Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Psychic police policy

In a move that is raising hackles amongst rationalists and skeptics, the UK College of Policing has stated in its official policy guidelines statement that police "should not rule out" using advice from psychics in solving crimes.

"High-profile missing person investigations nearly always attract the interest of psychics and others, such as witches and clairvoyants, stating that they possess extrasensory perception," the document states.  "Any information received from psychics should be evaluated in the context of the case, and should never become a distraction to the overall investigation and search strategy unless it can be verified...  The person's methods should be asked for, including the circumstances in which they received the information and any accredited successes."

When asked to clarify what that last bit meant, a spokesperson said, "Our guidance says that all information received in the course of a missing person investigation should be recorded and assessed to see whether it can yield any valid lines of enquiry, including information that comes from people identifying themselves as psychic.  In this context, 'accredited success' means previous cases where they have given police information that turns out to be correct."

Which at least provides some kind of an out.  Because the track record for psychics providing correct information to police is pretty damn close to zero.

Ever heard of the Yorkshire Ripper, who in the late 1970s committed thirteen gruesome murders?  Doris Stokes, who preceded Sally Morgan as Britain's most famous psychic, provided critical clues to police about the identity of the Ripper.  His first name was Johnny or Ronnie, she said.  His surname began with an M, and he came from the Northeast of England, in Wearside or Tyneside.  He was clean-shaven, and had thinning hair with a bald spot.

Unfortunately for Stokes, the murderer was named Peter Sutcliffe, he was from Bingley in West Yorkshire, and this is what he looked like:

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

At least she correctly identified him as male.

This case isn't unique, not by a long shot.  The investigators working on the 2007 disappearance of three-year-old Madeleine McCann in Portugal have folders full of "information" from psychics, including:

My guess is that even the people who believe wholeheartedly in psychic bullshit could see that all of these couldn't be true at the same time.

I am appalled that any investigative agency would even consider using information provided by self-styled psychics.  There is no evidence whatsoever that psychic ability exists, much less that any of their Messages From The Other Realms have ever been the least use in solving crimes.

But it goes beyond just being well-meaning but ultimately fruitless help.  Police investigators have limited time and resources; expecting them to "evaluate information from psychics in the context of the case" is a colossal waste.  Phone calls should go as follows:
Caller:  Hello, I have information to provide to you on the Fernwhistle murder case. 
Police:  Can you tell me how you obtained this information? 
Caller:  Well, I'm a psychic, and... 
Police:  *click*
No credence should be given to these people at all, who are delusional at best and hucksters at worst. And the idea that police guidelines should make it official policy to listen to the useless information they provide is tantamount to saying, "We'll consider all information, even if we know from the get-go that it's wrong."

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Pondering Project Serpo

In today's episode of You've Got Mail, I recently got an email that poses an interesting question.  Here's the relevant bit:
Dear Mr. Skepticism: 
You talk a lot about how the only way to know something is evidence.  What if the only evidence you have is someone else's word?  Yes I know you can't believe everything people say, but your position is more that we have to start out thinking everyone's a liar.  Guilty until proved innocent... 
I've been interested for a long time in Project Serpo.  I don't know if you've heard of it.  It's probably something that a person like you would dismiss immediately.  But that's not skepticism, because you can't prove it's not real, even if I can't prove it is.  You should look at the link I'm sending with an open mind. 
Some people's stories are going to be true.  Not everyone's a liar...  We should be taking claims like Project Serpo seriously unless they get proved to be hoaxes. 
sincerely, 
Greg T.
First, I'm kind of honored that Greg T. calls me "Mr. Skepticism."  It's a title I wouldn't mind adopting, and certainly is better than some of the other salutations I've seen in my fan mail, which have included "Dear Asshole" and "You Worthless Wanker."  So we're off to a good start.

But he does ask an interesting question.  Are we really stuck with either dismissing all anecdote out of hand, or else accepting it all with equal abandon?  Is there a way to winnow out fact from fiction when all we have is someone's word -- or are we left with Neil deGrasse Tyson's pronouncement, "If you tell me, 'You gotta believe it, I saw it,' I'm gonna tell you to go home.  In science, we need more than 'I saw it.'"

So I looked at the Project Serpo link that was kindly provided, and it does turn out to be an interesting case in the sense that we have zero hard evidence for a pretty wild, and quite detailed, claim.  The site turns out to have the Wall O' Words format, so it's a lot to sift through; the gist, if you don't feel like spending an hour scrolling through text, is that in the Roswell UFO incident, one of the aliens survived.  The government sent in specialists who eventually were able to communicate with him, and it turns out that he and his less-fortunate shipmates came from a planet they call "Serpo" that orbits the star that terrestrial astronomers know as Zeta Reticuli.

UFO enthusiasts undoubtedly will recognize this name.  It's the star that figures prominently in the wild tales of Zecharia Sitchin, who said that it was home to the Grays, the bald, big-eyed aliens of the type made famous in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  But since Greg's question was about determining the truth value of a single claim, and not all of the other stuff that gets appended to it, let's stick to only what was in the Project Serpo site itself.

Because the Project Serpo goes beyond the usual Roswell crash stuff; this claims that the surviving alien told scientists on Earth how to go to Serpo... and we sent a successful manned mission to the planet to study it, staying there for ten Earth years and afterwards bringing home a load of information on another planet's civilization.

A denizen of Serpo

What I look for, in evaluating such material, is anything I can hook onto that seems either (1) well-supported by evidence outside the claim itself, or (2) contradicted by known science.  And in this case, we have a lot of material to test by those standards.  The more we find that fails this test -- the more bits we run into that are contradicted by what is known to be true -- the less plausible the entire claim is.

And right away, we have a few pieces that raised my eyebrows.  Let's start with a bit about "pentagen," supposedly used as a fuel on Serpo:
Pentagen is the fifth isotope of Hydrogen. It is radioactive with a half life of .34222 seconds.  However, with a complex containment and storage system, Pentagen can be collected for an extended period of time...  This storage vessel is where the Pentagen is finally collected and stored.  The interior of the Vessel is lined with an alloy of Beryllium.  The Vessel contains several complex "collection" tubes that collects, cools and stores the Pentagen during the final production process.  The final product is collected in liquid helium, which is charged with gamma radiation.
There are two problems here.  First is that there is not even a fourth isotope of hydrogen, much less a fifth one.  Ordinary hydrogen (hydrogen-1), deuterium (hydrogen-2), and tritium (hydrogen-3) -- and that's it.  But maybe, you might be saying, the Serpons (or whatever they call themselves) have found something outside the realm of our own discoveries?  That's possible, yes?

Yes, but take a look at two other statements -- that cooling the "pentagen" increases its stability and thus its half-life, and that it's collected in liquid helium that has been "charged with gamma radiation."  Both are obvious falsehoods.  Temperature has no effect on radioactive decay rate; this claim has been tested extensively.  In fact, there is no known physical process that has any effect at all on half-life.  And there is no way to "charge something with gamma radiation."  Gamma radiation is high-frequency electromagnetic radiation -- i.e., light.  You can't charge something with light, because photons move.

At the speed of light, in fact.

Then, we have statements like this:
It was determined that Kepler's Laws did not apply to that solar system [Zeta Reticuli]. So, one of the things our Earth-based scientists learned was not to apply Earth's laws of physics in a universal way.
Whenever we're told that the laws of physics are different somewhere else, it always brings up lots of red flags.  From Earth-based observation of the motions of stars and galaxies, we are driven to the conclusion that the mathematical rules governing forces and motion are universal across the cosmos -- so the idea of Zeta Reticuli being some kind of Kepler's-Laws-free zone sounds pretty sketchy.  In the immortal words of Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, "Ye canna change the laws o' physics."

Also suspicious is the fact that although we're told that the Away Team eventually was able to understand and speak 30% of the Serpon language, we're not told anything about it except that it's "tonal."  Why would the returning researchers not share what they developed in the way of a Serpon-English dictionary?  Surely that would be easy enough to do.  The fact that we're not given any information about this rather easy-to-relate bit of information is curious, isn't it?

But why is this suspicious?  Because it's really hard to fake an authentic language -- if we were given even 10% of the Serpon language to study, linguists could tell if it was real or made up.  This looks, unfortunately, like they're withholding information for the very good reason that it would give away the game.

And on and on.  These are only a couple of points, selected for the sake of brevity from dozens of sub-claims that were implausible enough to call the entire thing into question.  And even the study of the site that I've done is only skimming the surface.  There's lots more there, and I invite anyone who's interested to delve into the site and find other bits and pieces that shoot holes in the claim.  But my point is, to return to the original question; we're not obliged either to accept anecdotes without question, or reject them without question.  There's a third way, which is to engage our logic centers and knowledge of science, and see if what's being claimed makes sense.

And in the case of "Project Serpo" -- I'm afraid the answer is no.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Family matters

New from the "You're Kidding, Right?" department, we find out that it's significant that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are distant cousins.

Genealogists have apparently figured out that Trump and Clinton both descend from English King Edward III, making them 19th cousins, give or take a once-removed.  Trump traces his descent through his mother's family (the MacLeods), and Clinton through her father's (the Rodhams).

Author A. J. Jacobs, who worked with genealogical research website Geni.com to figure all this out, waxed rhapsodic about what it all meant.

"Their 18th great grandfather is King Edward III, so there is precedent for ruling a country," Jacobs said.  "It’s in their genes."


Turns out, according to the article, that not only do Clinton and Trump have British royal blood -- so does every one of the United States presidents except for Martin van Buren (mostly because van Buren was of Dutch ancestry).  All of the others, apparently, descend from King John of England, not that that's any great claim to fame, as John was so notorious for losing territory through military ineptitude that he was nicknamed John "Lackland," and has been described by historians as "petty, spiteful, and cruel."

Be that as it may, there are a couple of problems with this whole contention.

The first one is the idea that being 19th cousins would confer upon a pair of people any related traits at all.  Let's suppose that such characteristics as "fitness to rule a country" are actually inheritable -- a supposition, by the way, which is almost certainly wrong, but which for the sake of argument we'll bear with for the time being.  How many of Edward III's kingliness genes would Clinton and Trump share?

Assuming that Clinton and Trump have no other common ancestry -- another lousy assumption, as you'll see in a moment -- to figure out the proportion of their shared heritage, you'd use something like the following calculation.  Siblings have the same parents; first cousins share one set of grandparents, and therefore half of their lineage; second cousins, one set of great-grandparents, and thus a fourth of their lineage, and so on.  So the shared heritage of a set of nth-degree cousins is 1 over 2 to the nth power.  Which in the case of 19th cousins, means that...

One-524,288th of their ancestry is the same.  In other words: not much.

But what about that assumption of no other shared ancestry?  The number of ancestors in your family tree doubles every generation; so it's the inverse of the previous calculation.  If there have been 19 generations between Edward III's time and now, then Trump and Clinton would each have something over five hundred thousand ancestors.  Each.

Given that current estimates of England's population in the mid-14th century average at around four million individuals, what's the likelihood that they don't descend from damn near every medieval British person who left descendants -- kings, commoners, peasants, all of them?  Everyone with English ancestry is related, and the chances are good that they all descend from royalty.

Oh, and while we're on the subject: my wife also descends from King Edward III.  I don't seem to, although on the Scottish side of my family I descend from King Duncan (of Macbeth fame) through my ancestor Alexander Lindsay, the evil "Red Earl" who lost his soul to the devil in a dice game and now haunts Glamis Castle, swearing loudly and scaring small children.

So maybe there's something to this genetic predisposition thing, after all.

It's kind of funny that this sort of claim gets circulated at all, given the fact that with a little bit of logic and a few simple calculations, you can easily see how ridiculous it is.  Maybe it's because the whole concept of royal blood and nobility has been so drilled into our cultural consciousness by fairy tales that we think it must mean something if you can trace your ancestry back to King Angus the Demented.  Or maybe it's because a lot of people can't be bothered to question what they read.

Myself, I'm just as happy that the majority of my heritage (with the exception of the aforementioned evil Earl) is solid peasant stock.  Some of those kings and queens were loons.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Privilege blindness

It is a mystery to me why some people think that any curtailment of their choice to be as offensive as they want is an infringement of their fundamental rights.

It's this kind of attitude that led to the following, which has been widely posted (often to shouts of acclamation):


The level of "I don't get it" that is embodied in this one image is staggering, even if (as one poster said), "It's satire."  Are you really trying to equate the gay pride flag, a symbol of solidarity in the face of oppression, with the Confederate flag, which to many people represents slavery, prejudice, bigotry, and persecution?  And further, are you actually claiming that Vester Flanagan, the gay African American man who gunned down two reporters while they were on the air, was motivated to do so by his homosexuality to the same extent that Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof was motivated by his race hatred and espousal of white supremacy?

Satire, my ass.  This isn't satire.  This is redneck rah-rah willful ignorance.

And need I add that every person I've seen post this is a heterosexual white man?  Nah, probably didn't need to mention it.  The enculturation of privilege has blinded these people to the possibility that not everyone has the same access to security, acceptance, and safety that they do.  So let me do a little wake-up call for y'all.

You don't know what it's like to be in danger when you walk down the street because of your gender.  You don't know what it's like to be jeered at because of your skin color, and to wonder if those jeers could progress to violence, to consider whether your decision to be in this place at this time might be the last bad decision you'll ever make.  You can hold hands with and kiss the person you love in public without having to worry that you'll (at best) be told you're going to burn for eternity, or (at worst) be the victims of assault.

You don't know what it is to be in a position of powerlessness, every day of every year, because of something you have absolutely no control over.

And if you're saying, "You don't either.  You're a heterosexual white man, too," you're absolutely right.  The difference is, I know I don't know these things.  I am aware that my privileged status in this culture has put me in the position of never being obliged to think about any of this.  You, apparently, are not.

It's the same business as the outcry against Caitlyn Jenner when she won the ESPY Courage Award.  "That's not courage!" people snarled.  "It's not courage to claim you're female when you're not!"

Really?  Are you transgender?  Have you fought with the knowledge that your biological gender, your mind, and your sexual desires simply don't line up the same way they do for the majority?  Do you have any idea what it's like to live with the social stigma of non-cisgender identification?  Have you had to deal with the repercussions from family, friends, the public?

No?

Then shut the fuck up.

I have studiously avoided issues of race, privilege, and prejudice in this blog, for the very good reason that as a member of the most privileged class in the United States, my perspective on those issues would be worthless.  But if I am not knowledgeable about something, I stay silent on the topic, and avoid posting inflammatory rhetoric that demonstrates my ignorance and shallowness to the world.

Which is a reservation that some people evidently lack.

Friday, August 28, 2015

The illusion of causality

Fighting bad thinking is an uphill battle, sometimes.  Not only, or even primarily, because there's so much of it out there; the real problem is that our brains are hard-wired to make poor connections, and once those connections are made, to hang on to them like grim death.

A particularly difficult one to overcome is our tendency to fall for the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy -- "after this, therefore because of this."  We assume that if two events are in close proximity in time and space, the first one must have caused the second one.  Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, likes to tell a story about his wife, who is a pediatrician, preparing to give a child a vaccination.  The child had a seizure as she was drawing the vaccine into the syringe.  If the seizure had occurred only a minute later, right after the vaccine was administered, the parents would undoubtedly have thought that the vaccination caused the seizure -- and after that, no power on earth would have likely convinced them otherwise.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Why do we do this?  The most reasonable explanation is that in our evolutionary history, forming such connections had significant survival value.  Since it's usual that causes and effects are close together in time and space, wiring in a tendency to decide that all such correspondences are causal is still going to be right more often than not.  But it does lead us onto some thin ice, logic-wise.

Which is bad enough.  But now three researchers -- Ion Yarritu (Deusto University), Helena Matute (University of Bilbao), and David Luque (University of New South Wales) -- have published research that shows that our falling for what they call the "causal illusion" is so powerful that even evidence to the contrary can't fix the error.

In a paper called "The dark side of cognitive illusions: When an illusory belief interferes with the acquisition of evidence-based knowledge," published earlier this year in the British Journal of Psychology, Yarritu et al. have demonstrated that once we've decided on an explanation for something, it becomes damn near impossible to change.

Their experimental protocol was simple and elegant.  Yarritu writes:
During the first phase of the experiment, one group of participants was induced to develop a strong illusion that a placebo medicine was effective to treat a fictitious disease, whereas another group was induced to develop a weak illusion.  Then, in Phase 2, both groups observed fictitious patients who always took the bogus treatment simultaneously with a second treatment which was effective.  Our results showed that the group who developed the strong illusion about the effectiveness of the bogus treatment during Phase 1 had more difficulties in learning during Phase 2 that the added treatment was effective.
The strength of this illusion explains why bogus "alternative medicine" therapies gain such traction.  All it takes is a handful of cases where people use "deer antler spray" and find they have more energy (and no, I'm not making this up) to get the ball rolling.  Homeopathy owes a lot to this flaw in our reasoning ability; any symptom abatement that occurs after taking a homeopathic "remedy" clearly would have happened even if the patient had taken nothing -- which is, after all, what (s)he did.

And that's not even considering the placebo effect as a further complicating factor.

Helena Matute, one of the researchers in the recent study, has written extensively about the difficulty of battling causal illusions.  In an article she wrote for the online journal Mapping Ignorance, Matute writes:
Alternative medicine is often promoted on the argument that it can do no harm.  Even though its advocates are aware that its effectiveness has not been scientifically demonstrated, they do believe that it is harmless and therefore it should be used.  "If not alone, you should at least use it in combination with evidence-based treatments," they say, "just in case." 
But this strategy is not without risk... even treatments which are physically innocuous may have serious consequences in our belief system, sometimes with fatal consequences.  When people believe that a bogus treatment works, they may not be able to learn that another treatment, which is really effective, is the cause of their recovery.  This finding is important because it shows one of the mechanisms by which people might decide to quit an efficient treatment in favor of a bogus one.
I think this same effect is contributory to errors in thinking in a great many other areas.  Consider, for instance, the fact that belief in anthropogenic climate change rises in the summer and falls in the winter.  After being told that human activity is causing the global average temperature to rise, our brains are primed to look out of the window at the snow falling, and say, "Nah.  Can't be."

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.  To quote Stephen Colbert, "Global warming isn't real, because I was cold today.  Also great news: world hunger is over because I just ate."

The study by Yarritu et al. highlights not only the difficulty of fighting incorrect causal connections, but why it is so essential that we do so.  The decision that two things are causally connected is powerful and difficult to reverse; so it's critical that we be aware of this bias in thinking, and watch our own tendency to leap to conclusions.  But even more critical is that we are given reliable evidence to correct our own errors in causality, and that we listen to it.  Like any cognitive bias, we can combat it -- but only if we're willing to admit that we might get it wrong sometimes.

Or as Michael Shermer put it, "Don't believe everything you think."

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Rules, ethics, and opting out

In the last few days, I've been prepping for the start of another school year.  My 29th, which boggles my mind a little.  And although I wouldn't turn down another three months of vacation, there's a part of me that's enjoying getting my classroom cleaned and ready, going through lessons and support materials, and wondering who's going to be in my classes this year and what joys and challenges they will bring along with them.

And as New York State teachers head toward the on-ramp, our Commissioner of Education is already beginning to polish up her own rhetoric in support of the Common Core and standardized exams, and against the opt-out movement.

This will be Commissioner MaryEllen Elia's first full school year in New York.  She comes to us from Florida, replacing Commissioner John King, who brilliantly illustrated the Peter Principle when he was promoted to the position of senior advisor to federal Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.  King, a toe-the-line demagogue who wouldn't hear any criticism of the haphazard fashion in which the Common Core and its attendant exams were rolled out in New York, is now in the position of seeing to it that the entire nation goes the same way.

Elia, unfortunately, seems cut from the same mold.

Three days ago she launched a campaign to fight the opt-out movement, which last year saw over 1.1 million participants across the state.  But instead of admitting that if the parents of over a million children are objecting to a policy, it might be time to reconsider it, she doubled down on her own stance -- and implied that the parents in the opt-out movement were simply uninformed.

"As you get more people involved in the process, you have more people understanding what’s going on and why you have assessments," Elia said.  "There are a lot of people that don’t know what the Common Core is...  We’re trying to pull together a tool kit, if you will, to support superintendents in how we can communicate in a much more effective way to people across the state.  I want the superintendents to understand the reflections and law that they can use as an information piece when they talk to people in their community … It’s important for them to be able to say, ‘Listen, it’s the law.’"

The problem is, it's not the law.  There is no law that mandates that students take tests, standardized or otherwise.  Republican Assemblyman Jim Tedisco, a vocal opponent of the standardized test movement, made this abundantly clear last year.  "They [NYSED and school districts] should be providing parents with the truths and the facts and their rights," Tedisco said in an interview.  "And their rights are yes, they can opt out of something they haven’t opted into. They can refuse something for their kids they’ve never opted into."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

As far as the parents who choose opt-out being uninformed, Elia may have stirred up a hornet's nest.  Jessica McNair, co-founder of the advocacy group Opt Out CNY, said, "I think she has a lot to learn about the parents in New York State.  We’re not going to back down until we see tests that are developmentally appropriate, and tests that are decoupled from the teacher evaluations."

But for the teachers who are participating in the pushback, Elia had even harsher words.  Such behavior, she said, was unethical.

"I think opt-out is something that is not reasonable," she said, at a meeting of Educators4Excellence.  "I am absolutely shocked if, and I don’t know that this happened, but if any educators supported and encouraged opt-outs, I think it’s unethical."  She has even hinted that teachers who recommend opting out to students or parents could be charged with insubordination.

It's unethical to follow the deepest core value of education -- to do what's best for children?  I have been unequivocal in my support for the opt-out movement; at this point, it's the only leverage parents and educators have against an upper administration that has a long history of being blind and deaf to the concerns of the rank-and-filers who spend nine months of every year on the front lines, and who know best the needs of their students.  They have chosen instead to take away the rights of the local districts to oversee their own assessments and teacher evaluations, and ceded that power to corporations like Pearson Education, who have over and over demonstrated that they are incapable of providing metrics that mean anything.

As Carol Corbett Burris, former principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre School District and winner of the 2010 New York State Educator of the Year Award, put it:
(T)here comes a time when rules must be broken — when adults, after exhausting all remedies, must be willing to break ranks and not comply.  That time is now.  The promise of a public school system, however imperfectly realized, is at risk of being destroyed.  The future of our children is hanging from testing’s high stakes.  The time to opt out is now.
In other words, if Ms. Elia believes that such actions are unethical, then we as educators should welcome that label as a badge of honor.

If that makes us insubordinate, so be it.

And to Ms. Elia, I can only give a warning.  If you think that by demeaning teachers and parents as unethical and uninformed you can break our resolve, you have a lot to learn.  You think 1.1 million non-compliant children is a lot?

If you don't back down with the rhetoric, and look at how the system itself is failing children, you haven't seen anything yet.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Helping the hypersensitives

One thing I've never understood is the determination of some people to believe in counterfactual nonsense despite rigorous evidence to the contrary.

Let's take, for example, the news story that a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia found yesterday, wherein we learn that a couple in Worcester, Massachusetts is suing the private school their son attends because they claim that the wifi signal in the school is making him sick.

[image courtesy of photographer Marc Lostracco and the Wikimedia Commons]

The boy, they say, has "electromagnetic hypersensitivity syndrome," which makes him react badly to being exposed to electromagnetic fields.  He has developed headaches, nausea, and nosebleeds, they say, and the wifi is to blame.  School officials wouldn't do anything about it, so the parents sued.

There are just two problems with this claim.

Problem one is that earlier this year, possibly in an effort to forestall such nonsense, the school hired a company called Isotrope to do a complete assessment of the school with respect to the safety of its electronic equipment.  "Isotrope’s assessment was completed in January 2015 and found that the combined levels of access point emissions, broadcast radio and television signals, and other RFE emissions on campus 'were substantially less than 1/10,000th of the applicable safety limits (federal and state)," the school said in an official statement.

Problem two is more serious; that "electromagnetic hypersensitivity syndrome" apparently doesn't exist.

A 2006 study done by G. James Rubin et al. of King's College, London, called "Are Some People Sensitive to Mobile Phone Signals?", found that the answer is, essentially, "No."  They tested ordinary folks and "sensitives," exposing them to real and sham (i.e. non-existent) electromagnetic fields, and documented the symptoms participants had afterwards.  The results are damning:
(N)o strong evidence was found of any difference between the conditions in terms of symptom severity.  Nor did evidence of any differential effect of condition between the two groups exist.  The proportion of sensitive participants who believed a signal was present during GSM exposure (60%) was similar to the proportion who believed one was present during sham exposure (63%)... 
No evidence was found to indicate that people with self reported sensitivity to mobile phone signals are able to detect such signals or that they react to them with increased symptom severity.  As sham exposure was sufficient to trigger severe symptoms in some participants, psychological factors may have an important role in causing this condition.
Another study, led by Ulrich Frick of the Psychiatric University Hospital, Regensburg, Germany, found similar results:
The major study endpoint was the ability of the subjects to differentiate between real magnetic stimulation and a sham condition. There were no significant differences between groups in the thresholds, neither of detecting the real magnetic stimulus nor in motor response... Differences between groups were mostly due to false alarm reactions in the sham condition reported by subjectively electrosensitives (SES). We found no objective correlate of the self perception of being "electrosensitive."
Even more devastating to the claim is a study done by Lena Hillert et al. of the Environmental Illness Research Centre of Huddinge, Sweden, which found that there is a good treatment scheme for electromagnetic hypersensitivity syndrome... cognitive behavioral therapy:
Cognitive behavioural treatment, as part of a multidisciplinary treatment package for patients with electric sensitivity, was evaluated in a controlled trial. Ten patients who received treatment were compared to 12 controls. Outcome measures included different dimensions such as symptoms, beliefs, behaviour, and biochemical measurements of stress-related variables. All outcome measures were collected prior to the study, post-treatment, and after an additional 6-month follow-up. 
The therapy group rated their electric sensitivity as significantly lower than did the control group at the 6-month follow-up, and reduction of self-rated discomforts from triggering factors was significant in the therapy group. There were no systematic changes in the biochemical variables. The symptom indices were significantly reduced over time, and ability to work continued to be good in both groups. 
The prognosis for this syndrome is good with early intervention and cognitive therapy may further reduce the perceived hypersensitivity. This may have important implications on handling of patients with electric sensitivity.
In other words, the evidence is pretty clear that electromagnetic hypersensitivity syndrome is purely psychosomatic in origin, and best treated by mental health therapy.

And there certainly isn't any evidence that turning off the wifi will make a damn bit of difference.

It's to be hoped that the judge in this case, Timothy S. Hillman, will do his homework, and throw the lawsuit out.  Even more beneficial would be getting the child, and possibly the parents, some psychological counseling.

Because whatever is making this kid ill is clearly not the electromagnetic fields in the school, or anywhere else.  And if he is not suffering from some kind of psychosomatic illness, possibly engendered by the worries of the parents, then there is another organic cause for his symptoms, which should be looked into for his health's sake.

What's clear is that wasting time suing the school over an imagined risk isn't helping anyone, least of all the child.