Wi-fi? Why Not?

Walking around a corner, one never knows what will appear. Yet in order to move forward, it’s often necessary to turn corners anyway, despite some small degree of uncertainty.

At Canada’s Lakehead University, however, that uncertainty has become the basis for some troubling reasoning regarding wi-fi, a technology that allows Internet connectivity without the hassle of wires. Frozen stiff by a little known but influential idea known as the Precautionary Principle, the university has decided against implementing wi-fi for health reasons—despite no serious evidence of risk. Lakehead’s net remains strictly landlocked.

Lakehead’s president, Dr. Fred Gilbert, defended his decision by saying that "While the jury’s out on this one, I’m not going to put in place what is potential chronic exposure for our students." In other words, his safety fears aren’t based on any documented threat, but instead are a reflection of his aversion to the nebulous possibility of risk.

His claims are, according to IT Business Canada, based on a series of studies done for the California Public Utilities Commission and California Department of Health Services. The studies examined the health effects from exposure to various types of electric and magnetic fields (EMFs), such as those generated by power lines or the wiring in buildings. But these studies aren’t exactly damning: Not only did these studies produce no conclusive links between EMFs and cancer, they didn’t even include EMFs generated by cell or radio towers, much less wi-fi.

This is important, for Gilbert seems to be channeling the same unfounded fears that initially spooked many cell phone users and continue to remain a staple of scare-journalism, despite the evidence to the contrary. For example, a recent study in the British Medical Journal on links between glioma, a type of brain tumor, and mobile phone use found "no raised risk of glioma associated with regular mobile phone use and no association with time since first use, lifetime years of use, cumulative hours of use, or number of calls." A 2005 study in the British Journal of Cancer examined whether mobile phone users face an increased risk of neuroma, a type of tumor that flourishes in an area of the skull nearest to where most radio frequency energy from a mobile phone would be concentrated. Again, the results give cell phone usage a clean bill of health.

Such evidence is—at the very least—a good starting point for understanding the science and health debate that is being replayed as a result of wi-fi. In fact, looking at wi-fi directly, Health Canada, a Canadian regulatory board that deals with consumer safety, has stated that there is "no scientific reason to consider the use of wireless communications devices…dangerous." Moreover, the board’s director of consumer and clinical radiation protection expects to release documents later this year further demonstrating that wi-fi poses no risks to humans.

So why the skittishness?

Chalk it up to precaution. The Precautionary Principle (PP), which is commonly buried within rhetorical devices like "better safe than sorry," insists that its followers adopt a wait-and-see attitude about scientific advance. Or, in Gilbert’s formulation of the doctrine: "When we get to the stage where the evidence is conclusive there is no health impact, I have no problem putting wireless in place."

But advocates of the PP go further in their distortion of the role and purpose of science. Science, they claim, cannot adequately deal with the "complex systems" found in the natural and social worlds. They believe that because science focuses on isolated, controlled facts, it misses the bigger picture. Thus, they even see attempts to quantify the inevitable uncertainties and ‘unknowns’ of a study as creating a false impression of understanding which only serves to further demonstrate the "subjective" nature of science.

The PP, in contrast, encourages policymakers to consider "the underlying principles of surprise and systematically ‘thinking the unthinkable’ by imagining unlikely (undesirable) future events", in the words of a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) paper (PDF). In other words, fear of the worst possible scenario should dictate policy.

The PP, then, is about the perception of risk. It asserts that "simple science" cannot cope with a complex world and combines reasonable-sounding platitudes with intentionally obtuse language to create a cover for what is, in fact, an anti-scientific political doctrine. Thus, the PP becomes a weapon which its advocates wield to level the playing field between hard science and personal preference, forcing the masses to uniformly adopt the same stance as the most frightened. As UNESCO claims, good public policy depends not on scientific assessments of risk, but on "one’s attitude towards risk, that is, whether one is, for instance, risk-averse, risk tolerant, or risk-seeking." In the case of Lakehead University, Gilbert is risk-averse—and that’s all that matters.

Although there may be reasonable cause for a university president to object to installing wi-fi on campus (high costs, limited benefit versus high speed land lines), the risk of negative health effects is not one of them. Given the importance universities place on adopting new technologies to enhance intellectual inquiry, it is unfortunate that a university president would succumb to stifling fears of precaution and refuse to turn the corner on wi-fi.