You Can’t Handle the Truth

These might be a little boring and unorganized.   My new job requires me to understand better how information is transmitted and received, especially via the new media.    I am working this out by writing it.   I would appreciate any comments from anybody who wants to read through. 

A Few Good Men

The audience is meant to side with the Tom Cruise character when the Jack Nicholson character tells him that he can’t handle the raw truth.   Cruise has cleverly manipulated Nicholson into incriminating himself on the witness stand.   Nicholson doesn’t get it.    He doesn’t like cruise; he see him as a pretty-boy w/o the experience, temperament or character to face the hard facts of life – the Truth with a capital T.   The audience sides with Cruise.   The court sides with Cruise.   Justice sides with Cruise.  But Nicholson told the truth.    Or was it just a truth.   

The use of the definite or the indefinite article makes a big difference.    “A” truth (with the indefinite article) is different from “the” truth (with the definite article) and different from truth expressed with no article at all.*    How different would it have been if Nicholson had shouted, “You can’t handle truth!” or “You can’t handle a truth!”

Thinking about a courtroom drama is appropriate when considering information on the Internet or in the new media.   How useful is “raw truth?”  How can we differentiate THE truth from a truth or truth?  Has Steven Colbert’s truthiness replaced truth?  Do we care if it has?

Eyewitness Not so Good

We overvalue eyewitness testimony and are improperly influenced by how much certainty and passion people express in defending their testimony.     In the courtroom drama, we give a lot more credibility to the guy who says that he is certain.   He may indeed be telling a truth, but he may also be wrong.    A lot of things influence our memories and perceptions.    There are things I believed to be true based on personal experience that have turned out to be objectively false.    (I read a good book re called Witness for the Defense re which I recommend, but anybody who keeps a journal knows how memory can change.) 

Failure of Memory

The key concept is change, not fade.   The false analogy is that memory is like a book or a movie.  We think that with time some things are lost, but the fundamental integrity of the information is sound.   In fact, memory is living and reactive.   It constantly reorders facts and perceptions to integrate new information.   This is learning and is a good thing, but it changes memory.   We usually don’t know this has happened and we are rarely put to the test.    We all know that people’s honest recollections of events differ.   We are less accepting of the fact that our own honest recollection of facts differs over time.   

Memories change.  That is why perjury is such a difficult concept and the concept of repressed memory led to such abuse and injustice.   It is a virtual certainty that if you were asked under oath to describe a situation that happened six or eight months ago, you would be untruthful about some, or many, of the details.   That is assuming that you are trying to be 100% honest.   The irony is that some of the things you are most certain about & the things you felt most passionate about would be the ones that were the most wrong.  Passion clouds judgment and alters memory.    It is a truth; it is your truth, but it is not THE truth anymore.

When I stared to write this, I was thinking about the concept of truth on the Internet and in the new media.   My digressions above were necessary because the Internet is a sort of collective memory and it is subject to a lot of the same risks and pattern mistakes as individuals.   But it has the added factor of group activity and the magnification that technology offers. 

The Myth of the Unfiltered Truth

Internet provides first-person immediacy with all the benefits and traps that entails.  First-person accounts appeal to passion.   Passion is a big part of humanity, but passion often destroys logic and makes it difficult to see the big picture.  There is an old saying that if you make all your decisions with your heart, you will end up with heart disease.  Passion tends to lead either to inappropriate action or just as often no effective action at all.   First-person accounts are always incomplete.  

Listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.    Everybody knows the story that he was deaf when he wrote it and he couldn’t physically hear the music that has evoked so much passion in listeners for generations since.   Beethoven didn’t need to hear the music because he understood the concept and the context.   He understood the big picture and could orchestrate it in a symphony.    Now imagine you get to hear the oboe player and nobody else.    What kind of impression do you have?   Let’s expand your world.   You “have access” to all the musicians.   What are the chances that you can assemble them all into anything resembling the symphony?    Well can you – maestro? 

I know this from my experience in Iraq.   I reported what I saw and heard, but I didn’t always have the context.   I was surprised to see how my information, aggregated with others, produced a coherent big picture that was completely beyond, and sometimes ostensibly contradictory to, my on-the-spot perceptions.

Self Organizing Systems & Their Discontents

A lot of people put their faith in the self-organizing ability of the Internet.   I have reasonable faith in things like Wikipedia to develop useful truth, although we clearly need to have a “trust but verify” attitude.   But most of the Internet is not truly self organizing or truth seeking.   Many of the participants on the Internet have no commitment to truth at all.   In fact, much of the information on the Internet is put there by people actively spreading their biased viewpoints, if not actual disinformation and propaganda.    Many contributors and webpages are well financed by governments, pressure organizations and wealthy individuals.   

Internet is easily manipulated by trumped up facts and passions and it is getting worse.     YouTube posting can provide compelling pictures and sound that are as manipulative as Nazi or Soviet propaganda shorts.   Your intuition tells you to believe the evidence of your own eyes, but it is too easy to forget that the maker of the video controls all the angles, timing and perspectives your eyes are delivering.

The Golden Age That Never Was

Of course, speaking of Nazi & Soviet propaganda, there was really no golden age of truth.   The new media doesn’t introduce more manipulation; it just sort of democratizes it.   This probably means that most people have a better chance of finding the truth about things that concern them.    It is simultaneously easier to pass lies off in the short term and harder to make them stick in the long term.   The mass lies of propaganda past are probably made untenable by the Internet.  On the other hand, the smaller lies will probably more persistent.  “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time,” said Abraham Lincoln.    The Internet doesn’t change the general categories, but it does change distribution.    Internet makes it much harder to fool all of the people even some of the time, but it makes it easier to fool some of the people all of the time.   More disturbingly, Internet facilitates the aggregation of those people fooled all of the time.   A few isolated weirdos are just curiosities.    If enough of them find each other, they may form enough of a mass to become a real menace.    Like the embers of a dying campfire, if you spread them out they all burn out, but if you gather them together you can have a conflagration on your hands.  Internet makes this much easier. 

As I wrote in the first paragraph, I am just working through these ideas.   I am done doing that for now, but I really need to get this clear in my mind so that I can do a good job in my new job.


*BTW while English makes these distinctions, many languages do not.    Scandinavian languages stick the direct article on the ends of words with a pattern I never quite understood.  Slavic languages don’t have articles (direct or indirect) at all.   Arabic has only direct articles.   These languages find different ways to make the distinctions I am talking about above, but I wonder sometimes how the ability to easily express certain concepts affects people’s perceptions of those concepts.    Linguists and anthropologists have been on this case for many years.   They seem to have discovered many truths, but not THE truth, although many particular experts will tell you that he has indeed discovered and explained the ultimate reality.   

When I was in college, I read and liked a book called Language, Thought and Reality.   This book explained the Whorf hypothesis about language.    It made a lot of sense to me.  My anthropology professor told me it was wrong and implied that I would get a bad grade if I didn’t agree with him.  

  That was back in the 1970s.  A lot of things we learned in the 1970s, especially in anthropology and sociology, was crap.  Those were proto-PC days.  Most social scientist still believed some variation of the “blank slate” in those days and the very idea that human potential was limited or partially determined by structures or innate tendencies offended them viscerally.    Noam Chomsky, despite his general pernicious misunderstanding of the world and politics is a good linguist, argued persuasively against the Whorf hypothesis.  We have come a long way since then and, although the PC crowd still filters the public interface, the inquiry has become more of a science and the truth much more nuanced.   The most recent good book on this subject, IMO, is Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought