A Richer Concept of Ground Truth

In a previous post, I explored the role people play as “social sensors” in the generation of “ground truth.” A colleague of mine, Ross MacDonald, who is co-authoring a book with me about collective leadership in the non-profit sector, suggested that ground truth is a far richer concept than what I had explained in my posting. He offered to write a series of “articles” about ground truth that would provide different ways of seeing how this concept could be understood and applied in diverse social settings. Because ground truth is so essential to healthy adaptation in social systems and is integral to the design of successful frameworks for change, his offer could not have been more timely and appreciated. What follows is the posting of his first article. I thank you in advance for giving his ideas careful consideration. We both look forward to your comments! And now, Ross…

In his aforementioned blog posting, Steve Bosserman provides a brief but thoughtful definition of ground truth in a predominantly social context. This response is the first in a series of short articles exploring more fully the concept of ground truth. The entries are based on my work creating sustainable links within and among community groups, government entities, businesses, education, and individual – especially those people who have been historically ignored or poorly served. This first entry looks closely at the term “ground truth” in order to further sensitize our understanding of its applications to adaptive learning in social systems.

Ground truth refers to the information provided by people and instruments on site which assesses the accuracy and value of information and inferences derived from more removed sources, such as aerial photographs and satellite imagery. Consider for example that the French seem to be the first to use balloons for military aerial reconnaissance during a conflict with Austria in 1794. We will assume for the moment that a person making observations from a balloon constitutes remote sensing and imagine as well that civilian informants, reconnaissance patrols, and secret agents provided additional data on the ground. Taken together, observations from the scared soul in the balloon and additional reports from those on the ground enabled more effective strategic and tactical adjustments. This deliberate triangulation of information is the fundamental process for seeking ground truth.

Uses of the term ground truth are easily found today in a wide range of fields including agriculture, anthropology, biology, earth sciences, geography, landscape design, library sciences, medicine, music, physics, and zoology. A team of geologists, for example, might physically examine the ground at a specific site to confirm the nature and possible causes of temperature changes detected from satellite imaging. Should the team document a change in underground geothermal activity on site, then the remotely-detected temperature shift is better understood. As remote sensing technology has advanced, it has became less dependent on human operators / observers, leading to an increased demand for humans to do something on site to authenticate data and sharpen inferences. As a result the term ground truth is entering the public parlance.

So the term “ground truth” is both a label for a process and a label for a product. The process of ground truth is to have a person or persons at a given site with instruments so as to verify and sensitize remotely sensed phenomena. The product of ground truth is more accurate and reliable information.

The very label ground truth has appeal – but if understood superficially it is more of an appeal to shallow hubris than to good thinking. The term lays claims to “truth,” and truth, after all, connotes a definitive and irrefutable reality. How satisfying it is to capture the high ground by positioning one’s belief as truth! A famous scene from Woody Allen’s movie “Annie Hall” illustrates. In this scene, Alvy (played by Allen) and his charming girlfriend Annie (Diane Keaton) are waiting in line for a movie. Alvy becomes increasingly annoyed with what he believes are the empty and inaccurate pontifications of a pseudo-intellectual also in line. Alvie, convinced that the pedantic snob is completely mis-representing Marshall McLuhan, enacts an everyman fantasy when he pulls the real Marshall McLuhan (playing himself) from out of a billboard. McLuhan, at Alvie’s direction, beratingly refutes the veracity of the annoying snob, stating “You know nothing of my work!” – much to the satisfaction of Alvie and everyone else who has wished for such a moment.

Ahh, ground truth! However, as subsequent blog entries will explore, this level of truth is indeed elusive. As tempting as Alvie’s triumph is to all of us, we should be skeptical of such absolute truths whether seen in the fiction of a movie, proclaimed from intolerant political or religious pulpits, or announced in scientific press conferences. It is important to distinguish multiple truths and their small “t’s” from “The Truth” and its capital “T.” A future blog entry will reveal the higher value of multiple truths to understanding and improving human social systems over the misleading value of a claim to a single Truth.

The “ground” in the label ground truth also explicitly lays claim to a tempting position: the false pride of being on solid turf in one’s assertions. Being grounded stands in implied contrast to an ethereal disconnection from practical matters. As in Truth with a capital “T,” there is a temptation in the label of “ground” to validate one’s belief by simply planting a sign claiming one owns the Truth. Very familiar but counterproductive language often accompanies such hollow claims: “I’ve been doing this for thirty years and believe you me . . .” In this kind of claim, a person is essentially saying, “because I am more grounded than anyone else” (“thirty years doing this”), “my truth is The Truth” (“believe you me”). By falsely laying claim to the most solid ground, this kind of approach attempts to gain validity by rendering other truths invalid. Such a mixture of brute power with self-aggrandizing opinions is directly antithetical to the search for multiple perspectives and more sophisticated reasoning about them which characterizes ground truth inquiry.

An interesting case is Lloyd Bentson’s famous retort to Dan Quayle’s self-comparison to John F. Kennedy during the October 1988 vice presidential debate. Bentsen’s ground truth about the comparison? “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Bentsen grounds his position by reminding us that he “served with”, “knew” and was friends with Kennedy. Although the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket suffered a landslide loss, Bentsen struck a public chord. Many people and certainly many democrats believed as well that Quayle paled in comparison to JFK. Bentsen’s remark aligned with the less dramatically staged opinions of many others, profoundly stigmatizing Quayle’s vice presidency. But we must remember that regardless of what one thinks of Quayle and regardless of how well Bentsen positioned his analysis; Bentsen’s statement was only one observation from one source. That so many agreed with it and that it had such a profound effect derives from the alignment of all those ground truths, not just from Bentsen’s moment on stage.

Ground truth refers to both a product and a process which, despite potential for prideful misappropriation, is of tremendous value for improving organized human activities.

At its best, ground truth labels a set of practices by which multiple sources yield better knowledge and so empower humans to adapt and improve their practices. This is the very work we do in my company, ground truth consulting. In my next entry, I will discuss particular ground truth processes and underlying ethical principle by discussing two specific projects: a Himalayan eco-tourism project in the north of India and an upcoming, collaboratively produced book on academic leadership.

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Tuesday, January 10, 2006

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