"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Against Overstating or Understating the Case

The ethics of lying are easy; you're off the hook. You just make up whatever suits you and see what sticks.

The ethics of telling the truth are more complicated, especially if the purpose of your speech is to affect the opinions of the public.

Here's an interesting article on the Times of London that goes to this point.

Consider on the other hand this piece by Karl Wunsch from a couple of years back. I would consider the piece strictly speaking true but strikingly ineffective. He probably wanted to conclude with "you can never be 100% sure of anything" but noted that was a self-contradictory statement (What's the opposite of a tautology?) in that "never" expresses 100% certainty. So he backed off to "we have not as yet achieved 100% certainty about attribution", even though, well, you really can never get to 100% certainty in statistical attribution, can you? What he's left us with is a pile of doubt that Wunsch seems to have intended as a call to action!

Stop me if you've heard this one before.
So there are two managers who are balloonists for a hobby, and they get blown off track and a bit lost. So one of them yells at someone he sees down on the ground:

"Heyyy! Yes youuu! Wherre arre weeee?"

to which the reply comes back

"You're in a balloooooon!"

The balloonist shrugs and says ruefully to his companion "That must be an engineer. He responded exactly to my question, everything he said was precisely correct, and yet I am no better off than I was before."
Getting the right balance is not easy. Stephen Schneider got into terrible trouble (which has never entirely abated) with a sound bite that tried to make that point.

In the end, like an old person who is always too cold when the temperature is below 75 F and always too warm when it's above 70 F, the best you can do seems to be when both tendencies, toward precision and toward influence, are a little bit stressed.

All of which brings us back to Mamet's Law, the insight that started this blog in the first place.
"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.
So the good news is that we are much smarter than the opposition. But the bad news is that we'd better be.


Lou Grinzo said...

Three scientists are walking through a field.

One points to an animal nearby and says, "Gee, I didn't know there were black sheep around here."

The second says, "Don't jump to conclusions! All you've seen is ONE black sheep."

The third then says, "Don't jump to conclusions! All you've seen is one black side of one sheep."


I still don;t know how I feel about this one, decades after I first heard it...

Anonymous said...

As a former taxonomist I'd question the hasty assumption that it's a sheep, but we're like that ;-)

Marion Delgado said...

When I've explained this to people, sometimes the line between what has to be dealt with as systematic error and what does not has occasionally struck them as arbitrary, and even potentially recursive.

Hank Roberts said...


"... they're not really concerned. They think America is the goose that lays the golden egg. Why not? She laid it in their laps. She laid it in grandpa's lap.

They don't feel anxious, because they never had anything to be anxious about. They grew up in an America surrounded by phrases—"strongest nation in the world," "indispensable nation," "unipolar power," "highest standard of living"—and are not bright enough, or serious enough, to imagine that they can damage that, hurt it, even fatally.

We are governed at all levels by America's luckiest children, sons and daughters of the abundance, and they call themselves optimists but they're not optimists—they're unimaginative. They don't have faith, they've just never been foreclosed on. They are stupid and they are callous, and they don't mind it when people become disheartened. They don't even notice."

William M. Connolley said...

Not even terribly off-topic: I'd like your opinion of http://www.collide-a-scape.com/2009/08/12/ please.

JR's comment at http://scienceblogs.com/stoat/2009/11/oh_no_more_snarking.php refers, if you want to cheat by fiding out why I'm asking :-)

Michael Tobis said...

Belette's comment is answered at the referenced Stoat.

By the way, I have some vague idea what a stoat is, but none as to its relevance, and no idea whatsoever as to what a Belette is. Is there a public explanation of any of this?

Dol said...

Hello. I quoted you:


(Down the bottom of that post.)

luminous beauty said...

(What's the opposite of a tautology?)


luminous beauty said...

(What's the opposite of a tautology?)