Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Intelligence tests for legislators

As in, why don't we have them?

Great state of Maine nerved itself up last summer to pass a distracted driving law. Bravo, save that it doesn't bother to define distracted driving. After all, in a state where several thousand telephone users must still twirl a crank to reach an operator, and in which the usual sorry proportion of auto accidents involve someone trying to drive and text the Congressional Record to a friend, we wouldn't want to make a declarative statement, would we?

Texting whilst driving is an excellent example of a valid cause and effect relationship. If you are distracted to the extent required by typing messages on a tiny keyboard, and you do it a lot, you are statistically more likely to have at least a grave near miss, at least. Actuaries, not conspirators, figured that out. Here, the logical fallacy is to assume that because you aren't dead yet, you're OK doing it.

Instead of suggesting that the Maine legislature go the rest of the way and pinpoint texting as the single most dangerous act you can do whilst driving (aside from swilling that open bottle of Jim Beam), state representative Andrea Boland of Sanford has gone off on another tangent. She is proposing a law requiring warning stickers on cell phones,* presenting the hypothetical risk of brain cancer from cell phone use as a known or at least plausible hazard.

Now, a couple of points. First, hypothetical is the kindest term I could devise for the purported hazard. It is, rather, an example of the cum hoc, ergo propter hoc thinking that too often passes for reason in the early 21st century. I browsed up the subject in my favourite rational resource for such topics (The Skeptic's Dictionary) and came away with this apt quotation:

Unless one is willing to discard the concept of photons, Planck's law, and the interaction between photons and atoms—and thus the entire body of quantum physics—it is simply not possible for the photons associated with either a power line or a cell phone to cause cancer.

The second point, for those not acquainted with Maine and its politics, is that Sanford is in York County. Politically, York County is to Maine as Cambridge, MA is to the rest of New England. In other parts of Maine, people are vulnerable to the logical disorders of the right. York County has the opposite affliction.

If one is of a certain age, one can remember a similar brouhaha about the risks of wearing wristwatches with radium illuminated dials. In that case cum hoc was the discovery that the people who painted the dials (yes, humans once did this work) were found to have coated their lips and teeth liberally and repeatedly with the radium compound whilst painting the dials and watch hands, and were suffering cancer rates far above the norm. Ergo propter hoc was the conclusion that if one wore such a watch, one ran the same risk, even if one did not open the bezel and lick the dial ten times a day.

The immediate solution to the problem of high cancer rates amongst dial painters was to get them to stop licking the damn stuff. The fallacy that radium watch dials could cause cancer has persisted long after many people have ever seen a radium watch dial, especially one painted by an unprotected human. The connection between cell phone radiation and brain cancer is infinitely more remote. So remote that it is difficult to point to a single hoc on which to base the fallacy.

So Rep. Boland will get to file her bill, without doubt. The legislature will tie time and taxpayer money to a logical fallacy. Supporters of the measure, lacking evidence, will fall back on shouts about conspiracy theories, or on misguided findings based on the Texas sharpshooter fallacy, to prevent anyone from laughing the bill out of committee. No one on the committee will be sufficiently educated or have enough gumption to lead the laughing. It might even pass.

Next, presumably, someone who is texting whilst driving will be doubly distracted trying to read the fine print on the warning label and cause a fatal crash. Perhaps then the legislature will get around to defining driver distraction. They could include reading a warning label about a nonexistent hazard along with texting.

* At the moment I read this story in the Bangor (ME) Daily News, 73% of those responding to its poll said they would not be dissuaded from cell phone use by such a warning sticker. Possibly Maine voters are smarter than Maine legislators. If so, why?

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