Thursday, February 8, 2018

That New York Times piece on Tesla was even worse than I thought.

In case you missed part one,a few days ago, I took John F. Wasik and the New York Times to task for a piece that attempted to mythologize Nikola Tesla by distorting the historical record and omitting a number of pertinent facts. One passage I jumped on somewhat vigorously was the following.
Tesla proposed the development of torpedoes well before World War I. These weapons eventually emerged in another form — launched from submarines.

I pointed out that there was no way Tesla could have "proposed" the development of torpedoes in the late 1890s since the Whitehead self-propelled torpedo had been in use for decades and had already revolutionized naval warfare. What I failed to catch was just how off the second sentence was. I knew that the "eventually" was stretching it, but I didn't realize that it wasn't even directionally accurate.

Submarines were another line of technology that made revolutionary leaps due to advances in internal combustion and electricity. It turns out that there were a number of torpedo-firing subs being tested and even, to a limited extent, deployed by the time that Tesla demonstrated his torpedo. We can probably dismiss the first submarine to fire a torpedo while submerged (way back in 1886) as a failed experiment, but by the late 1890s, viable models were in the water, most notably the USS Holland which established most of the main features (albeit in a simplified form) of submarines until the advent of nuclear power. 

[In addition to torpedoes, the boat was armed with a pneumatic dynamite gun seen here.]

I realize I'm piling on, but there's a lot of wrong here, and seeing the facts so badly mangled in the New York Times, a publication that prides itself on fact checking, raises serious questions. I'd offer a couple of possible explanations. First, I suspect a great deal of the push for accuracy is driven by fear of how subjects might react. Writing about people long dead takes a certain amount of the pressure off.

Second, and I think more important, the lone, misunderstood visionary is a popular and reassuring conventional narrative. It tells a good story and it makes us feel superior to the people of Tesla's time (we, being sophisticated and having a deep understanding of technology, would have immediately seen the potential of these ideas). Lord Keynes famously said “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.” The journalistic corollary of that is that standards are lower if you stick to conventional narratives and approved memes. Alessandra Stanley can prompt corrections that threaten to go on longer than the original articles. Maureen Dowd can babble incoherently about Washington dinner party gossip. David Brooks can simply make shit up. It's all okay because they are telling familiar stories that the establishment is comfortable with. The knives only come out for independent thought.

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