

So what does this professor say? From the CBC article:

Claims by Health Canada that Wi-Fi is safe provided exposures to radiation are below federal guidelines are “outdated and incorrect,” based on the growing number of scientific publications reporting adverse health and biological effects, Havas wrote.

Havas did her Ph.D in Botany, so what makes her an expert electromagnetism, I have no idea. But from her website (note the advertisement to her book at the bottom), it seems she is involved in fear mongering for just about every junk science theory about electromagnetism affecting humans, including the dangers of power lines and cell phones (all these technologies have repeatedly been shown to be safe).

It amazes me that they couldn’t find an actual expert in electromagnetism to comment on this story. But then, it wouldn’t increase readership would it?

But shall we interrupt this exercise in bad science and bad science reporting for some REAL science?

The energy deposition from a typical wireless signal is roughly 100 times less than exposure to a cell phone (which remember, has been shown to be a perfectly safe level). It is also thousands of times less than current government regulated safety levels, AND is less than normal background radio frequency radiation. Maybe that rat-bastard Ryan Seacrest and his Top 40 crap is making us all sick!

Now how about a bit of logic? The parents claim that these symptoms go away on the weekends. This makes no sense as children are exposed to wireless signals at their home, at the mall, the airport, restaurants, pretty much everywhere. If it was the Wi-Fi and these children are truly sensitive to it, they should be sick virtually all the time.

And what about children living in an apartment building, where there are literally dozens of wireless signals in their vicinity. Shouldn’t they be affected at home as well? Shouldn’t this be more widespread?

Ok, so when I start freaking out about stuff like this, my lovely girlfriend invariably asks “So what COULD it be, if not the Wi-Fi?”

My Lovely Girlfriend. Yes, I have one!

Well, remember these symptoms: trouble concentrating, hyperactivity, insomnia, night sweats. This sounds like me when I was a kid. I was always having trouble sleeping and running around like a madman. These tended to go away on the weekend though, when I could just relax and play video games. Also, kids don’t like school; they could get stressed out and cause these symptoms, which would of course go away on the weekends and in the summer. They may be staying up too late on weeknights, so sleep deprivation could easily cause some of these symptoms.

Want to know what I really think is happening? I think a child got sick with something, and an over-zealous parent read something about Wi-Fi being dangerous on the internet. They heard that the school had recently installed Wi-Fi and BAM! you got yourself the perfect storm of fear.

If you take nothing else from my blog, please take this: Correlation does NOT equal causation.

Just because these children got sick after (several months after, which is kinda weird. Shouldn’t they have gotten sick right away?) the school board installed wireless networks, does NOT mean wireless networks made these children sick.

I could just as easily say the sun rose after my alarm clock went off this morning, therefore my alarm clock caused the sun to rise. It is a logical fallacy and stories like this are riddled with them.

So don’t worry folks, your internet is just fine. Continue using your laptop (to read this blog, hopefully) and your cell phone without fear. With every new technology there will be those who try to convince you its bad. And unfortunately, there will also be protective parents to make a fuss over it.