Monday, July 25, 2011

Guessing is Guessing

I tried to articulate my take on the uproar over the first assessments about the events in Oslo via twitter, but apparently I had a hard time saying it in 140 characters or less.

We should not be surprised that folks saw multiple attacks creating mass casualties and thought Al-Qaeda.  AQ has developed a reputation for carrying out such attacks, so it is not unreasonable to think AQ in such circumstances.  It is like seeing a flat, mass-produced, mediocre hamburger and thinking McDonalds when there are other producers of such hamburgers.  Thinking AQ when one sees multiple attacks in a country that has been involved in Afghanistan for most of the past ten years is not entirely reasonable.  It was not right this time (it was right on 9/11 to guess AQ), but not unreasonable.  It is one thing to think that all Muslims are terrorists (they are not), but another to think that a big terrorist event might be AQ. 

The problem really is that (a) we tend to speculate with little evidence; and (b) the media wants us to speculate with little evidence.  The new media age means that there are both means and incentives to air one's first thoughts.  The important thing in such circumstances is to be explicit about the guesswork involved--that speculating without facts is exactly that--informed guesswork at best.  Twitter, blogs, facebook, 24 hour networks all transmit reactions to events.  It used to be the case that we didn't have such easy and quick means to share our disinformation, but we could still get some of it on the air one way or another.

I happened to be lucky this time when my first reaction was to think Oklahoma City rather than AQ, but that was mostly about not speculating too quickly rather than thinking that this new terrorist is akin to Timothy McVeigh, which he apparently is.  Well, I was lucky and I was only connected to the net intermittently as I was traveling back from Australia through airports with lousy wifi.  By the time I got to Montreal, the AQ speculation had been crushed by the facts now in hand.

So, the real lesson here is that guesses are guesses, so we need to take them with big grains of salt.  People will always speculate, that is just part of the way we converse and react to things.  Some speculations are "better" than others in how accurate they are.  Some are worse in that they can be based on racism, ethnocentrism, and all the rest.  We just need to remember that all first reactions are exactly that--first and reactions.  More thought and better assessments happen later, not in the moment.

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