The Bell-Shaped Curve

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David Baldacci published “The Whole Truth” in 2008, but the basic idea also applies to more recent events.  The premise of this thriller is that in the age of viral videos public opinion can be manipulated more easily than ever to promote conflict between nations.  In this book, an arms dealer with a great PR firm and plenty of thugs in his service brings Russia and China to the brink of war so that he can sell them both more weapons.

It makes a riveting thriller, but thankfully for my peace of mind, I don’t believe arms dealers are as clever and powerful as the villain in this story.  On the other hand, I am convinced of the reality of the other part of Baldacci’s equation, namely the poor performance of the journalists who are supposed to provide us with the truth.  An anonymous blogger is free to fantasize, lie, and even slander, but we count on respected news sources to check facts.

Years ago, I was surprised to read a garbled account of a local story in a major international news magazine.  I knew it was garbled because the events as they actually transpired had been filmed.  The clear case of incompetence made me think of the bell-shaped curve that describes the normal distribution of the members of a group – a very few at each extreme and the vast average majority in the middle.  Whatever ability you measure, the result is always the same; a few people are very good at at, a few are very bad at it, and most are somewhere in between.  Why wouldn’t the normal distribution apply to the group of people who work in a certain profession, whether it’s journalism or brain surgery?

There are plenty of horror stories about people who have been treated by doctors who were at the wrong end of the bell curve of their profession.  Those doctors are sued, lose their licenses and go to jail, but incompetent journalists just move on to mislead and misinform somewhere else.

The moral is: Don’t believe everything you read in the papers!

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