Monday, October 16, 2017

When to Doubt

You should fact-check a news item or internet posting whenever:

1. You find it flattering.
2. It is likely to inspire outrage or hatred in its intended audience.
3. It appeals to racial, social, national, religious, or political identity.
4. It appeals to sentimentality.
5. It claims deliberate malevolence when mere incompetence would suffice.
6. It involves a conspiracy which would require prolonged secrecy from a large group of people.
7. It reduces a complex problem to a simple sound byte.
8. It contradicts well established peer-reviewed science.

The best way to sell a lie is to make it emotionally appealing. A logical fallacy might be used to defend a lie, but the fallacy will only be convincing if people already want to believe it. Effective lies have an emotional payoff. If it’s something you want to believe, be on your guard.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Truth and Consequences III: The Narrative

[The world] is under the domination of the [evil cabal]. To liberate [the world] from the grip of the [evil cabal], a group of [plucky good guys], aided by the power of [the occult power] shall free [the world] from the tyranny of the [evil cabal], and [bring about an era of good things].

Recognize this? Let me put it in a form more easily recognizable—Star Wars:

“The galaxy is under the domination of the empire To liberate the world from the grip of the empire, a group of plucky rebels, aided by the power of the Force shall free the galaxy from the tyranny of the empire, and restore the republic”

Now, Communism:

“The world is under the domination of capitalism. To liberate the world from the grip of capitalism, a group of ardent communists, aided by the power of historical inevitability, shall free the world from the tyranny of capitalism, and bring about the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Now, Libertarianism:

“The country is under the domination of government. To liberate the country from the grip of the government, a group of ingenious entrepreneurs, aided by the power of the market, shall free the country from the tyranny of government, and shall unleash the power of the markets.”

Fundamentalist Christianity:

“The nation is under the domination of Satan. To liberate the nation from the grip of Satan, a group of devout Christians, aided by the power of Jesus, shall free the country from the tyranny of Satan, and shall establish the Dominion of God.”

The Lord of the Rings:

“Middle Earth is under the domination of Sauron. To liberate Middle Earth from the grip of Sauron, a group of plucky adventurers, aided by the power of Valar, shall free Middle Earth from the tyranny of Sauron, and shall establish the Kingdom of Elessar.”


“The nation is under the domination of the mediocre masses. To liberate the nation from the grip of the masses, a group of brilliant businessmen, aided by the power of Capitalism, shall free the country from the tyranny of the masses, and shall establish Galt’s Gulch.”

And I could go on and on.

We should, first of all, realize that this is a fantasy. Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings are here, along with hundreds (if not thousands) of other lesser known works of fantasy and science fiction. And the reason we love them is that they paint us as heroes. Religions and ideologies are based upon simple narratives, and they too will be wrong. 

Next, we should realize that people who apparently have leapt the fence between allegiances have not changed very much at all. Malcolm Muggeridge switched from being an ardent communist to being a devout Catholic. David Horowitz similarly went from Communist to extreme right wing. Michael Shermer went from Fundamentalist Christian to Objectivist to Libertarian. But none of them changed narrative. They only changed the names in the slots of the narrative.

They never changed their minds at all.

Reality is infinitely more complex, and not nearly as flattering. The social and political fabric of our society are like a mass of human biomes linked together, with a constant struggle between infectious bodies and antibodies from various portions of the body politic, or like ideological storm systems driven by the biases of millions, reacting together and against each other fanned to greater and greater force by people who may not even care about ideology, but sell outrage because it makes them money. If a storm can be created by the wings of a butterfly, perhaps we ourselves are the butterflies, and the storm is simply the result of our lack of awareness. Socrates said that the unexamined life was not worth leading, and he was right.

If you focus on the good in others you will be drawn to that and become good; if you focus on evil, real or imaginary, you will become the very evil you hate. It explains a lot about history, and why this narrative is so dangerous—it places the battle against an enemy at the centre, and leaves the final state of affairs as an afterthought. The neo-cons followed this narrative in Iraq; get rid of the bad guy, and the end of history, a utopia of democracy and capitalism, would result. And we all know how that turned out.

This simplistic narrative will never accomplish anything. To build a better future, we must focus on a positive goal, not on who we wish to defeat. This is harder, and will take more time, and we will have to deal with opposition (though we will do better to get them onside rather that crush them.) It will not be simple, but it will be true.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Truth and Consequences II: The Silo

Back in my early twenties I encountered the Church of Scientology, and became interested in cults and how people could be convinced to abandon their own ability to think. I collected cult literature of all kinds (this was before the internet) and read books about various odd sects, including Christian Fundamentalists. I also remember coming across a movie called Ticket to Heaven, a Canadian movie with a very good cast (including a very young Kim Catrall and a riveting performance by R. H. Thomson as the deprogrammer) which was a fairly accurate portrayal of a young man’s induction and rescue from a Moonie like cult.

One common feature to all of these organizations was a process of epistemological isolation, which usually began as physical isolation but then moved on to instilling a distrust of all other sources of information. Once this was achieved, the convert could be released into the world, albeit with frequent guidance from the cult, because they would meet any disconfirming views with distrust. 

I believe we are witnessing something similar, but on a unprecedented scale, with alt news. It is not merely the lies that are told, but a systemic and comprehensive attack upon other sources, and worse, the capacity for independent critical thought. It is also unprecedented in that this is not a centralized strategy, but a distributed ideological cluster which has linked up on the internet to form a cohesive whole. This is something that was not possible without the internet—indeed, the very structure of the internet not only makes this possible, but likely.

I had originally thought that this attack on reason and evidence was the fallout of post modernism, with both the right and the left drawing on the epistemological relativism of the academic left. This certainly seemed to be the case with Karl Rove and his “reality-based community” rant. But the real roots of this go back much further, to the amateur theology of Fundamentalist Christians, and their attempts to defend it.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, North America was a cultural backwater, with barely trained ministers coming up with doctrines that no respectable Christian Church would support: Biblical Literalism, the Rapture, and wild speculations about the meaning of the Book of Revelations. Many were expelled from traditional Churches and went on to found their own. As they coalesced into a movement, they were faced with opponents on two fronts: science and the theory of evolution, and the learned elites, particularly theologians, who knew that their version of the Christian religion was a heretical break from all tradition and therefore illegitimate. To counter this they invented an ideology of falsehood, by which reason, evidence, and learning are the enemy, the imposition of arrogant elites, and even the tools of the devil. The ideology of Christian Fundamentalists kept their members safe from outside influences, but also kept them hermetically sealed from the truth. 

This idea has spread and become quite useful to certain political factions (not all of them on the right), but I think it is clear that these factions are operating as cults, and now the cult-like nature is made clear by its source of origin—an actual Christian Cult, which came to dominate the political right in the 1980’s, and that still thrives and animates much of conservative politics. I was astonished to learn, in the early 80’s, that my father, an apparently devout Catholic, had in fact become a Fundamentalist Christian through conservative tracts from America, which carried within them the assumptions of that sect.

The task remains to prove to many of those involved that they are in fact part of a cult. Of course, the basis of most political affiliations now is emotion, not reason or evidence, but it might be worth a shot. That will be the subject of my next posting.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Truth or Consequences

In the current environment of “alternative facts”, I am beginning to suspect that the real cultural divide is not between political affiliations, but an epistemological argument.

Friendship is based upon trust. You must be able to trust what your friends say, without resorting to fact checking. If you cannot trust what they say, their is no basis for friendship. This is not just a matter of knowledge, but of judgement: we must not only trust what they read, but their ability to discern the truth. If they are ignorant, they must confess their ignorance, or remain silent. If they make strong claims that later turn out to be false, and they do so repeatedly, time spent with them becomes a cognitive drain, rather than an easy-going exchange. Vigilance should only be required for enemies, not for friends.

People may have their own opinions. But if they have their own facts, they are not merely different. They are mad.

Internet silos offering politically convenient lies first appeared in the nineties, and have proliferated ever since, to the point that they should now be considered main stream media. The effect on society has been devastating, splitting our society into angry factions. All of this is represented to be the result of diverging political views, but liberals and conservatives used to work together. The dividing line is not opinion or political inclination, but a dispute about basic facts. This should never happen, as there is a method for resolving such disputes. It is usually called the scientific method, but it predates modern science. It is a regimented approach to evidence and sound reason, which, if pursued earnestly, will converge upon a single point of fact. Artistic pursuits diverge and proliferate. Scientific truths converge to a single point. If you destroyed all art, literature, and religion, something entirely different would eventually emerge. If you erased all science and it came back, it would ultimately be the same as it was before it was lost.

This is why mistakes about the facts are failures of judgement—there is a way to establish the truth, but the person doesn’t know this, or can’t be bothered. There is more involved here than bad evidence; there is a proclivity to accept bad arguments—logical fallacies, bald appeals to emotion or identity, and the like. A common strategy is an appeal to vanity. People are convinced by what is flattering. On the right, most of this flattery is directed at those who are white, male, and intelligent, but note that all of these are things are something they are born with, rather than anything they have achieved. What you find flattering, what you want to believe, should immediately be suspect. 

We do not live in the world of fact or objectivity, but in the world of dreams. Only with great effort can we achieve a glimpse of truth. Science and philosophy are hard, and they are not our first home. So, though I am an atheist, I will tell you that it is possible to sell your soul to the devil, and have the devil show up to collect. You can be a servant of lies, and more than that—as such, you can be damned. This sounds extreme, but I know people who are damned, who have no contact with other human beings, who spend all of their time screaming into their computer to people who have long ago ceased to listen or care. Who will befriend you when nothing you say can be trusted? I cannot imagine anything closer to banishment to the lower planes of hell than this.

And this makes me wonder, when we encounter internet trolls, whether we are hearing the screams of the damned, the lost souls who have alienated all human contact, and are now adrift, raging in the abyss for all that they have lost and cannot seem to regain.

If you love anything other than the truth, then the truth may hurt you. It will keep you from what you love, if what you love is less than worthy, like your own pride and prejudices. It will destroy your idols. It will make your gods and heroes human. But if you love the truth, it will not hurt you. This is why we must pledge allegiance to the truth, and why we must love each other with all our failures and frailties. The truth does not falsify the love of others, for that is a love of not just what is, but what could be, and the numinous space between. 

The love of ego is always at war with the truth. The love of others is not.

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Strength and Vulnerability

In the business world I often encounter the git-shit-done mentality, which values competence, discipline, and the strong determination to achieve a goal, often to the point of ruthlessness. Those who can perform are strongly encouraged and rewarded, but anyone regarded as less than capable is likely to the shown the door. “Sorry, best of luck in future endeavours, but you don’t belong here.” This world is frank, sometimes to the point of being brutal, and will accept anyone who can do the job. Contrary to the opinions of those who think that feminism and multi-race and multi-cultural initiatives in the workplace are the consequence of political correctness, these are actually the natural outcome of capitalism. Competence trumps all other concerns, and outweighs sex, race, or culture. The decline of the white man in the work force is not the result of affirmative action—it was affirmative action that put him in a position of precedence in the first place.

On the other hand, there is a tradition that I greatly respect, the shared understanding that humans are deeply flawed, so often voiced in the Christian and other traditions, which urge us to band together, forgive each other’s weaknesses, and work together to overcome them (and yet, I am an atheist.) There is a parallel to this in the scientific method—which I would call the modern method, and has taken root in other places far antecedent to modernity (the Islamic Caliphate of the late first millennium AD was one)—which requires a process of peer review, recognizing that people make mistakes and only together have we any chance of getting things right. This understanding of human weakness has been supported by recent advances in behavioural economics (particularly by Daniel Kahneman), which has advanced the idea that we are largely irrational and prone to poor judgements. The opposition between this admission of human frailty and the world of business is nowhere more clear than in the failure of neoliberalism as an economic ideology. Neo-liberalism regards humans as rational self-maximizers—indeed, this is the foundational assumption of Neo-liberalism, its theory of human nature. But then, all ideologies are founded on a faulty simplified model of human nature.

But here’s the thing: the traditions that emphasize human frailty often abandon all hope of man-made solutions. To be blunt, thoughts and prayers won’t git-shit-done. We have to dare to use our judgement and our abilities, flawed as they may be, because no hand from the sky will save us. God is not returning his calls. We have to solve our own problems, and all the hand wringing in the world won’t accomplish that. And the weak remain at the mercy of the strong, so we must compel the competent to help those who need it, because there is another iron law of capitalism; when the markets collapse, capitalism will collapse, and the rich will lose everything. There’s no point in being worth 50 billion dollars when a dollar is worthless. And it will be if capitalism fails. The thing that most Marxists miss is Marx’s awe of capitalism’s productive capacity. Redistribution isn’t an option if there is nothing to redistribute. Capitalism produces; socialism redistributes, but they must work together.

Beyond that, the culture of victimhood, which exploits the traditions of mercy to an absurd extent, has no future. It relies upon pity, which is exclusive to respect, especially in the long run, and it has no grasp upon the elite beyond what they permit, and therefore has no influence beyond the narrow world of academia. Indeed, it quickly exhausts its welcome. It is instructive to note that the era of political correctness began precisely at the time of the Reagan revolution, and is now fading at precisely the moment that the polity is taking a dramatic shift to the left. The academic left was always politically inert, and in fact, politically regressive. It achieved the opposite of all its stated goals, and serves only the political right, who trot out tales of their excesses to scare their constituency. 

Still, all this is on the political and macro level. At the personal level, the cult of competency has much to learn from the tradition of frailty, both in the way that it deals with its own members and with the people who lay outside of it bounds. Steve Jobs was ruthless to those in his organization, but his success was in his capacity to be the customer from hell, probably his only competence. He demanded the best for the average non-technical user, and in that respect, became an unlikely advocate for mercy. While many techies regard people who cannot use their products as idiots, Jobs turned that accusation on his team for not making products that the average person could use, and made it clear to them that if they could not do that, they were the idiots. The prevailing neoliberal ideology regards the people who cannot succeed in it as idiots. It is time to tell them that if so many people cannot succeed under their leadership, it is they who are the idiots.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Skepticism, Libertarianism, and the Autistic Mindset

Skeptics doubt the existence of God. In my opinion, religious belief is founded upon a category error; the use of social intelligence to understand facts about physical universe. Why questions presuppose an intentional actor. If someone asks me why a t-shirt is lying on the floor, it is not a question of how it came to be there, but of why someone left it there. The how allows for a wind to have blown it there from a position where it might be drying, but the why looks for the reasons that someone left it there.

Likewise, religious questions assume an intentional actor, asking why questions. Science cannot answer why questions, because the questions bear assumptions that are not established. In this sense, skeptics' doubt about the existence of God are entirely valid. You must first establish the existence of agency before asking agency related questions.

But this tendency to ask about intentionality where none exists is typical of people who rely upon social rather than rational intelligence. The converse, among skeptics, is to rely upon rational intelligence rather than social intelligence. But this, too, has its hazards.

Social intelligence is what autistic and auspergers people lack, and it now seem to me that this is broader in the population than previously believed, and only problematic in people on the autistic spectrum. Those on the autistic spectrum, no matter how shallowly, are right about religions, but wrong about much else. I believe that any discussion of ethics must begin with social intelligence. Hume and Kant did not begin with this, and I think this led to a muddled theory of ethics during the Enlightenment. An is cannot be an ought unless the ought is an is--in other words, ethics must be foundational to personality, an inescapable assumption in all things, and this ought is a product of social intelligence. There is no "view from nowhere" in ethics--all ethical considerations are from a human perspective, and human beings are social animals. Rational intelligence is useless in establishing this foundation. Isolation is death, physically and psychologically. Society is life, and society requires compassion and cooperation. But rationality will not tell you this. A study of history and psychology might, but even that is open to interpretations, which can go horribly wrong under the influence of ideology. And oddly enough, much of religious ethics are rational, abstracting from human concerns and making an ideological supreme being the cornerstone of the entire system.

But to people who value rational over social intelligence, the idea of social interdependence may well be foreign concept. It's not that they can't think of it, but it is not the first thing they think of, and other ideas can get in the way. Libertarianism is one of those ideas. Libertarianism is attractive to people who see the world exclusively in rational terms because it promises them a world where they do not need to be concerned with others--a world where social intelligence is not required. I believe that Marxism operated in the same way, a one-size-fits-all system of ethics that bypassed social intuitions in favor of rational ideology. The same applies to Utilitarianism and a wide variety of other ethical systems, including the work of Peter Singer, which in my opinion would be disastrous in application (his suggestion that we send half of the wealth of the first world to the third world would be the equivalent of nuclear carpet bombing--look at what oil wealth has done to Saudi Arabia.)

Furthermore, this may go a long way to establishing why there is so much anger seeking a target on the internet in general (populated largely by nerds) and particularly among the skeptical community, who rely almost exclusively on rational intelligence. Much has been said about misogyny among these groups, and it's true, but this may be a symptom, not the root cause. The root cause is more likely to the accumulated rage of people who do not know how to conduct themselves with others, and who often fail in self-presentation, verbal self-defense, and reading social cues from others. And this would be nowhere more evident than in their dealings with the opposite sex. Hence their antagonism towards women, whose motivations and reasons would appear indecipherable to them. On average, women tend to specialize more in social intelligence while men focus on rational intelligence, although the split is more like 60/40 on both sides, rather than all or nothing. This is why autism is so much more prevalent in males.

In summary, words of advice to my rationalist fellows:

1. You are right about religion, but this doesn't make you smarter overall, just smarter in one particular way.
2. Ethics is a matter that begins in the heart, not in the head. If you start with rationality, you will go nowhere.
3. You have little core competence in subjects relating to social matters, including politics and sociology. Your theories on these subjects are very likely to be bunk. You will be attracted to easy answers based upon rational constructs, but human society is the most complex phenomenon in the natural world, and we have no comprehensive models for it. Never assume that you do.
4. You probably have anger management issues because you don't know how to express your anger, or many of your other feelings, in an effective manner, and this has left you at the mercy of those with better social intelligence. Begin with the understanding that tantrums just make you look like a loser, and try to learn compassion and discipline.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

The Formula

There is a standard formula for media which draws and engages people, a formula followed by publishers since the 18th century. We can see it in yellow journalism of all kinds: shock jock radio hosts, Fox News, the Huffington Post, and political blogs of all stripes. It goes back to the Penny Dreadfulls, to the rags of the French and American Revolutions. Even Ben Franklin was a notorious purveyor of yellow journalism, which is how he kept his publishing business profitable.

Of course, not everyone follows the formula; it is possible to draw a following with insight and information, with genuine knowledge and expertise. You can attract people with this, but it requires effort, and it won't make you rich. Your profit margin will be low, and you won't become a media baron--at best, you will become a media presence.

But if you wish to become a media baron, the formula is simple. Here it is:

1) Choose Your Audience: Decide what your target audience is. It must be a broad section of society, usually a major political faction or party. The smaller and more special interest the group, the smaller your following. So, for example, don't target a specific Christian sect, target all Christians, and keep it vague. Lumping them all in together will become easier once you define them by providing enemies. It is far easier to unite people against something than it is to unite them for something. The key is to create something they can all hate.

2) Make People Angry: People are engaged by strong emotions, and the best is anger. Too much fear will drive them off, sentimentality is hard to maintain (though some manage), and laughter takes talent. Anger, though, is dead simple. It requires no research, no talent, and little expense. One needs only follow the rules of the formula.

3) Create Enemies: Tell your audience that those who disagree with them are dedicated to their downfall. Tell them that these people are their enemies, and if they should suceed, all that your audience have ever worked for or hoped for will be undone. Tell your audience that they are dangerous, and that their success will bring on something akin to the apocalypse. Prurient outrage is the easiest; show that the enemy likes sex, and your audience will never forgive him.

4) Build Strawmen: Under no circumstances present these enemies as reasonable people. Distort their views until they become monsters. Having done so, demonstrate how these views lead to every manner of crime and catastrophe. Depict them as advocates and practitioners of every vice and sin imaginable, and encouraging the same for everyone else.

5) Lie: Lies will feed your accusations, and outrage the opposition, so you will now have anger from all sources. Even your opponents will now frequent your media, if only to try to counter what you are saying. This will give you their names and addresses (which you can sell) and extra sales, but you can also select the worst of these outraged responses to print or post for the amusement of your target audience, and the further outrage of the opposition.

6) Teach Nothing: Reality is surprising and rarely conforms to our expectations, but anything that does not conform to the expectations of your audience will make them uncomfortable. Shield them from this, or they may desert you. If an new fact appears, spin it so that it does not challenge their beliefs. If there is a lesson to be learned, hide it. The only lesson they should hear is for others, not for them. Assure them that there is nothing that they need to learn. Best of all, this means that you require no research, which is expensive. You need only provide opinions on what is already known, and this is dirt cheap.