Friday, October 10, 2003

Fear and Litigation

This story caught my attention this morning as I ate my granola. I'm not going to call these people names. They are afraid. They fear something they don't understand, or understand imperfectly, or understand through the lens of information that may or may not be true, but SOUNDS convincing.

Remember Radon Gas? A few years back, that was the big scary thing no one understood that would kill you. And Power Lines cause cancer, and don't forget the dangers of Fluoride. (I think the part about fluoride use making one more susceptible to mind control is interesting; only, if you were so subjected, would you be able to prove it enough to sue?) And I'm sure a little research would turn up hundreds of other dangers, real and perceived.

I can't judge if any of these are or are not real dangers. The idea is that they all represent new things, things that are supposed to improve our lives. Things on which we project fears.

There's a strong tendency for humans to place blame. It's part of the whole cause and effect way of looking at the universe, born from (or parent of) the scientific method. Of course, humans are also famous for attaching the wrong cause to whatever effect is witnessed, as evidenced in the theory of Spontaneous Generation. And even the venerable scientific method requires repeatability of the experiment's results before the hypothesis can be elevated to fact -- and facts will fall when new evidence arises to contradict them.

In any case, most people don't have the time, patience, knowledge or intelligence to carry out scientific research of their own. Most of us depend upon the research of others. The same lacks that prevent us from doing our own research also can prevent us researching the researchers, thus making many people subject to, at best, jumping to conclusions or taking theory as fact. At worst, we are fooled by frauds and charlatans bent on achieving ends of their own by selling books, programs or health gadgets. Otherwise intelligent people purchase odd little things like the Q-link -- which is fine with me, as I put down any positive effects from such a trinket to the power of the human mind.

Then we get around to the other side of this idea -- litigation to prevent those who don't fear what we fear from subjecting us to the objects of our fears by claiming 1) we know more than they know 2) we are trying to protect everyone 3) caution is always wise 4) if you don't, it's going to cost you money. It isn't surprising. After all, we've learned that even the most innocuous of daily items can harm you if you don't exercise diligence and caution handling them. Why shouldn't we sue to reduce that effort of attention and caution on our part? Hey world, stop exposing us to so many dangers, adding to our burden!

And it makes a kind of sense. I'm not sure it makes GOOD sense. Yes, I prefer not to be exposed to dangerous chemicals and bio-organisms in my food, water and air. I feel better when the objects in my environment have no invisible, unknown, or undetectable dangerous effects on me. And it worries me that sometimes I can be fooled by "scientific" claims unless I do some research myself into the issue.

But I guess that's my point. It is incumbent upon me to check out the "authorities", the "scientists", the mysterious theys who say things. And in order for me to make a balanced decision, I need to find opposing opinions and a variety of data (all of which is much easier these days). I also have to be careful about my own automatic response of "it's new, it's different, I don't know about it, it must be bad, I'm scared of it." It is a reality that the relative "badness" or "goodness" of a particular thing depends in great part upon how the object is used and to what end it is used (Fire is very good for warming a house, cooking food, and providing light, but it's very bad as a method of removing hair from sensitive skin).

So, I'm not sure if these parents suing over WI-Fe in their schools are simply Luddites with lawyers or perceptive, thoughtful people with a variety of research at hand who have tried every other method available to protect their children. I tend to lean toward the first, actually, because my own research and anecdotal evidence tends to indicate the dangers of radio signals (hammering us from all sides as they pour down from space and bellow from a million different devices) is, shall we say, somewhat overstated in this instance. Perhaps the school district could buy each of them a Q-link.

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