Does CBS News mean it?

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According to CBS News ("Did Hillary Mean It?", 8/27/2008):

In her speech to the Democratic convention Tuesday night, Hillary Clinton urged fellow Democrats to vote for Barack Obama, and she did it in no uncertain terms — verbally.

But did her body language match her words?

Body language expert and former FBI agent Joe Navarro says he doesn't think so.

Navarro, who is the author of several popular books on body language, told the co-anchor Maggie Rodriguez on today's Morning Show that in Clinton's speech, "the gestures — the non-verbals that give us the emotion — really weren't there." For example, he said that

"One of the things that you see is she has very limited hand gestures. And we look for hand gestures to tell us what's important. So, when we see them out, when we see them up, this is significant. And we saw them just a few times last night, but not enough. This was not an impassioned speech."

In fact, Navarro's most recent book says (p. 226) that " lack of arm movement and lack of emphasis are suggestive of deception."

But neither Navarro nor CBS give us any numbers, And I happen to have a free half hour, so even though it's the middle of the afternoon, let's do a little Breakfast Experiment™.

Example #1: Hillary Clinton's speech to the DNC Convention in Denver, [date], on YouTube here.

She starts the speech around 3:39, and I counted what looked to me like significant hand gestures for ten minutes, up to 13:39. My count  of 55 is probably low, since the camera often cut away from her, or showed her just from the shoulders up.

Example #2: Hillary Clinton's Super Tuesday speech, 2/5/2008, available on YouTube here.

She finally quiets the crowd and gets started on her speech at about 0:52. In the next ten minutes, I counted 31 significant hand gestures.

Your mileage may vary — for example, in neither clip did I count gestures where she just shifted her hands on the podium, shuffled her papers, etc.; and when she made a gesture involving a continuous repeated or oscillatory motion, I counted the whole thing as a single gesture rather than registering a separate count for each oscillation.

However, I think it's very unlikely that a recount will show a lower rate of hand gestures in Denver last night, compared to Super Tuesday in New York.

So what does this result — 5.5 gestures/minute in Denver, vs. 3.1 gestures/minute in New York — mean to Mr. Navarro and to Maggie Rodriguez, who interviewed him on the CBS News Early Show?

Well, the plain implication of the experiment, if you believe what Mr. Navarro says about hand gestures, is that Senator Clinton was *more* sincere and *more* impassioned in Denver than in New York. But obviously Navarro and Rodriguez don't believe that. For Rodriguez, it wouldn't fit the procrustean narrative that she (along with the rest of the mass media) have decided to impose on current events. And in Navarro's case, I don't imagine that he has much of an opinion one way or the other; he's just playing the role of supplying expert support for the current journalist narrative, while plugging his latest book.

If Navarro or Rodriguez believed the business about hand gestures, and cared about the truth of the matter, presumably they'd have counted — or at least, had some of the (I suppose) dozens of CBS News interns and production assistants do the counting. The fact that they didn't suggests a variant on the old joke:

Q: How do you tell when ___ is lying?
A: Their lips are moving.

This is unfair, because people like Maggie Rodriguez are certainly not lying, in the sense of saying things that they know to be false. Rather, they apparently just don't care, one way or the other, whether what they say is true.

This conforms exactly to the category of speech acts for which the philosopher Harry Frankfurt has proposed the technical term bullshit:

What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.

This is the crux of the distinction between him and the liar. Both he and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. The success of each depends upon deceiving us about that. But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.

So you'd have to amend the joke to start: "How do you know when a network co-anchor is bullshitting?"

The study of gesture is complicated, and serious gestural transcription is difficult. I can't rule out the possibility that there might be ways to characterize and quantify the gestures in Senator Clinton's Denver speech that would support the conclusions in the CBS story, and I can't be sure that Mr. Navarro isn't basing his opinions on some (intuitive and informal) analysis of this kind.

My own intuitive and informal impression didn't agree — I thought that Senator Clinton gave a good performance, and presented every appearance of sincerity and enthusiasm, within the range of emotional states that she generally deploys. I freely admit that I might be wrong about this. Maybe there's a way to code her gestures and body language that would show that she really didn't mean it, or didn't mean us to believe that she meant it, or something like that. But I very much doubt that Joe Navarro has evidence that would convince me. More important, I'm pretty sure that Maggie Rodriguez doesn't actually care a bit one way or the other.

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24 Comments »

  1. Karen said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 3:42 pm

    It's not a good story if she meant it. It's a good story if she and her followers are out to sabotage the party to punish it for not picking her. That's the narrative the networks have decided to tell us. They will not seek evidence either way – you're right.

  2. Carl Ehrett said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 4:13 pm

    I think that this likely is bullshit in Frankfurt's sense, but I'm not certain that's all that's going on here. This also might be a case of a simple lack of epistemic responsibility. That is, if this were pure bullshit, we would expect Rodriguez not to care at all about the truth of her assertions. But it seems entirely plausible (and indeed likely) to me that she both believes what she is saying and would be at least somewhat distressed to learn that her claims are false (even bracketing the practical consequences of being publicly exposed as a bullshitter). However, if she does care about providing truths to her viewers, then she is clearly negligent in her duty to ensure the accuracy of her beliefs and assertions. There can be only a fuzzy line between such negligence and bullshitting, but the line is there.

    Furthermore, when a new reporter asserts P, she is at least implicitly communicating to her audience that she has done the research necessary to justify her assertion that P, such that we her viewers can be confident that P. Even if she believes her bullshit, I expect she realizes that she has not actually done as much research as we her viewers reasonably expect her to have done. Therefore this may also be a case of deception. It seems not to be a lie, however; that she has done sufficient research is only an implicature of her claims. Yet it is surely deceptive.

    So while Rodriguez's claims are very likely bullshit in Frankfurt's sense, they are I think not just bullshit, but epistemically negligent, deceptive bullshit. For Frankfurt, these extra two features seem not to be part of the bullshitting itself. It's an interesting question whether his analysis is correct in that regard. For Frankfurt, it seems that an extremely well-researched reporter could faithfully report her claims and yet still be bullshitting. That seems to me bizarre. I don't imagine I would consider such a reporter to be a bullshitter. Here one might wish to consult bullshit usage data, but that at least is my bullshit intuition.

  3. Maria said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 5:12 pm

    I once attended a talk by a political consultant on public speaking. He emphasized that speakers should try and keep their arms still, as moving them distracts the audience from the verbal message. So even if Hillary wasn't moving her arms, that could just mean that she was following what seems to be common advice among public speaking coaches.

  4. Jonathan said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 5:17 pm

    "I thought that Senator Clinton gave a good performance, and presented every appearance of sincerity and enthusiasm, within the range of emotional states that she generally deploys."

    I agree, but that's sorta the problem. I find her delivery identical when she manifestly believes what she's saying and when she doesn't (I hasten to add that there is exactly zero science to this assessment.) Thus, her speeches become a tabula rasa in where both those who want to see insincerity and those who want to see sincerity will come away satisfied. This makes her (again IMHO) almost uniquely unsuited to persuade anyone in her speeches, while simultaneously remaining popular to those who are predisposed to her.

  5. Bob Calder said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 6:00 pm

    Strictly in the interests of science, did you count gestures in one of John McCain's appearances?

    I am fascinated by the rigid grimace he displays when things aren't going well. I just stare at it and completely lose the thread of what he is saying.

  6. Mark P said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 6:07 pm

    I think she's bullshitting by proxy. It's OK to tell a lie (or push your narrative beyond the facts) if you get someone else to do it.

    As to what Navarro is doing, it strikes me as FBI bull. Take the Atlanta Olympic Park bombing, in which the FBI, using profiling, the currently accepted version of phrenology, decided that an innocent man was the bomber, and despite a lack of evidence, proceeded to trash his reputation in the news media. Is Navarro's analysis of body language any more reliable than profiling? I have my doubts.

  7. gyokusai said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 9:31 pm

    Navarro sez:
    lack of arm movement and lack of emphasis are suggestive of deception.

    I really, really have a hard time imagining any wider context in which this gem of advanced wisdom would actually correspond to what I would call (with Lewis Black) reality.

    ^_^J.

  8. Malvolio said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 11:04 pm

    Strictly in the interests of science, did you count gestures in one of John McCain's appearances?

    Given that McCain has limited mobility in his arms, as a result of years of severe torture by the North Vietnamese, that might not be a fruitful, or well-received, endeavor.

  9. m said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 11:57 pm

    Frankfurts bullshit sounds very similar to Sartre's concept of Bad Faith.

  10. dr pepper said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 2:46 am

    Shouldn't there be some sort of normalization to such analysis?

    So for a beat poet, only total rigidity wold count as limited movement, whereas more than 2 finger snaps to a line would be hyperkinetic.

    On the other hand, for a pentacostal preacher, limited movement would be like only swaying, only waving hands, or only pirouetting, while only crowd surfing would count as excessive.

  11. Joe said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 3:48 am

    > Body language expert and former FBI agent Joe Navarro says he doesn't think so.

    It seems to me that it would be more productive to count Joe Navarro's hand movements. That would also address Malvolio's concern (though you could also compare McCain's hand movements in 2000 to today's).

    Naturally, I sincerely doubt the central premise of this all–that hand movements or counts thereof can function as a means of lie detection–but it seems most productive to destroy the premise via self-contradiction rather than by acting as if it were a well-supported premise.

    Then again, I'm tempted to declare myself an "expert" on pseudobabble and see how much the TV networks will pay me to tell them what they want to hear.

  12. Andy J said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 5:11 am

    As an entirely disinterested (and uninterested) Brit, I wonder what, if any, significance can be drawn from the fact that throughout the main post and comments Mrs Clinton is referred to as 'Senator Clinton', whereas Mr McCain is either 'John McCain' or 'McCain'.

  13. Karen said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 5:53 am

    Umm, actually in the post she's referred to as "Clinton" and "Hillary Clinton" as well, while McCain isn't even mentioned. So your wondering has to be limited to the commenters, none of whom use "Senator" as a title at all, for either person.

    So I have to wonder what precisely you think your point is.

  14. W. Kiernan said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 6:33 am

    In the U.S. there are two prominent political Clintons. When you say "McCain" everybody knows you are talking about The Right Honorable Lieutenant Senator John S. McCain, a former P.O.W. (I hope I've given him enough titles to keep Andy J happy). When you say "Clinton" which one? so you have to add "Senator" or "Hillary."

  15. Matt McIrvin said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 8:39 am

    The main thing that's going on here is that the TV channels and other political media are straining very, very hard to find signs of a disastrous Obama/Clinton split. They love fitting things into predetermined stories, and the relevant stories here are "Democrats Always Tragically Sabotage Themselves" and some notion of Obama as Ziggy Stardust, the outrageous superstar from outer space who is destined ultimately to fall. If it doesn't seem to be happening they'll try to make it happen.

  16. Terry said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 8:43 am

    If politicians only spoke when they were sincere, they would say nothing and get no exercise (from frequent gestures).

  17. Mark Liberman said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 8:54 am

    Andy J: I wonder what, if any, significance can be drawn from the fact that throughout the main post and comments Mrs Clinton is referred to as 'Senator Clinton', whereas Mr McCain is either 'John McCain' or 'McCain'.

    In posts that actually mention Senator McCain, i.e. this one, the terms of reference are roughly the same as in this article. And the treatment in the comments seems similar as well.

    So I think the answer is "none". Or rather, your (implied) question has a failing presupposition.

  18. Richard Hershberger said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 11:07 am

    'They love fitting things into predetermined stories, and the relevant stories here are "Democrats Always Tragically Sabotage Themselves" '

    In fairness, there is solid historical basis for this storyline. This is no excuse for poor reporting, but it is understandable.

    In a related story, America eagerly awaits seeing how the Cubs will fail to get to the World Series this year.

  19. Bob Krauss said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 11:09 am

    The claim about Hillary Clinton seems to rest on the assumption that a low rate of gesturing is associated with deception. I know of no credible empirical evidence to support this assumption, and I doubt that it's true. Gesture rate varies enormously among individuals, and is affected by topic and a variety of state and situational factors.

    I think that "bullshit" (in its generic sense) is a good description of the whole enterprise.

  20. Christy Mason said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 4:11 pm

    This post makes me sad – the thought police have arrived. It doesn't matter what public or written statements are made. Even their actions don't matter. Only their private opinion matters? Whether or not Senator Clinton hates or loves Senator Obama on a personal level, I have to ask, Who cares? How is this news? She could be admire Senator McCain and despise Senator Obama on a personal level, and still disagree with the politics of the one and support the politics of the other. Since when is liking anyone a prerequisite for working with them? Shouldn't everyone, especially politicians, be judged by what they do? I am extremely weary of all these news items that are not news.

  21. chocolate_tort said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 4:23 pm

    "This post makes me sad – the thought police have arrived."

    No one's actually policing Clinton; if anything, it's the thought journalists. I admit, that doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

  22. marie-lucie said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 12:57 am

    What about head motions?

    I spent several years working in a native community in Canada. In addition to conversing with people I heard a lot of speeches on a variety of occasions, delivered with an absolute minimum of gestures: speakers stood like statues with their hands at their sides or behind their backs, and used their voices, not their hands or heads, to help make their point. After I had been there for some time something began to bother me on the few occasions when I watched TV, when staying in a motel in the nearest town. On Sunday mornings there was not much to watch: the choice was limited to one channel showing "Christian" services and singing groups, interspersed with news. I found the young woman reading the news more and more irritating, but it took me some time to realize the reason: she did not move her hands, but she accompanied her reading with rhythmical motions of her head, dipping her head down and bringing it back up on one side in a sweeping motion, as if trying to get her long hair out of the way, alternating her right and left sides after each dip of her head every few seconds. Even worse, watching her I found it hard to resist a compulsion to do the same. I had become accustomed to the motionlessness of speakers around me in the village, and the newsreader's probably unconscious motions, which previously I would have been able to ignore, seemed more and more exaggerated and pointless, and disagreeably contagious.

  23. Biljana said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 5:26 pm

    Gestures, head motions, and "body language" are totally relative to culture, age, gender, context and of course, the individual. Many Asian and First Nations cultures think English-speaker Westerners engage in histrionics when we are going about our daily business, because of the different cultural perceptions of the gestures, range of motion, etc. English-speaking Westerners tend to think the same thing of Latin American, South Europeans, etc. What's more, there is plenty of empirical evidence in inter-cultural (mis)communication to back this up. For the FBI "expert" to say anything totalizing About Arm Movements is indeed bullshit.

  24. Devon Strolovitch said,

    August 31, 2008 @ 1:21 pm

    This week's episode of "Philosophy Talk" with Harry Frankfurt talking about Bullshit last year (http://philosophytalk.org/pastShows/BS.html) is right on the money. Seems like the CBS reporter is utterly indifferent to the truth and only tuned in to whether there's some data (in the loosest possible sense of the term) that reinforces the narrative she's already decided on for her story.

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