Filter or Faker?

I’ve been reading the P J O’Rourke book All the Trouble in the World in which he satirizes the various moral panics that were big in the 1990s, and is at times pretty amusing and pretty intelligent. I have some respect for O’Rourke, which is why I had my own moral panic in reading his opinions on scientists communicating theirs.

Dr. Schneider … is a self-admitted liar and knave: “[W]e have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we may have. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.”

The trouble is that Dr Schneider could also be easily describing my own job. In communicating complex matters up the management chain so that timely decisions can be made, I have a responsibility to synthesize the data I receive and pass on enough to justify my recommendations but limit it such that people’s valuable time isn’t wasted in duplicating my analysis. However, I’d never considered myself a liar or a knave before.

Giving Dr Schneider’s words the most charitable interpretation, I can understand the trade-off between disclosure of every fact (“being honest”) and communicating in the most appropriate words and style for an audience (“being effective”). The latter may involve filtering the relevant information out of volumes of data (“simplification”), choosing memorable and impactful examples (“scary scenarios”), and recommendations that are easy to understand when you’re a busy exec being inundated with demands for your attention (“dramatic statements”). This isn’t being a faker or a fraud. In fact, someone who did not do these things could be considered ineffective.

So why would someone like O’Rourke assert the contrary? I’m not sure, but perhaps it’s something to do with his journalism background. The Code of Ethics from the Society of Professional Journalists clearly distinguishes “advocacy” from “news reporting”. It’s hardly unique in this matter, and I suspect journalists typically learn a distrust of those who communicate their personal (even if expert) views and opinions to the public and don’t clearly label it as advocacy.

But maybe I’m too sensitive, and O’Rourke was making a specific point not a general point. Or perhaps he was a little guilty of simplification and dramatic statements himself.

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