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The internet was supposed to hail in a golden age of free information where even the most remote member of society could gain access to facts and figures that would help him make better informed decisions in life. We thought it would open up the communication lines, create transparency, and free up information to help us learn and understand, and eventually apply it to our lives. I don’t think it is a far fetch to say that we hoped it would better inform the voter to vote in a way that lines up with facts and figures. I am that voter, I am that user, but unfortunately, with all the information that the internet has to offer, I feel more confused and angry than educated and informed.

I’m a big train buff – instead of waking up to watch Sesame Street, I eagerly waited for the end of that boring show to enjoy a wonderful episode from Shining Times Station. I love riding BART and MUNI, and although it was expensive to take the Amtrak trip from Emeryville-Davis during my freshmen year, I still hopped on the trains to experience the romantic and spacious trips that trains offer.

So, I naturally grew excited when the Obama Administration portioned a small piece of government funding to push forward development of High Speed Rail projects throughout the country, one of them locating in my very own backyard, San Francisco! Unfortunately, the bubbling excitement over the sleek, sexy trains ran into speed bumps coming from detractors – both experts and politicians alike – who questioned the utopian picture of profitability, environmental benefit, and job creation painted by the Administration and other supporters. Despite feeling piqued by the naysayers of a transportation project, whose benefits seemed obvious to me, I allowed them room to speak in the courtroom of my mind for the sake of objectivity and sound judgment. To this end, I decided to hop on the internet and do some research.

A simple Google search on High Speed Rail produced a report published by the Texas Public Policy Foundation whose findings decisively lined up against High Speed Rail. The Foundation provided compelling arguments against HSR, claiming that the trains would create minimal displacement of auto ridership to trains, and, therefore do little to alleviate congestion. They also dismissed the environmental and social benefits claimed by supporters as embellished fiction, and suggested that the Federal funds could be used to make incremental changes to the current transportation system, such as investing in better traffic control technologies, the bus industry, and automobile technology. As I read through the report, I found myself agreeing with them on certain points, and even began to doubt the benefits of my beloved HSR.  In the end, my curiosity lead me to ask, “Who is this Texas Public Policy Foundation”? While the report was persuasive, the passionate language used felt imbalanced and even unprofessional, so a quick Google search produced the Foundation’s website:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Highlighted in the top right corner are the tenets of the Foundation: Individual Liberty, Personal Responsibility, Free Markets, Private Property Rights, Limited Government. These values smacked of the stuff often publicized by free-market evangelists of the Tea Party, so another query of the first name found under the Board of Directors, Dr. Wendy Lee Gramm, generated a link to a wikipedia page about an economist who was known as Regan’s “favorite economist”. Hm.

I was discouraged and felt a little cheated. Here was a report on HSR claiming objectivity,  yet whose authors worked for a foundation that clearly hews to a certain political line.

Continuing my search, I found a layman-friendly analysis from CNN, which selected simple, but apt questions and comments from its readers and offered answers from both academics and politicians – democrats and republicans alike. I thought the article struck a more balanced tone than the previous Texas Public Policy report, offering multiple perspectives yet ultimately titling slightly towards the pro-HSR side. However, the alarm bells were set off when I saw this brief exchange:

Comment: “High-speed rail is faster, cleaner and safer than driving.” — CNN.com user “Orangecat46”

Expert response: I agree

Sudhir Chella Rajan, senior associate with the Tellus Institute:

Other nations: “In countries where it has been effectively implemented (e.g., China, Japan and France), average speeds above 130 mph have been achieved and at relatively low costs on a per passenger-mile basis.”

Pollution: “In terms of emissions too, high-speed rail is cleaner, with carbon dioxide emissions (on a per passenger-mile basis) roughly half to a third of what is conventionally achieved by automobiles at normal load factors (passengers/vehicle or wagon).”

Safety: “The record is mixed and depends on which countries we’re examining. In the United States, for instance, railroad accidents have resulted in far fewer fatalities than highway accidents on a per passenger mile basis, but that the numbers are closer in countries like India and China.”

—————————-end quote——————————————————-

Wow! Fantastic! HSR really is the way to go! Right? Wait, first, who in the world is the Tellus Institute? One look at the website and you might think that the author of the website might belong to the cult group, La Rouche, a predatory organization that can often be found pamphleting its wacko ideas on college campuses. If the picture on the right of the Mother-Theresa-like grandma giving the world to a small child doesn’t convince you of its leftist leanings, then you should read the text: “We are at the cusp of a new historical epoch – the planetary phase of civilization – that binds the world’s people and the biosphere into a single community of fate.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This single citation from an obviously biased source ruins the credibility of the rest of the article. Thank you, CNN.

The internet, without a doubt, is a wonderful thing. Yet, I often forget that the internet is designed to propagate ALL information – some of it good, but a lot of it bad, or at least untrustworthy. It has made us doubt the sources of even our most trusted providers (CNN is no fringe news outlet), and therefore creating doubt in our ability to reason, judge, and ultimately, to act. I don’t know a remedy. I don’t know how to move forward and make a decision on such critical and expensive issues such as High Speed Rail. I could find resources to support my childhood predilections for all things trains-related, but not in good conscience.

There’s probably a remedy to all this self-doubt. Maybe choosing a side and sticking with it through the thick and thin would be one method, for we all must choose sides eventually (stagnation = support of status quo). Or maybe there are practical methods in sifting through the mountain stacks of information out there.

I don’t know. Maybe the answer is out there on the internet.

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3 Comments

  1. well if you’re that frustrated, you can always try google scholar. then you’ll have to sift through a good number of technical papers, and they’re not all guaranteed to be from peer reviewed journals, but most are, and one more quick search would tell you whether a particular publication is peer-reviewed. you might not be able to access full papers, depending on the source, but abstracts are always free.

  2. Man – couldn’t get the formatting to work. I did try google scholar, and wrote a little complaining blurb about how it costs money to even open one up, but i left it out cause i thought my post was despairing enough. Then again, I probably wouldn’t be able to sift through the technical papers and make heads or tails out of it. Do you think it’s a cop out to base an opinion off the abstracts of papers?

  3. depends on the abstract! some say more about the actual conclusions of the paper, and others less so. and yes it does suck that you have to pay for some journals…OR you get a friend who’s still at a university to download articles for you, haha.


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