Mar. 17th, 2011

redsage: (Default)
When you have had repeatedly demonstrated proof that you can't always trust your government, it's very hard to trust your government when they ask you to. You'd think this would be obvious.

This is especially frustrating when the government is one of the only sources of information about a scary topic, and has a vested interest in keeping people calm.

On the one hand, the government does have the best information about what's actually going on in Japan, and they also have climatologists and meteorologists and radiation scientists and geological experts and so on and so forth. I expect that they really do have the best data of anyone in the US on what's actually happening, and whether or not people in California should be concerned about radiation.

On the other hand, if the US government said "everyone on the west coast should take iodine because you are getting increased doses of radiation," can you imagine what would happen? People would panic! People would pack up their stuff and flee, resulting in crazy traffic and looting and people going nuts robbing stores to get supplies to "save their children" and stuff. Businesses would shut down. People who wanted to leave but felt compelled to stay by family or work would be angry and frightened and have accidents and start fights.

So... I'm kind of stuck. Yes, our government and their scientists genuinely do have the best information and scientific perspective on what's happening and whether or not it affects us here. And yet, our government also has a vested interest in keeping people quiet and calm, and has shown in the past a willingness to compromise the health of the populace in the interests of keeping a lid on things and profit.

At the moment, I am so far assuming the risk is minimal because I am willing to trust the sheer volume of scientists and scientific evidence coming from both government and non-governmental sources alike.

Beyond this frightening tragedy, I am left feeling unsettled about the larger issue. When I know my government does not always tell the truth, and does not always act in the best interests of the people even when they are explicitly aware of the consequences (not to mention the times they are simply ill-informed) - how do I know who and what to trust in a situation where the government is the main source of information? I don't want to be either uncritically trusting nor automatically distrusting anything from "the man."

This dilemma comes up to a lesser degree with journalism. Do I trust The New York Times? Do I trust Fox News? Do I trust The Economist or The Christian Science Monitor? The way I generally try to figure out what is trustworthy and authoritative is to try to get a sample from a few sources, and find the median stories. I try to average out the bias.

With government, that's less of an option. It feels like my choices are two extremes. Either I join up with the paranoids and freak out over the fluoride in the water and the cell phone towers and the smart meters, or I trust that our government would never knowingly and purposefully infect people with syphilis and that Saddam really did have those weapons of mass destruction.

How do you handle this? How do you decide when to trust an authority that has proven to be untrustworthy at times in the past?

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