Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Art of Disinformation, and the Needs for Debate and Clarification

I'll start off by posting the link here so that you can judge for yourself the content and tone of this conversation. Basically, however, the general story line is that a girl in a camp group fell a long way in Rumney this week, and details were hard to come by.

I first caught wind of it when a friend sent a copy of the Boston Globe story to me and another friend. It was a scary story that told of how a girl fell forty feet and had to be carried out of the area. Forty feet is a long way down, and to add to the interest of the story, she was only eleven years old. Naturally, I was concerned and wanted to know what happened to her, both in terms of injuries and what could have caused such a fall. I posted the question to the MassClimbers thread on and no one answered. I then went to the forums and found the slug fest in the link above going on. From what I can gather, there are three concerns: one is about how the facts are relayed, one is that that there are some reporting credibility issues, and one is the actual health of the girls. This post is about the concept of debate and facts.

Firstly, I want to clarify that I know that newspapers don't always get the story straight. I both majored (stupidly) in Journalism and worked in the Massachusetts State House. I've seen misreporting on both sides. That said, whether or not there was misreporting is beside the point. The issue that I'm concerned about is the notion of not revealing information as a point of ensuring all the facts are straight first. This is a serious ethical question that news organizations must deal with on a regular basis. On the one hand, they want to be the first to report the story (because, human nature being what it is, people will want to know as soon as they hear about it - I fit directly into that category myself), and on the other hand news organizations need to be accurate in their reporting. If they are wrong, then they lose credibility. By the way, they also lose credibility by being late too. Being first to break the story isn't always about being first, it's also about having reporters who actually gather the information that is reported. Organizations that are continually slow are often looked upon as "piggybackers", or organizations that feed off other organizations' hard work.

Now, for news organizations, this is a serious issue because they are the ones delivering the news. There is no discussion. They state the facts and we take them in. But for forums, this is still a serious issue but less so. I do not say that this is less of an issue because facts are less worthy in a forum; certainly this is not true. Instead, however, facts are less important from one source because a discussion will ensue from the rest of the forum to get to the truth. This is how forums work. And I'm not just talking about on-line forums, but the real or even academic world (OK, that was an opinionated remark, sorry) work like this too. Everyday, ideas are tossed around in meetings, talks over the backyard fence, between Little League coaches and parents, in scientific journals, diplomacy, etc. Someone makes a point, and others debate it. Speculation almost always ensues. In fact, it has to ensue.

Imagine what Isaac thought when the apple bonked his head. He didn't say to himself, "let's just wait for the facts to reveal themselves before we jump to any conclusions." No, instead, he speculated as to how this might have happened. Then he tested his speculation to see if he was correct. When he got to a point where he did feel correct, he tested it by publishing his calculations for the world to test on its own. Some agreed and some did not. He was right about a lot, but also wrong about a lot too. Without his contribution, however, we never would have thought about the things he brought up. (clarifying point - Newton didn't publish his calculations on gravity until much later in life simply because he wanted to keep this information to himself. My example is ironic, I know, but it was not intended to be).

I once had an astronomy professor in school who said on the first day of class that ninety percent of everything we know in the universe today is wrong. Think about that for a minute. What he was saying is that every few years, fundamental beliefs that have driven much of the science they have worked with to come up with quantum solutions change so much that it makes past work nearly irrelevant. That's absolutely amazing.

And let's think about whether or not Andrei Lugovi is really the person who killed Alexander Litvinenko. I know, this sounds a bit of a stretch here, but the British probably feel that Lugovi is far more valuable in thier custody than the real murderer is (I don't know who the real murderer is, but it makes sense that when dealing with spies that a more valuable source would be worth indicting just because of the excess information that could be won instead). The point here is this, that disinformation can be used to gain something, and that the only cure to this is the truth. I am speculating, as I am certain the international intelligence community is doing (and probably many newspaper reporters and editors, too), that what is seen is not always the truth, and that there are likely reasons for that. If we didn't engage in debate, then this proverbial wool would be pulled over our eyes on a regular basis. Lugovi may very well be the assasin, but what if he is not and we never question it? Further more, would the truth ever come if it weren't questioned at all? It very well may, but it also may not as well. If you know something, share this information and educate the rest of us. Don't sit by and let people make up thier own minds.

So what's my point? My point is that speculation is not always a bad thing. Even if it is wrong, it increases awareness and presents an opportunity to educate people. Discussion and debate will always be important tools to weed out the bad from the good, because how else is one going to know the difference? When it comes to safety in the climbing world, I can't think of anything more important than sharing mistakes so that others can learn from it. It is too dangerous of a sport to let this slide.

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