Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2099th Meeting

Speaker: Joel Achenbach, writer, The Washington Post
Topic: “Surviving the Age of Bad Information”

President Garavelli called the 2099th meeting to order at 8:20 p.m. on January 22, 1999. The Recording Secretary read the minutes of the 2097th meeting and they were approved.

The speaker for the 2099th meeting was Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post. The title of his presentation was, “Surviving the Age of Bad Information.”

Bad information is a bothersome problem to us primarily because there is so much good information out there. Tools to sort the available information are available and the most effective tools are found in science. This is the point of convergence Mr. Achenbach carefully walked us to in his presentation on surviving in the age of bad information.

Mr. Achenbach opened his talk with a discussion of space aliens. The reason for this particular subject is that the topic is full of bad information. He described himself as a skeptic, contending, as did Carl Sagan, that we do not know, and are nowhere close to knowing, anything in the way of facts about life beyond Earth. We have theories. We have plausibility arguments, but we do not have facts. In Mr. Achenbach's research on life beyond earth, the number of known, confirmed examples of life beyond earth was zero. At the end of his research, the number is still zero. Zero is his guiding light. Zero is his anchor. As he stated while clarifying his position on the subject, “He would not believe in aliens if there was one chewing on his leg.”

Compare this approach to the Cocktail Party Paradigm of life beyond Earth. This principle is stated perhaps at a meeting of an intellectual society or a philosophical society; “It would be so arrogant of us to think that we are the most advanced life form in the universe.” Yes, it's wrong to be full of yourself and lacking humility and talking too loud and belching! However, the abundance of alien civilizations in the universe is not dependent upon our level of arrogance — or our humility.

The most effective approach to sort bad and good information relies on answering the question, “Is it true?” People tend to genuflect to a person with the most degrees or the most prestigious title. However, as in science, “the data” usually wins out. In some regards, science is simply a set of tools. It requires experimentation and independent verification and it provides a central goal to, “get it right.” It is this “get it right” goal that is the most effective approach for sorting bad and good information.

There are different types of bad information and some of it is harmless. A religious belief that is not backed up by hard evidence is not an example of bad information — so long as everyone agrees that it is a matter of faith. However, if someone claims that the Hubble Space Telescope found Heaven, we have a bad information situation.

Mr. Achenbach identified other recent examples of bad information. These include the CNN-Time magazine story of last summer about nerve gas during the Vietnam War that developed from a perfectly well-meaning journalistic venture. So too, the San Jose Mercury story saying the CIA was responsible for triggering the crack epidemic in urban America.

Mr. Achenbach then closed his presentation and kindly answered questions from the floor. President Garavelli thereupon thanked Mr. Achenbach for the society, announced the next meeting and made the usual parking announcement. He then adjourned the 2099th meeting to the Social Hour at 9:35 p.m.


Respectfully submitted,
Bill Spargo
Recording Secretary

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