Wednesday, January 17, 2007

"The" vs "A"

This is my kind of article. A psychology professor breaks down one glaring example of the use of language to control the terms of the debate. In this case he looks at the impact of the indefinite article:

American psychologist, Elizabeth Loftus, and her colleagues have shown how rhetorical tricks can make people misconceive reality. In one study by Loftus and Zanni (1975), people were shown a film of a car accident, and then asked questions about what they saw. A random half of the witnesses were asked “Did you see a broken headlight?” and the other half were asked “Did you see the broken headlight?” In the first version, 7% of the people said they saw a broken headlight. In the second version, 17% said they saw the broken headlight. In fact, there was no broken headlight. If someone uses the definite article the, then listeners and readers tend to presume that what follows actually exists.

In another study by Loftus (1975), people viewed a film and one group answered a questionnaire that included,
"Did you see the children getting on the school bus?" and the other group did not get this question. A week later, people filled out a second questionnaire that contained the question, "Did you see a school bus?" Only 6% of the people who had not been exposed the the question a week earlier recalled seeing a school bus, but 26% of those who had been exposed to the the question a week earlier said "yes" they had seen a school bus. In fact, there was no school bus.

Thus, by the simple use of
the, just one time, 10% of the people could be made to believe that something was there that was not there. With some additional details that fit, like children getting on school buses, and with the delay of a week to consolidate the false information, 20% of people could be made to believe that something was there that was not there.

Imagine the effectiveness of
the, repeated over and over and over and over, for weeks and months, by authorities whom we are trained to trust, providing lots of information that coherently fits with the false claims. For example, the Independent article quoted President Bush using the three times:

"We will disrupt
the attacks on our forces. We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq."

There are in fact attacks on US forces (but done by anti-Iranian Sunni insurgents), and there are in fact networks providing advanced weapons for these attacks (but coming from pre-war Iraqi caches and pilfered from US supplies). Those two true facts serve to add coherence and believability to the unsubstantiated claim about “
the flow of support from Iran and Syria” for which there is in fact no evidence. Thus we come to confidently believe something is there that is not there.

The Independent is careful not to serve as a propagandist for governments bent on misleading the public in order to make new wars. When unnamed officials make claims, they are not presented as true, but as alleged, reportedly. And when there is no evidence, the Independent says that there is no evidence:

“Officials have also reportedly claimed that thousands of Shia militia fighters have been trained in Iran by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. Again, no evidence to support these claims has been made public.”

American journalists writing for US media are much less careful, and much more comfortable reinforcing beliefs for which there is no evidence, other than the repeated over and over and over. For example, ABC News headlined a report, “EXCLUSIVE: Iranian Weapons Arm Iraqi Militia”. The report quoted unnamed authorities that “smoking-gun evidence” has been found, that “
the material is going directly from Iranian factories to Shia militias” and that “the weapons have been supplied to Iraq's growing Shia militias”. But the alleged weapons and other evidence are only hearsay, never made public and not seen by the reporter. The “smoking gun” is actually smoke and mirrors made by repeated use of the definite article the.

The world is again being tricked into war by empty rhetoric and fear, unsupported by facts.

Please read the article in its entirety. I actually have nothing more to add.