The Gospel according to Moneyball, or…A picture is worth how many words?

I was reading for a bit in the instant classic Moneyball (by Michael Lewis) this morning, and he made several observations I found immediately incisive and made my thoughts wander a bit. He’s talking about the game (and management) of baseball, but hopefully you’ll see where my thoughts went. Lewis is talking specifically of Oakland’s former assistant GM Paul DePodesta and his decision to enter the business of baseball rather than a more lucrative finance career;

“He was just the sort of person who might have made an easy fortune in finance, but the market for baseball players, in Paul’s view, was far more interesting than anything Wall Street offered. There was, for starters, the tendency of everyone who played the game to generalize wildly from his own experience. People always thought their own experience was typical when it wasn’t. There was also a tendency to be overly influenced by a guy’s most recent performance: (but) what he did last was not necessarily what he would do next. Thirdly- but not lastly- there was the bias toward what people saw with their own eyes, or thought they had seen. The human mind played tricks on itself when it relied exclusively on what it saw, and every trick it played was a financial opportunity for someone who saw through the illusion to the reality.”

This is just a wonderfully interesting quote by itself that could be spun off in a number of directions if one had the time and the energy to think/write about it, but in this post, I thought I’d explore the “thirdly” part of Lewis’ quote that included the suggestion that “the human mind played tricks on itself when it relied exclusively on what it saw.” Just to take you through the progression of thoughts in my mind, I immediately thought “Hmmm…” followed by a moment of the suggestion sinking in, followed by remembering a little of what Neil Postman had to bring to bear on the power of image to overcome rational thought, followed by beginning to wrestle with the “false reality” that can be created by persons with the wherewithal to do so (which preys on the temptation for us to only rely on what we have “seen”). That was the process…I’ll work through it a bit more here following.

I guess a relevant question would be, is it true? Are we more deeply affected by what we see or directly experience than what is said to us or revealed to us outside of our experience? I’m assuming yes, though I’d label that as a temptation rather than an assumed truth. This over-emphasis on experienced truth is one of the deep weaknesses of uncritical postmodern thought as I see it. I could talk about this for pages probably, but that’s not my intent in this post. My basic intent is to expose the basic inadequacy of relying on experience or what one “sees” as a foundation for what is true through a couple simple examples. I recognize there are multiple shades of gray between the black and white of experienced truth vs. revealed truth, but hopefully the reality that what is “experienced” or “seen” can be manipulated shines through here.

The age of the internet complicates things, making news much more open-source and therefore less able to be easily manipulated for propaganda purposes, but it is still very possible (especially if the populace relies on basic news outlets for information) to present something as “reality” when it really is a series of images that have been manipulated to achieve a desired outcome. One example to support this suggestion was the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in the center of Iraq as the U.S.-led Shock and Awe campaign swept into the center of Baghdad in 2003. In describing the fall of Hussein’s statue, Donald Rumsfeld described the images as “breathtaking,” the British Army saw them as “historic,” and for BBC radio they were “amazing.” In the pictures that spread through media outlets like wildfire, there seemed to be a massive crowd of jubilent Iraqis pulling down the statue of Hussein that represented their celebration of freedom from his oppressive rule. Here’s the central picture of that series;


If you check out a Youtube video that follows Fox News’ coverage of the statue toppling, you’ll notice the anchors saying “jubilant seems too mild a word for what you’re seeing here,” followed by poking fun at French governmental officials for their opposition to the “liberation of Iraq.”

After the event, conservative commentator Robert Novak weighed in with his opinion, saying that

“As the war began in 2003, the New York Times required less than three weeks before it ran a front-page report by a star correspondent of the last generation, R.W. Apple, which hauled out the heavy word of the Vietnam generation, quagmire-as in the quagmire in which, Apple wrote, U.S. troops were already bogged down. Three weeks later, those same quagmired troops had sped into Baghdad, watching as jubilant crowds pulled down the great statue of Saddam Hussein in the center of the city and organizing a systematic search for the suddenly deposed butcher of Mesopotamia.”

And these images then were exported throughout the world as display of the celebration that had ensued in Iraq and the momentous change of regime on par with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Some of the images follow;

This third image represents the global impact of the photography, as viewed in Frankfurt, Germany.
(pictures linked from here)

So, it seems there was a massive crowd celebrating the end of the Hussein era, right? Not so fast. If you had a healthy sense of skepticism and traveled outside the seeming exultation of the crowds presented by prominent media outlets, you would have found a different picture…literally. And while one could argue which pictures represent reality more faithfully if two different groups take different pictures and claim different things at the event, I think we’d all agree that pictures of wider context usually display a more full picture of the reality.

Take a gander at a bit wider angle shot of the event, then two definitely large-scope shots taken chronologically;

It seems that less-euphoric/less-subjective/less-manipulative news sources reported a much different scene than the CNN/BBC/Fox News one. Journalist David Zucchino interviewed a member of the Army’s psychological operations unit and found that the event was almost entirely put on by the US military. After a US colonel “selected the statue as a ‘target of opportunity,’ the psychological team used loudspeakers to encourage Iraqi civilians to assist, according to an account by a unit member.” And when cameras zoomed in on the Marine recovery vehicle toppling the statue, “the effort appeared to be Iraqi-inspired because the psychological team had managed to pack the vehicle with cheering Iraqi children.”

And in the words of eyewitness Neville Watson, a clergyman from Australia,

“Well, there certainly was some jubilation, but I certainly wouldn’t go along with that presented by television. The one that I’ve seen a lot of since I’ve been back is the toppling of the statue of Saddam and I can hardly believe it was the same one that I saw, because it happened at only about 300m from where I was and it was a very small crowd. The rest of the square was almost empty, and when we inquired as to where the crowd came from, it was from Saddam City. In other words, it was a rent-a-crowd. Now, that piece of television has been played over and over again, but I’ve seen nothing of the pieces of television, for example, what happened in Mosul the other day, where the Americans opened fire on a crowd killing 10 and injuring 100 when it became anti-American. So I think the scenes of jubilation have to be balanced against the other side of the picture.”

All in all, the wide-angle shots and different testimonies reveal a much different picture. In total, there were about 200 people in the square, with a vast majority of that number being military personnel and international media (we won’t mention that the square is just adjacent to the Palestine Hotel where the international media were based) along with a handful of Iraqis. And even the spontaeity of the handful of Iraqis is in doubt; one could say those who came after encouragement by the loudspeakers were somewhat spontaneous, but a picture of a central celebrant reveals him to be a member of the “Free Iraqi Forces” militia who were flown into Iraq several days before the statue-toppling. Starting to shape up into a different “picture,” eh? *pun intended* I guess I shouldn’t mention that the BBC reported the American flag initially put over the face of the Saddam statue was one flying over the Pentagon on September 11th either. Seems less and less spontaneous, the deeper we go.

I don’t want to belabor the point, because my intention, again, was just to expose the inadequacy of relying on experience or what one “sees” as a foundation for what is true, because one can be greatly deceived by persons interested in keeping us in the alternate reality shaped and colored by their perspective. And governments (ALL governments) certainly have a vested interest in the support of the populace. Just a cautionary note; don’t believe all that you see. Maintain a healthy skepticism. Be willing to wade deeper, even if it may cost you or cause people to label you.


One thought on “The Gospel according to Moneyball, or…A picture is worth how many words?

  1. Pingback: Surface messages, “greenwashing,” and the truth that lies beneath « Thoughts and Ruminations

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