Comments and observations on social and political trends and events.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

May 30, 2020: Riots, Rights, Rhetoric and a Rocket - a day of contrasts.

With SpaceX-NASA rocket launch we saw an inspiring display of the ingenuity, intelligence and bravery needed to launch a 1,000,000-pound rocket carrying two astronauts into orbit on a tightly controlled pillar of fire. On the other hand we saw the depressing desire to destroy by those who launched bricks through store windows and set fires in the protests over the death of George Floyd that have degenerated into riots and looting. The injustice of his death will unfortunately be lost in the wanton destruction that followed, thus adding to the injustice.

It’s been interesting to see Arnold Kling’s Three Languages Of Politics in action when listening to the different political groups react to the riots. Conservatives like Tucker Carlson warn that the riots are an ominous sign of the potential breakdown of civilization into barbarism. (Thus showing conservative’s preference to express things as civilization vs. barbarism [“law and order”].)

Liberals defend the riots as release of pent-up anger of blacks at being oppressed. (Liberals tend to see life as a struggle between oppressors and the oppressed.)

Libertarians (such as Reason magazine) point out that Floyd’s rights were violated as well as the stores owners when rioters torched their businesses while the police were ordered (or chose) to stand down. (The libertarian preference to see things as Freedom vs. coercion or in terms of individual rights vs. force.)

As a result the three camps talk past each other. All three sides have a point. Yes, I know saying this could seem to be a cop-out (no pun intended) but I believe it’s true. It appears that Floyd didn’t deserve to lose his life. Protecting individual lives requires enforcing our rights, which also ensures law and order, combining the conservative and libertarian angles. And we do have the right to peacefully protest when oppression occurs or rights have been violated.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Three Resources for Checking News Bias

Scott Adams recommended an app called Ground News in one of his Periscopes. I checked it out and installed the app. When you open the app it lists the latest stories with a banner beneath it with the following categories: Left, Lean Left, Center, Lean Right and Right. It shows which news outlets in each category have covered the story. You can click on the five buttons for the political bent you want to check out to compare how each news outlet reported that story. Here is their URL.

If you sign up for their weekly email it shows examples of stories that show the "blindspots" of the coverage on the left and right. They'll post stories with a breakdown of how many news outlets in the five different categories of bias covered that story. They breakdown might show that, say, no outlets reported a particular story on the right or on the left. 

There is another site called AllSides that does pretty much the same thing. I don't think they have a phone app like Ground News does. Their home page lists stories in three columns: News from the Left, News from the Center and News from the Right.

AllSides also has a chart under the tab Media Bias that ranks news sites by their bias. You can vote to indicate whether you agree with their rating. There is a table that includes a column that shows whether the site's users agree with the AllSides rating.

You can follow both Ground News and AllSides on Twitter or Facebook.

6/3/2020 Update. Found a third site that also compares the news reporting of the left, right and center.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2020 Snapchat Commencement Address on Overcoming Obstacles

I liked the message in this video Schwarzenegger made for 2020 commencement. Below is the opening words. Be sure to watch to the very end. There are a couple reasons I like this video. First, the message: follow your vision. Two: enjoy the journey and the work it takes to make the vision come true. Third: the ending. I don't want to spoil the ending so that's all I'm going to say!

I am not going to bullshit you and say this is a fantastic time to graduate. But I am going to tell you about one of the biggest obstacles I faced in my life, because the obstacles that coronavirus had created won't be the last you face, but they can prepare you for the next obstacle.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Review of How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide

It seems just about everyone agrees that the vicious rift in how we disagree with each other has never been worse than it is today, especially in politics. Friends have disowned each other over whether they support gun control, immigration, climate change or Trump. We all shake our heads as if this was a hopeless, irreconcilable divide. Although this might be ultimately be true I believe we should still try.

I’ve read several books and articles that offer suggestions on how to bridge this gap. Of the ones I’ve read I’d highly recommend How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide by Peter Boghossian, James Lindsay. Peter Boghossian is a faculty member in the philosophy department at Portland State University and is a speaker for the Center of Inquiry and an international speaker for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. James Lindsay holds degrees in physics and mathematics, with a doctorate in the latter. Because I liked this book I’ve been planning to write a review for this blog. However, this review by Eric Barker, author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree, does such a nice job hitting the key points that I’ve decided to quote from his blog entry to share the key points from How to Have Impossible Conversations.

I should note that the book’s advice is laid out in a sequence starting with beginner’s level recommended skills then intermediate and expert levels. The authors explain that they evolved these skills “drawn from the best, most effective research on applied epistemology, hostage and professional negotiations, cult exiting, subdisciplines of psychology, and more.”

Quoting more from the book, it is “organized by difficulty of application: fundamentals (Chapter 2), basics (Chapter 3), intermediate (Chapter 4), advanced (Chapter 5), expert (Chapter 6), and master (Chapter 7). Some techniques teach you to intervene in the cognition of others, instill doubt, and help people become more open to rethinking their beliefs. Other techniques are oriented toward truth-seeking. Some are just plain good advice. Their underlying commonality, regardless of your conversational goal, is that they all empower you to speak with people who have radically different political, moral, and social worldviews.”

So what are the key points of this book? Here I’ll rely on Eric Barker’s summary. (I’ve edited it slightly and added comments to explain a point if it needs to be expanded.)

·      Be a partner, not an adversary: If you’re trying to win, you’re going to lose. The best approach is: Be nice and respectful. Listen. Understand. Instill doubt. (I refuse to change my mind about this.)
·      Use Rapoport’s rules: They can seem awkward but they reduce conflict better than Valium. [I’ll add an explanation of Rapoport’s rules below.]
·      Facts are the enemy: Unless we’re talking about the savvy, attractive people who read this blog, yes, facts are the enemy. [I have some additional thoughts below.]
·      Use the “Unread Library Effect”: Let them talk. Ask questions. Let them expose their ignorance. Do not cheer when that happens.
·      Use scales: Bring extreme statements down to earth with numbered comparisons. And unless they’re certain at a level 10, they’ll mention their own doubts which can aid your cause.
·      Use disconfirmation: “Eric, under what conditions would disconfirmation not be effective?”
·      Serious beliefs are about values and identity: Don’t attack what they believe, focus on the validity of their reasoning process and whether that identity is the only way to be a good person.

What are Rapoport’s rules? Impossible Conversations explains, quoting from Daniel C. Dennett’s book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. (Rapoport is a game theorist.):

1.    Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
2.    List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3.    Mention anything you have learned from your target.
4.    And only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

Rapoport’s rules would fall under the concept “steelmanning” in which you restate your opponent’s case in the strongest possible way before challenging it. This approach treats your partner’s beliefs more fairly than using the “straw man” approach in which you purposely weaken or exaggerate someone’s case then refute it.

What about facts? Why do Boghossian and Lindsay urge us not to argue with facts? Well, they don’t say you should never use facts. “It does mean that introducing facts into a conversation is likely to backfire unless done at the correct moment and with great care. … Many people believe what and how they do precisely because they do not formulate their beliefs on the basis of evidence – not because they’re lacking evidence. … Few people form their beliefs on the basis of rigorous consideration of reasoned arguments. Complicating matters, most people believe they do have evidence supporting their beliefs.  … We tend to form beliefs on the basis of cherry-picked selective evidence that supports what we already believe or what we want to believe. Virtually everyone formulates most of their beliefs first then subsequently looks for supporting evidence and convincing arguments that back them up.” As Jonathan Haidt says, we think we’re being detectives who piece together the facts before reaching a conclusion when in fact we act like lawyers who choose facts to make a case.

The authors conclude that introducing facts can backfire and harden your partner’s viewpoint rather than leading your partner to change their mind. They suggest that a more effective way to work facts into a conversation is through questions and by saying something like “I may be wrong about this. It’s my understanding that …”

They also offer a valuable tip on choice of words: eliminate the word “but” and replace it with “and.” For instance, instead of saying “Yes, but how should we deal with the children of illegal immigrants?” we say, “Yes, and how should we deal with the children of illegal immigrants?”

I’ve found that when I disagree with someone on a subject the person I’m talking with often asks why I disagree. They’ll ask what evidence do I have. That gives me the opening to introduce the facts I’ve used to support my conclusion. I should note that sometimes my partner doesn’t ask for my reasons. The less reasonable person will just launch into an attack because I dare to disagree with their unshakeable opinions. In that case, I might still cite my reasons but find a way to end the conversation. Diplomatically, of course!

While I admit I haven’t mastered all of the techniques in this book the key points discussed above have helped me when talking with people who don’t see things the way I do. Read How to Have Impossible Conversations because I think it is possible to have reasonable conversations.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Scott Adams on Twitter: "The #Coronavirus is acting like an unwelcome Olympics for scientists, doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, techies, leaders, parents, and ordinary heroes of every kind. Setting records in every event." / Twitter

I like Scott Adam's thoughts on the effects the Coronavirus could have on us once it's behind us. The link takes you to a Twitter thread he posted; I've also added the text below in case the link doesn't work.

Scott Adams on Twitter: "The #Coronavirus is acting like an unwelcome Olympics for scientists, doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, techies, leaders, parents, and ordinary heroes of every kind. Setting records in every event." / Twitter

The #Coronavirus is acting like an unwelcome Olympics for scientists, doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, techies, leaders, parents, and ordinary heroes of every kind. Setting records in every event. You can almost feel humanity getting smarter. The most capable among us are forming lasting connections. Sharing best practices. Learning shortcuts. Building a working trust. Creating tools at blazing speeds. One way to imagine the future is that the economy will lose trillions of dollars and we will never get it back. Another filter on the future is that energy doesn’t disappear, it only relocates and changes form. A huge amount of energy is leaving the economy. We know that for sure. What is less clear is where that energy is going. My filter shows a global “mind” being formed, in real time, to fight our common enemy, the virus. That mind needs a lot of energy, like a newborn. And wow, is it getting it. I had resisted the common pundit prediction that “everything would be different” after this crisis because I expect a speedy recovery. But I revise my opinion. While I still expect a speedy recovery, I also think this experience is rewiring the collective mind of civilization. We probably crammed years of innovation into months. We’ll be coming out of this with a LOT of extra knowledge about our systems and ourselves. And that energy will get channeled back into the economy. The coming weeks will test us all. But when it is over, we will be far smarter, and far tougher, in every way. As Steve Jobs proved, the right thoughts and the right skill stack can turn into trillions of dollars. Civilization’s skill stack is undergoing a major upgrade. Watch how much energy that later pumps into the economy. It will be amazing.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Media Mistakes in the Trump Era: Sharyl Attkisson

Sharyl Attkisson is one of the sources I refer to often for an objective (I think!) take on the news. Attkisson was a correspondent and anchor at CBS News, PBS, CNN and in local news for thirty years. She also won the Emmy Award five times, and received the Edward R. Murrow award for investigative reporting. 

With that as background I'm sharing a link to Attkisson's website in which she tracks how many "mistakes" the news media has been making in reporting on president Trump. As of this posting her list contains 119 mistakes!

She introduces this list as follows:
[A]s self-appointed arbiters of truth, we’ve largely excused our own unprecedented string of fact-challenged reporting. The truth is, formerly well-respected, top news organizations are making repeat, unforced errors in numbers that were unheard of just a couple of years ago.
 Our repeat mistakes involve declaring that Trump’s claims are “lies” when they are matters of opinion, or when the truth between conflicting sources is unknowable; taking Trump’s statements and events out of context; reporting secondhand accounts against Trump without attribution as if they’re established fact; relying on untruthful, conflicted sources; and presenting reporter opinions in news stories—without labeling them as opinions.

I think there are several factors at play here. One is that Trump flies fast and loose with his rhetoric. As Scott Adams probably would say, Trump exaggerates or misstates facts but is shooting in the right direction. (As one reporter once said, Trump's critics take him literally but not seriously while his supporters take Trump seriously but not literally.)

The second factor is that the "mistakes" in their reporting. I'm sure some of these mistakes are honest, maybe driven by the desire to break a story first without taking time to corroborate. But I also think some of these errors reveal the news media's bias and disagreement with Trump's policies while denying it. As Attkisson states the reporters and editors have appointed themselves as arbiters of truth. I think the desire to push a preferred narrative and the belief that they have a monopoly on the truth conspire to produce this steady flow of mistruths.

Monday, March 2, 2020

An Idea for Civil Discussion

Recently I had dinner with a couple friends when our conversation eventually drifted to the 2020 presidential election. One of my friends expressed disappointment that President Trump had done nothing about gun control. I said that I’m happy he hasn’t been pushing for more gun control. Knowing that my friend is liberal I figured it would carry more weight if I cited a study done by Leah Libresco, a statistician, former news writer at FiveThirtyEight, a self-described liberal and an advocate of gun control. Libresco wrote an article on a study in which she describes a study she conducted. (I also wrote a blog entry on her article.)

[M]y 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.

Libresco’s study revealed that most gun deaths fall into one of these categories: suicide, gang violence and domestic disputes. She admits that the most commonly touted gun control measures would have no impact on these outcomes. When I cited this study to my friends I also referred to the high murder rate in Chicago which has tough gun control laws.

But here is where I stumbled onto a potentially valuable approach to talking about controversial subjects. Given the findings of this study by a gun control advocate and the results in cities like Chicago I said, “I’m not sure what else we can do.” My friend said maybe longer waiting periods to buy guns and universal background checks would help. She didn’t say “let’s confiscate guns” and didn’t label me as an unrepentant gun nut. I said I’d be willing to consider her ideas. I think by citing these facts from a source on her side of the political spectrum and saying that I didn’t know what else we could do about gun violence left the door open for a civil discussion.

[Note: Libresco concludes her article with: “A reduction in gun deaths is most likely to come from finding smaller chances for victories and expanding those solutions as much as possible. We save lives by focusing on a range of tactics to protect the different kinds of potential victims and reforming potential killers, not from sweeping bans focused on the guns themselves.” Amen!