The Danger of “Rearranging the Truth” in Public Safety

by | December 15, 2021

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series. Click here for the previous article.

Gordon Graham here again! Thanks for taking the time to read this piece on Family Six of the 10 Families of Risk—information risks. Let me start with one of my dad’s favorite jokes, the headline from TASS (the Soviet Union news outlet at the time, common spelling Информацио́нное аге́нтство Росси́и) at the end of the Space Race:

Space Race Over
Russians Finish Second
Americans Finish Next to Last

While true, the above statement is grossly misleading. Yes, the Russians did finish in second place—and the Americans did finish “next to last”—but, of course, there were only two players in the Space Race.

When President Trump was in office, he popularized the phrase “fake news.” I recognize the risk in talking about anything political and I am not taking sides, but Mr. Trump didn’t identify anything new. “Fake news” has been around forever. Since the start of time people have been saying things and doing things to alter your thinking and change your mind on a given issue.

In the WSJ (that is the Wall Street Journal, Lieutenant) a couple years back, there was a great opinion piece by Andy Kessler, “Follow Michael Crichton’s Rule.” I have always enjoyed the writings of Mr. Crichton (M.D. from Harvard University, author, screenwriter, film director, film producer, and TV producer, who also had five wives—and I think I am busy!) and certainly enjoyed his books that were turned into movies, so naturally, the article caught my eye.

In a nutshell, Mr. Kessler’s article is about the uneasy relationship between hard science and public policy. The author of this piece is brilliant (that means I agree with him). One of the examples he uses involves another popular person, Carl “Billions and Billions” Sagan and his ongoing talk about how a 5,000-ton nuclear exchange between warring powers would cause temperatures to drop below freezing for three months. While there was no empirical evidence to back this statement, no one would take the other side of the argument. Physicist Freeman Dyson summed up why: “It’s an absolutely atrocious piece of science, but who wants to be accused of being in favor of nuclear war?”

Mr. Kessler continues with myriad examples of when hard science conflicts with public policy, including secondhand smoke, the $15 minimum wage, net neutrality, free college, day care, medical care and others. But the line that really stuck with me comes from Michael Crichton.

Information! Where does it come from? How do you separate the chafe from the grain? How do you verify what you are being told is true?

Prior to his death in 2008 at the age of 66 (I guess being married five times is an indicator of something, but I will stay away from that discussion), Crichton gave a lecture at Caltech entitled “Aliens Cause Global Warming.” (There are a lot of smart people at Caltech, and oddly enough they were not named in the “Operation Varsity Blues” scandal—why should be obvious to anyone who can find a sailboat in the marina. I digress, but I enjoy making the editor of these pieces look things up to make sure I have not gone further off the rails.) And it is from this lecture that Mr. Kessler derives his article title. Crichton stated, “Once you abandon strict adherence to what science tells us, once you start arranging the truth in a press conference, then anything is possible.”

In public safety, we are living the effects of the phenomenon Crichton identified. For example, when I address groups of non-law enforcement personnel and they learn I had a history in the profession, I am regularly challenged with the accusation, “You cops kill too many people.” When I ask them, “How many people do cops kill every year in the U.S.?” they are silent—as quiet as, you know, that person in church.

I then tell the audience that every year, cops in America kill 1 million people (and I write it on the overhead projector device)—and no one disagrees! They nod. When I tell them it is not a million, it is only 100,000, they continue to nod. When I tell them that I lied to them and it is not 100,000—they can take away a zero, and it is only 10,000—that is when they disagree. “You are trying to tell me that the 800,000+ cops in America who make a million contacts a day are only killing 10,000 people? That is a lie!”

I agree with them—it IS a lie! DROP ANOTHER ZERO. On average cops in America kill about 1,000 people a year! Then I see the cell phones coming out and people are fact checking what I have just said. It is true! Cops in America kill about 1,000 people a year—most of whom are armed.

When I follow up with “Are you aware that doctors in America are killing in excess of 250,000 people a year?” again the cell phones come out. But again, it’s true: Pre-COVID, the third-highest cause of death in America was medical malpractice.

Information! Where does it come from? How do you separate the chafe from the grain? How do you verify what you are being told is true?

More on this in my next article, but until then, please be safe. And pick your doctor wisely.

GORDON GRAHAM is a 33-year veteran of law enforcement and the co-founder of Lexipol, where he serves on the current board of directors. Graham is a risk management expert and a practicing attorney who has presented a commonsense risk management approach to hundreds of thousands of public safety professionals around the world. Graham holds a master’s degree in Safety and Systems Management from University of Southern California and a Juris Doctorate from Western State University.

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