Sometimes I actually feel sorry for politicians. There, I’ve said it. The other week, when wannabe-POTUS Governor Richard “Rick” Perry suffered his spectacular live-TV retrieval failure in front of millions of people he was trying to impress, I genuinely cringed on his behalf. After all, when seeking election to a post that gives you the PIN number to the world’s deadliest nuclear arsenal, it generally looks bad if your brain freezes. But at least he resisted the temptation to bluff, instead limiting his remarks to a simple faux-comedy “Oops!“
However, some politicians find themselves with too much to say, even when they don’t know quite what they’re talking about. Yeah? And this can be quite a treacherous hazard for politicians who take it upon themselves to discuss complexities relating to science and/or technology. Isn’t that so? Well, certainly that’s the, erm, stereotype:
And of course we’ll always have this:
So yesterday, I was not entirely surprised to see a large number of suddenly circulated tweets regarding a local politician from rainy Connemara, in the west of Ireland, who apparently misunderstands the basic principle of cloud computing. It is reported that he believes his local area to be particularly suitable to cloud computing…BECAUSE OF ALL THE CLOUDS!
What an idiot, right? Here’s the news story as reproduced on a number of websites:
CLOUDS OF CONFUSION AS GALWAY COUNCILLOR TELLS ANOTHER TO “GO F..K HIMSELF”
A GALWAY councillor has refused to apologise for swearing at a County Council committee meeting after he told a fellow councillor to “go **** himself”.
Local area councillor Seamus Tiernan made the amazing outburst after he was told he was a “feckin eejit” for thinking that cloud computing was only suitable in areas with lots of rain.
He had told the Infrastructure Committee meeting this week that his native Connemara would be ideal for cloud computing because it has heavy cloud cover for nine months of the year.”
The Independent councillor said that the Government should be doing more to harness clean industries for the Connemara area and he named wind energy and cloud computing as two obvious examples.
“Connemara in particular could become a centre of excellence for wind energy harnessing, as it is open to the Atlantic. Also in terms of cloud computing, we have dense thick fog for nine months of the year, because of the mountain heights and the ability to harness this cloud power, there is tremendous scope for cloud computing to become a major employer in this region.”
However his mistake was pointed out by an incredulous Cllr Martin Shiels who said that “this is taking the biscuit. I’ve heard it all now. You must be a fecking eejit to think that the cloud computing had anything to do with climate.”
Cllr Tiernan took umbrage at the remarks of his colleague and called for them to be withdrawn. When Cllr Shields refused to do so, Tiernan said “go **** yourself, Cllr Shields.”
Chairman Sile Ni Baoill asked for both councillors to withdraw their comments, but Cllr Tiernan was repentant that Cllr Shields was wrong and that cloud computing is linked to cloud cover.
“Tell me why large companies are opening server farms in cold wet countries then,” he asked Cllr Shields.
The online dismay was palpable. The story led to lots of tweets and retweets, and was widely discussed on message boards. It’s not surprising really, given that it all seems quite plausible. After all, there are certainly clouds in that part of the world…
…as well as lots of people who swear (or, at least, who say “feck” and “eejit“), and of course loads of local politicians who don’t know anything about the modern world with all its technological gee-whizzery.
So I set about writing an appropriate blog. I had even composed the opening sentence: “This is one of those ‘you’re-never-gonna-believe-it’ kind of stories.” And then, as I usually do, I went looking for the sources. Evidence, in other words.
Unfortunately, to my (kind-of) disappointment, I had difficulty finding the original article. The piece had appeared on a number of discussion boards (such as here, here, and here), but not in any actual news outlet, at least online. Fair enough, I thought, maybe the piece was published only in hard copy, although I did think it strange that no original source was identified on any of the posts. So then I went looking for details about the various councillors, including Martin Shiels, Sile Ni Baoill, and the now infamous Seamus Tiernan. And I discovered there were no councillors of those names serving in Galway, nor in any other council in Ireland.
In other words, the entire story was a hoax. Funny, yes, and maybe even thought-provoking. But a hoax nonetheless.
Which rather scuppered my plans to write about politicians’ lack of grasp on matters scientific and technological.
But maybe this story is blog-worthy anyway. Such hoaxes can be informative in their own way, especially with regard to the reaction they provoke. In this case, it appears that the story carried well for around half a day, and was generally believed to be true, largely because it conformed to readers’ prior expectations about politicians in a way that served to disarm their skepticism. So this gives us an excellent example of confirmation bias, a problem with scientific reasoning that we have seen in these parts before.
The helpful thing about this example is that it relates not to sloppy scientists, mad conspiracists, or quack therapists, but rather to folks — myself included — who are genuinely interested in science and technology, but whose initial response was indeed to believe this story.
It reminds us yet again of how human reasoning really works. Instead of allowing evidence to shape how we view the world, all too often we allow our worldviews to shape how we view the evidence. This applies just as much to evidence we see in the media as it does to evidence we see in the laboratory. The big challenge of scientific thinking is to break through this tendency, and to get the right balance between prediction and presumption. If we don’t, then scientists, and science enthusiasts, will (rightly) be accused of being prone to bias.
Of course, there’s only one thing funnier than a rural Irish politician who doesn’t know what cloud computing involves, and that’s a rural Irish politician who actually does know what cloud computing involves. Now that’s hilarious…