Open to Interpretation

They say that facts don’t lie, and by and large, that’s true. (If facts are untruthful… they’re not facts.) The problem is, facts are kind of useless in and of themselves – they need to be “interpreted” to have significance. This is true where intelligence analysis is concerned, but it’s just as true for news reporting, as well.

By now, you’ve probably heard about the recent study which found that most people can’t tell dog food from Spam from pork liver pate from duck liver mousse. That’s the fact, which everyone is talking about… the raw information, if you will. What few people seem to be considering is what this means. What’s the significance of this?

Like a lot of things in life, this is probably open to interpretation. Consider the following three hypotheses:

One way of looking at it is to say that premium dog food is so well made and uses such premium ingredients that it is largely indistinguishable from expensive haute cuisine.

(Probably) equally valid, I might add, is the supposition that some mousse and pate are so poorly made from such inferior ingredients they’re virtually indistinguishable from dog food.

The facts also support the somewhat cynical hypothesis that Americans, by and large, have very unsophisticated tastes, and don’t generally understand the subtle nuances that makes a good pate or mousse so desirable, and so can’t tell them, Spam, or dog food apart.

All probably equally valid, equally true, and not – necessarily – mutually exclusive, either. The great thing about facts is that they can be interpreted in so many ways that if you’ve got an agenda or an axe to grind, you can probably figure out some way to make just about anything serve your purpose.

For instance, if you’re an animal-rights activist, the fact that people can’t tell dog food – and let’s please not think too long about what generally goes into that, thanks – from duck-liver pate simply serves to reinforce your belief that the factory farming of ducks for their livers to make this so-called delicacy is a pointless abomination.

Oh, and if you’re a restaurant owner, the facts might just support the idea that you can probably get away with saving money by substituting Spam or even dog food for pate and mousse, since few people seem to be able to tell the difference.

One piece of information, three – and probably many more – ways of looking at it. It’s not even a matter of competing hypotheses; they’re all, if not true, at least reasonably “truthy”. Yet, if a media outlet ran with any of these “angles” on the “story”, they would (or should) – and quite rightly, too – be accused of editorial bias. In this case, most media outlets have been pretty objective – the study happened, here’s what the study found, that’s it. A lot of the time, though, that’s far from the case, and it’s important – especially when you’re performing open-source intelligence research – to try to separate the underlying facts on an issue from the interpretations surrounding them.

It’s not that interpretation and perception aren’t important; far from it. Rather, it’s that it’s useful – and important – to be able to recognize and identify actual facts, and separate them from (possibly biased) interpretation or “spin”.

You know what I wonder, though? Which of these meat-ish products do dogs prefer? How about cats? And could somebody repeat the blind tests, adding pureed hot dogs (the most foully mysterious of “mystery meat”) to the mix?

Published in: Geekiness, General | on May 18th, 2009| Comments Off on Open to Interpretation

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