"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Dance of Qualification

The following is what I call Mamet's Principle:
"Law, politics and commerce are based on lies. That is, the premises giving rise to opposition are real, but the debate occurs not between these premises but between their proxy, substitute positions. The two parties to a legal dispute (as the opponents in an election) each select an essentially absurd position. "I did not kill my wife and Ron Goldman," "A rising tide raises all boats," "Tobacco does not cause cancer." Should one be able to support this position, such that it prevails over the nonsense of his opponent, he is awarded the decision. ...

"In these fibbing competitions, the party actually wronged, the party with an actual practicable program, or possessing an actually beneficial product, is at a severe disadvantage; he is stuck with a position he cannot abandon, and, thus, cannot engage his talents for elaboration, distraction, drama and subterfuge."
- David Mamet in "Bambi vs Godzilla: Why art loses in Hollywood", Harper's, June 2005.

(I'm sure this is not what David Mamet wants to remembered for, but tough. Go see his movies, he is great, but don't forget this.)

Those of us honest enough to be saddled with the truth as we understand it have to put in qualifiers, ifs, maybes, probablies, indicatives, consistent withs. If you don't put in enough qualifiers, people arguing the dishonest opposition will call you on exagerration and overstatement, which will quickly be rendered in the extremist discussion groups as "lying". If you are unlucky the mainstream press will pick it up, and contrive a false balance piece where your slight flaw in emphasis is presented as the equivalent of your opposition's complete fiction.

The problem is that if you put in too many qualifiers, readers will perceive your prose as turgid and dull. If you genuinely suspect that you are facing disaster, but you phrase your concern in a manner that is considered polite academic prose, you will not have impact on people's behavior commensurate with the risks. "Excuse me, but I do rather have some suspicions about the integrity of the dike. It might behoove us to effectuate some repairs." The problem with this sort of understatement is that it misinforms every bit as much as the overstatement does.

Consequential understatement, as much as consequential overstatement, is a form of dishonesty.

The representative of truth is always involved in a dance. Every single statement, every utterance of any kind, can be second guessed and third guessed ad infinitum; every degree of qualification of every statement is a moral decision as well as a substantive decision. The representative of untruth has no such burden. As proof here's a followup interview with George Will (h/t Eli):

•Q: The big issue was about how much global sea ice there is now compared to 1979.

•A: And that of course was a tiny portion of the column. The critics completely ignored -- as again, understandably -- the evidence I gave of the global cooling hysteria of 30 years ago. [mt: Hmm...]

•Q: They like to pretend that there really wasn't any hysteria back then.

•A: Since I quoted the hysteria, it's a little hard for them to deny it. [mt: Hmm...]


•Q: Will you dare to do any more on global warming?

•A: Well of course! It doesn't take daring. Seriously, I don't understand what there is to worry about. In fact, the global warming "caucus," if you will, seems to me singularly toothless. They can't even get the globe to cooperate. It stubbornly refuses to warm at the moment. [mt: Hmmm...]

•Q: Is there any big lesson that you've learned from this encounter with the global-warming people?

•A: This is not a life-changing experience. This is just another encounter with another interest group doing interest-group politics. This strikes me as a very minor event.

•Q: In your career or ... ?

•A: In the week! In the week! This is just not a big deal. I've written 5,000 columns and a lot of them have caused ruckuses bigger than this.

•Q: But Andrew Revkin and The New York Times? They don't usually pick on you, do they?
[mt: "pick on you???" Aaaarrrghhhh!!!!
Aaaaaarrrrrrghhhh!!!! ]

•A: No, but they no doubt have their reasons.

•Q: OK, let's switch to baseball.
I am not making this up.


Anonymous said...


We'd all like to believe that if we explain the problem clearly enough, others will get it.

But observation says, "it isn't so".

Many people have decided what they believe and will simply spend the rest of their lives defending it and never consider listening to the other side.

Others don't care and will ignore whatever the debate is, regardless.

In my opinion, there are only a few, generally in the High School and early college years, who are openly looking for 'truth' and who are willing to put up with the discomfort of 'not knowing' while they look.

And then there's another small minority who've made keeping an open mind their profession. We call them scientists. Most of them will let the data lead them to their conclusions.

So, when talking to a demographic mix like this, there are only some of the young and many of the scientists (the choir?) that you have much hope of reaching. The rest (the vast majority) are impermeable to better arguments.

For my money, once you've recognized the basic truth of the foregoing, you need to review your 'plan'.

The world is probably going to hell in an hand-basket. That surely doesn't mean that folks like you and I, and a thousand others who Blog everyday, can't in all sincerity, try to make the world a better place. But it says, to me, that I also need to think about my family and my own safety too.

Looking out for the ones you love doesn't mean you've given up. It just means that you accept that idealism and pragmatism both have real parts to play in your 'plan'.

One other thought. If better crafted articles and more honesty and soul searching aren't going to turn the tide and yet the tide MUST be turned, then logic says another way forward must be found.

And soon after that, you come to the sign that says, "Do the ends justify the means?"

Me? I think the tide is moving and nothing that I (or we, as bloggers and scientists) can do is going to change it - short of helping to establishing some sort of benevolent world dictatorship that will make humanity get into a steady-state balance with the biosphere. And I'm just not willing to put my energies there.

Major changes are coming up. I'm going to keep reading and Blogging and thinking. But I'm also moving to New Zealand to get myself just a bit more out of harm's way.

Cheers, in a Dark Green sort of a way,

Michael Tobis said...


This blog is not the place to discuss the theories or moral character of Roger Pielke Jr.

I am sorry, but I rejected your article. Others may be more willing to run it.

Anonymous said...

FYI, Michael, the newspaper in which the interview appeared is the pretty much the worst denialist rag in the country. Note the owner.

Arthur said...

Michael - your comments here reminded me of my thoughts after tangling with Monckton last fall - http://www.dailykos.com/story/2008/9/12/7735/81287/113/595843

Rereading it I notice I do seem to have a predilection for thinking that media spots I favor are "obscure".

Of course this isn't new. As Mark Twain put it long ago, "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes."


When you think about it, it's amazing humans have come as far as we have - one has to think carefully about how people come to trust various sources of information, but I think there's a deep lesson in there somewhere. Something new is needed to supplant the old media - wiki doesn't quite cut it, blogs definitely not. Some kind of permanent, reliable, carefully controlled database of "truth", perhaps? I don't know exactly what, but I think there's an important path here that is just begging to be discovered.

Anonymous said...

"Consequential understatement, as much as consequential overstatement, is a form of dishonesty."

I think this might be too simple.

Actually the whole problem with all of this is that people expect everything to boil down to a single line.

The truth, the best line of action or any other thing might not in reality be simple.

Dano said...

I've been thinking along the lines of Dennis and Arthur lately, as it is better than banging my head against a wall (but when banging, it feels so good when I stop).

Nonetheless, what to do about entrenched values in a bifurcated society? Anything? What will Arthur's alternate delivery channel do to Dennis' (and my) entrenched values (John Fleck calls them 'tribes')?

People thinking about this seemingly have no answer, either, it seems. And the thought experiments on the right that yield the conclusion of 'top-down control' further entrench the political right in this country.

This is the direction the country started going in the 1970s, and this is where perhaps 1/3 of us are today.