Blogging AllianceDigital DisruptionNick PisanoProject Management

In Defense of Empiricism: The Truth Hurts, but Lies Destroy


As readers of my articles know, my expertise in writing here at AITS spans the disciplines of project management and information management. These disciplines relate to others as well, such as the use of statistical methods, mathematics, engineering, physics, and psychology. All of these areas of study and practice rely upon empiricism. The simplistic definition as found in the link is the use of facts, evidence, and research in order to derive knowledge.

This reliable method of learning and understanding the world is now under direct threat, and many of us in the information and project management disciplines are culpable for making this attack possible. I say this only because we have embraced and deployed technologies without considering their impact on the necessary institutional checks and balances that have traditionally separated fact from fiction, and which have been breached in the process.

Furthermore, for those in the mass media technology markets, the emphasis on clicks in lieu of quality and integrity has empowered crank ideas, tribalism, and pseudoscience. This in turn allows these memes to be mainstreamed alongside rigorously vetted knowledge. When combined with the fractionalization of the populace into smaller and smaller identity groups where prejudices and filters are only reinforced, these discredited memes establish a false reality that competes with the real thing.  This condition undermines democratic processes, republican institutions, and intellectual legitimacy.

Fake News, Real Threats

Exhibit one is the incident now known as “Pizzagate,” since apparently nothing can happen any longer without a –gate placed at the end of the object. Based on fake news reports so outrageous that one would think they were from the satirical newspaper the Onion, a North Carolina man by the name of Edgar Welch stormed the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, D.C. He opened fire with a semi-automatic weapon believing that it was a front for the abuse of children by former First Lady, New York Senator, Secretary of State, and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Exhibit two is the incident of a Florida woman that was arrested for making death threats against who is likely Lenny Pozner, one of the parents of the Newtown victims. Lucy Richards, 57, of Tampa, made her threats because she believed “that the school shooting was a hoax and never happened.”

Exhibit three is the most chilling. Based on fake news reports from AWDNews, the Pakistan Defense Minister, Khawaja Asif, threatened nuclear retaliation against Israel via Twitter.

We could easily dismiss at least the first two incidents as the acts of isolated troubled individuals. But the fact of the matter is that both the owner of Comet Ping Pong and Mr. Pozner have suffered consistent harassment and threats from individuals who consume and take seriously this falsified, malignant information. They are victims of a larger—and very real—trend.

Ethics in Empiricism

The issue that arises for those in the information technology discipline has recently been effectively dissected by Sarah Jones in her New Republic article, “The Year Silicon Valley Went Morally Bankrupt.” In particular, her critique of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook in placing customer satisfaction over integrity raises a prescient question: Are we responsible for how and to what purpose the products that we produce are used? Furthermore, if our products undermine the very principles that underlie their existence, then what does that bode for the future?

Empiricism provides a check on our perceptions, filters, prejudices, and mental shortcomings. It is a reliable methodology for understanding the world and events around us, and it has proven itself out in the real world. It is the basis for the Enlightenment and, with slight calibrations and adjustments to its methods, is responsible for every advance of human civilization, especially since the 17th century. In its most formal approach, empiricism underlies the scientific method.

Note that there is no room in the pursuit of defining reality through this method that takes into account one’s preferences, feelings, or aspirations. “Just-so” stories that explain fanciful beliefs that lack evidence or are in contradiction of evidentiary deduction do not pass muster.

Propaganda is a major offense against empiricism, while uninformed opinion is by comparison a minor transgression, unless it persists and devolves into stupidity. No room in empiricism is allowed for safe spaces, no compensation for intellectual bubbles, and no ideology, argument, or proposition is beyond further study and educated critique. Intellectual and psychological rationalizations that reinforce selection bias are identified and challenged by its methods. To borrow from Daniel Dennett when he described the effect of Darwinism on the sciences, empiricism is a kind of universal acid that transforms everything it touches.

Empiricism in Data Collection

At a more micro-socioeconomic level, when we design systems related to project management, we leverage the use of empirical methods. We use a number of data-collecting and statistical methods to determine progress so that we understand (1) what has been achieved and what is to be achieved, (2) how to inform decisions influential in completion of the task, and (3) the risks inherent and emergent in our efforts. To lie to ourselves is to invite disaster, much as the ship that fixes itself incorrectly when approaching a shoreline will soon find itself in shoal water and aground.

When developing software for business or complex social organizations, we take on a responsibility to our customers to hew closely to the empiricist line. We create capabilities that allow them to measure the targeted phenomena, and we do so in a way that supports, with great reliability and fidelity, the information that results from processing the data.

What we don’t do is create systems that purposely obfuscate and mishandle data, misinform, and misdirect the user (i.e., our customers). That is usually regarded in business as a given that otherwise would result in failure, if not charges of outright fraud. Yet the phenomenon of new technology—purposely misused by self-interested groups—is doing just that on a day-to-day basis, in a manner that subverts and impairs the very foundations of knowledge based on empiricism.

This is important for those of us engaged in information and technology management to grasp, because information, when viewed as a commodity, is non-excludable (at least not without efforts by those who wish to make the information excludable). Furthermore, information is transparent. This non-excludability and transparency works both ways: for and against consumers of information.

For example, while the nature of social media information has been hailed, particularly in areas in the world where repressive regimes have attempted to suppress information, these examples have been few and far between. On the other side, there has been a great deal of observed oppression and subversion of the information medium by alternative news, repressive and oligarchic regimes (such as Russia and China), terrorist organizations (ISIS), and organizations dedicated to mass surveillance and tracking.

Editorial Oversight

To the consumer of information in this new digital age, all information is viewed as flat. That is to say, it is consumed in the moment without context and beyond the function of editorial control exerted by gatekeepers in the journalism profession. This makes the public more susceptible to propaganda to an extent not seen in any prior period of world civilization.

I am not so naïve as to assert that media has not been abused in this way before; it just has not happened in the United States on such grand a scale. Even during the “yellow journalism” era of the late 1890s, the influence of Hearst and others was confined by geographical range. Over the years, sufficient countervailing voices arose, especially in the arts and in social organizations, to balance the power of the wealthy and the radical fringe alike. In the 1960s and 1970s of my youth, fringe and crackpot ideas were largely confined to local newsletters and the occasional 2 a.m. local radio broadcast. This is because our journalistic and academic professions established standards to address earlier abuses.

New media in our own time, known collectively as the Fifth Estate, lacks the professional standards found in traditional journalism. It has also been hijacked to undermine what many of its users derisively call the “mainstream media,” or MSM. While there are certainly problems with the large media and news organizations that have been wrought by the effects of business consolidation and acquisition by corporations, one must also be mindful that this has come about through public policy, much of it enacted through legislation.

This has included the removal of constraints that previously existed on dominating geographical markets, cross-media integration, cable television, and the Fairness Doctrine. Removal of constraints on advertisers and on media consolidation through non-enforcement of antitrust laws under the rubric of “regulatory reform” has spawned large media monopolies. This domination by big money has resulted in erosion of content, context, and professional staff.

Under these conditions, fake news sites have sprouted and exploited the weaknesses in the system. These entities take on the look and feel of a news organization while publishing propaganda, rumors, and stories woven from whole cloth. At least the National Enquirer and other supermarket tabloids understand their place as entertainment. Fake news sites, however, seek to displace and discredit real journalism—an important difference.

Censorship versus Standards

So then we came to 2016, where our intelligence agencies noted that the U.S. election process was manipulated by Russian fake news sites. No doubt, this fact provides another facet to the attack on fact-based forms of perception.

On one hand, the challenge in new media is how to avoid censorship of expression. On the other hand, standards must be established so that the consumer of information can discern what is properly sourced news and research, and what is the fever swamp of rumor, infotainment, clickbait, and public displays of psychosis.

First of all, we must be mindful that not all forms of speech are protected under the First Amendment. For example, commercial expression and advertising are subject to regulation and testing of truthfulness. Even the most sacrosanct speech—the political speech—has limits, and it has nothing to do with Oliver Wendell Holmes’s overused and obsolete quote about crying “fire” in a crowded theater. Instead, the modern test is two-fold, in which speech can be prohibited if it is (1) “directed at inciting or producing imminent lawless action,” and (2) “likely to incite or produce such action.” But of course, these limitations on suppressing free speech only apply to government action.

Blog posts, essentially such as this one, have no obligation to allow printing of any and all comments, thus enabling rules against trolling or repeating libelous comments. Newspapers and magazines are under no obligation to print any and all letters to the editor. There are local ordinances against the use of social networking in bullying. Employees have been released from employment for political activity or public comments that may negatively affect their ability to effectively deal with customers, or that adversely reflect upon their business. In normal social discussions, individuals may express whatever abhorrent, fantastical, or inaccurately-based opinion they desire, and the listener is free to ignore them, ostracize them, or respond with disbelief and derision.

Refining Information Ethics

For those of us in information management, the choice is one that often raises a conflict between our commercial interests and our desire to do the right thing. The “right thing” in this case is to hew as closely as possible to factual information that is based on supportive data, given the analytical methods available to us. For those of us in the larger public sphere, establishing an understanding of how people use information is necessary.

For example, sites that purport to be journalistic organizations or news sites should have no problem signing on to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. Those sites that ostensibly commit to these standards would then be listed as journalistic organizations. A consistent pattern of violating these ethics would cause that site to be moved to a different category.

Such a category includes those largely dedicated to editorial and opinion. Granted, social commentary is essential to civil engagement. This article, which is subject to editorial control, is part of that essential tradition.

But this is an area where some sites have taken advantage of the gray area between false news and opinion. Once again, the solution is to ensure that the site has in place clear ethical standards and policies that make a distinction for the reader between editorial opinions and content that represents properly sourced news reporting. Newspapers traditionally have followed this practice by segregating news from editorial sections. New media should establish similar firewalls. I would even go one step further, given recent experience, and have such sites commit to ensuring that no one providing editorial comment either contributes to a group associated with the comment, or receives compensation from such a group. For advocates from paid groups, such comments should be clearly identified as op-ed contributions.

Given these fine distinctions, the rest of the content one finds on new media falls into the large uncategorized mix of personal opinion, free expression, propaganda, and hackery. Sites funded by foreign governments need not be given any deference, though having a set of sites one knows represents the mouthpiece of an oppressive dictatorship, like, is sometimes useful. Like the warning on cigarette packs, noting that a site is a paid arm of a government, business, political action committee, political party, government official, or political candidate provides the reader with the necessary information to place the content in context without the need for censorship.

Accuracy and Eternal Vigilance

The threat to empiricism in our time, however, goes beyond just Russian hacks, and this is against the backdrop of the steady erosion of critical thinking among the public at large. We are told that we live in a post-truth society, where the perception of what may be true has as much legitimacy as what all measurements to the contrary tell us. This is, of course, madness.

It is bad enough that our prejudices and filters prevent us from completely perceiving the world around us accurately, but that at least is no fault of our own devising. Structures of thought and perception that purposely undermine our attempts to overcome these natural limitations represent a type of self-delusion at best and insidious ignorance at worst that extends to an existential crisis.

Only a people who have already crossed this Rubicon can be manipulated by the propagandistic efforts of some second-rate “kleptocracy” pining for a more relevant past, which would go largely ignored if not for its possession of nuclear weapons. Only a people who no longer care about the relevance of those facts are ripe for extremism and decline. For even knowledge and facts directed at technology and other safe subjects, absent at least a modicum of idealism, can only define a society that is a hollow shell—a machine without the essence that defines humanity in the best sense of that definition.

The means matter. The processes through which information is produced and consumed matter. For of all of the things that we are as a civil society, we are a society of process—legislative process, judicial process, regulatory process, and democratic process. Shortcuts that ignore this essential character of our system meet the classical definition of corruption.

For information and project managers who know that means matter, the imperative of our time is to reaffirm our commitment to the empirical method, which underlies everything that we do. Our jobs are not just to create fantastic machines that handle data regardless of its quality or fidelity, but also to provide society with the tools to distinguish between what is real and what isn’t.

In the words of John Gardner, “Clearheadedness does not slay dragons; it only spares us the indignity of fighting paper dragons while the real ones are breathing down our necks. But those are not trivial advantages.”


For more brilliant insights, check out Nick’s blog: Life, Project Management, and Everything

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One Comment

  1. Tribalism not only predates democracy, it appears to predate homo sapiens, while Empiricism and all those other Enlightenment ideas that allowed us to expand to a population of seven billion were apparently just a fad. A new Tribalism will end badly for the Consumers, who can’t build a cooking fire even with matches, charcoal, and lighter fluid, but the Kalahari Bushmen and Forest People of the Amazon basin will abide. The problem has never been Tribalism; it has always been willful stupidity, selfishness, and blind hatred.

    Vox populi, vox stulti.

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