August 24, 2010

NYT Article on National Parks Search and Rescue Deconstructed

A year ago I linked to a news story about "Yuppie 911," the phenomenon of people with GPS-enabled emergency beacons punching the panic button when conditions became slightly uncomfortable.

Some of the same anecdotes, however, were recyled in a fresh New York Times story about an alleged increase of tech-enabled Search and Rescue calls. That article in turn is fisked by Slate's Jack Shafer:

To buttress the bogus headlines, the Times stacks a bunch of anecdotes about how park visitors have gotten injured, lost, or killed while using technology. The Times tells us about a park visitor who gets gored while videotaping a buffalo; about a picture-taker who falls 75 feet because he was backing up at the Grand Canyon as he took pictures; about a lost hiker who cell-phones in a request for hot chocolate to park rangers; about a group of hikers who press the emergency button on their satellite-location device repeatedly, one time doing so to inform park rangers that their water "tasted salty"; and about a pair of novice whitewater-rafters who drowned after building a log raft and attempting to videotape their voyage down the Virgin River as an entry in a Man vs. Wild TV competition. The men had little camping experience, not much food, and no overnight gear.
According to numbers Shafer trots out, the overall number of rescues in national parks has actually fallen since the 1990s.

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.

He does not explain why. Fewer backcountry users? Better outdoor gear? Better experienced backcountry users? 

 Via Ann Althouse, with a discussion of "bogosity" versus "bogusity."

SORT OF RELATED:  NPR's Terry Gross interviews the Times' Matt Richtel, who has been writing on the effects of communication technologies on the brain and behavior.

Recently Richtel accompanied several scientists, all of whom are studying the brain, on a weeklong retreat to a remote corner of Utah. The rules of the vacation? No cell phones, no Internet access and no technological distractions.

"Partly they wanted to go on vacation and see it through a neurologic lens," he says. "They wanted to take a look at what was happening to their brain and their perspectives — and by extension, ours — as they got off the grid."

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