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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Henri Poincare:

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Poincaré wasn't much into absolutes!

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