My Problem with PR

(Sniiiiifff.) Smell that? That, my friends, is the smell of free time. Or, well, free-er time. We are all well aware of the economic truth that there is no such thing as a free lunch. But we all too often forget its opportunity cost corollary, there is no such thing as free time. And with the end of the semester, my opportunity costs have reduced to the level that I can now afford such luxuries as…spending time with my children. And blogging!
It’s not a lot, but it’s my life.
As you might imagine, quite a few burrs have built up under my saddle. So please pardon me if it takes a while to catch up with the news. (Just sing “Time Warp” in your head every time you log on. Fishnet and heels entirely optional.) And what has my dander up today is Hillary Clinton’s claims to the Democratic nomination.

Now, let me first point out that I don’t have a dog in this hunt (translation for Yankees: I have no interest in the outcome). What bothers me is that Hillary and her campaign have gone to great lengths to emphasize that she won “the big states,” that she won in states with a lot of electoral votes, or states that Democrats have to win in order to succeed, such as Ohio, Florida, Michigan, and Texas. This claim is disingenuous, to say the least. (Well, “dumb” would probably be the least number of letters, but you know what I mean.)
On the one hand, these claims make no sense because Hillary didn’t necessarily beat Barack Obama in all of them. He wasn’t on the ballot in one of them, and didn’t campaign in another because the party had already excommunicated it. But more importantly, they are nonsense, because Hillary didn’t win those states—she won Democratic primaries in those states.
And much as Bill Clinton was right that the person who won the South Carolina primary did not go on to win the party’s nomination (much as he was wrong for the way he said it), many people have won their party’s primary in a state without carrying the state in the general election. Need an example? Pick a state (outside of Minnesota) that Walter Mondale carried in the Democratic primary in 1980. So long as people in the party prefer their party’s candidate to the other party’s, they’ll vote for them—and that works more in Obama’s favor than Hillary’s.
The real question in carrying a state, though, is whether independents will vote for that candidate over the other party’s. And the Clinton campaign doesn’t want people to think about that question, because once again, the answer favors Obama. And this leads me to my problem with PR.
The art of public relations, like any other thing, is inherently neither good nor bad. It is a tool, and we may use it or abuse it. If we define public relations as the art of putting your best foot forward, it is a good thing. It is, or should be, diplomacy—saying unpleasant truths as pleasantly as possible.
So far, so good. But there is a thin line between many things, and among them is putting the truth gently and molding it to be more gentle. I suppose the analogy is between setting a porcelain cup down gently and gluing rubber to the bottom—or putting it in a box surrounded by foam rubber so that no one can find or use it. And too often, trying to put the facts in a good light comes down to what the meaning of good is. And to define good, we have to define a purpose.
So if our purpose is to promote knowledge, we will work on the means of delivering the message, without compromising the message itself. If our purpose is to make our life better—to convince someone of something, so that they will act the way we wish—then we will start to manipulate the material, and not just the medium.
The problem I have with this is that the whole purpose of science is to discover truth by exposing everything to criticism. Whatever is left after the collision of ideas is kept as being at least provisionally true. When there is instead a collusion of ideas, and some are kept from the playing field in order to cast better light on one that is, we all suffer.
Let me give you an example. In one of my classes, we read The Skeptical Environmentalist, by Björn Lomborg. Lomborg discusses what he calls The Litany, the list of claims environmentalists make to rally us to action, and “debunks” it, showing that its claims are either complete fabrications or based on only partial evidence. So, in relation to cancer rates, for example, he adjusts cancer rates (number of incidences) to account for increases in population and life span, as well as tobacco use—to show that pesticides can’t be causing an increase in cancer rates, since the rate is declining (the highly carcinogenic ones already having been banned).
But our students had trouble distinguishing between what Lomborg was doing and what those making the claims were doing. They saw both as equally culpable of manipulating data. But Lomborg adds data so that the numbers actually reflect what the others imply it does. They omit information to make an implication the data doesn’t actually support. And I can’t help but think that the constant effort to manipulate the truth leaves people unable to know the truth, as it all becomes suspect.
Ah, there it is. The problem I have with PR is that it leads to postmodernism. So remember: PR doesn’t kill the truth, postmodernism does.