Monday, April 18, 2005

LBDES: Manipulation via Means of Expression

As part of the Looking Back Down Explorer Street series of posts...

(This has to do with how cognition and communication involving expression/representation of abstractions, and specifically the expression of them)

There are various ways we can manipulate others and ourselves by the way we express things. We can obfuscate the meaning of what we say. We can exploit the tendancy to consider a statement to be reasonable as long as it is factually true. We can also misleadingly frame a situation.


Certain language can, intentionally or not, obfuscate meaning. Obfuscation exploits the quirks and limitations in the way we interpret and reason about statements, such as our limited capabilites to remember earlier things we've heard/read, and the various ways our emotional strings can be pulled.

The language can make it difficult to see what is actually being stated, by making it seem like one thing is being meant where in fact another is. This obfuscation can be intentionaly used for all sorts of ill-ends, such as sneaking in inconsistencies that help falsely support/defend an argument, describing a situation in a way that obscures its true nature, and saying something that, while not false in a literal sense, is highly misleading.

Equivocation is one type of obfuscation. Equiovcation can be quite subtle, making it hard to detect and point out. I think a reasonable example of this is this one where the notion of success is first treated as success in finishing a particular task but then subtly treated differently as an asbtract notion of success.

Another type of obfuscation hides the mundaneness of your statement under the appearance of meaninfulness and significance. One technique for this involves asserting identity between two different things, where really the relationship between them is much weaker. For example, there might be a tv station slogan that says "Channel X is sport".

Because the two things are not the same, and often quite different, yet are related, your mind tries to see them as the same but can't quite grasp it, and this creates a vague but potentially potent sense of sigificance, as if you've been presented with something that is really meaningful.

The phrase 'Persistance is the triumph over skepticism' is another example of this.

Exploiting The False Belief That Factual Truth is All That Matters

Until we learn better, we tend to belive that a statement or claim is fair as long is it is factually true. This is a false belief, because things can be factually true but still misleading.

That a statement can be factually true but misleading is due to several factors. The meaning of a statement is not simply its literal meaning, but its meaning after it has been interpreted according to the various conventions we use for communication. Also, our ability to interpret statements is limited or biased in various ways, and a factually true but misleading statement can be constructed in order to exploit these weaknesses. And in addition, we evaluate statements with various measures and heuristics that have limitations or weaknesses that can make factually true statements misleading.

One form of limitation is that we tend to evaluate a statement in a somewhat self-contained fashion. That is, we will evaluate the content of the statment by applying various measures/heuristics that apply to it and its meaning, without really considering the statement in terms of what other knowledge we have or what came earlier in the conversation or argument and then applying the measures and heuristics.

To give one kind of way this can be done, in an argument one person can make a claim about what the other person's argument has been, and they can present it in a way that is consistent with the factual details of the actual argument but also in such a way that exploits the heuristics-with-a-narrow-view in order to present a misleading view of the argument, as I have given a somewhat more concrete example of.

Misleading Framing

The means of expression can frame the way we look at a situation.
This is one of the effects of the way that we express something, outside of the factual content of that expression. Saying that it affects 'the way we look at it' is a bit vague, but that's the best I can do at present.

To be a bit more specific, but ultimately not much more concrete, the framing affects the kinds of things we that think of about the situation. One thing that the framing can definitely do is subtly bring in assumptions without ourselves or others realising it. An example of this involves some bird behaviour that was misinterpreted as being 'for the good of the species' because of the way it was described.

Because we don't realise an assumption has been made, this can effectively block us from seeing any other alternaties, because we basically don't realise that there was something there that had the possibility of alternatives. I suspect that all forms of misleading 'framing' are actually all cases of making unknowing assumptions.

A slightly different means of embodying assumptions is by what I've called implicit categorisation. An example of this, which also explains what implicit categorisation is, comments on something from an introductory philosophy book, where implicit categorisation is used to seemingly justify a particular position, without actually providing any justification for it. This implicit categorisation is very closely related to the things I talked about under the heading of 'Obfuscation', above.

Language that poorly frames situations can be symptomatic of problems with the reasoning strategies that are constructing the statements. If we want to avoid assumptions, or avoid them as much as possible, in our statements, then we need to find the most general way of describing the situation that is consistent with the facts that we know about the situation. The reasoning statements can be problematic if they are too hasty in construct descriptions, constructing ones that seem to fit the situation, but without considering what the alternatives are, and just how they relate to the known facts. (really, this talk of facts is a bit of a simplification. It's more a case of how they relate to what we believe to be true, and factoring in the degree to which we believe they are the case. It's just that I don't have a decent shorthand way of putting this at the momenet.)


I suspect that these three ways of manipulating via the means of expression seem more distinct than they actually are. Concepts such as how we 'frame a situation' are fairly vague, and I think we can be more specific and get into the specific types of mechanisms that are underlying such thoughts. I expect that doing so will dissolve these apparent categories or replace them with a more accurate means of classification.

No comments:

Post a Comment