I was on NPR's Morning Edition yesterday, talking about health care fraud and in one of the quotes they ended up using I talk about ground-truthing.
The term "ground-truthing" comes from my period working on roadless forest conservation issues. When you "ground truth" a timber cut or a proposed forest service sale, you put on a pack and hike 12 miles up the mountain to see if what has been said on paper has even the most remote resemblance to the truth. Not too surprisingly, you often find that a timber cut is larger on the ground than was permitted on paper, and it has also been "accidentally" moved uphill 500 yards so that more large trees fall to saw and chain than were actually bid for. Whoops!
But, of course, it's never a mistake. Humans are predators -- you just have to look at our face to know that. Predators have eyes that face forward so so they can judge distance when they strike for the kill. Prey animals have eyes on the side, so they can increase their field of vision, and see the predators coming. Humans are predators.
But like all predators, we are opportunistic feeders. Going after anything too big, or too vicious, or that will strike back with force and fury is maladaptive.
So we cheat on the sly, and we try to make checking hard because someone will either have to hike 12 miles up the mountain, or else they will have to go through 2 million records looking for the cheat, or else they will have to risk losing their job and their career if they are foolish enough to go to the authorities.
And what happens when companies lie, steal and cheat? If the fraud is not caught, it's fobbed on to the backs of nameless, faceless taxpayers like us. If the fraud is caught, the fines are fobbed off on nameless, faceless stockholders. Either way, almost no one inside the corporation who actually designed, operationalized, or green lighted a really big fraud being done by a really big company ever goes to jail, ever pays a personal fine, or even loses their job. And the result? While we recover billions of our stolen dollars every year, this sum represents only a small fraction of what is being stolen, and the behavior itself it not immediately and personally penalized in a meaningful way, which means the essential conduct continues, virtually unabated.