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[2b2k] The public ombudsman (or Facts don’t work the way we want)

I don’t care about expensive electric sports cars, but I’m fascinated by the dustup between Elon Musk and the New York Times.

On Sunday, the Times ran an article by John Broder on driving the Tesla S, an all-electric car made by Musk’s company, Tesla. The article was titled “Stalled Out on Tesla’s Electric Highway,” which captured the point quite concisely.

Musk on Wednesday in a post on the Tesla site contested Broder’s account, and revealed that every car Tesla lends to a reviewer has its telemetry recorders set to 11. Thus, Musk had the data that proved that Broder was driving in a way that could have no conceivable purpose except to make the Tesla S perform below spec: Broder drove faster than he claimed, drove circles in a parking lot for a while, and didn’t recharge the car to full capacity.

Boom! Broder was caught red-handed, and it was data that brung him down. The only two questions left were why did Broder set out to tank the Tesla, and would it take hours or days for him to be fired?

Except…

Rebecca Greenfield at Atlantic Wire took a close look at the data — at least at the charts and maps that express the data — and evaluated how well they support each of Musk’s claims. Overall, not so much. The car’s logs do seem to contradict Broder’s claim to have used cruise control. But the mystery of why Broder drove in circles in a parking lot seems to have a reasonable explanation: he was trying to find exactly where the charging station was in the service center.

But we’re not done. Commenters on the Atlantic piece have both taken it to task and provided some explanatory hypotheses. Greenfield has interpolated some of the more helpful ones, as well as updating her piece with testimony from the tow-truck driver, and more.

But we’re still not done. Margaret Sullivan [twitter:sulliview] , the NYT “public editor” — a new take on what in the 1960s we started calling “ombudspeople” (although actually in the ’60s we called them “ombudsmen”) — has jumped into the fray with a blog post that I admire. She’s acting like a responsible adult by witholding judgment, and she’s acting like a responsible webby adult by talking to us even before all the results are in, acknowledging what she doesn’t know. She’s also been using social media to discuss the topic, and even to try to get Musk to return her calls.

Now, this whole affair is both typical and remarkable:

It’s a confusing mix of assertions and hypotheses, many of which are dependent on what one would like the narrative to be. You’re up for some Big Newspaper Schadenfreude? Then John Broder was out to do dirt to Tesla for some reason your own narrative can supply. You want to believe that old dinosaurs like the NYT are behind the curve in grasping the power of ubiquitous data? Yup, you can do that narrative, too. You think Elon Musk is a thin-skinned capitalist who’s willing to destroy a man’s reputation in order to protect the Tesla brand? Yup. Or substitute “idealist” or “world-saving environmentally-aware genius,” and, yup, you can have that narrative too.

Not all of these narratives are equally supported by the data, of course — assuming you trust the data, which you may not if your narrative is strong enough. Data signals but never captures intention: Was Broder driving around the parking lot to run down the battery or to find a charging station? Nevertheless, the data do tell us how many miles Broder drove (apparently just about the amount that he said) and do nail down (except under the most bizarre conspiracy theories) the actual route. Responsible adults like you and me are going to accept the data and try to form the story that “makes the most sense” around them, a story that likely is going to avoid attributing evil motives to John Broder and evil conspiratorial actions by the NYT.

But the data are not going to settle the hash. In fact, we already have the relevant numbers (er, probably) and yet we’re still arguing. Musk produced the numbers thinking that they’d bring us to accept his account. Greenfield went through those numbers and gave us a different account. The commenters on Greenfield’s post are arguing yet more, sometimes casting new light on what the data mean. We’re not even close to done with this, because it turns out that facts mean less than we’d thought and do a far worse job of settling matters than we’d hoped.

That’s depressing. As always, I am not saying there are no facts, nor that they don’t matter. I’m just reporting empirically that facts don’t settle arguments the way we were told they would. Yet there is something profoundly wonderful and even hopeful about this case that is so typical and so remarkable.

Margaret Sulllivan’s job is difficult in the best of circumstances. But before the Web, it must have been so much more terrifying. She would have been the single point of inquiry as the Times tried to assess a situation in which it has deep, strong vested interests. She would have interviewed Broder and Musk. She would have tried to find someone at the NYT or externally to go over the data Musk supplied. She would have pronounced as fairly as she could. But it would have all been on her. That’s bad not just for the person who occupies that position, it’s a bad way to get at the truth. But it was the best we could do. In fact, most of the purpose of the public editor/ombudsperson position before the Web was simply to reassure us that the Times does not think it’s above reproach.

Now every day we can see just how inadequate any single investigator is for any issue that involves human intentions, especially when money and reputations are at stake. We know this for sure because we can see what an inquiry looks like when it’s done in public and at scale. Of course lots of people who don’t even know that they’re grinding axes say all sorts of mean and stupid things on the Web. But there are also conversations that bring to bear specialized expertise and unusual perspectives, that let us turn the matter over in our hands, hold it up to the light, shake it to hear the peculiar rattle it makes, roll it on the floor to gauge its wobble, sniff at it, and run it through sophisticated equipment perhaps used for other purposes. We do this in public — I applaud Sullivan’s call for Musk to open source the data — and in response to one another.

Our old idea was that the thoroughness of an investigation would lead us to a conclusion. Sadly, it often does not. We are likely to disagree about what went on in Broder’s review, and how well the Tesla S actually performed. But we are smarter in our differences than we ever could be when truth was a lonelier affair. The intelligence isn’t in a single conclusion that we all come to — if only — but in the linked network of views from everywhere.

There is a frustrating beauty in the way that knowledge scales.

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More Stories By David Weinberger

David is the author of JOHO the blog (www.hyperorg.com/blogger). He is an independent marketing consultant and a frequent speaker at various conferences. "All I can promise is that I will be honest with you and never write something I don't believe in because someone is paying me as part of a relationship you don't know about. Put differently: All I'll hide are the irrelevancies."