Licking guitars, a little desperate… and you were unfair, Mark

In yesterday’s post, I rubbished Government 2.0.   A few people seem to think that it’s somehow unfair or irrational to criticise a report just because its content isn’t particularly helpful and that it’s written in faux-hipster English.

Sure, cheap shots are easy.  This is why they’re cheap.  Holidays to Bali are cheap.  Holidays to Bali are easy.  The logic is rock solid.

But you might be the kind of shopper who only likes a wine if it costs more than $15 — regardless of its taste.  Thus, even though the obvious and the easy criticisms have been made, you’re after something a little more elaborate in your vitriol.

In order to placate your neurotic demands, I shall take you now on an adventure which I like to call ‘The Gap between Freedom of Information and Freedom of Interpretation’.

It starts a few weeks ago when the climate change e-mails from East Anglia University were leaked, the cacophony of redneck ranting reached record levels.  ‘Gotcha!’ they screamed.  ‘We yokels never trusted you clever bastards with your research and degrees and studies!  And now we’ve got e-mails which prove that you’ve been doing the dodgy!’

Information had been released into the world, but the people reading it had absolutely no idea how to interpret what they were seeing (that is, nothing much).  A friend of mine — who is usually a fairly sober and thoughtful person despite suffering the noxious brain deterioration known as ‘being a libertarian’ — crowed that the e-mails proved that anthropogenic climate change was a left wing conspiracy against the industrial world.  People imagined a conspiracy because they desperately wanted the conspiracy.  Anything — the scantier the better — would have fed that delusion.  The e-mails were a smorgasboard for the tinfoil hat wearers.

For several years now, I’ve been involved heavily with the interpretation of data and the translation into usable formats.  It’s been an interesting ride for me because I had to get over the extremely nerdy joy of discovering things for myself.  I like going on the adventure of discovering things and I like to share that adventure in intricate detail.  Most people, it turns out, either don’t care or don’t have enough time (which, truth be told, is fair enough).

The first audit report I ever wrote started from the assumption that we were starting with a fresh plate and explained why a view from nowhere was necessary to understand why process transformation was needed.  It set up a framework for interpretation adapted from Best Practice Guides and went on an adventure with the data.  It was extremely wordy but it was thorough.  It was comprehensive but largely incomprehensible to anybody who didn’t want to spend several hours chin scratching about the possibilities.  It was logical but it left the reader to form their own conclusions based on the information presented.

In the end, it was a bit of a useless report.

After working with some excellent and brilliant people, I moved away from that mode and style into the realm of using people’s gut reactions to guide them towards accurate and defensible opinions without requiring them to understand how each bit of evidence works.  It’s about doing the interpretation for the reader and guiding them towards rational outcomes using non-rational methods.  Now, I write much better reports.  They’re a long way from perfect but they’re much better.

The climate change e-mails had information in them, but the interpretation was left up to the prejudices and biases of people who had no real interest in facts.  Affirmation of self identity was at play (‘I might not be an expert, but I’m a clever person and nobody will pull the wool over my eyes! I told you all climate change was a left wing hoax and now we have e-mails to prove it!’) — though I might be too charitable with that interpretation.  It’s entirely possible that some people were being deliberately deceitful in order to push agenda.

Imagine if Government 2.0 works and there’s a dumping of information — raw, undigested information — into the public sphere.  Exactly how useful is this if people have no understanding or background in the data being dumped? Are we going to have public debates where people do their own ‘number crunching’ which uses mathematics in novel and ambitious ways?

My hometown is fighting to keep the outdoor swimming pool.  The shire council (ha, hobbits) has decided that it’s not cost effective to repair some of its more serious faults.  They can make these assertions in the public sphere because people have neither the interest, inclination, or skill to interpret the governance documents in the public domain which flatly contradict those assertions.

We already have significant amounts of information available.  We don’t need better information; we want better presentation.  In theory, this would be the role of journalists but the current e-journalist crisis is crippling their capacity to do the research.  Copypasta from YourTubes, Twitters, and FacesBook is cheaper and sells more advertising space than arduous scrutiny of baffling financial reports (related rant: Make the adoption of IPSAS an election issue, damnit).

The Government 2.0 enterprise does not seem to appreciate the risks involved in ‘liberating’ information.  Instead of supporting public debate and scrutiny, it adds another layer of confusion.  There’s already a wealth of information about the ETS and yet the Opposition can still declare with a straight face: ‘If you don’t understand it, don’t vote for it.’  By drowning issues in undigested information, we don’t get informed, intelligent public debate.

Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks remains awesome, though a number of the features are taxing my ability not to hyperventilate (literally).


Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

One thought on “Licking guitars, a little desperate… and you were unfair, Mark”

  1. Regardless of who believes what about the emails and the scientists behind them, one thing is certain; their behavior hurts science. They have lost a huge amount of credibility on a topic many see as unresolved.

    Like it or not, those emails carried meaningful content, but many don’t yet realize just what it is and what it is doing.

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