A Philosopher's Blog

The Return of Sophism

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on January 4, 2017

Scottie Nell Hughes, a Trump surrogate, presented her view of truth on The Diane Rehm Show. As she sees it:

 

Well, I think it’s also an idea of an opinion. And that’s—on one hand, I hear half the media saying that these are lies. But on the other half, there are many people that go, ‘No, it’s true.’ And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people that say facts are facts—they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way—it’s kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth, or not truth. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.

 

Since the idea that there are no facts seems so ridiculously absurd, the principle of charity demands that some alternative explanation be provided for Hughes’ claim. Her view should be familiar to anyone who has taught an introductory philosophy class. There is always at least one student who, often on day one of the class, smugly asserts that everything is a matter of opinion and thus there is no truth. A little discussion, however, usually reveals that they do not really believe what they think they believe. Rather than thinking that there really is no truth, they merely think that people disagree about what they think is true and that people have a right to freedom of belief. If this is what Hughes believes, they I have no dispute with her: people believe different things and, given Mill’s classic arguments about liberty, it seems reasonable to accept freedom of thought.

But, perhaps, the rejection of facts is not as absurd as it seems. As I tell my students, there are established philosophical theories that embrace this view. One is relativism, which is the view that truth is relative to something—this something is typically a culture, though it could also be (as Hughes seems to hold) relative to a political affiliation. One common version of this is aesthetic relativism in which beauty is relative to the culture, so there is no objective beauty. The other is subjectivism, which is the idea that truth is relative to the individual. Sticking with an aesthetic example, the idea that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is a subjectivist notion. On this view, there is not even a cultural account of beauty, beauty is entirely dependent on the observer. While Hughes does not develop her position, she seems to be embracing political relativism or even subjectivism: “And so Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd—a large part of the population—are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some—amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies and that there are no facts to back it up.”

If Hughes takes the truth to be relative to the groups (divided by their feelings towards Trump), then she is a relativist. In this case, each group has its own truth that is made true by the belief of the group. If she holds truth to be dependent on the individual, then she would be a subjectivist. In this case, each person has her own truth, but she might happen to have a truth that others also accept.

While some might think that this view of truth in politics is something new, it is ancient and dates back at least to the sophists of ancient Greece. The sophists presented themselves as pragmatic and practical—for a fee, they would train a person to sway the masses to gain influence and power. One of the best-known sophists, thanks to Plato, was Protagoras—he offered to teach people how to succeed.

The rise of these sophists is easy to explain—a niche had been created for them. Before the sophists came the pre-Socratic philosophers who argued relentlessly against each other. Thales, for example, argued that the world is water. Heraclitus claimed it was fire. These disputes and the fact the arguments tended to be well-balanced for and against any position, gave rise to skepticism. This is the philosophical view that we lack knowledge. Some thinkers embraced this and became skeptics, others went beyond skepticism.

Skepticism often proved to be a gateway drug to relativism—if we cannot know what is true, then it seems sensible that truth is relative. If there is no objective truth, then the philosophers and scientist are wasting their time looking for what does not exist. The religious and the ethical are also wasting their time—there is no true right and no true wrong. But accepting this still leaves twenty-four hours a day to fill, so the question remained about what a person should do in a world without truth and ethics. The sophists offered an answer.

Since searching for truth or goodness would be pointless, the sophists adopted a practical approach. They marketed their ideas to make money and offered, in return, the promise of success. Some of the sophists did accept that there were objective aspects of reality, such as those that would fall under the science of physics or biology. They all rejected the idea that what philosophers call matters of value (such as ethics, politics, and economics) are objective, instead embracing relativism or subjectivism.

Being practical, they did recognize that many of the masses professed to believe in moral (and religious) values and they were aware that violating these norms could prove problematic when seeking success. Some taught their students to act in accord with the professed values of society. Others, as exemplified by Glaucon’s argument for the unjust man in the Ring of Gyges story of the Republic, taught their students to operate under the mask of morality and social values while achieving success by any means necessary. These views had a clear impact on lying.

Relativism still allows for there to be lies of a sort. For those who accept objective truth, a lie (put very simply) an intentional untruth, usually told with malicious intent. For the relativist, a lie would be intentionally making a claim that is false relative to the group in question, usually with malicious intent. Going back to Hughes’ example, to Trump’s true believers Trump’s claims are true because they accept them. The claims that Trump is lying would be lies to the Trump believers, because they believe that claim is untrue and that the Trump doubters are acting with intent. The reverse, obviously enough, holds for the Trump doubters—they have their truth and the claims of the Trump believers are lies. This approach certainly seems to be in use now, with some pundits and politicians embracing the idea that what they disagree with is thus a lie.

Relativism does rob the accusation of lying of much of its sting, at least for those who understand the implications of relativism. On this view a liar is not someone who is intentionally making false claims, a liar is someone you disagree with. This does not mean that relativism is false, it just means that accusations of untruth become rhetorical tools and emotional expressions without any, well, truth behind them. But, they serve well in this capacity as a tool to sway the masses—as Trump showed with great effect. He simply accuses those who disagree with him of being liars and many believe him.

I have no idea whether Trump has a theory of truth or not, but his approach is utterly consistent with sophism and the view expressed by Hughes. It would also explain why Trump does not bother with research or evidence—these assume there is a truth that can be found and supported. But if there is no objective truth and only success matters, then there is no reason not to say anything that leads to success.

There are, of course, some classic problems for relativism and sophism. Through Socrates, Plato waged a systematic war on relativism and sophism—some of the best criticisms can be found in his works.

One concise way to refute relativism is to point out that relativism requires a group to define the truth. But, there is no way principled way to keep the definition of what counts as a group of believers from sliding to there being a “group” of one, which is subjectivism. The problem with subjectivism is that if it is claimed that truth is entirely subjective, then there is no truth at all—we end up with nihilism. One obvious impact of nihilism is that the sophists’ claim that success matters is not true—there is no truth. Another important point is that relativism about truth seems self-refuting: it being true requires that it be false. This argument seems rather too easy and clever by far, but it does make an interesting point for consideration.

In closing, it is fascinating that Hughes so openly presented her relativism (and sophism). Most classic sophists advocated, as noted above, operating under a mask of accepting conventional moral values. But, just perhaps, we are seeing a bold new approach to sophism: one that is trying to shift the values of society to openly accepting relativism and embracing sophism. While potentially risky, this could yield considerable political advantages and sophism might see its day of triumph. Assuming that it has not already done so.

 

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Exploiting Terror

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on December 23, 2016

Terrorism, like assassination, is violence with a political purpose. An assassination might also be intended to create terror, but the main objective is to eliminate a specific target. In contrast, terrorism is not aimed at elimination of a specific target; the goal is to create fear and almost any victims will suffice.

An individual terrorist might have any number of motives ranging from the ideological to the personal. Perhaps the terrorist sincerely believes that God loves the murder of innocents. Perhaps the terrorist was rejected by someone they were infatuated with and is lashing out in rage. While speculation into the motives of such people is certainly interesting and important, behind all true terrorism lies a political motivation—although the motivation might be on the part of those other than the person conducting the actual act.

While a terrorist attack can create fear on the local level by itself, terrorists need the media and social media to spread their terror on a large scale. The media is always happy to oblige and provide extensive coverage. While this coverage can be defended on the grounds that people have a right to know the facts, the coverage does have some important and (hopefully) unintended consequences.

One effect of extensive media coverage is to serve as an impact multiplier—the whole world is informed of the terrorist act and the group that claims credit gains terrorist credibility and status. This improves the influence of the group and enhances its ability to recruit—the group is essentially getting free advertising. Assuming that aiding terrorists is morally wrong, this coverage is morally problematic.

A second effect of the coverage is that it fuels the spotlight fallacy. This is a fallacy in which a person estimates the chances that something will happen based on how often they hear about it rather than based on how often it actually occurs. Terrorist attacks in the West are very rare and what Americans should really be worried about, based on statistics, is poor lifestyle choices that are encouraged and aided by industry. These include the use of tobacco, over consumption of alcohol, misuse of pain killers, eating unhealthy food and driving automobiles. Since terrorist attacks are covered relentlessly in the news and the leading causes of premature death are not, it is easy for people to overestimate the danger posed by terrorism. And underestimate what will probably kill them.

A third effect of coverage is that it can make people victims of the fallacy of misleading vividness. This fallacy occurs when a person overestimates the chances that something will occur based on how vivid or extreme the event is. While the media typically exercises some restraint in it coverage, the depiction is obviously scary to most and this can cause people to psychologically overestimate the threat.

Whether a person falls victim to the spotlight fallacy or misleading vividness, the end result is the same: the person overestimates the danger and is thus more afraid then they should be. This has beneficial effects for those who wish to exploit this fear.

Obviously enough, the terrorists aim to exploit the fear they create—they want people in the West to believe that they are in terrible danger and face an existential threat. Lacking the capacity to engage in actual war, they must make use of the strategy of terror. These two fallacies are critical weapons in their war and people who fall victim to them have allowed the terrorists to win.

One of the ironies of terrorism is that there are politicians in the West who exploit the fear created by terrorists and use it to influence people for their political ends. While they do not deploy the terrorists, they benefit from the attacks as much as the masters of the terrorists do.

Not surprisingly, they make use of some classic fallacies: appeal to fear and appeal to anger. An appeal to fear occurs when something that is supposed to create fear is offered in place of actual evidence. In the case of an appeal to anger, the same sort of thing is done, only with anger. This is not to say that something that might make a person afraid or angry cannot serve as actual evidence; it is that these fallacies offer no reasons to support the claim in question and only appeal to the emotions.

Interestingly, terrorists like ISIS and the Western political groups that exploit them have very similar objectives. Both want to present the fight as a clash of cultures, the West (and Christianity) against Islam. They both want this for similar reasons—to increase the number of their followers and to keep the conflict going so it can be exploited to fuel their political ambitions. If Muslims are accepted by the Western countries, then the terrorist groups lose influence and propaganda tools—and thus lose recruits. If Muslims accept the West, then the Western political groups exploiting fear of Islam also lose influence and propaganda tools—and thus lose recruits.

Both the terrorists and their Western exploiters want to encourage Westerners to be afraid of refugees coming from conflict areas in the Middle East. After all, if the West takes in refugees and treats them well, this is a loss of recruits and propaganda for the terrorists.  It is also a loss for those who try to build political power on fear and hatred of refugees.

If refugees have no way to escape conflict, they will be forced to be either victims or participants. Children who grow up without education, stability and opportunity will also be much easier to recruit into terrorist groups.  This is all in the interest of the terrorists; but also the Western political groups who want to exploit terrorism. After all, these groups are founded on identity politics and need a scary “them” to contrast with “us.”

This is not to say that the West should not be on guard against possible attacks or that the West should not vet refugees. My main point is that over reacting to terrorism only serves the ends of the wicked, be they actual terrorists or those in the West who would exploit this terror to gain power.

 

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Fake News V: Fake vs Real

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on December 12, 2016

One of the challenges in combatting fake news is developing a principled distinction between fake and real news. One reason for this is providing a defense against the misuse of the term “fake news” to attack news on ideological or other irrelevant grounds. I make no pretense of being able to present a necessary and sufficient definition of fake news, but I will endeavor to make a rough sketch of how the real should be distinguished from the fake. My approach is built around three attributes: intention, factuality, and methodology. I will consider each in turn.

While determining a person’s intent can be challenging, intent does serve to differentiate fake news from real news. An obvious comparison here is to lying in general—a lie is not simply making an untrue claim, but making such a claim with an intent (typically malicious) to deceive. There are, of course, benign deceits—such as those of the arts.

There are some forms of fake news, namely those aimed at being humorous, that are benign in intent. The Onion, for example, aims to entertain as does Duffel Blog and Andy Borowitz. Being comedic in nature, they fall under the protective umbrella of art: they say untrue things to make people laugh. Though they are technically fake news, they are benign in their fakery and hence should not be treated as malicious fake news.

Other fake news operators, such as those behind the stories about Comet Ping Pong Pizza, seem to have different intentions. Some claim they created fake news with a benign intent—they wanted people to become more critical of the news. Assuming this was the intent, it did not seem to work out as they hoped. To their credit, they wanted to fail in their deceit—but this is as morally problematic as having a trusted figure lie to people about important things to try to teach them to be skeptical. As such, this sort of fake news is to be condemned.

Some also operate fake news to make a profit. Since news agencies also intend to make a profit, this does not differentiate the fake from the real. However, those engaged in real news do not intend to deceive to profit, whereas the fake news operators use deceit as a tool in their money-making endeavors. This is certainly something to be condemned.

Others engage in fake news for ideological reasons or to achieve political goals; their intent is to advance their agenda with intentional deceits. The classic defense of this approach is utilitarian: the good done by the lies outweighs their harm (for the morally relevant beings). While truly noble lies could be morally justified, the usual lies of fake news seem to not aim at the general good, but the advancement of a specific agenda that is likely to create more harm than good. Since this matter is so complicated, it is fortunate that the matter of fake news is much simpler: deceit presented as real news is fake news; even if the action could be justified on utilitarian grounds.

In the case of real news, the intent is to present claims that are believed to be true. This might be with the goal of profit, but it is the intent to provide truth that makes the difference. Naturally, working out intent can be challenging—but there is a fact of the matter as to why people do what they do. Real news might also be presented with the desire to advance an agenda, but if the intent is also to provide truth, then the news would remain real.

In regards to factuality, an important difference between fake and real news is that the real news endeavors to offer facts and the fake news does not. A fact is a claim that has been established as true (to the requisite degree) and this is a matter of methodology, which will be discussed below.

Factual claims are claims that are objective. This means that they are true or false regardless of how people think, feel or believe about them. For example, the claim that the universe contains dark matter is a factual claim. Factual claims can at least in theory, be verified or disproven. In contrast, non-factual claims are not objective and cannot be verified or disproven. As such, there can be no “fake” non-factual claims.

It might be tempting to protect the expression of values (moral, political, aesthetic and so on) in the news from accusations of being fake news by arguing that they are non-factual claims and thus cannot be fake news. The problem is that while many uncritically believe value judgments are not objective, this is actually a matter of considerable dispute. To assume that value claims are not factual claims would be to beg the question. But, to assume they are would also beg the question. Since I cannot hope to solve this problem, I will instead endeavor to sketch a practical guide to the difference.

In terms of non-value factual claims of the sort that appear in the news, there are established methods for testing them. As such, the way to distinguish the fake from the real is by consideration of the methodology used (and applying the relevant method).

In the case of value claims, such as the claim that reducing the size of government is the morally right thing to do, there are not such established methods to determine the truth (and there might be no truth in this context). As such, while such claims and any arguments supporting them can be criticized, they should not be regarded as news as such. Thus, they could not be fake news.

As a final point, it is also worth considering the matter of legitimate controversy. There are some factual matters that are legitimately in dispute. While not all the claims can be right (and all could be wrong), this does not entail that the claims are fake news. Because of this, to brand one side or the other as being fake news simple because one disagrees with that side would be unjustified. For example, whether imposing a specific tariff would help the economy is a factual matter, but one that could be honestly debated. I now turn to methodology.

It might be wondered why the difference between fake and real news is not presented entirely in terms of one making fake claims and the other making true claims. The reason for this is that a real news could turn out to be untrue and fake news could turn out to be correct. In terms of real news errors, reporters do make mistakes, sources are not always accurate, and so on. By pure chance, a fake news story could get the facts right, but it would not be thus real news. The critical difference between fake and real news is thus the methodology. This can be supported by drawing an analogy to science.

What differentiates real science from fake science is not that one gets it right and the other gets it wrong. Rather, it is a matter of methodology. This can be illustrated by using the dispute over dark matter in physics. If it turns out that dark matter does not exist, this would not show that the scientists were doing fake science. It would just show that they were wrong. Suppose that instead of dark matter, what is really going on is that normal matter in a parallel universe is interacting with our universe. Since I just made this up, I would not be doing real science just because my imagination happened to get it right.

Another analogy can be made to math. As any math teacher will tell you, it is not a matter of just getting the right answer, it is a matter of getting the right answer the right way. Hence the eternal requirement of showing one’s work. A person could simply guess at the answer at the problem and get it right; but they are not doing real math because they are not even doing math. Naturally, a person can be doing real math and still get the answer wrong.

Assuming these analogies hold, real news is a matter of methodology—a methodology that might fail. Many of the methods of real news are, not surprisingly, similar to the methods of critical thinking in philosophy. For example, there is the proper use of the argument from authority as the basis for claims. As another example, there are the methods of assessing unsupported claims against one’s own observations, one’s background information and against credible claims.

The real news uses this methodology and evidence of it is present in the news, such as identified sources, verifiable data, and so on. While a fake news story can also contain fakery about methodology, this is a key matter of distinction. Because of this, news that is based on the proper methodology would be real news, even if some might disagree with its content.

 

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Fake News IV: The Role of the State

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on December 9, 2016

While there has been considerable speculation about the impact of fake news on the election, the recent incident at Comet Ping Pong Pizza shows that fake news can cause real harm. Since one duty of the state is to protect citizens from harm, this leads to the matter of the proper role of the state in regards to fake news.

While people typically base their beliefs about a policy on how they feel, such matters need to be approached based on the consistent application of a principle about what the state should or should not do. “The state should do what I want and not do what I do not want” is no more adequate as a principle of policy than it would be as a principle of law. As such, a proper principle is needed.

Starting with the assumption that the state has a responsibility to protect citizens from harm, it follows that a key part of the principle would be based on this responsibility. The challenge is sorting out whether the harms inflicted by fake news fall under this responsibility.

One reasonable way to approach this is to consider the significance of the harms. As a practical matter, the state cannot afford to expend its resources protecting citizens from all the minor harms. As such, the harms caused by fake news would need to be significant enough to cross this practical threshold. There are two clear points of dispute here. One is the threshold for state involvement in protecting citizens. The other is whether fake news meets that threshold.

As noted above, some claim the fake news impacted the election, perhaps causing Trump’s victory. The manipulation of voters through lies does seem like a significant harm to the citizens who were robbed of an honest decision. The easy counter to this is that politicians often win by lying and these lies are not regarded as falling under the compulsive power of the state. This could be objected to by saying that such lies should be forbidden, but this goes beyond the scope of this short essay.

The Comet Ping Pong Pizza incident does serve as single example of the harm fake news can do—a person who believes a fake story might decide to engage in criminal activity based on that fake news. The easy counter to this is that one incident, even if it is vivid, does not suffice to show that there is a threat of significant harm. It could be countered that even one incident is too many and that the state must step in to protect the citizens.

The response to this is that the incident does not seem serious enough to warrant general state action against fake news and there is the obvious concern about whether there will even be other incidents. The state should only use its coercive power to the degree the harms are significant and likely to occur.

The fact that this matter involves the freedom of expression also complicates things. If the state were to create the machinery to control fake news, this would set a precedent for the gradual expansion of this power. After all, the state tends to expand its powers rather than curtail them. It is easy enough to imagine the control of fake news expanding outward from factual untruths to include matters of ideology. While this slide is not guaranteed, such expansions of power into the realm of basic liberty need to be regarded with due concern. While I am worried about fake news, I do not think it is yet significant enough to justify using the coercive power of the state. There are some obvious exceptions, such as when fake news breaks existing laws (such as libel or slander laws).

But, suppose that the harms of fake news are significant enough to warrant the attention of the state even in the face of the freedom of expression. While this would be a step towards justifying the use of the coercive power of the state, there is still another point of consideration. This is the matter of whether citizens and non-government organizations are unwilling or unable to effectively address the problem. If citizens can adequately address the harms without the state using its coercive power, then it is preferable to have the state remain uninvolved. For example, a couple that is involved in an emotional disaster of a relationship can be suffering considerable harm, but that should be handled by the couple or other people whose help they request (if it does not escalate to actual violence).

Fake news, I contend, can be adequately handled by citizens and non-government organizations. Individuals can take some basic efforts to be more critical of the news, thus protecting themselves from the harms without the state getting involved. Fake news is not like a foreign invader or deadly disease that is beyond the power of the citizens to defend themselves—it is well within their power to do so, if only they would take a little effort to be informed and critical.

Non-government organizations can also counter fake news (and are already doing so).  For example, the real news companies and the fact checkers have been fighting fake news. Companies like Facebook and Google that enable the monetization of fake news can also do a great deal to combat it. While there are clearly concerns about such control of the news, policing of the news is something that the existing networks do. As such, expecting Facebook to accept some basic responsibility for what it profits from is not unreasonable and is already standard practice in traditional news media. This is not to say that concerns about the policies of media companies are irrelevant, just that the fake news does not really create a new situation—all media companies already have policies regarding the news.

In light of the above discussion, the state should not use its coercive power to control fake news. My position is contingent on the facts—should fake news prove to be a significant harm that citizens and non-government organizations are unwilling or unable to counter, then the state could be justified in stepping in.

 

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Fake News III: Pizzagate

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on December 7, 2016

While fake news is often bizarre, one of the stranger fake claims is that the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria was part of a child sex ring led by Hillary Clinton. This fake story made the real news when Edgar M. Welch allegedly armed himself and went to the pizzeria to investigate the story. This  investigation led to gunfire, although no one was injured. Mr. Welch surrendered peacefully to the police after finding no evidence of the sex ring.

Given that the story had been debunked by the New York Times, Snopes, and the Washington Post, it might be wondered why someone would believe such a claim. Laying aside the debunking, it might also be wondered why anyone would believe such a seemingly absurd claim: for all her flaws, Hillary Clinton does not seem to be a person who would run a child sex ring.

Some might be tempted to dismiss people who believe fake news as fools or stupid, most likely while congratulating themselves on their own intellectual prowess. While there is no shortage of fools and everyone is stupid at least some of the time, the “people are stupid” explanation does not suffice. After all, intelligent people of all political stripes are fooled by fake news.

One reason why fake news of this sort convinces people is that it makes use of the influence of repetition. While people will tend to be skeptical of odd or implausible claims when they first encounter them, there is a psychological tendency to believe claims that are heard multiple times, especially from multiple sources. While the Nazis did not invent this technique, they did show its effectiveness as a rhetorical tool. The technique of repetition is used more benignly by teachers trying to get people to memorize things. Not surprisingly, politicians and pundits also use this method under the label of “talking points.”

This psychological tendency presumably has some value—when people are honest, things that are repeated and come from multiple sources would generally be true (or at least not deceits). The repetition method also exploits a standard method of reasoning: checking with multiple sources for confirmation. However, such confirmation requires using reliable sources that do not share the same agenda. Getting multiple fake news sites reporting the same fake story creates pseudo-confirmation which can create the illusion of plausibility. The defense against this is, of course, to have diverse sources of news and preferably at least some with very little ideological slant.  It is also useful to ask yourself this question: “although I have heard this many times, is there actual evidence it is true?”

Another reason fake news can be very convincing is that the fake news sites often engage in an active defense of their fake news. This includes using other fake sources to “confirm” their stories, attacks on the credibility of real news sources, and direct attacks on articles by real news sources that expose a fake news story. This defense creates the illusion that the fake news stories are real and that the real news stories are fake.

Some of this works through psychology: one might think that such a defense would only be mounted if there was truth there worthy of the effort. Some appeals to reason: if the real news story exposing fake news is systematically torn down step by step, this creates the illusion of a reasoned argument disproving the claim that the fake story is fake. Attempts to discredit the sources also misuses legitimate critical assessment methods—the fake news sites accuse the real sources of news of being biased, bought and so on. These are legitimate concerns when assessing a source; the problem is not the method but the fact that the claims about the real sources are also typically untrue.

Those who do not want to be duped can counter this fake news defense by the usual method of checking multiple, diverse and reliable sources. This is becoming increasingly difficult as fake news sites proliferate and grow more sophisticated.

A third reason that fake news can seem accurate is that it has supporters who use social media to defend the fake stories and attack the real news. Some of these people are honest—they believe they are saying true things. Others are aware the news is fake. Some even create fake identities to make themselves appear credible. For example, one defender of Pizzagate identified himself as “Representative Steven Smith of the 15th District of Georgia.” Georgia has only 14 districts; but most people would not know this. All these supporters create the illusion of credibility, making it difficult for people to ferret out the truth. After all, most people expect other people to be honest and get basic facts right most of the time—that is a basic social agreement and a foundation of civilization. Fake news, among its other harms, is eroding this foundation.

The defense against this is to research the sources defending a news story. If the defenders are mostly fake themselves, this would indicate that the news story might be fake. However, fake defenders do not prove the story is fake and it is easy to imagine the tactic of using fake defenders to make people feel that the real news is fake. For example, a made up radical liberal source “defending” a story might be used to try to make conservatives feel that a real news story is fake.

A fourth reason that fake news can seem accurate is that the real news has been subject to sustained attacks, mostly from the political right in the United States. Republicans have made the claim that the media is liberally biased a stock talking point, which has no doubt influenced people. Trump took it even further, accusing the news of being terrible people and liars (ironically for reporting that his lies are lies). Given the sustained attack on news, it is no wonder that many people do not regard the real news as reliable. As such, the stories that debunk the fake news are typically rejected because they are the result of liberal bias. This does, of course, make use of a legitimate method of assessing sources: if a source is biased, then it loses credibility. The problem is that rather than being merely skeptical about the mainstream media, many people reject its claims uncritically because of the alleged bias. This is not a proper application of the method—the doubt needs to be proportional to the evidence of bias.

In regards to people believing in seemingly absurd claims, there are both good and bad reasons for this. One good reason is that there are enough cases of the seemingly absurd turning out to be true. In the case of Pizzagate, people hearing about it probably had stories about Jared Fogle and Bill Cosby in mind. They probably heard stories about cases of real sex rings. Give this background, the idea that Hillary Clinton was tied to a sex-ring might seem to have some plausibility. However, the use of such background information should also be tempered by other background information, such as information about how unlikely it is that Hillary Clinton was running sex-ring out of the basement of a pizza place.

The bad reason is that people have a psychological tendency to believe what matches their ideology and existing opinions. So, people who already disliked Hillary Clinton would tend to find such stories appealing—they would feel true. Such psychological bias is hard to fight against; people take strong feelings as proof and often double down in the face of facts to the contrary. Defending against bias is probably the hardest method—it requires training and practice in being aware of how feelings are impacting the assessment of a claim and developing the ability to go into a “neutral” assessment mode.

Given that fake news is spreading like a plague, it is wise to develop defenses against it to avoid being duped, perhaps to the point where one is led to commit crimes because of lies.

 

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Fake News I: Critical Thinking

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on December 2, 2016

While fake news presumably dates to the origin of news, the 2016 United States presidential election saw a huge surge in the volume of fakery. While some of it arose from partisan maneuvering, the majority seems to have been driven by the profit motive: fake news drives revenue generating clicks. While the motive might have been money, there has been serious speculation that the fake news (especially on Facebook) helped Trump win the election. While those who backed Trump would presumably be pleased by this outcome, the plague of fake news should be worrisome to anyone who values the truth, regardless of their political ideology. After all, fake news could presumably be just as helpful to the left as the right. In any case, fake news is clearly damaging in regards to the truth and is worth combating.

While it is often claimed that most people simply do not have the time to be informed about the world, if someone has the time to read fake news, then they have the time to think critically about it. This critical thinking should, of course, go beyond just fake news and should extend to all important information. Fortunately, thinking critically about claims is surprisingly quick and easy.

I have been teaching students to be critical about claims in general and the news in particular for over two decades and what follows is based on what I teach in class (drawn, in part, from the text I have used: Critical Thinking by Moore & Parker). I would recommend this book for general readers if it was not, like most text books, absurdly expensive. But, to the critical thinking process that should be applied to claims in general and news in particular.

While many claims are not worth the bother of checking, others are important enough to subject to scrutiny. When applying critical thinking to a claim, the goal is to determine whether you should rationally accept it as true, reject it as false or suspend judgment. There can be varying degrees of acceptance and rejection, so it is also worth considering how confident you should be in your judgment.

The first step in assessing a claim is to match it against your own observations, should you have relevant observations. While observations are not infallible, if a claim goes against what you have directly observed, then that is a strike against accepting the claim. This standard is not commonly used in the case of fake news because most of what is reported is not something that would be observed directly by the typical person. That said, sometimes this does apply. For example, if a news story claims that a major riot occurred near where you live and you saw nothing happen there, then that would indicate the story is in error.

The second step in assessment is to judge the claim against your background information—this is all your relevant beliefs and knowledge about the matter. The application is fairly straightforward and just involves asking yourself if the claim seems plausible when you give it some thought. For example, if a news story claims that Hillary Clinton plans to start an armed rebellion against Trump, then this should be regarded as wildly implausible by anyone with true background knowledge about Clinton.

There are, of course, some obvious problems with using background information as a test. One is that the quality of background information varies greatly and depends on the person’s experiences and education (this is not limited to formal education). Roughly put, being a good judge of claims requires already having a great deal of accurate information stored away in your mind. All of us have many beliefs that are false; the problem is that we generally do not know they are false. If we did, then we would no longer believe them.

A second point of concern is the influence of wishful thinking. This is a fallacy (an error in reasoning) in which a person concludes that a claim is true because they really want it to be true. Alternatively, a person can fallaciously infer that a claim is false because they really want it to be false. This is poor reasoning because wanting a claim to be true or false does not make it so. Psychologically, people tend to disengage their critical faculties when they really want something to be true (or false).

For example, someone who really hates Hillary Clinton would want to believe that negative claims about her are true, so they would tend to accept them. As another example, someone who really likes Hillary would want positive claims about her to be true, so they would accept them.

The defense against wishful thinking of this sort is to be on guard against yourself by being aware of your biases. If you really want something to be true (or false), ask yourself if you have any reason to believe it beyond just wanting it to be true (or false). For example, I am not a fan of Trump and thus would tend to want negative claims about him to be true—so I must consider that when assessing such claims.

A third point of concern is related to wishful thinking and could be called the fallacy of fearful/hateful thinking. While people tend to believe what they want to believe, they also tend to believe claims that match their hates and fears. That is, they believe what they do not want to believe. Fear and hate impact people in a very predictable way: they make people stupid when it comes to assessing claims.

For example, there are Americans who hate the idea of Sharia law and are terrified it will be imposed on America. While they would presumably wish that claims about it being imposed were false, they will often believe such claims because it corresponds with their hate and fear. Ironically, their great desire that it not be true motivates them to feel that it is true, even when it is not.

The defense against this is to consider how a claim makes you feel—if you feel hatred or fear, you should be very careful in assessing the claim. If a news claims seems tailored to push your buttons, then there is a decent chance that it is fake news. This is not to say that it must be fake, just that it is important to be extra vigilant about claims that are extremely appealing to your hates and fears. This is a very hard thing to do since it is easy to be ruled by hate and fear.

The third step involves assessing the source of the claim. While the source of a claim does not guarantee the claim is true (or false), reliable sources are obviously more likely to get things right than unreliable sources. When you believe a claim based on its source, you are making use of what philosophers call an argument from authority. The gist of this reasoning is that the claim being made is true because the source is a legitimate authority on the matter. While people tend to regard as credible sources those that match their own ideology, the rational way to assess a source involves considering the following factors.

First, the source needs to have sufficient expertise in the subject matter in question. One rather obvious challenge here is being able to judge that the specific author or news source has sufficient expertise. In general, the question is whether a person (or the organization in general) has the relevant qualities and these are assessed in terms of such factors as education, experience, reputation, accomplishments and positions. In general, professional news agencies have such experts. While people tend to dismiss Fox, CNN, and MSNBC depending on their own ideology, their actual news (as opposed to editorial pieces or opinion masquerading as news) tends to be factually accurate. Unknown sources tend to be lacking in these areas. It is also wise to be on guard against fake news sources pretending to be real sources—this can be countered by checking the site address against the official and confirmed address of professional news sources.

Second, the claim made needs to be within the source’s area(s) of expertise. While a person might be very capable in one area, expertise is not universal. So, for example, a businessman talking about her business would be an expert, but if she is regarded as a reliable source for political or scientific claims, then that would be an error (unless she also has expertise in these areas).

Third, the claim should be consistent with the views of the majority of qualified experts in the field. In the case of news, using this standard involves checking multiple reliable sources to confirm the claim. While people tend to pick their news sources based on their ideology, the basic facts of major and significant events would be quickly picked up and reported by all professional news agencies such as Fox News, NPR and CNN. If a seemingly major story does not show up in the professional news sources, there is a good chance it is fake news.

It is also useful to check with the fact checkers and debunkers, such as Politifact and Snopes. While no source is perfect, they do a good job assessing claims—something that does not make liars very happy. If a claim is flagged by these reliable sources, there is an excellent chance it is not true.

Fourth, the source must not be significantly biased. Bias can include such factors as having a very strong ideological slant (such as MSNBC and Fox News) as well as having a financial interest in the matter. Fake news is typically crafted to feed into ideological biases, so if an alleged news story seems to fit an ideology too well, there is a decent chance that it is fake. However, this is not a guarantee that a story is fake—reality sometimes matches ideological slants. This sort of bias can lead real news sources to present fake news; you should be critical even of professional sources-especially when they match your ideology.

While these methods are not flawless, they are very useful in sorting out the fake from the true. While I have said this before, it is worth repeating that we should be even more critical of news that matches our views—this is because when we want to believe, we tend to do so too easily.

 

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How did the polls get it wrong?

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on November 11, 2016

The pundits and polls predicted that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency of the United States. They were, obviously enough, wrong. As would be expected, the pundits and pollsters are trying to work out how they got it wrong. While punditry and polling are generally not philosophical, the assessment of polling is part of critical thinking and this is part of philosophy. As such, it is worth considering this matter from a philosophical perspective.

One easy way to reconcile the predictions and the results is to point out the obvious fact that likelihood is not certainty. While there was considerable support for the claim that Hillary would probably win, this entailed that she could still lose. Which she did. To use the obvious analogy, when it is predicted that a sports team will win, it is obviously possible that it can lose. In one sense, the prediction would be wrong: the predicted outcome did not occur. In another sense, a prediction put in terms of probability could still be right—the predictor could get the probability right, yet the actual outcome could be the unlikely one. People who are familiar with games that explicitly involve probabilities, like Dungeons & Dragons, are well aware of this. For example, it could be true that there is a 90% chance of not getting killed by a fireball, but it would shock no experienced player if it killed their character.  There is, of course, the question about whether the estimated probabilities were accurate or not—unlike in a game, we do not get to see the actual mechanics of reality. But, I know turn to the matter of polls.

As noted above, the polls indicated that more people said they would vote for Clinton than for Trump, thus her victory was predicted. A critical look at polling indicates that things could go wrong in many ways. I will start broadly and then move on to more particular matters.

Polling involves what philosophers call an inductive generalization. It is a simple inductive argument that looks like this:

  • Premise: X% of observed Ys are F.
  • Conclusion: X% of all Ys are Fs.

In a specific argument, the Y is whatever population the argument is about; in this case it would be American voters. The observed Ys (known as the sample) would be the voters who responded to the poll. The F is whatever feature the argument is concerned with. In the election, this would be voting for a specific candidate. Naturally, a poll can address many candidates at once.

Being an inductive argument, it is assessed in terms of strength and weakness. A strong inductive argument is one such that if the premises were true, then the conclusion is probably true. A weak one is such that if the premises were true, then the conclusion is probably not true. This is a matter of logical support—whether the premises are true or not is another matter. In terms of this logic, all inductive arguments involve a logical leap from what has been observed to what has not been observed. When teaching this, I make use of an analogy to trying to jump a chasm in the dark—no matter how careful a person is, they might not make it. Likewise, no matter how good an inductive argument is, true premises do not guarantee a true conclusion. Because of this, a poll can always get things wrong—this is the nature of induction and this unavoidable possibility is known as the problem of induction. Now to some more specific matters.

In the case of an inductive generalization, the strength of the argument depends on the quality of the sample—how well it represents the whole population from which it is drawn. Without getting into statistics, there are two main concerns about the sample. The first is whether or not the sample is large enough to warrant confidence in the conclusion. If the sample is not adequate in size, accepting the conclusion is to fall victim to the classic fallacy of a hasty generalization.  To use a simple example, a person who sees two white squirrels at Ohio State and infers all Ohio squirrels are white would fall victim to a hasty generalization. In general, the professionally conducted polls were large enough; so they most likely did not fail in regards to sample size.

The second is whether or not the sample resembles the population. Roughly put, a good sample recreates the breakdown of the population in miniature (in terms of characteristics relevant to the generalization). In the case of the election polls, the samples would need to match the population in terms of qualities that impact voting behavior. These would include age, gender, religion, income and so on. A sample that is taken in a way that makes it unlikely to resemble the population results in what is known as biased generalization, which is a fallacy. As an example, if a person wanted to know what all Americans thought about gun control and they only polled NRA members, they would commit this fallacy. It must be noted that whether or not a sample is biased is relative to its purpose—if someone wanted to know what NRA members thought about gun control, polling NRA members would be what one would do.

Biased samples are avoided in various ways, but the most common approaches are to use a random sample (one in which any member of the population has the same chance of being selected for the sample as any other) and a stratified sample (taking samples from the various relevant groups within the population).

The professional pollsters presumably took steps to ensure the samples resembled the overall population; hopefully using random, stratified samples and other methods. However, things can still go wrong. In regards to a random sample, there are obviously practical factors that preclude a truly random sample. Also, even a random sample can still fail to resemble the population. For example, imagine you have a mix of 50 plain M&M and 50 peanut M&Ms. If you pulled out 25 at random, it would not be shocking to have more plain or more peanut M&Ms in your sample. So, these random samples could have gotten things wrong.

In terms of a stratified sample, there are all the usual problems of pulling out the sample members for each stratum as well as the problem of identifying all the strata that are relevant. It could be the case that the polls did not get the divisions in American voters right and this biased the sample, thus throwing off the results.

Polls involving people also obviously require that people participate, that they honestly answer the questions, and that they stick to that answer. One concern that has been raised is that since the polls are conducted by the media and people who supported Trump tend to hate and distrust the media, it could be that many Trump supporters refused to participate in the polls, thus skewing the results in Hillary’s favor. A second concern is that people sometimes lie on polls—often because they think they should give the answer they believe the pollster wants. A third concern is that people give an honest answer at the time, then change their minds later. All of these could help explain the disparity between the polls and the results.

Conspiracy theorists could also claim that the media was lying about its results in order to help Hillary, presumably reasoning that if voters thought Trump was going to lose they would either vote for Hillary to be on the winning side or simply stay home because of a lack of hope. As with all conspiracy theories, the challenge lies in presenting evidence for this.

And that is how the polls might have gone wrong in predicting Hillary’s victory.

 

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Trump & Misogyny

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on October 12, 2016

Watching Trump is rather like an observing a submarine test: you wonder how low it can sink. Like an amazing sub, Trump keeps reaching new depths. An old recording of Trump was recently released which features the Republican candidate saying rather awful things. This has cost him the endorsement of some Republicans, but he still seems to be incredibly resistant to damage: he had managed to spew forth a stream of awful things such that any one of which would have been a career ending injury for almost anyone else.

While there have been some calls for Trump to leave the race, Trump has so far decided that he is staying in. As should be expected, Trump has presented a reply to the situation that includes his usual tactics.  While most would not consider Trump philosophical, he does say things that are certainly interesting to discus in this context.

Trump begins his response by pointing out that the recording is from 2005 and he asserts that he has changed since then. As such, he should not be criticized now for what he did then. This defense potentially has merit: if he has reformed, then while the recording shows that Trump was awful, that was then and this is now. From a moral standpoint, the main concern is whether or not Trump is still the same sort of person he was in 2005. Interestingly, Trump’s initial defense did not include claims that his remarks were out of character; presumably he accepts that this behavior was in accord with his character in 2005.

While there are no known recent remarks about women by Trump that exactly match his 2005 remarks, he does not seem to have reformed in any morally meaningful way. He casually and routinely engages in misogyny and sexism and this gives lie to his defense. As such, the 2005 remarks do reflect both who he was and who he is. If Trump had shown signs of moral growth, then this defense could have merit—there are certainly cases of people who redeem themselves and become better. Unfortunately, there seems to be no evidence of this in Trump’s case.

Trump also endeavored to use a red herring (a rhetorical device in which someone attempts to divert attention from the original issue) to switch attention from his remarks. Rather, he hoped to get people to ignore them and focus instead on his assertions that “We are losing our jobs, we are less safe than we were eight years ago and Washington is totally broken.”

It could be countered that this is not a red herring because the character of a president does not matter in the face of such alleged problems. This approach does have potential merit and will be addressed in the context of Bill Clinton, who seems to have been used in another Trump red herring.

In his response, Trump also asserted that “Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course.” This could also be regarded as a red herring—the matter of whether Bill has said worse things or not is a different issue from the matter of Trump’s remarks. Even if Bill has said worse things, this proves nothing about Trump’s remarks.

As mentioned before, perhaps Trump’s defenders could make the case that Bill Clinton was an excellent president despite the things he allegedly said. Given that many successful leaders have had awful moralities in regards to their views of women, a case could be made here arguing that a leader who will do the job well should not be assessed based on such alleged failings. Put crudely, it does not matter what the leader wants to grab, because “it’s the economy, stupid.” While this does have some appeal, Bill’s behavior did have damaging consequences for him and the country, so there is clearly a downside to this quality in a leader. There is also the moral question of whether or not the tradeoff would be worth it, especially if a good leader could be found who was not a misogynist.

If Bill were running against Trump, then showing that Bill is just as bad would be a relevant response. This is because if Trump and Bill were equally awful in this regard, then Trump’s awfulness would not disadvantage him relative to Bill—at least under a rational assessment. To use an analogy, if a HP laptop and an Asus laptop had equally short battery life, then battery life would not serve as a reason to pick one over the other. But, of course, Trump is not running against Bill. He is running against Hillary. As such, it is no surprise that he also attacked Hillary by saying, “Bill Clinton has actually abused women, and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed, and intimidated his victims.”

While attacking Hillary can also be regarded as a red herring in that it proves nothing about the matter involving Trump, it is certainly relevant in assessing the two candidates against each other. Trump is, in effect, trying to establish that Hillary is just as bad (or worse) than he is in regards to treatment of women. Trump does have some ammunition here—he can point to Hillary’s alleged role in the handling of the “bimbo eruptions” that plagued Bill in the 1990s.

While there certainly seem to be some legitimate concerns about Hillary’s behavior, she can point to an otherwise solid record on women’s issue. Even if the claims about her misdeeds are true, she can certainly make a much stronger case than Trump that she has changed since the 1990s. After all, the recording of Trump is more recent than the 1990s and Trump relentlessly affirms his misogyny, thus showing that he has not changed significantly. As such, while Hillary can, perhaps, be justly criticized for her actions in the 1990s, it would be a false equivalence to say that she is as bad as Trump in this regard.

Some of Trump’s defenders have asserted that Trump did not say anything that other men do not regularly say. That is, what Trump did was not a problem because this sort of thing is a common practice. The easy reply to this defense is that an appeal to common practice is a fallacy: even if something is commonly done, it does not follow from this that it is good, justified or right. All that follows from something being commonly done is that it is, well, commonly done.

It could also be argued that it is hypocritical of men to criticize Trump because men have, no doubt, said or thought things equally as bad. While it is surely true that everyone has said or thought something awful, these tend to be anomalies for most men. Everyone has their awful moments and this should be taken into account when judging a person. If Trump had but this one blight on an otherwise decent character, then it would be reasonable to judge him by his consistent character rather than an inconsistent remark. However, these remarks are not an aberration for Trump—they are utterly consistent with his character.

 

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Don’t Say the C Words

Posted in Business, Environment, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 21, 2016

While weather disasters have always plagued humanity, there has been a clear recent uptick in such events. Naturally, the greater scope of these disasters is due partially to the human population being larger than ever and occupying more land—especially in areas prone to such events. That said, events such as the floods in Louisiana and the steady inundation of the sea in many places (such as Miami) are indications of a real change.

Nearly every climate scientist accepts that climate change is occurring and that human activity has had an influence. Given the historic record, it would be irrational to deny that the climate changes and few claim that it does not. The battle, then, is over the cause of climate change. Unfortunately for addressing the impact of climate change, it was brilliantly changed from a scientific issue into a political one. Making it into a partisan issue had the usual impact on group psychology: it became a matter of political identity, with people developing a profound emotional commitment to climate change denial. When denying climate change became a matter of group identity, it became almost impossible for reason to change minds—in the face of overwhelming evidence, people merely double down, deny the evidence, and craft narratives about how scientists are biased and environmentalists hate corporations and jobs.

To be fair, some of those who accept climate change do so out of political identity as well—they are not moved by the science, but by their group identity. They just happen to be right, albeit for the wrong reasons.

Not being an expert on climate change, I follow the rational approach to any issue that requires expertise to settle: I go with the majority view of the qualified experts. As such, I accept that climate change is real and humans play a role. If the majority shifted, I would accept that view—after all, the history of science includes numerous shifts.

If this matter were a purely abstract debate, then there would be no real worry. However, the impact of the changing climate is already doing considerable harm and the evidence suggests that it will continue to get worse unless steps are taken to address it. Unfortunately, as noted above, climate is now a political issue with deeply entrenched interest groups and strong emotional commitments. In some places, such as Florida, there is considerable political pressure to not even use the words “climate change.” The problem is, of course, that not using the words does not make the problems go away. Miami will slowly vanish into the ocean, even if people refuse to say “climate change.”

As a philosopher, I do believe in reason. However, I am also a practical person and know that reason is the weakest form of persuasion. Because of the entrenchment over climate change, trying to use reason and evidence to change minds would be a fool’s errand. As such, I suggest a purely pragmatic solution: stop using the C words (“climate change”) when trying to influence public policy, at least in cases in which there is strong ideological resistance. Using those words will simply evoke an emotional response and create strong resistance to whatever might be proposed, however reasonable.

As an alternative, the approach should be to focus on the specific threats and these should be cast in terms of risks to the economy and, perhaps, the lives and well-being of voters and consumers. There should be no mention of man-made climate change and no proposals to change behavior to counter man-made climate change. In short, the proposals must focus solely on mitigating the damage of weather events, with due care taken to present the notion that these events “just happen” and are “natural” with no connection to human activity.

It might be objected that this would be analogous to trying to combat the Zika virus by dealing only with the effects while refusing to say “virus” and not proposing any efforts to address the cause. This is certainly a reasonable point. However, if there was a powerful political movement that refused to accept the existence of viruses and citizens emotionally devoted to virus denial, then trying to persuade them to deal with the virus would be a nigh-impossible task. If they did accept the existence of the effects, then they could be enlisted to assist in addressing them. While this approach would hardly be optimal, it would be better to have their cooperation in mitigating the consequences rather than facing their opposition.

It might also be objected that I am deluded by my own ideological views and have been misled by the conspiracy of scientists and liberals who are in the pocket of Big Environment. Since I rather enjoy a good conspiracy theory, I certainly admit that it could be the case that the noble fossil fuel companies and those they pay are right about climate change and the scientists are either villains or dupes. If so, then not talking about climate change would be the correct approach—just as not talking about climate demons is the correct approach (because there are no such things). Since the weather events are really occurring, then addressing them would still be reasonable. So, regardless of whether climate change is real or not, my approach seems to be a sound one: avoid the resistance of climate change deniers by not using the C words; but enlist them into addressing those perfectly natural severe weather events that will be occurring with increasing regularity.

 

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Political Parties & Principles

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 16, 2016

While the United States does have numerous third parties and many voters now register as independents, politics is dominated by the Republicans and the Democrats. While there are independents in office here and there, independent voters still identify strongly with the two parties. They are also almost entirely limited to voting for candidates from these two parties.

My own party affiliation is Democrat, although it is a very weak affiliation. While I do share some of the values professed by the party (such as support for education and protecting the environment) my main reason for being a Democrat is that Florida is a closed primary state. If I did not have a party affiliation, I would be limited to voting between the candidates picked by the Democrats and Republicans. That is not acceptable and I regard the Democrats as less evil than the Republicans. At least for now.

While people do sometimes change parties (Reagan started as a Democrat and ended as a Republican, while Hillary Clinton took the reverse path) most people stay loyal to their parties. Trump has tested the loyalty of some Republicans, but it seems likely that most will vote along straight party lines. Likewise for Hillary and the Democrats.

Being a philosopher, I endeavor to operate from consistent moral, logical and political principles rather than merely embracing whatever my party happens to endorse at any given moment. Because of this, I could end up leaving the Democratic party if its professed values changed enough to be broadly incompatible with my own. This can certainly happen. As Republicans love to mention, their party was once the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. As they also love to point out, the Democratic party was once an explicitly racist party. Now, of course, both parties are very different from those days. Teddy Roosevelt would be appalled by the current Republican party and the Democrats are now regarded as a civil rights focused party that is very welcoming to minorities (and certainly welcomes their votes).

While political parties presumably provide some benefits for citizens, they mainly exist to benefit the politicians. They provide politicians with resources and support that are essential to running for office. They also provide another valuable service to politicians:  a very effective means of cognitive and moral derangement. Like other groups, political parties exploit well-known cognitive biases, thus encouraging their members to yield to irrationality and moral failure.

One bias is the bandwagon effect; this is the tendency people have to align their thinking with that of those around them. This often serves to ground such fallacies as the “group think” fallacy in which a person accepts a claim as true simply because their group accepts it as true. In the case of political parties, people tend to believe what their party claims, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. In fact, it is well-established that people often double down on false beliefs in the face of objective evidence against this belief. This afflicts people across the political spectrum. The defense against this sort of derangement is to resist leaping on the bandwagon and train oneself to accept evidence rather than group loyalty as support for a claim.

Another bias is the tendency people have to obey authority and conform. Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments in obedience purport to show that people are generally obedient by nature and will obey even when they also believe what they are doing is wrong. This derangement forges people into obedient masses who praise their leader, be that leader the objectively unfit Donald Trump or the morally problematic and Machiavellian Hillary Clinton. Since obedience is so ingrained into humans, resisting is very difficult. In fact, people often think they are resisting authority when they are simply bowing low to some other authority. Being disobedient as a matter of principle is difficult, although people such as Socrates and Thoreau do offer some guidelines and inspiration.

Perhaps the most powerful bias here is the in group bias. This is the natural tendency people have to regard members of their group as having positive qualities while seeing members of other groups as being inferior. This tendency is triggered even by the most superficial of group identifications. For example, sports teams stand for nothing—they do not represent moral or political principles or anything of significance. Yet people routinely become obsessive fans who regard their fellows as better than the fans of other teams. This can, and does, escalate into violence. Violence of the most stupid and pointless sort, but real violence nonetheless. In the case of politics, the bias is even stronger. Republicans and Democrats typically praise their own and condemn their competition. Many of them devote considerable effort scouring the internet for “evidence” of their virtue and the vice of their foes: it is not enough to disagree; the opposition must be demonized and cast as inferior. For example, I see battles play out on Facebook over whether Democrats or Republicans give more to charity—and this sometimes becomes a matter of deep rage that has ended friendships. Since I prefer to not let politics or religion end an otherwise fine friendship, I make a point of not getting engaged in such battles. There are, after all, only losers in those fights.

This bias is extremely useful to politicians as it helps fuels the moral and cognitive derangement of their supporters. The most pronounced effect is that party members will typically rush to defend their politician over matters that they savagely attack the other side for. For example, Donald Trump is, as a matter of objective fact, unrelenting in his untruths. His supporters who otherwise regard lying as wrong, rush to defend and excuse him, while bashing Hillary as a liar and a crook—despite the fact that Hillary says untrue things far less often than Trump. As should be expected, Hillary’s devout backers do the same thing—excusing Hillary for things they condemn about Trump (such as sketchy business deals).

As a matter of rational and moral principle (and consistency), a person who regards lying as wrong should take liars of both parties to task and criticize their lying appropriately. To do otherwise is to be irrational and morally inconsistent. The same should apply to other matters as well, such as sketchy business deals. To avoid this derangement, people need to train themselves (or be trained) to assess politicians as objectively as possible to avoid being morally and cognitively deranged by the undue corrupting influence of party.

This is not to say that a person should fall into the trap of false equivalency or regard any misdeed as equal to any other. Simply saying “they are all equally bad” when they are not is also a failure of reason and ethics. Using the example of the 2016 campaign, while Trump and Clinton both have their flaws, Clinton is objectively better than Trump in regards to qualifications for being president. As Republicans argued when Obama was running in 2008, experience is critically important and the presidency is not an entry level political job. Naturally, I expect some to lash out at me over such claims. Some will rush to praise Trump and tear apart Hillary. I also would expect Hillary backers to be displeased by my fairly negative view of Hillary (while Hillary haters will probably have the mistaken impression that I am all in for her). Such things will actually help prove my point: people tend to be ruled by their biases.

I am not advocating that people become apathetic or abandon their parties. Rather, I want people to hold all politicians to the same standards of criticism rather than rushing to defend their side simply because it is their side and bashing the other simply because it is the other. This would, I hope, force politicians to actually be better. As it now stands, they can be rather awful and simply count on the derangement of voters to work in their favor.

 

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