Hazards From The Internet
An Internet site can call it itself anything. For example, just because a site bills itself as being a “fact check” organization does not mean that it delivers the facts. Similarly, those glowing Internet ratings and reviews that you read may have been written by folks who are owners or employees of the companies whose products and services are being reviewed. Of course, they do not identify themselves as such; e.g. a review that reads, “Ed Walker is a great engineer! – Ed Walker,” will likely not engender confidence in the objectivity of the review.
The bottom line is that owners, employees, friends, and relatives can all contribute positive but biased or completely false reviews (although sometimes these are counterbalanced by opposing and scathing lies posted by competitors and grouches).
How does one know whether or not to trust an Internet source? The best route is to verify that the source has been recommended or approved by a person or organization of unquestioned integrity. A traditional means of such fact-checking would be to rely on media outlets such as newspapers and television news programs. Unfortunately, this is no longer a reliable method…
Although there are many fine journalists, there are also many in the media who label themselves as such who are not; i.e., they are not balanced, fair, nor objective. This is indeed a tragedy, because average citizens do not have the time or resources to independently research the multitude of important issues which affect their lives. They need help from honest and competent journalists.
Many of today’s journalists, however, do not appear to have taken any courses in critical thinking, or even in the basics of true journalism. Pseudo-journalists routinely report things as facts when they aren’t (psychic phenomena), have no sense of balance (non-stop coverage of an event in a celebrity’s personal life while ignoring global calamities), and reflexively promote their own unscientific and emotionally-laden views (politics).
Some reporting of political issues by major news outlets is extremely biased and dishonest, going to such lengths as to employ fraudulent polling, wherein the desired result is obtained by over-sampling a part of the population that is in favor of the desired result. (This tactic is humorously demonstrated in a classic Stan Freberg TV commercial from the 1950s that claimed, “Nine out of ten doctors recommend Chun King Chow Mein!” The ad showed ten doctors in scrubs, comprised of nine smiling Chinese and one frowning white guy.)
As a minor example of the present unfortunate state of journalism, many reporters today seem to have a compulsion to be novelists. The newspapers in Tampa routinely begin a news item with flowery language of the “It was a dark and stormy night” variety, leaving out who, what, when, where, and why. Sometimes, maddeningly, such essential information is absent from the entire column.
In addition to conventional news sources, we often look to the art of filmmaking for education and inspiration. Films based on insightful and well-researched literature can indeed be powerful learning tools. Lesser works, however, can be nothing more than slick propaganda.
Some movies are produced that purport to be documentaries, but aren’t. Some claim that they’re “based on a true story,” but actually have only a superficial resemblance to the truth.
For example, the popular movie Titanic (directed by James Cameron) did a wonderful job in recreating the technical details of a marvelous ship, but it did a lousy job in portraying the historical record. In addition to other distortions, it obscenely damaged the reputation of First Officer Murdoch: “In Cameron’s version, he is a posh git [British slang for incompetent person] who takes a bribe, shoots a passenger, panics, and commits suicide. In reality, he gave his lifejacket away, drowned, and has a memorial in his home town of Dalbeattie.” (ref. “James Cameron’s Avatar can’t be any worse than ‘Titanic'” by Libby Purves.
As an engineer I appreciate faithfulness to technical details, but all in all I would have preferred to learn the truth about the history of the times, rather than view accurate images of a big boat weaved around a story of deceitful distortions.
Artistic license is often cited as an excuse for grossly distorting history, to achieve a “dramatic effect.” Artistic license however should not be a license to steal, to alter the historical truth. Unless you know that the folks involved in making a movie have the highest integrity, it would be wise to ignore the “lessons” that movies teach.
This post completes an introduction to the principle of objectivity, which is essential to Engineering Thinking. To be objective we must be free of emotional blockages and willing to question our cherished assumptions. We must also be prepared to invest the time it takes to properly research important issues, so that we avoid the self-serving lies of the frauds, the agenda-driven propaganda of deceitful media sources, and the biases and delusions of otherwise honest folks.
In addition to objectivity, there are several other important principles of Engineering Thinking. But before we get into those, in our next post we’ll start to put what we’ve learned to work, with a practical analysis of a common problem.
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