Tuesday, October 2, 2018

In 21st-century journalism, being completely debunked is no reason to drop the narrative.

As previously mentioned, there is much to object to in this recent Atlantic monthly piece "How Mars Will Be Policed" by Geoff Manaugh – – if I have the stomach for it, there is easily enough material here for a half dozen highly critical posts – – but perversely enough, it is the one really good part that best illustrates one of the worst aspects of modern journalism.

It is standard in medium to long form reporting, particularly in stories with a speculative or subjective element, to have an article that consists of a string of quotes from experts who are, if not in complete agreement, then are at least taking complementary positions. This chain is broken up by one or two dissenting voices who are completely ignored through the rest of the article.

Manaugh is nothing if not true to the form. Here is the relevant passage that occurs well into the piece.
For David Paige, worrying about crime on Mars is not just ahead of its time, it is unnecessary from the very beginning. Paige is a planetary scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), as well as a member of a team selected by NASA to design a ground-penetrating radar system for exploring the Martian subsurface. Crime on Mars, Paige told me, will be so difficult to execute that no one will be tempted to try.

“The issue,” Paige said, “is that there is going to be so much monitoring of people in various sorts of ways.” Airlocks will likely record exactly who opens them and when, for example, mapping everyone’s location down to precise times of day, even to the exact square feet of space they were standing in at a particular moment. Inhabitants’ vital signs, such as elevated heart rates and adrenaline levels, will also likely be recorded by sensors embedded in Martian clothing. If a crime was committed somewhere, time-stamped data could be correlated with a spatial record of where everyone was at that exact moment. “It’s going to be very easy to narrow down the possible culprits,” Paige suggested.

It is difficult to overstate how effectively this point demolishes most of what has come before. It is completely reasonable to assume that, at least in the near future, any humans living or working on Mars will be constantly tracked. Barring some kind of hack or system failure, we would have a record of the exact position and vital signs of both perpetrator and victim of any crime on the planet. This doesn't preclude the possibility of robbery and murder on extraterrestrial bases, but it does effectively rule out the scenarios spelled out in the rest of the article.

One of the stranger and more malignant tenets of modern journalism is that simply mentioning a counter argument is sufficient for balance. You don't need to adjust your argument or explain why the criticism does not hold. In this case, Manaugh completely ignores the devastating main point, raises some weak and logically questionable objections (we'll go into the absurdity of the space roughnecks claim in another post), then goes back to his stories of mining camp murders and daring bank heists.


  1. Thanks for writing this. That article struck me as idiotic. Sorry, but until we're done terraforming the place, everyone is going to love the surveillance state, even if it makes criminal behavior harder.