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Comments and observations on social and political trends and events.

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."

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Political Discussions: Wielding the Moral Hammer


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Before I tell the story of what triggered today’s post I want to explain my usual approach to political discussions. In general, I avoid them. Why? Because I’m a libertarian in deeply liberal Massachusetts and because I’ve seen conversations between people who disagree quickly plunge into emotional barrages of one-liners with no amicable resolution. I especially avoid getting into political discussions with ideologues. Of all of the discussions and arguments I’ve been party to almost none of them end with either of us changing our minds. The only rare exceptions have been when the person with whom I’m talking calmly asks me to explain why I believe what I do or calmly asks questions about the source of the facts I’m citing.

With that as background the story starts when I was playing in my Friday morning men’s doubles tennis match with three other guys. One of the guys, let’s call him George, almost always brings up politics between sets. George hates Trump so he uses the changeovers as an opportunity to vent about Trump’s latest actions that offends him. When our first set ended this week George came to the net and asked his two friends (who also happen to be liberal) a question that I’ll provide below along with the exchange I had with him. I’ve added some comments in parenthesis to explain what I meant.

George: Can we find someone to kill Mitch McConnell? (A Republican and Senate Majority Leader. George was referring to McConnell’s involvement in the current government shutdown.)

Me: That’s what I love about liberals. They want to kill people who disagree with them but if a conservative said something like this they’d scream bloody murder. (I almost never come out this strong but at this point I’d had enough of George’s weekly political rants. I wouldn’t have reacted this strongly if he hadn’t used the word “kill.”)

George: So you’re OK with the government shutdown?

Me: Yes. (Actually I think there could be a better way to resolve the difference between what Trump wants for border security and what Pelosi and Schumer want [whatever that is] but I answered this way partly to shock George. I play tennis to get away from the constant drone of politics.)

George: Even though it hurts people?

Friend #1: Good one! (Said with a smug smirk on his face.)

Me: As long as the border is not secure people are going to continue to die.

George: You’re going to have to explain that to me.

Me: Some other time. I came here to play tennis.

I’m not here to talk about the pros and cons of the shutdown and immigration policy. My purpose is to share some observations and thoughts.

1.  I consider George to be an ideologue. Merriam Webster defines an ideologue as “an often blindly partisan advocate or adherent of a particular ideology.” Oxford defines an ideologue as “an adherent of an ideology, especially one who is uncompromising and dogmatic.” George fits this definition because there can be no honest disagreement with him. He is like many other people I’ve seen who think it’s OK to demonize anyone who disagrees with you. That makes it OK to joke about killing, say, Mitch McConnell or Donald Trump. Yet they’re apoplectic if don’t share their adulation for Obama or – horrors! – dare to say one critical word about him! (George is not an aberration. Other liberal friends have said they wished Trump would die until they realize that Mike Pence would take over. This is unacceptable to them because they believe Pence is more evil than Trump.)

2. George thinks he wields the unquestionable moral trump card because he cares about people while he believes Republicans, conservatives and libertarians don’t. I’m not singling out liberals or progressives as the only people who climb onto their moral high horse. Ideologues at each end of the spectrum believe they have a monopoly on moral rectitude. This is one reason why many political discussions end in a stalemate. Each side thinks they’re moral and that their opponent is immoral. If you’re on the receiving end of this your natural reaction is going to be defensive. Who wants to be called an immoral heathen while also being asked to change your position?

3. My standard way of making my case is to avoid throwing the moral trump card onto the table. If someone presents their favor for a policy such as trying to help the poor or claim that regulations protect us from greedy businessmen I respond by saying their policies often don’t accomplish their goals. Or if the topic is climate change I’ll say my reading of several hundred scientific papers has lead me to a different conclusion. (Of course my responses need to be backed by research. Plus I know the facts I quote need to come from sources the person is willing to give some credence.) However, when George trotted out the “you don’t care who is hurt” ploy he was challenging my moral character. Countering with practical issues such as the financial cost of securing our border or the legality of trying to enter the U.S. without going through proper channels wouldn’t have tackled George’s snarky attack on me as a person. So I felt the proper response was to resort to a moral argument of my own and say that his position on open borders results in no controls of who comes in, which means some of the people could be criminals such as members of MS-13.

4.    I find it amusing how many liberals mock religious fundamentalists or evangelicals because they constantly refer to God and rigidly adhere to the Bible yet these liberals are just as fundamentalist about their political beliefs and heroes.

Friday, May 4, 2018

The Big Book of Wisdom of Western Civilization | The Independent Whig

The Big Book of Wisdom of Western Civilization | The Independent Whig

The Independent Whig posts his choice of books that would comprise chapters of an overall book that tells "a comprehensive story of Western culture."
The title and table of contents of my book of books would look something like the following. The first chapter-book lays out a foundational premise that each subsequent chapter-book logically follows, builds upon and expands, such that in the end a comprehensive story of Western culture can be comprehended. The appendices expand further still on the concepts told in the main story.
I've provided the chapters but without the brief description why The Independent Whig chose each book. I'm posting this obviously because I agree with his choice of books. I've read four of them and own seven of the others, waiting to be read. That leaves just two books that I hadn't discovered prior to his post. I've added in brackets after each book whether I have read them or have them.
Chapter 1: The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, by Steven Pinker. [Have]  
Chapter 2: Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences, by John R. Hibbing, Kevin B. Smith, and John R. Alford. [Have]
Chapter 3: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt. [Read. One of my favorite books.]
Chapter 4: The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization, by Herman [Read. Found to be very enlightening.]
Chapter 5: A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, by Sowell. [Have.] 
Chapter 6: Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy, by Goldberg. [Have]
Chapter 7: 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Peterson. [Read. Also plan to read his Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief.]
Appendix 1: The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, by Drew Weston. [Have]
Appendix 2: Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, by Joshua Greene. [Read]
Appendix 3: American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, by Colin Woodard. 
Appendix 4: The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-America, by Kevin Phillips 
Appendix 5: Pathological Altruism, by Barbara Oakley. [Have]
Appendix 6: Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, by Paul Bloom. [Have]

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.