A Suitable Substratum

18 04 2009

Portuguese Bend is a two-mile stretch of coastline, so devoid of substratum that it moves like a glacier very slowly into the ocean.  As fate would have it, it also managed to become home to one of the most expensive trailer parks in the region.  Well, it’s not really a trailer park, for the homeowners do have title to their plots of land.  It’s just that, with such an unstable foundation, the safest thing to be living in is something that can be moved, if necessary, and occasionally adjusted to remain level on the ever-changing slope.  Two inches per year is the average movement.  Every couple of years, the land must be surveyed, and the roads must be repaved.  One can only wonder how they manage to lay claim to any exact plots of land, with the property lines forever in motion.  The situation reminds me of the parable of the man who built his house upon the sand.  Lacking a firm foundation, his home was destined for destruction.

 I happened to be in that neighborhood one day, when a man stopped me to talk about some environmental report he had read in the newspaper.  He knew that I happened to be studying that very thing, so he wanted to know my take on it.  I told him what I knew, which was that everything was pretty decent ninety-nine percent of the time, and that it had been that way for years.  He looked at me suspiciously and told me that the newspapers made it seem otherwise.  According to the papers, things were just rotten in my area of study.  He seemed to think that I was either lying to him, or that I was some incredibly ignorant fool for not knowing any better, especially when it was my own field. 

 Let’s review, for a minute, where the newspapers got their information.  Their only sources were liberal activist organizations not described as such.  Those activist organizations got their information from the public health department, which got its information from another section within my department, which got it from my section, which got it from…me.  Yours truly.  Granted, I’m not the only one in the group, but we do the actual laboratory work.  Somewhere between the sample bottle in my hand and the newspaper in his, something went horribly wrong.  Someone was building his understanding on an unreliable information base.

 It reminds me of a time in my junior year of high school.  We were commanded to prepare debates on various current events and make our case before the class.  I got stuck with arguing against banning AIDS-infected dentists.  Apparently, word got out that a certain dentist with AIDS continued his practice even after being diagnosed, and three of his patients became infected.  The defense argued that all three patients engaged in “risky” behavior, anyway, and they could have contracted it from other, more conventional sources.  A dentist is easier to sue than a drug dealer.  However, the prosecution argued that dentistry is one of the easiest ways to become infected with a disease, relative to other disciplines in the health care field.  Fortunately for me, I was arguing the more liberal of the two sides.  I had media bias working in my favor, though I didn’t realize this at first.  Newsweek, I will never forget, was a lifesaver.  They provided a cornucopia of one-liners from experts , supporting the view that dentists with AIDS are not a threat to anyone.  Looking into their quotes, I decided to write to the people that they had quoted.  Of those, the American Medical Association was kind enough to send me a small ream of information on just that subject.  As I pored over their writings, one thing became abundantly clear, that, contrary to the one-line quote presented by Newsweek, the AMA was very much against infected dentists continuing in their practice.  Eventually, I found half a sentence, starting with an un-quoted “but,” which had served as the periodical’s quote of them, presented as an example of their entire position to the rest of the world.  In fact, it was the only phrase in the entire packet from the AMA that supported the idea that dentists could safely work while infected.  This was not good for my case.  Fortunately, the opposition did not go to the source and question the periodicals. 

 At least I lost the debate.  Sadly, I only lost it by one vote, despite the fact that I didn’t even believe in my own position by the time I presented it.  It makes me feel dirty, just thinking about it.

 News agencies, politicians, teachers, religious leaders and scientists all have one thing in common.  They all have the power to tell people what to think.  Power doesn’t corrupt.  People are all naturally corrupt, already.  The most corrupt people try the hardest to achieve powerful positions.  Those who try the hardest are more likely to succeed.  Therefore, people in power tend to be corrupt.  The power of controlling minds is especially delicious to them.  The immigrant worker who trims your hedge isn’t out to manipulate the way you think.  All he wants is a few bucks and a beer.  The kid who bags your groceries doesn’t slip propaganda into your bag, unless you shop at an organic grocery store and the owner told him to.  Be careful whom you get your information from.

 I have grown accustomed to the idea, now, that nothing I read in the news can be trusted.  This causes me to live in something of a bubble.  Even after sorting through all of the bias and attempting to reconstruct the truth, too often the “truth” is a non-issue that was fictionalized into a news event.  Too often, a good story that would damn one side gets ignored by a media that supports the damned side.  It’s not enough to reinterpret the text to weed out the bias.  When someone mixes lies with truth, there’s no value in anything that the person says.  It cannot be sorted reliably. 

I can understand Jesus’ frustration when he calls the teachers a bunch of hypocrites.  I can understand the Bible’s strong condemnation of teachers who mislead, being far worse than the lies of someone not entrusted to teach.  They build an unreliable foundation, upon which the rest of us naively build our understanding.

 Thanks for reading.





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