A Trip Down the Memory Lane…

Some of my own recent posts made me realize where I got my ideas–or, perhaps, where I had gone wrong, so to speak, in my development.  😉

I think the most formative experience in my youth–and I’ll date myself hugely here–was the OJ Simpson trial.  Most people I knew thought the trial was a fiasco since Simpson was so “self-evidently” guilty.  My reaction then, and, in a sense, still is, that the evidence presented by the prosecution was obviously not “self evident” enough, since the jury in the criminal trial did not find it convincing enough.

This is an altogether separate problem from whether Simpson was, factually, actually guilty or not.  The truth of the matter is that, from the perspective of those who did not actually witness the crime (and even then, it may not be enough, as per this article in the Atlantic.), we do not actually “know” if Simpson was guilty of the double murder.  The task of the trial is to convince the jurors, on the strength of the evidence and logic, that Simpson was guilty or not, whether or not he was or wasn’t.  This converts the problem to that of persuasion under incomplete information, not a moral one about the truth and justice and the American way.

What the trial illustrated, for me, at any rate, was that “truth” is never self evident.  People are not blank slates.  They come to a point where they need to make a decision about something of which they know relatively little with all sorts of baggage which materially shape their decision.  Successful persuasion requires understanding what makes the people tick and tailoring the argument accordingly, not just present a boilerplate that fits the preconceptions and prejudices of the one making the argument.  It is doubly fallacious to pronounce the unconvinced dumb and foolish for not being convinced and even worse if this is used as an excuse to rig the system so that the consent of the “jury” is not required for conviction.

The down side of the technological change surrounding us is that, in a sense, we are all becoming OJ jurors, even if not necessarily to the same degree, but with the additional problem of having so many conspiracy theories–some true, others less so–at our fingertips without the means to evaluate them.  The “truth” is complicated enough that we are reduced to substituting ever larger chunks of our own preconceptions to make up for what we lack–to add another parallel to the OJ trial.  Given the variability in our preconceptions, this leads to increasingly heterogeneous inferences about how the world really works, which startle us by showing up in unexpected places, like letting go of a seemingly obvious murderer.

Can we do anything about this?  Well, for starters, we might want to establish greater trustworthiness in the “experts,” not by making grand “important” pronouncements about how the world should be, but simply by being thorough and competent.  This is hardly a new argument:  in the last great era of information explosion, Weber made a similar observation about “bureaucracy,” in a sense vastly different from what we think of bureaucrats today.  In the era of information explosion before that, the Catholic Church founded the Jesuit order and invested heavily in actual science and logic, among other things, not so much to justify Catholic theology, but to bolster institutional credibility.  Or, in other words, by systematically refraining from shilling.

Or, in other words, OJ may or may not be guilty.  Yelling louder does not make him less so or more so.  Making a better case, given the jurors and their inclinations, might have put him away–but the prosecutors didn’t.



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