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June 20, 2023 Message from the Chair

Message from the Chair: The Power of Misinformation

Garth B. Jacobson

I recently visited Morocco and Spain. During the trip, I remembered the line from the movie Casablanca where Captain Renault (Claude Rains) asked Rick (Humphrey Bogart) why he came to Casablanca.

Captain Renault: What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?

Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.

Captain Renault: The waters? What waters? We’re in a desert.

Rick: I was misinformed.

Amusingly his answer about being misinformed reflected Rick misinforming Captain Renault. Accordingly, we use misinformation and equivocation to thwart difficult questions. Politicians perpetually do this to promote their position or abuse their opponents. Unfortunately, that misinformation goes well beyond simple prevaricating to inciting harmful actions. Arguably climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers, and election deniers generally use misinformation to make their case.

Another example of misinformation comes with conflicting believes between Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions. The religions started with identical core believes but variated through developments of spiritual leaders of Jesus and Muhammad. These religions might recognize the similarities, but then denounce and instill hatred with each other. In turn, the belief that the other religions contain false beliefs causes much consternation and fodder for wars, land grabs, and much pain. Before 1492, Spain enjoyed times of general peacefulness between the religions. Then with the leadup to the Spanish Inquisition great conflicts caused shifts of control from one religion to another. Likewise, Jews and Muslims were either force out or required to convert during the Spanish Inquisition. Ultimately, the misinformation to create hatred about the other religions cost countless lives and massive pain and sorrow throughout the centuries.

As we approach the Tour de France race in July, I remember my mistaken belief that cyclist Lance Armstrong couldn’t possibly have engaged in using illegal substances to win several bike races. That belief, stoked by Armstrong’s misinformation, became embedded in me and took much contrary evidence to dislodge. I wanted to believe the misinformation that cycling hero Armstrong projected. Ultimately, he admitted to lies and deception to cover up his cheating. This illustrated to me that once misinformation takes hold it becomes hard to manage and correct even in the face of proof of its falsehood. Therein lies the potential harm misinformation creates to those who succumb to it.

All these examples show that misinformation can be simply an amusing statement, or it can be harmful to individuals, select groups, or large segments of the population and, in turn, can cause great harm to the world. Likewise, it becomes hard to correct once it is launched.

Lastly, to slightly misquote Mark Twain, there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and AI. The New York Times recently reported about an attorney who used Gen AI to draft his brief. Unfortunately, none of the cited cases existed, and the entire brief proved unsupportable and simply misinformation. While AI might be an incredible tool, it can also turn a person into an incredible fool if improperly relied upon. I thank the editors of the SciTech Lawyer for this eye-opening issue and hope to see you at the Annual Meeting in Denver this summer.

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