Questioning conventional wisdom

The Times Bits Blog points us to research apparently tearing apart the generally accepted connection between cell-phone usage and auto accidents: Even as phone usage has increased, accidents have not.

Of course, it should always be the job of journalists to question conventional wisdom. But until now, no one has probed this one, so far as I know. Someone should have asked long ago whether this connection was known and how it was known and if it wasn’t someone should have noted that and looked into it. Instead, it got spread: another damned media meme.

Makes me think that newspapers should engage assumption-debunkers from the public and the academe. Now that The Times has the Freakonomics guys under their roof, perhaps they can organize a network of balloon poppers, also known as fact checkers.

  • As Mark Twain said (and think taken from another) “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

    Rarely are stats developed solely on scientific curiosity. Usually there is an agenda. And usually its in the best interst of the stat company to present data that supports their client’s agenda.

    They should ask the Ws. Who commissed the report. Why did they want to report. What did they hope to accomplish. When was it done? How was the data collected? What blinds and standards where used to make sure the data is “clean”. What data was removed and why? And so on.

    There are a lot of questions to ask that can either give greater strength to stats or rip them to shreds. Reports should automatically be doing the above yet more and more they just re-write a press release as their own, toss in a couple quotes and call it a day. Thats not reporting. Its really just cut and pasting.

  • A read of the release makes it pretty clear that while the data is fine, the conclusions are overplayed in the lede, if you’ll allow me to mix media for a moment.

    The researchers found no correlation between the increase in cell phone use “just after 9 p.m. on weekdays, the point when off-peak, ‘free minutes’ kick in on many cell phone plans”.

    And that sounds like just about it.

    I don’t know about you, but I’d be far more interested in data that looks at a time period of something more like, say, the afternoon rush hour. Which is what the lede leads us to believe is the case.

    A well-written press release, nonetheless.

  • chico haas

    Gun to my head, prefer a few fender-benders to allowing cell use on airplanes.

  • As far as I know, there the number of car accidents with drivers who made a call during the crash was rising until they put a fine on using cell phones without ear phones.

  • A postulation for the lazyweb to consider.

    Is the lack of massive surge in auto accidents down to the fact that these people are dangerous drivers who are more likely to have accidents anyway? Perhaps phone use is an increasing cause of the accidents that would be happening regardless because the people who do this stuff are those less likely to concentrate properly on driving?

  • I agree with Johnson. This is as anything in life: There are drivers who would have and accident if they used their cell-phones and drivers who wouldn’t. Always righteous pay for sinners.