Hearing is (not necessarily) believing

Someone (let’s call her Alice) tells you that something is true, say the proposition P.  What can you validly infer from that utterance of Alice?  Not that P is necessarily true, since Alice may be mistaken.  You can’t even infer that Alice believes that P is true, since she may be aiming to mislead you.
Can you then infer that Alice wants you to believe that P is true?  Well, not always, since the two of you may have the sort of history of interactions which leads you to mostly distrust what she says, and she may know this about you, so she may be counting on you believing that P is not true precisely because she told you that it is true.  But, you, in turn, may know this about Alice (that she is counting on you not to believe her regarding the truth of P), and she knows that you know, so she is actually expecting you not to not-believe her on P, but to in fact infer either no opinion on P or to believe that P is true.
So, let us try summarizing what you could infer from Alice telling that P is true:

  • That P is true.
  • That Alice believes that P is true.
  • That Alice desires you to believe that P is true.
  • That Alice desires that you believe that Alice desires you to believe that P is true.
  • That Alice desires you to not believe that P is true.
  • That Alice desires that you believe that Alice desires you to not believe that P is true.
  • That Alice desires you to believe that P is not true.
  • That Alice desires that you believe that Alice desires you to believe that P is not true.
  • And so on, ad infinitum.

Apart from life, the universe and everything, you may be wondering where such ideas would find application.   Well, one place is in Intelligence.   Tennent H. Bagley, in his very thorough book on the Nosenko affair, for example, discusses the ructions in CIA caused by doubts about the veracity of the supposed KGB defector, Yuri Nosenko.    Was he a real defector?  Or was he sent by KGB as a fake defector, in order to lead CIA astray with false or misleading information?  If he was a fake defector, should CIA admit this publicly or should they try to convince KGB that they believe Nosenko and his stories?  Does KGB actually want CIA to conclude that Nosenko is a fake defector, for instance, in order to believe something by an earlier defector which CIA may otherwise doubt?  In which case, should CIA pretend to taken in by Nosenko (to make KGB think their plot was successful) or let KGB know that they were not taken in (in order to make KGB believe that CIA does not believe that other earlier information)?  And so on, ad infinitum.
I have seen similar (although far less dramatic) ructions in companies when they learn of some exciting or important piece of competitor intelligence.   Quite often, the recipient company just assumes the information is true and launches itself into vast efforts executing new plans.  Before doing this, companies should explicitly ask, Is this information true?,  and also pay great attention to the separate question, Who would benefit if we (the recipients) were to believe it?
Another application of these ideas is in the design of computer communications systems.   Machines send messages to each other all the time (for example, via the various Internet protocols, whenever a web-page is browsed or email is sent), and most of these are completely believed by the recipient machine.   To the extent that this is so, the recipient machines can hardly be called intelligent.   Designing intelligent communications between machines requires machines able and willing to query and challenge information they receive when appropriate, and then able to reach an informed conclusion about what received information to believe.
Many computer scientists believe that a key component for such intelligent communications is an agreed semantics for communication interactions between machines, so that the symbols exchanged between different machines are understood by them all in the same way.   The most thoroughly-developed machine semantics to date is the Semantic Language SL of the Agent Communications Language ACL of the IEEE Foundation for Intelligent Physical Agents (IEEE FIPA), which has been formalized in a mix of epistemic and doxastic logics (ie, logics of knowledge and belief).   Unfortunately, the semantics of FIPA ACL requires the sender of information (ie, Alice) to believe that information herself.  This feature precludes the language being used for any interactions involving negotiations or scenario exploration.  The semantics of FIPA ACL also require Alice not to believe that the recipient believes one way or another about the information being communicated (eg, the proposition P).  Presumably this is to prevent Alice wasting the time of the recipient.  But this feature precludes the language being used for one of the most common interactions in computer communications – the citing of a password by someone (human or machine) seeking to access some resource, since the citer of the password assumes that the resource-controller already knows the password.
More work clearly needs doing on the semantics of machine communications.  As the example above demonstrates, communication has many subtleties and complexities.
Tennent H. Bagley [2007]: Spy Wars: Moles, Mysteries, and Deadly Games.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Speak now!

Senator Barack Obama   Following the US presidential election primary campaigns from afar, I have been struck, as have many people, by the great oratory of Senator Barack Obama.   For those of us with experience in non-governmental sectors or in foreign-aid circles, his style of speaking is very familiar — it is the voice of a community organizer, creating self-awareness and encouraging group action, and doing so superbly!     (As an aside, since the nuclear briefcase and the bully pulpit are pretty much the only real powers of a US President, character, judgment and oratory would seem to me far more important as criteria for assessment of presidential candidates than the details of their proposed legislative programs.)
In reading some of the commentary on Senator Obama’s important speech this week in Philadelphia on race, I came across this post by psychologist Drew Westen.  In speaking about race relations and a US national conversation on race, Westen says:

“We can’t solve problems we can’t talk about . . .”

It is hard to emphasize just how deeply and profoundly American this view is.   There are many cultures in which the majority of the population would take the precisely-opposite view — that we cannot solve problems we DO talk about, that solutions to difficult social or even personal problems can only be found by working in the background, behind the scenes, in the corridors of power rather than in public forums, where it is possible for solutions to be found and agreements reached without any loss of face.   England, despite sharing a common language and a common political history with the USA, is one such culture, as are those of North and East Asia.  Even when people suspect that open discussion may be needed to solve a difficult problem, they may still prefer to keep shtum, since the pain of enduring the problem may be far less than the pain of admitting its existence or of discussing it openly.
What is the relevance of this to business, I hear you cry out (or not, depending on your culture)?    I have worked on multi-national business ventures where this particular cultural difference threatened to overwhelm any other profession-disciplinary, corporate or personal differences.  In one case, a consortium of companies from the USA, Britain and Korea worked together on a joint venture where the Americans always tried to surface any problem and discuss it openly in the weekly project meetings.  Both the Brits and the Koreans recoiled from this approach, and the two would often caucus together before project meetings to try to pre-empt any difficult discussions.   I don’t know if the Americans on the project ever knew of the corridor-caucusing of their two partners, or why so many difficult matters were sent for “off-line” resolution, only to disappear or else be magically resolved, apparently without any discussion.  
There are many wonderful qualities of American culture, and, in my opinion, openness and transparency are among these.  But not everyone thinks so, and it would behoove us all in an age of global interactions and inter-dependence to recognize this.
POSTSCRIPT (Added 2008-03-21):  It is also worth noting that some cultures may discuss problems publicly but only in elliptical or indirect terms.   Shona culture (found in Zimbabwe and Mozambique), for example, has a highly-sophisticated use of metaphors, parables, multiple-meaning-layers, and even songs, as a means of somewhat open discussion of sensitive topics.   The use of such sophisticated linguistic devices means that a speaker can intend that an utterance be understood differently by different audiences.  Not an insignificant reason for his political success is that Robert Mugabe is a grand master of these multiple simultaneous registers, of being heard to say different things to different audiences at the very same time, and of clearly being heard to say without actually having said.