Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
New York Times' Failures in Risk Reporting Puts Public At Risk
Two recent examples from The New York Times, one from a columnist and one in an editorial, illustrate the danger of news media coverage of risk that is alarmist, incomplete, and inaccurate.
Two recent pieces in The New York Times illustrate a maddening truth about just how hard it is for the general public to make accurate assessments about risk. Not only are we challenged by a system of risk perception that relies on emotions and instincts and not a purely objective analysis of the facts, but also the facts we get from the news media, even from the supposedly most reliable and responsible sources of information, are often alarmist, and sometimes incomplete or just plain wrong. The pieces in The New York Times demonstrate the danger we all face when the news media we count on to help us figure out what’s dangerous and what’s not, betray their trust.
The first example is glaring, and has been harshly and deservedly criticized. A column last week in the Style section, "The Health Concerns in Wearable Tech" by technology columnist Nick Bilton was excessively alarmist about potential radiation exposure from wearable technology like smartwatches. With no hard evidence, Bilton likened the threat to the feared association between cellphones and cancer.
We have long suspected that cellphones, which give off low levels of radiation, could lead to brain tumors, cancer, disturbed blood rhythms, and other health problems if held too close to the body for extended periods.
Bilton cites a few studies that suggest a possible link, and dismisses the massive body of research that has essentially disproved such a connection;
There is, of course, antithetical research. But some of this was partly funded by cellphone companies or trade groups.
Not only is that wildly alarmist in tone, but it’s also incomplete and misleading journalism on the facts, bad enough to fail a freshman "Intro to Journalism" course. As Bilton’s editors admitted in an addendum to the piece, that they posted only after allowing it to run in the first place;
Neither epidemiological nor laboratory studies have found reliable evidence of such risks, and there is no widely accepted theory as to how they might arise. According to the World Health Organization, “To date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use.” The American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have all said there is no convincing evidence for a causal relationship. While researchers are continuing to study possible risks, the column should have included more of this background for balance.
Bilton’s piece evoked widespread scorn. But there has been no such criticism of another inaccurate, incomplete and alarmist piece of risk reporting in The New York Times, this one written by no less than the newspaper’s editorial board itself. In the editorial "Clean Air Act and Dirty Coal at the Supreme Court," The Times rightly castigates the selfish coal industry for putting its interests above the public’s health by attacking provisions of the Clean Air Act that would curtail emissions of toxic pollutants. But in the process, the editorial writers commit the same errors Bilton did. They say;
“One of the most toxic of these pollutants is mercury…” and “… The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that improved air-quality standards prevent the premature deaths of as many as 11,000 Americans each year from exposure to mercury and other toxic air pollutants.”
That is just plain wrong, lazy journalism no less shoddy than Bilton’s. Mercury is a neurotoxin, but it doesn’t kill (unless you swallow several thermometers full). The lethal toxins generated by coal burning include arsenic, nickel, chromium, and acidic gases. The EPA says the rules being attacked by the coal industry will prevent 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks from these toxins. But none of those reductions will be from cuts in mercury. Mercury is a risk, as the EPA’s website says, because it “can impair children’s ability to think and learn.”
Not only is it inaccurate to lump mercury in with other lethal toxins. It is alarmist a la Bilton to call mercury “one of the most toxic” of the pollutants being regulated. The study establishing the neurotoxicity of mercury on which our health regulations are based, Cognitive Deficit in 7-Year-Old Children with Prenatal Exposure to Methylmercury, found that among pregnant mothers who ate seafood with high levels of mercury, children they bore suffered cognitive deficits of one quarter of one IQ point and other similarly minor cognitive impairments, deficits so small that they couldn’t be clinically detected in any child, but could only be measured across the entire population being studied (in the Faroe Islands).
And in another lapse of Risk Reporting 101, The New York Times editorial fails to note what the EPA itself says, that mercury is essentially only a risk to pregnant mothers because of the potential neurotoxic damage to the developing fetus. Instead, the editorial reinforces the common alarm about the widespread danger of mercury to everyone, the effect of which is to perpetuate fear that scares a lot of not-at-risk people away from eating seafood and benefiting from nutrients that protect against heart disease, the leading cause of death in the developed world. (Studies have even found that it might better for pregnant moms to eat seafood that contains low doses of mercury rather than no seafood at all, because the fish contain fatty acids critical for the development of healthy brain cells. In two studies, children born to pregnant moms who ate seafood containing mercury had better overall cognitive health than those who ate mercury-free fish. (See Maternal Fish Consumption Benefits Children's Development, in the Lancet.)
The inaccuracy and alarmism about mercury in The NY Times editorial got none of the criticism Bilton did. But it represents the same thing, the tendency of the news media to report on risk in ways that are often alarmist, incomplete, and sometimes just plain wrong. Whether it’s an environmental issue or about crime or disease or technology or transportation or any other kind of potential danger, alarmist, incomplete, and inaccurate risk reporting has the potential of doing very real physical harm. This isn’t just about scolding journalists. Better risk reporting is critical for public and environmental health and safety.
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Philosophers have been asking the question for hundreds of years. Now neuroscientists are joining the quest to find out.
- The debate over whether or not humans have free will is centuries old and ongoing. While studies have confirmed that our brains perform many tasks without conscious effort, there remains the question of how much we control and when it matters.
- According to Dr. Uri Maoz, it comes down to what your definition of free will is and to learning more about how we make decisions versus when it is ok for our brain to subconsciously control our actions and movements.
- "If we understand the interplay between conscious and unconscious," says Maoz, "it might help us realize what we can control and what we can't."
Puerto Rico's iconic telescope facilitated important scientific discoveries while inspiring young scientists and the public imagination.
- The Arecibo Observatory's main telescope collapsed on Tuesday morning.
- Although officials had been planning to demolish the telescope, the accident marked an unceremonious end to a beloved astronomical tool.
- The Arecibo radio telescope has facilitated many discoveries in astronomy, including the mapping of near-Earth asteroids and the detection of exoplanets.
Bradley Rivera via twitter.com<p>In 1963, the concave dish was built into a natural sinkhole on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. The location was <a href="https://www.space.com/20984-arecibo-observatory.html" target="_blank">picked because it was near the equator,</a> providing scientists a clear view of planets passing overhead, and also of the ionosphere, which is the uniquely reactive layer of Earth's upper atmosphere where the northern lights form.</p><p>Since its construction, scientists have used the Arecibo telescope to map near-Earth asteroids, detect gravitational waves, study pulsars, detect exoplanets and <a href="https://www.seti.org/goodbye-arecibo" target="_blank">search for alien civilizations</a>, among other projects. Here's a brief look at some of the discoveries and accomplishments made using the Arecibo telescope:</p><ul><li>1964: Astronomer <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Pettengill" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gordon Pettengill</a> discovers that Mercury's rotation period is 59 days, significantly shorter than the previous prediction of 88 days.</li><li>1974: Physicists Russell Alan Hulse and Joseph Hooton Taylor Jr. discovers the first binary pulsar, for which they won a Nobel Prize in Physics.</li><li>1974: Scientists use the telescope to transmit the "Arecibo message" to <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Globular_Cluster_in_Hercules" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">globular star cluster M13</a>. The message, when translated into image form, contains basic information about humanity and human knowledge: the numbers one to 10, a map of our solar system, an illustration of a human being, and the atomic numbers of certain elements.</li><li>1989: Scientists use the telescope to image an asteroid for the first time.</li><li>1992: Astronomers Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail become the first to discover exoplanets.</li></ul>
The Google-owned company developed a system that can reliably predict the 3D shapes of proteins.