Comments and observations on social and political trends and events.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Every Single Cognitive Bias in One Infographic

Every Single Cognitive Bias in One Infographic

This infographic shows the 188 (!) cognitive different biases that can affect how we think and the conclusions we reach.
Science has shown that we tend to make all sorts of mental mistakes, called “cognitive biases”, that can affect both our thinking and actions. These biases can lead to us extrapolating information from the wrong sources, seeking to confirm existing beliefs, or failing to remember events the way they actually happened!
Who says being objective is hard?! 😀 

We're in a permanent coup by Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi doesn't support Trump yet his articles show objectivity that is sadly lacking in the news media. His latest piece, We're in a permanent coup, provides another example.

Early in the article Taibbi lays out his concerns.
My discomfort in the last few years, first with Russiagate and now with Ukrainegate and impeachment, stems from the belief that the people pushing hardest for Trump’s early removal are more dangerous than Trump. Many Americans don’t see this because they’re not used to waking up in a country where you’re not sure who the president will be by nightfall. They don’t understand that this predicament is worse than having a bad president.
The Trump presidency is the first to reveal a full-blown schism between the intelligence community and the White House. Senior figures in the CIA, NSA, FBI and other agencies made an open break from their would-be boss before Trump’s inauguration, commencing a public war of leaks that has not stopped.
Towards the end of his article Taibbi says, 
I don’t believe most Americans have thought through what a successful campaign to oust Donald Trump would look like. Most casual news consumers can only think of it in terms of Mike Pence becoming president. The real problem would be the precedent of a de facto intelligence community veto over elections, using the lunatic spookworld brand of politics that has dominated the last three years of anti-Trump agitation.
Taibbi labels this tug-of-war between Trump and those who want to remove him from office as the Permanent Power Struggle. This is a common theme of Tucker Carlson: that the Democrats lust for power compels them to dispose of Trump who they feel is an illegitimate president.

While I agree with Carlson's point there is a deeper one. Would we even have this perpetual political WrestleMania if the Federal government didn't wield so much power? Would we still have this to-the-death battle to wrest the levers of power from the incumbent party to the political party that lost the previous election? I doubt it!

Monday, October 7, 2019

Persuasion Mode, Demonization Mode - Arnold Kling - Medium

Persuasion Mode, Demonization Mode - Arnold Kling - Medium

In the linked article Arnold Kling distinguishes between two modes of political discourse: persuasion mode versus demonization mode.

In persuasion mode, we treat people on the other side with respect, we listen to their logical and factual presentations, and we respond with logical and factual presentations of our own. In demonization mode, we tell anyone who will listen that people on the other side are awful human beings.

Later in the article Kling poses the following reasons why we tend to demonize people who disagree with us politically.

As individuals, we seek to minimize cognitive dissonance. It troubles me to believe that there are good reasons for people to disagree with my views. The dissonance goes away if I can dismiss those who disagree as driven solely by bad motives.

As social creatures, we are motivated to demonstrate loyalty to our tribe. Demonizing people of other tribes is a way of doing this.

Why have we devolved into demonization as our default mode of discussion? (How about that for alliteration?) Kling thinks its tied to how the mainstream news media.

As best I recall, fifty years ago, more of the commentary in newspapers, magazines, television, and radio was in persuasion mode, and less of it was in demonization mode. But in recent decades Rush Limbaugh discovered that demonization could appeal to a mass audience and Paul Krugman discovered that demonization could appeal to the readers of the New York Times.

While I agree with Kling that despite our ability to reason objectively we still harbor deep-seated tribal instincts that can challenge or at times over-ride our objectivity. I would argue that the influence of postmodern philosophy makes it even harder for some people to maintain their objectivity or makes it easier for them to succumb to primitive, tribal forces.

What is postmodernism? For a detailed explanation and analysis please refer to Stephen Hicks Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. Based on his study of postmodern writing he extracts the following summary. Warning: the quoted paragraph is long and uses philosophical terms but I think it’s worth plowing through it to get to Hicks’ main points.

Metaphysically, postmodernism is anti-realist, holding that it is impossible to speak meaningfully about an independently existing reality. Postmodernism substitutes instead a social-linguistic, constructionist account of reality. Epistemologically, having rejected the notion of an independently existing reality, postmodernism denies that reason or any other method is a means of acquiring objective knowledge of that reality. Having substituted social-linguistic constructs for that reality, postmodernism emphasizes the subjectivity, conventionality, and incommensurability of those constructions. Postmodern accounts of human nature are consistently collectivist, holding that individuals’ identities are constructed largely by the social-linguistic groups that they are a part of, those groups varying radically across the dimensions of sex, race, ethnicity, and wealth. Postmodern accounts of human nature also consistently emphasize relations of conflict between those groups; and given the de-emphasized or eliminated role of reason, post-modern accounts hold that those conflicts are resolved primarily by the use of force, whether masked or naked; the use of force in turn leads to relations of dominance, submission, and oppression. Finally, postmodern themes in ethics and politics are characterized by an identification with and sympathy for the groups perceived to be oppressed in the conflicts, and a willingness to enter the fray on their behalf.

Let’s see if I can digest Hick’s ideas a bit further. Before doing that I need to touch on his description of modernism, the philosophical outlook that preceded postmodernism. Modernism reflects the Enlightenment in which thinkers agreed that there is an objective reality and that we have the ability to reason from the facts to sound, objective conclusions that we can defend and explain.

Postmodernism then fundamentally disagrees with the modernist, Enlightenment worldview. If, as postmodernists claim, that we can’t forge objective conclusions about the world then “truth” belongs to the winner of the inevitable resulting power struggle. And unfortunately that means we’re free to treat people who disagree with us as sub-human demons because they threaten our grasp on the reins of power and they’re considered agents of oppression so it’s OK to ignore or even silence those who disagree.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

OpenMind | Reduce political polarization in your community

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I like the work of Jonathan Haidt. His books are among my favorites: The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom; The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, and The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. (I'm working on a review of the third book.) This morning Haidt posted on Twitter that he has started a website called OpenMind, "A free interactive platform designed to depolarize communities and foster mutual understanding across differences." Here is the link.

OpenMind | Reduce political polarization in your community

I've signed up so I can take the quiz that measures my bias; it will be interesting to see if I'm practicing what I'm preaching! The site also posts resources to help explain liberal, conservative and libertarian mindsets. I haven't explored all of the content but I like what I've seen so far.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Fake News or Fake Objectivity?

Trump takes (and gives) a lot of heat for tweeting and talking about “fake news.” While I think he has a point (example provided below) I think it’s more accurate to call what the news media does is practice “fake objectivity.”

I have seen first hand how this fake objectivity shapes opinion. Here is an example. I play tennis with a guy who prides himself on reading the Washington Post, Boston Globe and The New York Times. With him being politically liberal and knowing that I’m a libertarian he will often ask me what my position is on global warming, healthcare or other subjects. My positions on these and other subjects differ from his, of course. I will support my beliefs by citing facts I’ve picked up from various sources such as the The Cato Institute, Reason, Niskanen Center, and so on. Or I’ll refer to blogs such as Watts Up With That or Judith Curry’s Climate Etc. on global warming. (To balance my information I also still refer to traditional news sources such as The Boston Globe, The New York Times, CNN, etc. as well as occasionally watch Bill Maher to get more extreme left wing views.)

Recently when my friend extolled the healthcare of England and Canada I told him about the number of people who do not receive treatment in the overburdened British healthcare system or how Canadians and the British suffer from lower cancer survival rates compared to the U.S. because they have to wait longer to receive diagnosis and/or treatment. Every time I refer to a fact like this my friend is both astonished and skeptical. Why? He is astonished because he has never heard about this from his news sources. He is skeptical because he believes the mainstream news sources are telling the full truth (and nothing but the truth) so the sources I’m referring to have to be untrustworthy!

Getting back to an example of fake news, Scott Adams has talked a lot on his vlog about how CNN continued to push the hoax that Trump was referring to white nationalists when he said there are “fine people” on both sides of the Charlottesville issue. Adams has produced the full quote from Trump’s statement in which Trump clearly condemns white nationalists and neo-Nazis while saying there are fine people on both sides of the Confederate statue controversy. So there is some truth behind Trump’s constant tweeting about fake news.

But I think the news media exerts a deeper, more pervasive and more persuasive influence on how we form opinions by choosing which facts they report and which they ignore or omit. I’m not saying this is a conscious conspiracy to squelch contrary opinions. I think it’s combination of a number of influences: the shift from trying to report the news objectively (or at least the façade of objectivity) to outright advocating select positions while jettisoning attempts to be objective, the competitive drive to be first to report stories without taking the time to check your sources, distrusting or discounting opinions that don’t conform to the current “conventional wisdom,” and confirmation bias.

As I’ve said many times in this blog objectivity is very difficult, if not ultimately unattainable. We should still test our beliefs by exposing ourselves to different opinions and sources. In the process we still might never achieve full objectivity but can at least be reasonable.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Tips for Political Debate, part 2 – Fake Nous

Tips for Political Debate, part 2 – Fake Nous

Here is part 2 of Huemer's tips on how to handle political debates. Continuing from the previous five tips Huemer offers the following: be charitable, don't confuse issues, don't be tribal, have modest aims, don't waste time, and don't misinterpret people.

In the first tip about being charitable Huemer recommends not straw-manning or weak-manning. Instead of straw-manning, "assume your opponent holds the most reasonable view that could plausibly explain his words, not the stupidest one." Regarding weak-manning, "when defending a position, don't just address the least reasonable opponents. Address the most plausible, most interesting, and/or most common opposing positions."

Huemer doesn't refer to another concept called steel-manning in which you try to improve your opponent's position to be even stronger than what they're offering then address that stronger position. Naturally this takes more effort and applies his tip of being charitable. Steel-manning might not be feasible to do in the heat of a discussion but we could think about an issue, say the opposing position on abortion or gun control, before getting into a debate then think about how to make their argument the best you can before coming up with your response.

Tips for Political Debate, part 1 – Fake Nous

Tips for Political Debate, part 1 – Fake Nous

I like and agree with Philosopher Michael Huemer’s guidelines on how to discuss politics with someone who doesn’t agree with you. His first tip sets the tone.

1. Guiding principle: Your goal is to make progress toward understanding, if not agreement. 
It is not to “score points”, express emotions, prove your moral or intellectual superiority, humiliate the other party, or otherwise cause harm. (If this isn’t true, then you shouldn’t be engaged in discussion at all; you’re part of society’s problem.) Everything else follows from this.
Huemer follows this with four other tips in this post (which is the first of two on the subject): don’t beg the question, don’t be emotional, don’t take it personal, and don’t be dogmatic. These tips probably sound obvious but they have sub-parts to explain what Huemer means or gives examples to flesh out his point.

I'd summarize his overall method as "Seek to understand and be understood rather than to win." I've never seen someone "win" a political debate. By that I mean I've never seen a debate that ends with one of the people saying, "You're right and I'm wrong. I'm going to jettison my long-held belief based on this discussion." The most you can hope for is to plant a seed of doubt. As Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff say in The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up A Generation For Failure disagreement "is part of the process by which people do each other the favor of counteracting each other's confirmation bias."