Friday, November 11, 2011

Short and Sharp: A History of Dishonesty

Recently I was involved in a discussion about a claim that was made by Noam Chomsky in his Melbourne lecture. He stated that if the US implemented a public healthcare program similar to other first world nations, they would wipe out their yearly deficit. After much back and forth and number crunching by the ever-patient Dylan Nickelson, it was concluded that this claim is factually wrong. After this, I found myself doubting some of the other claims made by Chomsky. Not that I have outright rejected them; just that I have the feeling that if he had made a mistake on this claim, he might be wrong on other claims too. This is not to say that my feeling is justified or should apply in any intellectual way, but I do think it warrants a discussion.

It seems quite obvious where this feeling would come from; in social settings, an individual’s past history of honesty/dishonesty is generally a good predictor of future behaviour (well, better than chance guessing at any rate). The issue would be whether or not this predictive value translates into the academic world and if it does, whether it should affect analysis of the individual’s future arguments.

I can see two main reasons why an individual would make either a mistaken or intentional false claim; lack of rigorous research and agenda/ideological bias. In both cases, there appears to be the potential for future occurrences; with lack of rigorous research, it implies a lazy methodology and with agenda/ideological bias, it implies that they have a reason to bend or change facts to suit their views.

So the question then becomes ‘how does this affect analysis of a dishonest individual’s claims?’. The most obvious consequence may be a lower threshold for triggering investigation into the validity of their claims. Another possibility is that less in-depth research is required to debunk the individual’s claim; for example, if one or two sources you consult contradict a claim made by a dishonest individual, it is probably wrong as opposed to requiring more for a previously honest individual.

In bringing up these reasons as to why individuals may be dishonest and what should occur because of it, my suggested points of view are more meant as just that; suggestions. I would welcome input from anyone on the following two questions; does a past history of wrong claims by an individual mean that other claims they have made are likely wrong and in what way does this alter how we interact with their claims?


  1. Like most processes of induction, I'd let one mistake slide, but 3 or more indicates devotion or sloppy method. Then I'd take all future claims with a grain of salt, until the person set a reverse trend.

  2. *Nods* That sounds like a fairly reasonable way to go.

  3. I can't remember who linked the original article (might have been you) but a survey/study was done in the US and, to paraphrase the results, if someone agrees with you then they are considered reliable and if they disagree with you then they are considered unreliable (the target in the study was various public media). So to your second question I would say that regardless of if they are wrong or right, typically, people have preconceived notions which override any evidence and that, to a much greater extent will govern how we interact with their claims.

    Imagine a scale from 0 - 100 (%) (presumably a bell curve distribution) of the amount of correctness/wrongness of people in a given population; So if you graph the percentage of times each person is 'wrong' for all people, and at least 50% or more of people are wrong more than 50% of the time (eg in a bell shaped curve) then if, with surety (times you know they are wrong or right), someone is wrong more than they are right then they are probably wrong on any given incident in which you are not sure if they are wrong or right! :D I think this become too subjective in what counts as an incidence of being wrong or correct. eg Noam statement obviously counts but would say giving the incorrect change to a customer count?

    'I think our main problem is unclear definition of being wrong'

  4. I meant being wrong primarily in an academic setting; where someone makes a claim about how the world is/works that is either right or wrong (or a little of both, depending on how they word it).