Tuesday, July 11, 2006

credibility and the emergence of probability

Eager to know why Zidane head-butted Materazzi, I'm also skeptical of reports. The situation is ripe for exploitation by media and special-interest groups. There are millions of people who want to know why he did it and, with Zidane silent and Materazzi unlikely to speak frankly, how are the press to supply the void? Yesterday, we had interviews with Zidane's coach, his long-time mentor, and others. More interestingly, there were claims from a human-rights group and a lip-reader that Materazzi used a racial/ethnic slur to the effect that Zidane, son of a whore, was a dirty Islamic terrorist. Another report, based on supposedly reliable sources said Materazzi said Zidane's sister was a prostitute. Today, Materazzi gives comprehensive denial, with a tiny bit of supporting evidence. Zidane remains silent. Sifting what little real evidence there is, I imagine the truth is not far from Materazzi's version. Materazzi says, according to La Gazetta dello Sport via Eurosport,"I held his shirt for a few seconds only, he turned to me, looked at me from top to bottom with utmost arrogance (and said): 'if you really want my shirt, I'll give it to you afterwards'. I answered him with an insult. It was the type of insults that we've heard before so many times on the pitch, and sometimes we don't even notice it. What's sure is that I never called him a terrorist: I am not cultured and I don't even know what an islamic terrorist is. My sole terrorist is her...," added Materazzi pointing at his 10-month-old daughter sleeping next to him during the interview. "I certainly did not talk about Zidane's mother. For me, mothers are sacred." It's just about impossible to believe Materazzi is ignorant of Islamic terrorism, but the rest seems plausible. Another Italian paper says he would not have called Zidane "son of a whore" because he lost his own mother he was only 14.

Afterthought: The subject of this blog entry comes from a book on my table at work: The Emergence of Probability by Ian Hacking (Camb UP, 1975). Hacking's focus is the discovery of mathematical methods for estimating outcomes (as in gambling or predicting weather) but his sub-text is our need to refer to authority for the facts we accumulate as knowledge vs. our need to weigh what appear to be authoritative statements to determine the probability of factual truths (as juries are asked to do in court cases). Another book on my table is much better-known, A Social History of Truth by Steven Shapin, which deals with the topic in a broader context.

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