Monday, April 11, 2011

Loss of Meaning at the International Monetary Fund

For those of us who prefer plain English to the language of economists, the statement of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), just reported on the BBC News Web site, will probably sound perplexing:

The recovery has solidified, but unemployment remains high.

It turns out that the first clause in this sentence presumes that recovery is based on a single quantitative value, the projected rate of economic growth.  This says nothing about those without jobs, let alone those who have lost their homes through foreclosure and those who cannot make monthly payments necessary for rent and groceries, not to mention health care.

Put another way, this is a usage of the noun “recovery” that is directed at investors (particularly those with large quantities to invest).  Furthermore, it is a forecast, which may or may not be substantiated by the same base of credible data that the weatherman uses every night to tell you whether it will rain the next day.  The difference is that the weatherman is usually sensible enough to advise you on the proper precautions to take.  The IMF does no such thing.  It just puts out a statement about the behavior of numbers that are at best a “fiction of convenience” and seldom pretend to have anything to do with abstractions such as “value” or “quality of life.”

This raises an interesting ontological question, if this episode is to be regarded as a matter of loss of meaning.  If the mission of BBC News is to report relevant news to the general public, is an account of a statement released by the IMF (delivered “raw” without commentary or interpretation) a responsible act of reporting?  One might say that the IMF is sufficiently recognized as a major institution in the financial sector that it would be irresponsible to neglect its forecasts.  However, this takes us down the slippery slope dealing with how most major news organizations chose to “report” (scare quotes intended) about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

I suppose my own opinion is that there is never anything wrong with reporting hard data, but most of those data are incomprehensible.  Thus, the general public is unlikely to get very far with them without mediating interpretation of the data.  The problem with most reporting is that it never makes clear where the data end and the interpreting begins, let alone the who and how of the interpreting process.  (Here in San Francisco we now get television reports that explicitly cite the use of computer models for weather forecasting, even going so far as to use the plural.  The reporters never give details about the models, but at least they are more explicit about the need for interpretation than most “news” reporters.)  Furthermore, even more critical than the who and how is the why of interpreting.  Every human interpreter is a motivated agent.  What we learned from the weapons-of-mass-destruction mess was the extent to which motive can interfere with the reliability of an interpretation.  One would think that a few paragraphs about a statement released by the IMF would be rather innocuous;  but, if we recognize that there are neither explicit data points nor any acknowledgement of interpretative processes in those paragraphs, it seems reasonable to classify even this modest blip on the news wire as irresponsible.

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