Sunday, September 11, 2005

Imaginary Risks

We have been hearing about how the glut of warnings — some of which prove to be uncanny for their foresight, while others are empty blathering — as if that somehow excuses the fact that all layers of government shirked their responsibility to take action to prevent or reduce the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina.

We knew that the levees were not designed to withstand a Category 4 or 5 hurricane, and we even knew they would not withstand a slow-moving Category 3. We also knew that it was an absolute certainty that such a hurricane would eventually hit New Orleans. Yet the city of New Orleans, Orleans Parish, the State of Louisiana, and the federal government all brushed aside those inconvenient reports.

Meanwhile, the media's response has been to say, as in Michael Kinsley's fatuous self-serving op-ed piece in today's Washington Post [see below], we had so many warnings about all these various dangers, how were we supposed to know?

The answer is that the media needs to ask tough questions — as it is finally remembering how to do in the aftermath of Katrina — and make an honest effort to objectively evaluate the claims of various factions.

We have some people telling us that frequent use of a cellphone might cause BRAIN CANCER [warning: overuse of the BLINK tag in HTML may cause seizures], and that risk is presented on an equal footing with the counter-claim that there is absolutely no evidence of even a correlation (much less causation) between cellphone use and cancer.

Here are a few things I can tell you with absolute scientific certainty about cellphone use:

  • the radiation from a cellphone cannot cause cancer
  • the risk of any other harm from cellphone radiation is tiny
  • little foil stickers do nothing to reduce the risk
  • if you're really concerned, just get a hands-free kit — it will reduce the risk a million-fold
I can also tell you that evolution and "intelligent design" are not scientific equals worthy of the same level of respect. Global warming is not some insubstantial scientific fad of the moment.

I can tell you with absolute political certainty that critical thinking on the part of the people, and most especially on the part of the press, is essential to democracy. Not all risks are equal, so we need to appraise the risks in order to set sensible priorities.