TCS Daily


Wi-fi? Why Not?

By Isaac Post & Peter Suderman - March 17, 2006 12:00 AM

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.

Isaac Post is a Regulatory Policy Analyst and Peter Suderman is Assistant Editorial Director at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a think tank located in Washington, D.C.


27 Comments

Not safe today
My problem with the PP is that it assumes that not doing anything, or doing it the same way it has before, is a safer alternative than trying something new. Without wi-fi, there is a lot of extra resources required for all those cables, environmental costs, labour costs, the risk of fire in the PVC coatings etc. Which is safer, wi-fi or old fashioned hard wire? I don't know but that is the analysis that is needed. The PP is an excuse for lazy thinking.

Not really
Security issues of WiFi have been beat to death. Any modern access point using WPA encryption has no more security issues than standard wired networks.

Why bash the academy??
I mean, you have one nowhere college in Canada fussing. How is this a higher education trend??

The Stagnation Principle of Precaution
The Precautionary Principle was invented by radical environmentalists (formerly Marxists) trying to destroy industry and drive mankind back to the Dark Ages and the Pleistocene. Since they cannot reveal their motivations of hatred for industry and mankind openly, they need half-way measures that sound good like the Stagnation Principle of precaution coupled with data-free fear and hysteria (cell phone cancer, GM food fright, global warming catastrophes, etc.) to start mankind down the road to the ancient past.

Why ideologize this?
Why confuse the issue with tinfoil hat conspiracy theories? Or if you want to talk about nutty Precautions, look at the people against Plan B (emergency over-the-counter birth control, or the apparently still going campaign saying flouridation is a marxist plot.

The Stagnation Principle is an Idea
First, there is no such concept as ideologize. Second, all of history is driven by ideas, good ones and evil ones. Radical environmentalism and industry-hatred are evil ideas. The "idea" of cringing in data-free fear before all innovations and discoveries is a return to tribal witch-doctors and shamans which Enlightenment scientists and capitalists like me will not tolerate mucking up the immensely prosperous world that we created.

Hard-nosed Business Calculations
The Race Against Climate Change
Business Week, December 12, 2005

...This change isn't being driven by any sudden boardroom conversion to environmentalism. IT'S ALL ABOUT HARD-NOSED BUSINESS CALCULATIONS. "If we stonewall this thing to five years out, all of a sudden the cost to us and ultimately to our consumers can be gigantic," warns Rogers, who will manage 20 coal-fired power plants if Cinergy's pending merger with Duke Energy is completed next year.

One new twist in the whole discussion of global warming is the arrival of a corps of sharp-penciled financiers. Bankers, insurers, and institutional investors have begun to tally the trillions of dollars in financial risks that climate change poses. They are now DEMANDING THAT THE COMPANIES IN WHICH THE HOLD STAKES (or insure) ADD UP THE RISKS related to climate change and alter their business plans accordingly. For utilities like Cinergy that could mean switching billions in planned investments from the usual coal-fired power plants to new, cleaner facilities.

The pressure is forcing more players to wrestle with environmental risks, even if the coming regulations aren't right around the corner. As the debate over climate change shifts from scientific data to business-speak such as "EFFICIENCY INVESTMENT" and "MATERIAL RISK," CEOs are suddenly understanding why climate change is important...

http://businessweek.com/magazine/content/05_50/b3963401.htm

good and evil?
So it's really all black and white for you nothing but good and evil, ideas all good or all evil? Any regulation of industry is evil "industry hatred?" Any concern about pollution or unsafe drugs is evil "radical enviornmentalism," no middle ground? The Sierra Club, say, is 'evil?" Anyone who disagrees with your ideas is evil?

I'm sure I must be misunderstanding. Can you explain?

The Stagnation Principle of Precaution
RHampton quoted Business Week as saying, "The pressure is forcing more players to wrestle with environmental risks, even if the coming regulations aren't right around the corner." Yes indeed, we shouldn't forget the science-ignorant lawyers in Washington and the 50 states enacting data-free, science-free, "man-made global warming" regulations when listing the witch-doctor threats to Enlightenment-created innovations and industries. We have 50 years of oil left and 400+ years of coal. I think it is the zenith of stupidity that ignorant, government thugs (i.e. lawyers) are even considering forcing energy companies to move from coal to oil based on a myth.

Life versus Death is Very Black and White
Yes indeed, all issues of morality are completely black and white because the supreme value for all moral decision-making is each individual human life. Each living person constantly faces one alternative in thousands of forms. That alternative is Life vs. Death. All life-enhancing activities are white / good. All death-enhancing activities are black / evil. Life, each life, is the standard of value for making judgments about the world. Data-free fear is death-enhancing by empowering superstition to crush innovation. These are the facts of reality. Sorry, if they clash with some pre-conceived notions and modern "everything is gray" propaganda.

But who decides?
And what happens if people disagree? As they do, on al kinds of things.

How can this be resolved on your model? If you have a question about balancing interests, you can talk and compromise and resolve it. But if it's between good and evil, how do we manage it?

Or does everyone just ask you to make all the decisions, because you know infallibly what is good and what is evil?

do you understand the concept of an example?
.

no conspiracy theories needed.
Just listen to the rhetoric of the left.

You Decide - Enlightenment America
Each individual decides for themselves based on their own purposes and goals with full recognition of the validity of the individual rights, especially the property rights, of all others. This sanctification of individual rights, especially property rights, is what made Enlightenment-created America so unique in History. This is why the Kelo decision is such an immense, death-enhancing abomination.

You're avoiding the issue
You say the issues are black and white, good and evil. But people disagree about what is good and evil. And about property rights. How do we resolve these disagreements? You say environmental groups are evil. Does this mean they should be outlawed?

Objective Law Resolves Black and White
People are free to disagree and speak about their disagreement and persuade. What they are NOT free to do is use the gun of government force to FORCE others to agree with them. They are also NOT free to violate the individual and property rights of others. Objective laws, NOT arbitrary regulations, and objective courts using objective procedures resolve truly legitimate disputes.

Environmental groups are free to speak and persuade people to private action (e.g. buying up the rainforests to protect them), but they are NOT free to write laws which allow them to violate the property rights of others (e.g. declaring that a privately owned mud puddle or swamp is now a sacred wetland).

You're still not saying who decides
I mean, we have a laws that protect wetlands and endangered species and so forth. You think these laws are evil. does that give you the right to ignore them?
Courts have upheld these laws. Are these courts evil? you think they're wrong: is it possible you may be mistaken?

Man-made Evil is Still Evil
When science-ignorant lawyers in Washington, D.C. pass a law that empowers regulators to violate individual rights, yes, that is evil. The Endangered Species Act allowed power-lusting bureacrats to arrest and jail an innocent farmer because his tractor occasionally ran over a protected rat in his fields. They shut down his career and seized his land without compensation. The ESA also let environmentalist radicals destroy a billion dollar dam project because of a "snail darter" that was later discovered to not even be endangered. This is evil. The equally immoral Wetlands Act led to many equally evil, individual rights violation consequences. Courts have no recourse except to enforce immoral, evil laws. The fault and guilt lies with the legislators.

There's no other kind of evil but man-made
But let's get down to cases

>When science-ignorant lawyers in Washington, D.C. pass a law that empowers regulators to violate individual rights, yes, that is evil.

"Science ignorant?" How? You're also talking about the government of the United States. Because that's who passed the law, which was duly signed by the President. The majority who voted for this bill are "evil?"

>The Endangered Species Act allowed power-lusting bureacrats to arrest and jail an innocent farmer because his tractor occasionally ran over a protected rat in his fields.

Who was that poor innnocent farmer? Where did this happen? Rep. Pombo used to tell a story something like this about his farm. You do realize he was wildly exaggerating, don't you?

>The ESA also let environmentalist radicals destroy a billion dollar dam project because of a "snail darter" that was later discovered to not even be endangered. This is evil.

The Telico Dam was completed the snail darter problem, You may have missed the fact that in addition to destroying the habitat of the fish, the dam also submerged a lot of private property that was taken by the governent from its owner. You are correct that it didn't totally wipe out the snail darter population: there are still a few left in a tributary.




do you understand the concept of a misleading story summary?
this is the description:

>A precautionary tale of the Precautionary Principle gone amok in our institutes of higher learning. (Read)

There's only one "institute of higher learning" discussed, and it's an unknown school in Canada. This is not remotely a campus trend: Most colleges and universities brag about having their campuses wired.

High Cost? Possible Danger?
I don't think of wireless hot spots as being high cost. Wireless routers and access points are commodity items costing $50 at retail. Weatherproofed, outdoor mesh network nodes are sold in Europe for about $600 a piece.
There's a company called Fon that has turned a cheap Linux-based Linksys router into a mesh network node; given enough co-op home locations, they can turn any city into a total wireless hotspot. ( www.en.fon.com )

The only problem is connecting a local wireless network to the Internet. The terms of service of broadband companies forbid users from reselling or redistributing their bandwidth. Of course, their customers Never leave their wireless routers close to their windows, do they? Google "wardriving" !

Still, an ISP can buy a fast internet pipe for a few thousand $ a month, set up wireless root nodes, and charge for internet access. Many municipalities are eyeing this, to bypass the de facto monopolies they granted the cable and phone companies.

As far as safety is concerned, Wi-Fi uses the same unregulated 2.4 Ghz band used by cordless telephone sets and microwave ovens. By "unregulated" I mean that the FCC only sets limits to output power levels they consider very safe. This is part of why Wi-Fi nodes must be numerous to give any kind of citywide coverage.

I understand the concept
I also understand that it does not apply here.

The problem exists in other places of "higher education" as well. As has been thouroughly documented elsewhere.

Making it up again.
>As has been thouroughly documented elsewhere.

not referred to in this piece, though, or documented. But if you have sources, bring them.

Campus Wi-Fi
Making it easy to use and support is a bigger issue to me and the campus where I work.
We currently only allow machines we own to use our campus wireless network. If a someone brings a computer on campus, we check to make sure their antivirus software is current before allowing them to connect (wired or wireless).
When asked about allowing unrestricted wireless access, I say "we don't want anyone to be able to send spam from the parking lot."

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