Epistemology 101

What do we know of another person’s beliefs or intentions? And how can we determine their meaning when we know they are trying to deceive us or even when they know we know they are trying to deceive us?

This is known as an “Expression Game” a term used by Erving Goffman to describe a situation where one individual tries to discover the meaning of information given openly or unwittingly by another or determine the truth of evidence that is intentionally misleading or false.

It is also the problem intelligence agents face in trying to interpret espionage evidence—decoded messages, overheard conversations, or discoveries. Frankly, it isn’t so different from the dilemma those of us who are not spies face in trying to figure out the meaning of what other people do or say.

In the May 10th issue of The New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell treats this issue in a dazzling review of Ben Macintyre’s “brilliant and almost absurdly entertaining Operation Mincemeat.” In 1943 a male corpse was discovered off the coast of southwest Spain; the corpse was dressed in a uniform and was carrying an attaché case fastened to his waist. His papers revealed he was a member of the British Royal Marines. Eventually the contents of the case made their way to German intelligence agents.

The documents revealed the Allied forces were planning a major two-prong invasion from their bases in North Africa to Greece and Sardinia. What to make of this information? To believe it or not? Could it be a deception designed to mislead the Germans about the true location of the invasion? Or could it, in fact, reveal the actual location? Or could it have no relevance at all to the location of the Allied attack?

Various factors went into the way this information was presented to the German commanders, not all them designed in the best interests of the German forces. The hidden agendas of the cast of characters described in Operation Mincemeat is vividly summarized by Gladwell. In the end Hitler and his advisors concluded the documents were believable whereupon they alerted their forces and transferred a Panzer division from France to the Peloponnese.

In fact, the documents were fake, planted by imaginative British intelligence agents to lure the Germans into diverting their troops from Sicily, the eventual location of the invasion of over 160,000 Allied soldiers, thousands of frigates, mine sweepers, heavy guns, tanks in July of 1943. Operation Mincemeat was a total fiction from start to finish. As Gladwell notes, “the Germans had fallen victim to one of the most remarkable deceptions in modern military history.”

(I was amused to learn from Gladwell that Operation Mincemeat was based on a work of fiction that was read another novelist who worked for British intelligence and approved by a committee headed by yet another novelist!)

Why didn’t the Germans examine more critically the evidence? Was it believable, was it true? In retrospect, there were good reasons to believe it was a total fabrication. The doctor who had examined Martin, failed to detect any fish or crab bites that are usually found in a body when it is washed up on shore. Martin’s hair was not brittle, also observed when a body has been submerged for a while. And the same holds for his clothes, which didn’t appear to have been in the water for very long. Apparently none of these “red flags” were taken seriously considered by the Germans.

The issue that Gladwell describes so well is one of interpreting the meaning of espionage evidence like this that is “inherently ambiguous.” It is really no different that interpreting the meaning of anything someone says to you. Are they telling the truth? Are they trying to deceive or mislead you? Do they even know what they believe or if they will continue to believe it tomorrow?

In discussing another espionage case, Gladwell puts it this way, “…Germany’s spies told their superiors that something was true that may indeed have been true, though maybe wasn’t, or maybe was true for a while and not true for a while…Looking at that track record, you have to wonder if Germany would have been better off not having any spies at all.”

Gladwell wonders “…if you cannot know what is true and what is not, how on earth do you run a spy agency?”

And he concludes with sound advice for all of us: “The next time a briefcase washes up onshore, don’t open it.”