Information Dragons: Hoarding and Absence

I’m sure you’ve been a situation like this:

You’ve spent hours searching for a piece of information you need.

Talked to person after person

“No, sorry. I don’t know anything about that.”

You do Google search after Google search.

Phone call after phone call.

Email after email.

“Oh, I know what you’re talking about, but I don’t have that information. You should talk to X.”

It’s difficult to know if the information is hidden or if it doesn’t exist.

And then you get a morsel.

“Yeah, I know about that. I know you need to do this, but beyond that, I don’t know.”

It’s exhausting.

Then, finally, you stumble onto the motherload.

“Oh, yeah. I do that all that here.”

You jump from exhausted to infuriated: “Why doesn’t anyone KNOW you do this?? I’ve spent hours / days / weeks….”

One of the most stressful times in my life – when I was executrix of my dad’s estate – was characterised by my search for information that wasn’t well-known, wasn’t advertised, and was hoarded by only certain people. You would think that information to help the living deal with the estates of the dead would be well-known. Not so. Sure, there is the common stuff: checklists, stuff to remember, make sure you do this. But they don’t tell you HOW to do it.

It isn’t just the fact that you need to do something…

Check. Yup, identified that.

…it’s the HOW to do it that is key. And this is likely why YouTube is so popular. Everything the DYIer needs is there.

Oh, THAT’S how you do it!

Well, almost.

I encounter this often because I work with bureaucracies: academia and law enforcement.

Academia is rife with information hoarding. I guess people think information is power. Frankly, I think information is only power when someone needs that information and they know you have it. But we’ll get to this in a minute.

I was taught that one of the hallmarks of the scientific method is the reproducibility of your method and results. The only way to know your theory is valid is if someone else can follow your method and get similar results. And the only way someone can do this is if you tell them about your method and results. You gotta let the world know what you’ve discovered and how you discovered it.

Most academics think that ‘getting their stuff out there’ is by publishing in a scholarly journal. That’s fine for getting it to other academics, and it does allow for a review of the work by an academic’s peers. But how do you know your stuff REALLY works? You apply it to a real world context. You get it to the people who really need or want it.

Every writer knows the struggle of publishing and marketing their work. It’s like birthing a baby; you’re setting your loved one out into the harsh world. But every writer also knows that it doesn’t matter how good your work is if no one knows you exist.

Photo by Gnist Design from Pexels

A lot of academic work is hoarded behind the paywall of scholarly publications. Scholarly articles, the currency of academic research, are usually published within journals that are controlled by only a few publishers who charge institutions a substantial subscription fee to access said journals. If you want only one article and you’re not affiliated with an academic institution, then you pay a fee for the article itself. If you aren’t affiliated with an academic institution or rich, you’re SOL. You will not get access to all that juicy information.

I often hear from law enforcement that they just don’t know either who to contact for new information (ie, an expert), or where to look for information. Sometimes, they don’t even know the information exists. Academics don’t usually brag about their research outside the halls of academia. Because of this, the public doesn’t know about the researchers who are paid tax dollars and populate the halls of those grand post-secondary institutions. As well, even if you did know where to look for new information, as I noted above, it isn’t accessible to those outside these institutions.

However, there is another side to this.

I am doing my utmost right now to make the research I and others have done on scattered remains accessible to the public and for minimal or no cost. But how do I know I’m doing this in a way that’s fit for my audience? How do I know I’m meeting the needs of my audience?

Some of you might say: “Just look at your stats.” However, stats on websites, social media, etc. are only reflective of a reaction to what I post. In other words, I’m posting what I think others need to know; I don’t actually know what they need.

Do you need this? No? Okay. How about this? No? Okay. How about this?

To know what they need, I need them to either tell me or I need to ask them. And nobody’s tellin’ me nothin’.

This is where the problem lies. There is very little balance between information hoarding and integrity: there are only dragons.

I have a general gut idea of how scattered remains can adversely impact the resolution of an investigation, but I have almost no way to verify this because:

  1. Only some anthropologists work on forensic investigations
  2. Only some anthropologists who work on forensic investigations, publish on this work
  3. Most anthropologists who work on forensic investigations who publish on their work are outside of Canada
  4. Most of the published data on scattered remains are in scholarly journals (note the above)

(*** I am compiling a Google Sheet on published scattered remains data. I’ll post the link to the sheet when I’m done so that it’s accessible to all.)

There is no way that I, as a public citizen, can know how many forensic investigations in Canada, or Alberta, or Calgary involve scattered remains.

(I’ve asked Canada’s Missing, and they receive data on unidentified remains from law enforcement agencies across the country. I’d have to go back to every law enforcement agency that submitted that data to Canada’s Missing in order to maybe – but not likely – get further data on that case.)

There is no way I can find out if scattered remains are adversely affecting the resolution rate of investigations in Canada.

(I’d have to solicit every law enforcement agency and branch thereof across Canada in the hopes that one may actually keep that sort of data handy and let me have access to it.)

Believe me, I’ve tried to find these things out.

In Alberta, I was told that:

  1. That information isn’t recorded in a searchable way. Either that information isn’t recorded in a database, or the documentation isn’t in a database and therefore isn’t easily searchable.
  2. I’m not allowed to search the non-database documentation because that is a breach of the Freedom of Information and Protection Act. (Remember, I’d need to look at cases of non-scattered remains to determine that they don’t involve scattered remains.)
  3. Even if those cases that did involve scattered remains could be filtered out, I wouldn’t be allowed to look at them because “all cases are considered under investigation” and letting a civilian look at files could adversely impact the eventual prosecution of the case.

In effect, the argument is that letting others in to help the case could, in fact, hurt the case.

For those of you who struggle with personal boundary and trust issues – like me – this is very familiar: if you’ve been hurt once, you never, EVER let anyone else in again. Yet, in keeping out the potential bad, you’re also keeping out the potential good.

Please know this isn’t a slight against the protocols of law enforcement. I get it. Totally. My internal life is a juggling act of integrity and trust.

However, I also know the plight of knowing I need help, but being unable to get it. In keeping the data of unsolved cases locked up, yes, it preserves the integrity of the case. But it also ensures that no new eyes can help with the case, potentially ensuring it remains unresolved. In keeping the experiences of anthropologists who do forensic work inside their heads, it keeps this information out of the heads of other anthropologists. Anthropologists need to do more than just talk in dark corners with others who do forensic casework; they need to publish it so we can all learn from their experiences. Academics need to be accessible to the public so that their research and knowledge can help society. If society needs an expert on scattered remains, they should know who to ask for help.

There has to be a balance between information hoarding and lacking integrity. I take heart that there are people who have found this balance in their personal lives, and that there are some law enforcement agencies who have found ways to accept or even solicit help from outside their organization. There needs to be more of this, from both sides. Those who have information should let it be known that they have it and make it accessible. Those who need it should be able to find the information and use it.

I wish to thank those anthropologists who have graciously agreed to be interviewed for my podcast. You are a rare breed, and your stories and experiences are more valuable for your generosity. Thank you also to people like John Allore who are bringing to light the need to balance integrity and trust in forensic investigations.

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