Cell phones STILL not causing crashes

Of course, we all know that cell phones used when driving are causing crashes to skyrocket, right? It’s such an epidemic that many states have started to make cell phone use behind the wheel a traffic offense, so it must be a problem, right? I mean, our government wouldn’t go creating problems that don’t exist just to pass more legislation, would they?

Initially, all indications were that the use of cell phones while driving had no real effect on accidents, injuries, or fatalities. In fact, it was shown that other more mundane activities such as changing the radio station were more dangerous. Well, now, finally, at long last, we have a comprehensive study of cell phone use and crash data (PDF) that, once and for all, shows…that there still isn’t any increased danger.

We investigate the causal link between cellular usage and crash rates by exploiting a natural experiment induced by a popular feature of cell phone plans in recent years—the discontinuity in marginal pricing at 9 pm on weekdays when plans transition from “peak” to “off-peak” pricing. We first document a jump in call volume of about 20-30% at “peak” to “off-peak” switching times for two large samples of callers from 2000-2001 and 2005. Using a double difference estimator which uses the era prior to price switching as a control (as well as weekends as a second control), we find no evidence for a rise in crashes after 9 pm on weekdays from 2002-2005. The 95% CI of the estimates rules out any increase in all crashes larger than .9% and any increase larger than 2.4% for fatal crashes…We confirm our results with three additional empirical approaches—we compare trends in cell phone ownership and crashes across areas of contiguous economic activity over time, investigate whether differences in urban versus rural crash rates mirror identified gaps in urban-rural cellular ownership, and finally estimate the impact of legislation banning driver cell phone use on crash rates. None of the additional analyses produces evidence for a positive link between cellular use and vehicle crashes.

In fact, they found that the crash rates fell over this period, by quite a lot. They also found that legislative bans on cell phone use reduced neither crashes nor fatalities.

But don’t go just casually blabbing because of this:

It should be noted, however, that our result is not inconsistent with the claim that cell phones are a source of attentional distraction. One possible explanation is that drivers compensate for the dangers of cell phone use by driving more carefully.

This a corollary to the Peltzman Effect, which deals with the effects of safety measures such as road signs and speed limits that I’ve blogged about in the past. Also, they found that, in general, people who talk on cell phones while driving are substituting the cell phone use for other distractions, and might even improve one’s driving by alleviating boredom.

As usual, don’t just go blindly accepting what politicians and pundits tell you. They’re more interested in taking your money and your liberty than they are in your safety.

Iraq and the Sunk Cost Fallacy

USA Today has an article on the Iraq War, relating to the Sunk Cost Fallacy. This fallacy, often described as “throwing good money after bad,” is usually described as when an investor keeps investing in an unprofitable venture, merely because he has put so much money into it already. He figures if he doesn’t keep investing then all the money he has put in was wasted, but by staying in all he does is waste more money. The phrase “sunk cost” refers to the fact that the money is gone, and there’s no way to retrieve it, and therefore the decision to invest further should be made on the basis of future costs alone.

The article does a good job of explaining the trap this fallacy leads to, as it is with the Iraq war:

Here’s the problem: As our involvement continues, X gets bigger and
bigger, making withdrawal increasingly costly, pressing on easier to
justify, and the decision itself less sensitive to the potential and
rewards of victory. Incorporating sunk costs into our war
decision-making does wrong to those called upon to make future
sacrifices as we strive to make lost lives count.

Why do our leaders consider X in their decision-making over the war?

Probably because we feel a strong emotional response toward X,
unlike, say, the merely financial sunk costs incurred by firms. It is
hard to bear the idea that the sacrifice of these American lives would
be devoid of existential meaning. Moreover, the more we have invested
in the war, the worse we look by withdrawing.

In the rhetoric of the difficult decisions over whether to extend
our involvement in the war, including X as a cost of withdrawing
inappropriately inflates the cost of a withdrawal. Just as it is harder
to quit Silver Falls after wasting $10 worth of quarters, it is harder
to quit a war after incurring 3,600 dead and tens of thousands wounded, and spending the better part of a trillion dollars in a failed effort.

Although it may seem callous, we need to forget about X in our
decision-making about the war. The correct way to think about whether
or not to proceed is to weigh the costs and benefits from pressing on
from this point forward. What value do we place on victory? What are
the chances that we will prevail if we do press on? And what will be
the costs of pressing on in terms of lives and resources? Our country
may be divided on this issue, but we owe it to those who may yet be
called to make the ultimate sacrifice to properly count our costs.

Wise words, but good luck getting Bush & Co., or even most of the current crop of Presidential candidates (Ron Paul excepted), to understand it.

Oh, give me a break!

So now there’s an article in The New York Times about Facebook.com being the new haven for “sexual predators” (there’s a weasel word if ever there was one!). From the article:

Facebook, the online social network, has stolen some of MySpace’s
momentum with users and the news media. Now, it is being subjected to
the same accusations that it does not do enough to keep sexual
predators off its site.

Richard Blumenthal,
Connecticut’s attorney general, said that investigators in his state
were looking into “three or more” cases of convicted sex offenders who
had registered on Facebook and had “also found inappropriate images and
content” on the service. The inquiry continues, he said, and state
officials have contacted Facebook and asked it to remove the profiles.

is no question that Facebook is encountering some of the same problems
that MySpace has posed,” Mr. Blumenthal said. “They should be held
accountable, and we intend to do so.”

Folks, these dangerous criminals hang around churches, schools, parks, lots of places. We don’t hold those places accountable for the actions of others; why is cyberspace any different? No, this is just more excuse-mongering to fan the flames of fear in order to regulate the internet. Facebook does everything possible to make sure adults just can’t automatically talk to youngsters. But what is the source of this fear? Read it for yourself (emphases mine):

But in some cases, Facebook’s younger users are vulnerable to sexual
solicitations from older users, as was demonstrated last week to The New York Times
by an anonymous person who described himself or herself in an e-mail
message as “a concerned parent.” The evidence of this person’s
activities on Facebook may give state investigators further cause for

In early July, this person opened a fake account on the
site, posing as a 15-year-old girl
named Jerri Gelson from North
Carolina. The photograph on the fake profile page is of an under-age
girl whose hair conceals her face. On the profile page, Ms. Gelson —
whom the “concerned parent” said was not a real person — is described
as looking for “random play” and “whatever I can get.”

person then signed up for three dozen sexually themed groups–forums
of users organized around a particular topic.

Yes, that’s right. This person didn’t make the fake account and then passively start getting sexual advances–he went looking for it! It’s the same thing that TheRegister.com and others have found whenever they’ve tried the same thing. They get nothing, until they go to sexually-explicit groups or chat rooms. And then they get sexual advances! Gee, who’da thought?

No one’s blaming the victims here, but geez, is it really that hard for parents to monitor their childrens’ internet activities and teach them to avoid the dangerous places, just like they have to do in the real world?

Nooooo, that would mean they would actually have to be responsible. Far better to let the government run a scare of everyone, be lazy enough to want the government to do their jobs for them, and have them coming in on a white horse to save us from these evil internet predators. Bye-bye, the one and only bastion of free speech left to us by the power-hungry fear mongers. Hey, after all, it’s for the good of the children.

Well, everything but their (and everyone else’s) liberty, that is.

Another amazingly accurate horoscope!

Today, I happened to glance at the top of the horoscopes in the Charlotte Observer and I read this:

…[Y]ou’ll encounter confusion. You’ll also become acquainted with delusion and misunderstanding.

Of course, if they’re reading their horoscope for anything but yuks, they already are acquainted with delusion and misunderstanding–for that’s all astrology is!

Sylvia Browne–Going down?

Awhile back, I posted a blog entry showing why Syliva Browne is no psychic, with an audio file of one call from her appearance on Larry King Live on 7 December 03. Here, she tries to convince a caller that her mother has died when she is clearly alive. It’s embarrassing for Sylvia, and really funny.

It’s also funny how she keeps evading James Randi‘s Million Dollar Challenge. It’s been over five years since she agreed to the test and agreed to the protocol it would use. And ever since then she’s used every excuse in the book–and maybe written one or two new ones–to avoid it.

You can see all of that, and also all of what I talk about below, on Randi’s special Sylvia Browne page.

All of that’s funny, but other “predictions” of Sylvia’s are downright serious and even sad. The attention of the media has been drawn to the case where Shawn Hornbeck has been finally returned to his parents after being abducted for more than four years. Most of the attention has been drawn towards Sylvia Browne. That must be because her psychic powers helped police find the abductor and return Shawn home, as she claims to have done with “tens of thousands” of people, right?

Uh, no. The attention is on Sylvia because she was wrong, wrong, wrong. She got the most fundamental fact wrong: She said that Shawn was dead, causing the parents much grief. Many might have given up the search after that. She may have even led the police the wrong way with her wrong guesses, saying that the perpetrator was dark-skinned (he wasn’t) with long hair and dreadlocks (he had short hair). She told them Shawn’s (dead) body was between two boulders, when he was very much alive in the abductor’s apartment, no boulders in sight. But at least here there’s a happy ending, no thanks to Sylvia.

You can see all of that at Randi’s Sylvia page, as well as a link to Sylvia videos on YouTube, a couple of which I’ll talk about below.

Continue reading

When will people learn?

So I’m watching one of those Lifetime movies with my wife and a commercial comes on for this woman, Lisa Williams, doing the whole Talking-to-the-Dead scam (no, no link–I just can’t bring myself to bring a scam artist’s site up in the Google ranks). After the Sci-Fi Channel finally stopped showing that hack con man John Edward, and it seemed like the whole cold reading phenomenon was at least going out of vogue, now up pops another head in this game of psychic Whack-A-Mole.

Billed as a "reality" series, it looks more like watching one of David Blaine’s lame specials as the cameras follow her around from one mark to the next. At one point in the commercial, she asks one man who David is, and his jaw drops. Of course, you know he’s going to end up saying, "Oh, she knew my father/uncle/whoever’s name was David!" No, she didn’t–she asked you who David was! (Does anyone really think they’re going to show the times where she gave out names that were wrong? Can anyone say "confirmation bias"?)

Unfortunately, Lifetime’s audience seems to be much less intelligent and sophisticated than that of the Sci-Fi Channel, and John Edward ran for years. Time to call in Penn & Teller, James Randi, Michael Shermer, the Center for Inquiry, etc. One more target on the range.

Ah, well. The skeptic’s work is never done…

Traffic lights make roads LESS safe

First, there was the data that showed that getting rid of speed limits made drivers safer and reduced fatalities. Then there was the finding that road signs make us less safe by lulling us into a false sense of security. Now, it appears that traffic lights unnecessarily slow down traffic and make us less safe as well, according to an article in The Telegraph:

Most traffic lights should be torn up as they make roads less safe, one of Europe’s leading road engineers said yesterday.

Hans Monderman, a traffic planner involved in a Brussels-backed project known as Shared Space, said that taking lights away helped motorists, cyclists and pedestrians to co-exist more happily and safely.

In this experiment, almost all of the traffic lights were eliminated from a Dutch town. There used to be a traffic fatality every three years; now, there are none.

There have been a few small collisions, but these are almost to be encouraged, Mr Monderman explained. “We want small accidents, in order to prevent serious ones in which people get hurt,” he said yesterday.

“It works well because it is dangerous, which is exactly what we want. But it shifts the emphasis away from the Government taking the risk, to the driver being responsible for his or her own risk.

“We only want traffic lights where they are useful and I haven’t found anywhere where they are useful yet.”

And it’s an advantage for both drivers and pedestrians:

Thus far, Drachten’s drivers and pedestrians have voted the experiment a success.

“I am used to it now,” said Helena Spaanstra, 24. “You drive more slowly and carefully, but somehow you seem to get around town quicker.”

Tony Ooostward, 70, was equally enthusiastic. “Everybody is learning. I am a walker and now you are the boss at the crossroads, everyone waits for you. But at the same time pedestrians wait until there are a number wanting to cross at the same time.”

Kanaan Jamal, 39, like many people in Drachten, uses a bike to get around. “It is very smooth — a lot better than other towns,” he said. The consensus is that the creation of uncertainty by taking away the lights and even in some places the road markings has worked.

You can read the entire article here.

Why scientists get angry with ID proponents

The latest phase in the creationism debate centers around "ID," or "Intelligent Design." Basically, some Creationists have figured that if you change the word "creator" to "designer," you can get around all of those pesky limitations on teaching religion in science class. A lot of real scientists in the field get angry with ID proponents when they start making their arguments. A recent article in Creation Watch by Jason Rosenhouse explains why:

[I]f the evolution/ID dispute were simply a discussion of rival scientific claims, say about whether known evolutionary mechanisms are capable of explaining the formation of complex systems, then the discussion would be far less acrimonious. In reality, however, ID proponents spend most of their time leveling bogus charges against evolution. Professionals in the relevant fields possess the expertise to see immediately that the charges are scientifically untrue, but the lay audiences to which these charges are directed are unlikely to be similarly equipped. The result is that ID proponents present a picture of modern biology that is completely unsupported scientifically and disingenuous. And this is what causes ID proponents to be so reviled by scientists.

He goes on to give examples, such as that of ID proponent William Dembski misquoting real scientist Peter Ward:

Dembski tried to imply that the non-creationist Peter Ward nonetheless agrees with Dembski’s view that the Cambrian explosion is a problem for evolution. In reality, Ward’s clearly stated view is that while the Cambrian explosion used to be viewed as a problem for evolution, recent fossil discoveries actually show that it is a vindication for Darwin. Hurd and Mullenix pointed this out, showing in great detail that Dembski had not only distorted Ward, but had done likewise to Gould. They also showed that Dembski’s version of the facts was simply wrong. Dembski ignored what Hurd and Mullinex had said and repeated his earlier error about Ward’s intentions.

Of course, if the ID proponents were really about doing science, they would be presenting their findings to the scientific experts. Rosenhouse explains why they don’t do that:

This [is] why ID proponents rarely make any attempt to present their case to professionals. In front of such an audience their distortions would be immediately obvious. They are on far safer ground in lobbying school boards and state legislatures. When making your case in front of audiences that do not know the facts of the situation, it is easier to lie with impunity.

You can read the entire article here.

A fake doctor comes to town

This weekend, a man by the name of "Dr." Kent Hovind will be speaking at Westport Baptist Church. He’s a Creationist–but he’s really a dishonest politico posing as a Christian man in order to manipulate people of faith into furthering his own agenda. I put "Dr." in quotes because his degree is a fraud; he obtained it from a diploma mill.

For years he has had a $250,000 challenge for anyone coming forward providing evidence that evolution is a scientific fact. However, he stacks the deck by defining evolution in a way that no scientist would agree is accurate. He persists in this even after having been corrected by many reputable scientists. That isn’t a difference of opinion, folks, and that isn’t part of rational debate. That’s lying.

As is his insistence on giving out false information, long ago refuted, about carbon dating, horse evolution, whale evoltion, DNA, and how the human body works. Again, many reputable scientists have corrected him on his misinformation, and still he continues to spread this dishonesty.

This man is a humbug who is thought to be an embarassment even by many ofhis fellow Creationists. He spreads lies about what the theory of evolution says, he deliberately misleads people as to what the scientific data is, and all the while rakes in the dough from people who don’t have the benefit of a proper educational grounding in science.

People like Hovind make me sick. While we’re trying to progress into the 21st Century, they’re trying to pull us back to the 16th. If you want to know more about why Hovind is dishonest and shouldn’t be taken seriously, you can go to this internet FAQ.