October 25, 2004
On Lies And Science Policy

The Bush and Clinton Administrations differ in their styles of lying.

Andrew G. Keeler, who until June 2001 was on the president's Council of Economic Advisers and has since returned to teaching at the University of Georgia, said the Clinton administration had also played with economic calculations of the costs of curbing carbon dioxide emissions, in its case to show that limiting emissions would not be expensive.

But it made available all of the assumptions that went into its analysis, he said; by contrast, the Bush administration drew contorted conclusions but never revealed the details.

"The Clinton administration got these lowest possible costs by taking every assumption that would bias them down," he said. "But they were very clear about what the assumptions were. Anybody who wanted to could wade through them."

This illustrates why I have a hard time feeling enthusiastic about major political figures.The Clinton Administration, personifying the very outgoing and brazen nature of its leader, was willing to lie in detail in public (yes, arbitrarily choosing every unprovable assumption to tip an argument in your favor is brazen lying). By contrast, the Bush Administration prefers to make its lies to the public in the form of simpler summary conclusions which seem aimed at shutting off discussion by providing little to discuss. In the first instance the advantage for critics of the Clintonites was of course that one could challenge each of the individual assumptions that went into building the big lie product. But it is as if the Clinton Adminstration operated under a "dishonesty in labelling" law (as distinct from a "truth in labelling" law) where they revealed all their deceptive ingredients. There is something more brazen about the Clinton Administration choice because a detailed lie is a larger scaled effort that requires more work to produce. More people have to agree to lie when the lie is going to be a detailed economic or ecological model.

Detailed lies remind me of how Spock would tell Captain Kirk some impossibly precise number (Spock: It is difficult to be precise, Captain. I should say approximately 7824.7 to one.) to give the illusion of having greater knowledge about a matter than it was possible to have. Perhaps in Star Trek this was acceptable since it was fiction. But the fact that the deception created an illusion in the minds of many audience members demonstrates that the technique works. The offering of elaborate details and great mathematical precision in results can be (and too often is) used as a technique for deception.

By contrast, the Bush Administration just asserts that its announcements of the truth are miraculously what makes their preferred choices the best choices. Is this worse? The downside is that it provides no basis from which to start arguing their conclusions. It tends to discourage public scrutiny of government decisions and it amounts to a simple assertion of "trust me". It is an approach that probably has the effect of reducing the amount of time the public spends thinking about public policy issues. Or perhaps it just causes a shifting to other policy topics as the public spends less time thinking about public policy issues the government doesn't want to have attract so much attention.

But which approach allows for a greater level of deception? Which is more effective? Is the human mind more easily fooled by simple lies or by complex lies? Perhaps it depends on the mind. Perhaps the deceptions of the Bush Administration are, at least on average, being pitched to a different target demographic group or audience than the Clinton Administration's deceptions were aimed at.

Of course the government has no monopoly on public policy deception. Various factions fool themselves and others into believing they are the virtuous ones presenting the real truth of the matter on some complex issue of policy. The actual act of debating some policy issue - even with the most honest of intentions - inevitably ends up being deceptive in some manner. One has to select what one thinks to be relevant facts (and hopefully correct facts) to present. That act of selection can cause one to deceive both oneself and others.

On the bright side technological trends strike me as favoring more accurate public policy discussions on issues involving science. We can so much more easily find information because of the ever improving world wide web and search engines. Anyone who Googles and reads the better web logs regularly can become far better informed on some issue than was possible even a few years ago. One can read multiple news stories from different sources on the same subject. One can go back to more original sources from which news stories are written. One can even contact scientists and other figures and ask for clarifications whereas previously only journalists could do that.

My sense of how things are going is that the quality of available information is improving and it is becoming easier to get better informed and less partisan analysis on any topic. Though there is still the challenge of how to find the best people on each topic.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 October 25 05:16 PM  Policy Science

Eric said at October 26, 2004 12:04 AM:

Interestingly, dictionary.com gives two definitions for lie:

1. A false statement deliberately presented as being true; a falsehood.
2. Something meant to deceive or give a wrong impression.

Bush does 1 and Clinton did 2.

Brock said at October 26, 2004 10:45 AM:

Randall -

I concur, the trend is towards more transparency and communication.

You should be interested in The Data Quality Act, which has been passed passed. It creates a regulatory scheme for private parties to challenge the scientific findings of regulatory agencies.


I imagine that the Bush Administration's "method" of deception will be more suscepticle to challenge by DQA challenges than the Clinon Administration's was.

Brock said at October 26, 2004 1:01 PM:

I was just wondering how much of the Bush/Clinton difference can be explained by training. A business leader (MBA) is expected to consider all of the available information and then hand down a decision to the line managers. A lawyer (JD) is expected to present all available information and then argue forcefully for the interpretation of the facts which best supports his client's position.

This is probably how Judges will see it under the DQA too. I bet if Clinton's findings had been challenged (if the DQA had been in force while he was President, which it was not) the Judge would rule that Clinton was simply representing a "best case", and that being perfectly balanced is not required. That's how Courts work, and Judges often extrapolate their experience to the rest of the world (with mixed results).

Invisible Scientist said at October 26, 2004 1:15 PM:

You wrote:
I concur, the trend is towards more transparency and communication.
You should be interested in The Data Quality Act, which has been passed passed. It creates a regulatory scheme for private parties to challenge the scientific findings of regulatory agencies.
I imagine that the Bush Administration's "method" of deception will be more suscepticle to challenge by DQA challenges than the Clinon Administration's was.

I went to a lecture given by someone who knows a little bit about the way the algorithms
of Google works. Google basically used some cleverly devised dynamical way of measuring numerically
to what degree the "graph" of connectedness is evolving between the links emanating from various web pages,
ranking the importance according to how many times there are links, in addition to how often these
are visited, etc...

NOW The Data Quality Act, MUST include Anti-Disinformation Measures, because some web sites have
been hiring disgusting "link farms" who basically create a lot of bogus web pages that have
links to the web page of the predatory web page, so that this way the web page gets "found"
by Google as if it is an important site since it is being referred by a lot of other places..
Of course, the computer scientists of Google are working very hard to combat this disinformation,
but I am sure there WILL be a lot more disinformation in the internet in the future.

Additionally, the internet "transparency" will be used by bad people to see through your pocket to
see how much money you have in your wallet, as if they have X-Ray vision. We have a rather complicated
situation here...

Garson Poole said at October 26, 2004 10:33 PM:

In the examples cited above the distortions of science are based on altered cost estimates and changes in policy summaries, but there are much more dramatic examples in which scientific knowledge is distorted or ignored by powerful political subgroups. Consider the genetic modification of food crops. In the United States modified tomatoes, corn, and soybeans have been grown and consumed for years. The scientific consensus of plant biologists and geneticists states that these foods are safe. However, genetically modified foods are largely banned in Europe. The scientific consensus is unwelcome knowledge to influential groups and it is ignored. “Organic” farming is championed by some activists, but one of the fascinating discoveries of plant archaeologists is the fact that the “natural” foods that were cultivated by our forebears were actually mutated from the original wild plant foods. (Jared Diamond provides a great discussion of this in “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies”.) In a strong sense ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ foods are a sham and humans have been eating foodstuffs from “mutant” plants from the beginning of the agricultural revolution. Indeed, the best cultivars had the most extreme genetic anomalies.

There are other areas of scientific knowledge surrounded by political and ideological taboos. Consider the following excerpt from a New York Times story entitled, “Articles Highlight Different Views on Genetic Basis of Race”:

“Supporters of the genome project say gene-based remedies should be tailored to genetically identifiable groups, to make sure no one is denied the benefits of genetic medicine. But linking diseases to race is an "explosive issue," said Dr. Troy Duster, a sociologist at New York University. "Once you enter this realm of saying some diseases are more common in this or that group, the popular imagination will ask what else is more common," like behavioral differences, Dr. Duster suggested.”

It may not be necessary to break this taboo when trying to diagnose and treat diseases. Scientists at Howard say “that there is a geographic pattern in human genetic variation but favor the approach of going directly to the underlying genetic causes of disease without taking into account any possible correlation with race.” The biochips made by companies like Affymetrix may allow comprehensive DNA analysis for each diseased individual.

Randall Parker said at October 26, 2004 10:50 PM:


Great point. I always find criticism of the Bush Administration over biologicals sciences as ironic. Much of the Left (including even quite a few academic scientists) take a position on race and genes that are involved in cognitive function that is anti-Darwinian. A lot of Leftists are Lysenkoists where the human brain is concerned. They think any changes to equalize outcomes can be accomplished with environment.

Brock said at October 27, 2004 1:27 PM:

Invisible Sci -

Have you read "The Transparent Society" by David Brin? Fascinating stuff. Really goes into your questions (and many more) in great depth.

The x-Ray pick-pocket really isn't a problem, because he can't take the money. In a truly transparent world everyone would see him take it and know him for a thief.

The DQA doesn't have to include Anti-Disinformation Measures because all Information IS anti-disinformation. By airing all possible science and measuring its quality, the truth will come out.

That story from the NYT is pretty good actually. One thing they point out (as Randall should agree with, considering his optimistic view on the falling price of tools & testing) is that race-as-proxy is only a temporary stand-in for personal genomic measurement. Race will probably only be considered for 10-15 years (or 1-2 drug cycles) before genomic testing is cheap enough that people can have personally tailored, as opposed to racially tailored, medicine.

Some of the people quoted in the stories have a pretty funny (in a "I can't believe anyone's that stupid") view on race. No biological basis? Are they born black just out of habit, or do they think it's stylish? Morons.

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