Friday, August 6, 2010

The question of credibility

A friend writes that she does not understand why Floyd Landis is being disparaged by attorneys representing Lance Armstrong who have labeled him a non-credible witness. She sees Landis and his verbose confessions and accusations as the soul of believability. She wants my perspective on why he is being labeled as lacking in credibility.

Well, for a start (I think of responding), he was a user himself. It’s like a thief who gets caught and who decides to take down every other thief with him, especially the one who got the largest share of the pot. A lack of credibility seems built in to his canary-like performance. How to tell whether he has suddenly become a fount of honesty and decency? And if he has, what motivated such an outpouring in the first place? And of course, the most damning question, would Landis be emptying his guts to his inquisitors if he had not himself been caught, or would he have remained silent, complicit, motivated by greed?

So yes, I do side with those who are questioning his credibility. But that does not mean that he is not speaking the truth. For me these are separate issues. Is Floyd Landis a credible reporter? No, he is much too compromised by his own failings for that to ever be possible. Does this mean that he is not speaking the truth? Of course he may be speaking the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And if he is truth-telling, then I want to see those Tour de France medals publicly ripped from Lance Armstrong’s insufferable neck as he gets hounded into becoming a nonentity.

I guess there’s no chance now that FRS or Livestrong will consider sponsoring my blog. Oh well. I will nevertheless continue to support both products. Because even the most horrible people sometimes generate great ideas or put out great products.

But the real focus of this entry is on the psychology of credibility. To develop this, I did a journal search at the extensive online library at work and discovered that there is actually a ‘Journal of Credibility Assessment and Witness Psychology’. I actually think that this is a neat idea for a scholarly journal and I wish its developers well. Unfortunately my workplace does not subscribe. But then I googled it when I got home and lo and behold there it was, free for anyone with the internet, its entries pitifully few and far between. No wonder my bosses refuse to pay.

In an entry dated 1997, two researchers address the issue of the detection of concealed information or deception. They note the well-known limits of traditional polygraph testing and discuss how this can be enhanced with certain psychological and neurological tools. Unfortunately, it is probably inadmissible to hook Lance Armstrong up to the kind of technology that might give us a non-obfuscated view of his soul. And I can’t see him volunteering for such an experience, can you?

And besides, polygraphs have become the tools of discarded mistresses who rush to tell (sell?) Gloria Allred and TMZ their latest exploits with the hunk from Bones, waving their polygraph printouts as proof that he did indeed bone them every which way from Sunday. Polygraphs get such little respect.

Most professional sporting organizations now seem to focus more on the prevention of illegal doping than on its detection. The thinking seems to be that it is probably easier to prevent sports players from doping by subjecting them to frequent and random drug-testing, than it is to detect the presence in their bodies of enhanced blood properties that may get assimilated into their systems and become undetectable by the time the match is over. This is why Belgian tennis players Yanina Wickmayer and Xavier Malisse were both levied a year’s suspension for failing to report their whereabouts for unannounced drug-testing on three separate occasions.

I personally support these types of interventions and penalties. I accept that cheaters will always try to cheat. And while labs are working hard to develop techniques to detect illegal blood or serum transfusions, other secret labs are probably working even harder to find ways for such illegal activity to remain undetected. Sporting agencies like the ITF have no choice but to do like helicopters and hover over these professionals, surprising them at any moment for a cup of urine or a vial of blood.

But with all of this I have said little about the psychology of credibility.

Psychologists believe that credibility has two components: one refers to the trustworthiness of the individual, and the other to her or his level of expertise. But someone’s level of trustworthiness is often a subjective variable. And just because someone has the right credentials does not mean that he or she is to be trusted. Besides, too many research studies have shown that we tend to believe attractive people over less attractive ones, which is why TV and print ads are chuck full of gorgeous models trying to persuade us to buy things that we really do not need.

Clearly the field of credibility is a murky one at best. I’m going to leave it up to the brave souls at Boise University to keep us informed of their findings. In the meantime, here's my perspective for what it's worth. No, I do not think that Floyd Landis is a credible witness. Yes, I do believe that he is speaking the truth. And for me, both of these factors can easily co-exist. How's that for a conundrum?


STANFORD, CA - JULY 28: Yanina Wickmayer of Belgium returns a shot against Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia during Day 2 of the Bank of the West Classic at Stanford University on July 28, 2010 in Stanford, California. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

1 comment:

happygeek said...

great post!