Uncertainty principle goes to war

Posted: Apr 03, 2003 12:00 AM

Werner Heisenberg would understand the current media confusion surrounding the progress of the war. About 80 years ago, the German physicist postulated a theory (known as the uncertainty principle) that in subatomic physics the observer becomes part of the observed system. Through the act of measurement the physicist himself becomes part of observed reality. Regarding subatomic particles, he argued, the act of measuring one magnitude of a particle -- mass, velocity or position -- causes the other magnitudes to blur. So that, in his words: "The more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known."

Now, at the dawn of the 21st century, I would propose the Blankley macroscopic corollary to the Heisenberg microscopic principle: The more precisely the media measures individual events in a war, the more blurry the warfare appears to the observer. (Before any physicists e-mail me, let me assure you that I understand (sort of) that the Heisenberg principle is only noticeable in observing things smaller than Max Plank's constant (h=1.05 x 10 to the -34th Joule-seconds, or .000000000000000000000000000000000105), and that Heisenberg was applying his principle to wave-particle dualities -- not Abrams Tanks.)

But given the size of a physicist's brain compared to that of a reporter's, and making allowance for their relative powers of accurate observation and deduction, it would seem reasonable to assume that tanks, aircraft carriers and even entire army divisions, when attempted to be observed in motion by reporters, might fall under the uncertainty principle. So that, for instance, if a reporter precisely observes one American tank not moving, he deduces that the drive to Baghdad by 100,000 troops has lost momentum and stalled. Or, as was reported over the weekend, because a few GI's complained to a reporter that they hadn't had any chow for several hours, the talking heads in Washington thought they were observing a battlefield in which the United States Army couldn't get sufficient food to our troops. The latter was not true. But because they had precisely reported the former, they had misperceived the entire battlefield. The reporting would have been more accurate if it had been less precise (since no one with their mind not clouded by confusing facts would conclude that for the first time in 200 years the U.S. Army was going to permit their troops to starve in the field). Of course, this wouldn't be a problem if the reporters and commentators didn't have such lurid (if dysfunctional) powers of deduction. This is a crowd in which one sparrow would make a spring, the exception is always the rule, jumping to a conclusion is an Olympic event and a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

But one does not need to resort only to recondite principles of quantum physics to identify various procedural flaws in the current reportage. Consider the homely proposition "out of sight, out of mind" to explain much of the current reporting. If reporters (or worse, commentators) don't see something in front of them, they assume it doesn't exist. So, for example, because only Anglo-American military units permit reporters to see them interact with Iraqi civilians, reporters focus their reporting on accidental deaths that may occur in front of their noses. Iraq benefits from denying Western reporters access by not having their conduct reported on, while the media, making no allowance for that, continues to report American mistakes around the clock.

Another problem with reporting: lack of moral equivalence. Conservative intellectuals like to complain that the media practices moral equivalence between Iraq and the United States. Would that they did. Consider the issue of non-access for the media. If the Pentagon refused coverage, the story would be reporters endlessly harassing American government representatives for not granting reporters access. Where are the endless stories of ABC, NBC and CNN reporters challenging Iraq's representatives at the U.N. for not granting media access? Just imagine the power on world opinion of Peter Jennings raising a disdainful eyebrow -- coast-to coast -- while patronizingly and demeaningly reporting Iraqi refusal to let reporters in. If we could only draft Jennings' eyebrow to the cause, we probably wouldn't need the 4th Armored Division. Imagine if we had his heart and mind, as well. But that would take us beyond physics to science fiction.

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