Thursday, July 31, 2008

A planet with flowers

People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.
—Iris Murdoch, A Fairly Honourable Defeat

Here are some photos I took this afternoon:

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Truth or lies?

Since I've been focusing on lies lately, I couldn't resist the image on the left which I happened on today. Don Asmussen's Bad Reporter cartoon is quite entertaining.

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Reflections on deception

As I discussed in my last post, the word "lie" is often used to refer to a broad class of deceptions. But there is much to be said for specificity. I like the following definition, which the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy calls the "the most common definition of lying":
to make a believed-false statement to another person with the intention that that other person believe that statement to be true.
And as I argued a couple of years ago, definitions matter. Someone accused of lying will surely opt for the narrow definition above. The accusation may then actually strengthen their position. If a lie can't in fact be demonstrated, they may appear to be vindicated. It seems to me that politicians often play this game. Indeed the accusation of lying conveniently distracts attention from more important deceptions.

There's a kind of objectivity about lies. With appropriate evidence, only a minimal number of assumptions are required to identify a lie. Children learn this quickly, and graduate from outright lies to distortions. When asked "Did you eat the cookies?" a small child may declare "No, it wasn't me!", all the while wiping the cookie crumbs from their mouth. A slightly older child might evade the question (and thereby avoid lying) by saying "I saw my brother eating some!"

The more sophisticated deceptions that adults practice typically don't include actual lying. It's simply too risky: being caught in a lie leaves one very little room to maneuver, and the likelihood of damage to one's credibility and reputation. Other forms of deception offer far more avenues of escape. Compared to lying, more subtle forms of deception are not nearly so easy to nail down. They often hinge on ambiguous language, evasions, exaggerations, and selective use of evidence.

The stovepipe

Consider, for example, the practice of "stovepiping", in which intelligence operatives are ordered to directly pass raw information that supports a certain conclusion up to the highest political levels. In a 2003 New Yorker piece Seymour Hersh described the practice in the context of "the disparity between the Bush Administration’s prewar assessment of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and what has actually been discovered":
The point is not that the President and his senior aides were consciously lying. What was taking place was much more systematic—and potentially just as troublesome. Kenneth Pollack, a former National Security Council expert on Iraq, whose book “The Threatening Storm” generally supported the use of force to remove Saddam Hussein, told me that what the Bush people did was “dismantle the existing filtering process that for fifty years had been preventing the policymakers from getting bad information. They created stovepipes to get the information they wanted directly to the top leadership."
Hersh quotes a former aide to Dick Cheney:
There’s so much intelligence out there that it’s easy to pick and choose your case. It opens things up to cherry-picking.
Lies, damned lies, and deceptions

As everyone knows—thanks to Benjamin Disraeli—there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. I believe the point here is that there are things much worse than lies. Disraeli (a politician) pointed the finger of blame at statistics. And indeed statistics can be used in a misleading way. Even without altering the data (i.e. lying), there are numerous ways to misrepresent the evidence. But this applies much more generally—as Disraeli was no doubt aware. For example, in budgeting a common problem is what is euphemistically called strategic misrepresentation. In the realm of politics, there's the non-denial denial. And in the world of marketing and PR, there's the fake blog, or flog.

Honesty and dishonesty

In the face of so much dishonesty, it may be tempting to retreat into cynicism. I think that would be a mistake. There is far more honesty and integrity in the world than it may appear. But the cacophony of deceit sometimes seems to drown out the quiet decency that is all around us.

Finally, a warning from O. Henry (Rolling Stones, 1912):
There is no well-defined boundary between honesty and dishonesty. The frontiers of one blend with the outside limits of the other, and he who attempts to tread this dangerous ground may be sometimes in one domain and sometimes in the other.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

To be honest

People in public relations are sometimes accused of being "paid liars". This misses the point. According to communications consultant Peter O'Malley:
In all instances, on both practical and legal grounds, effective public relations means not lying or defaming. But when perceived or real culpability is high, damage control inherently requires that engaged PR practitioners not volunteer facts they may know which may be true and may even be important to getting at the "truth" of the matter, but the disclosure of which would be harmful to the client's interest.
So lying is out (at least in principle), but that doesn't mean we'll be getting the whole truth. O'Malley continues:
And it frequently requires being steadfast in characterizing a "nearly empty" bottle as being "almost full". We may like to call all this "focused messaging", but in plain language, it means being highly selective in the presentation of information. Ultimately, it may mean being disingenuously mule-headed, and even secretive. In many settings, this may serve the client's interests, but it does not serve to enlighten the public.
Stronger forms of public relations are sometimes termed "spin". As Wikipedia puts it:
In public relations, spin is a usually pejorative term signifying a heavily biased portrayal in one's own favor of an event or situation; it is a "polite" synonym for propaganda. While traditional public relations may also rely on creative presentation of the facts, "spin" often, though not always, implies disingenuous, deceptive and/or highly manipulative tactics.
The Wikipedia entry on propaganda sheds still more light on this:
As opposed to impartially providing information, propaganda in its most basic sense presents information in order to influence its audience. Propaganda often presents facts selectively (thus lying by omission) to encourage a particular synthesis, or gives loaded messages in order to produce an emotional rather than rational response to the information presented.
So the trick isn't to tell lies, it's to carefully cherry-pick facts and use them to "encourage a particular synthesis". William Blake put it well:
A truth that's told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent.
"Auguries of Innocence," Poems from the Pickering Manuscript
Note that the term "lying by omission" obscures this somewhat. The Wikipedia entry for lie provides this description:
One lies by omission by omitting an important fact, deliberately leaving another person with a misconception. Lying by omission includes failures to correct pre-existing misconceptions. A husband may tell his wife he was out at a store, which is true, but lie by omitting the fact that he also visited his mistress.
But this raises all kinds of difficulties. To what extent is a person responsible for correcting other people's presumed misconceptions? In fact, "lying by omission" is generally not considered to be lying per se but rather part of the broader class of behaviour we call deception.

Follow the money

Selective presentation of facts may not necessarily be deceptive. In our adversarial legal system, lawyers are expected to argue for one side or the other. The hope is that the truth will come out in the wash. Similarly, we expect a company spokesperson to represent the company's interests. Knowing whose interests a person is representing allows us to decide how to weigh the arguments they present.

Experts are a special case. Whether they are scientists, economists, policy specialists, or what have you, we often believe (or hope) that they are relatively unbiased. The bad news is that bias is ubiquitous. The good news is that a great deal of work has been done to try to identify different sources of bias. (See, for example, Wikipedia's list of different types of cognitive bias.) One straightforward source is bias is financial. Experts (and the journalists who quote them) should reveal possible financial conflicts of interest.

We'd also like to believe that media reports are relatively unbiased. Sadly it's not always so. In January of this year, the Toronto Star published an article titled Top Ten Health Scares, "condensed from the American Council on Science and Health's list of medical stories that made us worry unnecessarily in 2007". As I noted in a previous post, the ACSH is an industry front group. Getting their don't-worry-be-happy message into the pages of a major newspaper—not as advertising, but as content—is PR gold. Imagine the article was instead a full-page advertisement, titled "The Chemical Industry Presents the Top Ten Health Scares".

As an article in the PR Watch Newsletter put it:
In examining organizations like ACSH, therefore, the key question is not, "Are they paid liars?" It is more meaningful to simply ask, "Who funds them, and whose interests do they serve?"

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

By the Way

I just got back from a wonderful couple of weeks on the Camino de Santiago in Spain (and a little bit in France). Here are some photos from the journey. I'm not sure how to summarize the experience and all its dimensions, but I can say that I have some great memories!

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