Everybody’s afraid of something, but not all fears are created equal.
“A lot of people are afraid of heights,” jokes the comedian Stephen Wright. “Not me. I’m afraid of widths.”
I can understand a fear of heights, and maybe a fear of widths if you’ve got a really big field to plow.
Yet here’s something I don’t get at all: A fear of WiFi. These wireless networks allow people to use computers just about anywhere. They’re popular devices in public spaces such as coffee bars, airport lounges, Iowa’s road-side rest stops and other ‘hot spots’. They’re so cheap and easy to install that many people have put them in their homes.
The educational applications of WiFi networks are obvious: They let students go online in classrooms and libraries as well as in dorm rooms and cafeterias. Despite these advantages, Canada’s Lakehead University recently decided to pull the plug on this wonderful technology. This is a case of the “precautionary principle” run amok.
What is the precautionary principle? Simply put, it’s the notion of “better safe than sorry”–the idea that some things are worth avoiding because “not enough information” about them is available. The precautionary principle makes sense if you’re picking berries in the forest. Not sure about those little red ones? Then don’t eat them.
Yet this concept obviously can get out of hand when precaution becomes panic–sort of like refusing to drive a car because you’ve heard that sometimes there are accidents on the highway. Lakehead University is now providing us with a terrific example of safety-first extremism. “The jury’s out on this one,” says President Fred Gilbert, speaking about WiFi and human well-being. “I’m not going to put in place what is potential chronic exposure for our students.”
I’m not sure what jury Fred Gilbert is listening to, but he’s going to have about as much luck finding proof that WiFi is a health hazard as the O.J. Simpson jury is going to have finding the real killers.
In truth, there is no evidence that WiFi is bad for anybody, except perhaps for people who are in the business of installing thick (wide) computer cables in homes and offices. The rest of us should fear WiFi signals about as much as we fear radio waves.
Unfortunately, Lakehead University isn’t alone in its silliness. There’s also a lawsuit against a public school in Illinois, where the plaintiffs want to shut down a WiFi network.
This type of wrong-headed thinking–based not on science but on irrational dread–hurts American farmers every single day. The precautionary principle, after all, provides the intellectual rationale (such as it is) for Europe’s near-total rejection of GM foods and biotech crops. Although a forthcoming World Trade Organization ruling reportedly will go against the European Union’s moratorium on these products, few experts believe much will change as long as Europeans themselves cling to their misbegotten notions.
There are of course voices of reason in Europe. One of them belongs to Tony Gillard of the British Institute of Ideas, who recently contributed a chapter to Let Them Eat Precaution, a new book edited by Jon Entine that examines the Gene Revolution in agriculture and politics.
“The scientific issue of the risks and benefits of GM crops is now subsumed beneath an overarching political concern to hold back lest something should go wrong,” writes Gillard. “This is a shift from the belief that progress is a social good, and that science and technology should be developed for the benefit of humanity, to a distrust of the consequences of progress. At worst, it could result in a severe overreaction, restricting science and technology even when the potential rewards greatly eclipse the potential risks.”
Farmers depend on research and innovation, the very things that the precautionary-principle purists seem determined to stamp out. Whether it’s applied to food regulations in Europe or to a tiny campus in Canada, the precautionary principle wages war on our future.
One of our nation’s great war-fighters may have put it best: All we have to fear is fear itself.
Dean Kleckner is an Iowa farmer and past president of the American Farm Bureau. He chairs Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org) a national non-profit based in Des Moines, IA, formed and led by farmers in support of freer trade and advancements in biotechnology.