Logic, reason cut through emotional clutter

Editors note: “Speaking of Science” started its 98-week run in May of 2008. Since then, 22 volunteer contributors have written on math and science topics ranging from gyroscopes used in directional drilling to the viscosity of butterscotch malts. Many of these writers also are volunteers at the Math and Science Center. Writing a column is time- consuming, and they — who have given so much of their time already — respectfully have declined to continue. This is their last column.

By Vincent King

When I was young, there was a common phrase used to encourage us to stay in school: “To get a good job, get a good education.”

From my personal experience, I can attest to the truth in this advice. While I had a knack for the more technical school subjects, I was by no means a genius in high school or college. But just staying with it and putting in some effort has allowed me to have a career where I have enjoyed my work (well, most of it anyway).

We were in a Cold War and a space race when I started school. The innovations from that time to now have been astounding.

As I sit outside in my backyard writing this article on a laptop computer to submit electronically in a little while, I realize that this activity alone would only have been imagined as science fiction when I was a teenager.

And today’s innovations are even more complex and rapid in their development.

Consequently, the need to encourage education is more important than ever. Rational thinking also is vital to help us weed out the nonsense from the real in what we are told.

For example, this week’s news reported that the House of Representatives in Maine voted not to add warning labels to cell phones.

Is this a good or bad thing? The contention is that cell phones may be linked to brain cancer, but the scientific evidence is at question. The consensus of expert opinion seems to be that extensive research and statistical analysis have not demonstrated an association between the two.

To me, the more important issue is that the mechanism for damage resulting in cancer has not been identified. If you can’t describe an actual physical process for how the damage is caused, in other words how you get from point A (cell phone use) to point B (cancer causation), then the conclusion that cell phones are harmful is suspect.

This type of proof is missing in many claims about what is harmful for us — the step-by-step physical description of how the harm occurs. Instead what we see are claims of harm based on what is called “anecdotal evidence” — a story (hence the term “anecdotal”) about a particular instance where the harm is assumed to have happened, with the emphasis on the suffering of the harmed individual.

If you look closely at the news, you will find this to be a common approach: Product X is assumed or suspected to have caused harm, followed by interviews with the individuals who believe they have been injured, focusing on how terribly they have suffered.

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not suggesting that we should ignore human suffering or that we shouldn’t try to find and eliminate the causes. But the severity of the harm is not proof of the cause.

So when you see a claim that a product is “assumed” or “believed” to be associated with the harm, it should make you suspicious about whether there is evidence to back up the claim, and trigger you to investigate further.

These columns hopefully have helped readers to think more like scientists, or at least to understand how science works, when assimilating the barrage of new information we see every day. Critical, rational and logical thinking will help us to focus on what is true and what is not.

I would personally like to thank the many contributors to this column for sharing their knowledge and experiences. I would also like to thank the readers for their interest and feedback. If this column has helped in any way to spur the imagination and motivation of readers to continue promoting the innovation and progress that is integral to our future, then it has been successful.

Vincent King is a certified health physicist who has been involved in radiological sciences for more than 30 years. He is a volunteer at the Western Colorado Math and Science Center in Grand Junction.


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