Saturday, July 26, 2008

Opinions, Informed and Uninformed

T’other day, friend Tamara did a blog post entitled, “Everybody’s an Expert."

If you haven’t already read it, I suggest you do so, and be sure to read the comments. It may make my points more clear. Her post, deceptively brief, is based on the idea that there are so many self-styled internet experts who are truly less informed than she is, that there’s little use in bothering to read most of them. The Comments section on that post provide all the documentation she needs for HER PREMISE: ". . . one reason I've shied away from intarw3bz gun boards so much; everybody's an expert, and nobody's opinion counts for more than anyone else's. Any enthusiastic hobbyist can hang out a shingle and profess their expertise."

In the above-linked blogpost, Tams includes links to several individuals whose opinions she holds in some regard. They are worth looking at. MOST of ‘em, anyhow. I was honored -- and utterly stunned -- to see that she also linked to my own poor efforts at writing. Puzzled, too - - I swear, I have absolutely nothing on her. No possibility of blackmail, extortin’ or anything else. I am indeed unworthy, but - - Many thanks, Sis.

A couple of the commenters write stuff that has the crystal-clear ring of truth to it. I’ve never encountered Ed Foster before, but if he has half the background he indicates, he’s very knowledgeable. In this case, a hour’s diligent Google search turned up a couple of references that give me to believe they refer to the same Ed Foster. If you see anything he wrote the AR15/M16 series of weapons, he seems to bear reading.

Tamara likes guns. She collects, them, shoots them on the range, reads about them, writes about them, and has sold them for a living. She is extremely knowledgeable about marketing, merchandising, stocking, and counseling individuals about the various brands, types, and uses. If asked about something on which she is uneducated, she’ll likely say, “I dunno. Let me do some checking and I’ll get back to you.” She may share whatever she DOES know on the topic, but I can’t picture her trying to bluff or lie her way through with some BS pontification. When she encounters such behavior in others, she is apt to be less than tolerant. This is likely one reason she is sometimes less than totally forthcoming with her firearms knowledge. An excellent and amusing example is HERE.

She has a secondary blog, though she hasn’t posted on it recently. I still check by occasionally, though, hoping she’ll take pity and favor us with a new installment on The Arms Room. Even if she doesn’t, it’s highly worth your while to wade through the archives on that site.

Anyway, while I was mowing the lawn, Tam’s post set me to pondering. I’m formulating a theory to at least partially explain the “Uninformed Expertise” or the vanishingly narrow line of informed opinion so readily visible on the ‘net nowadays. To limit the scope of this article, I’ll restrict it to firearms matters. Freely shared topics of apparent misinformation frequently include a few common - - -

Regarding infantry weapons reliability:

My great-aunt’s second husband served two tours in THE ‘NAM and says the jam-o-matic M16 got 80% of his best buddy’s cousin’s regiment killed.” First, how much third- and fifth-hand hearsay and anecdotal embellishment is considered acceptable? You kind of hate to challenge a story-teller by flying the BS Banner, because this impugns the integrity of someone HE doubtless considers of flawless credibility.

Beyond doubt, many M16s, used by poorly trained troops, often with improper ammunition, DID NOT work well at very inopportune moments. With all respect to those who actually met their end under such shameful circumstances, I must wonder how many such cases were truly documented. I believe it is mostly a matter of some significant number of real instances being told and retold and “made better” to the point of saturation.

About firearms effectiveness:

"Ol' Uncle Joe told me about the time he killed a twelve-foot polar bear stone dead with one shot from his .25-20. A man don't need any of them big guns for huntin'. "

"My Cousin Bill says it always took 30 shots from his M16 to stop an Iraqi."

So, what can one do? Tell them that this information is contrary to all logic? Call him a liar, or, worse, impugn the cuz or uncle?

While a teenager in the late 1950s, I learned that the pastor at our little Methodist Church, a WWII veteran, had been a prisoner of war. I asked him about his experiences. In brief, as a young company commander, he’d waded onto Omaha Beach on The Longest Day . He evaded questions about how rough it was. He did say that he landed with an M1 carbine and a .45, but during the advance, he left the carbine and obtained a Garand rifle, wanting the additional range and effectiveness. It impressed me that he’d not only commanded men under fire but had actually shot people himself. It never occurred to me to ask about his other expertise. He decided what he needed, surviving not only combat, but months as a POW. He WAS an expert on that particular aspect of small arms lore, but never cared to stress it.

It is logical that any combat veteran will have a working knowledge of the weapons in his unit. A World War II infantryman, of whatever rank, would have been quite familiar with the M1 rifle, carbine, .45 pistol, B. A. R., Thompson or M3 submachine gun, and probably a Browning machine gun. Other specialties would have known the "bazooka" rocket launcher, flamethrower, mortars, and heavy machine guns. It should be stressed that most individuals could be considered highly competent with only one or two of the various weapons.

The weapons changed in succeeding conflicts but the principle applies. Many men were good - - perhaps excellent-- with their primary tool, but usually cared little for firearms as a whole field. They did what was needful and most survived. Many assume that this gives the veterans across-the-board expertise. Think, though: One may know many competent mechanics, but only a couple of truly talented machinists; many good drivers but precious few automotive enthusiasts who know cars inside and out.

Much of the above also applies to police officers. Really, the typical cop has far narrower weapons knowledge than a soldier. I’ve known several long time State Troopers whose sum total of weapons experience encompassed a .357 magnum revolver, a pump shotgun, and a Winchester .30-30. Many had previous experience with a .22 rifle, perhaps a deer rifle and a bird gun. That’s it.

A city police officer’s experience is likely even more modest. Many enter police academy never having fired a gun of any type. The candidate trains diligently on, say, the Glock, Smith & Wesson, or SiG pistol. They devote a lot of time teaching the rookie firearms orientation, weapons maintenance, marksmanship, and a bit on tactics. Integral in the course is familiarization with the pump shotgun. Once the rookie graduates academy, the department cares not if he ever does more than fire the qualification course with the issue pistol, and, perhaps once a year, the riot gun. The patrol carbine is becoming more common, but it is still a toss up as to whether the individual officer may be termed even competent with an AR15, Ruger Mini-14, or something else. He may have “fam fired” it, and even been issued one, but well trained and practiced? Unlikely.

Those soldiers and those peace officers may be well qualified to discuss their particular weapon. Possibly even to compare it to another gun or two of the type. But having packed a particular weapon for months or even years, gives a certain person standing ONLY to discuss it, and not all those of various types.

Now, next time you read someone who writes that he was “on the job” for years with some police agency, large or small, read closely what he/she writes. If it deals with one or at most two firearms types, then this may be a measure of credibility. If the writer makes free to say THIS brand is teh VERY best, or THAT brand sux big time, there needs to be some recitation of credentials. Reading Mason Williams’ features in old issues of Law and Order magazine, and a couple of articles by Massad Ayoob is not in-depth research.

It is one thing to say, “current literature indicates that that the Remchester patrol carbine doesn’t reliably feed Ely match .416 ammo.“ Better still if the writer furnishes at least one link to someone who has done a bit-o'-testing. It is quite another thing to imply personal knowledge of a firearm/ammo combination with which the writer has ZERO experience.

I’ve been a firearms enthusiast and hobbyist since my early teens. I read ALL I could find on small arms, police and military, and EVERY chance I had to fire one and/or take one apart, I did so. In time, I felt pretty secure in my knowledge of certain areas, though perhaps relying too heavily on what others wrote. It took me years to learn that reading something in print doesn’t necessarily make it true. Today, many accept anything they see on-screen as gospel. You’ll seldom go wrong seeking second and third sources for ANY controversial statement. Unfortunately, it is now possible for the most egregiously uninformed -- or downright MISinformed -- person to aver something as UTTER and ABSOLUTE fact. And, a certain writer managing to claw his way to an internet connection may lead the unsuspecting reader to ascribe a measure of reliability to the “information.”

“The Supreme Irony of the Information Age is that it gives new respectability to uninformed opinion.”
John Lawson, US Journalist – 1995
- - written some 13 years ago, before internet proliferation made it ten times as true. Anyone with a computer and a connection can get his words, however unworthy, spread around the globe n a matter or hours. In minutes, if he comes up with something controversial.

In recent years, I’ve pretty well resolved not to post anything technical about which I don’t have some measure of personal knowledge, or at least a credible, attributable cite. I do sometimes write my opinion off the top of my head, based solely on knowledge gleaned from several decades of handling and shooting various firearms. I have some standing to do so, based upon my personal experience and research, simply because this is my area of interest. I’m fully aware that there are many great gaps in my knowledge the of things which do interest me. I’m moving to fill some of them as fast as I can. I won’t last long enough to get ‘em all, but it’s always fun to learn, and maybe even understand, interesting stuff.

Most other topics, of perhaps more general interest, hold no fascination for me. Back in the day, I learned how drive a car pretty well and could do a minor tune-up on my own vehicles, purely for economic reasons. And I could stumble through a basic recitation of the operation of the internal combustion engine, but had no deep concern about the underlying principles of automotive design.

I tried to play golf but it bored me. To this day, I can’t tell you the numbers or purpose of a basic set of clubs. I know many individuals who are mightily challenged by the pursuit and punishment of the little dimpled ball, and if it makes them glad, hurrah for ‘em.

I am content to try to learn more about more and different shootin’ irons. I occasionally stray off into the philosophy which attaches to them. I’m getting tired tonight, though, and maybe I’ll cover some of that another time. If you’d like to know more on this last topic, go read these two excellent essays:
Metal and Wood, b
y Dennis Bateman, and Why the Gun is Civilization, by Marko Kloos, the REAL author.



JY said...

Quite interesting post sir. The Lawson quote is absolutely spot on.

Paul said...

Excellent points, well said.

James E. Griffin said...

All this "expert systems" stuff boils down to the book of Matthew: "By their fruits you shall know them." Seems to go hand-in-hand with the human condition.

Jeff Cooper once mentioned how rare true excellence in anything is. When you see it, you ought treasure it.

Oh ye Gods, you should see the stuff we have to deal with in the martial arts!

James said...

No offense meant toward Mr.Griffin, but I consider pistol shooting to be my martial art.
Loud opinions by the uninformed is normal in all fields of human endeavor, it isn't just guns.
I sometimes think that the stories of the 5.56 rounds lack of stopping power may come from people who didn't necessarily hit their target or who got their ballistics information from TV or movies. Those of us who have at least a lite knowledge don't expect targets to be blown backwards in the air from a single hit with anything. The human body is capable of taking enormous damage and still functioning, at least for a time. Many new recruits will not have fired a gun before entering the military.

Old NFO said...

Excellent post Sir! And very true words... OBTW, I've been playing flog..err golf for 40 years and STILL haven't figured it out!

ON weapons of any type, there will always be knowledgeable people, the problem is separation of the wheat from the chaff. At least with the magazines, you had 'some' indicators that someone at least thought that individual had some knowledge. Today, as you and Tam indicate- anyone with a computer can say they are experts.

James E. Griffin said...

I'll concur with the other James that his shooting is also a martial art. The actual weapon is the Homo self-styled Sapiens.

What I view we're discussing is different types and brands of tools. And the more tools you know how to use, the more likely one of them will come to hand when you need it.

Precious few of us are blessed with unlimited personal resources. One useful study in life is how to allocate resources to give us the maximum benefit as we live our lives.

For the price of a single top of the line double rifle, I can own a whole bunch of different guns. And those guns give me a wider range of uses than a single double rifle, no matter how much a work of art that double rifle is. Of course, each individual's needs are a bit different.

That allocation of resources includes other parts of life. Don't get me started on what all is required to make it possible for me to sit comfortably, enjoying the company of friends, with beverages of choice, watching children play.

I was finally beginning to see the outlines of the above when I hit about year 25 in the martial arts.

John Vonn said...

Excellent post Sir! And very true words. I love this project.
Internet Expert Witness for legal purpose