Superstition and Compliance

Monday, September 10, 2012

In this day, rife as it is with sensationalism and precautionary rituals, it is nice to see the exercise of common sense in a major media outlet. Psychology professor Dan Simmons writes with Christopher Chabris about federal regulations on cell phone use during aircraft take-offs and landings:

Why has the regulation remained in force for so long despite the lack of solid evidence to support it? Human minds are notoriously overzealous "cause detectors." When two events occur close in time, and one plausibly might have caused the other, we tend to assume it did. There is no reason to doubt the anecdotes told by airline personnel about glitches that have occurred on flights when they also have discovered someone illicitly using a device.

But when thinking about these anecdotes, we don't consider that glitches also occur in the absence of illicit gadget use. More important, we don't consider how often gadgets have been in use when flights have been completed without a hitch. Our survey strongly suggests that there are multiple gadget violators on almost every flight.
This survey isn't the first time someone has wondered about all those missing airline crashes. From an old ZDNet article (via Wikipedia ):
A 1996 study commissioned by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration looked at thousands of flight records and failed to find a single instance in which equipment was affected by a wireless phone. The study was conducted by RTCA, a nonprofit organisation that sets industry standards for aeroplane electronics.

Plane makers Boeing and Airbus Industrie have bombarded their aircraft with cell-phone frequencies and discovered no interference with communication, navigation or other systems. One likely reason that no problems were found: cellular phones don't operate on any of the frequencies used by aeroplane systems. ...
And yet:
The FAA has never outlawed cell-phone use in aeroplanes. But the agency supports the FCC ban "for reasons of potential interference," according to an FAA advisory. Despite the findings of the 1996 RTCA study, the FAA remains concerned about anecdotal evidence of cell-phone interference in flight records, says an FAA spokeswoman.
I applaud the Wall Street Journal for asking why airplanes aren't falling out of the sky every day, but wish it had gone one step further when asking why the regulation is still in force. Government bureaucracy breeds risk aversion. Is it easier for a bureaucrat to dig through the data and conjectures about radio interference from personal electronic devices and stretch his neck a little to make a rational decision -- or to just keep on forcing everyone to turn off their devices? If this decision rested where it should -- with the airlines -- there would be a strong incentive to land on the correct side of this question: a deserved reputation for safety were cell phones actually dangerous vs. a deserved reputation for convenience were they not.

It apparently has been known for years that cell phones don't cause problems in flight. Maybe it's time to question the propriety and wisdom of putting the government in charge of risk assessment.

-- CAV


lukem said...

I always thought it was just for show, because if it really mattered that a cellphone was turned on, it wouldn't be enough to just tell everyone to turn them off and not actually search for and confiscate them like you would explosive devices.

"This device might wreck the plane so, please, everybody, turn them off. Ok thanks."

Gus Van Horn said...

Good point.

I've also heard it ventured that it was a sleazy way for airlines to get people to pay for their mobile and wireless services while aloft. Given how short-range many businessmen are these days, I could see it in some cases.

Anonymous said...

Take a look at the following article on the web to see WHY cellphones and other RF emitting gadgets should remain banned.