Cellphones a prime example of refusing to believe inconvenient science


On Thursday, MPR’s Midmorning had a program on the dangers of using cellphones while driving, and it’s a perfect illustration of how science gets denied when its implications are a challenge to our habits or values.

Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-60B (Minneapolis), was a guest and advocates restricting cellphone usage while driving, including conversing with hands-free devices. A caller raised an objection, that to her, it seemed talking on a hands-free device is no more dangerous than speaking to a passenger. Sounds reasonable. I used to think that too. I used to use a phone while driving as a matter of routine. Hornstein said there are about 20 studies that looked into the question and came up with the same conclusion: not so. Using a hands-free device is more dangerous than speaking to a passenger. Counter-intuitive maybe, defies common sense maybe, but there it is. Whatever the reason this is so, whether the lower sound quality increases the amount of our available concentration we need for the call, whether the passenger is a second set of eyes or knows when to shut up, all that matters in terms of safety and in terms of the point I’m making is that it is so.

So the next guest came on, Lance Ulanoff, Editor in Chief of Mashable and author of an article critical of cellphone bans while driving, and made exactly the same point about hands-free devices being just as safe as talking to a passenger. Presumably he hadn’t heard Hornstein’s response to the caller, so Hornstein repeated what he said about the studies all coming to the same result. What counter-argument did he get? He might have expected a response like a question about who did the studies, or the claim other studies have different results…

But no. Ulanoff made the same point as if it hadn’t come up. So did another caller. So did someone sending a text comment. When it came up the fourth time, the host, Tom Weber, didn’t mention that it had been answered, didn’t ask Hornstein to repeat the point abotu the studies that have been done, but merely said the latest commenter made the point about it not making sense that hands-free devices could be more dangerous than talking to a passenger, as if which side the commenter agreed with was the only interest. Did Weber let Hornstein explain again, or explain it himself? No, his next question was how Hornstein could think he could get anywhere when the Republican chairing the relevant committee was against it. He might as well have said, “You’re point is wrong because you can’t get it enacted into policy.”

What’s going on here?

We’ve seen this sad movie before: when we don’t like the implications if the science is true, then we don’t accept the conclusions of the science. If the science shows that using a cellphone while driving makes us more dangerous, even if we’re using a hands-free device and keeping our eyes on the road, the implication is cellphone use while driving has to be stopped. I don’t want to stop. Being able to converse while driving is convenient. I think I’m a safe driver. I think I can drive and talk without creating a hazard.

The science tells me I’m wrong.

Will I find an excuse to keep talking? Probably. I’m a human being. I have trouble sensing the danger. I’ve talked who knows how many hours without an incident. I’ll just finish the call I’m on or I’ll keep it short or it’s urgent or hey, science or no, it’s not illegal.

Was there no rebuttal at all offered to Hornstein’s point about he studies? I don’t like picking on Ulanoff since I know nothing about him and he doesn’t sound dumb or dishonest, but he said a couple times, after being told what he research says, he just couldn’t see how conversing hands-free is more dangerous than talking to a passenger. By that logic, if we don’t know how planes fly, then we can refuse to believe they fly.

There was a strong counter-argument offered, that some people need to use a phone as part of their jobs. That, however, doesn’t deny the science, just raises a legitimate issue to be considered. Likewise, there’s a legitimate objection to a ban in that states that have it haven’t seen safety improvements, but again, that doesn’t nay-say the science, but merely shows there’s something else going on, like probably a compliance and enforcement problem.

Cellphones are a bit of a derived issue though. The bigger problem is getting people to alter opinions and behavior when science comes to clear conclusions that violate people’s beliefs and habits, requiring changing behaviors and maybe deeply ingrained belief systems, like my car is my castle and what I do in there is strictly my own business. To accept that using phones makes a driver more distracted and less safe, you then have to accept that phone use creates a danger to other people, and the implication is your behavior and belief about your ability as a driver has to change. Want to accept you’re not as good a driver as you thought?

Apply the same thought process to issues that seem fraught with denial. If you accept that global warming is real, you have to accept regulation of polluting activities, even if you hate interference in the free market and make your living on fossil fuels. If you accept deregulation caused the financial crisis, you have to accept re-regulation, even if you hate regulation. If you accept evolution, then you have to accept that literal interpretations of sacred religious texts are wrong, even if you believe your text must be literally true as part of your faith. Is it any wonder intelligent people can fall into denial?

As someone who tries to be reality-based, please excuse me if I decline to take your call if I’m driving. Despite my admitted flaws, I’m going to try to do better.