Fake Experts and the Reporters Who Love Them

By John Carr, NMA Massachusetts Activist

Reductio ad absurdum — proving a proposition false by showing that it leads to false or absurd results.

Today’s filler masquerading as news

Linda Finarelli is a lazy reporter. I don’t mean to pick on her in particular. She has plenty of company. But her report on Pennsylvania’s speed limit was the first result in my morning news search. It is my example for today.

The article begins “Motorists and safety experts, not surprisingly, have different views on raising the maximum speed limit to 70 mph on some Pennsylvania highways.”

Drama sells. The story has characters and conflict. Can experts save humanity from itself?

The story is no more than an informal survey of opinion. The sponsor and some people on Facebook like the bill. The insurance industry and some people on Facebook dislike it. State highway spokesmen refused to have opinions. The governor hasn’t told them what they think yet.

There are no experts in the story. The reporter found some generic anti-speed material on the IIHS web site. IIHS has “safety” in the name but is in fact a lobbying arm of the insurance industry. (Like state “highway safety” agencies exist to move money while safety research is done elsewhere.) Apparently the National Motorists Association was not consulted for motorists’ point of view. NMA would have explained what was wrong with the insurance industry’s assertions. The story would have been more informative and more boring.

A better lead would be “people on the internet talk about speed limits.” Put it that way and the article starts to sound like a waste of space.

Like I said, this article is not unusual. There was one like it out of Florida a few days earlier. A bill would allow 75 mph speed limits. Some anti-speed group claimed the “safety” title and the reporter bought it.

A simple starting point

Getting the complete facts takes work, but you can go a long way with a little thinking. Advocates of low speed limits like simplistic, absolute slogans. Following an absolute statement to an inevitable, ridiculous conclusion is called reductio ad absurdum.

We have all heard that people always go faster than the limit. “If the limit is raised they will go faster still,” says IIHS. The faster you drive, the longer it takes to stop. The more kinetic energy you have. The more gas you burn.

If I posted “SPEED LIMIT 200” would people drive 210? Of course not, their cars can’t go that fast. How fast did people drive in Montana with no speed limit? Not infinitely fast. Obviously people don’t always go above the speed limit, and they don’t always speed up when the limit goes up.

A constructive comment would tell us how fast are people driving now in Pennsylvania’s 65 mph zones and how fast they would go if the limit were 70. Do you even know how fast people are driving now? If not, how can you say how fast they will drive in the future?

I can make an informed guess. We know what people do when not constrained by highway speed limits. In America they mostly drive between 70 and 80 miles per hour on rural Interstates. They also drive about that fast when there is a speed limit, or maybe 5 mph slower if there is perceived enforcement. (Signs don’t change speed. Police cars do.)

We can also follow the “speed kills” argument to its own absurd conclusion. If slower is always better, we should never move at all. But “speed kills” seems to mean “speeds over 55 kill” or “speeds over 65 kill.” Why would the best compromise between not moving and not dying be 55 instead of 80, or 65 instead of 100? Slogans don’t tell you. So stop printing slogans masquerading as news.

Some say driving faster wastes gas, it’s basic physics. Except you get zero miles per gallon while stopped. You’re better off speeding up. How fast? Slogans don’t tell you. Some cars get better mileage over the speed limit. Some don’t. You don’t know the answer for my car. I do, and I drive at a speed I can afford.

I don’t expect journalists to do advanced math, but they should be able to do at least this much logical reasoning. Spotting vague statements and trying to pin down the speaker to specifics is part of the job.

If slower is always better then we need to get rid of cars. If slower can be better, be specific and tell me why 65 is better than 60 or 70 for Pennsylvania.

How fast will people drive? What speed range is safe? What is the most efficient speed? The questions have answers if you look for them. Don’t look for them in mainstream media.

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