Sunday, March 20, 2005

Seeing the Truth 

We've known for some time that one can no longer trust pictures. The advent of Adobe Photoshop allowed unlimited image manipulation for good and ill.

But pictures are powerful, and people fall regularly into the trap of believing that what they see is true. This is an issue PR practitioners deal with constantly. Political spinmeisters are forever finding the right backdrops for Presidential appearances, the right kind of middle-income family to use as a TV example, the visually perfect "weeper" for the climactic moment of a hearing or speech.

Thus, it was refreshing to read last Friday a Science Journal piece in The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) that details how scientists and laypersons alike are being fooled by visuals of brain scans.

Neuroimaging such as PET and fMRI are seducing laypeople and scientists alike into believing we know more than we do about how and why we think, feel and behave, some scientists say. The power of brain imaging, says Frank Keil, a Yale University psychology professor, reflects "the illusion of explanatory depth. If people see something, they are often deluded into thinking they understand it better than they really do."

That is a wonderful indictment of what many PR practitioners do (including myself) -- making superficial visual explanations of things beyond the understanding of laypersons. We believe we can simplify complex processes into meaningful pictures -- and we do. But, time and again, we go too far, and we simplify into falsehood. Sometimes this is unwitting but regrettably, too often it is a conscious decision. The worst outcome of such willed error is that we justify it as defending a client.

It is good to know that science tangles with the issue of visual explanation as much as we do in PR. But, it is a warning that even the sophisticated can be misled by a strong image. There is no substitute for accuracy in the end, whether visual or not.


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