This ridiculous farce of an invented controversy got way out of hand way too fast. My apologies for sleeping on this one. I thought that sanity would prevail, and everyone would surely see the perpetrators for the fools they are. It seems that I over estimated the Canadian media’s ability to be dedicated to journalistic integrity…a stupid mistake I will never make again.
I’m talking about the WiFi “debate” currently raging in some Ontario school boards, backed by embarrassing fringe academics and credulous media presenting the tired old “equal time to both sides” narrative on an issue where both sides are not equal.
As I previously discovered (and no media seemed to notice), at the head of this parade of delusory panic is one Rodney Palmer. Rodney lives in scenic Collingwood, Ontario, and sells warmish wooden boxes that he claims can cure/treat asthma and prevent cancer. Seriously. I’ve had a run in with Palmer’s product in the past, and the woman working the booth thought I was a Chinese spy. Seriously.
Had the media that credulously covered this inane story bothered to perform even a modicum of a background check on the man making extraordinary claims that don’t appear anywhere else in Canada (especially in WiFi saturated ares like Toronto and Ottawa), they would have given him the laughed-out-of-town treatment he deserves.
Instead, Palmer was granted a national audience, and instead of backing up his claims with anything more substantial than empty anecdotes, he continued his crusade of panic. This is what happens when you feed a narcissist: they only grow stronger with attention. Palmer and his group of “concerned parents” petitioned the Town of Collingwood to remove WiFi from the public library (which is an autonomous body under the Public Libraries Act, and not under the purview of municipal politics). By this point, Palmer’s name, face, and erroneous cause was national news on virtually every major Canadian news outlet, even catching the attention of Peter Mansbridge (who went with the tide, and presented the old media error of false balance) as he exclaimed, “It’s invisible, but it’s everywhere.”
Unstoppable narcissism never acts alone, and Palmer had brought in his trusty band of fringe non-experts-but-somehow-declared-experts Magda Havas (another narcissist academic whose entire career vests in the idea that cell phones, WiFi, and your laptop will cause cancer and sterility) and Barrie Trower (a cold war-era weapons ‘expert’ who equates ‘using’ WiFi signals with exploding bombs), whom Palmer and his group flew in from the UK to speak to the media on this story’s behalf.
And ho-boy does Palmer know how to manipulate the media. It should be noted that before he sold warm wooden boxes to treat lead poisoning, Palmer used to be a journalist for CTV news. Maybe “former journalist” was all the credentials our 4th Estate needed to hear before giving every word Palmer spoke with more weight then it deserved. I guess “purveyor of warm boxes” doesn’t have the same zing that it did in the good old days.
While most media outlets covering the story did point out that WiFi signals are well below the safe guidelines, and Health Canada is very clear that there is no evidence that WiFi causes any health risk, the narrative pushed was one of balance, not evidence. It is a narrative that media-savvy skeptics are are too familiar with:
- X is not a problem. We know this for a FACT.
- But SOME people think that X is a huge problem, so let’s needlessly pursue this.
- Filling a 24-hour news cycle is hard, and we have bills to pay.
- Talk to one actual expert (out of 10,000 who agree) that says X is safe.
- Talk to one person (out of 3) who is not an expert, is probably just a concerned parent, and says X is dangerous.
- Talk to just about anyone we can find that will reinforce our preconceived narrative structure.
- Concerned parents get more screen time than the expert with 15 years of education.
- Close the story with a family, a child, and some playing.
- Shut up, that’s a better story.
- Brought to you by Vagisil and Capitol One.
- Stay Tuned for Canada’s Next Top Model….or something…..
Recently, Palmer’s parents’ group voted to shut off WiFi in a Meaford, Ont. school. This is a decision which, much like the Library in Collingwood, does not rest with the targets of Palmer’s grandstanding, but with the Bluewater School District. This is important to note, as it seems to be Palmer’s modus operandi: launch a loud, alarming, emotional plea against a target that has no ability to affect any policy at all.
Palmer’s track record of activist diversion includes:
- Using a parents committee to vote down Wifi (which is the decision of the school board, not the school itself)
- Petitioning Ottawa to place a moratorium on WiFi in Collingwood schools (which is a provincial matter, not federal)
- Petitioning the municipal government of Collingwood to ban WiFi in its libraries (which are under the purview of the Public Libraries Act, not the Town of Collingwood)
Knowing that Palmer is such an accomplished journalist, I refuse to believe that he is so stupid as to petition an impotent political body.
I suspect that real change is not is primary goal: it’s making a huge public stink. And he is doing this is droves, getting the entire country to have panic attacks about a perfectly safe and proven technology.
As you can expect, Palmer never once provides any evidence of his claims, but instead farms that job out to Magda Havas (an embarrassment to a university if there ever was one), while he yammers on with testimonials and anecdotes.
I have one simple message to Rodney Palmer, the Safe School Committee that he runs, and every media outlet that has given his voice a megaphone:
ANECDOTES AND STORIES ARE NOT EVIDENCE, NO MATTER HOW MANY YOU HAVE!
If you tell me that lots of kids are reporting headaches and accelerated heart rates at school but not at home, maybe you should take the time to rule out EVERYTHING that is different at school than it is at home. Teachers, subjects, classrooms, bullies, friends, sleeping, recess, sports, girls, boys, the walk/bus to school….I can think of about a hundred different things that go on at school that don’t go on at home. Palmer says that he “ruled everything else out,” but has not provided one shred of evidence of his mythical study. Instead, he show videos of interviews, and re-tells stories. So once again,
ANECDOTES AND STORIES ARE NOT EVIDENCE, NO MATTER HOW MANY YOU HAVE!
If anecdotes are all it takes to convince you, then I have one for you: I remember when I was a boy in school, I had lots of headaches, stomach aches, and trouble concentrating. I couldn’t sleep very well and I had some behavior issues when I was at school. Miraculously, all these problems went away at home, especially on the weekends. WiFi wasn’t around in the 1980′s, so I wonder what it possibly could have been back then?
And yet, remarkably, the foolishness gets even foolishnessier. Palmer’s ego must be reaching a fevered pitch, because Parliament is launching a special committee to investigate his claims that WiFi is causing harm to children, and won’t somebody please think of the children!?
In this video produced by Global News, Palmer testifies before the Parliamentary committee that,
I’ve become an epidemiologist here, tracking down names of people phoning me and saying ‘My little daughter was brought home from school because her heart [was] pounding so much the teacher can see it through her shirt.’
No, Rodney. “Tracking down names of people” making complaints does not constitute epidemiology, and it does not make you an epidemiologist. You need an understanding of biology, statistics, demographics and then to actually publish the results. So far, all you did is show interviews. This is not epidemiology. This is raving.
“How is it that this is MY responsibility to bring all these people in in?”
That’s the rub, isn’t it? Rodney Palmer, this is NOT your responsibility. You have assumed this role upon yourself because you’ve proven either unwilling or incapable of understanding the existing scientific consensus that WiFi is safe. This is part of what makes you a narcissist.
In one of the most exaggerated uses of the word ‘expert’ I can imagine, Palmer was summoned to provide testimony before the Special Parliamentary Committee. That’s right: the man who sells wooden boxes that he claims can cure asthma was brought in as an expert. Have we devalued expertise in this country so much as to accept this man’s ego-mania as “expert testimony?” On the one hand, we have a doctor saying WiFi is safe. On the other hand, we have a “Father of Two”, saying it’s causing headaches. Like Mugatu in Zoolander, I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!
I have two clarion calls for this post:
1) National Media: You still can act responsibly. Put this man back to the fringe where he belongs. I know he is probably a personal and professional friend to some of you, and I know that he once did some good journalism work. But he is NOT an expert in this area…not in the slightest. ‘Fatherhood’, box selling, and being really concerned are not credentials. If you continue to give his demonstrably false theories such a loud voice, you will serve to undermine education and science discourse in this country for years.
2) Rodney Palmer: Go Away. You’re wrong, you’re an ego maniac, and you need to understand that you are not an expert, and being a father does not give you any special insight to the effects of non-ionizing radiation. You need to listen to what more scientists than just Magda Havas are saying. She is not a heroic scientist, challenging the paradigms and norms of her dogmatic scientist peers: She is more accurately lumped in with the lunatic fringe, screaming all the louder while no one listens to her ideas, because they’re crazy. And you’re wrong. You need to stop wasting the time and money of our government. But I know you won’t, because your ego drives you now.
I humbly suggest readers might do well to take the time to write to their MP, informing them that WiFi is perfectly safe, and the government should continue to listen to the actual scientific experts who have degrees, training, and don’t have an ideological axe to grind.
This post will inevitably attract some of the more angry anti WiFi chorus of pseudo-science, and they will leave crazier and crazier posts accusing me and all skeptics as being dogmatic, and insisting that I “do my homework”. Wrong. The impetus is on you to provide the evidence of your claim. I’m not researching your point to make your argument, especially when existing science tells me you’re wrong.
**UPDATE, FEB 25, 2011**
If you scroll down into the comments section, you may notice that Rodney Palmer himself left a note, effectively threatening me with a libel lawsuit. After several months, I responded to this despicable tactic, and you can read it here.