Comment

Comments and observations on social and political trends and events.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

What if the News Reported Only Facts? - Dilbert Blog


Scott Adams posted this on his Dilbert blog: What if the News Reported Only Facts? I should preface this by noting that Adams is not an unabashed Trump supporter. Adams says he didn’t vote in the last election and describes himself as liberal on some issues. He does admire Trump’s skillful use of persuasion tactics, which he discussed in his book Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don't Matter. Anyway, here is how Adams introduces the subject.

One of the biggest illusions of life is that we humans are good at deducing the inner thoughts of both strangers and loved ones based on observing their actions. The truth is that we are terrible at knowing what others are thinking. We just think we are good at it. No one is good at it. No one.

The business model of the news media has moved away from hard reporting and toward punditry and opinion. Viewers enjoy opinion-driven content and it costs a lot less to produce than hard news. And that means the news industry has moved from factual reporting to — for all practical purposes — some form of imaginary mind reading to fill the hours.

Adams doesn’t delve into why we have devolved into a world “where facts don’t matter.” For that I’d refer you to Stephen Hick’s book, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault.

Postmodernism’s essentials are the opposite of modernism’s. Instead of natural reality—anti-realism. Instead of experience and reason— linguistic social subjectivism. Instead of individual identity and autonomy—various race, sex, and class group-isms. Instead of human interests as fundamentally harmonious and tending toward mutually-beneficial interaction—conflict and oppression. Instead of valuing individualism in values, markets, and politics—calls for communalism, solidarity, and egalitarian restraints. Instead of prizing the achievements of science and technology—suspicion tending toward outright hostility.

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.

This means that postmodernism excuses news reporters and commentators from objectively reporting the facts without explicitly or implicitly injecting their own opinions or bias (or at least trying not to!). This frees them to push a narrative that favors a political agenda. Notice the reaction when someone wants to counter a narrative that is being pushed. Instead of being accused of not being objective the person responding will fall back onto the preferred language or axis behind their narrative. So, liberals will say a conservative or libertarian is being, say, racist (which falls into Arnold Kling’s oppressor vs. oppressed axis). Conservatives could say the liberal reporter’s position creates chaos (falling in the civilization vs. barbarism axis). And so on.

And this is why Adams’ question ultimately is a hypothetical question.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Why Can't People Hear What Jordan Peterson Is Actually Saying? - The Atlantic

Why Can't People Hear What Jordan Peterson Is Actually Saying? - The Atlantic

This article in The Atlantic does an admirable job dissecting an "interview" of Jordan Peterson, a University of Toronto clinical psychologist, by British journalist Cathy Newman. I put the word interview in quotes because it actually would be better to describe the exchange as a debate because it was clear that Newman had an agenda she wanted to push by persistently distorting what Peterson said. He handled this admirably! I admire his patience.

This interview runs about 30 minutes. Be sure to catch Newman's reaction at about the 23 minute mark when she tries to box Peterson with the question about whether people have the right not to be offended. Peterson's reply leaves her speechless, not because she was offended but because she couldn't think of a rebuttal.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Nov 6, 2017: Discussion with Dr. Jonathan Haidt NYU - YouTube

Nov 6, 2017: Discussion with Dr. Jonathan Haidt NYU - YouTube


This wide-ranging interview by Jordan B Peterson of Jonathan Haidt contains fascinating and rich insights that are too many and too broad to even summarize here. Both Peterson and Haidt touch on moral foundations, differences in how conservatives and liberals see the world, tribalism, free speech, and so on. It's over 90 minutes long. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Review of How To Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds by Alan Jacobs

I’ve read a number of books in the last few years that tell us how we think we’re being objective but we’re actually hostage to a laundry list of various biases, many of which influence us subconsciously. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow probably is the most influential of these books based on how frequently it is cited in the other books. While Jacobs’ How To Think tills some of the same ground there is a difference. Jacobs’ personal background helps him see how biases influence how different groups of people perceive the world and think about it. Why do I say this? Because he straddles two worlds. He is an academic (teaches in the Honors Program at Baylor University) while also being a Christian. This gives Jacobs a unique perspective where he can see how different groups perceive each other.

When I hear academics talk about Christians, I typically think, That’s not quite right. I don’t believe you understand the people you think you’re disagreeing with. And when I listen to Christians talk about academics I have precisely the same thought.

Jacobs differs from Kahneman and others by saying that thinking involves much more than recognizing and fighting our inherent bias. He believes:

[W]e suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking. Relatively few people want to think. Thinking troubles us; thinking tires us. Thinking can force us out of familiar, comforting habits; thinking can complicate our lives; thinking can set us at odds, or at least complicate our relationships, with those we admire or love or follow. Who needs thinking?

Here is Jacobs’ suggested first step how to address this taken from his Can Evangelicals and Academics Talk to Each Other? in The Wall Street Journal.

[T]here is a first step that all of us can take in resisting the hold of our Inner Rings and the reflex to push away our “repugnant cultural others.”

The Inner Ring that Jabobs refers to is from a C. S. Lewis talk titled “The Inner Rings” which describes our fear of being left out of our preferred social group, of being considered an outsider to the ingroup that we want to belong to. Jacobs’ discussion uses his term “repugnant cultural other” (or RCO) throughout his book. RCO captures how we tend to be repelled by those who disagree with us in politics, religion, or issues such as gun control.

Or another way to summarize his approach is:

The person who genuinely wants to think will have to develop strategies for recognizing the subtlest of social pressures, confronting the pull of the ingroup and disgust for the outgroup. The person who wants to think will have to practice patience and master fear.

I do disagree somewhat with Jacobs’ explanation why some people cast those who disagree with them as enemies worthy of being demonized and even disposed of.

When you believe that the brokenness of this world can be not just ameliorated but fixed, once and for all, then people who don’t share your optimism, or who do share it but invest in a different system, are adversaries of Utopia. … Whole classes of people can by this logic become expendable – indeed, it can become the optimist’s perceived duty to eliminate the adversaries.

I wouldn’t label people who think this way necessarily as optimists. I’d say they’re sadly lacking in objectivity. They’re not asking themselves why people who disagree with them could possibly take that position. I’ve seen this especially rampant here in Massachusetts among my liberal friends, where I’ve chosen in some cases not to get into arguments. I know a couple people who have quit talking to me simply because I disagreed with their support for Hillary Clinton as president. Having said that, I’ve also seen conservative, libertarian and Objectivist friends treat people who disagree with them in a less than civil manner.

Jacobs describes how each group creates their own keywords so that allies can easily understand each other while judging other people by their use of these keywords. (It reminds me of Arnold Kling’s Three Languages of Politics in which liberals talk in terms of oppressors and the oppressed, conservatives cast debates in terms of barbarism versus civilization and libertarians judge whether acts impede our freedom or coerce us.) As Jacobs correctly says, “keywords have a tendency to become parasitic: they enter the mind and displace thought.” After all, it’s easier to slap labels onto ideas we agree or disagree with than it is to objectively consider them.

Jacobs disagrees with the idealistic image of us as independent thinkers who reach our conclusions unencumbered by the influence of what others think.  “Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said.” I’m sure we can find examples of people who indeed did heroically work out their ideas in isolation. Based on the summaries of the abundant psychological research I’ve read in the books on how we think, I do believe we are swayed by how our friends think and we tend to surround ourselves with people who tend to agree with us. I agree with Jacobs and others (like Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind) that despite our advancement from our caveman days we still are tribal in nature. However, I also believe that we can strive for objectivity if we follow Jacobs’s advice such as “when faced with provocation to respond to what someone has said, give it five minutes.” Or “value learning over debating. Don’t ‘talk for victory.’ ”

Before I close let me say that Jacobs doesn’t say we should never come to firm conclusions. “You simply can’t thrive in a state of constant daily evaluation of the truth-conduciveness of your social world, any more than a flowering plant can flourish if its owner digs up its root every morning to see how it’s doing.”

I believe if you take the steps Jacobs puts in his final chapter, The Thinking Person’s Checklist, you can still firmly hold and defend your opinions while also accepting that people can disagree with you. You can be secure in your beliefs without demonizing the other person.


At the beginning I said that I’ve read many books, not just on how biases can affect us. For a number of these books after I finish them I sarcastically ask, “Gee, how did the author shoehorn the contents of a three page article into a 300 page book.” By that I mean the author took an idea that made a good magazine article then expanded it into a book by adding filler and stories but not much else. Jacobs’ book sets an example of how to do the opposite: how to pack many ideas into a slim 156-page volume. His book could have been titled How To Think -- and Write.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Why Are Adversaries Expendable?

While reading Alan Jacobs’ book How To Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds this statement caught my eye.

When you believe that the brokenness of this world can not be just ameliorated but fixed, once and for all, then people who don’t share your optimism, or who do share it but invest in a different system, are adversaries of Utopia. (An “adversary” is literally one who has turned against you, one who blocks your path.) Whole classes of people can by this logic become expendable – indeed it can become the optimist’s perceived duty to eliminate the adversaries.

I’ve seen this attitude in action where people who disagree with someone are demonized or “unfriended” to use a Facebook term.

Unfortunately I think Jacobs’ explanation doesn’t go deep enough. Why? Because I know people who firmly think they know the answers to certain problems but they don’t demonize and marginalize those who disagree. This means there must be another, deeper premise at work. Over-optimism isn’t the answer.

I think this difference comes back to objectivity. Can we objectively evaluate what others think and feel without automatically casting them as harboring the worst possible motives? Can we restate their position in the best possible light before trying to refute it? (Thereby using what is referred to as “steel manning” as opposed to knocking over a straw man.) In fact Jacobs refers to this approach in a later paragraph.

One of the classic ways to do this is to seek out the best – the smartest, most sensible, most fair-minded – representatives of the positions you disagree with.


If we don’t try to be objective it becomes all too easy (and tempting) to demonize people who disagree with us. It spares us from facing the possibility we could be wrong, not the person who disagrees with us.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Thoughts on gun control - The Washington Post Article

I used to think gun control was the answer. My research told me otherwise. - The Washington Post

As part of the aftermath of the Las Vegas mass shooting the usual reactions have erupted. Gun control advocates use this as a call for imposing more measures to restrict access to guns while their opponents say these new measures won't prevent mass shootings like this.

I stumbled across this article by Leah Libresco, a statistician and former news writer at FiveThirtyEight, a polling aggregation website with a blog created by analyst Nate Silver. I'm citing it because Libresco arrives at interesting conclusions based on her analysis of the data. She admits to being in favor of stronger gun control but then her study lead her to different potential answers.

Before I started researching gun deaths, gun-control policy used to frustrate me. I wished the National Rifle Association would stop blocking common-sense gun-control reforms such as banning assault weapons, restricting silencers, shrinking magazine sizes and all the other measures that could make guns less deadly.
Then, my colleagues and I at FiveThirtyEight spent three months analyzing all 33,000 lives ended by guns each year in the United States, and I wound up frustrated in a whole new way. We looked at what interventions might have saved those people, and the case for the policies I’d lobbied for crumbled when I examined the evidence. The best ideas left standing were narrowly tailored interventions to protect subtypes of potential victims, not broad attempts to limit the lethality of guns.
At the end of the article Libresco concludes that the following steps need to be taken instead of continuing to pursue stronger gun control legislation. 
Older men, who make up the largest share of gun suicides, need better access to people who could care for them and get them help. Women endangered by specific men need to be prioritized by police, who can enforce restraining orders prohibiting these men from buying and owning guns. Younger men at risk of violence need to be identified before they take a life or lose theirs and to be connected to mentors who can help them de-escalate conflicts.

Philosopher Stephen Hicks has posted some statistics comparing gun ownership by country and their homicide rates. He notes that there is no apparent correlation between the two and concludes:

Let’s think sadly about those who were injured and lost their lives. Let’s think angrily about the evil man who killed them. And then let’s also think sophisticatedly about the multiple influences and causes of homicide. 

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Further thoughts on the Fragile Generation

In my earlier post on the fragile generation the interview has this quote from Jonathan Haidt.

In his forthcoming book Misguided Minds: How Three Bad Ideas Are Leading Young People, Universities, and Democracies Toward Failure, Haidt claims that certain ideas are impairing students’ chances of success. Those ideas being: your feelings are always right; what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; and the world is divided into good people and bad people. ‘If we can teach those three ideas to college students’, he says, ‘we cannot guarantee they will fail, but we will minimise their odds at success’.

I agree with Haidt about the first two ideas that the current generation seems to believe. To me the first idea, that feelings are always right, stems from the lack of teaching kids the ability to think critically. Way back in the mid 1980s a friend and I designed and taught an adult continuing education course on critical thinking. At that time we could see that our adult students had never been exposed to thinking in a methodical, logical way. It makes sense that if people don’t have even a rudimentary grasp of logic and arguments they are subject to subconscious biases and to the push of emotional reactions.

I’ve read a number of books over the last ten years that explore how we form opinions and how we are unconsciously influenced by many biases. I recall reading about one study in which some of the participants read a series of words related to being elderly. When they were later given a series of physical tasks to perform they completed them more slowly than the control group that had not been exposed to those words!

As I explain it to people we like to think we’re being detectives when we’re really lawyers. By that I mean a detective tries to find out who committed a crime by objectively collecting and piecing together the evidence. A lawyer, on the other hand, tries to build a case, either to defend their client or to prosecute the defendant. The studies I’ve read about show that we often come to a conclusion about an issue then go looking for confirming data. We tend to ignore or discount data that doesn’t fit our conclusion.

I agree with Haidt with his identifying the second prevalent idea that what doesn’t kill us makes us weaker. This idea seems to be rampant among what some call the derisively call the “snowflake” generation. I think this is tied to the first premise. That is, if you don’t have the tools to think critically then we’re threatened by ideas with which we disagree.

My main objective is to touch on his third point: that the world is divided into good people and bad people. I’m sure Haidt will explain this more in his upcoming book and that he isn’t saying there are no evil people. Being familiar with Haidt’s work, I believe he is saying that people are too quick to lump those who disagree with them into the evil camp. I’ve seen it happen many times where you’re demonized if you disagree with someone politically. Liberals think conservatives are evil and vice versa. I’m not saying everyone does this but a lot do. It has happened to me during the 2016 presidential election. A couple people have quit talking to my wife and me when we disagreed with them.

I’m assuming Haidt would agree that there are some evil people. The clearly obvious examples would be Hitler, Mao and Stalin or murderous sociopaths. But these are extreme examples. In our daily lives we rarely deal with people who are truly evil. They might buy into ideas or policies that we believe ultimately hurt people. For instance, conservatives and libertarians believe gun control disarms the poor who might live in high crime areas. Liberals believe gun control protects us from those who, in the liberal’s eyes, can too easily obtain guns. Conservatives and libertarians think welfare benefits eat away at the incentive for people to find work while liberals think welfare is needed to compensate for the victims of an economy rigged in favor of the rich and powerful. Neither side in these debates are necessarily evil. But I’ve seen it happen too often where you get slapped with the evil label for disagreeing! I assume Haidt’s book will delve into this in much more detail.

Before closing I’d recommend using something called steel manning and taking the ideological Turing test. Steel manning is opposite of a straw man argument which involves distorting what an opponent is saying then refuting it while the original argument wasn’t really addressed. Steel manning means we take the opposite approach of the straw man argument: you try to strengthen the argument of the other side before trying to refute it. To do this means applying what has been called the Turing ideological test where you try to state the argument of the other side as fairly as possible, as if you actually are taking that stand, then addressing it. I think if more people tried to do this we would have more civil and productive disagreements.


Both steel manning and the ideological Turing test take a lot of work! It means trying to think like your opponent then coming up with your response. Unfortunately, we tend to take the easy way out. Haidt has said in his earlier work that humans are still fundamentally tribal in nature. Once we form an allegiance to a tribe we talk the language of our tribe (see Arnold Kling’s The Three Languages of Politics) and look at the other tribe as the “enemy.”