Implications of talk without knowledge

October 8th, 2007 by k8gu Leave a reply »

Since I quit reading eHam due to the low SNR (signal-to-noise ratio), I’ve started reading news blog  Of course, whenever you enter a politically-charged environ such as Salon, you’re bound to encounter the same SNR problems as those elsewhere on the web.

In her piece Life Will Kill You, Katharine Mieszkowski writes

 A cellphone is a microwave, and basically the reason your ear gets hot is that you’re warming it with a microwave.

Wrong!  Your ear also gets hot because the phone is dissipating heat when it’s transmitting and because you’re trapping heat radiated by your body.  My ear gets hot when I’m talking on a landline phone, too.  Perhaps that should suggest something…

Do I believe that cell phone usage is 100% safe?  No.  But, I am concerned by the fact that people, especially in politics and the media, who have a tenuous grasp of science, are shaping policy opinions based on their junk science.

A project that my advisor and I are working on in South America got picked-up by the Weather Channel for a series about “extreme weather.”  He showed me the broadcast recording (video file) of the story.  The first thing I noticed when he played it was that the title at the bottom of the screen said, “Ionispheric Storms.”  What?  Yes, they spelled ionospheric wrong.  “Well, that’s just a typo, ” you say.  No, it is a failure of a system that is more interested in getting a story out than reporting something interesting or useful.

I’ve seen this sort of thing over and over on the War and Weapons Channel, the Discovery Channel, and others.  I really can’t stand to watch TV shows about things that I’ve worked on these days because many of them are simply inaccurate.  Why should I have reason to believe that the news or anything else is more accurate?

In a line of thinking I owe to statistician and information design expert Edward Tufte, real problems are messy and multivariate, rich and full of information and relationships.  The more we learn about science, we should endeavor to make what we have learned more real, not more dilute.  Everyone must know and learn more to do this.  But, we will be rewarded for it.