Why Does The NY Times Rely So Often On Single Anecdote Trend Pieces Not Supported By The Data?

from the trend-pieces dept

A few months ago, we pointed to a NY Times "trend piece" on people so hooked on their gadgets that they get distracted. As we noted, the entire piece seemed to be based around a single anecdote of a guy who got distracted, and some scientific studies that don't actually support the underlying thesis of the article. I've noticed that this formula is all too common in NY Times tech trend pieces. We saw it more recently in the NY Times piece we wrote about claiming that cable TV was winning against the internet by purposely keeping authorized content offline, based off of a single anecdote of a guy who ditched his cable subscription only to go back a year later... just a day or so before the stats came out showing that people are actually ditching their cable connections.

It appears that others are catching on to this rather questionable form of "reporting" by the NY Times. Jack Shafer over at Slate is calling the NY Times out for a similar piece which was so ridiculous that the article itself contradicts the central thesis:
In the 11th paragraph of its Page One, Aug. 22 story about how technology--cell phones, GPS devices, satellite-location devices, and even video cameras--tends to get visitors to the national parks into trouble, the New York Times confesses the inherent bogusity of its premise, stating:
The National Park Service does not keep track of what percentage of its search and rescue missions, which have been climbing for the last five years and topped 3,500 in 2009, are technology related. But in an effort to home in on "contributing factors" to park accidents, the service recently felt compelled to add "inattention to surroundings" to more old-fashioned causes like "darkness" and "animals." [Emphasis added.]
Yet the newspaper persists in advancing its techno-made-the-visitors-get-in-trouble thesis, headlining the piece "For Parkgoers Pushing Luck, Technology and Trouble Got Together" in print and "Technology Leads More Park Visitors Into Trouble" online.
Shafer goes on to look at the details beyond the anecdotes and claimed single stat "climbing for the last five years" and finds that the NY Times' report is misleading at best:
Not precisely. The numbers, provided to me by the NPS, have been bouncing up and down. In 2004, the NPS conducted 3,216 search-and-rescue operations. In 2005, the number went down to 2,430 operations. In 2006, it rose to 3,623 operations. In 2007, it declined to 3,593 operations, and in 2008 declined again to 3,481. In 2009, the number rose to 3,593.
Search-and-rescue operations conducted between 1992 and 2009 actually peaked at 5,761 in 1998, according to the NPS. Over that same period, the average number of annual search-and-rescue missions was 4,027, which means that the figure the Times ended up ballyhooing ("topped 3,500") is below the 18-year average.

In other words, there has been no dramatic increase in the number of NPS search-and-rescue operations in the era of the mobile phone, the satellite phone, GPS, and the emergency beacon. Technology isn't leading more park visitors into trouble.
So, given that we've now seen this happen multiple times, perhaps we can pen a "trend piece" about how the NY Times writes its trends pieces based on a few anecdotes, contrary to what the data actually says. They're really making a strong case for why we should pay up to access the site once that paywall goes up in a few months, right?


Reader Comments (rss)

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    rw (profile), Aug 27th, 2010 @ 6:02am

    Luddites

    But this fits in with the NY Times wanting to stop innovation and progress, after all, the newspaper wouldn't be in trouble if it wasn't for the darned internet and technology :)

     

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      Hephaestus (profile), Aug 27th, 2010 @ 7:51am

      Re: Luddites

      rw - to funny :)

       

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      Derek Bredensteiner (profile), Aug 27th, 2010 @ 11:53am

      Re: Luddites

      I'm not sure if you're truly being sarcastic or not, but that statement is probably not as far off from the truth as most people reading it would think.

      There is clearly a pattern in these unsubstantiated articles of anti-technology, and it's not a far leap to see that it serves the agenda of someone that wants the world to keep reading their physical rag.

      Perhaps not even anti-technology, but more "Let's all go back to the good old days where you sit on your porch outside drinking coffee and reading the one newspaper that tells you what to think."

       

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    Chronno S. Trigger (profile), Aug 27th, 2010 @ 6:55am

    Am I lost? Nope, I have a flaming Garmin.

    I would think, and the graph seems to agree, that with GPSes being everywhere it would be easier not to get lost. You find yourself in the middle of the woods with no clue, you just pull out your GPS and walk to the dot you setup to mark where you parked. My step dad has a hand held GPS for this exact reason when he goes hunting.

    It's more likely that RW is right with his Luddite idea.

     

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      Derek Kerton (profile), Aug 30th, 2010 @ 11:14pm

      Re: Am I lost? Nope, I have a flaming Garmin.

      Well, the counter argument is that people walk into the forest with little orienteering skill, no maps, and no regard for getting lost, because they can just rely on their GPS or their cell phone...but then their GPS battery goes dead and/or their cellphone can't get a signal.

      I think that's the scenario the NYT was painting. Surely it's true that people will take greater risks when they think they can rely on the tech to get them out.

      Of course, the stats just don't support the NYT scenario, but the thesis was reasonable.

      I think the reason you are right and the NYT wrong is just math. GPS, cellphones, etc have probably helped more people get out of the woods than they contributed to getting lost in the woods. Based on the stats, though, the overall effect seems negligible.

       

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    cc (profile), Aug 27th, 2010 @ 6:58am

    Bogusity

    Now, that's a word you don't see every day.

     

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      Jim Harper (profile), Aug 27th, 2010 @ 7:18am

      Re: Bogusity

      I thought the word was "bogosity"—and either way I think the word is, uh, bogus...

       

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        Chronno S. Trigger (profile), Aug 27th, 2010 @ 7:23am

        Re: Re: Bogusity

        I has a rating of 100 microLenats. I'm new to my bogometer, so I don't know if that's good or bad.

         

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          Dark Helmet (profile), Aug 27th, 2010 @ 7:29am

          Re: Re: Re: Bogusity

          I tried to get a bogometer app for my new iPad, but apparently Apple took it down from the store, listing it as "Dangerous to Apple"....

           

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            Anonymous Coward, Aug 27th, 2010 @ 7:55am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Bogusity

            I wonder if the bogometer is dangerous to itself. Would the app detect itself as bogus?

            Wow, Bogometer doesn't even underline as a misspelling in my Firefox browser.

             

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              Chronno S. Trigger (profile), Aug 27th, 2010 @ 9:11am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Bogusity

              "Would the app detect itself as bogus?"

              If it detected itself as bogus would it be bogus?

              "Wow, Bogometer doesn't even underline as a misspelling in my Firefox browser."

              I noticed that, but microLenats does.

               

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    R. Miles (profile), Aug 27th, 2010 @ 7:04am

    Curiosity + cat = ?

    Why does Techdirt even care what the NYT wrote? It's as though the staff can't let go of what was once a leading source of news. [citation needed]

    It's getting as comical as people restating what they just watched on Fox News the night before.

    Next, Mike's about to post how the Obama Administration wants to shut him down. /bad joke... I think.

    Of course, I have to admit, these articles are like train wrecks. One can't help but look at the carnage.

     

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    Pixelation, Aug 27th, 2010 @ 7:20am

    Greed

    Let's just chalk it up to greed. Same money for less work. Why bother with the details when in the same amount of time you can be doing the next thing? I'm sure this is around in most industries.

     

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    Ed (profile), Aug 27th, 2010 @ 7:21am

    I think many of these pieces are riffing off PR pitches where the story is finished before it's started. The "journalist" gets a fresh quote or two that support the reworked press release, and done.

    Try running this search on Google if you want to see how common this type of story is:

    site:nytimes.com "small but growing trend"

    It's certainly not limited to technology. Fashion, dining, travel, etc., all suffer from similar press release regurgitation reporting.

     

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    jduhls, Aug 27th, 2010 @ 7:22am

    Curiosity + human = !

    People make stuff up on the interwebs?

     

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    JackSombra (profile), Aug 27th, 2010 @ 7:36am

     

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      nasch (profile), Aug 27th, 2010 @ 8:45am

      Re:

      Mike mentioned "While not the strongest source..."

      I didn't read the NYT article (I assume it's registration-walled), but I doubt there's anything in there to the effect of "while there are no data to support this position..." There's a difference between reporting on what somebody else is saying while questioning its reliability, and reporting on what somebody else is saying while pretending it means something else.

      But if you have any examples of TD posting a story that takes one anecdote and makes it out to be a significant trend, by all means share them. Read carefully though, often he'll report on an example of something and link to several other examples of the same thing, while explaining how whatchamacallit is getting more common. In other words, backing up his headline with something meaningful.

       

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      Mike Masnick (profile), Aug 27th, 2010 @ 9:55am

      Re:

      Pot...meet kettle

      Not even close to the same thing.

      I didn't say it was true, I asked a question, expecting to get information in the comments. That's how things work here. I don't do "reporting," I write about things I find out there, with the expectation that people will fill in additional information in the comments. I made it clear that story was weakly source, and I posted it to find out what people had to say about it.

      The NY Times presents these things as facts.

       

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        Anonymous Coward, Aug 27th, 2010 @ 5:54pm

        Re: Re:

        "I don't do "reporting," "

        No truer words were ever spoken on this site. You barely qualify as a parrot for technology controversy.

        I suppose we the commenters can comment about random bullshit, or just pose everything in a question format for the benefit of ourselves. Is Google actually a Chinese Front? Does Paul Allen actually own the planet earth?

        What a fucking copout. Stand behind your stories! you have NO PLACE to judge others without doing the research you wish others would do in their own field.

        "As we noted, the entire piece seemed to be based around a single anecdote of a guy who got distracted, and some scientific studies that don't actually support the underlying thesis of the article."

        But if you actually read the article, they make no direct claim that cable TV is rising or declining significantly. They provide numbers with sources, something you did not do with your Silverlight article. You didn't look at the originating source, you didn't get another side.

        "reporter, ye are not."

         

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      Eugene (profile), Aug 27th, 2010 @ 9:57am

      Re:

      Yeah, the difference here is that "Is Silverlight Dead?" is an honest question you could ask after looking at the evidence. Ultimately, the answer is probably "no", but that doesn't invalidate the question.

       

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      TtfnJohn (profile), Aug 27th, 2010 @ 10:44am

      Re:

      As Mike noted in his post the source isn't the strongest, Roy Schestowitz is far from one of the best sources of anything given his penchant for rumour mongering and outright attack before research but even he gets things right from time to time.
      Nor is he above shameless self promotion by placing Dr before his name to indicate his PhD.

       

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 27th, 2010 @ 7:40am

    It's all just a bunch of tubes!

     

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    Halifax, Aug 27th, 2010 @ 7:47am

    Why don't they ditch the bias toward sensationalism and write articles with a little more sense? If it was "tech can help people but it could also get them into trouble" instead of "tech makes people stupid" then I wouldn't mind so much if they practically made up the article (which they kinda did). Is it so hard to compliment something before listing its drawbacks instead of trying to put up something that can almost be described as scare tactics?

     

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    Justin, Aug 27th, 2010 @ 7:55am

    This is how liberals funtion in general

    This is how they function. Look at any time the president wants to pass some legislation, he will trot out someone who's allegedly end if this legislation doesn't pass. Here is a great example from the WSJ http://online.wsj.com/article/NA_WSJ_PUB:SB125314896131518267.html

     

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      nasch (profile), Aug 27th, 2010 @ 8:47am

      Re: This is how liberals funtion in general

      Yeah, conservatives never make stuff up like that. If only the government were controlled by conservatives everything would be fine.

      /sarcasm

       

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      Anonymous Coward, Aug 27th, 2010 @ 9:29am

      Re: This is how liberals funtion in general

      s/liberal/politician

       

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      TtfnJohn (profile), Aug 27th, 2010 @ 10:47am

      Re: This is how liberals funtion in general

      conservative/liberal/libertarian or just plain lunatic they're all politicans and they all act and do the same thing with about as much research. So does the WSJ, btw.

       

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    Vinnie, Aug 27th, 2010 @ 7:59am

    You're not the only ones noticing:

    http://blogs.nature.com/noah/2010/08/24/how-to-write-a-neuroscience-story-for-the-publi c

    Pretty much right along the same lines.

     

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    Gwiz, Aug 27th, 2010 @ 8:28am

    The funny thing is is that these are the same so called "professional journalists" that are getting so upset about all the amateurs reporting on things.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 27th, 2010 @ 9:08am

    The Silverlight knocking you were doing a few articles back is simply just as guilty!

    Hypocritical!

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Aug 27th, 2010 @ 10:09am

      Re:

      Pardon? How so? The Silverlight article was asking a question, not presenting the information as fact. The Times article presents itself in a whole different manner.

       

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        nasch (profile), Aug 27th, 2010 @ 4:07pm

        Re: Re:

        This is true, but it is good to keep an eye on that technique. If used honestly (as I think Mike did) it's fine. But it can also be twisted to escape accountability.

        I can't find it, but Jon Stewart pointed out Fox doing this with a crawler that read something like "George Bush greatest US President?" They're really saying that Bush is great, but they don't want to back it up so they put a question mark at the end. Stewart's analogy was "Is your mother a whore? I'm not SAYING she's a whore, I'm just asking. People want to know if your mother accepts money for sex." Anyway, like I said, that's not what's going on here but good to keep in mind. And if anyone has a link to that clip, please post it because it's pretty funny.

         

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        Derek Kerton (profile), Aug 30th, 2010 @ 11:26pm

        Re: Re:

        Even worse, the NYT article writer must have seen the data that negated the thesis, and not only ignored it, but cherry-picked it to falsely illustrate the contrary.

        The NYT writer deliberately pursued his disproven thesis despite full awareness of the contradicting data.

        To cherry pick the low year, 2005, and so say "has been climbing since 2005" is so dishonest that it goes far beyond exaggerating for effect.

        The Silverlight article is the discussion of a rumor, a little hearsay, and some speculation...and is presented as just that.

         

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      JC, Aug 27th, 2010 @ 10:42am

      Re:

      There is a slow but growing trend of illiteracy on the techdirt forums.

       

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    davebarnes (profile), Aug 27th, 2010 @ 9:08am

    Lazy "reporters" and little

    understanding of the technology they are writing about.

     

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    SR84, Aug 27th, 2010 @ 9:24am

    Gadgets an asset, not a problem

    My search and rescue unit has benefited from the public having gadgets and to date has not been burdened by it. Cell phone localization has been a huge advantage as we our county encompasses a lot of wilderness. Appreciate the perspective of this article.

     

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    NotNormal (profile), Aug 27th, 2010 @ 9:31am

    Problem with Numbers

    These numbers only reflect a meaning trend if the park attendance remained constant during the time period covered. You may have had @00k visitors on 1998, but only 100k visitors on 2008... Yes the total number of S&R missions decreased, but the percentage in proportion to the number of visitors went up.

     

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      Chronno S. Trigger (profile), Aug 27th, 2010 @ 9:39am

      Re: Problem with Numbers

      It could also be that they had 200,000 visitors in both 1998 and 2008, but more people were too lazy to go off the trail in 2008. The numbers could be caused by hundreds of different variables, only one would be technology.

      I also don't think the ratio of visitors to lost makes that much of a difference. The important numbers (that are not provided) would be how many idiots got lost because of a GPS. I don't think it's physically possible for the number of lost people to go up due to GPS.

       

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 27th, 2010 @ 9:33am

    How I love it

    when TD and other REAL information sources call out the hacks at the NYT. Those with agendas (like the NYT) start with a conclusion, then point to some bit "research" or poor shlub to back up their conclusion.

    What a joke. They should be charged with fraud for daring to call themselves a "news organization".

     

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    Eugene (profile), Aug 27th, 2010 @ 10:12am

    You see this all the time with plenty of "news" magazines (and probably TV news, but I never watch..) I personally find myself avoiding science magazines for exactly that reason. When you constantly see bombastic, declarative headlines that are completely debunked within the body of the article, the childish manipulation gets tiresome.

     

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    TtfnJohn (profile), Aug 27th, 2010 @ 11:09am

    There's ALWAYS a trend

    You see the thing about writing about trends is that trends aren't considered "hard news" which is more like "man bites dog who bit man" than trends are.

    Trends are anything a writer or editor thinks they are. The problem here is that while you can dash off a piece about trends in fashion with no facts whatever to back it up because no one will fact check you. Same with movies, plays or tv shows.

    This bit of nonsense strays more to hard news which requires some, a little I hope, fact checking instead of the almost none the errors indicate.

    If is a surprise that getting too close to a bison will invite a charge? No.

    Is it a surprise that feeding a bear may, in some cases with grizzlies, kodiaks and almost always with polar bears ends up with the feeder becoming lunch themselves?

    Is is a surprise that anyone with a camera might end up falling into a big hole if they're not paying attention be it a pin-hole, film, bad cell phone camera, 35mm film or whatever? No, it's called pay attention, regardless of technology?

    Is it a surprise that there are urbanoid jerks who suddenly appear in summer in the woods or on the water (fresh or salt) that have no idea and have made no preparation for what they're about to get into? No, because these people have a Disnified idea that the wild is a nice friendly place where all the animals sing and dance and wouldn't feel threatened by or afraid of the top predator on the planet? Try telling a Wolverine to sing and dance!

    It's also no surprise that some of "genus urbanoid" would press the panic button when there's no need to. They get one chance here and next time they're told to get in the chopper which has changed from Search and Rescue to RCMP and taken back to the detachment and charged with being a public nuisance or anything else the creative constable can come up with at the time. (At sea, in these parts, its the Coast Guard and oh boy can these people learn the finer points of maritime and naval law in a hurry!)

    In the meantime, I have to agree with SR84 that these devices are invaluable to air/sea/land search and rescue and save valuable time when there is a real emergency which, sadly, there often is when "genus urbanoid" wanders off without preparation and gets lost or finds themselves suddenly between a mama cougar and her cub despite all the evidence that there's a big cat around any maybe one should be careful and make a lot of noise to tell mama cougar to collect her cub(s) before you get there.

    No doubt the "reporter" and "editor" of this piece are members of "genus urbanoid" who do things any member or "genus rural" would think three times about doing. Makes for a good laugh of two at the pub or coffee shop, mind you!

    Nuff said.

     

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    Colin Holloway, Aug 27th, 2010 @ 12:11pm

    Not doing your research is even worse

    "A few months ago, we pointed to a NY Times "trend piece" on people so hooked on their gadgets that they get distracted."

    Matt Richtel wrote a whole series of articles on this topic, not the simple one off anecdote that TD would have you believe. He also won a Pulitzer for the series. So if you buy that he's not rigorous and an actual journalist you may as well right off the Pulitzer prize, the people that make that decision and hell, why not all print journalists while you're at it?

    Speaking of common trends:

    1) Find something that tech related people will take offense to. I.E Technology may have some downsides
    2) Post a couple of links to examples that may or may not be in context
    3) Make snarky and trite comments that have no real journalistic value and smack of opinionated truthiness
    4) Boom! Tech blog filler post!

     

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      Mike Masnick (profile), Aug 27th, 2010 @ 2:13pm

      Re: Not doing your research is even worse

      Matt Richtel wrote a whole series of articles on this topic, not the simple one off anecdote that TD would have you believe.

      We weren't discussing the series, we were discussing his awful story from June 6th of this year, for which he DID NOT win a Pulitzer.

      He also won a Pulitzer for the series.

      No, he wont the Pulitzer for a series he wrote in 2009.

      And you accuse me of not doing research?

      So if you buy that he's not rigorous and an actual journalist you may as well right off the Pulitzer prize

      I see. So if you win a Pulitzer prize, no one is ever allowed to question the crappy pieces you "right" (sic)?

      he people that make that decision and hell, why not all print journalists while you're at it?

      Because that would be dumb.

      1) Find something that tech related people will take offense to. I.E Technology may have some downsides
      2) Post a couple of links to examples that may or may not be in context
      3) Make snarky and trite comments that have no real journalistic value and smack of opinionated truthiness
      4) Boom! Tech blog filler post!


      Can you point to an example of us actually doing that?

      No?

      Ok, go away now.

       

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      Dark Helmet (profile), Aug 27th, 2010 @ 2:38pm

      Re: Not doing your research is even worse

      "4) Boom! Tech blog filler post!"

      No, no, no. You're doing it wrong. It's "Steak dinner boom!"

      http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&rlz=1G1GGLQ_ENUS304&q=steak+dinner+boom&aq= 0p&aqi=g-p1g1&aql=&oq=steak+dinner+boom+&gs_rfai=

       

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    Chris Maresca (profile), Aug 27th, 2010 @ 6:10pm

    I've actually been on a search and rescue team...

    ... I was a volunteer at Acadia National Park in the early 1990's and on a state wide team as well. My specialty was high-angle rescue (e.g. cliffs and mountains), sometimes from helicopters.

    Technology has been putting inexperienced people in harms way for some time and the worst offender is probably not digital devices but clothing and modern materials. Stuff like GoreTex, synthetic fleece and other materials have allowed people to venture into situations that would have taken real courage 30-40 years ago when all you had was wool and waxed cotton. And the price of such tech has been coming down for years.

    The worst rescue I was on resulted in me spending the night with no tent on Mt. Katahdin one cold November when two idiots decided that a credit card was all you needed to climb it (they bought $thousand in gear + a book). No high tech gadgets were needed for them to get stuck.

    I would say that people having cell phones is both a blessing and a curse when you are rescuing people. In my day ;-) they were very rare, so just finding someone could take days by which time they were in serious trouble or dead. Now, with triangulation, it's a lot easier, with the downside people call for help more.

    On balance, I'd rather they call for help more than haul out a dead body, even if it is unnecessary sometimes. Besides, if tech gives people better access to wilderness areas, then maybe they'll be more interested in protecting and preserving them, which is a good thing, IMHO.

    But if you are looking to blame tech for more people in trouble, it's GoreTex, Thinsulate and Vibram that's to blame, not electronics....

    Chris.

     

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