Schroedinger’s sniffer dog

While there appears to be no way to control the proliferation of fake news on the social media, it is actually part of the mainstream media’s job to at least try to distinguish between confirmed fact and unconfirmed rumour

I won’t go into too much detail about Erwin Schoedinger’s other, much more famous household pet – his cat, which is best known for being ‘both alive and dead at the same time’ – because… quite frankly, I never understood the concept, and probably never will.

Suffice it to say that Schroedinger was an atomic physicist, and posited the concept of a “+/- living cat” to try and shed light on some of the mysteries of quantum mechanics (in particular, how unobservable subatomic particles seem to have both positive and negative charge at the same time. Or something like that, anyway.)

It would take me an entire lifetime to try and understand the mathematics behind that metaphor, with little chance of success. But the image itself – i.e., an unobservable cat in a box, which may or may not be dead, so is assumed to be both at once – is something we can all at least try to appreciate, in all its philosophical absurdity.

Schroedinger’s other pet, however, is a good deal more straightforward. He even has a name and a job: Peter the police sniffer dog. But like the cat before him, he also seems to lead a double existence: being now the subject of a media story that is both ‘true’ and ‘untrue’ at the same time.

According to press reports that have gone international (this excerpt is from The Guardian): “On Wednesday 13 November, the spaniel was screening passengers when he alerted his handlers to the smell of cash. Lots of it. Customs reportedly found €210,000 (£178,000) in the belongings of a man preparing to board a flight to Istanbul.

“The economic crimes unit were called and a day later, the incident led to the arrest of a taxi driver, Melvin Theuma…”

It could have been the beginning of an excellent crime documentary – or maybe even a Disney movie – except that… um… the last part is untrue. Peter did sniff out those €210,000 on a plane, yes; but it turns out that the incident was unconnected to Theuma’s arrest.

Exactly how this misunderstanding arose in the first place is at best unclear; and in the general scale of things, the mistake does not appear in any way important. But if you take it as a correlative for how all sorts of other ‘fake news’ get originated and disseminated… I think it actually works better than the Schroedinger’s cat hypothesis.

For one thing, the ‘untrue’ part of the story has to be qualified. It is factually untrue… but given the extent of the coverage, and some of the reactions it has already elicited: there are other ways in which it has become an unswervable, undeniable fact.

Given the innocuous nature of the implications (let’s face it; Peter the dog is hardly going to sue, is he?), it is not the sort of mistake any international newspaper would bother correcting. Indirectly, this also means that future researchers into this period of our history – and there will be many – will still find it etched in the annals of history as something that really happened.

This is, indeed, how future mythologies are born.

More intriguingly still, people who have shared those stories online are often reluctant to concede the mistake when it is pointed out to them.

The old Italian saying, ‘se non e’ vero, e’ ben trovato’ kicks in with renewed vigour: people didn’t respond to that story because they necessarily believed it to be true… but because they wanted it to be true; they wanted to bask in its ‘feel-good’ factor, at a time when all the rest of the news was so…demoralising.

(So much so, that the Lovin Malta story which busted the myth actually apologized to its readers: ‘Sorry, guys, that cute story is fake news’…)

Besides, the demystification only occurred after numerous reactions – including from politicians – to the effect that ‘Peter the sniffer dog deserves a Gieh Ir-Repubblika medal’… which even prompted an online argument as to whether that honour should go to the Caruana Galizia family instead.

At this point, we are left to conclude that this ‘fake’ news story is also, up to a point, ‘true’: not in any factual sense, but in the sense that the impact it has had is clearly (and quite frighteningly) real.

Suddenly, that ‘cute story’ doesn’t look so harmless. It might be what everybody wanted to hear… but precisely for that reason, it is now obfuscating the facts of the case, distorting perspectives, and leading people to false conclusions.

And that’s just the cute story about the dog who solved the case. Consider for a moment all the other rumours we’ve heard in the past two weeks (many of which also reported as news items) which likewise turned to be wishful thinking.

I will limit myself only to the ones that reached my own ears: e.g., that Silvio Debono was called in for questioning in connection with Daphne’s murder… as were James Piscopo and Diane Izzo; that John Dalli was rushed to hospital suffering from ‘chest pains’; that Joseph Muscat, Michelle and the kids were seen leaving the island on a luxury yacht; that Keith Schembri’s wife was spotted at the airport with several trunks of luggage; and so on and so forth.

In different ways, all of these rumours hit the same spot as the ‘dog delusion’. Factual or otherwise, they all conform to a template that is now firmly hardwired into the brains of all the people who have been ‘joining the dots’ around this case for two whole years.

It is what certain people expect would happen; so it can very easily become ‘what really happened’ – in their minds – regardless what other evidence surfaces in future.

Part of this is perhaps made inevitable by the dearth of reliable, official information provided by the police investigation itself; but that’s a point I’ve been making for quite a while now.

There is, however, another side to this equation. While there appears to be no way to control the proliferation of fake news on the social media, it is actually part of the mainstream media’s job to at least try to distinguish between confirmed fact and unconfirmed rumour.

MaltaToday, for instance, is now criticised for having failed to ‘join the dots’ sooner in its reporting on this case over the past two years. But while there may indeed have been failings on our part… the fact remains that hard, concrete evidence only emerged two weeks ago.

Everything before that was on the same level as the ‘Peter the dog’ story; and therefore, automatically suspect…  all the more so, in a murder case that was from the outset mired in political associations (‘politics’ being a world where wishful thinking often becomes just as factual as fact itself).

Nonetheless, the ‘wait and see’ approach does have its disadvantages. Confirming facts takes time; and time is a commodity that newspapers just don’t have, when competing with a 24/7 network like Facebook. And people are justified in expecting speedy answers to their questions, too… especially in an environment where everything else seems geared towards hiding the truth.

So in a sense, it is understandable that some would blame this newspaper for not jumping to conclusions at an earlier point; i.e., before the emergence of evidence that would make those conclusions appear to have been obvious all along.

But there are advantages, too. The main one is that, by holding out until solid evidence appears, you are also left with solid evidence at the end of all your patience. To date, the evidence has been enough to charge one alleged mastermind – Yorgen Fenech – who is in turn implicating others.

At the present time, this indicates that there are still stones left to be turned in this investigation. We still have no answers as to why Keith Schembri is no longer being considered a suspect, for instance… or why Joseph Muscat was never considered a ‘special interest subject’ in this case at all, despite Fenech’s reported claims of his involvement.

Sadly, Peter the dog’s nose will be of no help to ferret out answers this time. And we do need answers – fast – if we are to avoid helping the rumour-mill to work its usual magic… again.

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