Andy Coghlan could learn a lot from the late Stephen Jay Gould. For all his contributions to the fields of paleontology and evolutionary biology, Gould is perhaps best known as a prolific science writer. An ambassador of science to the general public, he wrote his many books and magazine articles with a lay audience in mind, yet never compromised the science behind the story for the sake of petty sensationalism.
In his 1984 essay, “Sex, Drugs, Disasters, and the Extinction of Dinosaurs,” Gould wrote, “My greatest unhappiness with most popular presentations of science concerns their failure to separate fascinating claims from the methods that scientists use to establish the facts of nature. . . .If the growing corps of popular science writers would focus on how scientists develop and defend those fascinating claims, they would make their greatest possible contribution to public understanding.”
Some of today’s science writing lives up to Gould’s exacting standards; much of it falls short. Andy Coghlan’s article, “Dying for Some Peace and Quiet,” from the August 25, 2007 issue of New Scientist, fails so dismally that it merits special attention.
“Thousands of people around the world may be dying prematurely or succumbing to disease through the effects of noise exposure,” Coghlan writes. Upon examination, however, far more troubling than the noise at issue is just how badly Coghlan presents his claims. From his article’s lurid opening paragraph to its moralizing conclusion, Coghlan has crafted a truly contemptible example of the type of dishonest, exploitative popular science writing that so grieved Gould.
The germ of Coghlan’s story was innocent enough. Over the course of several years, a working group of the World Health Organization (WHO) has studied the widespread problem of noise pollution and its potential impact on human health. Its findings suggest that there are, indeed, links. Most serious of these is evidence that long-term exposure to traffic noise may correlate with an increased risk of ischemic heart disease, a condition that can lead to heart attacks and strokes. The WHO study suggests that as many as 3 percent of deaths due to ischemic heart disease may be attributable to noise exposure.
Coghlan admits that the WHO’s findings are “preliminary,” but that doesn’t stop him from leaping to some remarkable statistical conclusions of his own. Had he consulted the American College of Cardiology, he would have learned that ischemic heart disease is “the single biggest cause of death in the United States,” and that its usual cause is cholesterol deposits in the arteries, not noise pollution. Instead, Coghlan chooses to take the WHO’s statistics as gospel, and from them he extrapolates that exposure to noise is the culprit in 210,000 European deaths each year. Hence his article’s provocative title; and yet, an astute reader will observe that this single data point is the only evidence Coghlan ever offers to support a link between noise pollution and fatalities. Gould would not be impressed.
Helpfully, Coghlan has organized a table listing the WHO’s findings and the “potential years of healthy life lost” they represent. Heart disease tops the list, cited as being responsible for 211,000 years of life lost. (Presumably each of the 210,000 victims mentioned earlier had just slightly more than a year left to live.) Even more significant, however, are the 278,000 years lost due to “24-hour background noise,” the result of which is a worryingly deadly condition that Coghlan terms “annoyance.” Confronted with these twin threats, the other, relatively minor dangers Coghlan cites – 9,800 years lost to “ringing in the ears,” for example – pale in comparison.
Dubious statistics like these plague Coghlan’s article. Gould wrote, “The proper criterion [for judging science] lies in evidence and methodology; we must probe behind the fascination of particular claims.” But Coghlan probes too far, inferring new claims that are unsupported by scientific data and distorting empirical calculations with errors of his own making. Whether he intentionally blurs the distinction between “years of life lost” and “years of healthy life lost” or not, the confusion allows intriguing but otherwise harmless data points to become the foundation of a scare story.
We know that tinnitus is often caused by noise exposure; the insinuation that thousands of Europeans may be dropping dead of it is entirely new, however, and Gould would be dismayed to note that Coghlan never offers any methodology to support this conclusion.
Can noise pollution really lead to illness or death? No one knows for sure. According to experts, “field studies have produced contradictory findings.” Concerns about a link between chronic noise exposure and cardiovascular disease appear valid, but in this case the burden of proof lies with Coghlan – a responsibility that he mostly shirks.
Lethal or not, the effects of noise on a few hundred thousand people among the hundreds of millions that populate Europe don’t seem to make for enough of a story in Coghlan’s estimation. He next sets out to prove that the problem of noise exposure is ever worsening, by citing still further statistics.
According to Coghlan, noise complaints to UK government offices have “increased fivefold” in the last 20 years. In surveys conducted by the UK’s National Society for Clean Air, 45 percent of respondents indicated that noise had a “major impact” on their lives, up from 35 percent the year previous. And in New York City, Coghlan tells us, noise complaints reached “a record 354,378” in 2006, prompting Mayor Michael Bloomberg to introduce “strict new laws to combat noise pollution.” This last case is no surprise, we are told; Coghlan quotes anti-noise lobbyist Richard Tur, who grimly asserts that “America has become a culture of noise.”
Be that as it may, it strains credibility to conclude that America has become a culture of disease and death. And indeed, none of Coghlan’s statistics on noise pollution trends do anything to support his central premise that noise pollution is responsible for illness and loss of life. Absent hard evidence linking noise to disease, the trend numbers are essentially meaningless. Nor do survey results, which represent only subjective opinions, yield genuine “testable proposals,” considered by Gould to be the most essential feature of good science.
Worst of all, the veracity of Coghlan’s figures is questionable: The New York Times agrees with Coghlan’s noise complaint figures for 2006, but dates Mayor Bloomberg’s noise abatement efforts as far back as 2004, when city offices were already receiving “roughly 1,000 calls about noise each day.” The suggestion that noise complaints in New York City have since climbed to unprecedented levels seems more a figment of Coghlan’s need to demonstrate a crisis than the result of empirical study.
Coghlan tries once more to establish that noise pollution is a growing concern, this time by widening the net. In a sidebar entitled “How noise causes illness,” he cites Val Wheedon, a “veteran campaigner against noise pollution,” whom he credits with the belief that “stress might be triggered simply by knowing a [noisy] neighbor is in, even if they are not being noisy at that point.” What are we to conclude from this speculation? The threat of noise exposure would be dire indeed if we broadened our definition of noise to include silence. As Gould wrote, “The speculation may well be true; still, if it provides, in principle, no material for affirmation or rejection, we can make nothing of it.”
There is one way that Coghlan could demonstrate a causal link between noise and death. He could show us the bodies; and in fact he purports to do so. “Dying for Some Peace and Quiet” opens with the tale of the death of Frank Parduski Senior, whom Coghlan describes as “arguably. . .the world’s first anti-noise martyr.”
According to Coghlan, Parduski died “while attempting to slow down a 19-year-old motorcyclist” who had been aggravating him with the noise of his engine. Parduski succumbed to noise exposure far more violently than do most victims of ischemic heart disease: He was hit by the motorcycle, “and died at the scene of multiple injuries.” What possible relevance this anecdote has to a discussion of the cumulative effects of chronic noise pollution on human health Coghlan leaves as an academic exercise for the reader.
“Dying for Some Peace and Quiet” could have been a worthwhile article. Coghlan could have followed Gould’s example and presented the science behind the WHO study in an accurate and objective light. Buried among its melodramatic paragraphs we even find the real motivation for the study. “The objective,” Coghlan writes, “is to develop a standard rationale by which individual countries can decide how much money to spend on noise reduction to improve health.” The European Union, he explains, has begun calling upon its member nations to produce “noise maps” that show “where traffic noise and volume are greatest.” Similarly, Mayor Bloomberg’s campaign to reduce noise in New York City is ongoing.
Articles that explain the methodology and process by which scientists determine the impact of background noise on human health could help to educate the voting public about the issue, enabling them to make informed contributions to civic policy. What’s more, properly collated and presented, the WHO’s data could potentially contribute to further research on heart disease, urban planning, or cultural anthropology. As Gould wrote, “The best scientific hypothesis are also generous and expansive: They suggest extensions and implications that enlighten related, and even far distant, subjects.”
Instead, Andy Coghlan chose the low road. Presented with thin, admittedly preliminary scientific results, he spun a story rife with histrionics but short on facts. He fails completely to establish the definitive link between noise pollution and death that he claims in his headline. As Gould wrote of Ronald Siegel’s theory that the extinction of the dinosaurs may have been due to overdoses of psychoactive chemicals, “It is simply a gratuitous, attention-grabbing guess.”
Given the choice between delivering a banal story that accurately reports scientific findings of relevance to public policy and a sensational but specious story of death and disease, Coghlan chose the latter, even going so far as to kick off his article with an obvious non sequitur. He should be ashamed of himself for producing such work, and New Scientist should be ashamed for publishing it.
“Science, in its most fundamental definition, is a fruitful mode of inquiry, not a list of enticing conclusions,” Gould wrote. It’s too bad that, in the end, poorly-derived conclusions were all that Coghlan had to offer.