Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Age of Spin

They call it the Information Age.  And it is certainly an appropriate designation.  The amount of information available at our fingertips today is unprecedented.  You can answer any question by pulling your phone out of your pocket and clicking around a bit.  Thirty years ago this would have been an impossible dream.

Unfortunately, directly proportional to the increase in information is the increase in "spin."  Spin, as commonly defined, is presenting something in a particularly biased manner.  This results in most people seeing it differently than they would have had it been presented clearly and directly.

This is an election year in the US, so there is spin all over the place.  But even without presidential candidates competing to see who can deceive the greater number of citizens, spin is extremely prevalent today.

For example, let's take a tobacco company and use some made up numbers.  Let's say that the number of cigarette-related deaths has been increasing by an average of 10% a year for the past 30 years.  But last year, they only increased by 5%.  A tobacco company could say, then, that "the growth of cigarette-related death rates is decreasing."  If you saw that quote in a newspaper, you might think that cigarettes are getting safer.  Or, even, that they already are safer.

Is the tobacco company lying?  No.  Are they being dishonest?  Yes.

One might object here and say that they are not being dishonest - that they are actually saying what is true.  Indeed, they are saying what is true.  But they are intentionally phrasing it in a way that would mislead the majority.  That, too, is dishonesty.

Of course, statistics can always be manipulated to support some side of an argument.  But if you demand to see all of the numbers, you can draw your own conclusions.  It becomes trickier when there are no numbers.

This "spin without numbers" can probably best be illustrated by what a lawyer may do on cross-examination.  Some witness presents a very powerful testimony against the defendant.  The defendant's lawyer intentionally poses questions to the witness to weaken his testimony, even if the lawyer really knows inside that the witness is correct.  That is the lawyer's job: to spin.

And here we arrive at the reason why people spin: it is because they care more about their position than the truth.  In the lawyer's case, his position means his paycheck.  So of course he cares about it more than the truth.  For a corporation, its position also means its paycheck.  For other entities, pride could be the reason why they value their position more.  Of course, in an ideal world none of these reasons would take precedence over truth.  

So, back to the Information Age.  A presidential candidate, corporation, or any entity with some position to defend knows that they cannot control the flow of information today.  Information will get out to the public.  So they try to control the spin of that information.  Whichever side can spin it better will win.

This is extremely harmful for all involved.  First, there are those who are deceived by the spin.  Obviously, they are hurt by developing a very biased opinion.  But even those who are not deceived are hurt.  They develop a cynical attitude toward any information.  They view everything as potential spin.  They essentially become calloused to all data and distrustful of any viewpoint.

For example, whenever I read of some scientific study, I always find myself asking 'where did the funding for this study come from?'  That single question, even without an answer, is enough to cast doubt on the validity of the results.  

It is certainly discouraging to see what should be a triumph of technology and knowledge marred by the agendas of powerful people and organizations.  One would think that information ubiquity would reduce dishonesty, but in fact we are seeing quite the opposite.  Imperfect humans will always find a way to be dishonest for selfish reasons.

And, as mentioned, this hurts everyone.