Wednesday, December 10, 2003

One of my pastimes is computer games. I've loved them since the first one I encountered back in about 1981 (a text-only adventure game). One feature of modern computer games is NPCs, which stands for Non-Player Characters. NPCs are controlled by the computer, as opposed to player characters which are of course controlled by a (presumably) human player. NPCs have a predetermined set of choices for what they can do/say. Those choices are established by the game programmers. If you interact with an NPC, you will be given only the choices predecided by the programmers for that situation.

A lot of our perceived options in life are similar. We ask someone whom we consider to be authoritative what we ought to do in some situation. They list our options according to their understanding, which, in turn, depends on wherever they got their information. (Naturally there are also times when we _are_ the "experts" giving out advice to others.) Sometimes, "experts" coordinate their advice, either by voluntary consensus or by deference to some "higher" source.

This can be a good thing; for example, it's reassuring to know that if I have a broken bone, I can go to any doctor in the country and be told basically the same thing: it must be carefully set and then held in place while it knits back together. There is virtually no chance that I will be told, say, to take aspirin in order to fix the problem. So coordination of advice can be highly desirable when it leads to elimination of error.

However, there is another possibility. Sometimes, coordination of advice leads to elimination of the right choice! In those instances, the presumption of authority can be detrimental, causing us to obey unsound advice simply because someone presumably knowledgeable issued it, or because all the "experts" agree that the right choice is "off the table".

The concept of the computer-game NPC comes into play here. If I go to a mechanic and ask what options I have for addressing some car problem, I can expect to get a list of whichever options that mechanic happens to be aware of. I don't expect him to present any other options, since that's impossible for him to do -- just like an NPC can only offer the choices they are programmed to have available. The programmer of the NPC, though, can add or remove choices. In life, we are -- or at least, we can be -- our own "programmers". We are not limited to only the options presented to us by someone else; we are free to look for other alternatives. If we happen to find one, we can promulgate that option among our associates.

What happens when that new choice catches the attention of the other "experts", or the "higher source" from which most experts get their information? Will everyone take a healthy, scientific interest in determining how valid the new option is? Or will its introduction from an outside source be perceived as a threat to the reputation of the existing expert(s)? Never underestimate the influence of egotistical pride -- or corporate "bottom line", which is analogous, at least in this context -- on human decisions.

One man I've come to value highly as an "alternative source" is David Martin. The mass media certainly don't share my appraisal, but I think that's due to the factors mentioned in the preceding paragraph. Here's a snippet from a book by Upton Sinclair, quoted by Martin here:

Also I met one of the high editors of the Times, an important personage whom they feature. Talking about the question of journalistic integrity, he said: "Sinclair, it has been so long since I have written anything that I believed that I don't think I would know the sensation."

My answer was: "I have been writing on public questions for twenty years, and I can say that I have never written a single word that I did not believe."

Isn't that odd? An editor, a man who writes opinion pieces for a living, presumably deemed to be a reliable source by many, confessing that he spews untruths continuously! The question naturally arises, why?

Whom to believe?

Choose carefully -- and remember that your choices may be more numerous than you presently realize.


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