Posted by: CJ | February 1, 2009


A few posts ago, buried amongst a bunch of links, I had a link to a lecture on siffing by Princeton economist Uwe Reinhardt. By siffing he meant Structuring Iformation Felicitiously, i.e. not lying but presenting true information in such a way as to bias the conclusion the audience comes to. The point of his lecture is that trained professional data crunchers, such as economists, statisticians, and politicians, are experts at doing this and therefore cannot be trusted without further investigation. I really, really liked the final few paragraphs of his lecture though.

“The question arises who should be blamed for the widespread penchant to sif and, as I noted at the outset, whether or not you, too, should master and practice that dark craft.

The reason so many people sif, I suppose, is because it brings such handsome rewards and rarely social opprobrium.

During the 1990s, for example, siffing and often outright lying was rampant in the business and commercial world. For years it appeared that Wall Street had absolutely no interest in either receiving or disseminating truthful information. Millions of investors were hurt by the practice, and the worldwide image of American capitalism was sorely tarnished. Yet for their dubious practices at most of a handful of the practitioners will ever bear any personal consequences worth mentioning. Even the worst siffers among them ended up and will remain millionaires, often earning with that craft in one or a few years
what dozens of expert neurosurgeons could not hope to earn over a lifetime of hard and honorable work. Given the lack of meaningful social opprobrium for siffing, it is a safe bet that siffing will remain a staple of the business and financial world.

It is likewise in the political arena. There politicians sif with abandon, and only rarely with any social opprobrium. Absent a media that would vigilantly pursue and verbally torture politicians engaged in the craft, and with an otherwise busy, untrained and helpless electorate, is there any hope that siffing will disappear from political dialogue. One can seriously wonder whether any candidate who is a principled person and faithful ally of the truth could make it any more in our political system.

The only weapon against the socially corrosive practice of siffing is an audience competent enough to see through siffing and with enough integrity of their own to care about it and vehemently oppose it. Absent these virtues, any truly faithful allies to the truth are at a decided disadvantage in our society.

Which leads me to the overarching question:

Do you actually care about this? Is a siffing society one in which you
want to make your career and, possibly, raise a family? Do you think
a democracy can flourish when its leaders routinely are dubious allies of the truth?  Do you think business can flourish when every
statement or report issued by business leaders is suspect and
requires auditing?

If not, you had better wake up to the phenomenon of siffing and make it as unacceptable in elevated circles as is lying outright.”

This is moral outrage and educational vision that has my whole-hearted support.


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