Quotes, Context, Manipulation & Motivated Reasoning

In my previous post on nuclear power I made reference to YouTube user potholer54 as a creator of excellent videos, here’s an example of what I was talking about:


The video above illustrates how quotations are often manipulated by journalists to account for time or to clean up a cumbersome part of an interview; be it for print, radio or television – the guiding principle being that any modification should not change the meaning of the person’s statement.  However, we also see how the same techniques can easily be used to twist someone’s words & meaning to fit a desired outcome if the person doing the editing is dishonest.

The consequence of living in an information age is that it gives rise to an information war.  The abuse of techniques like cutaways are an important weapon in the arsenal of those looking to create disinformation (“professional” lies might be another way to put it).  When it comes to controversial issues it can be difficult to figure out what side to believe especially when both sides have compelling arguments.  Some issues may not have a clear definition of what is true because the issues themselves are subjective and may never be truly settled, forever locked in debate.  Disinformation isn’t really necessary in such arguments because it’s all opinion and abstract concepts to begin with – not to say that people don’t knowingly lie in such discussions but, I can’t really see what the clear advantage of doing so would be.

Other subjects, however, can be settled objectively and it’s these realms where disinformation comes into it’s own.  Facts are notoriously stubborn things, technically, you can’t have an opinion about a fact so bullshitting doesn’t work because your claim can be tested and shown to be true or false.  In order to combat them you need to objectively falsify a fact (which takes alot of time and effort) or just make up your own facts (let’s face it, lying is much easier).

Making up your own shit has the bonus effects of:

  • clouding the discussion;
  • forcing many people to pick sides (usually the one they want to believe);
  • AND (effectively) shifts the burden of proof onto your opponents.

It’s a pretty sweet deal.   On top of that while your opponents are busy proving they myriad of ways that you’re wrong; you’re free to go out and play on peoples fears and make up new crap to keep your opponents busy.  So long as you can keep the ruse up you stand to win the debate…at least in the short-term.  But much like gambling in a casino, if you play long enough the house will always win.  While you’re busy spinning lies, your opponents are arming themselves to the teeth and eventually you’ll run out of effective lies.

Education and healthy sense of skepticism are your best defence against bullshit, but education & skepticism alone are useless without the courage to accept the truth once you’ve finally found it (regardless of how unpleasant it may be).

Abuse of the techniques demonstrated in the video above do well to create static and pave the way for motivated reasoningChris Mooney (formerly @ Discover Blogs) has been covering the subject of motivated reasoning for some time now and has a very good article that’s worth reading if you’re not familiar with the subject already.  The short version boils down to believing things that are false even when presented with overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  It’s basically the result whenever you start with a conclusion and work towards confirming it rather than starting with the evidence and figuring out what the truth is.

I guess once you’ve predetermined the conclusion, how you get there is of little importance, which seems to explain how so many bullshit arguments just refuse to die.

We are all guilty of this on one level or another, though, we’ve evolved to react first and think later – in survival matters the person pondering the noise in the bush will, probably, end up as lunch versus the person who assumed it was a predator and bolted – they are more likely to survive to see another day and pass on their genes to the next generation.

However, those same instincts that can save when our survival is at stake, can backfire horribly when they’re leveraged in other situations.  Fight-or-flight like decisions don’t work well when the problem is evaluating truth because they are largely based on emotion and instinct.  Unfortunately, it’s not something we can just switch on and off – often times we may avoid or argue against information that conflicts with what we already believe because we simply interpret it as threatening.

Quotations are used for many reasons, I like to use them when I feel someone else has made a point better than I could have with my own words – when someone has said it best, I guess.  Some quotations are just beautiful, funny, witty or wise.  Some people hate it when quotes are used at all; this is a subject that comes up often with a friend of mine and we go back and forth on the pros & cons of their use.  The main point of contention with my friend is when people use them as a shield for their own flimsy beliefs and arguments.  On this point, I can agree wholeheartedly that they are not a good thing.  Especially since, in these cases, they’re often used out of context or are incomplete – sometimes woefully so.

Which brings us full circle back to the point of potholer54’s video I guess.

While I’ve noticed subtle cues and cuts in interviews before…I didn’t fully understand how, why and how often things like cutaways were performed.  This new perspective is going to make watching future interviews more interesting as I’ll no doubt start counting how many cutaways there are…and wondering just how much was left to die on the cutting room floor.


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