The Stability of Three

One of the things I’ve always respected about Neal Stephenson is his attitude (or rather, the lack thereof) regarding politics:

Politics – These I avoid for the simple reason that artists often make fools of themselves, and begin to produce bad art, when they decide to get political. A novelist needs to be able to see the world through the eyes of just about anyone, including people who have this or that set of views on religion, politics, etc. By espousing one strong political view a novelist loses the power to do this. Anyone who has convinced himself, based on reading my work, that I hold this or that political view, is probably wrong. What is much more likely is that, for a while, I managed to get inside the head of a fictional character who held that view.

Having read and enjoyed several of his books, I think this attitude has served him well. In a recent interview in Reason magazine, Stephenson makes several interesting observations. The whole thing is great, and many people are interested in his comments regarding an American technology and science, but I found one other tidbit very interesting. Strictly speaking, it doesn’t break with his attitude about politics, but it is somewhat political:

Speaking as an observer who has many friends with libertarian instincts, I would point out that terrorism is a much more formidable opponent of political liberty than government. Government acts almost as a recruiting station for libertarians. Anyone who pays taxes or has to fill out government paperwork develops libertarian impulses almost as a knee-jerk reaction. But terrorism acts as a recruiting station for statists. So it looks to me as though we are headed for a triangular system in which libertarians and statists and terrorists interact with each other in a way that I’m afraid might turn out to be quite stable.

I took particular note of what he describes as a “triangular system” because it’s something I’ve seen before…

One of the primary goals of the American Constitutional Convention was to devise a system that would be resistant to tyranny. The founders were clearly aware of the damage that an unrestrained government could do, so they tried to design the new system in such a way that it wouldn’t become tyrannical. Democratic institions like mandatory periodic voting and direct accountability to the people played a large part in this, but the founders also did some interesting structural work as well.

Taking their cue from the English Parliament’s relationship with the King of England, the founders decided to create a legislative branch separate from the executive. This, in turn, placed the two governing bodies in competition. However, this isn’t a very robust system. If one of the governing bodies becomes more powerful than the other, they can leverage their advantage to accrue more power, thus increasing the imbalance.

A two-way balance of power is unstable, but a three-way balance turns out to be very stable. If any one body becomes more powerful than the other two, the two usually can and will temporarily unite, and their combined power will still exceed the third. So the founders added a third governing body, an independent judiciary.

The result was a bizarre sort of stable oscillation of power between the three major branches of the federal government. Major shifts in power (such as wars) disturbed the system, but it always fell back to a preferred state of flux. This stable oscillation turns out to be one of the key elements of Chaos theory, and is referred to as a strange attractor. These “triangular systems” are particularly good at this, and there are many other examples…

Some argue that the Cold War stabilized considerably when China split from the Soviet Union. Once it became a three-way conflict, there was much less of a chance of unbalance (and as unbalance would have lead to nuclear war, this was obviously a good thing).

Steven Den Beste once noted this stabilizing power of three in the interim Iraqi constitution, where the Iraqis instituted a Presidency Council of 3 Presidents representing each of the 3 major factions in Iraq:

…those writing the Iraqi constitution also had to create a system acceptable to the three primary factions inside of Iraq. If they did not, the system would shake itself to pieces and there was a risk of Iraqi civil war.

The divisions within Iraq are very real. But this constitution takes advantage of the fact that there are three competing factions none of which really trusts the other. This constitution leverages that weakness, and makes it into a strength.

It should be interesting to see if that structure will be maintained in the new Iraqi constitution.

As for Stephenson’s speculation that a triangular system consisting of libertarians, statists, and terrorists may develop, I’m not sure. They certainly seem to feed off one another in a way that would facilitate such a system, but I’m not positive it would work out that way, nor do I think it is particularly a desirable state to be in, all the more because it could be a very stable system due to its triangular structure. In any case, I thought it was an interesting observation and well worth considering…

Elections in Iraq

Iraq held its first national elections in over 50 years today. I don’t have much to add to what has already been said, but I will note that it doesn’t surprise me that the insurgents were quieter than expected. One of the big advantages of terrorism is the surprise factor, and on a day like today, security forces are expecting attacks and are much more likely to spot unusual activities and investigate. My guess is that attacks will intensify in the coming weeks, as the insurgents test the new government…

Lots of people are commenting on this so I’ll try to perform some of that information aggregation that blogs are known for, starting with the Iraqi Blogs, then moving on to the rest of the blogosphere…

Update: Moved all the links into the extended entry. Click below to read on…

Is Patriotism Self-Organizing?

Scott has been writing a lot about patriotism and recently emailed me suggesting that it would be interesting to consider that subject from the perspective of self-organizing systems.

Scott asks:

Are we genetically predisposed to work together in large groups for the common good of the group? How large the group? Are we genetically predisposed to organise ourselves into large nations?

One of the problems I have with discussions about patriotism is that there is no adequate definition for the term. In my mind, patriotism is more of an amalgam of several other, more general, properties of man. One such property is that human beings tend to work together in groups. Doing so gives the group greater overall strength. This occurs frequently in nature, with packs of wolves, flocks of birds, schools of fish, and so on. It is clear that there is some sort of evolutionary advantage to working together in a group. So this particular property of man acts as a selection mechanism. Those who stubbornly act alone cannot compete with others who are cooperating. Over the millenia, man has become more and more likely to work together in groups.

It’s interesting to consider, though, that this property developed spontaneously. It is an emergent property of a self-organizing system – evolution. It’s also important to remember that no single property exists in a vacuum. The property we’re talking about, the tendency for humans to work together in groups, is interconnected with several other properties: communication skills, loyalty, physical strength, and so on. The point is that the group is configured more efficiently than the individual. An individual needs to be good at several activities in order to survive. But individuals who are part of a group can specialize, and other members of the group will take care of any shortcomings. Being a self-organized system, it is also constantly improving on itself. It does so through a continuous reproduction and selection process.

So what is the optimal size of the group? There is no answer to that question, but lucky for us, this is exactly the sort of question nature is designed to answer. Just as nature has selected people who work in groups, it will select groups which work more efficiently. Part of what makes a group efficient is the group’s size.

It seems obvious that the larger the group, the better, but as the group gets larger, it begins to experience scaling problems. In a small group, communication and coordination between the members is important, but can be accomplished with relatively simple means. As the group gets larger, it becomes more important and much more difficult to coordinate. Governments and nations arose out of the need for a useful framework for large groups of individuals (and large groups of groups, as it were).

There are, of course, several competing forms of government. Some are better than others, but the important thing is that governments allow for large scale collaboration. They institute laws and regulations which are intended to make the group operate more efficiently. Currently, it seems that governments which employ democratic mechanisms are the most successful. Depending on your view of things, there is considerable room for improvement though. To quote Winston Churchill:

“Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.”

Large scale collaboration is difficult. It quite often produces poor results (see groupthink) and those who are adept at recognizing such properties can exploit them. However, it is a matter of tradeoffs. Human beings don’t so much solve their problems as they trade one set of problems for another (with the hope that the new set is more advantageous than the old).

Humanity has imposed patriotism on itself because of nature (not in spite of it), and it has done so because all of the alternatives we have tried could not compete with a system that exhibits “patriotism.” Scott writes:

I would suggest that the patriotic field will prove to be just as ephemeral as the first born sacrifice field. The fact that a field flourishes does not mean that the field is more beneficial to human survival than a field that does not flourish. Witness the ravages of war, racism, or the pollution of the environment. There exists in the space of potential fields, one which governs us to view humanity as a single species who share one fragile planet. Whether this field will ever find a hospitable environment remains to be seen.

Personally, I think patriotism is here to stay. It may be further refined by the evolutionary process, but it is quite clear that human beings benefit from working together in groups, and as long as that is the case there will exist people who seek to exploit such instincts. The real question here is whether the current situation is the most efficient possible configuration of the system, and how to improve the system of collaboration. The idea is to keep expanding the group’s size until the point in which all of humanity is a member. To a certain extent, we are proceeding along those lines with things like international organizations and globalization, though there is, again, considerable room for improvement (this is, perhaps, because there is also considerable room for improvement in individual governments – the problems of the smal writ large). Patriotism would still exist in such a system, though it probably would not operate in the same way it does now.

Scott wonders whether or not his ideal world will ever find a hospitable environment. This is the wrong way to think about the problem. The environment is governed by nature which is continuously seeking to maximize efficiency. If it is hospitable to a specific configuration, it will gravitate towards that configuration (it would be an attractor).

Again, this subject is enormous, and the discussion above is a very high level analysis. Take it with a grain of salt. I’m still trying to get my head around the general concept of self-organizing systems. Part of that is that I see it operating everywhere, probably sometimes where it is not…

The Final Baghdad Journal

The final entry in an exceptional series of articles written by a New York artist, Steve Mumford, on his experiences in Iraq has been posted. As always, it is compelling reading and depicts an Iraq not normally seen from the usual sources.

Apparently Mumford’s work has been gathering more and more attention; those who have been following his work will be interested in this NY Times article (registration required) which provides a little background into Mumford’s motivations and inspiration.

Now 44, Mr. Mumford had been comfortably embedded in the London and New York gallery worlds. He was known for paintings that seemed to pit two disparate Americas – wilderness and society – against each other by depicting, for example, a car seen against a sublime landscape or a wild animal about to pounce at a house. … Mr. Mumford says his inspiration for the project stemmed directly from his admiration for the painter Winslow Homer, who was sent to the front during the Civil War to sketch for Harper’s Weekly.

… Like Winslow Homer before him, Mr. Mumford spent most of his time at military bases, chronicling the routine, monotony and constant togetherness of soldiers’ daily lives. Often they are seen dozing on cots, doing paperwork, watching television or playing cards. But he also shows them standing guard, attending neighborhood council meetings, searching homes and hunched inside tanks, tensely watching the road.

The article mentions that this latest installment is unfortunately also the final one (though one wonder whether his newfound friendships with Iraqi artists will lead to further “journal” entries in the future). As always, it is an excellent read. Artnet has collected all of the Baghdad Journals here, if you’re interested.

Polarized Debate

This is yet another in a series of posts fleshing out ideas initially presented in a post regarding Reflexive Documentary filmmaking and the media. In short, Reflexive Documentaries achieve a higher degree of objectivity by embracing and acknowledging their own biases and agenda. Ironically, by acknowledging their own subjectivity, these films are more objective and reliable. I expanded the scope of the concepts originally presented in that post to include a broader range of information dissemination processes, which lead to a post on computer security and a post on national security.

I had originally planned to apply the same concepts to debating in a relatively straightforward manner. I’ll still do that, but recent events have lead me to reconsider my position, thus there will most likely be some unresolved questions at the end of this post.

So the obvious implication with respect to debating is that a debate can be more productive when each side exposes their own biases and agenda in making their argument. Of course, this is pretty much required by definition, but what I’m getting at here is more a matter of tactics. Debating tactics often take poor forms, with participants scoring cheap points by using intuitive but fallacious arguments.

I’ve done a lot of debating in various online forums, often taking a less than popular point of view (I tend to be a contrarian, and am comofortable on the defense). One thing that I’ve found is that as a debate heats up, the arguments become polarized. I sometimes find myself defending someone or something that I normally wouldn’t. This is, in part, because a polarizing debate forces you to dispute everything your opponent argues. To concede one point irrevocably weakens your position, or so it seems. Of course, the fact that I’m a contrarian, somewhat competitive, and stubborn also plays a part this. Emotions sometimes flare, attitudes clash, and you’re often left feeling dirty after such a debate.

None of which is to say that polarized debate is bad. My whole reason for participating in such debates is to get others to consider more than one point of view. If a few lurkers read a debate and come away from it confused or at least challenged by some of the ideas presented, I consider that a win. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with partisanship, and as frustrating as some debates are, I find myself looking back on them as good learning experiences. In fact, taking an extreme position and thinking from that biased standpoint helps you understand not only that viewpoint, but the extreme opposite as well.

The problem with such debates, however, is that they really are divisive. A debate which becomes polarized might end up providing you with a more balanced view of an issue, but such debates sometimes also present an unrealistic view of the issue. An example of this is abortion. Debates on that topic are usually heated and emotional, but the issue polarizes, and people who would come down somewhere around the middle end up arguing an extreme position for or against.

Again, I normally chalk this polarization up as a good thing, but after the election, I’m beginning to see the wisdom in perhaps pursuing a more moderated approach. With all the red/blue dichotomies being thrown around with reckless abandon, talk of moving to Canada and even talk of secesssion(!), it’s pretty obvious that the country has become overly-polarized.

I’ve been writing about Benjamin Franklin recently on this here blog, and I think his debating style is particularly apt to this discussion:

Franklin was worried that his fondness for conversation and eagerness to impress made him prone to “prattling, punning and joking, which only made me acceptable to trifling company.” Knowledge, he realized, “was obtained rather by the use of the ear than of the tongue.” So in the Junto, he began to work on his use of silence and gentle dialogue.

One method, which he had developed during his mock debates with John Collins in Boston and then when discoursing with Keimer, was to pursue topics through soft, Socratic queries. That became the preferred style for Junto meetings. Discussions were to be conducted “without fondness for dispute or desire of victory.” Franklin taught his friends to push their ideas through suggestions and questions, and to use (or at least feign) naive curiousity to avoid contradicting people in a manner that could give offense. … It was a style he would urge on the Constitutional Convention sixty years later. [This is an exerpt from the recent biography Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson]

This contrasts rather sharply with what passes for civilized debate these days. Franklin actually considered it rude to directly contradict or dispute someone, something I had always found to be confusing. I typically favor a frank exchange of ideas (i.e. saying what you mean), but I’m beginning to come around. In the wake of the election, a lot of advice has been offered up for liberals and the left, and a lot of suggestions center around the idea that they need to “reach out” to more voters. This has been recieved with indignation by liberals and leftists, and one could hardly blame them. From their perspective, conservatives and the right are just as bad if not worse and they read such advice as if they’re being asked to give up their values. Irrespective of which side is right, I think the general thrust of the advice is that liberal arguments must be more persuasive. No matter how much we might want to paint the country into red and blue partitions, if you really want to be accurate, you’d see only a few small areas of red and blue drowning in a sea of purple. The Democrats don’t need to convince that many people to get a more favorable outcome in the next election.

And so perhaps we should be fighting the natural polarization of a debate and take a cue from Franklin, who stressed the importance of deferring, or at least pretending to defer, to others:

“Would you win the hearts of others, you must not seem to vie with them, but to admire them. Give them every opportunity of displaying their own qualifications, and when you have indulged their vanity, they will praise you in turn and prefer you above others… Such is the vanity of mankind that minding what others say is a much surer way of pleasing them than talking well ourselves.”

There are weaknesses to such an approach, especially if your opponent does not return the favor, but I think it is well worth considering. That the country has so many opposing views is not necessarily bad, and indeed, is a necessity in democracy for ideas to compete. But perhaps we need less spin and more moderation… In his essay “Apology for Printers” Franklin opines:

“Printers are educated in the belief that when men differ in opinion, both sides ought equally to have the advantage of being heard by the public; and that when Truth and Error have fair play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter.”


Update: Andrew Olmsted posted something along these lines, and he has a good explanation as to why debates often go south:

I exaggerate for effect, but anyone spending much time on site devoted to either party quickly runs up against the assumption that the other side isn’t just wrong, but evil. And once you’ve made that assumption, it would be wrong to even negotiate with the other side, because any compromise you make is taking the country one step closer to that evil. The enemy must be fought tooth and nail, because his goals are so heinous.

… We tend to assume the worst of those we’re arguing with; that he’s ignoring this critical point, or that he understands what we’re saying but is being deliberately obtuse. So we end up getting frustrated, saying something nasty, and cutting off any opportunity for real dialogue.

I don’t know that we’re a majority, as Olmsted hopes, but there’s more than just a few of us, at least…

Open Source Security

A few weeks ago, I wrote about what the mainstream media could learn from Reflexive documentary filmmaking. Put simply, Reflexive Documentaries achieve a higher degree of objectivity by embracing and acknowledging their own biases and agenda. Ironically, by acknowledging their own subjectivity, these films are more objective and reliable. In a follow up post, I examined how this concept could be applied to a broader range of information dissemination processes. That post focused on computer security and how full disclosure of system vulnerabilities actually improves security in the long run. Ironically, public scrutiny is the only reliable way to improve security.

Full disclosure is certainly not perfect. By definition, it increases risk in the short term, which is why opponents are able to make persuasive arguments against it. Like all security, it is a matter of tradeoffs. Does the long term gain justify the short term risk? As I’m fond of saying, human beings don’t so much solve problems as they trade one set of disadvantages for another (with the hope that the new set isn’t quite as bad as the old). There is no solution here, only a less disadvantaged system.

Now I’d like to broaden the subject even further, and apply the concept of open security to national security. With respect to national security, the stakes are higher and thus the argument will be more difficult to sustain. If people are unwilling to deal with a few computer viruses in the short term in order to increase long term security, imagine how unwilling they’ll be to risk a terrorist attack, even if that risk ultimately closes a few security holes. This may be prudent, and it is quite possible that a secrecy approach is more necessary at the national security level. Secrecy is certainly a key component of intelligence and other similar aspects of national security, so open security techniques would definitely not be a good idea in those areas.

However, there are certain vulnerabilities in processes and systems we use that could perhaps benefit from open security. John Robb has been doing some excellent work describing how terrorists (or global guerillas, as he calls them) can organize a more effective campaign in Iraq. He postulates a Bazaar of violence, which takes its lessons from the open source programming community (using Eric Raymond’s essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar as a starting point):

The decentralized, and seemingly chaotic guerrilla war in Iraq demonstrates a pattern that will likely serve as a model for next generation terrorists. This pattern shows a level of learning, activity, and success similar to what we see in the open source software community. I call this pattern the bazaar. The bazaar solves the problem: how do small, potentially antagonistic networks combine to conduct war?

Not only does the bazaar solve the problem, it appears able to scale to disrupt larger, more stable targets. The bazaar essentially represents the evolution of terrorism as a technique into something more effective: a highly decentralized strategy that is nevertheless able to learn and innovate. Unlike traditional terrorism, it seeks to leverage gains from sabotaging infrastructure and disrupting markets. By focusing on such targets, the bazaar does not experience diminishing returns in the same way that traditional terrorism does. Once established, it creats a dynamic that is very difficult to disrupt.

I’m a little unclear as to what the purpose of the bazaar is – the goal appears to be a state of perpetual violence that is capable of keeping a nation in a position of failure/collapse. That our enemies seek to use this strategy in Iraq is obvious, but success essentially means perpetual failure. What I’m unclear on is how they seek to parlay this result into a successful state (which I assume is their long term goal – perhaps that is not a wise assumption).

In any case, reading about the bazaar can be pretty scary, especially when news from Iraq seems to correllate well with the strategy. Of course, not every attack in Iraq correllates, but this strategy is supposedly new and relatively dynamic. It is constantly improving on itself. They are improvising new tactics and learning from them in an effort to further define this new method of warfare.

As one of the commenters on his site notes, it is tempting to claim that John Robb’s analysis is essentially an instruction manual for a guerilla organization, but that misses the point. It’s better to know where we are vulnerable before we discover that some weakness is being exploited.

One thing that Robb is a little short on is actual, concrete ways with which to fight the bazaar (there are some, and he has pointed out situations where U.S. forces attempted to thwart bazaar tactics, but such examples are not frequent). However, he still provides a valuable service in exposing security vulnerabilities. It seems appropriate that we adopt open source security techniques in order to fight an enemy that employs an open source platform. Vulnerabilities need to be exposed so that we may devise effective counter-measures.

Life & Art in Wartime Baghdad

Oil Painting by Esam PashaYet another Baghdad Journal from Steve Mumford. For those unfamiliar with Mumford’s work, he is a New York artist who has gone to Iraq a number of times and posted a series of excellent articles about his travels. They usually provide a much different perspective on the happenings in Iraq than you’re used to seeing in the media. In this latest installment he describes a run-in with the mehdi army (he meets them in a falafel place where one of them asks him, “Mister, you like Muqtada?” Talk about a loaded question!), among other less scary but still concerning anecdotes (this entry seems to portray a more dangerous Baghdad than previous entries), and as usual he has posted some excellent artwork. The art seems a little more detailed than usual, and he also posted a piece from Iraqi artist and friend Esam Pasha (pictured to the right) as well as some photographs of various friends and artwork. Very cool stuff. If you liked this installment, I’ve collected all of the Baghdad Journal entries here for easy access. Highly recommended reading.

Catfight in Iraq

The latest Baghdad Journal from Steve Mumford is, as usual, chock-full of interesting bits about Iraq that you’re not likely to hear about elsewhere. For those who are unaware of Mumford’s excellent column (there are now 14 such articles), he is a New York artist who has travelled to Iraq on a number of occasions over the past few years, sometimes embedding with the military, sometimes just visiting Iraqi artists he’s made friends with. He writes about his trips and thus provides us with an interesting perspective that is unlike most of what you see about Iraq. I highly recommend you check out his other articles, which I have collected here.

His articles are always accompanied by artwork, usually drawn by him, ranging from brief sketches to more detailed paintings. If you haven’t noticed, there are often little mini-anecdotes hidden in the individual art pages. In the most recent article, Mumford describes a Psy-ops meeting with an Iraqi communist:

Psy-Ops at Communist Party Headquarters, Baqubah

The Psy-Ops people don’t want their names used, but here an NCO is interviewing the leader of the local party

to find out if they’ll be fielding candidates for the upcoming elections. Ironically, Iraq’s Communist Party is quite pro-U.S.,

recognizing that the new government is the best shot at a democracy the country’s ever had.

Communists a fan of the U.S. because they support democracy? That sounds a bit odd to me, but interesting nonetheless. Other highlights from the recent article include a “shady” Iraqi mayor, reconstruction woes, the Iraqi football/soccer team, and the Miller Lite Catfight Girls. Again, highly recommended reading.

A Reflexive Media

“To write or to speak is almost inevitably to lie a little. It is an attempt to clothe an intangible in a tangible form; to compress an immeasurable into a mold. And in the act of compression, how the Truth is mangled and torn!”

– Anne Murrow Lindbergh

There are many types of documentary films. The most common form of documentary is referred to as Direct Address (aka Voice of God). In such a documentary, the viewer is directly acknowledged, usually through narration and voice-overs. There is very little ambiguity and it is pretty obvious how you’re expected to interpret these types of films. Many television and news programs use this style, to varying degrees of success. Ken Burns’ infamous Civil War and Baseball series use this format eloquently, but most traditional propaganda films also fall into this category (a small caveat: most films are hybrids, rarely falling exclusively into one category). Such films give the illusion of being an invisible witness to certain events and are thus very persuasive and powerful.

The problem with Direct Address documentaries is that they grew out of a belief that Truth is knowable through objective facts. In a recent sermon he posted on the web, Donald Sensing spoke of the difference between facts and the Truth:

Truth and fact are not the same thing. We need only observe the presidential race to discern that. John Kerry and allies say that the results of America’s war against Iraq is mostly a failure while George Bush and allies say they are mostly success. Both sides have the same facts, but both arrive at a different “truth.”

People rarely fight over facts. What they argue about is what the facts mean, what is the Truth the facts indicate.

I’m not sure Sensing chose the best example here, but the concept itself is sound. Any documentary is biased in the Truth that it presents, even if the facts are undisputed. In a sense objectivity is impossible, which is why documentary scholar Bill Nichols admires films which seek to contextualize themselves, exposing their limitations and biases to the audience.

Reflexive Documentaries use many devices to acknowledge the filmmaker’s presence, perspective, and selectivity in constructing the film. It is thought that films like this are much more honest about their subjectivity, and thus provide a much greater service to the audience.

An excellent example of a Reflexive documentary is Errol Morris’ brilliant film, The Thin Blue Line. The film examines the “truth” around the murder of a Dallas policeman. The use of colored lighting throughout the film eventually correlates with who is innocent or guilty, and Morris is also quite manipulative through his use of editing – deconstructing and reconstructing the case to demonstrate just how problematic finding the truth can be. His use of framing calls attention to itself, daring the audience to question the intents of the filmmakers. The use of interviews in conjunction with editing is carefully structured to demonstrate the subjectivity of the film and its subjects. As you watch the movie, it becomes quite clear that Morris is toying with you, the viewer, and that he wants you to be critical of the “truth” he is presenting.

Ironically, a documentary becomes more objective when it acknowledges its own biases and agenda. In other words, a documentary becomes more objective when it admits its own subjectivity. There are many other forms of documentary not covered here (i.e. direct cinema/cinema verité, interview-based, performative, mock-documentaries, etc… most of which mesh together as they did in Morris’ Blue Line to form a hybrid).

In Bill Nichols’ seminal essay, Voice of Documentary (Can’t seem to find a version online), he says:

“Documentary filmmakers have a responsibility not to be objective. Objectivity is a concept borrowed from the natural sciences and from journalism, with little place in the social sciences or documentary film.”

I always found it funny that Nichols equates the natural sciences with journalism, as it seems to me that modern journalism is much more like a documentary than a natural science. As such, I think the lessons of Reflexive documentaries (and its counterparts) should apply to the realm of journalism.

The media emphatically does not acknowledge their biases. By bias, I don’t mean anything as short-sighted as liberal or conservative media bias, I mean structural bias of which political orientation is but a small part (that link contains an excellent essay on the nature of media bias, one that I find presents a more complete picture and is much more useful than the tired old ideological bias we always hear so much about*). Such subjectivity does exist in journalism, yet the media stubbornly persists in their firm belief that they are presenting the objective truth.

The recent CBS scandal, consisting of a story bolstered by what appear to be obviously forged documents, provides us with an immediate example. Terry Teachout makes this observation regarding how few prominent people are willing to admit that they are wrong:

I was thinking today about how so few public figures are willing to admit (for attribution, anyway) that they’ve done something wrong, no matter how minor. But I wasn’t thinking of politicians, or even of Dan Rather. A half-remembered quote had flashed unexpectedly through my mind, and thirty seconds’ worth of Web surfing produced this paragraph from an editorial in a magazine called World War II:

Soon after he had completed his epic 140-mile march with his staff from Wuntho, Burma, to safety in India, an unhappy Lieutenant General Joseph W. Stilwell was asked by a reporter to explain the performance of Allied armies in Burma and give his impressions of the recently concluded campaign. Never one to mince words, the peppery general responded: “I claim we took a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma and it is as humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out what caused it, and go back and retake it.”

Stilwell spoke those words sixty-two years ago. When was the last time that such candor was heard in like circumstances? What would happen today if similar words were spoken by some equally well-known person who’d stepped in it up to his eyebrows?

As he points out later in his post, I don’t think we’re going to be seeing such admissions any time soon. Again, CBS provides a good example. Rather than admit the possibility that they may be wrong, their response to the criticisms of their sources has been vague, dismissive, and entirely reliant on their reputation as a trustworthy staple of journalism. They have not yet comprehensively responded to any of the numerous questions about the documents; questions which range from “conflicting military terminology to different word-processing techniques”. It appears their strategy is to escape the kill zone by focusing on the “truth” of their story, that Bush’s service in the Air National Guard was less than satisfactory. They won’t admit that the documents are forgeries, and by focusing on the arguably important story, they seek to distract the issue away from their any discussion of their own wrongdoing – in effect claiming that the documents aren’t important because the story is “true” anyway.

Should they admit they were wrong? Of course they should, but they probably won’t. If they won’t, it will not be because they think the story is right, and not because they think the documents are genuine. They won’t admit wrongdoing and they won’t correct their methodologies or policies because to do so would be to acknowledge to the public that they are less than just an objective purveyor of truth.

Yet I would argue that they should do so, that it is their duty to do so just as it is the documentarian’s responsibility to acknowledge their limitations and agenda to their audience.

It is also interesting to note that weblogs contrast the media by doing just that. Glenn Reynolds notes that the internet is a low-trust medium, which paradoxically indicates that it is more trustworthy than the media (because blogs and the like acknowledge their bias and agenda, admit when they’re wrong, and correct their mistakes):

The Internet, on the other hand, is a low-trust environment. Ironically, that probably makes it more trustworthy.

That’s because, while arguments from authority are hard on the Internet, substantiating arguments is easy, thanks to the miracle of hyperlinks. And, where things aren’t linkable, you can post actual images. You can spell out your thinking, and you can back it up with lots of facts, which people then (thanks to Google, et al.) find it easy to check. And the links mean that you can do that without cluttering up your narrative too much, usually, something that’s impossible on TV and nearly so in a newspaper.

(This is actually a lot like the world lawyers live in — nobody trusts us enough to take our word for, well, much of anything, so we back things up with lots of footnotes, citations, and exhibits. Legal citation systems are even like a primitive form of hypertext, really, one that’s been around for six or eight hundred years. But I digress — except that this perhaps explains why so many lawyers take naturally to blogging).

You can also refine your arguments, updating — and even abandoning them — in realtime as new facts or arguments appear. It’s part of the deal.

This also means admitting when you’re wrong. And that’s another difference. When you’re a blogger, you present ideas and arguments, and see how they do. You have a reputation, and it matters, but the reputation is for playing it straight with the facts you present, not necessarily the conclusions you reach.

The mainstream media as we know it is on the decline. They will no longer be able to get by on their brand or their reputations alone. The collective intelligence of the internet, combined with the natural reflexiveness of its environment, has already provided a challenge to the underpinnings of journalism. On the internet, the dominance of the media is constantly challenged by individuals who question the “truth” presented to them in the media. I do not think that blogs have the power to eclipse the media, but their influence is unmistakable. The only question that remains is if the media will rise to the challenge. If the way CBS has reacted is any indication, then, sadly, we still have a long way to go.

* Yes, I do realize the irony of posting this just after I posted about liberal and conservative tendencies in online debating, and I hinted at that with my “Update” in that post.

Thanks to Jay Manifold for the excellent Structural Bias of Journalism link.

Original Sources vs Analysis

A little while ago, Brad Wardell wrote about a difference between Left-Wing and Right-Wing zealots. Basically, liberals tend to rely on third-party analysis of data, while conservatives tend to dig into the data themselves and come to their own conclusions. Each group will sometimes get into trouble sometimes because of this:

Bear with a generalization for a moment: people who are left of center politically tend not to be quite as analytical as the general population. You don’t find too many engineers, for example, arguing for liberal causes. And you don’t find too many artists arguing for conservative causes. There are exceptions of course but as a generalization, I think you’d agree this is true.

This creates an interesting set of diverse behaviors. Liberals tend to rely very heavily on third party data analysis. In other words, they don’t tend to look at the actual data and then form their own conclusion. Instead, they just repeat the analysis of someone else. …

But let’s not let the right wingers get off the hook either. If we’re going to offend people, let’s be equal opportunity offenders. There’s a reason that the term “Right wing kook” exists.

Conservatives, particularly very conservative people, are much more inclined to not trust the “liberal media establishment”. So often they’ll dig into data that is really out of their league to understand. So they’ll look at the data and come up with bizarre conclusions.

I tend to dislike generalizations like this, especially when they’re made about groups that are as vague and undefined as liberals and conservatives. However, this struck a chord with me as I could identify with the premise – I’ve debated a lot online, and I’ve seen this sort of thing in action. It turns out that I’m more in line with the conservative side of things, preferring to look at the data myself rather than relying on some analysis of the data (though I try to avoid referencing a “liberal media” and I don’t generally like conspiracies). Still, I’m hesitant to buy into such a broad generalization.

In any case, it is interesting to note that the recent 60 Minutes story that was thoroughly debunked* on the internet within 12 hours of airing provides us with a good example of Wardell’s theory in action.

CBS aired this story which questioned President Bush’s National Guard service on Wednesday night, citing newly discovered memos written by Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killian (Bush’s commanding officer). The story was picked up by all the major media outlets, which ran the story the next day. Such stories were immediatately trumpeted by liberals in discussion forums and blogs everywhere. During that same period, some intrepid bloggers were piecing together evidence that the newly discovered memos were forged. It didn’t take long for the evidence to mount, and soon other independent threads of investigation were coming to the same conclusion and the media picked up this side of the story. Experts were consulted, family members spoke out, and even CBS sources came out against the documents. All along, some liberals denied the scandal, pointing to CBS’s continued insistence that the documents were genuine as proof (i.e. not actually answering the questions about the documents’ authenticity, but pointing to CBS’s third party analysis of the documents).

This is just a brief summary of the story, and others have much more comprehensive overviews*. What I found interesting, though, was that this is a textbook example of liberals relying on analysis, and conservatives digging into the data and coming to their own conclusions. I’m still not sure I subscribe to Wardell’s theory, but I found it interesting that this scandal clearly demonstrates his point.

Update: In the comments, Spencer notes that Wardell’s theory “seems like a conclusion one would make as a result of confirmation bias. This person ‘notices’ a slight trend in the way liberals and conservatives treat information, and then only notices the evidence that supports this trend, making it seem like a stronger and stronger hypothesis.” That makes a lot of sense to me, and though I still find the theory interesting, I don’t think it holds up in the end. There is something about the propensity to label people that is beginning to bother me more and more, and the division between liberals and conservatives is a prime example. On the one hand, it can be useful to think about such divisions, but it is also easy to get carried away.

* I’m linking to one of the original posts at Power Line because it is large and provides a good summary of the complaints regarding the documents. There have been many posts on many different weblogs that have continued the debate, ranging from the humorous to the serious. Here are some other blogs that might help you get a better grasp of the story:

This story was broken by the collective intelligence of the internet, with a bunch of different bloggers cooperating to build up a pile of evidence. In one sense it is amazing, in another, it’s annoying because there is no one place to link to that collects all of the commentary on this story. The original Power Line post is great because it collects so much of the analysis in one place, but since that post things have become more diffuse.