Public Engagement with Science in Everyday Life: Perceptions of Wi-Fi Radiation Risks in Schools

Abstract

Wi-Fi radiation is a type of radio frequency electromagnetic radiation (RF-EMR) that refers to the transfer of energy by radio waves. Nowadays, exposure to RF radiation is widespread including wireless internet connection (Wi-Fi) routers and cell phones. The proliferation of devices emitting RF radiation has entailed some public and media-generated controversy, although scientific evidence has not pointed to the existence of risk. Using the theoretical perspectives of science literacy, public engagement with science, and science media literacy, this work examines public engagement with science-related media reports in a context involving risk. A qualitative design was followed to address multiple viewpoints including an analysis of an authentic primetime TV program concerning the risks of Wi-Fi, its messages, and frames, solicited a public response to the coverage via interviews and decision-making simulation (n = 20), and unsolicited public response based on social media discussions (n = 315 comments). Our findings suggest that a lack of relevant scientific knowledge does not seem to be related to participants’ general scientific literacy among people with higher education. Moreover, interviewees did not place much emphasis on having adequate knowledge in making their decision. These findings emphasize that we need to expand our understanding of the different ways that make scientific knowledge relevant when making decisions on scientific issues that relate directly to everyday life.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    Wi-Fi is a radio frequency local area connection technology in the 5–10-cm wavelength range. Within the non-ionizing (NIR) spectrum, we find RF (radio frequency) and ELF (extremely low frequencies). Prevalently used appliances all emit radiation in the RF spectrum; these include cell phones and towers, microwaves, and Wi-Fi routers. An example for a source of ELF is power supply lines.

  2. 2.

    As opposed to ionizing radiation (IR) which has enough energy to break chemical bonds and remove electrons.

  3. 3.

    Percentages were calculated based on data published in https://data.gov.il/ and on information provided on the ICT program website: http://sites.education.gov.il/cloud/home/tikshuv/Pages/mida_clali_tikshuv.aspx (retrieved in December 2018).

  4. 4.

    http://reshet.tv/item/news/documentary/season-01/episodes/zbuid-468588/

  5. 5.

    337,600 households throughout. As an illustration of the program’s popularity, on that same evening, a European soccer match was viewed in 267,200 households and a well-known travel and cooking show was viewed in 278,600 households on competing channels: http://rashut2.org.il/info_tv.asp.

  6. 6.

    Physics curriculum in the 1990s (when most of our interviewees were in school) was mostly limited to self-selected teens who studied high level physics (in high school), and electromagnetic radiation was not included in other curriculum.

  7. 7.

    Facebook Pages-Specific Policies, retrieved from: https://www.facebook.com/policies/pages_groups_events/, accessed on May 2, 2019.

  8. 8.

    The emphasis in quotes both here and elsewhere is ours.

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Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank the graduate students who took part in this project as part of a course assignment and who contributed their interviews to our database.

Funding

This work was supported by the Ministry of Science and Technology under Grant Number 3-13697.

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Correspondence to Keren Dalyot.

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Appendices

Appendix 1. Scenario

“Your child’s school is about to join the National ICT Program. The children will receive tablet computers which are connected to the internet via Wi-Fi, and they will use them daily during lessons. Some parents are worried that the radiation may have health implications, while others say there is no danger, and there is a great educational benefit in the program. Tomorrow there will be a special parents’ meeting to vote about the use of Wi-Fi in the school, and you have to decide how to vote using any available resources you might have in everyday life (including searching the internet and consulting other people). First, please watch this TV program which was broadcast recently on national TV. Then you’ll have another 30 minutes to look for additional information. You don’t have to use all of the time and can tell me whenever you make your decision.”

Appendix 2. Interview Protocol

Decision: At the end of the process (after half an hour, or when the interviewee has finished):

  1. 1.

    What have you decided? How will you vote? Why?

  2. 2.

    What was your impression of the show you watched? Could you have made your decision just based on the show?

  3. 3.

    Did any of the statements said on the show affect your decision?

  4. 4.

    What questions are still open, as far as you are concerned?

Scientific Knowledge in Context

  1. 5.

    What is the difference between ionizing radiation and non-ionizing radiation?

  2. 6.

    Does ionizing radiation harm the human body?

  3. 7.

    If so, in what way does ionizing radiation harm the human body?

  4. 8.

    Does non-ionizing radiation harm the human body?

  5. 9.

    If so, in what way does non-ionizing radiation harm the human body?

  6. 10.

    What is radiation sensitivity (electromagnetic hypersensitivity)? Do researchers agree that this phenomenon exists?

  7. 11.

    How is it possible to find out if radiation sensitivity is a real phenomenon?

  8. 12.

    How is it possible for people to think different things about a scientific topic?

  9. 13.

    How can someone tell apart a person with well-founded beliefs from a person with less well-founded beliefs?

Additional Sources

  1. 14.

    What other information sources did you choose?

  2. 15.

    Why did you choose these sources?

  3. 16.

    How would you rate their credibility?

  4. 17.

    How would you rate their expertise in the matter?

  5. 18.

    Were there other sources of information you wanted to rely on? Why? What prevented you from using them?

Scientific Knowledge and Decision-Making

  1. 19.

    Did you have knowledge/information that you felt you were missing for making a better decision? What is it?

  2. 20.

    Did you have prior knowledge that helped you make a decision? What is it?

  3. 21.

    Was there any scientific knowledge you were missing so that you could better understand the problem and make a decision? What is it?

  4. 22.

    Was there any scientific knowledge that helped you understand the problem and make a decision? What is it? Please give an example of how this knowledge supported you in making a decision.

  5. 23.

    If or when you come across a medical, scientific or technological problem, do you search for information? Where (internet, literature, experts)? Can you please give me specific details about the websites and books you use?

  6. 24.

    Can you share an example of a situation where you needed information and how you obtained it?

  7. 25.

    In what circumstances, if at all, did your scientific background help you to solve a problem? (Understand what information you are missing, obtain that information, assess its credibility, ask the doctor a question.). Please give examples.

  8. 26.

    In what circumstances did you think that if you had more scientific knowledge it would have helped you? (If you encountered such situations.)

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Dalyot, K., Sharon, A.J., Orr, D. et al. Public Engagement with Science in Everyday Life: Perceptions of Wi-Fi Radiation Risks in Schools. Res Sci Educ (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11165-019-09894-w

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Keywords

  • Scientific literacy
  • RF radiation
  • Public engagement with science
  • Social media