The Jeff Wise Blog

MIND TRAPS: How Smart People Went so Wrong on Autism

The great irony of the internet is that while it opens each individual to a universe of information, it also unleashes a flood of misinformation. For every groundbreaking new scientific finding which gets disseminated, there’s a bogus diet theory, an unfounded medical scare, a viral hoax. When it comes to separating the wheat from the chaff, we’re largely on our own.

The perils of getting sucked into internet nonsense were vividly illustrated by erstwhile Playboy model Jenny McCarthy, whose long journey down a particularly tortuous rabbit hole of misinformation began with a Google search of the word “autism.” She told Oprah Winfrey how the process began after she diagnosed her young son as having the condition:

McCarthy: First thing I did-Google. I put in autism. And I started my research.
Winfrey: Thank God for Google.
McCarthy: I’m telling you.
Winfrey: Thank God for Google.
McCarthy: The University of Google is where I got my degree from…. And I put in autism and something came up that changed my life that led me on this road to recovery, which said autism-it was in the corner of the screen-is reversible and treatable. And I said, What?! That has to be an ad for a hocus pocus thing, because if autism is reversible and treatable, well, then it would be on Oprah.

The above dialogue is from the new book The Panic Virus, by Seth Mnookin, who goes on to describe the course of action that McCarthy took in response to her remarkable discovery: Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Policy

Today’s Fake Terror Threat: “FAA loses track of 119,000 aircraft”

How to take a really boring story about a bureaucratic procedural revision and turn it into a hot national news story? Spray on a coating of terrorism. While you’re at it, add a dash of drug-war hysteria.

Okay, to get the boring part out of the way: The Federal Aviation Administration has been wanting to update the way it registers airplanes for years. Ever since forever, plane owners only had to register their aircraft once, when they bought it, and they had to pay a nominal fee. Now the FAA wants owners to renew every couple years, like car owners do. Naturally plane owners are going to have to shell out more money. This is the way of the world.

This is not something very many people should care about, even pilots like me. The only ones who are going to get shellacked are people like Brian Boland, a balloon maker who lives in rural Vermont. He makes a lot of balloons for his own amusement; he’s got over a hundred of them, packed into bags in his loft. Every time he built a new one, he’d send the government a few bucks, and they’d issue him a registration certificate. Now, under the new rules, he’ll be on the hook for thousands of dollars just to register a bunch of balloons he hardly ever flies. He’s not a rich man; he’s going to have to cancel all those registrations. The days when he could pull out any balloon he wanted and take it for a ride are over.

A small loss in the grand scheme of things, perhaps, but what does humanity get in return, apart from increased government revenue? The latest spin is that the new registrations are going to protect us from the darkest forces on the planet.

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Policy

Security Guru Bruce Schneier: “I Predicted TSA Brouhaha”

I’ve got a post up today on the Popular Mechanics website with an interview I conducted yesterday with cryptology expert and security consultant Bruce Schneier, who since 9/11 has been one of the most pointed critics of the government’s anti-terrorism security programs. In his 2003 book Beyond Fear he coined the phrase “security theater” to refer to measures which are undertaken not because they will be effective at thwarting attacks, but because the agencies carrying them out need to appear to be doing something useful. I asked Schneier about the recent controversy involving the Transport Security Agency’s use of invasive scanners and full-body pat-downs. You can read the full interview here. Here’s the transcript: Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Policy

Fear Itself? Maybe We Need More

One of the most resonant quotes of the ongoing financial crisis was actually uttered 77 years ago, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt assured Americans during his first inaugural address, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

That sentiment remains the operational philosophy of the federal government. When bankers panicked last year and stopped lending money, the government stepped in to take its place. When markets looked ready to crumble, the government shored up confidence by guaranteeing trillions in private investments. As President Obama put it in his State of the Union speech last night, “We do not allow fear or division to break our spirit.”

But is fear really what we should be afraid of? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Policy

Flu: The Season of Fear has Passed

According to today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, the Centers for Disease Control has declared that the threat of a swine flu epidemic has passed. Despite widespread fears that the H1N1 strain of influenza virus would exact an epic toll, the flu came and went without ever achieving epidemic status.

Only 161 new infections were reported to CDC-monitored labs last week, compared to 11,470 at the epidemic’s mid-October peak. Only one state (Alabama) still reports “widespread activity.” Deaths and hospitalizations were 14 and 374, respectively, compared to 189 and 4,970 a week at the peak. To put that in perspective, the CDC estimates that an average of 257 Americans normally die of seasonal flu every day during the season, or about 36,000 a year.

The most remarkable aspect of the story, according to writer Michael Fumento, is that the spread of the swine fly this winter may have actually reduced overall deaths from influenza. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Policy, Threats

Gladwell’s Stickiness Problem

The aughts been a good decade for Malcolm Gladwell. The  reigning king of urban intellectuals has never not had a book among the New York Times’s top 10 bestsellers since his first book, Tipping Point, debuted in 2000. (Currently, he has four.) With so much success, of course, invariably come brickbats. The latest volley of slings and arrows has arrived from the direction of Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychology professor who, reviewing Gladwell’s book What the Dog Saw in the New York Times Book Review last month, declared that the author “unwittingly demonstrates the hazards of statistical reasoning and… occasionally blunders into spectacular failures.”

As someone who has just published a somewhat Gladwellian tome myself, I have a somewhat different perspective. The problem, I’ve discovered, isn’t just that Gladwell is wrong. It’s that his formulations are so darn sticky. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Policy, Research, , , , , , ,

Panic Over the Hudson

Hudson River midairOn August 8, 2009, a light airplane collided with a helicopter carrying tourists near the Statue of Liberty. Both aircraft crashed, and nine people were killed. The catastrophe was witnessed firsthand by hundreds, if not thousands, of onlookers, and it became a major news story, much like the earlier fatal crash of Cory Lidle, which I wrote about for Popular Mechanics. In both cases, public alarm and outrage led to calls for flight rules to be tightened. City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, who represents the Upper West Side, went so far as to demand that tourist helicopters be banned from Manhattan.

The FAA said they would study the problem — and two days ago, they finally began implementing the new rules for the flight-seeing route over the Hudson River. The biggest change? Now, pilots passing through the area have to stay between 1,000 and 1,300 feet, and local traffic (such as tourist helicopters) have to stay below 1,000 feet.

At first glance, it seems like the FAA has responded to the public’s concerns by implementing a substantive initiative. But has anything really changed? As someone who loves flying over the river, and hopes to continue doing so, I have to say that the answer is no. And that’s a good thing. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Aviation, Policy, safety, , , ,

Can Handwashing Save Us?

flu particlesThe nation is suffering from a shortage of swine flu vaccine, leaving millions at risk of infection from a potentially deadly pandemic. Fortunately, the experts agree that there’s a simple and effective precaution that we can all take to help keep us healthy: wash our hands. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from USA Today’s article “Stay safe from swine flu with 3 simple steps.

Studies prove that hand-washing dramatically reduces the spread of infection and is even a lifesaver. Even before the outbreak of swine flu, the World Health Organization reported that regular hand-washing — after using the toilet and before eating — could save more lives than any other medical intervention…

The Centers for Disease Control seconds the motion on its swine-flu advice page:

Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.

Here’s the medical-advice web site Suite 101:

Handwashing is the single most important measure to prevent the spread of infections, including swine flu.

And so on. There’s just one problem, however. There’s no scientific evidence that this advice has any scientific foundation. In fact, a recent Canadian study found that handwashing did nothing to prevent flu transmission. “Most transmissions of flu virus are through respiratory secretions — coughing and sneezing,” says my brother-in-law John Emy, who practices internal medicine here in New York. Essentially, clouds of fine particles laden with virus waft thru the air, get inhaled, and infect a new host. The hands have nothing to do with it.

Why, then do medical authorities continue to recommend handwashing as a preventative measure?

Well, one could argue that when it comes to swine flu, handwashing is at worst harmless. And it has indeed been demonstrated to help prevent transmission of other diseases, so it’s a worthwhile habit to get into. And in the short term it will at least give healthy worried folks something to do. As I write in Chapter 11 of Extreme Fear, taking constructive action in the face of danger helps to reduce fear. So if the public believes that washing their hands will help them survive the coming flu season, perhaps that’s a good thing in itself.

Let’s not get lulled into complacency, however. As the New Scientist points out in its excellent article on the topic, handwashing is just one of several ineffective measures that the general public believes can keep them safe. Getting plenty of rest, drinking lots of fluids, and eating organic foods are all things that will, in fact, do nothing to prevent swine flu transmission. They’re just comfort blankets, and the downside of comfort blankets is that they can demotivate you from taking constructive action. The reality is that only vaccination offers demonstrated protection the flu. As soon as you can, get that shot.

Filed under: Policy, Research, Threats, , , ,

Thinking About Fear & the Brain

If I find myself in a severe crisis, will I be able to keep it together? How can I control anxiety and panic? Is it possible to lead a life less bounded by fear? These are the sorts of questions that I'll be exploring in this blog, an offshoot of my book, Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, published on December 8, 2009 by Palgrave Macmillan.

Video Introduction

Also by Jeff Wise