Certainty: Poison Arrows & Weasel News

Author Gary Moreau

My two daughters, a freshman and junior in high school, spent some time with me over the July 4th holiday. Among many other activities we spent a day at the Detroit Zoo, where we sat down to a basket of chicken fingers in the shadow of the Polar Bear exhibit. (The Polar bears, unfortunately, were all asleep in their caves and nowhere to be seen.)

We were reminiscing about the house we had lived in at the time of their birth and, quite randomly, the conversation turned to feng shui, the Chinese philosophical system of harmonizing our physical surroundings with the invisible forces of qi that many Eastern cultures believe binds the universe and everything in it.

Feng shui is closely related to Taoism and has millions of followers worldwide, including the US, where you can hire feng shui consultants to help you choose and decorate a new home in places like California and New York. I am not a disciple. After living on this earth for more than six decades, however, one of them among the Chinese, there are few belief systems I dismiss out of hand.

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I noted, as a result, with no intention of defending the idea, that our previous family home had very bad feng shui because it was located at the tip of a poison arrow—it sat atop a “T” in the road it fronted. While feng shui had little to do with our choices in landscaping the property, I playfully joked that we had planted a large tree in front of our front door to dissipate the negative energy before it could enter the house.

While I thought the conversation was all in good fun, however, my daughters immediately jumped to judgment. “How can you believe in such nonsense?” my eldest daughter asked with obvious incredulity. “The blood of a tree is sap, which is water filled with nutrients and minerals, not some mystical force that can’t even be seen with a microscope.”

Fair enough. But I am a card-carrying contrarian and my own sap is filled with curiosity. I was intrigued and decided to pursue the conversation. “Why,” I asked, “do you dismiss something simply because you can’t see it or touch it? Wouldn’t science itself suggest neutrality? The existence of qi, after all, has not been disproved, and there is no logical reason that nutrients and qi can’t co-exist.”

You’ve already heard the rest of the conversation I’m sure. This proved to be just one of many discussions in which my daughters—already my oratorical equals—took exception with my reservations about one-dimensional notions of cause and effect. The best I could hope for in any of these debates was an exasperated draw. I seldom moved the needle into the zone of doubt, much less acceptance of alternative interpretations of commonly held Western beliefs.

In the end, to be honest, I actually agreed with most of the positions they took. I am a bona fide Westerner. I was quite unnerved, however, by the certainty with which they took them.

Many of my readers will quickly dismiss all of this as merely another example of the challenge of living with teenagers who are constantly testing the boundaries of their knowledge and identity. If not a false parenting rationalization, however, it is a dangerous one. When we start stifling curiosity and fortifying the mind against healthy doubt, we sow the seeds of social and personal stagnation, if not destruction.

But isn’t that what we—the adults of the world—are currently doing? Are we teaching our children anything quite as consistently and fervently as we are teaching them by our example to be certain in their beliefs?

As I write this world leaders are wrapping up the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. And despite my earnest attempts to stay abreast of developments at this very important gathering, I know virtually nothing about what really transpired. Nearly all of the “reporting” I read from both sides of the political divide could easily have been written well in advance.

The problem with certainty, of course, is the problem with any myopia. You may be right or you may be wrong. Certainty, however, makes it certain that you will never know. Understanding, like knowledge itself, is a continuum, not a destination.

Certainty is a noun. And it is self-fulfilling. Once we believe something with certainty everything we observe tends to reinforce that certainty because we inevitably filter all observation and thought in the interest of efficiency. We see and hear, in the most literal sense, exactly what we expect to. Our certainty, as a result, fossilizes.

Certainty, in fact, is the breeding ground of the contemporary notion of “fake news” that is so hotly debated in the US political arena these days. Fake news may or may not be factual in any literal or narrowly defined sense. It is inevitably misleading, however. It’s weasel news.

“Weasel words” is a term coined by author Steward Chaplin in 1900, and popularized by Theodore Roosevelt. They are the words and phrases that suck the meaning out of claims, much like the weasel sucks out the meat of the egg while leaving the shell intact. By compromising the context within which a claim is made, they provide cover for those who wish to mislead or misinform without being blatant about it.

In the context of news, words like “many”, “few”, “might”, and “suggest”, are typical weasel words; suggestive but not dimensional. “Many experts,” for example, is somewhere between a handful and a boat full.

Politicians and the news media use weasel words all the time to make things that aren’t supported by fact sound like they are. In the narrowest sense, the words are factual. The intent, however, is far from neutral.

Weasel news typically employs weasel words but is slightly broader in context. Typically honest words can become dishonest when used in a certain order that may not violate the formal rules of language but compromises clarity and camouflages subjective innuendo.

When reporters noted that violent protestors greeted Trump’s first G20 meeting, you might assume that the protestors were there because of their anger toward the US President alone. That, of course, may or may not have been the case in any verifiable scientific sense. If challenged on the implication, however, the newscaster can claim that the observable violent protests took place at a meeting that was, indeed, Trump’s first.

Confidence, of course, can be a good thing. Every parent wants to build confidence in his or her children. Confidence gives us the strength to do the right thing in the face of choice. And it contributes to the efficiency of our actions and behaviors, allowing us to do the right thing more often.

Life is a dichotomy, however, and the state of certainty is no exception. Certainty is also an essential element of hate, racism, and ignorance. It is a medium, used consciously or not, for disinformation since we all know from experience that the presence of certainty itself enhances our willingness to fall for undocumented innuendo.

Both the members of the G20 (Referred to as the G19 by one news outlet, in yet another example of “fake” but technically defensible reporting.) and my daughters are all back home now. And while I have no opinion about what progress may or may not have been made at the G20, I am saddened that my daughters do not greet me in the morning, at least until their next visit.

Whether or not my daughters ever accept the existence of poison arrows, I love them dearly. Of that I am certain. And flipping the dichotomy of certainty once again, genuine love is the best kind of news there is.

Contact: You may reach the author at gary@glassmakerinchina.com

Another sample from the author’s latest book, Understanding Business: The Logic of Balance, available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.

So, while it is true that a company must actively manage its employees in the interest of performance, it is equally true that dehumanizing employees to the extent that relationships and connections are inhibited is counterproductive. Some balance between the recognition of our individual humanity and the need for collective performance must be struck.