How to Bounded Distrust

Scott Alexander points out that the media, from The New York Times to Infowars, very rarely lies explicitly and directly.

Alas, the media often misleads. It implies and insinuates that which is not. It abuses the language. It selectively omits. It is highly motivated by partisanship and ideology and its own interests. It does not do or understand the research. It is terrible at interpreting science. It confuses cause and effect. It purports to use technically accurate data to show, even prove, conclusions known to be false, in ways that are designed to mislead and obviously in bad faith.

Nor does it much care.

They cite someone else, and claim this excuses them from all responsibility. All they said was ‘police say this guy is guilty’ or ‘this ‘expert’ found irregularities he says shows fraud.’

The rules are not what they used to be.

Then there are the op-ed pages and headlines, which are far worse.

This leads to a situation of Bounded Distrust, which I analyze at length here. I then work through some examples here. If you want to think about the problem in detail, start at these links.

A shorter, more practical version was needed.

This attempts to offer that. It leaves a lot out. Consider reading the long version.

What are the Rules?

Some special rules about the headline. They also apply to op-eds. Headlines are:

  1. Not chosen by the author.
  2. Allowed to lie.
  3. Allowed to blatantly contradict the article’s content.
  4. Laying out a Narrative the source wants you to believe.

The body of a news article is more reliable. The rules are simple. The article:

  1. Has a Narrative, likely revealed by the headline.
  2. Is not allowed to lie, in a way that could count as being physically falsified.
  3. Is not allowed to assert facts without reliable sources.
  4. Is allowed to do almost anything else.
  5. Is often part of an implicit conspiracy to suppress true information or spread false information, without explicit denial of the true info or explicit claims of the false info.
  6. Is allowed to repeat any claim if it attributes that claim to its source.
  7. Can call anyone an expert. Expert consensus means three people. ‘Some investors’ and similar phrases mean two (as does ‘surrounded by.’)
  8. Is allowed to withhold or not seek relevant information, selectively quote, frame, insinuate, imply, condemn via association, misconstrue. This includes calling true things lies or ‘misinformation’ if they imply disliked things.
  9. Is allowed to change meanings of words in different contexts or over time.
  10. Will draw conclusions in ways that defy logic, or that would be obvious errors to anyone with ordinary skill in the art. This is allowed.
  11. Can and will find an ‘expert’ to support anything they want.
  12. Will maximallyshape the story to fit the Narrative and reality tunnel.
  13. Will face potential negative reputational and other consequences for breaking these rules, and sometimes choose to break all of them.
  14. Won’t face consequences for breaking these rules if everyone else is also breaking them to the same degree in similar spots.
  15. Will face other negative consequences for insufficient Narrative support.

When the expected consequences of rule breaking exceed any plausible benefits from breaking the rules, you can mostly trust that the rules above are followed.

When the stakes are so high that the consequences could be seen as worth paying for either the reporter or the outlet, they might do that, which can be called Using the One Time. You must be extra careful.

The reporter is allowed to lie in order to get the story, the way a cop can lie during their investigation. Both often do so.

Three Approaches to What to Do About This

As described in the long version, now that you roughly know the rules the media uses, there are three general approaches.

  1. Careful reading of media in combination with other sources.
  2. Stop caring so much about the news unless it impacts you physically.
  3. Outsource the work to some combination of other sources, including here.

The remainder of the post is a guide to using the first strategy, when it is needed.

Consider the Source

There is no getting around the need to consider and examine the original source.

For each source at all levels, and each class of source, one must track what rules they can be assumed to be following.

Any superficially credible source screwing up and endorsing a statement can start an information cascade no one will feel responsible for. See the origins of the false ‘more athletes died in the last year than in the last 38 years’ claim. This type of logic-washing does not only applies to one side.

As long as the direct source is named, the original (primary) ‘source’ could be mistaken, lying, non-credible. Circular citations are a thing. E.g. Wikipedia cites X, Y cites Wiki, Z cites Y, Wiki cites Z instead of X, everyone forgets who X was, and Y and Z are media. Or the original source is selectively quoted. Within the rules.

As long as they quote their source, nothing more is required. There is zero obligation for media to verify their source is not spouting Obvious Nonsense.

If the source is a politician, assume they lie, about everything, all the time.

Some sources, especially governments and corporations, have different rules, and in some contexts engage in bounded lying where they shift expectations a fixed amount in a positive direction. This is where ‘good harvest’ means ‘we will all starve’ and ‘glorious harvest’ means ‘good harvest.’ Watch out for Using the One Time.

Also examine the direct source. The media outlet or reporter will, on rare occasions, choose to ‘say that which is not’ and take the consequences. Ask: Do they see the stakes as high enough to consider this? If yes for the reporter but not the outlet, would the editors and fact checkers catch it?

Logical Implications

The old Soviet joke is that Pravda always lies and so it is useful, whereas The New York Times is not as useful because it sometimes tells the truth.

Once you realize articles are sculpted to be maximally supportive of Narrative, it becomes possible to read them as a Soviet would Pravda. Every word is present for a reason.

A stronger version, with less qualifications or weasel words, would have been against the rules. This tells you where you are at.

Every piece of evidence that was found and helps the Narrative will be present. It will be taken out of context, sculpted, engineered to do this to the extent possible.

Every known detail that is not present would not support the Narrative, or at least would not support it sufficiently to justify the space necessary to include it.

Odd word choices (given the house style) are not coincidences. The standard word choice could not be used. The lack of direct statements can be very strong evidence. Pay attention to Exact Words, the use of weasel words, the Law of No Evidence and Suspiciously Specific Denials.

‘Legal reasons’ can also explain such choices.

Drawing vague flimsy associations between the target and Bad People tells you that this was the best they could do.

The choice to write the article or say anything at all is also a choice. Ask why.

This is similar to when a lawyer cannot tell you to do something that carries any legal risk, or someone is avoiding providing medical care or advice. Think about what they are being careful not to say.

This is a very different Bayesian calculus. Notice what is missing or unsaid and what qualifiers could not be left out. Ask why is this being told to me rather than something else.

Where this leads to a ‘that’s funny’ investigate further.

When you see the kinds of attacks and tricks the rules favor, that’s all they have.

For non-media sources, one must figure out what rules set applies and act accordingly.

Not that simple. The problem gets easier with practice, but is anti-inductive.

For further reading: On Bounded Distrust, An Exercise in Bounded Distrust.

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14 Responses to How to Bounded Distrust

  1. N says:

    Local sports are an awesome example. Your team is always the best, losses are flukes, a bad season is “good” a good season is “glorious” a great season consumes the entire newspaper for a week.

  2. michealvassar says:

    How is “ Is allowed to change meanings of words in different contexts or over time.” not itself unlimited carte-blanche to lie? The Washington Post example from Scott’s post, where asking people if they used drugs is called a ‘drug test’, seems to me that it would definitely qualify for a perjury conviction in a court.

    For bounded distrust to be a thing, either that example has to be considered a lie or some boundary has to be conceived of which allows it without allowing everything?

    Also, in my experience, physically disconfirmable lies are things in the mainstream press. Quotes are recorded and then changed drastically in publications, for instance.

    Most importantly, the unwritten rules have been changing quickly while the written ones are long discarded. If one is always six months behind in one’s expectations and they are out to get you, and they are very much out to get you, just say no. Sadi with great sadness and awareness that this is a massive disaster despite the situation having always been pretty awful.

    • TheZvi says:

      SA claimed that in the comments to his post, he looked for concrete examples of outright falsehoods and could not find them. I have seen claims of flat out false quotations but have no concrete examples. If we want to show that such false quotes are common, we will need concrete (and ideally provable) examples.

      I do not sense that the situation is still decaying rapidly. I also notice the tension between ‘they already can do anything they want and outright lie all the time’ and ‘things are rapidly getting worse.’

      As for word meaning changes, there are rules to how far that can go, and to what extent the different meanings need various forms of support. They cannot simply decide green means purple on their own. However that is a long high-effort post to explain in detail.

      • michealvassar says:

        “ Washington Post – saying that only 0.01% of welfare users tested positive for drugs. If true, welfare recipients would use drugs at less than 1% of the rate of the general population – and, the articles heavily implied – conservatives worried about people spending their welfare money on drugs were therefore unscientific and bigoted. None of the stories mentioned that the “test” was just asking the welfare recipients whether they were taking drugs, with the threat of taking their welfare away if they said yes, and no attempt to check whether or not they were lying. A few of the articles mentioned a different attempt at urine drug tests, which only a few recipients failed – but didn’t mention that they had the option of not taking the drug tests and that many people (probably including all the drug users) chose not to take it. Some would say this is important context! But again, there are no outright lies – 0.01% was the true result of this (very stupid) test.”

        That’s pretty close to green being purple.

  3. michealvassar says:

    “This Is Not a Coincidence Because Nothing Is Ever a Coincidence“ needs a sequence. Along with “never attribute to malice” and “once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action” and some clarity about what categories apply to those enumerations.

    Above all, know who the enemy is, and what it’s the enemy of.

    • TheZvi says:

      Might be good for you to keep a document listing all the things you think need posts (or sequences) for them. I’ve started one. Capacity to write such things is limited, we must choose.

  4. Skivverus says:

    Should probably note that deriving information from “this is the strongest they could say” is not an uncommon linguistic practice; Paul Grice and “conversational implicature” are key search terms there.

    Arguably that’s why the media has as much success as it does in the first place when it comes to misleading – the rules may have changed for the worse from what they were before *in media*, but the misleading comes from the differences in rules from ordinary conversation, which people* don’t have the bandwidth to switch out of.
    *Insert standard people-are-diverse/some-do-some-don’t qualifiers as necessary.

  5. This framework seems generally correct, but I’m not sure the media is allowed to call absolutely anyone an “expert”; I suspect there are some implicit rules to that process, and those rules might vary by what kind of media outlet it is.

    • Thor says:

      On the one hand, I think you are probably technically correct in that almost all the time the ‘expert’ has some form of credentials (or at least claims to have them…), but in practice whatever the internal ‘rules’ are, I would bet substantial money that an experienced journalist could find an ‘expert’ for literally any quote – and for any topic prominent in the zeitgeist it probably wouldn’t even take them more than a minute.
      P.s. AFAICT the ‘rules’ seem to be ‘has an undergraduate degree’ OR ‘has a job title that seems relevant’ which is an extremely wide net, though in practice the default seems to be to have a few go-to think tanks for each side of the CW, who professionally provide the sought-after quotes.

  6. scpantera says:

    I wonder if, in this framework, Gamergate in late 2014 was games journalism trying to cash in their One Time so hard and failing so badly that it ended up being large part of how we got to where we are now, given that it triggered culture journalism being put under a sharper magnifying glass and resulted in a lot of chips being cashed in all the way up the media chain to push a Narrative that it Definitely Wasn’t About Journalism.

    Circa 2016 I would have been skeptical of the idea that it spawned the alt-right and led to Trump but I’m less certain now, not in that the movement was especially conservative or pushed people that direction but in that it really did open a lot of new eyes to journalism-as-Narrative-crafting.

  7. AnonCo says:


    I wonder if you could watch this short video and tell me if you think it maps well to your model of Bounded Distrust?

    I have found it extremely useful in Labeling the Cast of Characters involved if I am trying to get to the bottom of a particular “Bounded Distrust” story.

    It feels like a quick/easy model to map Narratives and their motivations.

    (Yes, I know how you feel about him, but please give it a chance anyway.)

    If it’s Obviously Wrong, could you tell me why?

    • TheZvi says:

      I generally HATE watching videos in these spots but did manage to get the jist here since it’s pretty straightforward. I’d say there is no inherent incompatibility, but it also doesn’t map. All ‘four quadrants’ here – either model being useful or not useful – would make sense.

      Whether or not the EW model here is net useful, I am guessing, depends on where are starting from and whether you take it too seriously. If you have a sufficiently good understanding already, it seems more likely to mislead than help. If you have no idea that there is a Narrative (here GIN) at all, it is helpful, but also seems framed in a way that it pipelines you in directions that would, by default, not go great.

    • magic9mushroom says:

      I think that particularly since the popularisation of social media, this framing of the Narrative as exogenous doesn’t really hold up. I won’t say the rent-seekers don’t exist – obviously they do – but I don’t think they’re in control. They’re exploiting a pre-existing narrative, not creating it.

      The so-called “dupes” are the ones running the whole show. There’s no Inner Party.

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