Bad News

WASHINGTON POST

The Information Age has one nagging problem: Much of the information is not true. We live in a time besotted with Bad Information.

It's everywhere. It's on the street, traveling by word-of-mouth. It's lurking in dark recesses of the Internet. It's in the newspaper. It's at your dinner table, passed along as known fact, irrefutable evidence, attributed to unnamed scientists, statisticians, "studies."

There has always been Bad Information in our society, but it moves faster now, via new technologies and a new generation of information manipulators. The supply of Bad Information is not the only problem: There may also be a rise in demand. Perhaps as a social species we have developed a greater tolerance for it as we desperately try to slake our thirst for intrigue, excitement and mind-tweaking factoids. The plausible has been squeezed out of public discourse by the incredible.

There are several fundamental types of Bad Information.

* Obvious but Wrong Information: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution breaks the news that Richard Jewell was the prime suspect in the Olympic bombing. Jewell was obviously the perpetrator because he had been the "hero" who found the bomb, and we all know that a "hero" is usually a self-promoting, bogus individual, if not an outright killer. Also, the information was leaked, and leaked information always sounds true. Unfortunately, the FBI had no evidence, just a hunch. The government eventually sent Jewell a note telling him he wasn't a suspect anymore. Whatever.

* Information Censored for Your Own Good: Americans made sure to buy cars with air bags, preferably on both the driver's and passenger's sides. Then we learned that air bags can kill small children. The experts knew of the danger and kept it quiet because they thought it would create public panic and lead people not to use air bags and thus die in greater numbers. Meanwhile, millions of Americans are thinking of the dozens of times they have let their kids ride up front. As a rule, when one piece of Good Information goes unknown, it means another piece of Information will turn Bad.

* Accurate but Untrue Information: The San Jose Mercury News' three-part series "Dark Alliance" unveiled information about a connection between the CIA-backed Contras in Nicaragua and crack dealers in inner city Los Angeles. The paper then implied that the crack epidemic in urban America is a CIA plot.

* Diagnostic Information: You are terribly lethargic and you go see a succession of mental health professionals. One says you are depressed, another says you are not depressed but have chronic fatigue syndrome, another says there is no such thing as chronic fatigue syndrome, another says you have multiple personalities because in your childhood your mother was a member of a satanic cult. You say you don't remember your mother being a member of a satanic cult, and the therapist says that's a dead giveaway.

* Statistical Information: A sociologist in 1985 reported that under California's no-fault divorce system, women suffered a 73% drop in their standard of living in the first year after getting a divorce, while men's standard of living improved 42%. The sociologist subsequently admitted that her numbers were wrong, the gap grossly inflated.

And finally:

* Historical Information: Everyone knows that Marie Antoinette said, "Let them eat cake!" Except she didn't. A fictional character said it.

The most subtle but poisonous effect of Bad Information is the decline of intelligent conversation. It used to be that you couldn't talk about religion and politics, but now you can't talk about religion, politics, UFOs, phonics, nutrition, the Kennedy assassination, O.J. Simpson, Shakespeare's true identity, proper child-rearing techniques, the significance of birth order or whether power lines give you cancer.

This is why Michael Jordan is so popular: He's the only thing we all agree on. Man, that guy can play ball!

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Bad Information is insidious because it looks so much like Good Information. It takes an extremely practiced eye to spear Good from the thick bog of Bad.

"It's harder to tell the difference between good-quality and bad-quality information than it is between a good-quality and a bad-quality shirt. Your mom can teach you how to look at the stitching on a shirt," says Phil Agre, a communications professor at UC San Diego.

Bad Information does not happen by accident. It is promulgated. The sources are increasingly sophisticated. Today, almost everyone has advanced technology for disseminating data, from Web sites to phone banks to cable TV infomercials; everyone has a private public relations staff and a private media relations staff and a private Scientific Advisory Panel to lend "expert" authority to implausible assertions.

Let's look at a case study in Bad Information. No event this year has spawned so much Bad Information as the TWA Flight 800 disaster. When it blew up, everyone assumed terrorists were to blame. The government passed new airport security measures that force travelers to turn on their electric shavers to prove they aren't killers. These have remained in place even though the government investigators now think it was probably a mechanical failure.

At one point, The New York Times ran a front page story concluding that the plane had been blown up by a bomb. The newspaper had learned that investigators found microscopic traces of a chemical explosive. But it turned out that the plane had--by chance--been used recently in a training exercise for bomb-sniffing dogs. Who coulda thunk it?

Nor can we forget the missile theory.

Pierre Salinger was giving a speech in Cannes, France, and mentioned that he had a document given him by a French intelligence agent that offered strong evidence that a U.S. Navy missile had shot down TWA Flight 800.

The secret document turned out to have been on the Internet for months. It contains no evidence of any kind--it's a blanket assertion, anonymous, that a Navy missile shot down the plane. In fact, the "document" was written by a former United Airlines pilot who intended it as a private e-mail message for some friends.

This is the only reason, indeed, that the news organizations reported what Salinger said: As a former White House press secretary and ABC News correspondent, he seemed like a credible person. Credibility transcends generations--people graduate to the status of "legendary" and "venerable."

*

Lacking a good explanation, we naturally fill in the blanks. A survey in George magazine showed that 41% of the American people think that the government is covering up the truth about TWA Flight 800. And 10% think Elvis is alive. (The survey doesn't reveal how many people think the government is covering up the fact that Elvis is still alive.)

It's good and necessary for people to be skeptical; the government does, in fact, tell lies. It lied about Vietnam, it lied about Watergate. The African American patients at Tuskegee were told they were being treated for syphilis when in fact they were given placebos for years so researchers could watch the progression of the disease. Oliver North lied to Congress on national television, under oath.

Not even scientists--people devoted to objective truth--are immune. The latest candidate in science for Bad Information is the Mars rock, which has these tiny squiggly shapes that look like little microbe fossils. Naturally everyone has gone stone-crazy over the implications, but the fact remains that the "discovery" hasn't been confirmed, and it may turn out that the fossils are, as scientists put it, "abiotic in origin." Meaning they're just dirt.

The danger is that we are reaching a moment when nothing can be said to be objectively true, when consensus about reality disappears. The Information Age could leave us with no information at all, only assertions.

This means we are entering a kind of ultra-relativistic Einsteinian universe without constants or fixed positions or simultaneous events--where what "is" depends entirely on the position of the observer.

We cannot be sure that Bad Information is a real trend. Trends are sometimes confabulations by bored journalists who mistake a few random coincidences for a sweeping cultural change.

When it comes to information, the dictum of "The X-Files" must always be followed: Trust No One.

The obvious corollary: In particular, do not trust any information you get from "The X-Files."

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