But You Need the Data

In my last post, But We Need the Rain, I suggested that environmentalist animism in San Francisco may fill the role once filled by religious belief, and may suffuse daily life as Christian belief did in medieval Europe. As the phrase “God be with ye” once reminded countrymen of correct thinking, so too might acknowledgment that we need the rain.

Medieval institutions – social and governmental – exerted constant pressure steering people away from wrong thinking; and the church dissuaded its flock from asking the wrong questions. Telling a lie to save a soul was OK; deceiving heathens into Christianity was just fine. I wonder if a weaker form of this sentiment remains in my fair city – in the form of failing to mention relevant facts about an issue and through the use of deceptive and selective truths. As theologian Thomas Burnet put it in the early 18th century, too much light is hurtful to weak eyes.

The San Francisco Chronicle, according to Google data, has published over 50 articles in the last two years mentioning the Shasta and Oroville reservoirs in connection with California’s four-year-old drought. Many of these pieces call attention to low levels of these reservoirs, e.g., Shasta was at 53% of normal level in January 2014.

None mention that Shasta and Oroville were, despite the drought, at 108% and 101% of normal level in April 2013, two years into the drought. Climate is mentioned in nearly all sfgate.com articles on the drought, but mismanagement of water resources by governments is mentioned in only one. Digging a bit deeper – with other sources – you’ll find bitter disputes between farmers saying water is wasted on environmental restoration and environmentalists asking why desert farmers want to grow thirsty crops like rice and cotton. I’d think Northern California citizens, asked by the governor to bathe less, might be interested in why so much of the Shasta and Oroville water left the reservoirs – whether they want to blame Sacramento, farmers, or environmentalists – and in the details of the dispute.

Is the Chronicle part of a conspiracy to get liberals in power by linking the water shortage to climate change rather than poor governance? I doubt it. There are no conservatives to displace. More likely, it seems to me, the Chronicle simply mirrors the values and beliefs held by its readers, an unusually monolithic community with a strong uniformity of views. The sense of identification with a community here somewhat resembles that of a religious group, where there’s a tendency for beliefs to be held as true by individuals because they are widely believed by the group – and to select or reject evidence based on whether it supports a preexisting belief.


“Being crafty, I caught you with guile.” – 2 Corinthians, 12:16

“For if the truth of God hath more abounded through my lie unto his glory, why yet am I also judged as a sinner?” – Romans 3:7

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