Wednesday, August 04, 2010


(I can't add this comment over at Grist where it belongs, so, here it is...)

"The traits of engineers that get them into the most trouble... is that they approach stress in "fix-it" mode and go off half-cocked." - Bruce Salem, 2008

20-20 hindsight is better than nothing, but I sure wish I could have thought ahead.

Back in May 2009, Dave Roberts at Grist wrote a post (How the ‘OMB memo’ non-story happened) documenting a case in which climate disinformation got injected into the media ecosystem by one article, & then was spread and amplified by other members of the press because the story had become newsworthy.
Only it was also misleading.
Roberts summarized what had happened, and asked how to fix it:
"Mainstream journalists were right that it had become a story and they needed to cover it.

Everyone was basically doing their jobs. And yet the net effect was to confuse the public and decrease aggregate understanding of an extremely important issue. I would suggest that when the result of everyone doing their jobs is to produce a net reduction in public understanding, the system is broken. Something's gone wrong.

But I honestly don't have a clue how it could be fixed. Grist readers, perhaps you do?"

And naively, I jumped in - since I'd looked into a similar case - with what in retrospect was a very bad "solution", saying:
"If [the initial story] came from a govt agency, submit a FOIA [request] to get the correspondence from the guy who wrote it, to see what *really* went on."
It was a bad solution, since - engineering being "design under constraint"- in my engineering this fix there was a constraint I'd been oblivious to: that whatever the "fix" was, it needed to be impervious to abuse.
And as we've seen since, FOIA requests, being time-consuming to respond to, en masse can be - and have been - used as a denial-of-service attack against government or other public workers, including university researchers.
(So...I sure hope it wasn't me that gave them the idea, and if it was, egads I have a lot to atone for.)

I do still stand by the last part of my answer to Roberts:
"As for the daily-grind journalists - they should do something like what you did here, and write about why it's not a story - which is much more informative and interesting than pretending it is one."
(As for the middle part of my Grist comment, about Texas A&M and the Texas attorney general, for the record, 4 things -
First, as it transpired, I think what I'd said there about the A.G. office was misinformed (in that they'd already ruled when I made that comment, though I hadn't been informed).
Second, my FOIA requests were in vain, they led to no useful knowledge.
And third, knowing more now, if I had this case to do over again I'd have focused on a different university.
So fourth, apologies to the TAMU folk for having taken up their time.)

1 comment:

Anna Haynes said...

An update: a Wisconsin professor is facing FOIA request abuse in the wake of his op-ed about ALEC; I left a comment (link) basically saying "this sucks, & I feel partly responsible which also sucks, and I regret it, and have no solutions, and we need to be very very careful".