Cell phones may be the most popular technology in the world at the moment, but that also makes them subject to bad decisions on their use, usually based on bad science.
First, they were blamed for explosions at gas stations, so signs went up banning their use while filling your tank. From the stories that have circulated, you’d think they were more dangerous that holding your Zippo over the end of the nozzle or sticking your nose in the gas tank opening and inhaling the fumes for an hour. Despite there being no proof of a link between using your phone and any kind of explosion (thank you, Mythbusters!), the signs are still up.
Then we were told not to use our cell phones on planes because they can interfere with airborne guidance systems. That’s now proven to be false, and the FAA is considering allowing the use of cell phones in flight. I’m against that, not because they’re dangerous, but because it would be incredibly annoying to sit next to or near someone who’s on the phone, let alone being a captive audience to a plane full of that cacophony. Anyone who flew in the early days of Airphone remembers hearing a seatmate saying into the receiver, far too loudly, “No, really, I’m calling you from the plane! Right now! I can see clouds below! No, really! Yes, on the plane!”
Cell phones have also been banned in hospitals, where signs warn that they interfere with medical equipment, again despite a lack of evidence. This week, a new study said that without proof of that interference, allowing cell phones in hospitals would be a good thing — for one, it would give doctors an easy and efficient method of communication that would help decrease medical errors.
All of the premature decisions to ban cell phone use were made without having good science behind them. But that doesn’t stop them from coming.
This week, Fred Gilbert, president of Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario (previously famous for being the hometown of Paul Shaffer), announced that he would not permit a campus-wide wi-fi network to be installed, because he’s worried about the risk of tumors and other diseases due to exposure to electromagnetic fields. There is no definitive study proving any such link, and there are wi-fi systems in place everywhere from Starbucks and the St. Louis Bread Company to municipalities like Philadelphia and London, which have installed city-wide wi-fi. There have been no identified risks at normal exposure levels — in other words, unless the students at Lakehead are strapping a wi-fi base station to their skulls, they’ll be fine.
Perhaps Mr. Gilbert and other officials who jump to these conclusions would be best advised to use a cell phone themselves — to call on real scientists and experts who can explain that there’s no need to panic, or to create undue concern.
Also see: My 2001 column on Cell Phone Driving Bans.