Thursday, December 13, 2007

Information Vacuums

(News-Herald, December 13)Nature abhors an information vacuum. Where information is missing, nature always finds way to pick up the slack. This is a simple principle, easy to grasp, but often forgotten. People, particularly when occupying sensitive positions of power or bureaucracy, seem to have an overwhelming urge to “manage” people by withholding information.

“What they don’t know won’t hurt them” is the operating principle, and it’s true, as far as it goes. But the oft-forgotten rest of the saying is “but it will surely come back to bite you in the butt.”

On some level, we all know this. It’s a principle that has been celebrated endlessly on television. If the first part of an episode involves a husband deciding that he will avoid trouble by keeping some piece of information from his wife, every tv viewer over the age of six knows that hilarity will ensue as his secrecy breeds disaster.

The problem with an artificial information vacuum is not just that it’s hard to control. The problem is that when you refuse to tell people things they want to know, they will invariably just start making stuff up. Nobody ever EVER walked away from a situation like that saying, “Well, they aren’t talking, so I guess we’ll just never know.”

All of the great wrangles in these parts have featured this principle at work. From the Hospital Merger Fiasco to the endless Two Mile Run Drama, confusion and mess have been sown by folks who figured they could keep a lid on things and avoid further squawking.

In the murky uncertainty of the merger of the Oil City and Franklin hospitals, a thousand imagined outcomes were conjured up. The Oil City Hospital is going to be closed. The Franklin Hospital will be closed. A thousand nurses will be laid off. The Oil City building will be encased in concrete, then blown up. Patients will be dragged to the Franklin facility and then forced to live within the Franklin City limits.

It’s not that the complete truth is always greeted with a warm fuzzy hug. Had the merger plans been laid out in detail from day one, there still would have been plenty of people hopping mad. But by trying to avoid that scenario, honchos managed to still get all of that anger PLUS a bunch more anger about things that weren’t even going to happen.

And if that isn’t messy enough, an information vacuum provides opportunity for deliberate abuse. Hypothetically, a physician who was worried about having his golden applecart upset by the merger would have been free to fill the vacuum with whatever tale he chose to spin in order to stir up people for his own purposes.

Two Mile has often offered more of the same. We could go back through the years, but let’s just set the wayback machine to last summer.

All the park authority ever needed to do was issue a simple sentence beginning with the words, “It’s necessary to close the park for the season because…” and finish it in fifteen words or fewer. Instead, we got gobbledygook that was, perhaps, intended to soothe the savages. It didn’t—it just left everyone in the county free to invent their own reason for closing the park.

So many stories have been made up about the park that the average shmoe doesn’t have a hope of figuring out what the heck really went on. That’s how it is with an information vacuum; before you know it, you’re trying to prove that forty-seven different things didn’t happen and answering questions like “When did you stop beating your wife?”

That’s why it’s worth it to tell people you don’t have an answer—if you tell them nothing, they’ll guess that you’re keeping the truth hostage for nefarious purposes. That’s why it actually makes sense for news outlets to keep reporting “Nothing new has happened at this time.” The truth may be boring, but it still fills the information vacuum.

Sometimes information has to be held back. It would have been nice to have regular updates on the saga of the Crook Who Stole Venango County’s Money, but the feds asked our local authorities to keep a lid on it and that seems like a hard-to-ignore request. Troop movements, contract negotiations and medical tests are better handled without widespread public scrutiny, balanced by the knowledge that the results will ultimately be revealed.

It should also be noted that it is not an information vacuum when the information is right there for all the to see, but people are just too lazy or cantankerous or attached to what they’ve already decided is the truth. If you insist on remaining unbothered by the facts, the only vacuum is between your ears.

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