Introduction: Swimming with Alligators

How we learn can shape our decisions as much as what we learn.

An example: Not long ago, I was walking my dog, Mardi, in East End Park with a human friend and her dog, Jack. The park fronts on Lake Houston and is inside the Houston city limits. As we reached the lake, we let our dogs off leash so they could splash in the water. The dogs romped for several minutes, chasing each other near the shore when, suddenly, a 12-foot alligator came from out of nowhere and charged them.

Luckily, the dogs were able to retreat into some cypress knees that protected them from the alligator’s snapping jaws.

The experience was so harrowing that we returned with a camera the next day and snapped a shot of the menacing gator to help warn other people. The Houston Chronicle as well as a community newspaper published stories. I also posted a sign at the entrance to the park warning people.

The local ABC television affiliate, KTRK, did a segment on the encounter that led their 10 PM news that night. Before it was over, I received a call from a news syndicate in Dallas requesting permission to use my photo. I said “yes,” and within days, received calls from friends all over the country who had seen it in their local markets. Many were amused. In many cities, the story ran as one of those quirky, human-interest stories. “Man and dog survive alligator attack inside City of Houston.”

Fast forward several months: At this point, my photo and a warning about alligators were prominently displayed at the entrance of East End Park. One day while entering the park, I saw some teenagers leaving. They were dressed in swimming trunks and carrying inner tubes. Alarmed, I asked whether they had read the alligator warning and seen the photo.

They told me they had. But then, they said something that shocked me as much as the alligator. They said, “We didn’t think it was real. We thought someone took that picture off Google.”  For these young men, seeing definitely was not believing.

The alligator attack, the media coverage of it, and people’s varying reactions to it formed the inspiration for this collection of essays. The same real world experience inspired shock, fear, amusement and disbelief.

I began to wonder what could account for such different reactions. Was it merely distance from the problem, the bravado of youth, or differing life experiences? Those certainly were contributing factors. But I have also come to believe that another factor is at work here: how people send and receive information.

Digital manipulation of photography and Internet hoaxes have become so common, that these Internet habitués no longer trusted photographs to tell the truth. Also, as part of the “gamer” generation, they have been desensitized to danger. On a daily basis, they overcome death with a reset button.

“Unreal!” I thought to myself. “Swimming with alligators! What were they thinking?” On my way home, I pondered how my reality differed from theirs. Then I began wondering why it differed.

Why would we believe something we hear or see in one medium and not in another?

My conclusions are on the pages that follow.

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