Thursday, July 27, 2017

Shame he didn't think of this before they did all those artist's renderings of elevated hyperloops

I thought about adding this to the previous Elon Musk post (which actually hasn’t run yet in my timeline {sorry, been watching Dr. Who}), but the focus here is less on who said the quote and more on the people who wrote it down. Besides, this makes a really nice follow-up to yesterday's "undertakings of great advantage" post.

The following was from a pretty good Wired article on Musk’s “proposal” to build multiple layers of tunnels under Los Angeles.
“We’re just going to figure out what it takes to improve tunneling speed by, I think, somewhere between 500 and 1,000 percent,” he said Sunday during a hyperloop design competition at SpaceX. “We have no idea what we’re doing—I want to be clear about that.”

As I just mentioned, the Wired piece was pretty good and is not included in the following criticisms, but there were plenty of entirely credulous outlets that reported on his story. Presumably, all of them at least saw the 500 to 1,000 percent claim. This should have been one of those points where the credibility of the subject goes to zero. You don’t just decide that you are going to improve a process by a factor of five or ten. This is especially true when we are talking about widely used technology which a large number of the world’s most gifted engineers are constantly trying to improve. If Musk had said he was planning on going to the track every day next week and just picking winners, the statement would have been more believable.

Barring a belief in magic (which, I’d argue, is disturbingly common in 21st-century journalism. That is, however, a topic I need to address when I have more time), there is simply no way that a responsible and competent reporter can cover a planned project where one of the fundamental elements is this implausible without explicitly and emphatically dismissing the whole thing.

[At this point, I am supposed to acknowledge that this or that is possible. The problem with that particular journalistic convention is that possibility is such a broad standard as to be useless. Outside of axiomatic systems, it can be genuinely difficult to come up with a non-trivial example of an impossibility.]

Of course, claims of huge improvements don’t have to be improbable or implausible, but in order to be credible they must be grounded in some way. You need to specify some technological advance or infrastructure upgrade or radically different approach. Such claims might still be improbable, but at least there is what you might call a path to plausibility.

When someone says “I’m going to take a look at [some complex problem that smart, serious people have been struggling with for a long time] and come up with some amazing solution,” reporters and editors have a professional obligation to call the bullshit bullshit. Doing otherwise leads to bad investments, bad public policy decisions, and bad presidential elections.

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