copyright notice
link to the published version: IEEE Computer, October, 2014

accesses since September 2, 2014


Hal Berghel

The first casualty of power politics, advocacy journalism, dark propaganda, rumor mills, and media-politico echo chambers is truth. Here’s a defensive tactic for your consideration.

Scholars have been concerned with the pollution of our infospheres (‘infopollution') for many decades. As I prepare this column I am reminded of a column that I wrote on information overload in 1997 (Cyberspace 2000: Dealing with Information Overload, Communications of the ACM, 40:2; February 1997). Some of my predictions were spot on – e.g., the Web did indeed evolve toward multi-mediocrity and self-indulgent tripe. To deal with this, some of us experimented with “cyberbrowsers” that could be optimized with respect to search relevance and maximal information uptake (Customizing information: Getting what we need, when we need it, IEEE Computer, parts I and II, September and October, 1994). But I was deluded into thinking that the solution to the needle-in-haystack problem was primarily a navigational issue. I failed to anticipate that the Web would become a convenient weapon of mass deception. As the toxicity of the Web increased, it became obvious that sophisticated navigation alone won't solve the problem of information overburden, and that defensive browsers were needed. By the mid-1990's the information content of large parts of cyberspace rivaled that of air dancers and lava lamps.

This toxicity may have been anticipated by alert and well-read software developers. By 1990 propaganda models of mass media had been carefully articulated by scholars such as Alex Carey (Taking the Risk out of Democracy, University of Illinois Press, 1997), and Herman and Chomsky (Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, Pantheon, 1988). Further, the Orwell-Huxley models of dystopia had been extended to mass media by Neil Postman since the 1960’s (see, e.g. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Penguin Books, rev. ed., 2005). So the handwriting should have been visible on the erudite’s wall. However, I was` blindsided by the most insidious side of infopollution: mass deception. This is my chance to redeem myself for the oversight.


One of the most valuable books I read as an undergraduate was Howard Kahane’s primer on informal logic (Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric: The use of Reason in Everyday Logic - now in the 11th edition, with Nancy Cavender, Cengage Learning, 2013). It is remarkable that this book remains in print a decade after Kahane’s death. George Orwell would be pleased that a small-but-measurable part of the literate world still cares to distinguish sound argument from newspeak.

Like so many of my generation, my introduction to logic was through Irving Copi's text of the same name. For many a college freshman this classic tome was a solid foundation for a college career. What it was not, however, was a breathtakingly relevant companion to help with life's challenges. Students who expected Copi to provide insight into the Vietnam War, the civil rights program, Johnson's war on poverty, and Nixonian political chicanery were disappointed. For that reason, when I began to teach the course as a graduate instructor I complemented a more rigorous primer on formal logic with the Kahane book. The combination of rigor and relevance was pedagogically far more satisfying at a number of levels.

What made the Kahane book important was that it codified the notion of informal fallacy – that dimension of illogic that confronts us daily. This is not to diminish the importance of the Aristotelian syllogism by any means, but modus ponens and its syllogistic siblings just don't come up that often in daily discourse. On the other hand it is difficult to get through a campaign speech, talk show, or political commentary without being assaulted by such sonorous wafts of fallacious reasoning as to offend a refined intellect. Kahane augmented a thorough collection and exposition of informal fallacies with real life examples. It is as important today as it was in 1971 when it was first published. I remain convinced that it, or reasonable facsimile thereof, should be required reading for every college freshman.

Though worthy, the study of informal logic from one serious shortcoming: it assumes that truthful statements are the sine qua non of meaningful communication. Informal fallacies document the point at which serious reasoning foes awry. Even when embedded in a broader, over-arching “argumentation theory” or dialectic, informal logic assumes that traditional fallacies are departures from the conversational norm - but not the norm itself.

Violations of the rules of sound argument are red flags in any discussion worthy of serious attention. But propaganda, polemic, subterfuge, and trickery eschew sound argument. They seek to manipulate, maneuver, control the listener and obstruct paths from reflection to sound judgment. Rhetorical weaponry - like lying and deceit - assaults the sensibilities with false flags and distractions that informal logic just can't handle. When it comes to criminals, politicians, and ideologues, we need to pull out the nuclear option.


A new tool has been made available to deal with the increased volume of sophistry and tergiversation. Philip Houston, Michael Floyd, Susan Carnicero and Don Tennant published a book entitled Spy the Lie (St. Martins Griffin, 2012) [see sidebar]. This is a fun book to read. But more than that, it is a terrific practical supplement to informal logic because it specifically deals with lies and liars.

The first three authors are or were CIA polygraph experts who developed and extended a deception-detection methodology for ‘the company' to determine a subject's truthfulness. As they point out in the book, while the primary target might have been criminals and terrorists, the methodology equally applies to media personalities, politicians, and criminals – groups that most of us are far more likely to encounter. This is just the ticket to take us the next plateau of cerebral combat where it is appropriate to assume a high likelihood of deceit – which includes most of daily life any more.

These CIA investigators have spent a good part of their adult life listening to people lie to them. That not only makes them good investigators, but good listeners. I envision a sign on their office door that reads “Deceptions R Us.”

The book presents scores of actual examples of deception as practiced by politicians, spies and criminals – in many cases using verbatim testimony from interrogations and interviews. Truth seekers will find their analysis fascinating. I'll illustrate their deception-detection methodology with one of my favorite examples derived from a recent testimony of NSA Director Keith Alexander to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Senator Merkley (D; OR): “Section 215 [of the Patriot Act] requires for an application for production of any tangible thing… that it must have a statement of facts showing reasonable grounds that the tangible things sought are relevant to an authorized investigation. ….Now as it's been described…. the standard for collecting phone records on Americans is now all phone records, all of the time, on all Americans…. How do we get from the reasonable grounds, relevant, authorized investigations, statement of facts to all phone records, all of the time, and all locations. How do we make this transition and how has the standard of the law been met.”

Gen. Keith Alexander (DIRNSA): “So this is what we have to deal with the courts… We go through this court process. It's a very deliberate process. It's where we meet all of those portions of the 215. We lay out for the court what we're going to do, and to meet that portion that you just said, the answer is that we don't get to look at the data. We don't get to swim through the data.”

Note that Merkley didn't ask anything about when the NSA got to look at the phone data, he was asking about the justification for collecting phone records - not listening to phone calls! Note how Merkley immediately stops what Spy the Lie calls a “failure to answer response” [sidebar].

Senator Merkley: “Let me stop you there because these are requirements to acquire the data, not to analyze the data – to acquire the data…. Here I have my Verizon phone. What authorized investigation gave you the grounds to acquire my cell phone data?

Alexander: “I want to make sure I get this exactly right. I think on the legal standards and stuff on this part here we need to get the Department of Justice – because this is a complex area – you're asking a specific question. I don't want to shirk that, but I want to make sure that I get it exactly right. [we should revisit this topic] with the intent of getting what you asked and get it declassified and get it out to the American people so that they can see exactly how we do it. I do think that should be answered.”

By way of background, Merkley is asking a very straightforward question that Alexander already answered (falsely) in congressional testimony many times before. Merkley has asked for a disclosure of the specific investigation that allows the NSA to collect Merkley's phone metadata? That the NSA collected it was well known due to the Snowden leaks by the time of this hearing. It is certainly possible that Alexander's verbosity and evasion camouflages ignorance – which might say more about the weakness of the DIRNSA appointment process than Alexander. It seems more likely, however, that Alexander's testimony camouflages deception.

Here's my analysis based my Spy the Lie deception-detection methodology training (i.e., I read the book): Alexander is using a combination of ‘referral statements' (to the Department of Justice) to deflect the heat, plus ‘overly specific answers' by drawing in the issue of the legal framework. What was asked was “what was the relevant authorized investigation,” not “what was the statute that enabled the authorized investigation.” Further, Alexander used ‘exclusion qualifiers' (e.g., “this is a complex area,” I want to “get it exactly right”). As an afterthought, he suggested that the answer to the original simple question might actually be classified. If true, this would render the entire exchange pointless. Alexander is apparently using a shotgun approach to rhetoric, hoping that something he says will sufficiently distract the Senate Intelligence Committee long enough to let him leave the chambers and regroup. It is worthy of note that until the Snowden revelations, Alexander routinely denied that the NSA had the capability to collect the phone metadata at all ( ) ! IMHO this qualifies for an indictment for several counts of crap dispersal before Congress without a license.

So that's my interpretation. I invite you to read a copy of Spy the Lie, watch the actual video footage of the testimony ( ), and compare your results with mine. Let me know how you do.

Spy the Lie and informal logic work together to help us disinfect our infospheres from crap, bilious bombast, media-babble, disinformation campaigns, pseudo-events, and bad information of every stripe. These days common sense by itself won't cut it. We need tools!


I should mention one additional category of deception that still defies analyses: PDOOMA explanations. An example of this involve the CIA spying on Senators and staffers conducting the 2014 Senate Torture Probe of the 2001-2006 alleged torture of detainees that was authorized by the Bush/Cheney administration. In March, 2014 CIA Director John Brennan said the following in response to Senator Diane Feinstein's charge that the CIA was spying on Senate Intelligence Committee activities:

“As far as the allegations of, you know, CIA hacking into, you know, Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, we wouldn't do that. I mean, that's _ that's just beyond the _ you know, the scope of reason in terms of what we would do. …When the facts come out on this, I think a lot of people who are claiming that there has been this tremendous monitoring and hacking will be proved wrong.” (Brennan's remarks are reproduced by Democracy now ; the McClatchy article that broke this story is at )

Brennan revealed on July 31, 2014 that an internal CIA investigation confirmed the truth of Feinstein's claims. He subsequently apologized. At this writing it seems unlikely that Brennan knew about the Senate spying, otherwise he wouldn't have asked for an internal investigation. Such being the case, this story would be a revelation that Brennan was having a PDOOMA moment rather than lying. He just pulled his response from thin air – or wherever.


Neil Postman begins his 1969 paper “Bullshit and the Art of Crap-Detection” with a quote of Ernest Hemingway to the effect that the most important quality for a good writer was a “buiilt-in, shock-proof, crap detector” ( ). Despite yeoman efforts by Hemingway, Postman, comedian George Carlin (e.g., “It's Bad For Ya,” 2008, technology guru Howard Rheingold ( ) - not to mention George Orwell and Aldous Huxley - most people still don't behave as if they understand that humankind is awash in a sea of content-free, misleading, and/or false information. As Postman remarked in his 1969 paper “…there is nothing more important for kids to learn [than] how to identify fake communication.” But here we are a half-century hater and the population as a whole is no better prepared to deal with infopollution. In fact, we computing professionals have unwittingly made infopollution much worse by advancing storage network storage capacity and bandwidth without a corresponding advance in filtering capability. We've turned big data into big dada.

At this writing, the pedagogical resources that specifically deal with the problem of disinformation are few and far between. An online resource that is worthy of attention is Howard Rheingold's Mini-Course ( ). Where Spy the Lie approaches the problem from a tactical level, Rheingold approaches the topic from a strategic level, focusing on the credibility and independence of thought, especially as it relates to the Internet. Another useful resource is John McManus' recent book, Detecting Bull (The Unvarnished Press 2 nd ed, Sunnyvale, 2012). The world would be a better place if any of these resources were required readings for citizenship.

Weapons of Mass Deception became the title of a book by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber (Weapons of Mass Deception: the Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2003). Rampton and Stauber show how deception can be interwoven with doublespeak, euphemisms, and propaganda in political diplomacy. Its scope is far broader than our present concern, but a worthy resource, nonetheless.



Philip Houston, Michaael Floyd and Susan Carnicero with Don Tennant: Spy The Lie, St. Martin's Griffin, 2012)

Spy the Lie's appeal is broader than my immediate interest. The subtitle of the book sums up the scope nicely: Former CIA Officers Teach You How to Detect Deception.

The book begins with a description of the authors' apparent home-grown “deception-detection methodology” that was initially developed within the CIA for internal use. While the application of this methodology remains classified by the CIA, the methodology itself was unclassified and exported to the private sector in the mid-1990's and ultimately surfaced in this book.

Not only is this book an enjoyable read, but it also offers an excellent refresher course in deceptive practices. Politicians and mainstream media outlets are active proselytizers – they aggressively put forth and recruit support for political or corporate agendas. Free and open discussion is not the goal. Rather it is to take advantage of what Aldous Huxley referred to as humankind's infinite capacity for distraction from the important issues of life. Failure to appreciate this simple fact has produced a mind-numbing array of sub-cerebral media broadcasts - a phenomenon memorialized in Bruce Springsteen's song “57 Channels (And Nothin' On)”. Bruce Springsteen's observation is now off by several orders of magnitude [see main article]. Perhaps the best statement (and justification) of agenda media is to be found in Edward Bernay's 1928 book, Propaganda (reprinted, lg Publishing, 2004).

Beyond the deception-detection methodology, Spy The Lie also includes a discussion on the use and limitations of a polygraph (informally, “lie detector”) and some explanation on how to interpret the results. The authors discuss strategic principles, guidelines, and even offer a few examples of how the trained examiner annotates the polygraph transcription.

But for me the most interesting section by far are chapters 5 and 8, “What Deception Sounds Like” and “What Deception Looks Like,” respectively. Here's a sample list of the topics covered therein:

The Sounds of Deception (not to be confused with the Simon & Garfunkel Song):

The Look of Deception:

Though incomplete this listing should be detailed enough that you can see what form the narrative will take. Each category is carefully explained and replete with examples. The book concludes with a list of suggested questions to use when hiring caregivers, investigating theft, and so forth. Overall, this book offers considerable insight into the world of investigators who spend their adult life listening to people lie to them. These days, learning to recognize the sounds and appearance of deception are essential skills even in putatively polite society.

To drive home my point on the limits of informal logic, look at the excellent article on Informal Logic that appears in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ( ). Note that there is no mention of lying, deception, delusion, etc. Informal logic is just not versatile enough to deal with today's politics, propaganda, and pseudo-science. Informal logic may be thought of as a code of conduct for intellectually honest combatants in search of truth. The deception detection methodology explained in Spy the Lie serves more as a referee when objectivity and fair play is unlikely – i.e., mass media and politics.