When James Frey’s “memoir,” A Million Little Pieces, turned out to be more fiction than autobiography, many of those who loved the book defended it, saying that within the lies was a larger truth.
Well, no. “Truth” suggests trustworthy meaning. If the best evidence an author can muster in support of that meaning is falsehood, it doesn’t bode well for the truthiness of the conclusions.
Intestinal decision-making is waxing; reliance on evidence and logic is waning. The cause of reason isn’t helped by those who fake or stretch the evidence. There’s new evidence, as if any was needed, that evidence-stretching is pervasive.
The Register (www.theregister.co.uk) — one of my favorite IT publications — tabulated the many cost-of-thus-and-such calculations that frequently substitute for actual news in the popular press and trade publications. You know the type: “The cost of employee personal use of the Internet is costing industry $178 billion dollars a year in lost productivity.”
You’ll find the full report here, including links to the sources of the various nonsensical numbers (the $178 billion estimate comes, unsurprisingly, from a seller of web filtering software). According to The Register, the total cost of such money wasters, added to a few inarguable fixed, unavoidable expenses, totals $7.39 trillion annually — $1.7 trillion more than the total amount of cash circulating in the world.
Back in the dot-com era I made a similar point about industry growth projections (“Market forecast bunkum,” September 25, 2000) — that for all the forecasts to be accurate, the economy would have to grow several orders of magnitude faster than the world had ever seen. Those ludicrous forecasts and the inflated damage estimates tabulated by The Register have the same root cause: “Experts” willing to sell whatever opinion their customers want.
In the dot-com era, their customers wanted venture capital. To get it they needed promises of extraordinary growth. Now, their customers are selling solutions to risk. They need the threat of inconceivable levels of damage to justify the price of whatever cure they’re peddling.
Before 1970 and Earth Day, manufacturers had the legal right to dump just about any industrial waste just about anywhere they wanted to. Having the legal right, though, didn’t create an obligation.
And so it is today: Pundits for hire have the legal right to pollute the meme pool. They aren’t obliged to do that either. But so long as someone is willing to buy, you can be sure someone will come along willing to sell, whether the product is an inflated growth estimate, inflated risk estimate, or illegal recreational pharmaceutical.
With all of the above in mind, here’s a plea from this very small soapbox to all of the advocates, pundits, self-styled experts, and bloggers (yes, I know — I said the same thing twice) who figure any assertion that bolsters their opinion qualifies as a fact, and all distortions that help their side win are justified: Stop! Please. Right now. Every fiction you present as a fact creates skepticism about all of the evidence anyone presents about anything. Every increase in skepticism about all evidence creates more justification for trusting intuition over reason.
Never mind. The last paragraph was a waste of space. Asking people like this to exercise self-restraint is like asking drug-dealers to stop trying to get kids high. The only way we can turn off the spigot is to curtail demand (for exaggerated financial estimates — form your own opinion about the war on drugs).
You have a part to play.
If you engage the services of pundits, research firms, or other experts for hire, consider any spin-mongering, on any topic, during the past five years to be a deal-breaker. Other evidence of low intellectual integrity — like telling clients what they want to hear for a fee — should be deal-breakers as well.
This should, of course, be business as usual. Why would you want to pay big bucks for untrustworthy information? The good news is that while you’re personally benefiting, you’ll also be performing a public service — helping to stem the tide of intellectual relativism.
That’s a big deal. After all, according to estimates prepared by the Froschbosch Institute, intellectual relativism is currently costing world industry $1.3 trillion in bad decisions and unnecessary due diligence every year — and they wouldn’t lie, would they?