Taken with a grain of salt

Engsiong Tan
4 min readAug 7, 2023

Overflowing with disinformation

Photo by Kyle Cleveland on Unsplash

Beijing recently has been hit by heavy storms. Naturally, if you get hit by a typhoon, floods are expected. At this point, someone had to write a whopper.

The rain is a sprain on my brain.

Exposition

The Forbidden City was built by the Ming Dynasty six hundred years ago in the city of Beijing. As it was commissioned by an emperor, it was both expensive and massive. It also came with the sound drainage system. The commoners were naturally forbidden to go into the palace. To make sure that the commoners at that time got the message, the city is surrounded by a wall and a moat. The residents in the Forbidden City also hedged their bets by building religious shrines in the palace. I guess the mandate of heaven was not sufficient insurance for the emperor.

For the superstitious reader, the fengshui was agreeable with the palace design. Fengshui literally means wind-water. The idea is that if you orientate things or arrange things correctly, you will find things going your way. It is also a reason why I was required to move from one room to another to prevent “incidents”. Full Disclosure: I am rather sore about the incident, and I am not a supporter of fengshui. I am also not rich like some of its followers so it could work.

Fact Checking with AI

ChatGPT returned with this reply when I outsourced the fact checking task to it.

ChatGPT when asked about Forbidden City flooding

The short version is that the ChatGPT parroted the line of the other official Chinese sites.

Bard was a little more truthful about the reports of ankle-deep water. The flooding appears to be just a matter of semantics.

There is a reason why I Google things after searching on Bing.

Witness accounts

The Forbidden City is now a museum open to the public. The Forbidden City was closed during the storm. Before it was closed, there must have been some visitors who took videos of their wet sojourn in the Forbidden City. With a smartphone, anyone can use share their firsthand account with the world. Some wet folks have their knees where their ankles should be. Otherwise, Google also downplayed the height of the flood.

Spoiler Alert: There is an uncomfortable amount of water in certain parts of the Forbidden City.

At the same time, there are official explanations for the flooding. It was due to tourists littering. Plastic bottles, plastic bags and even clothing. When ChatGPT was asked about the flooding in the forbidden city with plastic bottles, it did a complete 180.

ChatGPT when asked about Forbidden City flooding with plastic bottles.

White lie

In the grand scheme of things, the Forbidden City being flooded is not important. It is a national treasure but nobody stays there. Moreover, it is quite difficult for the Forbidden City to be flooded as the excess water can be diverted from the city. The fact that the national leaders stay one and a half kilometers away is probably a coincidence.

In a country that is hit by floods, the myth about the Forbidden City surviving the storm does not help. The rest of the country was not built six hundred years ago with the same resources. Moreover, there is little connection between the Ming Dynasty and the current ruling political party so there is really no reason to defend the condition of the Forbidden City.

Semantics

There is a term called ponding. I learnt about that term when it was used to describe that an area did not have a flood, just a ponding issue. Naturally, the people who were affected by the water damage were not amused. The Forbidden City is seventy two hectares. For those urban readers, that is the equivalent of about sixty-seven football fields (Soccer for North American readers.).

I agree that it is possible that only a small area of the palace suffered from knee high flooding. At some point, it is meaningless to say that there is no flooding since everybody with eyes will come to a different conclusion. Including the spokesperson explaining about the trash found in the drainage system in the Forbidden City.

“I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche

“People like to say that the conflict is between good and evil. The real conflict is between truth and lies.” — Don Miguel Ruiz

Conclusion

I am not upset with the Chinese state media for lying. I am upset by the volume of lies that I have to either listen to or read every day from the news. I have endured four years of nonsense from Trump’s administration and the Brexit party. I have also listened to idiots explaining why the government approved Covid-19 preventive measures or vaccines do not work. It is depressing that most good news is usually overstated.

Notice that the dots are identical in all the charts. Image from Xkcd.

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