Lazy journalism

Lovely rant by Jon Crowcroft.

Someone had left a copy of yesterday’s Daily Mail on the train open to an article by their “Science Correspondent”, Fiona Macrae, about the “possible health risk for pupils” of WiFi in the class room.

The article quoted several pressure groups, and some unnamed “scientists”, and asserted that sitting in a room with a WiFi station could be like being in the direct beam of a GSM Cellular tower at 300meters. This, it was claimed, could lead to ADHD, Cancer and premature senility.

Firstly, the guilt by association simply by being “radio” annoyed me – WiFi uses the ISM (Medical and Scientific Instrument band) around 2.4GHz, not the GSM Cellular bands which means even the vaguest idea that it might resonate with certain common energy levels in certain molecular links common in biological systems (one of the pet theories about how GSM might be a problem) is wrong, because its a completely different frequency/wavelength. Secondly, its a completely different power level that the user is exposed to:
you don’t hold the laptop to your head, and the laptop’s WiFi card and the WiFi Access Point (AP) are roughly symmetric in power terms, whereas a GSM cell tower is much more powerful than a handset.

Thirdly, there are on the order of 100M such systems in the world, and if there was a significant problem it would have shown up (the article points to increasing levels of ADHD – this predates WiFi in any case, and is strongly associated with people using computers whether they have wireless nets or not, and is far more likely to be a symptom of the type of kids that use computers too much,
not of the idea that the computer (or the network) directly cause attention deficit disorders.

I get very annoyed by this sort of article, particularly because the author has failed to seek any balancing view from an actual, named scientist which simply smacks of lazy journalism, especially when a few seconds with Google and Wikipedia would find plenty of information rather than hearsay and superstition, and might elicit a quote from a neutral person who has a clue.

By all means, have a further investigation (although there have, contrary to the article’s assertion, been checks on the problems with 802.11/ISM band health risks)….but unsupported allegations are not really “science” journalism.

Sometimes, I get the impression that people who write these columns in those types of newspapers are like the PE teachers who used to (in the bad old days) end up being landed with taking the geography O-level class.