Sunday, October 31, 2021

Killer Volcano Destroys Hawaii! (Or: "Why the Volcano in My Backyard Caused Me to Question Everything")

[I originally wrote most of this in early 2019, but it's been sitting in my drafts folder since then, so I'm just going to publish it.]

Today, I'm going to depart completely from the market and write a "bonus article" about something that's been kicking around in the back of my head for a while, which is:  My firsthand observations about the media coverage of the 2018 eruption of Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii.

As most readers already know, I live in Hawaii.  Accordingly, I had a unique, ongoing and firsthand perspective on the 2018 eruption (which destroyed about half of a subdivision known as Leilani Estates) -- this unique firsthand perspective allowed me to knowledgably compare what was actually happening against how it was being reported by the national news media.

I assure you, I did not start off with that comparison as my intention.  I started off, like most other residents of Hawaii, in complete awe of the power of nature.  (In my family's case, we lived far enough away that we were extremely unlikely to be impacted directly.)  Point is, "How is the media covering this?" was not even on my mind, initially.  However, shortly after the media arrived, I began getting panicked phone calls, texts, and emails from friends and family on the mainland -- sometimes several times per day -- that always went something like this:


To people on the mainland with no common frame of reference, such reactions probably seems completely justified.  As I will outline, though, they made very little sense to those of us living here -- meaning: Such reactions made little sense to those of us who had a NON-MEDIA-INSPIRED perspective on the event.

(Above is a photo that I personally shot from ground zero, only a couple weeks after the eruption began.  This is lava shooting roughly 150 feet into the air, out of a fissure that was maybe half
a mile off from where I had parked.  This photo has been reprinted with my own permission,
though I may later decide to sue myself anyway, because I can't have people stealing my work.)

Anyway, after receiving many panicked phone calls and text messages, I began to piece together that the media was not exactly reporting the event in what we might traditionally call an "accurate" manner.

Pretty far from it.

The unreliability of our "news" media does, of course, have much broader implications, especially in our modern media-driven world -- but for now, let's just stick to talking about the volcano.

To understand the outrageous reporting I'm about to discuss, it's first necessary to understand what was actually going on here.

And to understand that, the first thing that's required is an understanding of how large the island of Hawaii actually is.  Hawaii consists of five huge volcanoes (one is dormant (last erupted 4500+ years ago), one is extinct, three are considered active, but one of those hasn't erupted in 220 years) joined together.  Two of these are literally the largest mountains in the world (Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa) -- larger than Everest when measured all the way down to the sea floor -- and they rise more than 13,000 feet above the sea.

So for perspective, let's begin with a to-scale map of the island and lava flow, which I originally drew to calm my relatives, but then also sent to the USGS through their Twitter feed.  (USGS Volcanoes then retweeted my map to all their followers, which was kinda fun.)

As you can see on that map, the actual lava flow -- all that incredibly impressive destruction that you probably saw on TV -- was confined to a tiny little section of the island, about 1% of our land.  The island of Hawaii is more than 4000 square miles of land mass (just this one island is roughly the size of the state of Connecticut), so from most of island, you couldn't see anything at all In fact, from most of the island, if you didn't already know an eruption was occurring, you would NEVER have known without turning on the TV.

For example, here's what the eruption looked like at the end of May 2018 (when it was in full force) from Pohoiki Bay, which is literally only a couple miles away from Leilani Estates:

See it?  Me neither.

Here's what it looked like from MOST of the island:

See it there?  It's over to your left, off the frame, behind the 13,000 foot mountain (which doesn't even fit in the frame).  You could see nothing, in other words, even if you were looking.

Anyway, point is, for those of us outside the immediate eruption zone, it was basically as if nothing was happening at all.  But you'd never know that from watching CNN, et al.  At one point a CNN reporter said, and I quote: "Lava just running all throughout the island!"  I wish I could find that clip now, but I burst out laughing and called my wife into the room, so I remember it clearly.  Needless to say, hyperbole such as that understandably alarmed our relatives.

If you want to watch some of the archived footage, below is a link to one of the silly coverage examples.  A few quotes, followed by my commentary:  

CNN:  "...and spewing lava... that's what MANY PEOPLE ON THAT ISLAND HAVE BEEN ENDURING." -- "Many" people is ridiculous hyperbole.  As I just outlined, it was basically one housing development.  Most of the island was completely unaffected.  "Many" people on the island were not "enduring" anything.

CNN:  "And MANY having only MINUTES to escape the lava from the Kilauea volcano.  People are now being told to RATION THEIR WATER even." -- There's that "many" again.  Also:  Nobody was told to ration water, except possibly the small handful of people who had to evacuate their homes.  We never heard anything about water rationing.

CNN:  "IF THEY DO REMAIN ON THE ISLAND."  -- as if remaining on the island were dangerous!  This is the type of commentary that subconsciously paints a picture of an entire island devastated by the eruption.  Who dares to remain?!?

CNN:  [cuts to correspondent]:  "As if it's not enough to not know where one of these fissures, where the lava is spewing forth out of the Earth, where they're going to pop up..."  -- Actually, we knew exactly where:  Leilani Estates, which is on the literal rift of Kilauea (rifts are the only places fissures form) in Lava Zone 1 (the most dangerous zone).  And pretty much nowhere else.

And that's just the first 41 seconds of coverage!

I'm not going to do this for every errant news report, because it would probably turn this into a 50,000 page article.  Suffice to say that this was typical of the type of misleading coverage (in fact, the video I included was literally the very first video I pulled up on a search just now, so I didn't have to look far to find examples!) the mainstream media produced repeatedly.

Anyway, this was all very eye-opening for me.  I realized, "Hey, if they're getting so many basic facts wrong on this, what else are they getting wrong where I would never know any better?  Probably a lot of things."

I think many people have had a similar experience... yet many go back to trusting the news anyway.  The question is: Why?  Why forget the lesson?  Why play pretend?  Do we secretly realize that the news is "for entertainment purposes only," but want to be outraged and upset as if it were real, to keep ourselves amused?  I don't know the deeper psychological motivation behind "defending" the news as if it were "mostly" accurate.  I suspect those who defend it don't know why they do it, either.  Desire to fit in with the perceived dominant culture, maybe?  Fear of being labeled a "conspiracy theorist"?  Lack of faith in one's own critical thinking skills?  Or perhaps it's just simple misplaced trust.  Who knows.  All I know is that too many people treat the news as if it were gospel, and it simply isn't.

"If you don't read the newspaper, you are uniformed.  If you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed."  -- (commonly attributed to) Mark Twain (but unknown)

"Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper.  Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.  The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day.  I will add, that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors."
-- Thomas Jefferson

 Michael Crichton once talked about the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect:

There's a profound truth about the news business in this brief clip from the movie The Shipping News:

So if you want to know why I don't trust the news anymore, it's simply because I've experienced their magnificent errors and hyperbolic inaccuracies firsthand, and it would be foolhardy to put the blinders back on.

Now, here's the most interesting part in all this:  Remember the panicked relatives I mentioned earlier?  Well.  After talking to them and reassuring them that the news was making things seem much worse than they actually were, most of our relatives calmed down.  But not all of them.  A few of them refused to accept our firsthand accounts because, by God, they had seen it on CNN, so it must be true!  Surely we were just trying to be reassuring, and we were no doubt dodging lava bombs even as we spoke.

And that, my friends, is the absolute power of mainstream media misinformation.  And it should terrify all of us.  Because (mis)information shapes opinions, opinions shape votes, and votes shape America's future.  When the mainstream media falls, and it has fallen, America either wakes up -- or eventually falls with it.

Trade safe.


1 comment:

  1. Yep! We are in The Great Awakening now. Let's keep it going!