Monday, May 23, 2005

Bad data

Though I have what I consider to be a healthy wariness about the information that I take in, it turns out that I can be as gullible as anyone. Today is a case in point.

I am a great admirer of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films, and I've been looking forward to his next project, a remake of King Kong, due out at the end of this year. So I've been watching the Production Diary videos that have been posted about the movie as it is being made. These are glimpses of the inside of the film-making process, with everything from the elaborate detailing of the New York set to Andy Serkis jumping around in a motion-capture suit. (Yes, Gollum plays Kong.) It's like watching the DVD extras before the movie is released. The Production Diaries don't show everything -- they have been scrupulous about not showing any finished Kong animation -- but they are fascinating.

A couple of months ago, I was amazed and excited to learn that Jackson had been given the greenlight to immediately begin filming two Kong sequels, Son of Kong and King Kong: Into the Wolf's Lair. The latter one involved the giant ape battling Nazi-created mutant monsters during World War II. The Production Diary about this showed interviews with returning cast members and studio types, conceptual art sketches, and so on.

Well, I thought, that's great. Peter Jackson obviously makes movies because he loves it, and he's not above having some big-budget campy fun with the whole King Kong franchise. (This is, after all, the guy who gave us Braindead and Bad Taste.) Sure, heck, I'd go see 'em. Opening dates in 2006, you say? Cool.

Today, my good friend Ron gently pointed out the date of that particular Production Diary: April 1. "I'm not so sure," he said, smiling slyly.

When Ron smiles slyly, it means something. The worm of doubt stirred. And so I checked it out. And the whole thing is a hoax, an April Fool's joke. And I had bought it, completely.

This is clearly the time for me to grin sheepishly, say "Good one, Peter," and have a laugh at myself.

OK. Done that. But you know, there is more and more of this sort of thing, and it deserves a little reflection.

Somewhere in my archives there are several chapters of an unfinished science fiction story set a couple of hundred years from now. Part of the background to this story is a strange cultural/artistic movement that flourished in the early 21st Century. The major figures of this movement were anonymous, and their movement had no name. Their goal was to introduce pieces of false information into the world-wide knowledge base -- to "hack history". Since they acted in secret, it became in later years a major task of historians and critics to try to identify the forgeries perpetuated by the movement.

To take an example from the story, a small engagement of the Civil War which can be looked up (in AD 2200) in many standard reference books and databases. The question is whether or not it really happened. The history-hackers were skilled at introducing supporting information in various ways, and in designing their hacks so that they fit seamlessly into the overall structure of history. Electronic databases might, of course, have been altered. Some printed books and manuscripts from the pre-digital era might be skillful forgeries. False artifacts -- or, more easily, false cataloguing information -- could be slipped into unnoticed corners of museum collections. (Here is a box of Civil War bullets whose yellowed label says that they were collected at the site of the battle. Proof that the battle took place? Or just another artistic touch by the hackers?)

Part of the problem faced by later historians is that the history-hackers had no ideological agenda, and they kept their hacks modest in scope. Their whole idea was to remain undetected. Then, as the forged information entered circulation, their reward was to see it passed on as true in authoritative contexts. Eventually, the false meme would achieve its own, self-sustaining reality. It was no accident that the history-hackers did their work at the time when the bulk of the world's information was shifting from the written and printed word to electronic forms. This was, in effect, their ideal window of opportunity.

Another theory is that the history-hackers never existed at all, at least as an organized movement with significant resources. That in itself might be a supremely clever piece of misinformation.

The world is full of bad data. Some of it is bad simply due to noise or relatively honest error. Some is deliberately fabricated or distorted. We've got a hell of a job sorting it out.

Some years ago my parents-in-law, God bless them, told me about a really amazing article they had read. As I recall, it was about some outrageous thing that was done or said by Republican politicians. I said that it didn't quite sound true. Their source? The Onion. To be fair, neither they nor I had ever heard of the Onion before; but when we examined a few more stories from that source, we realized that we weren't exactly reading straight reporting of real facts.

Notice how similar this is to my own King Kong experience. A sophisticated bit of satire, cleverly constructed to include many of the external trappings of authenticity, provides a set of "facts" that fit in nicely with a pre-existing conceptual structure. (In my case, that structure was my perception of Peter Jackson as a gonzo film-maker willing to try anything, and the Hollywood addiction to sequels. In the case of my in-laws, it was their leftist political views, which made them more likely to believe something wild about conservatives.) And in the end, you just laugh and shrug it off. Good joke on me. But there is the lingering disquiet in the back of the mind: What other nonsense have I swallowed?

It can get more serious, of course. A couple of weeks ago Newsweek ran a brief story, based on very sketchy sourcing, claiming that guards at the detention camp at Guantanamo had tried to "rattle" one or more prisoners by flushing a Koran down a toilet. (Never mind the improbability. Ever try to flush a book, or even a bunch of ordinary paper, down a toilet? Me neither. But it doesn't sound easy.) The Newsweek story quickly spread through the Islamic world, and riots ensued in Afghanistan, killing many people and perhaps setting back political and security progress there. (A good start on the links would be here.)

Only it appears that the story was not true. Newsweek has since retracted the story, its embarrassment amplified by the unexpectedly dire consequences its story seemed to have in Central Asia. What part did Newsweek share in the blame for these deaths? Bad question; it presumes that "blame" is like "pie" and may be apportioned in pieces, so much for me and so much for you. Newsweek's editorial decision-making was flawed. The Koran-flushing detail was inflammatory -- indeed, that is one of the things that made it attractive to the editors. So the folks at Newsweek are to blame only for what they did. They did go with a juicy story based on one anonymous source and no real corroboration. Of course they did not intend the riots, the damage and the death. That possibility never entered their calculations. Any impact they envisioned for this story, I think, would have been entirely domestic.

The Koran-flushing fit into several pre-existing structures. For the Newsweek staff, it fit into the metastory about the way cruel and stupid America does harm around the world, and how the brutal U.S. military commits (by deliberate policy) atrocity after atrocity that only destroy any moral rightness we might once have had in the War on Terror, and how at the top of that list of horrors -- maybe at #2, after Abu Ghraib -- is Guantanamo. In other words, it was yet more material for attacking the Bush administration. For the ordinary Muslims in Afghanistan, the story fit into a whole gigantic propoganda structure built up by the Islamofascists about how infidel America and its lackey Israel (or is it the other way round?) hate Islam and must be fought and defeated by violent jihad. For the Islamofascists themselves, the Newsweek story was a great opportunity to spread violence and hurt the new regime in Afghanistan, and they took it, and the blood is on their hands.

The only reason that this story has become notorious -- indeed, the only reason that we know whether or not it was actually true -- is because some evil men on the other side of the world decided to use it as an excuse to foment chaos. But how many other times have untruths gone out abroad and passed into the common wisdom? What is their cumulative effect? Do they in fact make us more willing to accept the next untruth, because it fits into what we have already accepted as true?

A week ago I was arguing with my wife about torture and Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and all that. Arguing with my wife is one of the great pleasures of life, by the way. We are seldom in political agreement -- we cancel each other's votes so often that it has become a bit of a joke. On the other hand, she is smart and principled, and she cares about a lot of the right stuff. And if we take it too far and get mad, then we get to apologize and make up afterward.

As we argued, it became clear that my wife believed the following: The U.S. military had received numerous reports of abuse at Abu Ghraib, which they ignored as unimportant. After the firestorm in the media, the military did respond by punishing the actual guards whose abuse was photographed. But the investigation has not touched the higher-ups, or led to a basic change in how prisoners are treated.

For once, I kept my cool and went to the sources. Here and here I found fairly authoritative Abu Ghraib chronologies and showed them to her. Prior reports of abuse had led to prior investigations, though none produced any effective changes. The military had responded immediately to the report of abuse that was made by Spc. Darby in January 2004, beginning numerous investigations that led to a lot of disciplined people and to several courts martial, some of which continue. Many policies have been changed. In fact, by the time the story (with those awful photos) broke in late April, the military had been responding with considerable vigor for months.

The point of this is not that my wife was wrong and I was right. We continue to argue the subject, because we have real disagreements of fact and interpretation and judgment. (Not, thank God, on principle; neither of us favors torture or wants the Islamofascists to win.) The point here is that she had bad data, data that made a certain kind of sense given a certain structure. If you believe that the American military is not particularly concerned about the mistreatment of prisoners, then it makes sense that any response would come from the intense external pressure generated by a sensational media story. That indeed is the impression that she had picked up from the media. The actual chronology, which complicates that picture considerably, had somehow not been made clear.

Each of us tries to put together a picture of the world. And each of us evaluates what we read and hear based in part on how well it fits in with the picture we've created so far. Something that fits, we are more likely to accept. But that makes us vulnerable, doesn't it? Each of us can be fooled by a plausible falsehood. How do we defend ourselves against bad data?

There is not general and perfect defense against falsehood. If all of society is under the perfect control of a vast conspiracy -- if we are marooned in the Matrix without any possible exit -- well, then we're sunk. But that possibility seems remote. So how do we deal with the real practical problem?

It seems to me that one line of defense is to examine the mental structures that make us vulnerable to misinformation. This suggests, among other things, a bias toward complexity in our thinking. We need to make distinctions, and we need to avoid the oversimplification of rhetorical absolutism. Not all sexual misconduct is rape; not all prisoner mistreatment is torture; there are reasonable moral distinctions to be made between early-term abortion and murder. You can be against sexual misconduct, prisoner mistreatment and abortion -- and I'm against all three -- without inflating the rhetoric. And you'd better, because inflated rhetoric makes you stupid and gullible.

Or, to take another example, one should try to avoid the view that one's political opponents are monstrous and evil. In the political culture of the United States, anyway, we mostly agree on a lot of really important stuff, and it is important to keep that in mind. The current frenzy on the Democratic side of the aisle to paint conservative judicial nominees as toxic extremists and raise dire alarms about the hate-filled theocratic agenda of American evangelicals -- well, it's a little bit silly and a little bit dangerous. And if you don't think so, reflect for five minutes on exactly what sort of falsehoods your views make you susceptible to. (Did you really think that James Dobson came out against Spongebob Squarepants because he was gay?)

But we should not simply make complexity our creed, either, because that introduces its own set of biases. Evil must be opposed and the good defended -- not naively, but with conviction. Doubt and complexity, indispensible ingredients in rational thought, must not become universal solvents that melt away all principle and purpose. Some things, as my good and wise friend Ron has occasionally remarked, are more black and white than they seem.


Anonymous mick bremner said...

Hi Ben, I enjoyed your post very much.

I started my postdoc here in Innsbruck on the first of April... It was very tempting to make a joke out of it, but I held back. I think I'm kind of regretting that now, opportunities like that don't come around very often.

7:55 AM  
Blogger aram harrow said...

The first story in Borges' Ficciones ("Tlon, Ugbar, Orbis Tertius") is a nice account of "history-hacking."

2:33 PM  
Blogger Daryl McCullough said...

Hi, Ben.

I found your blog by bopping around to blogs by physicists. I loved your short story in the form of a literary essay. It reminded me a little of "Pale Fire", by Nabokov, which was a novel in the form of footnotes to an epic poem.

But getting to the topic of "Bad Data", I feel that I'm more likely to agree with your wife on political matters than I do with you, and I don't agree with your examples much at all.

In the case of the Newsweek story, the story about "flushing the Koran" was in error. However, "The U.S. military released new details yesterday about five confirmed cases of U.S. personnel mishandling the Koran at the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, acknowledging that soldiers and interrogators kicked the Muslim holy book, got copies wet, stood on a Koran during an interrogation and inadvertently sprayed urine on another copy."

I would agree that Americans are getting bad data, but I think that the problem is two-fold (1) a leadership that is completely cavalier about the facts, about evidence, about twisting information to fit what they want to do anyway, and (2) a press that is so lazy, and has such a short attention span that they can't be bothered to sort out the facts.

6:17 PM  
Anonymous Bruder Pat said...

So do rivers still flow to the sea?

2:00 AM  

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