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Communication Society

Machiavellian media realpolitik, iPhone radiation and Tiger Woods

A fancy way of a pessimist saying “I’m not a pessimist, I am just facing the facts” as expressed by Machiavelli 500 years ago:  “…how we live is so far removed from how we ought to live, that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done, will rather learn to bring about his own ruin than his preservation.”

When the fuss over possible health side effects from the use of mobile phones started, it instantly reminded me of something.  Tobacco industry tactics!  For every seed of doubt regarding possible negative side effects from the use of mobile phones, bulldozers of studies and committees instantly appeared to say the opposite.  To a layman they seemed “scientific enough”.  “Doctor” so and so talked, “certain scientists” were quoted, “reputable statistics” were thrown in for good measure.

It seems I was not the only one seeing a pattern.  In their excellent recent book “Merchants of Doubt,”  science historians Naomi Oreskes  and Erik Conway take apart many scientific issues and the way in which “think tanks” muddled the evidence in the media.   (An excellent summary of how think tanks influence Green Politics here.)  They start in 1953 with a case book analysis of how the tobacco industry did it.  Then all sorts of other issues, from acid rain,  global warming to the ozone hole, get analysed.  Oreskes, a scientist herself, started seeing the pattern when her work as an oceanographer made the media portrayal of global warming seem completely inconsistent with her understanding of the ‘facts’.

You have two main tools and they are the same whether you are defending mobile phones or your reputation in the school playground:  1. Spread disinformation and 2. Stick to your story (especially those parts which seem to have appeal in the broader audience even when it is absolutely crystal clear that it complete nonsense.  Confusing the public in this way is guaranteed to gain you ten or twenty years of whatever product or idea you want to sell.  Like it did with the tobacco industry.

As a spin doctor I am fascinated by this topic.  I also wish that there was a sequel looking at the media more carefully.  For sure, journalists carry a huge part of the blame as they don’t do their homework properly.  Much of the disinformation would be debunked instantly if they did even elementary double checking of the sources.  If a thousand scientists say one thing and one think tank another, you had better triple check who is funding the think tank!  Journalists often fall into the media trap of trying to simplify arguments and present them as straightforward oppositions.   The topic also demands a second take to more carefully look at the differences between issues where the science was crystal clear, like the ozone, and others where it was not, like acid rain.  (A triumph of the opposite kind as regulation was passed despite this!)

It is also interesting to follow up on the media assumptions regarding scientists (they are all socialists!) and the environmental movement (sandal wearing hippies) in a time when it has become a much more complex public issue.  Portraying any view as “radical” usually pushes people to take the middle road.  In pricing we call it the Goldilocks effect, in cognitive psychology  it is the bias of aversion to extremes.  If just one State decides to make mobile phone makers prominently feature SAR figures (radiation from mobile phones) they must be “extreme”.  In a time of greater social responsibility and with companies and products having more and more to do with scientific discoveries, fully understanding the relative truths is of vital importance.  Just like companies pulled away from Tiger Woods after the scandal, you really don’t want to be associated with what proves to be bad science propaganda.  Yet even (or especially) big corporations are climbing on various cause bandwagons without fully understanding the risks.

There is a crucial difference:  unlike illicit affairs or spats with prostitutes, bad (pseudo) science is in the public domain.  There are well established rules to publication and pecking orders of status amongst them.  For good reason. It is not that a lone scientist can’t be right some times, even when the entire planet says otherwise.  But if that lone scientist is also the one who claimed that second hand smoking doesn’t do damage, CFCs don’t damage the ozone layer and that acid rain is good for certain crops…well you get the picture!

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Business ENGLISH Society

Tribal Shame, Doping Control and how to keep Greece’s deficit from mounting again

I should be ashamed of myself.  After the Greek football team triumphed in Euro 2004 Iwas the only person in the country and probably the planet, publicly stating (and even writing) that we didn’t deserve it.   I claimed the Greek team was doped (any other way to explain how a team that never lasted past 65′ suddenly went into overtime running like Ben Johnson?) and that opponents took bribes.  It was an Olympic year, we had the budget!   To add insult to the injury I am fairly sure that even our first ever modern Olympic medal in marathon running, back in 1896 with Spyros Louis was in fact the result of Greeks giving him a couple of lifts at parts of the route not covered by judges.  OK, I am an obvious cynic.

 

One of the reasons I got particularly annoyed at Greek doping scandals is because I experienced the disappointment in kids that looked up to them first hand

It is not just because they are unusual that these views didn’t get much airing.   There is no public forum designed to feel ashamed of itself.  When Kostas Kenderis was almost caught just before the2004 Olympics ( a ridiculous story with him escaping doping control on a moped and then staging an accident so as to avoid a blood sample being taken) it hit me even more strongly.   The reason everyone gets away with such behaviour is because we are not acting in a natural, tribal  way.  Can you imagine the same athlete being of Japanese decent?  He would have been found dead in his apartment for the shame.  The shame he brought to his country, to his fellow athletes, to the Olympic ideal. 

You only had to look at the hearings for the Toyota case recently in the US to see this in vibrant colors.  Toyota’s only sin was spreading too thin in terms of control of its enormous supply chain.  They didn’t do an Enron.  But the shame of it all…  So why don’t we just purposely design controls in business and in sport to encourage the tribal approach to guilt. 

“Guilt” as a legal term is way to shallow.  Someone can be pronounced “not guilty” even though we 

all know he is; and he can laugh straight into the cameras as he glides away from the court.  And people can feel deep guilt or remorse about things they never controlled or were in any way responsible for.   It is a social construct.  The whole concept of “corporate responsibility” was always inadequate in my mind.  It is like trying to sell a product that nobody really needs.  “You really need this product, buy it!” sell which gets a “and why the hell do I need this?” response type of situation. 

Tribal guilt is not like that.  Get that athlete to go to court with his entire team.  Introduce penalties to his federation.  Make the negative publicity a communal hit, not something personal.  Shrugging it off as a whim of a particular person is too easy.   This is not some kind of twisted mean streak, it makes perfect sense.  The reason we need guilt is to reinforce our common values.  Tiger Woods apologised not because it is any of our business what he does in his bed or a hotel room, but to show us he is not evil; he feels remorse and agrees that the societal norm of not sleeping around too much in an obvious way is correct. 

Get Kenderis, Enron board members and the Greek football team in the limelight with the system that turned a blind eye to their misbehaviours and we achieve a similar pressure point.  Which seems to me to be a pretty similar set of problems and solutions to Greece’s current financial mess.   Individual citizen’s as wrongdoers hide behind the “everyone else was doing it” facade.   Politician’s hide behind the “every other government did it” scenario. 

It is common in such situations to assume that the system that creates the problem, can’t solve it.  Especially amongst Greeks it is taken for granted that it is too deeply ingrained in our characters, our national “style”.  Heck, even in the war of liberation against the Turks in 1821, it is well documented that Greek soldiers refused to fight if their pay was late.  (With the battle raging right next to them!) 

This is not the case.  It only takes one prominent working  example of the shame system I propose for it to become established.  It could catch on like a Greek summer wild fire and spread as fast.  And maybe sports is the ideal place to start.  I put myself forward as an initial victim of this approach.  If footballers in the 2004 Euro team, Kostas Kenderis supporters or relatives of Spyro Louis want to,  I am willing to be put in front of a jury of fellow bloggers to test whether this slander I am spreading is justified or not! 

Maybe they will start commenting things like “hey, alex, this post seems preposterous!” instead of just letting me get away with it so easily next time…