Saturday, June 12, 2010

Study This

If there's one place where there is no recession, it's in the area of "studies". Not in funding individual research projects per se. Rather, it's in the sheer number of scientific surveys where we have not a balanced budget, but a huge surplus. Curious if a baby's name tells you anything about the educational level of parents? There's a study for that. What about assessing the economic value of sea turtles on the world economy? Yep, one there as well. Want to confirm that chocolate helps with depression? Well, you already know the answer to that one, but there is indeed an empirical review that confirms that a Hershey bar makes you feel better. Feel less guilty now?

There are even some areas where there are so many studies it's hard to imagine there's room for one more. Popular topics such as teenagers and sex are equally crowded, packed with hundreds of angles and variations. Recently oil spills got added to that list. And while I haven't seen it yet, no doubt there's one in the works on teenagers AND sex AND oil spills... together.

Anything you eat, touch or interact with is a prime candidate to be sampled, measured and analyzed. And the newer and more prevalent an item is, the more likely it is to attract money and scientists to examine it. And nothing fits that bill quite like your cell phone.

In the 26 years since they were offered to the public, cells have gone from heavy bricks which cost a fortune to light wisps of plastic given away for free with a service contract. Along the way they have created a number of cottage industries, from cheap leatherette cases, to aps which sell in the millions, and yes, to study after study about their effect on health, productivity and lifestyle (and shortly, teenagers and sex and oil spills and cell phones).

Many of the studies have centered on what is arguably the hot button issue: the health aspect of holding a small device emitting radio waves up to your head for long period of times. Counter-intuitively, there doesn't seem to much in the way of correlation in that area. At least that's the finding of a recently published study in the International Journal of Epidemiology. Overall, it found that cell phone users have no increased risk of two of the most common forms of brain cancer. So while your head may hurt from using the thing, it's less likely the emissions and more likely the constant refrain of "can you hear me now?"

That's not to say that cell phones don't present other dangers. The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute released a study showing that the risk of texting while driving far exceeds the hazards associated with other driving distractions. A University of Alabama at Birmingham study shows that children who talk on cell phones while crossing streets are at a higher risk for injuries or death in a pedestrian accident. And leaving no corner un-mined, the Cleveland Clinic reports that phones left on talk mode in the pockets of males can hurt the quality of sperm.

There's even a new study that confirms what we already know: listening to others on cell phones can really piss you off. According to research done by Cornell University, overhearing people chatting on their phones is annoying because you only hear half a conversation. Hearing this "halfalogue" is more distracting than listening to both sides of a conversation because it forces us to predict the flow of words, and make up what we're not hearing. Then we have to adjust that conclusion based on whatever is said next, which leads to stress and anger.

In fact, it turns out that it is not only annoying, but can actually compromise our ability to function. According to the researchers, "Our findings demonstrate that simply overhearing a cell phone conversation is sufficient to reduce performance... [suggesting] that a driver's attention can be impaired by a passenger's cell phone conversation."

So now, backed by hard science, you have ample grounds to tell those loud talkers to cease and desist. Sure, you can tell them that are they being obnoxious by talking so loud, but also point out that they are causing lost productivity hours and safety concerns by distracting all within earshot. And then, for good measure, tell them again that they are obnoxious.


Marc Wollin of Bedford tries to always step away when he has to take a call on his cell. Hs column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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