We face a deluge of information, drought of insight

January 22, 2002|By Gordon Livingston

IN THE human struggle to attach meaning to passing events (and to satisfy an insatiable media appetite for information and opinions), we are in danger of misinterpreting random or insignificant happenings. Adding to this tendency is the propensity of some people to see everything in the funhouse mirror of their particular special interest.

For example, when a kid from California ends up in the ranks of the Taliban, a conservative commentator tries to sell this as the natural consequence of a permissive Marin County upbringing.

A truck driver beats an ex-con to death in a Massachusetts hockey rink and it becomes a cautionary tale about parental over-involvement in youth sports.

A depressed teen-ager commits suicide by flying a small plane into a building in Tampa and, depending on your point of view, we have (a) yet another indication of the decline of the American family; (b) an example of the inadequate security of general aviation aircraft; (c) further evidence of our government's inability to protect us from flying terrorists; or (d) all of the above.

Generalizing from unusual events is an unreliable way to apprehend the truth.

For example, on a recent news broadcast, we were informed that President Bush had fainted while ingesting a pretzel, fallen off the couch and sustained an abrasion to his cheek. For a news anchor to read this with a straight face either reflects his complete lack of a sense of humor or is a credit to his training in how to ignore absurdity.

Moments later, we were confronted with the tape of a uniformed U.S. Airways pilot being led in handcuffs from Philadelphia International Airport for making "terroristic threats." With the commander-in-chief falling off the couch and pilots threatening terrorism, how safe can we be?

What we're confronted with here is the difference between information and knowledge.

When we are inundated with news, particularly when it is presented in linear fashion on television, it's hard to sort through what is important, much less integrate it into some coherent pattern.

We depend on our purveyors of opinion to help us with this. Unfortunately, it is hard to find such a person without an axe to grind.

The most outrageous recent example of the tendency to see things through an ideological prism was Jerry Falwell's placing of blame for the terrorist attacks on "pagans, feminists, gays, lesbians and the ACLU."

Most commentators are more subtle, but few are without evident bias. They tend to adhere to the philosophy of former baseball umpire Bill Klem, who famously asserted, "I may be wrong, but I'm never unsure."

All of this argues for viewing facile generalizations about current events with a healthy skepticism. How do we "know" anything? The scientific method, the rational analysis of data, offers one approach to the truth.

For example, if we know that, on average, 11 American people between 15 and 24 committed suicide each day in 1998, how surprising is it that one such depressed teen-ager with access to a small plane chose to fly it into a building? Is there anything to learn from such a desperately common event, unusual only in the manner this boy chose to end his life?

Think about this as you read the opinions (some fully baked, some only half) published on this page. What are the writer's credentials to speak? What is the evidence on which he or she bases generalizations? What facts have been omitted? Do the conclusions match our own sense of how the world works?

And ask yourself one more question: When is the last time I changed my mind based on a better argument or new data?

We are drowning in information, but starved for knowledge.

Gordon Livingston is a psychiatrist who lives in Columbia.

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