Logic Times

Quantum Physics and the Media

Commentary by Aslan, 10/26/05, 12:46am. Comments (4)


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Quantum mechanics may be the hardest scientific discipline to comprehend.  The strangeness of the quantum mechanical world can be seen in the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which states that the position and momentum of a particle (the main interesting data we want) cannot be simultaneously measured with useful accuracy.  In other words, we cannot accurately measure some information about basic quantum elements.  That is rather startling in the world of science where observation and precise measurement reign supreme.  As we drill down into the quantum layers of reality, we cannot really know physical reality with precision.


And this is not semantics or a gap in theory waiting to be filled.  This is an immutable characteristic of wave/particle quantum reality that deals with the acquisition of information as much as it deals with the actual information we want. Consider a particle traversing the dark vacuum of space.  We are conveniently positioned nearby to gather information about where this particle is, how it is moving and where it is going.  How do we proceed?


Taking out our small Mag-Lite flashlight, we illuminate our subject to determine its location.  However, we have a problem: the photons (light particles) from the Mag-Lite shoot out and head towards the target particle, striking it and changing its momentum.  Our data collection method alters the data we want to collect, removing that initial information forever beyond our reach.  And there is no method of investigation into the state of our target particle that will not bombard it with other particles, changing reality and hiding the information we wanted all along.  


In other words, we cannot observe reality without changing reality.


So it has become with the media.  This gives rise to a new uncertainty principle, the Media Uncertainly Principle, which states:


The Media cannot accurately measure or disseminate information about basic reality.


This is not just a clever repackaging of bias; this represents a structural inability to accurately communicate real events.


This inherent inaccuracy stems from the violent interaction of the information gatherer(s) with the event being observed, and what emerges no longer represents the actual event.  The violence done during the observation phase is not a physical violence, but a disruptive, prejudicial and dysfunctional pattern of thought and action by all members of the news gathering infrastructure, from factors as well-understood as biased reporters and editors, to elements as subtle as camera angles, props, timing, tone and the selection of adjectives. The end result is that no event of any complexity can run the gauntlet of distortion erected between the event itself and the eyes and ears of an interested citizen.


The implications are profound for those armed with knowledge of the Media Uncertainty Principle: Media communication about complex matters – from newspaper headlines to magazine articles to the words flowing smoothly from the mouth of a talking head – are understood to be independent of reality, logically requiring the recipient of "news" to ignore claims that fact is being presented and do additional research.  


The inquisitive citizen aware of the Media Uncertainty Principle encounters some complex piece of media information, looks at it blandly regardless of content, and thinks, "This isn’t true.  This is like the blind groping in the dark that precedes the light switch being flipped on. What, then, is reality here?"


The value of the Media Uncertainty Principle in action is enormous.  For example, a headline screams in 2004:


Clarke: Bush didn't see terrorism as 'urgent'

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush's former counterterrorism chief testified Wednesday that the administration did not consider terrorism an urgent priority before the September 11, 2001, attacks, despite his repeated warnings about Osama bin Laden's terror network (here).


A typical news consumer, believing elements of reality are being presented, draws a conclusion – that Bush was negligent in responding to clear terror warnings – only to later discover that the opposite was reality.  The media "particle" impacted the "particles" of the event, fundamentally changing the story and hiding reality from view.  


The informed news consumer aware of the Media Uncertainty Principle sees the above headline and draws two valuable conclusions: One, the headline does not represent reality, and two, he has some investigative work ahead of him to learn what the facts truly are.


The Media Uncertainly Principle illuminates another problem.  Being well informed is obviously generally important, but the Founding Fathers and other great thinkers clearly recognize a knowledgeable citizenry as the backbone of a representative republic.  Ignorance in our form of government unhinges representatives from accountability to the people they represent; if constituents are uninformed about the matters being debated by their representatives, they cannot exert a constructive influence on good government.  


Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people. -John Adams


Educate and inform the whole mass of the people... They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty. -Thomas Jefferson


If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. -Thomas Jefferson


Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives. -James Madison


The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty. -James Madison


Men give me credit for some genius. All the genius I have lies in this; when I have a subject in hand, I study it profoundly. Day and night it is before me. My mind becomes pervaded with it. Then the effort that I have made is what people are pleased to call the fruit of genius. It is the fruit of labor and thought. -Alexander Hamilton


But knowledge (of reality), the food of our representative republic, is now in scarce supply.  With distortion radiating from the Fourth Estate, intellectually hungry people must turn to the final arbiter of truth in modern political matters: Reason.


A man has free choice to the extent that he is rational. -Saint Thomas Aquinas


Reason obeys itself; and ignorance submits to whatever is dictated to it. -Thomas Paine


Reason, the power of analytical thought, must be the litmus test for truth obscured by the Media Uncertainty Principle.  Rational thought sifts through all propositions and orients one towards reality.  And Reason to the modern media is like water and flying houses to wicked witches.


Let’s see another example of the Media Uncertainty Principle in action. Newsweek publishes a story that leads:


[Newsweek] May 9 issue - Investigators probing interrogation abuses at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay have confirmed some infractions alleged in internal FBI e-mails that surfaced late last year. Among the previously unreported cases, sources tell NEWSWEEK: interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Qur'an down a toilet and led a detainee around with a collar and dog leash (here).


With the Media Uncertainty Principle in mind, an enlightened news observer automatically concludes that there are important events – real factual events - occurring at Guantanamo Bay and those events are not represented in the story.  He or she is thusly protected from taking action based upon falsehood.  If Muslims worldwide had been armed with the Media Uncertainty Principle, twenty victims of violence would be alive today.


Is the Media Uncertainty Principle too wide-reaching?  Not at all.  A knight wears armor into every battle never knowing when and how he will be hit.  A story here or there may, after investigation, accidentally be accurate, but that is not something that can be counted on; there is a continuum of inaccuracy against which citizens must be diligent, from complete fabrications (Dan Rather and Newsweek) to very subtle distortions, like the position (or lack of position) of a story in a newspaper (Able Danger).  


Unlike the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the Media Uncertainty Principle is not an irreversible fact of nature.  Knowledge of this principle is the first step towards ending its reality, for once skepticism is the overwhelming reaction to "news," it ceases to be news.  This would be the fiery end of the Fourth Estate, to be followed by a more grounded rebirth from the ashes.


The next time the paper screams that weapons are missing from a depot in Iraq, that incriminating National Guard memos have been found, that the House Leader is corrupt, that privatizing Social Security will destroy the program, that Hussein never sought yellow cake in Niger, that Halliburton got another no-bid contract, that Gore has won Florida, that school lunches are being eliminated, that people are being raped and killed in the Superdome, that there were no WMDs, that the Downing Street memos will bring down Bush and Blair, that the Bush teleconference with soldiers was staged, and, yes, that Rove and Cheney are going to be indicted and convicted, remember the Media Uncertainty Principle.


Copyright ©  2005 Dan Hallagan. All Rights Reserved.



1: Spaceman

October 26, 2005 2:11am EST

I am surprised you have taken a politically correct stance with your Media Uncertainty Principle.  You know and I know that the “uncertainty” you talk about is on the Left side of the political spectrum.  All the examples in your closing paragraph refer to Left-leaning bias and/or outright fabrication.


{Aslan: Yes, I kept the Media Uncertainty Principle neutral to stop people from tuning the idea out the moment it took on an exclusively partisan flavor.  I can think of some media personalities on the Right that distort, like Michael Savage, and so this new Uncertainty Principle would apply there.  Second, it is one thing to say that only the liberal media distorts, but when the vast majority of media is liberal, then observations about distortion are almost universal.}


2: Anonymous

October 26, 2005 8:44am EST

Right-wing whackos distort a helluva lot more than the Left.


{Aslan: I posted this one just to demonstrate how, no matter what the idea presented, you’ll always get opposite view points.}


3: Larry Horacek

October 26, 2005 4:10pm EST

The real importance of the Media Uncertainty Principle (MUP) is that it refocuses our attention on bias in reporting.  While it is important to acknowledge that bias is a two-way street, and that conservative bias can be just as damaging as liberal bias, the Media Uncertainty Principle argues that bias is actually a part of the reporting process.  MUP demands that we accept anything we read, hear, or encounter in the media as already biased by whatever factors impact and shape the message presented.  Under MUP, bias perhaps does not happen on purpose as much as it is automatically "reformed to a show a preference" as the story is compressed and presented by whomever observes and reports.  Since the news is covered by those who identify themselves as Democrats by a nearly 7 - 1 margin in the print media, why would anyone believe that what we read would be balanced?  MUP explains why the media continue to profess, with serious aplomb, that claims of bias are simply untrue, because the observers are oblivious to the impact they have on the observed.  Unfortunately, developing discernment is not a trait developed in our young students today; I personally taught my own children how to read between the lines and how to search for the truth.  Unless more of our young people are taught the difference, our society will slowly succumb to the effects of MUP.


{Aslan: Spot on, Larry.  You hit the nail on the head with - "MUP demands that we accept anything we read, hear, or encounter in the media as already biased by whatever factors impact and shape the message presented."  This is precisely the suggestion – I told several of my fretting friends not to worry about the Fitzgerald indictments because there was never a better example of the Media Uncertainty Principle than the reporting on those events, which assured me the reporting was wrong.  And it was.  And Scooter Libby will walk in the end.}


4: EvntProdcr

May 8, 2006 10:27am EST

Alas, even when LT has a good case, its editor sees fit to mystify clarity with obfuscation. Apparently still caught in the tangled knots of Plato's beard, LT fails to note simply that politics is and always has been a competing debate of ideas [note that no valuation is attached to "ideas"] and that the side that articulates its case most simply and appeals to the general public most broadly will carry the day. It doesn't take a quantum physicist to decide who is doing a better job of defining reality and who is failing. It is as simple as advertising a product. Unfortunately, we are left with the prospect of a good point being added to the square of the sum total of the bodyweight of the mass squared of those civilians not killed in Iraq.


{Aslan:  That is pretty funny.  And pretty dense.  You are not differentiating between politicians, who I do indeed expect to ardently present ideas, and the Fourth Estate, who is supposed to perform a function of disseminating information.  Our media is no more interested in disseminating information than in inseminating gazelles.  They are advocates and so thoroughly biased that they cannot report a fact anymore.  That problem is not that Ted Kennedy is a liberal, it is that the cameraman filming him is a liberal, the anchor discussing him is a liberal, the copy boy and the CEO are liberals and the facts are not.}