negative information

How about a new category: information youíd be better off not knowing.

Today I went to Whippany Park High School to pick up a ticket for Jeff for this Sundayís performance of their winter play (the name of which escapes me). The sign on Whippany Road says they are on sale from 4-6PM today. I park on the circle and walk toward the doors near the auditorium and the administrative offices. As I approach the building, some guy (the father of one of the students) walks out one of the doors and lets it close behind him. Then he tells me those doors are locked and Iíll have to find another way in. I ask if the doors on the side near Fairchild Avenue are open, but he doesnít know. He says maybe those doors near the center of the school are open. Just then he notices his daughter walking toward us, so we ask her about the doors she came out of and she doesnít think they are open either. (Is this a new homeland security thing?) She suggests I go and pound on the original auditorium doors until someone comes to open them. I decide thatís the way to go, but when I get to the doors, I pull on one and itís open! I walk in and purchase the ticket.

Now, this father, by passing along false information (that he thought was true) actually had a negative effect. We could call that negative information, in the sense that it made the situation worse than it would have been if he had not been there. Iím not suggesting that the little extra time I spend conferring with him and his daughter about how to enter the school was that big a deal. However, at another time or under different circumstances it could have been worse. The point is, if you donít know, donít pretend you do; or donít be sure about something if youíre only conjecturing; or shut up whoís asking you anyway?

This is really a vast area for psychological investigation. I’ve even heard that the reason you mostly get wrong directions from people you ask on the street is they can’t stand saying, “I don’t know.” That’s a big problem. I think it’s often a sign of intelligence and confidence to admit you don’t know, and especially to be able to define or compartmentalize what you don’t know. Ideally, if you can separate what you don’t know from what you do, you can ask a pointed question and increase your knowledge efficiently. In any event, one should avoid saying (or even inferring) more than you are sure of.

Of course, this is easier said than done. As students, we often try to give the impression we know more than we really do. At social events, we might want to impress others with our knowledge. In fact, even saying something we do know in a well thought out and eloquent way, can lead others to believe we know more than we do. How easy it is to slide from sure knowledge into wild speculation in the space of a short conversation. How enticing it is to see the impressed look on the face of another (perhaps an attractive member of the opposite sex?) and want to keep feeding it more impressive information.

OK, so I can forgive a certain amount of exaggeration and “padding” under some circumstances (especially in myself), but where does it end, and who’s policing it? Do you see where it ends up? 50 million urgent emails sent each day “to all your friends or people you really care about” giving them bogus information they’d be better off without. At best, this “boy crying wolf” behavior (boy crying wolf in sheep’s clothing?) causes us to ignore the occasional good information that comes along because we can’t separate the wheat from the chaff. At worst, we might actually take some wrong action because of the bad information we get.

What to do about it? Well, you could start by sending this note to all the people you really care about…(just kidding). There’s some old advice that predates the Internet and even television. It goes, “Believe none of what you hear and only half of what you read.” The follow-up question is, “Which half?” If that doesn’t help, ask yourself this question, “What do you know for sure?” Or meditate on Pilot’s question to Jesus, “What is truth?” But maybe the best advice I can give you is this. When you come to a door, pull on it to see if it’s open. (Unless it opens in.)

DadFunnies/Ideas/Stuffs02/27/03 6 comments


Patrick • 03/01/03 10:30 AM:

Of course, the first connection one makes is:

David • 03/01/03 7:32 PM:

Uh Pat,

How’s about you pay me $50 and I won’t tell Gary Larson that you’ve used one of his Farsides on our webpage. I’m going to try to put a link to a site that has Gary’s disgruntled letter (it’s real I’m pretty sure because I’ve seen it elsewhere):

Also Dad,

The other day at work I got that forwarded bogus email about the House of Representatives and how they are all bad people - addicts, malestors, fellons, and the like. It was forwarded to me by the head of the science department, and had been sent to him by another guy who used to teach at Ignatius. I briefly discussed how it was most probably a load of bull, and that forwarding that garbage should be illegal (by the way, what a cool slogan to put on your windshield, I just might do that). I tried to do my smart part in policing the internet and stopping stupidity. Until next time,


can you do that neato link stuff on comments sections? I can’t seem to do it. sorry. :)

Patrick • 03/02/03 6:21 PM:

Thank you for your concern, David. But you might want to brush up on your U.S. Legal Code, Title 17, specifically. Here, I’ll quote part of it for you:

Sec. 107 of the United States Code. Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use

Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include:

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.

If you’d like to read more of the code, visit

Anyway, what I imagine Larsen objects to is large collections of his cartoons on people’s sites. If he ever found out about and objected to this use, I’d simply point to Title 17. Nothing he can do.

Patrick • 03/02/03 6:40 PM:

But more to the point of Dad’s post: I have been mulling over an essay on “awareness” for a long time, and this “negative information” would fit it just fine. People who know me could point to lots of instances where I’m not very aware, but in general I think I do better than most people. Or at least I do better than people who bug me. For instance, the situation that got me started on the subject: At BYU there was a T-intersection corner that had two lanes and a stop light. From the right lane, you could turn right or left (already a bad idea, but it was near the basketball arena, and I assume they wanted to help traffic out of games). Me, I wanted to turn right always because that was how I got home. But how many times, how much pain and mental anguish, did I suffer waiting behind left-turners (henceforth known as “numbskulls”) sitting in the right lane at the red light? And how many times was I driving home late at night, one car in front of me but in the left lane, and it dives, at the last second, in front of me and sits there with its left blinker blinking while I flash my lights and turn on my right blinker.

I’ll stop here, but know that I, too, have suffered as you have suffered (in much the same way, though I haven’t detailed it here). At least you can take comfort in knowing that you are not alone.

Dad • 03/26/03 12:11 AM:

Hey you round haircuts, it just occurred to me that “numbskulls” is really a great word! Do you suppose it would apply to the kid in the cartoon?

David • 03/26/03 3:41 PM:


Great revelation. Why the long delay in sharing it with us?

Pat, you’re right, most people are idiots. The same thing happens here in Chicago (and anyplace with roads) all the time. FOOLS. It stems from lack of awareness. They don’t have self awareness, nor automobile awareness. Many people tell me I’ve got “Magic Johnsonesque” awareness, whether on the court, on the road, or on the highway of life.

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