Friday, November 12, 2010

Is it the science or is it the message?

As you know, I have been thinking a lot about cognitive biases lately. Apropos this, I have had this nagging thought that even smart people (I flatter myself by including myself in this group) cannot escape this trap. What sent me down this rabbit hole is a tweet I saw in my stream from someone whom I respect very much, a science writer of the highest caliber with an international reputation. This person said:
I'm skeptical of her; hearing same from many others: Ntl Acad of Sci researcher: "Disconnect: Truth Abt Cell Phone Rads 
Now, there is really nothing fundamentally wrong with this statement -- we seek out the opinions of those we trust and align ourselves with them in the absence of evidence to the contrary; this is how friendships and other relationships tend to work. But what is striking to me is the disparity of effort to seek out real evidence when it comes to stuff we agree with vs. stuff that we do not like.

The link is to a radio interview with Devra Davis, whom I have mentioned on several occasions on this blog. I read her book on cancer with great interest, and the history that she told in a measured and well documented way sent shivers up and down my spine. Yes, there was in fact a conspiracy to suppress the science behind the link between smoking and cancer. She described the anatomy of this conspiracy in minute detail, well researched and referenced. The continued legacy of the tobacco strategy is our callousness toward the bulk of chemicals on the market and their health effects, our allegiance leaning more towards saving the economy than lives.

In her new book, which I have not yet read, Davis turns her quill to the cell phone and electronics industry. If this book is as well researched and footnoted and damning as the Cancer book, we should all pay attention. Of course, I can see how the message can become quite unpopular -- the devices that we all rely on, even are addicted to, the devices that make the world go round and add trillions of dollars to our beloved economy, are on trial! Radiation from cell phones, brain cell death and proliferation, especially in children -- not a comfortable line of logic to follow. Yet, if we are to be balanced and scientific about it, should we not examine the science that this author presents, rather than knee-jerk into the ad hominem?

Now, I am singling out this particular tweet unfairly -- the person who wrote it probably did not give much thought to the words. But this is an influential individual, and, as I already mentioned, we often join an opinion bandwagon for reasons other than rational thought or preponderance of evidence, so one influential individual may blind the less critical masses to the very opinion nature of this remark. This is a potential broken telephone game, which will end up in "oh, her, she is a crank, a pseudoscientist and not credible". In fact, the only questions of her credibility that I could find was in comments from listeners like this:
I'm really disappointed that Leonard didn't ask this woman any tough questions, and pretty much just let her rant using his show as her soapbox. I just looked up her CV, and this woman does not have one degree in science. Her background is in sociology and history. Where's the science?
Well, if one bothers really to look up her credentials, this is what we find:
Dr. Davis holds a B.S. in physiological psychology and a M.A. in sociology from the University of Pittsburgh, 1967. She completed a Ph.D. in science studies at the University of Chicago as a Danforth Foundation Graduate Fellow, 1972  and a M.P.H. in epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins University as a Senior National Cancer Institute Post-Doctoral Fellow, 1982.  She has also authored more than 190 publications in books and journals ranging from the Lancet and Journal of the American Medical Association to Scientific American and the New York Times and blogs in Freakonomics for the New York Times, Huffington Post and elsewhere.
And her honors and appointments span the entire page. So, in terms of pedigree, she is impeccable, she has authored more respectable peer-reviewed publications than many giants I know, and she has been on all the "right" commissions and boards.

So, why are we skeptical of her? I think we need to be very honest with ourselves here and really examine our objections. And I would go even further to say that we not only need to examine the science, but we need to be cognizant of whether we are examining this science with the same amount of ferocious scrutiny as we examine science that aligns with our preconceived notions of the world. For it is this magnitude of ferocity ("ferocity quotient"?) that will tell us whether we are biased or completely objective. Ultimately, the question each of us needs to answer for herself is this: Is it the science or is it the message?

Please, don't kill the messenger!


  1. It does seem to me that as with salt, the problem with a lot of stuff we use is that we have no self-control: we don't say to ourselves, perhaps we need to remember that there are flip sides to good things. You can drown in water, for instance, and in fact people with mental illness do get themselves in messes by drinking too much water. So we should address first of all our culture's inability to do things in a moderate fashion, to recognize that you can have too much of a good thing. Cell phones, here in Mexico, are lifelines. In the US, teenagers can't smell the roses for the time they spend texting.

  2. Hi, Esther, good to see you! I agree that "everything in moderation" may be a good motto. Another important point you make is that these issues are exquisitely sensitive to the geopolitical context.

    I am currently reading Davis's book "Disconnect", and will blog about my impressions of the science -- so far what I am seeing is the profound lack of research rather than suppression of information. But this lack of research betrays at least our contempt for the precautionary principle practiced much more faithfully in the EU.

  3. I can't quit bring myself to spend the money on the book yet. Have to get it via Kindle, but will be very interested in your comments (as I always am). I have to tell you I have this secret fear that my laptop is eating away at my innards as I often sit with it on my lap and belly with my feet up on my desk.