I started writing this post last week, but I was unable to finish it.  In some ways, I’m really at a loss for words.  Like many of you, I’m terribly offended and troubled by President Trump’s executive order banning refugees and immigrants from seven primarily Muslim countries.

How on earth did we get here?

A while back I wrote a blog post about then-candidate Trump and his platform.  I was never a Trump supporter, but rather wrote it as a thought experiment (at a time when it seemed very unlikely that Trump would win) to really understand why people considered him a good candidate for president.  At the time, there was an angle that actually made a lot of sense to me.

In the post I talked about the somewhat popular opinion that our government is “broken.”  The quintessential example of broken government that I highlighted was the plan for the F-35 airplane and it’s supposed $1.5 trillion price tag.  I linked to a Quora article by Jack Menendez that called this price tag an example of government corruption.

In his bitter rebuke of the F-35 program, which I found very compelling, Menendez writes:

“The entire F-35 program is supposed to cost $1.5 trillion; in today’s dollars that is 3 times what the interstate highway system cost and 14 times the cost of the entire Apollo program i.e. going to the moon.”

On the surface, and without thinking about it much, this is a very troubling reality and one that might warrant a new kind of President to go into Washington and disrupt the status quo.  That’s where I hypothesized Trump could be (and has been) successful.

There’s one small problem though – Menendez had the facts wrong.  As it turns out, the $1.5T figure isn’t in today’s dollars, and there is a lot more in the F-35 program than just building an airplane.

After I published the post, Michael Griffiths (long time reader and friend) published a response in the comments section with actual facts about the plane.  Unlike Menendez and me, Griffiths actually found the government fact sheet for the F-35 airplane, which gave a lot of important context to the $1.5T number.

Here’s what Griffiths wrote:

“- First, the $1.5 trillion estimate is in “then year” (TY) dollars, that is accounting for inflation through to 2070*. In 2012 dollars (BY12), the total cost is $934 billion. It seems more reasonable to use that number.

– Second, the $934 billion cost is the total estimated cost through *2070*, and the vast majority ($620 billion) of that is in operating and service costs. Net, R&D over the entire time period will be ~$60 billion, and procurement will be $249 billion.

Not nothing, but when I think of the “cost” so far of the program, that cost is probably < $100 billion. That’s a far cry from $1.5 trillion.”

Wow – I was totally wrong.

Turns out the $1.5T price tag that both Menedez and I anchored on wasn’t even a real number.  It was taken out of context, divorced from facts and manipulated to convince people of a specific point of view.

This is a great example of the Trump effect.

I took a figure at face value and jumped to a conclusion without digging deeper to find the actual facts.  I completely fell for it as I was writing that post.

In some ways, I think this is the perfect corollary to what’s happening with President Trump’s immigration ban.  Trump is asking us to take a stat at face value: that some Muslims are terrorists, and without digging any deeper, accept that all Muslims need to be blocked from entering our country.

However, once you look beyond the surface, it’s very unlikely that the immigration ban is going to make us any safer.  First of all – Islam is one of the world’s most popular religions accounting for 1.6B people or 23% of the world’s population.  For every Muslim terrorist – there are millions of Muslims who are good people.  Many of them are trying to escape the very same people we’re afraid of.  Some of them are even my friends and co-workers.

What’s worse is, if you actually read the Wikipedia page for Al Qaeda, it says their official strategy is to provoke the US into retaliating against Muslim countries, which, in turn will rally more support for their anti-American campaign.

Crap.

Not only is the immigration ban not effective (and, as of this weekend, legally unenforceable), but it’s also uniting nearly ¼ of the world’s population against us.

What a terrible, terrible mess.

Immigration Ban
  • Rezwan Khan

    Andrew – As you know, this topic is very personal to me. Hence, thank you for writing about it so eloquently. I agree that you make a very good point that we are living in a “post-fact” era. I have been thinking about this over the weekend and struggling to understand why this is the case and more importantly what we can do to fix it. Some of my hypotheses are:

    1. We are probably not in a “post-fact” era and the way people respond to facts is arguably the same as it always was. However, nowadays, there are more ways to spread “alternative facts”, amplifying it’s effect.

    2. The quantity of information accessible has increased exponentially but our ability to process the information hasn’t. This is obvious – our interface with the digital world is still arguably slow and we are not built to process raw noise in such quantity. This has an effect of people quickly jumping to their pre-conceived bias, because it requires less mental processing power.

    3. We are in average less intelligent in critical skills such as quantitive and logical reasoning than we were in the past

    4. An issue you are intimately familiar with ;) – the current advertising model of the internet, prioritises quantity over quality. Fewer publications are writing balanced and thoughtful pieces that clearly articulates an issue. For example, I hadn’t read about the true cost of the F-35 program anywhere! It is shocking considering how much news I personally consume.

    5. Content producers focus on niche audiences, because it is possible to understand better what your audiences want (due to analytics). In the past, news papers were not micro-targeting audiences and hence by necessity needed to broaden their appeal. This resulted in them being more balanced than today’s newspaper.

    I suppose all these are not mutually exclusive and the way we can tackle this is probably by forcing ourselves to have honest open conversation as to what the role of education, analysis, technology to assist in delivering signal over noise, content production and consumption is in society and maybe whether the underlying business models which underpin content and media, even if it is profitable, requires a fundamental rethinking. Anyways, good stuff – thanks again for writing!

  • Rez,
    Thanks for reading and for the thoughtful response. I think all of your points are dead on.

    Apropos of my experience here, I think one of the biggest problems is people losing the disciple to source their material responsibly.

    I was guilty of this in my post on Trump. I based my article on a Quora answer from a random guy. He confirmed the thesis I was already developing – and all the sudden there I was perpetuating a false narrative.

    Honestly, it was kind of a wake up call for me. Rather than sourcing our information from twitter and quora we need to go back to relying on the New York Times, The Washington Post and other organizations who’s job it is to find facts and practice journalism.

    We should also make sure we find a way for ad dollars to support that shift as well. Fortunately you and I may be able to play a part in making that happen.

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