It's so hard to think logically about safety. We figure that any time our health or the safety of our children is at stake, it's better safe than sorry. Our safety is too important for logic, damn it!
Unfortunately, this leads to a whole lot of well-publicized and expensive safety measures that are often worthless, or downright dangerous. Like...
After 9/11, we knew that stopping terrorism would take a bold, creative strategy, one flexible enough to adapt quickly to changes in tactics. How about this: let's find every person who's shown even the slightest criminal tendency and bar them from ever getting on a plane!
And America was saved forever.
Thus the no fly list was established. It is estimated to have around 1 million names but nobody knows for sure. Keeping the list secret is a matter of national security, so the only way to find out if you're on it is to be detained in the airport. Or in the air. For instance, in 2005 a 747 flight from Amsterdam to Mexico was turned back before it could reach its destination. The reason? Two of the plane's passengers were on the no fly list and the flight crossed over US airspace. Well, better safe than sorry, right?
But while those two anonymous passengers were terrifying enough to ban from flying over America, they weren't enough of a threat to be worth arresting. There's a reason security expert Bruce Schneier described the No-Fly list as "a list of people so dangerous they cannot be allowed to fly under any circumstance, yet so innocent we can't arrest them even under the Patriot Act."
Is it weird that we're more afraid of this man's beard than of terrorists?
And that wasn't an isolated incident. Seven international flights have been diverted, at a cost of roughly $6.25 million, and countless flights and passengers have been delayed. Homeland Security Affairs estimates the total cost of the list to our government at $100 million a year. But hey, fighting terror isn't cheap. At least no terrorists are getting on planes!
Well, unless you count those 11 terrorists in England with the sophisticated plot to blow up planes with liquid explosives. You know, the ones who are the reason you can't take a child-sized bottle of shampoo onto the plane any more. None of them managed to stumble onto the no fly list ... even though they'd been under surveillance for more than a year.
This article is dedicated to every person who has been strip-searched
by the TSA for trying to smuggle in the wrong-size bottle of contact lens solution.
It turns out it's even possible to beat the no fly list even if the authorities aren't terribly incompetent. All a potential terrorist would need to do is use a false name and get a fake ID. Security experts have also created boarding pass generators on the Internet to prove how worthless the whole system is. CBS was able to purchase tickets on three airlines and bypass security in five airports using a $150 fake license.
"$150? That's half our monthly weed budget!"
Not that most terror-inclined individuals would even need a fake ID. The no fly list is filled with tons of dead people and foreign politicians along with small children and Marine veterans but is surprisingly light on real terrorists. Christmas Day underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab bought a one-way flight from Lagos to Detroit by way of Amsterdam and paid in cash. Umar's own father called US officials several times in the months before the flight, warning them that his son had terrorist-y plans. Umar, who didn't get the plane to crash because the bomb in his pants wouldn't go off, never made it onto the no fly list.
But that's OK, since said underwear bomber has prompted governments around the world to install full-body scanners in their airports. You know, the ones that let the operator see your genitals. In late 2009 the TSA ordered $165 million worth of full body scanners, and countries like Canada have followed suit. But it's worth it, to stop terrorists like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab! Only, they wouldn't have stopped him. Let's quote Rafi Sela, former chief security officer for the Israel Airport Authority:
"I don't know why everybody is running to buy these expensive and useless machines. I can overcome the body scanners with enough explosives to bring down a Boeing 747,"
Presumably, Mr. Sela has now been added to the no fly list.
These scanners would also have done nothing to detect the failed 2006 liquid bomb plot or the 2005 London train bombing. They can't even detect objects stuffed inside the body. For a visual example, check out this video of a rotund German man besting a full-body scanner. The machine caught his pocket knife, cell phone and microphone...
...but it didn't notice the armload of chemical bomb components he was carrying.
Safety equipment on vehicles creates a kind of weird Catch-22. On one hand, you can show in the laboratory that anti-lock brakes do make cars stop faster. Bicycle helmets do protect a skull when it hits the pavement. But then you factor in the element of human behavior -- namely, the fact that most of us are insane -- and much of that goes out the window.
It starts with something called the Peltzman effect which Almighty Wikipedia defines as "the hypothesized tendency of people to react to a safety regulation by increasing other risky behavior, offsetting some or all of the benefit of the regulation."
"I'm wearing a bright vest and eye protection. What's the harm in dropping a few grams of mescaline?"
This fits in with what the Highway Loss Data Institute learned about anti-lock brakes. A 10 year study showed no reduction in the frequency or severity of crashes due to anti-lock brakes. A person in an ABS vehicle actually has a 45 percent greater chance of dying in a single-vehicle crash than someone without ABS. Science's explanation? Unskilled drivers driving more aggressively thanks to their false sense of security.
Likewise, there are multiple studies showing that bicycle helmets, in the long run, don't actually reduce the number of injuries. In 2006 a researcher in Bath, England posted up the results of a study showing that when bicyclists wear safety equipment like helmets, people in cars are more likely to hit them. A scientist/test subject found that motorists came an average of 3.35 inches closer to his bike when he rode protected. The sight of the safety gear turned off the common sense part of their brain.
Still, you'd think that in the long run, there'd have to be health benefits to head protection. After all, some countries, like Australia, have made helmets mandatory for all cyclists. A bunch of states in the U.S. have bike helmet laws, and the fight for helmet laws in other states rages on. Some people think it's weird that the government can tell you what kind of hat to wear during a certain activity, but at least bike fatalities have gone down. They have gone down, right?
Not according to science. Recent studies from Australia suggest that mandatory helmet laws have the opposite effect. Between 1982 and 1989 -- prior to the helmet laws -- the country saw its number of cyclists double (bicycles actually give pedestrians a decent chance of outrunning the crocodiles and flying jellyfish). You'd expect bike-related injuries and fatalities to have shot up during the same period.
Instead, they dropped -- deaths plummeted by 48 percent, while injuries fell 33 percent. This seems a little counter-intuitive until you account for human behavior. More people riding bikes leads to motorists who get used to sharing the road with them. But then, in 1992, they passed the laws making bike helmets mandatory. It was a disaster. 1995 and 1996 saw higher numbers of cyclist head injuries than any year prior to the law's passage.
How is that possible? Well, the fashion consequences of mandatory helmets caused the women of Australia to stop cycling. Apparently they valued the hair on their head more than the brain inside it. Since there weren't any girls to impress, the boys stopped cycling too.
Possibly because of the shorts.
Cyclists are rarer, motorists are less likely to be on the lookout for them, so there are more accidents. And -- to make it even worse -- you lose the health benefits you were getting from cycling. In total, Macquarie University found that Australia's helmet laws cause as much as half a billion dollars in health-related costs every year. It doesn't matter what kind of data you get from a helmeted crash test dummy; a real human just doesn't want to look like a dork.
Toe tags, on the other hand, are fucking stylin'.
Quack snake oil peddlers may have gotten away with some ridiculous things when our grandparents were in diapers, but people today are much more discerning. At least until someone in a lab coat says the word "cancer."
Good for 30 IQ points and eight years of college.
Don't get us wrong; last year 8,650 people in the United States died of melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer. Summertime PSAs and middle school health teachers lead us to believe that we could avoid the same grisly fate by slathering on enough high SPF sunscreen to make us look like we fell into the mayonnaise vat they keep behind every Burger King.
Well, while it's true that tanning is about as retarded as drinking radium, the idea that sunscreen will protect you from skin cancer is wishful thinking. A study released in May 2010 showed that 92 percent of sunscreen lotions on the market are completely ineffective.
Worse, one common sunscreen additive, retinyl palmitate, has been found by the FDA to speed up skin lesions and act as a photocarcinogenic. Oxybenzone, a chemical you'll find in Coppertone and a ton of other big-name sunblocks, has been linked to contact eczema and breast cancer. But hey, at least you'll be safe from melanoma!
And the dreaded specter of ass cancer.
Unless you aren't. If you listened in health class, you know to look for a sunscreen with an SPF above 30. Unfortunately, SPF only measures the sunscreen's ability to block UVB radiation, not UVA radiation. This is a problem because it's actually UVA radiation that causes skin cancer. This is where the confusion sets in over whether you're using sunscreen to prevent cancer, or sunburn. Most people are worried about the latter, even though all the warnings we hear are about the former.
Mr. Sun is just six kinds of Asshole, isn't he?
It gets worse. The FDA has yet to create any regulations for how sunscreens are allowed to indicate their UVA protection. As a result, tons of sunscreen manufacturers have started marketing their products as having "broadspectrum" protection. This would seem to indicate that the sunscreen protects you against both types of ray, but it is actually a completely meaningless marketing term.
Maybe we should apologize to the spray-on tan crowd after all.