Belmont Club

Facing facts

A provider of business intelligence services asked me whether “reality always won” in the face of a determined disinformation campaign.  Without thinking much about why I said “yes”.  It was a bold assertion because the spin doctor’s tools have become so great (think for example of Photoshop) it is easy to believe that an imposture can be maintained indefinitely. However, I recently became aware that certain managers internally monitored their error rates for signs that things were going too perfectly; the idea being that the absence of mistakes constituted a worrying indicator that — maybe — they were losing touch with reality.

One of the characteristics of a valid decision process is a capability to deal with anti-knowledge — the things we don’t know. Anti-knowledge manifests itself as ignorance, as expressed in mistakes and in the existence of questions that are without answers.  One way a decision maker tests for the fidelity of his information systems is to check for the existence of anti-knowledge. If there was nothing you didn’t know there was something you didn’t know. Queries are data too, even if they returned no records because anti-knowledge is a certain kind of information.  There was implicit knowledge even in the questions, although there were no answers. But they would be apparent only to those with the temerity to say, “I don’t know” and valuable only to those who believed that “reality always won”, even at the cost of their embarassment.  In all fantasy-based systems, the precise opposite is true: all questions can be answered if you spin fast enough because the narrative is known from the beginning. The facts are the stepping stones to the wish.

Even in small things the inconvenience of truth keeps cropping up. For the blogger it is too easy to rely on a narrative to replace the facts.  Recently, the Washington Post ran a story suggesting that the Iraqi government had gone over to the dark side and is covering for Iranian Special Groups who are now targeting US forces. Nothing could be simpler than to turn it into a screed against betrayal; to write that ‘Iraq has decided the Obama administration has thrown them over and are now cozying up to the victor’. But sources I trust tell me that this is simply not true, not in this case at least; but that there is a renewed effort to paint the Iraqi government as a stooge of the very same forces they have beaten the snot out of.  So the high flown phrases on Iraq went into the TBD drawer for the moment because there are things I simply don’t know. And that’s important to know.

The situation in the Honduras is another one of those cases where it’s important to tread carefully.  One is naturally suspicious of Third World military action against a civilian President.  So why not yell “Free Zelaya”? Because there’s some reason to think that President Zelaya himself might be part of the problem. The Wall Street Journal writes, “why would Hugo Chavez expect Obama to help him” restore Zelaya? And Slashdot reports that Honduran authorities have found 45 computers with pre-tallied results for an election that never happened. “Authorities have seized 45 computers containing certified election results for a constitutional election that never happened. The election had been scheduled for June 28, but on that day the president, Manuel Zelaya, was ousted. The ‘certified’ and detailed electronic records of the non-existent election show Zelaya’s side having won overwhelmingly.” So its important to look closer precisely because we may not know everything.

The fact that we nearly always make decisions under uncertainty means we ought not to be paralyzed by the fear of error as long as we get it right more often than we get it wrong. Which brings me back to the manager who wanted to be sure he was making mistakes. The commitment to that kind of management style is an act of faith in the proposition that “reality always wins” and that success was possible even in the absence of perfection.  Freedom implies the ability to make mistakes; it may even imply the necessity of them.  Well might the perfect being exclaim: “not till now have I understood the tale of your people and their fall. … For if this is indeed, as the Eldar say, the gift of the One to Men, it is bitter to receive.” Bitter indeed; for freedom is humanity’s curse and greatest gift, the ground of both fall and redemption. It is our common fate and our staircase to the stars.

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