Saturday, 23 March 2013

Tricks of presentation

Yesterday, I saw the new David Bowie exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The exquisitely curated sequence of pieces of music, video clips, costumes, and other artefacts, demonstrates the power of presentation, far more than a single concert would do. I suppose the reason is that when we see contrasting tools of presentation, used in different concerts, we become aware of what each tool does, because it does not do quite the same as the corresponding tool in the next display. But we can remain carried away by each act of a pop star, because we know it is only an act. It does not profess to convey anything much about the Universe.

Now suppose we saw an exhibition of papal inaugurations and other grand religious ceremonies, and we therefore became more aware of how the tools of presentation worked in each one. Those who are currently carried away by such shows might cease to be so, because when something that is supposed to be more than an act, and to represent a point of contact with some profound truth about the Universe, is revealed to be shot through with tricks of presentation, doubt must be cast on the supposed profound truth. It should not need those tricks. And if the supposed profound truth is discarded, the show ceases to be a piece of fun, and is reduced to a charade. It cannot survive the loss of its raison d'ĂȘtre.

It is tempting to define an epistemic virtue, and its corresponding vice, in the following terms.

1. Suppose that there is some information.
2. The information might be presented in a variety of ways.
3. We shall only consider ways that would allow the subject to grasp the information.
4. The subject may form a view on the information's truth, or on its trustworthiness.
5. A propensity to form the same view, regardless of the way in which the information was presented, would be an epistemic virtue.
6. A propensity to form different views, depending on the way in which the information was presented, would be an epistemic vice.

This virtue and vice would come close to the virtue of scepticism (in the sense of being appropriately critical, not the Pyrrhonian sense or anything close to that sense) and the vice of gullibility, but the focus here is on the method of presentation, not on any other ways in which people might avoid being led astray, or might be led astray.

We could not test for the virtue, or the vice, in a given individual, by presenting the same information to him or her several times, in different ways, because the individual would remember previous presentations. We might use repeated presentation, with different forms of presentation being used in various orders, on a large sample of people, to test for the effectiveness of different methods of persuasion across the population as a whole, but that would be a different exercise.

We might note whether an individual was in general susceptible to the vice, by seeing whether he or she tended to accept the content of adverts or of propaganda. But our conclusions would probably be impressionistic, rather than based on a rigorous consideration of evidence. Indeed, if someone comes along with a test that purports to tell us whether a given individual is, or is not, uniformly susceptible to persuasion through the use of tricks of presentation, we should be sceptical of that claim.

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