Cell phones, Type II error, and motivated reasoning

Reading the latest in the cell phone controversy reminds me of a discussion we had in J614 this past semester about Type I vs. Type II Error. Professor Dhavan Shah likes to use the example of the American judicial system to distinguish between Type I and Type II Error – Type I error is letting a guilty defendant go free, whereas Type II error is convicting an innocent person of a crime. Basically, as social scientists, we would rather miss a clear correlation than make a claim that a correlation exists that isn’t there. To back up this argument, we talked a lot in class about the claims that autism is linked to vaccination. Although research has subsequently examined this claim and not found much of a link, many people are still worried about the risks of getting their children vaccinated against many childhood diseases.

The cell phone controversy reminds me of this debate. An article today in the BBC reports on advice from the chief medical officer from Wales suggesting that children should be texting, rather than talking on their cell phones. Although Dr. Jewell admits that so far there is little evidence linking cell phone use to medical problems, he is taking the stance “better safe than sorry.” This is an interesting approach – whereas it is hard to argue against being “safe,” especially where kids are concerned, with so little information it is worrisome that such a strong approach is being taken. And the controversy over cell phone use isn’t only in England – just last month, San Francisco passed a law requiring retailers to display the amount of radiation emitted by their cell phones.

To compound the problem, other experts have warned over the problems that excessive texting can produce. Last year, The New York Times reported that physicians and psychologists were concerned about the toll of texting – both psychologically and physically. In late 2008, teens were texting an average of 80 times per day – a number that’s probably gone up. According to these doctors, texting may be causing anxiety among teens, distracting them in class, and damaging teens’ thumbs – similar to computer usage. In light of these concerns, Dr. Jewell’s pamphlets and advice about texting over talking seems premature, and possibly damaging.

As a final concern, new research in Political Behavior suggests that corrections to misleading claims by politicians often backfire. Brendan Nyhan & Jason Reifler argue that the effect of such corrections vary by political ideology. Their research suggests that people are loath to relinquish their belief in ideologically-congruent facts, even in the face of direct contradiction (for Nyhan’s appearance on NPR, click here). This research is in line with other research into motivated reasoning and processing, but provides fresh new evidence that journalists need to be very careful in putting information out there, because even when it is “disproven,” it can be hard to change people’s minds.

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