A Philosopher's Blog

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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White Nationalism I: The Family Argument

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on November 25, 2016

While more mainstream supporters of Trump insist he is not a racist, white nationalists and their ilk have rejoiced in his victory. Regardless of what Trump believes, his rhetoric has carved out a safe space for what has been dubbed the “alt-right.” While this term is both broad and, perhaps, misused, it does serve to bundle together various groups that are perceived as racist and even neo-Nazi. I will not endeavor to break down the fine distinctions between these various groups, but will focus on the white nationalists. As the name indicates, they have an ideological commitment to creating a nation consisting solely of whites.

Since Nazis and other hate groups have advocated the same goal, it seems reasonable to regard white nationalists as racists and as a group based on hate. Not surprisingly, they often claim they are not racists and are not a hate group. They even advance some arguments in support of these claims. In this essay, I will consider the family argument.

While specific presentations of the family argument take various forms, the gist of the reasoning is that it is natural for people to prefer the company of their family members and that it is right to give precedence to one’s family. In their family analogy, the white nationalists take whites to be a family. This, as they see it, warrants having a white nation or, failing that, giving precedence to whites. Some white nationalists extend the family argument to other races, arguing that each race should act in the same way. Ideally, each race would have its own nation. This helps explain the apparently inconsistent claims advanced about Jews by white nationalists: they want the Jews to leave America for the whites, but they support Israel becoming a pure Jewish state.

The family analogy gains much of its appeal from human psychology: as a matter of fact, humans do generally prefer and give precedence to their own family members over others. This approach is also commonly used in solving ethical problems, such as who to save and how to distribute resources. For example, if a mother is given the choice between saving a stranger or her daughter from drowning, the intuitively right choice is her daughter. While the family approach has considerable appeal, there are some obvious concerns. One is whether whites constitute a family. Another is the extent to which being family morally warrants preference and precedence.

In the biological sense, a human family is made up of humans who are closely genetically related to each other. This is something that can be objectively tested; such as with a paternity test. In this regard, family identity is a matter of the genetic similarity (and origin) of the members. There is also the matter of distinguishing the family members from outsiders—this is done by focusing on the differences between the family members and others.

To argue that whites are a biological family requires establishing that whites are genetically related to each other. This is easy enough to do; all humans are genetically related because they are humans. But, the white nationalist wants whites to be an exclusive family. One obvious problem with this, especially in the United States, is that most whites are closely related to non-whites. To use one well known example, Thomas Jefferson has many descendants and they thus constitute a family. However, many of them are supposed to descended from him and Sally Hemings—thus would presumably not be regarded as white by white nationalists. While one might quibble about whether Heming and Jefferson had children, it is well-established that the genetic background of most “white” Americans will not be “pure white.” There is also the fact that the genetic background of many “non-white” Americans will include white ancestors. This will mean that the “white family” will include people who the white nationalists would regard as non-white. For example, Dick Cheney and Barack Obama are related and are thus family. As such, the biological family analogy breaks down in terms of the white nationalists’ approach.

A possible counter to this is to focus on specific white genes and argue that these are what define being white. One obvious point of focus is skin color; white skin is apparently the result of a single letter DNA mutation in the 3.1 billion letters in the human genome. As such, white nationalists could rally around this one letter and use that to define what it is to be white. This would certainly seem like an absurd foundation for preference and precedence; but perhaps the absurd would suffice for the white nationalists.

While families are often defined biologically, there are also family members that are adopted and, of course, people marry into families they are (hopefully not) closely related to. As such, a family need not be genetically defined. This provides an alternative way to try to make whites into a family.

White nationalists could argue that the white family is not defined by white genes, but by a set of values or interests that constitute being white. That is, being white is a social construct analogous to a political party, religion, or club. While there is the obvious challenge of working out what would be the values and interests one must have to be part of the white club, this could in theory be worked out. After all, the white nationalists have set up their own little white club and they presumably have ways of deciding who gets to join. The obvious problem with this approach is that it does not seem to capture what the white nationalists want in terms of being white. After all, anyone could have those values and interests and thus be white. Also, there are many people who have white skin who do not share the interests or values of the white nationalists and would thus not be white on this approach.

The white nationalists could always go with the traditional approach of regarding as white anyone who looks white. Potential whites would presumably need to provide some proof that they do not have any non-whiteness in their background—there is, after all, a long history of people passing as whites in the United States. Since white nationalists tend to regard Jews as non-white, they would also need to sort that out in some way; after all, Jews can have very white skin. Presumably they can look to the Nazis for how to work this all out. There is also the concern about using technology to allow people to appear white, such as genetic modification. Presumably white nationalists would really need to worry about such things. After all, they would not want non-whites in their white paradise.

One obvious problem with this approach is that it is like accepting as family anyone who looks like you in some specified way. For example, embracing someone as a relative because they have a similar nose. This seems like a rather odd way to set a foundation for preference and precedence, but white nationalists presumably think in odd ways.

Given the above discussion, there seems to be no foundation for regarding whites as a family. As such, the white nationalist family analogy fails. As should be expected. I will close by saying that I am horrified by having to engage in arguments about white nationalism; such a morally abhorrent view should be recognized as such by anyone familiar with history and moral decency.

 

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Why did the Democrats Lose?

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 23, 2016

While asserting “Trump won” or “Hillary lost” might seem to say the same thing, they actual differ in meaningful ways. The view that Trump won is the stance that he achieved victory by overcoming Hillary, presumably by doing the right things. To use a running analogy, this would be like a runner beating another by being able to outkick her at the end.

The view that Hillary lost is the perception that she snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by doing the wrong thing and thus she lost. Using a running analogy, this would be like a runner showing off and tripping because he was not paying attention, thus losing the race that he would have otherwise won.

A pragmatic person might say that there is no real difference between winning by winning and winning by the other person losing—the winner still wins. While this pragmatic approach does have appeal, the difference does matter when it comes to sorting out what went wrong, what went right and what needs to be done next time. It could also be contended that both approaches are right and wrong: Trump did win by winning but also won by Hillary losing.

Regardless of which view is taken, there is the assumption that there are broad reasons for the results that can be determined and used in planning the next race. While this assumption is probably correct, it is worth considering that elections might be analogous to fads, such as the hottest toy for Christmas or the latest fashion. Trying to find the cause and reproduce it is likely to be a fool’s errand; if this could be done then producing the next fad would be a science rather than a matter of luck. It is also well worth considering that there are a vast number of contributing factors that influenced various voters and that efforts to provide a broad causal explanation must fail because there is no broad causal explanation—just an abundance of individual explanations. Having made these points, I will sweep them aside and speculate about some likely broad causes.

Pundits and experts have already put forth various hypotheses as to why Hillary lost and Trump won. One consistent narrative is that many voters were looking for someone from outside Washington to bring about change. This narrative is supported by the claim that some who had voted for Obama last time switched to Trump this time—these could be regarded as change voters. Another consistent narrative is that Hillary could never stake the email server vampire in the heart; it kept rising from the grave to drain the blood from her campaign.

There are also explanations that rest on the assumption that voters are bad fact-checkers, poor at reasoning and do not operate based on consistent application of principles for decision making. For example, Hillary was condemned as crooked and dishonest by people who praised Trump for telling it like it is, despite the objective fact that Trump was relentless in his untruths and is scheduled to go on trial for Trump University. As another example, Hillary was also attacked for being an elite insider by people who praised Trump for being a man who cares about the working class, despite Trump being part of the elite economic class who has routinely been sued for not sticking to contracts. On this view, Trump won because he is a better deceiver than Hillary. So, the lesson for the next time would be to run the best deceiver that can be found.

There are also explanations that Trump won because of racism, bigotry and xenophobia. Even members of his own party condemned many of his remarks as racist and sexist. He has also won the hearts of the Klan, white nationalists and American Nazis. After the 2012 Republican defeat, some of the analysis indicated that the Republicans would need to either expand their appeal to minorities or double down on getting the white vote. Some speculated it would not be possible to win without a broader appeal. Trump, by accident or design, embraced doubling down on the white vote and won. To be fair, he also did surprisingly well beyond the white vote. The question is, of course, how long that strategy will work—the United States is on course to becoming a majority minority nation. I suspect that active voter suppression of minorities and inspired gerrymandering can extend white dominance, but eventually these methods will be overcome by demographic change. That said, white voters will be a critical demographic for a long time and failing to capture the white vote would not bode well for a candidate. There are, of course, alternative explanations to why Trump did so well with white voters (or why Hillary did so poorly).

While some find the racism and xenophobia hypothesis appealing, it can be argued that many white voters were not motivated by race. Pundits like to point out that Obama won many of the same voters that went over to Trump. While it might be naïve of me, I certainly believe most of my fellow Americans are not racist xenophobes, additional explanations are needed.

One reasonable explanation is that the Democrats have made matters of race and gender, such as police treatment of minorities and same-sex marriage, flagship issues. This is not to say that the Democrats have completely ignored issues that are especially important to white voters, just that there is a public perception that the party elites are more interested in bathroom access for transgender people than with the economic woes of white workers or the drug epidemic impacting whites.

It could be objected that people who take the above view are misguided: whatever problems whites have (especially straight white males) pale in comparison to the woes of non-whites (especially non-straight non-whites). Hence, paying special attention to these groups is justified. In accord with this view, whites, males and straight people are often told to “check their privilege” and called to task for daring to complain about their lot.

This reply does have some appeal. In general, white people are better off than non-white people, men are generally better off than women, and straight folks typically face less woes than non-straight folks. However, there two main concerns here. The first is that while it is true that those in the advantage groups (white, straight, male) do generally have things better, they still face very real problems. As citizens, they have every right to expect these real problems to be taken seriously and addressed. There is also the purely practical matter—it would be irrational for voters to vote for candidates who they think will not act to address their problems.

To use an analogy in medicine, a person with a broken arm could stand in for the problems of white people while a person with multiple serious injuries could stand in for the disadvantaged groups. While it is true that the person with the serious injuries would take precedence under triage and merit more attention, it would be wrong to dismiss the person with the broken arm and fail to give the injury due attention.

It could be objected that the analogy is not accurate and that a better one would be to replace the person with the broken arm with a hypochondriac who thinks he is suffering terribly, but is not really suffering at all. Moving away from the analogy, the idea would be that the advantaged groups are complaining about a loss of unjust advantages and wailing over imagined harms; they are complaining about nothing.

The reasonable reply is that this is true is some cases—many of the most vehement complaints are about the “cruel injustices” of not being able to discriminate or retain unfair advantages. However, even those in the advantaged groups face real problems such as unemployment, drug abuse, depression and so on. As such, perhaps a new analogy is in order involving the person with the broken arm standing in for those with real problems and the hypochondriac standing in for those whining about losing their unfair advantages and license to discriminate.

The second overall concern here is that telling people to “check their privilege” and attacking them in other ways can do more harm than good. For example, such attacks can turn off potential allies. While it is certainly legitimate to call out people who fail to recognize their privilege and to criticize people for discriminating, it is wise to consider the context and consequences of such approaches.  I will use an anecdote to illustrate the problem.

When I was in graduate school, I was living on my meager TA stipend and surviving on a diet of ramen noodles and rice puff cereal. I also got good at sewing my clothes to make them last longer. I was on my own financially, which is something I accepted as part of being an adult. I recall a friend and I being lectured about male privilege by two female students from upper-class families. I vaguely recall that one had been vacationing on the family yacht recently.

As a philosopher, I know that rejecting arguments about male privilege because very privileged women were making them to very unprivileged men would be to fall into an ad hominem fallacy (to reject a claim or argument because of irrelevant qualities of the person making the claim or argument). However, I certainly resented being lectured in this way. I did, of course, recognize that women in general face more obstacles and injustices than men generally face. However, this did nothing to address my worries about scraping together enough money to pay rent and buy food—there were many times I went hungry so I could pay my other bills. While I did go on to become a professor with a steady income, I remember those times and I am aware that there are many white males who are currently financially insecure. Lecturing them in male privilege or white privilege will not win them over. I suspect that some feel they are being lectured by the elite of the Democratic party and they resent this. Not because they are racist or sexist, but because such lectures are insulting and insensitive. While the Democrats should stay involved with the causes of their preferred disadvantaged groups, they also need to sincerely address the concerns of those in the advantaged groups—especially since many in these groups are extremely disadvantaged relative to the liberal elites.

 

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Religious Liberty

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 21, 2016

U.S Postage Stamp, 1957

The authors of the United States Constitution were aware of the dangers presented by state infringement on religious liberty. The First Amendment provides two key protections for citizens. The first is the prohibition against making “law respecting the establishment of religion.” This protects citizens from the tyrannical imposition of a state-backed religion. The second is that congress is forbidden from making any law that prohibits the free exercise of religion.

I support both prohibitions. While many believe it would be a great if their religion was the one being established and imposed via the coercive power of the state, they would not want someone else’s religion imposed upon them. For example, Americans who want to use Christianity as foundation for laws express horror at the prospect of Sharia law being imposed on them. As always, it is wise to consider the actions of the state in accord with the spirit of the Golden Rule: impose laws on others as you would have them impose laws on you. So, just as I would not want to have Sharia law imposed on me, I should not impose faith based law on others.

While I am not particularly active in my exercise of religion (although I am religious in my exercise), I also support the freedom to exercise religion. On the extreme side, imposition on religious liberties are often the starting point of efforts to oppress religious minorities. This can, and has, lead to attempts at extermination. As such, it is wise to make it difficult to get the ball of hate rolling. On the less extreme side, the free exercise of religion is part of the broader moral rights of liberty of conscience, freedom of expression and freedom of belief (which I also support). The American experience has shown that the acceptance of religious freedom, as imperfect as it may be, has helped maintain the stability of the United States. While we have many sects and religions, we do not have sectarian or religious violence at any significant level. While there are, of course, other factors that contribute to this, the freedom of religion has contributed significantly.

In recent years, there have been claims that religious liberty is under attack in the United States. As a holiday tradition, Fox News runs its yearly absurd stories about an alleged war on Christmas. While rampant, soulless consumerism has largely defeated Christmas, there is obviously no war against it. There are also claims that Christians are persecuted in the United States. To support this, people point to the legality of abortion, the legalization of same-sex marriage, and laws protecting LGBT people from discrimination. These are taken by some as attacks on religious liberty. In response, several states have endeavored to roll back these alleged intrusions on liberty, although this has resulted in backlash from the public in some cases.

To appeal to certain evangelical voters (who are not a monolithic bloc) Trump claimed that he would act in accord with their view of religious liberty. As they see it, Trump will enforce the second prohibition and protect citizens in their free exercise of the religion. However, critics can argue that this would violate the first prohibition by imposing religion on others via the law. Since I have argued these issues in other essays, I will not undertake this battle here. Rather, I will hold the supporters of religious liberty to their rhetoric about freedom. To be specific, let it be assumed that religious freedom is something they think should be protected by the state—even when doing so can impose harms on others. To illustrate the harms, consider the impact of not protecting LGBT people from discrimination based on faith as well as the impact of the anti-abortion efforts on women’s health and freedom of choice.

While Trump made a great rhetorical effort to win evangelical voters, he also engaged in sustained attacks on Muslims. He proposed a complete ban on allowing Muslims into the United States, he has called for a registry of Muslims, and has consistently used anti-Muslim rhetoric. While the ban and registry can be taken to violate the prohibition against interfering with the free exercise of religion, this can be countered. It could be argued that banning Muslims from the United States does not prevent them from freely exercising their religion in the United States—they would simply be excluded from coming here because of their religion. It could also be argued that a registry would also not be a violation of this prohibition. While some Muslims might elect to keep their faith private to avoid being put on that list, the registry itself would not forbid the free exercise of religion. Those willing to identify themselves to the government and have their information in a database conveniently available for hate-group hacking would be free to exercise their religion.

Not surprisingly, some Christians dedicated to their own religious liberty support the registry and ban. However, they should consider the matter not just in terms of their own perceived self-interest, but in terms of their professed support for religious liberty as a principle. They should consider reversing the situation: what would be their view of a country that banned Christians and had a registry of Christians? They would presumably be rather critical of such a country and would most likely consider those acts persecution. This reflection should help suggest what is wrong with the ban and registry.

The principle of religious liberty would seem to prohibit the registry and ban—they seem to be clear impositions on the freedom of religion, broadly construed. This can be countered by defining religious freedom more narrowly—limiting it to, for example, the freedom to worship within a religious edifice. This narrow interpretation would, however, preclude using the religious liberty argument in regards to such matters as abortion, contraception and LGBT rights.

Another possible counter is based on the fact that rights do have limits. One basis for limiting rights is the principle of harm: liberty can be restricted to protect others from harm. Using the stock example, the freedom of expression does not grant the right to yell “fire” in a crowded theater. In the case of the Muslim registry and ban, it can be argued that the religious liberty of Muslims can be limited to protect others from harm. This would presumably be developed in terms of terrorism. However, if possible harms to others is used to warrant the Muslim ban and registry, then the same argument can be used in response to the religious liberty arguments about abortion, contraception, and LGBT rights based on the harms they will impose on others. This then becomes a matter of weighing the harms imposed by restricting or allowing religious liberties. Regardless of the specific evaluation, this involves recognizing that the ban and registry violate religious liberty and that religious liberty can be constrained on the grounds of harms.

 

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Protests & Riots

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 16, 2016

While Trump’s election has been greeted by some with joy, others have responded by protesting. In Portland, Oregon a protest took a destructive turn and was classified as a riot by the police. This resulted in property damage, the use of less-than-lethal force by the police and arrests. Protests and riots are certainly philosophically interesting and I will begin by considering some basic definitions.

Put simply, a protest is an expression of disapproval. A political protest, of the sort that have been occurring, are obviously aimed at expression an objection to some political matter, in this case the election of Donald Trump. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees the right of the people to peaceful assembly, although this is not an absolute right. Almost by definition, peaceful assembly seems morally acceptable. As with other rights, there are certainly cases in which peaceful assembly can be justly restricted, but this would need to be warranted because the assembly would result in meaningful and unwarranted harms. For example, if people wanted to assemble on the runways of the Atlanta airport to protest the low wages for fast food workers, then it would be reasonable to prevent that. The protest does not require the use of a runway to make its point and it would create both danger and considerable inconvenience to travelers and cargo shipments. As might be imagined, whether a particular peaceful protest should be allowed can be a matter of great debate, but that is an issue for another time.

While a riot can be a protest, not all protests are riots and not all riots are protests. For example, the 1992 riot that did $10 million in damage arose from a game between the Chicago Bulls and the Portland Trail Blazers does not seem to qualify as a protest.  A riot is characterized by violent civil disorder involving a group. While the violence is most commonly directed against property, it can involve violence against people. Since attacks on people or property are both generally illegal, riots are generally regarded as criminal by their very nature.

For a protest to be a riot (and vice versa), there must be a group of people engaging in a violent civil disorder with the intent of expressing their disapproval. Since riots are generally illegal, a protest riot would probably also be illegal. However, there is an important distinction between law and morality, so a riot that is illegal could be morally justified.

In general terms, a riot could be morally justified in various ways. One obvious justification would be that the riot was in response to a terrible wrong that warrants such violence. For example, Americans often like to point to certain riots that took place in the run up to our revolutionary war as morally warranted because of British tyranny. The violence of such riots would presumably be directed at those who deserve such violence. As such, wrongs that do not warrant a violent response and violence against those not responsible would be unwarranted.

To use an analogy, if Sally did a terrible wrong to Jane and Jane could get no redress any other way, then she could be morally justified in using violence against Sally or her property. But, if Jane went after Bob, who has no connection to Sally, then this would be unjustified. Assuming those engaged in the “riot” in Portland were protesting (and not just opportunists) against Trump, their attacks on property in Portland would obviously be wrong. For example, wrecking cars in a Portland dealership does not strike a blow against Trump—even if Trump did something warranting a riot against him.

It could be argued that since so many voted for Trump, there is a chance that a Trump supporter will be impacted by a riot, thus “paying them back” for their misdeed. The easy and obvious reply is that this sort of riot roulette is morally unacceptable because it is more likely to harm someone who did not support Trump than someone who did. There is also the fact that it is morally unacceptable to regard voting for Trump as grounds for being the target of violence.

Another approach is to justify a riot on utilitarian grounds—if the riot results in more good than harm (and more good than not rioting), then it would be morally acceptable. Once again, Americans often regard their revolutionary riots as falling into this category.

While some people, assuming they are actually protesting Trump, might feel better venting their rage in a riot, it seems unlikely that this “good” will outweigh the harm done to those whose property they destroy or damage. Even if it assumed that Trump is evil and will be doing more evil as president, breaking other peoples’ stuff is not going to counter that evil. It could, of course, be countered that the destruction will show Trump that people are very serious and this will influence him. This, however, seems rather unlikely. One feature of utilitarian justifications is that the action must have actual results; ineffectual expressions of protest do not count in the calculation.

It might be countered that the destruction is morally acceptable because the (alleged) protestors are striking out against an unjust social order that enabled Trump to become president. The obvious reply is that while this might have some abstract appeal, the real damage is being done to the innocent rather than the guilty. Thus, such violence and destruction seem to be immoral.

The protests against Trump might decline as people work out their disappointment and anger; but they might surge again when Trump takes office and starts doing presidential things. One analogy worth considering is the Tea Party that was spawned in response to Obama. Trump might inspire a similar response by dedicated opponents on the left. If so, protests against President Trump could be routine and there will be something of a role reversal among the people, pundits, politicians and news media. For example, while Fox News was typically favorably inclined towards the Tea Party and almost all attacks on Obama, one would expect them to take a rather different approach to analogous behavior by Trump’s opponents.

 

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Trump, Terror and Hope

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 14, 2016

speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on Februar...

After Trump’s victory, my friends who backed him rejoiced in their triumph over the liberal elite and look forward in the hope that Trump will do everything he said he would do. Many of my other friends look forward in terror at that same outcome. As one might imagine, Hitler analogies are the order of the day—both for those who love Trump and those who loath him. While my political science studies are years behind me, I thought it would be worthwhile to have a rational discussion about what Trump is likely to do within the limits of his powers. This assumes that he does not hand the office over to Pence and get to work on Trump TV when he finally finds out about what he’ll need to do as President.

One thing that will disappoint his supporters and give hope to his opponents is that politicians rarely keep all their promises. Trump also has quite a track record of failing to follow through on his promises and his ghost-written The Art of the Deal lays out how he regards hyperbole as a useful tactic. As such, his promises should be regarded with skepticism until there is evidence he is trying to keep them. If Trump plans to run in 2020 he will need to work on keeping his promises; but if plans on being a one term president, then this need not concern him very much. Then again, people voted for him once knowing what he is, so they might well do so again even if he delivers little or nothing.

Trump also faces the limits imposed by reality. He will not be able to, for example, get Mexico to pay for the wall. As another example, he will not be able to restore those lost manufacturing jobs. As such, reality will dash the hopes of his supporters in many ways. Assuming, of course, they believed him.

There are also the obvious legal limits on his power as set by the constitution and laws. His supporters will rejoice in the fact that since 9/11 the powers of the presidency have expanded dramatically. While Obama originally expressed concerns about this, he did little or nothing to rein in these powers. For example, he made extensive use of executive powers to conduct drone executions. As such, Trump will be stepping into a very powerful position and will be able to do a great deal using, for example, executive orders. While these powers are not unlimited, they are extensive.

Those who oppose Trump will certainly hope that the legal limits on the office, such as they are, will restrain Trump. They can also hope that the system of checks and balances will keep him in check. Trump’s rhetoric seems to indicate that he thinks he will be able to run the country like he runs his business, which is not the case. The legislative and judicial branches will resist incursions into their power; at least when doing so is in their interest.

There is, however, an obvious concern for those worried about Trump: his party controls the House and Senate. His party will also control the Supreme Court, assuming he appoints a conservative judge. As such, there will be no effective governmental opposition to Trump, as long as he does not interfere with the goals of his fellow Republicans in the House and Senate.

This is where matters get a bit complicated. On the one hand, the Republicans will presumably try to work together, since they are all in the same party and claim to accept the same ideology. On the other hand, Trump has said things that are contrary to traditional Republican ideology, such as his rejection of free trade and his view of American defense commitments to our allies. Trump and the Republican leadership also have had their conflicts during the primary and the campaign; these might flare up again after the honeymoon is over. So, America might see the Republican House or Senate opposing some of President Trump’s plans. This is, of course, not unprecedented in American history. A key question is, of course, how much the Republicans in congress will stick to their professed ideology and how much they will go along with Trump. There is even the possibility that some of what Trump wants to do will be opposed on the grounds of principle.

While Trump ran on the usual bullshit rhetoric of going to Washington to “blow things up” and “drain the swamp”, doing this would involve going hard against congress and the established political elites. As much as I would love to see Trump getting into a death match with Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, I think we can expect Trump to settle into politics as usual. Even if he does get into it with congress, Trump has no real experience in politics and seems to lack even a basic understanding of how the system works. As such, Trump would presumably be at a huge disadvantage. Which could be a good thing for those who oppose him.

While predicting exactly what will happen is not possible, it seems reasonable to expect that the total Republican control will allow them to undo much of what Obama did. Trump can simply undo Obama’s executive orders on his own and Trump will certainly not use his veto to thwart congress to protect Obama’s legacy. So, expect Obamacare to be dismantled and expect changes to how immigration is handled.

The restoration of conservative control of the Supreme court will initially not be much of a change from before; although the advanced age of some of the judges means that Trump is likely to be able to make more appointments. Unlike Obama, he can expect the Senate to hold hearings and probably approve of his choices. That said, the Senate will probably not simply rubber stamp his choice—something that might frustrate him. However, as long the senate remains under Republican control he will have a far easier time getting judges that will rule as he wants them to rule into the court. This is, of course, what the evangelical voters hope for—a supreme court that will overturn Roe v Wade. This is also the nightmare of those who support reproductive rights.

If Trump can shape the court, he can use this court to expand his power and erode rights. Because he is thin skinned and engages in behavior that justly results in condemnation, he wants to loosen up the libel laws so he can sue people. Trump, despite being essentially a product of the media, professes to loath the news media. At least reporters who dare to criticize him. If he had the sort of supreme court he wants, we could see the First Amendment weakened significantly.

Trump has also made the promise of going up against the elites. While he certainly has a dislike of the elites that look down on him (some have described him as a peasant with lots of gold), he is one of the elites and engaging the systematic advantages of the elites would harm him. Trump does not seem like the sort to engage in an altruistic sacrifice, so this seems unlikely. There is also the fact that the elite excel at staying elite—so he would be hard pressed to defeat the elite should they in battle meet.

Trump is also limited by the people. While the president has great power, he is still just a primate in pants and needs everyone else to make things happen and go along with him. He also might need to be concerned about public opinion and this can put a check on his behavior. Or perhaps not—Trump did not seem overly worried about condemnation of his behavior during the campaign.

Citizens can, of course, oppose Trump in words and deeds. While the next presidential election is in four years, there will be other elections and people can vote for politicians who will resist Trump. Of course, if more people had voted in the actual election, this might not be something that would need doing now.  Those who back him should, of course, vote for those who will do his will.

As a rule, people tend to err significantly in their assessments of politicians—they tend to think they will do far more good or evil than these politicians deliver. For example, some hoped and others feared that Obama would radically change the country. His proponents had glorious dreams of a post-racial America with health care for all and his opponents had feverish dreams of a Muslim-socialist state taking away all their guns. Both proved to be in error: America got a centrist, competent president. In the case of Trump, there are fears and dreams that he will be an American Hitler. The reality is likely to relieve those having nightmares about and disappoint those dreaming of people in white hoods advising Trump in the White House (although the KKK is apparently planning a parade for Trump).

In closing, while I suspect that the Trump presidency will be a burning train wreck that will make America long for the golden years of Obama, it will not be as bad as some fear. That said, history shows that only fools do not keep a wary eye on those in power.

 

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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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After the Election

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 7, 2016

The systematic efforts to demoralize American voters and to create a toxic political environment have resulted in perhaps the most vitriolic election cycle in modern memory. While some people do like their candidate, much of the electorate seems to be motivated by their loathing of the opposing candidate. As such, most voters seem to be voting against Trump or Hillary rather than for them.

The demoralizing of the electorate has proven to be an effective but ultimately destructive strategy. On the “positive” side, demotivating voters through suppression tactics (such as voter ID laws and cutting back on early voting) and fostering an attitude that voting is ineffective has proven beneficial to certain candidates—they get elected. On the negative side, the foundation of democracy is being eroded as people lose faith in the democratic process. This disinvestment on the part of citizens contributes to the decay of American society and will no doubt to prove to be a significant factor in the decline and fall of the American empire.

The creation of a toxic political environment through such means as exploiting fears of race, class and religion has also proven to be beneficial to some in the short term. There have also been sustained attacks on key institutions, ranging from the government in general to the election process in particular. The political parties have enjoyed fevered victories through poisoning the political body. Trump provides an excellent example of this—his willingness to go beyond the moral limits of other Republicans (and his free media coverage) helped h7im grope his way towards the White House. These victories come at a price in the form of divisiveness and the fanning of the fires of hate. Institutions that are essential to the functioning of the nation have also been corroded and eroded, thus weakening the United States.

The battle between Hillary and Trump is the logical result of these approaches and one of them will be president. While there is always talk of reconciliation after elections, the last eight years have revealed that the Republican Party is quite comfortable with obstruction and the Democrats have not proven strong enough to remove the blockage in the pipes of government. While some have pointed to racism as a factor in the case of Obama, the Republicans seem to be even more intent on blocking and thwarting Hillary if she wins. John McCain, once known for being willing to work with Democrats, has already vowed to block anyone Hillary nominates to the Supreme Court. While this would yield short term political advantages to some Republicans, this approach is fundamentally damaging to the country. In addition to damaging peoples’ confidence in the institutions, keeping the court at eight judges will be problematic. This would only get worse as judges die. In theory, the senate could eliminate the court in this manner, which would be disastrous.

If Trump gets elected, the Republicans might do the same to him, depending on who he selects as his nominees. If the Democrats take the senate, they might decide to block Trump’s nominees and point at the Republicans when they are criticized. Naturally, a senate controlled by Democrats would most likely approve Hillary’s nominee. From the standpoint of restoring the court to its full membership, the election of Hillary and the success of the Democrats in the senatorial races are probably the best bets. Of course, conservatives might not be happy with her choice—at least in regards to social issues. However, Hillary is essentially a moderate classic Republican, so she would probably appoint a fairly moderate judge. Who would be perceived as a radical liberal by those on the right. Of course, there is more to the presidency than just appointing judges—there is also doing the business of the executive branch. This could also prove problematic.

Trump is already scheduled for court dates, so those will presumably interfere a bit with his presidency. While Hillary is not yet scheduled for any court appearances, the Republicans are already planning out years of investigations. In addition to wasting time and millions of dollars in public money, these investigations will (as intended) most likely greatly dampen the effectiveness of her presidency. After all, spending countless hours testifying will eat up her time and the investigation will damage her reputation more and weaken America’s standing in the world. After all, foreign leaders will realize that such a divided government will be weaker, less effective and not paying as much attention to the world. But, the Republicans will gain a short term political advantage at the cost of eroding America’s power and standing in the world—which is presumably totally worth it. Of course, Hillary could have elected to forgo running for the good of the country; but she is also very focused on her own advantage. The Democrats probably will not take the House, but if they do, then Hillary will have much smoother sailing. This might be good for the country. Or not.

While Republicans have not planned years of investigations into Trump (should he be elected), some have claimed that they intend to oppose him when he goes against the party ideology. Trump is likely to do just that and Democrats will certainly oppose him, so a Trump presidency will also almost certainly result in the continuation of the standoff between the presidency and Congress. But, perhaps the next president will be able to do some things.

Hillary has, of course, many detailed plans and policies and an established track record. As such, it is easy to predict what she will do and this is business as usual. While not great for the working people of America, business as usual is not the worst option. Continued growth and increased employment seem like good trends. She will also presumably keep the Obama social programs on track, which is not the worst thing that can happen.

Trump has no track record in politics, but he does have an awful record in business—presumably he will use his business skills in office. This would seem to be a bad thing. Trump speaks in vague generalities and untruths and often makes no sense, so it is difficult to say exactly what his policies will be. Presumably he will try for the wall, try to kick out illegals, and use his secret plan on what is left of ISIS. Or whatever—one cannot really say what he will do. However, given his complete lack of experience, his temperament, and the skill set he has displayed in his reality shows, it would be reasonable to predict that he would be a disaster as a president. But, perhaps he will do shockingly well. His supporters claim he will surround himself with good people—perhaps they can run the country for him and do a good job.

Regardless of who gets elected, the next four years could be really bad. So bad, in fact, that future historians might mark this election as a key point in the decline and fall of the American Empire. If so, it is also on us—democracy gives us the government we deserve.

 

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The Murder of Truth

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 4, 2016

“When a man lies, he murders some part of the world.”

-Merlin

 

http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/584741488

There is an old joke that asks “how do you know a politician is lying?” The answer is, of course, “you can see his lips moving.” This bit of grim humor illustrates the negative view people generally have of politicians—they are expected to lie relentlessly. However, people still condemn politicians for lying. Or when they believe the politician is lying. At least when the politician is on the other side.

In the case of their own side, people often suffer from what seems to be a cognitive malfunction: they believe politicians lie, but generally accept that their side is telling it like it is. This sort of malfunction also extends to the media and other sources of information: it is commonly claimed that the media lies and that sources are biased. That is, when media and sources express views one disagrees with. What matches a person’s world view is embraced, often without any critical consideration. This sort of thing presumably goes back to the invention of politics; but it also ebbs and flows over time.

In the United States, the 2016 election has created a high tide of lies. While there is a rough justice in saying Hillary and Trump are both liars, it is trivially true that we are all liars. As such, it is important to consider the number and severity of the lies people tell when assessing them rather than merely pointing out the obvious truth that everyone has lied. On the face of it, Trump has a commanding lead in the realm of untruth. This should not be a surprise, given that the ghostwriter of “Trump’s” Art of the Deal attributed to Trump the tactic of the “truthful hyperbole.” As I have argued before, truthful hyperbole is an impossibility because hyperbole, by definition, is not true. While Trump has told many spectacular untruths, one of his most impressive is the narrative that he was the one who finally settled the birther movement and that Hillary started it. Given Trump’s role as the point man for the birther movement, this assertion is beyond absurd; but it merely assaults truth in general, rather than being aimed at undermining institutions that are supposed to committed to the truth. Unfortunately, Trump has also engaged in such undermining. Being in a field dedicated to the truth, I find the attacks on truth and the casual acceptance of lies anathema. As should anyone who values truth and condemns lies.

While it is tempting to some to place all the blame into Trump’s hands, Trump is merely following a well-worn path to the battle against truth. A key part of this battle is the sustained attack on the media, broadly construed. In the United States, attacking the media for an alleged liberal bias goes back at least to the time of Nixon. While it is reasonable to be critical of the news media, a sweeping rejection based on alleged bias is hardly a rational approach by someone who wants to think critically.

Trump has, however, added some new twists to the attack on the media. One is that he expanded his attacks beyond the allegedly liberal media to engage any reporter who dares to be critical of him—even people normally beloved by conservatives. In this regard, he has broken outside of the usual ideological boundaries. However, this seems to be the result of his personality rather than an ideological commitment on his part—he cannot not respond to any criticism that gets his attention.

It could be replied that Trump is merely engaging a dishonest, lying media—a media that has crossed ideological lines to join forces against him. This would require accepting that these reporters are liars and that they are manufacturing the evidence they use in their reporting—such as videos of Trump saying and doing the things they claim he does and says. While this is not beyond the realm of possibility (we could, after all, be in a Twilight Zone episode in which the twist is that Trump is the only honest man facing a vast conspiracy of liars of all political stripes), the more plausible explanation is that Trump is the one saying the untrue things.

Another concern is that he has engaged in a level of vitriol against the media that has not been seen in recent presidential politics. In general, he seems to have two main tactics for dealing with claims made about him that he dislikes. The first is to simply deny the claim. The second is to engage in intense ad hominem attacks on the source. Since fact checkers like Politifact expose Trump’s untruths, he has accused them of being biased and part of the conspiracy against him. While he is willing to engage in name-calling against specific people, he also engages in sweeping insults against the press in general. His attacks are taken quite seriously, so much so that Committee to Protect Journalists has issued a statement that Trump is a threat to the freedom of the press.

It could be replied that Trump is merely giving the media what it deserves and his attacks are true—the reporters are “nasty”, “sleazy” and “not good people.” It could also be claimed that it is true the press is engaged in a conspiracy against him.

While there are no doubt some “not good” reporters, they do not seem to be as awful as Trump claims. Of course, Trump is known for his hyperbole and saying untrue things, so this should not be surprising. In fact, it would be out of character for Trump to describe things as they are. He seems to be locked permanently in hyperbole mode: everything is great or garbage, with little or nothing in between.

As someone who writes horror adventures for games, I like a good conspiracy theory and routinely work them into my fiction. However, if the media is engaged in a conspiracy to elect Hillary and defeat Trump, they would seem to need to go back to conspiracy school. The fact checkers check her and the media relentlessly cover stories that are harmful to her chances, such as the undying email scandal. The media, via its massive and free coverage of Trump, helped him win the candidacy and they unceasingly keep him in the spotlight. Ironically, this excessive coverage of Trump is a frightening sign of the media’s role in the erosion of truth—the focus on what is spectacle, rather than what is significant. There are also those in the media who do manufacture claims or present things in ways that cast shadows over the truth—they, too, should be held accountable for their role in murdering the truth. Be they on the left or the right.

Interestingly, it could also be argued that worries about the erosion of truth are overblown: while Trump seems to be going for a gold medal in untruths, this will have no real impact on the world. This claim does have some appeal. After all, doomsayers predict that so many things will lead to dire consequences and very often they are quite wrong. I certainly hope this is the case, that in the 2020 election cycle we will be back to our normal levels of untruths and the attacks on the media will be back to being a matter of rote rather than rage.

 

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Facebase

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on October 28, 2016

While you are most likely not a criminal, it is likely that the police have a digital version of your face on file. This is because most states put driver’s license photos into a database accessible to the police—and, one would assume, the federal government. The system works in conjunction with facial recognition software (like Facebook uses to identify people in your photos) to identify suspects. For example, if someone robs a convenience store and the police do not recognize them, the image from the surveillance camera can be matched against the database that could contain your face. Ideally, the software would generate a short list that includes the perpetrator. Problematically, the software could generate a list of innocent people who might then end up in unpleasant interactions with the state.

There are, of course, some practical issues with the current technology. One is that the photos the police have of suspects tend to be of low quality, thus making false matches more likely. Another is that in such a large database there will be many people who look alike, thus the chance of false matches will be high even with good photos. As anyone familiar with the DMV knows, driver’s license photos also tend to vary greatly in quality and consistency, thus making false matches likely.

The current software also has problems with people who have darker skin, thus making false matches more likely for people of color than white people. While some might suspect racism or bias at work, it has been claimed that this occurs because darker skin has less contrast than lighter skin, making accurate matches more difficult. If this technical issue cannot be solved, then it is almost certain that there will be charges of racism and bias as more dark skinned people are subject to false matches than lighter people. Even if this is purely a technical issue with no actual bias, it would certainly create the impression of bias and feed into the view that policing is biased in America. It also raises a moral concern about the use of such software in terms of its consequences: while it might have the benefit of assisting the police in finding actual criminals, it could have the harm of fanning the existing flames of mistrust and worries about police bias against people of color. These factors would need to be balanced against each other, at least until the recognition disparity is solved.

In addition to specific concerns about the recognition of darker skinned people, there is the general concern about the accuracy of the software in identifying people. Since most people with driver’s licenses will be in the database, innocent people will end up being investigated by the police because the software pegs them as adequately resembling a suspect. While most interactions with the police would presumably be quick and harmless, interactions with the state can go very badly indeed—even for innocent people. As such, due moral consideration should be paid to this fact.

There are, of course, the usual concerns about privacy and intrusion of the state. While some citizens are terrified of the idea of a national database of guns, what is being constructed is an even more invasive database—a database of our faces. A “facebase”, if you will. As such, those who are dedicated to Second Amendment rights should be worried about this “facebase.” Others who are concerned about privacy and the overreach of big government should also be worried and insist that proper controls and limitations are in place to protect the rights of citizens.

It could be countered that people with nothing to hide have nothing to fear—but this slogan fails to address the legitimate concerns about privacy. After all, no one who is worried about a national database of guns would be content with being told that if they have their guns legally, then they have nothing to fear from such a database.

A better counter is to appeal to the positive consequences. That is, by giving up privacy rights and becoming part of a “perpetual lineup” we will be safer from criminals and terrorists. This argument does have considerable appeal—but it must be assessed properly in terms of what the approach yields in benefits and what it costs in terms of intrusion and other harms. Americans have, in general, been far too quick to give away real rights and suffer real harms in return for the illusion of safety. We should stop doing this. One useful approach would be to imagine that what is being given up is a right a person has a strong emotional attachment to—this would help offset the emotional appeal to fear of criminals and terrorists. For example, a pro-gun person could imagine that the system was creating a database of his guns to match up against guns supposedly used by terrorists or criminals. This tactic obviously has no logical weight—it is merely intended as counter to emotional manipulation by means of an analogy.

A final concern, as with all such gather of data, is worry about the various potential misuses of the information. I would assume that these databases have already been hacked and the information is now being examined by foreign governments, criminals and terrorists. Because of this, we should consider the consequences of maintaining or expanding the program. After all, whatever ends up in our databases inevitably ends up around the world. There are also concerns that the data would be made available to the private sector for use in advertising, political campaigning and other purposes. This is not a concern unique to the “facebase” but it is still a matter of concern.

In closing, that bad DMV photo might prove to be a blessing or a curse. On the positive side, it might be so bad that the police will not be able to match you should you commit a crime. On the negative side, that bad photo might get you matched up often and thus subject to friendly inquiries from the police. But, you might make new friends or get to see how a taser works.

 

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