Information Abhors a Vacuum?

Great essay today by Scott Simon on NPR’s Weekend Edition. He called it “The Bombastic Fog Engulfs Fort Hood.”

Long story short: very quickly after the events at Ft. Hood on Thursday afternoon there were items appearing in the media providing all manner of explanation of things that might or might not have anything to do with those events.

Simon’s initial diagnosis is the structure of modern mass communication itself “…in these days where almost anyone can find some kind of audience.” A certain kind of event, such as mass killings on the U.S. Army post, “encourages people to analyze and speculate in advance of a lot of actual facts.”

He goes on to give a few other examples and then zeroes in on how journalists ran with the idea of pilot fatigue when some airline pilots missed their destination a few weeks back, making the jump from the speculation of experts in the absence of direct knowledge of the circumstances and details of an event to research on the science and politics of pilot fatigue. Any number of stories along this line were produced only to be proven irrelevant (in Simon’s on-the-mark characterization) when, upon investigation, it turns out the pilots were playing with their laptop computers.

This reminds me of a few things. One is the propensity of some journalists (and some social scientists, too) to decide very early on “what the story is.” That’s what your editor wants to know as soon as you pitch an idea — what’s the story, what’s the angle? We’ve all been contacted by a reporter looking for a quote that confirms a particular line they’ve decided to take in the story or a student who is looking for some research that supports a particular conclusion she wants to draw.

The second thing is that competition for eyeballs and ears forces people who talk and write for a living to talk and write whether or not they have anything to add to our collective knowledge.  Dead air is bad.

Those are professional errors, malpractice, if you will, even if of a mundane sort.

There’s probably something else going on too — something more at the “information order” level than the professional practice level. It is fundamentally difficult for a community to learn of an “untethered” fact (unconnected, that is, to a story that grounds it in the web of our taken-for-granted worldview (Weltanschauung)) without someone stepping up to tell a story that does ground it in the known. 

And so, the urge that insiders sometimes have to not announce something prematurely “because it will lead to speculation” is probably not nearly the pathology we often make it out to be. 

After listening to the essay I began to think about thought experiments in how to balance the incentives.  If, as Simon says (that phrase was going to come up in this essay sooner or later), it’s because its so easy to “find some kind of an audience” (or at least a soapbox around which there could be an audience), then maybe we (members of the chattering classes — both amateur and professional) should give some consideration to what we’d say if there were a word tax as well as a word rate.  If what you have to say turns out to be irrelevant, not only do you not get your $2 per word, you actually have to pay the rest of us for the bit of our information universe you filled up with worthless drivel.

Author: Dan Ryan

I'm currently an Academic Program Director at I've been a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. I'm driven by the desire to figure out how to teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

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