By now, I’m sure most of you have caught Steve’s piece last week on the Ontario wifi debate. It turned out to be quite the tempest in a teapot, driving about 10x the traffic of the average post on Skeptic North, and generating dozens of comments, including one from Rodney Palmer himself.
One comment in particular struck me though. Commenter Curtis Bennett asked “Steve, what part of your technical education are you using to qualify or disqualify anyone?” before proceeding to deliver a lengthy technical discussion of the alleged failings of Canada’s Safety Code 6, which regulates radiofrequency exposure. From his website, Mr. Bennett seems to be a thermo-electical consultant in BC, and presents himself as an expert.
Now I’ll admit that when I read that comment, my initial reaction was, is it possible I could have been wrong all along? After all, I was an English major in university, and although I work in technology today, it’s in a field very far from electrical engineering. Plus, I’m in sales, which is enough to tell you that I have domain expertise in precisely nothing. So where do I get off doubting the words of someone who seems to do this for a living? Indeed, how is any layperson to form an opinion about such a highly technical subject, and if we can’t, how do we make decisions for ourselves and our families?
Epistem-off and he left
This is about more than just wifi of course — it’s a general epistemological problem we encounter in trying to derive knowledge from science. Science always leaves open the possibility that new data will be uncovered that changes an answer we’d previously relied on — it doesn’t provide the certainty we humans crave. Yet consider the words of Bertrand Russell in his essay, On the Value of Skepticism.
There are matters about which those who have investigated them are agreed; the dates of eclipses may serve as an illustration. There are other matters about which experts are not agreed. Even when the experts all agree, they may well be mistaken. Einstein’s view as to the magnitude of the deflection of light by gravitation would have been rejected by all experts not many years ago, yet it proved to be right. Nevertheless the opinion of experts, when it is unanimous, must be accepted by non-experts as more likely to be right than the opposite opinion. The scepticism that I advocate amounts only to this: (1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment.
- Science does not give us certainty. It trades in probability and confidence intervals. Which makes it the worst system of knowledge generation ever, except for all the others.
- Science is hard and highly specialized. It operates beyond the domain and limitations of simple common sense. This is good for scientists, who have the right tools, but bad for laypeople, whose only tool is common sense.
- Luckily for the layperson, consensus often emerges among scientists. When it does, it’s wholly unreasonable to second guess it. It’s natural to want to do so, because there will still be questions and uncertainties (see #1), but we must resist the urge because we’re not properly equipped (see #2).
- Luckily again, scientists are properly equipped, and there will always be some of them challenging the consensus. Often, they turn out to be quixotic zealots committed to their position no matter what the science says, and are rightly ignored by their colleagues. But sometimes, they uncover something that their colleagues missed, and successfully change the consensus. Yay progress.
- In the meantime, we must treat the current consensus as truth because it’s the best answer we have. That means ignoring those zealots, no matter how shrill or persistent.
Russell goes on to say that, “These propositions may seem mild, yet, if accepted, they would absolutely revolutionize human life.” No argument from me.
4 out of 4.000001 EMF Experts Agree
So back to the matter at hand — is there a scientific consensus on EMF (power line, wifi, cell phone, etc.) safety that we as laypeople can rely on for decision making? You bet there is, and here’s a very small sampling of it:
World Health Organization
“In the area of biological effects and medical applications of non-ionizing radiation approximately 25,000 articles have been published over the past 30 years. Despite the feeling of some people that more research needs to be done, scientific knowledge in this area is now more extensive than for most chemicals. Based on a recent in-depth review of the scientific literature, the WHO concluded that current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields.” [Source]
“To date, no adverse health effects have been established for mobile phone use.” [Source]
“Based on scientific evidence, Health Canada has determined that exposure to low-level radiofrequency energy, such as that from Wi-Fi equipment, is not dangerous to the public.” [Source]
“The weight of evidence from animal, cell culture and human studies does not indicate that the energy emitted by cell phones is strong enough to cause serious health effects.” [Source]
“There is no conclusive evidence of any harm caused by exposures at levels found in Canadian homes and schools, including those located just outside the boundaries of power line corridors.” [Source]
“There is no scientific evidence that the symptoms attributed to [Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity Syndrome] are actually caused by exposure to EMFs.” [Source]
European Commission: Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks
“The update considered more than 200 new scientific papers yet the conclusions differ little from the earlier opinion. Based on current evidence the main conclusions remain that radio frequency fields used in wireless communication technologies are unlikely to lead to an increase in cancer in the human population at large.” [Source]
US Food & Drug Administration
“Over the past 15 years, scientists have conducted hundreds of studies looking at the biological effects of the radiofrequency energy emitted by cell phones. While some researchers have reported biological changes associated with RF energy, these studies have failed to be replicated. The majority of studies published have failed to show an association between exposure to radiofrequency from a cell phone and health problems.” [Source]
US Center for Disease Control
“In the last 10 years, hundreds of new research studies have been done to more directly study possible effects of cell phone use. Although some studies have raised concerns, the scientific research, when taken together, does not indicate a significant association between cell phone use and health effects.” [Source]
US National Cancer Institute
“Currently, researchers conclude that there is limited evidence that magnetic fields from power lines cause childhood leukemia, and that there is inadequate evidence that these magnetic fields cause other cancers in children. Researchers have not found a consistent relationship between magnetic fields from power lines or appliances and childhood brain tumors.” [Source]
“We now have studies covering up to 10 years of cell phone usage, and we’re still not seeing any convincing evidence of an increased brain cancer risk.” [Source]
The American Cancer Society
“non-ionizing radiation has not been established as being able to cause cancer.” [Source]
Canadian Cancer Society
“Over the past 25 years, there have been more than 100 studies published on the relationship between exposure to electric and magnetic fields (EMF) and cancer risk. Researchers haven’t found a conclusive relationship between exposure to EMF (at levels normally found at work, home or in the environment).” [Source]
“Most scientific research done so far (from the INTERPHONE study and other research groups) does not show a link between cell phone use and cancer.” [Source]
UK National Radiological Protection Board
“It is concluded that currently the results of these studies on EMF’s and health, taken individually or as collectively reviewed by expert groups are insufficient…to make a conclusive judgment on causality.” [Source]
UK Institution of Engineering and Technology
“the absence of robust new evidence of harmful effects of EMFs in the past two years is reassuring and is consistent with findings over the past decade.” [Source]
Health Council of the Netherlands – Electromagnetic Fields Committee
“there is no scientific evidence that exposure to environmental levels of radiofrequency electromagnetic
fields causes health problems.” [Source]
French Environmental Health and Safety Agency
«Au vu de l’analyse détaillée et critique des travaux effectuée par le groupe de travail, et compte tenu par ailleurs de l’état antérieur des connaissances, aucune preuve convaincante d’un effet biologique particulier des radiofréquences n’est apportée pour des niveaux d’exposition non thermiques, dans les conditions expérimentales testées.» [Source] [Google Translation]
French National Academy of Medicine
«Les antennes de téléphonie mobile entraînent une exposition aux champs électromagnétiques 100 à 100.000 fois plus faible que les téléphones portables… On ne connaît aucun mécanisme par lequel les champs électromagnétiques dans cette gamme d’énergie et de fréquence pourraient avoir un effet négatif sur la santé.» [Source] [Google Translation]
«A ce jour, aucun système sensoriel humain permettant de percevoir ce type de champ n’a été identifié. C’est pourquoi la quasi-totalité des études sur l’électro-hypersensibilité ont montré que les sujets concernés, bien que manifestant des troubles variés en présence de dispositifs émetteurs de champs électromagnétiques, sont incapables de reconnaître si ces dispositifs sont actifs ou non.» [Source] [Google Translation]
Nordic Radiation Safety Authorities (Joint)
“The Nordic authorities agree that there is no scientific evidence for adverse health effects caused by radiofrequency field strengths in the normal living environment at present.” [Source]
Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency
“The weight of national and international scientific opinion is that there is no substantiated evidence that exposure to low level RF EME causes adverse health effects.” [Source]
“There is no clear evidence in the existing scientific literature that the use of mobile telephones poses a long-term public health hazard.” [Source]
“No adverse health effects are expected from continuous exposure to the RF radiation emitted by the antennas on mobile telephone base station towers.” [Source]
But What About the Children?
I don’t know what’s causing the health complaints of the children in Meaford and Barrie. But I do know that the overwhelming body of evidence rules out wifi and other forms of EMF radiation. There is indeed a strong consensus, and as Russell points out, it is unreasonable for a layperson to do anything but accept that consensus.
Mr. Bennet, however, is not a layperson, and the opportunity to try to change the consensus lies with him. Certainly Trent University’s Magda Havas, the main expert behind the current wifi debate, seems to have such an aim. She’s been trying to convince the world about the dangers of EMF since the 1990′s. Time will tell if her work is being unfairly ignored, or if she’s become one of those Quixote-like creatures I describe above, who let their belief trump the body of evidence. (Or maybe that question has been answered already).
In the meantime, I’ll side with Russell and the scientific consensus. Keep surfin’ kids!