A Philosopher's Blog

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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The University that Wasn’t

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on June 1, 2016

While Hillary Clinton is mired in the tar pit of her email server scandal, Trump’s foes are hoping that Trump University will prove to be the quicksand that puts an end to him. While Trump named it “Trump University”, in 2005 the state of New York took action to make him change the name on the grounds that it was not, in fact, a university. A university has to meet certain standards and Trump’s operation did not meet these. This, however, is not the problem that Trump now faces.

As this is written, there is a class action lawsuit against Trump (who owned 93% of the “university”) that is based on an allegation of fraud against Trump. It has been claimed that the “university” was a scheme aimed at taking money from the elderly and the uneducated using carefully scripted high pressure sales tactics. The trial is scheduled in November, shortly after the presidential election. Because of this, president elect Trump might find himself in the courtroom after his victory. Assuming, of course, that he wins.

While I will not comment on the legal issues, the “university” seems to have been morally problematic. As noted above, calling it a university seems to have been deceptive, given that it was not a university. Naturally, Trump could be defended by arguing that he and everyone else involved were ignorant of the requirements for an institution being a university. While this would indicate poor planning, it would mitigate the charge of deception.

The practices laid out by the verified documentation show practices that are morally problematic. As noted above, the “university” seemed to have been targeted at the elderly and uneducated, people who would be regarded as easy targets for this sort of operation. Also as noted above, the sales tactics (though standard) seem morally dubious. There is also the fact that the customers seemed to have gotten little in return for their money and, in some cases, did not get what they were promised. One of the main focuses has been on the claim that Trump handpicked the instructors—a claim that was proven to be untrue. What adds an icing of awfulness to the whole wicked cake is that the “university” focused on how to cash in on the housing collapse. While making money off the suffering and misfortune of others is legal and often lauded in the United States, it should strike those with a conscience as reprehensible on its face.

Trump’s defenders can certainly address such moral condemnation. The easy any obvious avenue is to point out that it has yet to be shown that Trump did anything illegal. Targeting the vulnerable, using high pressure sales tactics, providing services of dubious value and training people to profit on the misfortune of others all seem to be legal. In fact, a case can be made that these are excellent things in regards to making a profit. Trump could even make the case that far from being a moral stain on his campaign, the way Trump University operated serves as proof that he knows how to get things done and that he has no qualms about doing what it takes to achieve his ends. Some might regard these traits as laudable in a president.

Trump has, as would be expected, responded to the explosion in the media. He has used the well-honed tactic of attacking the media, tapping into the well-established dislike and distrust crafted by Republicans and Fox News. While criticism of objectivity is a legitimate tactic, bashing the media is both a red herring (a rhetorical tool to distract attention from the issue) and a genetic fallacy (taking an alleged defect in the source of the claim as evidence the claim is not true). While the claims made about Trump by the professional media seem to be well and objectively documented, what matters politically is what impact this will have on the voters. Democrats are no doubt hoping for a “Trump U. Gate” to draw attention from Hillary’s server woes. However, Trump’s supporters might not care at all. This would be especially ironic, given that the allegation is one of fraud and his supporters tend to point to his authenticity as a major reason for their allegiance.

Trump has also gone after the U.S. District Judge who is presiding over the case. Trump has said that Judge Gonzalo Curiel is a “hater” and has said the Indiana native is Mexican. The hater remark is a mere ad hominem, which is a standard Trump tactic: to use personal attacks instead of providing actual reasons. Presumably Trump’s claim that he believes the judge is Mexican is also some sort of attack and perhaps a tactic to spin a narrative that he is being persecuted by the Mexicans for his courageous political incorrectness (or racism, as some see it).

This approach might play will with his supporters and he probably runs little risk in pushing people off the fence to the Democrat’s side. After all, if his remarks and behavior have not already pushed someone off the fence, these remarks should not be the rock that knocked the bird off the fence.

Trump has managed to thrive by behaving in ways that would have been political suicide for just about any other candidate, thus showing that the rules are different for him (at least for now). What remains to be seen is whether or not the revelations about Trump University will harm him politically. On the one hand, such allegations should damage his reputation as authentic and successful. On the other hand, while the details about Trump University are new to the public, it seems that they show nothing new about Trump himself. As such, it seems most likely that this will not hurt Trump much. That said, this might help Hillary a bit by getting the media, public and pundits focused on Trump University and not on Hillary’s server. Trump must get these eyes pushed back to gaze upon the server, which he is endeavoring to do.

 

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Factions & Fallacies

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on October 29, 2014

In general, human beings readily commit to factions and then engage in very predictable behavior: they regard their own factions as right, good and truthful while casting opposing factions as wrong, evil and deceitful. While the best known factions tend to be political or religious, people can form factions around almost anything, ranging from sports teams to video game consoles.

While there can be rational reasons to form and support a faction, factionalism tends to be fed and watered by cognitive biases and fallacies. The core cognitive bias of factionalism is what is commonly known as in group bias. This is the psychology tendency to easily form negative views of those outside of the faction. For example, Democrats often regard Republicans in negative terms, casting them as uncaring, sexist, racist and fixated on money. In turn, Republcians typically look at Democrats in negative terms and regard them as fixated on abortion, obsessed with race, eager to take from the rich, and desiring to punish success. This obviously occurs outside of politics as well, with competing religious groups regarding each other as heretics or infidels. It even extends to games and sports, as the battle of #gamergate serving as a nice illustration.

The flip side of this bias is that members of a faction regard their fellows and themselves in a positive light and are thus inclined to attribute to themselves positive qualities. For example, Democrats see themselves as caring about the environment and being concerned about social good. As another example, Tea Party folks cast themselves as true Americans who get what the founding fathers really meant.

This bias is often expressed in terms of and fuelled by stereotypes. For example, critics of the sexist aspects of gaming will make use of the worst stereotypes of male gamers (dateless, pale misogynists who spew their rage around a mouthful of Cheetos). As another example, Democrats will sometimes cast the rich as being uncaring and out of touch plutocrats. These stereotypes are sometimes taken the extreme of demonizing: presenting the other faction members as not merely wrong or bad but evil to the extreme.

Such stereotypes are easy to accept and many are based on another bias, known as a fundamental attribution error. This is a psychological tendency to fail to realize that the behavior of other people is as much limited by circumstances as our behavior would be if we were in their shoes. For example, a person who was born into a well off family and enjoyed many advantages in life might fail to realize the challenges faced by people who were not so lucky in their birth. Because of this, she might demonize those who are unsuccessful and attribute their failure to pure laziness.

Factionalism is also strengthened by various common fallacies. The most obvious of these is the appeal to group identity. This fallacy occurs when a person accepts her pride in being in a group as evidence that a claim is true. Roughly put, a person believes it because her faction accepts it as true. The claim might actually be true, the mistake is that the basis of the belief is not rational. For example, a devoted environmentalist might believe in climate change because of her membership in that faction rather than on the basis of evidence (which actually does show that climate change is occurring). This method of belief “protects” group members from evidence and arguments because such beliefs are based on group identity rather than evidence and arguments. While a person can overcome this fallacy, faction-based beliefs tend to only change when the faction changes or if the person leaves the faction.

The above-mentioned biases also tend to lean people towards fallacious reasoning. The negative biases tend to motivate people to accept straw man reasoning, which is when a when a person simply ignores a person’s actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position. Politicians routinely make straw men out of the views they oppose and their faction members typically embrace these. The negative biases also make ad hominem fallacies common. An ad homimen is a general category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument. Typically, this fallacy involves two steps. First, an attack against the character of person making the claim, her circumstances, or her actions is made (or the character, circumstances, or actions of the person reporting the claim). Second, this attack is taken to be evidence against the claim or argument the person in question is making (or presenting). For example, opponents of a feminist critic of gaming might reject her claims by claiming that she is only engaged in the criticism so as to become famous and make money. While it might be true that she is doing just that, this does not disprove her claims. The guilt by association fallacy, in which a person rejects a claim simply because it is pointed out that people she dislikes accept the claim, both arises from and contributes to factionalism.

The negative views and stereotypes are also often fed by fallacies that involve poor generalizations. One is misleading vividness, a fallacy in which a very small number of particularly dramatic events are taken to outweigh a significant amount of statistical evidence. For example, a person in a faction holding that gamers are violent misogynists might point to the recent death threats against a famous critic of sexism in games as evidence that most gamers are violent misogynists. Misleading vividness is, of course, closely related to hasty generalization, a fallacy in which a person draws a conclusion about a population based on a sample that is not large enough to justify that conclusion. For example, a Democrat might believe that all corporations are bad based on the behavior of BP and Wal-Mart. Biased generalizations also occur, which is a fallacy that is committed when a person draws a conclusion about a population based on a sample that is biased or prejudiced in some manner. This tends to be fed by the confirmation bias—the tendency people have to seek and accept evidence for their view while avoiding or ignoring evidence against their view. For example, a person might hold that his view that the poor want free stuff for nothing from visits to web sites that feature Youtube videos selected to show poor people expressing that view.

The positive biases also contribute to fallacious reasoning, often taking the form of a positive ad hominem. A positive ad hominem occurs when a claim is accepted on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author or person presenting the claim or argument. Typically, this fallacy involves two steps. First, something positive (but irrelevant) about the character of person making the claim, her circumstances, or her actions is made. Second, this is taken to be evidence for the claim in question. For example, a Democrat might accept what Bill Clinton says as being true, just because he really likes Bill.

Nor surprisingly, factionalism is also supported by faction variations on appeals to belief (it is true/right because my faction believes it is so), appeal to common practice (it is right because my faction does it), and appeal to tradition (it is right because my faction has “always done this”).

Factionalism is both fed by and contributes to such biases and poor reasoning. This is not to say that group membership is a bad thing, just that it is wise to be on guard against the corrupting influence of factionalism.

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The Ethics of Spinions (Spinning Minions)

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on June 27, 2012
English: The CNN Center in Atlanta.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Being rather interested in politics, I spend a fair amount of time following the news of the day. Not surprisingly, I get to see numerous spinning minions (spinions) working their talking points. In the context of politics, a spinion is a person who takes on the role of presenting the talking points of the ideology being represented. In general, the spinion has two main tasks. The first is to make his/her side look good and the second is to make the other side look bad. Truth is, of course, not really a point of concern. Naturally, there can be spinions in other areas as well, such as business, religion and academics.

One somewhat interesting thing about spinions is that it is often rather easy to tell when a person is in spinion mode. In many cases, there seems to be a certain change in the facial expression, eyes and voice of the person as s/he begins to spin.  This reminds me of the fact that in the Pathfinder role playing game characters can use their perception skill to notice whether another creature’s will is not its own. That is, whether it is charmed, dominated or otherwise being controlled. Being a gaming nerd, I imagine the spinion look is what a person would look like in such cases. More scientifically, research has shown that the brain actually undergoes internal changes when a person is thinking about ideological matters: “Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones.” Given this, it is not surprising that a person’s external behavior would be altered in discernible ways when engaged in spinning behavior. After all, emotional changes are often manifested visibly in changes in behavior and voice. However, my main concern is not with spotting spinions (although there is probably some interesting research to be done here) but with the ethics of spinions.

When I observe spinions in action, what I mainly notice is that they relentlessly present their side in a favorable manner while being equally relentless in casting the other side(s) in a negative manner. In the context of United States’ politics, this spinning has reached the point that any concession to or positive view of the other side is regarded as traitorous. For example, when Bill Clinton spoke of Mitt Romney having a sterling business record, this created a bit of a political storm. I would present other examples, but they are rather rare-in these times it is almost unheard of for one side to say anything positive about the other.

Another disturbing aspect of the ways of spin is that truth and principle seem to be of little importance. Each spinion attempts to construct a narrative favoring his side and damning the other, warping and ignoring facts as needed. For example, the Republicans bashed Obama because the worth of the middle class fell on his watch but they conveniently ignored the fact that this worth had been falling since before Obama was in office. Similarly, the Democrats bashed Romney regarding Massachusetts’ economic woes while Romney was governor, conveniently ignoring facts that went against this narrative.

Needless to say, spinions seem to also have no qualms about making use of fallacies and rhetorical devices in the place of reason. To see this is the case, simply turn to the 24 hour news station of your choice and watch. You might want to have a book on fallacies on hand to catalog all the examples you will see. This is, of course, prudent of them: while it makes me sad, fallacies and rhetoric are far more effective than good reasoning when it comes to getting people to believe.

Grounding this behavior seems to be the idea that what matters is beating the other side. The view seems to be, as Hobbes would put it, that “profit is the measure of right.” This is perhaps most clearly put by Mitch McConnel, namely that the Republicans top priority should be making Obama a one term president. Rather than, for example, working hard to get us out of the depression. While Democrats are not as overt about this as their Republican associates, it is obviously still a factor.

As might be suspected, I regard the behavior of the spinions as morally dubious at best. After all, they engage in willful manipulation of the facts, they employ rhetoric and fallacies to sway people, they cannot acknowledge anything right or good about the other side, and seem to be solely concerned with achieving victory for their side (or the side that pays them).  This spinning has contributed to the high levels of polarity in politics and had made it rather difficult for issues to be discussed rationally and fairly. I would even go so far as to say that this has harmed the general good through its impact on politics. As such, the spinions are a source of considerable moral concern.

One rather obvious counter is that the job of the spinion is to do exactly what they do and this is a legitimate activity. While philosophers and scientists are supposed to seek facts and engage in good reasoning so as to determine what is most likely to be true, this is not the role of the spinion. Their role is rather like that of any spokesperson or advertiser, namely to sell their product and see to it that the competition does not succeed. This is not a matter of right or wrong and truth or falsehood. Rather it is a matter of selling product, be that product soap or a political party. This sort of selling is how the consumer market works and thus the spinions are acting in an acceptable way.

I do agree that parties do have a legitimate right to have people who speak in their favor and against their opposition. However, the spinions appear to present a danger to society similar to that of the sophists. That is, they seem to be focused solely on the success of their side rather than on what is true and good. Since the top spinions are routinely given time on national and worldwide television, they have a rather substantial platform from which to spread their influence. Spinions are often presented as commentators or panelists (and sometimes they are actually presenting the news) which, as I see, creates a problem comparable to allowing corporate spokespeople to advertise their products under the guise of being panelists or commentators. That is, the spinions often seem to simply be presenting political commercials for their side while not having these ads labeled as such. This can mislead people who might think that they are getting an objective report when they are, in fact, essentially just getting a political advertisement in disguise.

A counter to this is that the spinions are presenting the views and talking points of their respective sides and this is not advertising. After all, there will sometimes be opposing spinions spinning in opposite directions on the same panel or in the same segment. Further, the spinions are often presented as being spokespeople for specific parties or candidates.

One reply is that this is still like advertising. After all, networks are happy to sell time to competitors so that a viewer might see an advertisement for Coke followed by one for Pepsi. Also, while some spinions are identified as such, this is not always the case. As such, people do often get misled into thinking that what they are hearing is a matter of fact when it is, in fact, merely spin.

The obvious counter to this is that the spinions are protected by the right to free speech and hence are free to spin away even when doing so is detrimental to the public good and what they say is contrary to fact.

This, I will agree, is true-spinions do not lose their right to express their views (or the views they are paid to express) just because they are spinning. However, the news networks who enable them to spin (or even hire them to spin) are not obligated to provide the spinners with a platform or to let them operate largely free from critical assessment. Obviously enough, having opposite spinners spinning away is not the same thing as having critical assessment of the spin.  In fact, spinning is the opposite of what the news is supposed to do, namely present the facts objectively.  As such, there should be greater effort to contain spin and to ensure that spinners are clearly identified as such. Finally, what the spinions do is wrong-they should stop doing what they do.

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Cain

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 29, 2011
DETROIT, MI - OCTOBER 21:  Republican presiden...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

Cain is facing another potential crisis: Ginger White has come forth to apparently claim that she had a long lasting affair with Herman Cain. As might be imagined, this is not exactly good news for Cain’s lagging campaign.

Cain immediately denied the accusations, while noting that he did know the woman. His handling of the situation was better than his handling of previous accusations-thus showing that Cain has learned at least a bit about damage control. However, his lawyer released a rather odd statement which, as the pundits noted, does not seem to be the right sort of thing for a politician to issue for damage control. This shows that Cain needs to improve his organization and how it handles damage control-assuming that he is able to endure.

At this point, this is the classic “she says, he says” situation. Cain made an immediate and unequivocal denial which counts, to a degree, in his favor. After all, lying about an affair will generally do more political damage than admitting to an affair. Thus, a lie would not be very sensible and hence would (or should) be the less likely approach by Cain. Given Newt’s and Bill Clinton’s success, Cain should be aware that politicians who have affairs can do quite well.

That said, politicians have been known to lie about such things-even when the lie is far more damaging than the truth. Anthony Weiner is, of course, the most recent example of such an incident.  The statement Cain’s lawyer released also muddled things a bit-while the legalese seems to be aimed any saying that Cain did not have an affair, the overall impression is seems to create is more along the lines of  “if he had an affair, it is t the business of the media or the public.” This is hardly effective damage control and makes it seem like a set up for an admittance of wrongdoing. However, anyone who is familiar with legalese will point out that the statement is the sort of thing a lawyer would create even if his/her client did nothing at all. As such, the statement is hardly decisive evidence.

In regards to the woman, little is known about here. On the face of it, lying about this matter would seem to be a rather odd sort of thing-after all she is, as the pundits have noted, exposing herself to the full scrutiny of the media and laying her reputation on the line. Her accusation, if false, might even be considered slander or libel-given the damage such a charge could do to to Cain. As such, she would seem to have very good reasons not to make a false accusation.

However, one key point (as noted above) is that little is known about the woman, her credibility and her possible motivations. Until more information is known, the most rational thing to do is to suspend judgment on the claim against Cain.

If Cain is telling the truth, then he might be able to make a gain in the polls because of such a false attack. It would also give him some “armor” against ant future attacks of a similar nature.

If Cain is not telling the truth, then his campaign would probably be sunk. However, Bill Clinton was able to sludge with way through worse situations and hence there is a clear precedent for such political survival. Cain is, like Clinton, something of a charmer-but whether he is up to a Clinton level game is something that would have to be seen.

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Cain’s Harassment Problem

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 2, 2011
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 31:  Republican presi...

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Politico recently stirred up a media frenzy by posting a story about accusation that Herman Cain engaged in “inappropriate behavior.” According to Politico, two women accused Cain of said behavior while he was the head of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s. While details have been somewhat lacking, it has been claimed that two women received payouts and left the association after making complaints against Cain.

Since important details are not available, it is rather difficult to assess the impact of this on Cain’s campaign. While it is tempting for people who might not like Cain or his views to run with this accusation, this would be rather unfair. After all, it is not clear what actually happened. It is also important to note that it is not uncommon for businesses to make a payment (which might or might not be considered a settlement) to avoid going through a harassment trial. This can occur even when the accusations are lacking the merit that would be required for a ruling against the business. After all, the legal expenses and the cost to the business in lost hours could easily exceed the cost of a payout. As  such, the fact that the matter was settled by a payout does not indicate that Cain actually did anything wrong.

Another point worth considering is that the 1990s were, in many ways, a high water point for what some call “political correctness” and a case could be made that it was relatively easy to bring charges of harassment against a person. This is, of course, subject to debate-but is still worth keeping in mind as a point of concern.

Naturally, though, it might be expected that a payout situation must have at least some basis. After all, if companies just handed out money for any old false accusation, they would soon be out of business. That said, what might be considered basis enough for a trial might not, in fact, be sexual harassment. After all, an accusation is very different from a conviction. Thus, even if there was a basis to the charge against Cain this basis might be something that is rather trivial (such as Cain’s claim that the charge arose from him saying that the woman was the same height as his wife and making a gesture indicating height). Then again, it might be far more serious-as this is being written, the details are still unknown.

There are various factors in Cain’s favor. The first, as he pointed out, is that he has only had one (or maybe two) accusations during his entire career in business. While people have been quick to point out that one accusation is rather bad, it is worth noting that there does not seem to be an established tendency on his part to engage in such behavior. Given that the details of the incidents are not known, it could well be the case that the accusations were lacking in merit (as he claims) and this would certainly help explain why these were the only incidents (or incident).

The second, as Cain also pointed out, is that other people have testified to his integrity and character. As it now stands, the evidence seems to favor Cain in terms of him being a decent person and not the sort that goes around sexually harassing women. This could, of course, change with new revelations.

As far as the damage this will do to his campaign, it is natural to compare Cain’s situation to that of someone like Bill Clinton. As such, while this news (or rather old news) is not something Cain would have wanted to come up at this time, it seems like something that will fade and, of course, we have had presidents that have far worse (even assuming Cain did something at all).

That said, one other point of concern is how Cain handled the damage control. While his campaign folks had been aware of the Politico story for quite some time, the matter seemed to catch Cain by surprise and he handled the matter rather badly-at least until the end of the day. He did admit, in a nice bit of honesty, that he wished he had handled the situation at the start the way he handled it in the last interview of the day.

His lack of preparation for such an incident as well as his handling of the situation does raise some questions about how well he will handle the presidency. This is not to say that we want a president who is adept at handling “scandals” but rather to say that the president should be able to handle situations effectively. If Cain is slow to master the impact of a story drawn from over decade ago, one might wonder how he will fare with something like a crisis in the Middle East or another economic downturn.  There is also the concern about how he will handle the inevitable troubles of office that will lead the press to ask about various real or alleged difficulties or misdeeds.

However, it could be argued that Cain was actually genuinely baffled by the impact of the story and the fuss being made over it. Something that happened over a decade ago and was settled with a payout, one might argue, is probably not going to really stand out in the mind of a man who has been a major businessman and who beat colon cancer. Also, if the incident is as minor as Cain claims that it is, he would no doubt not have bothered to prepared a defense or even really worried about it. That said, it might be expected that he should have still been able to handle it better. But, to Cain’s credit he got back into the ring to fight the story and seemed to show that even if he was not ready to handle such things, he is at least a fast learner. I was also impressed by the fact that he did not resort to bashing the “liberal media” as a defense, but engaged the media in its own den. This does indicate that Cain has substance and not just empty talking points.

As a final point, this could actually help Cain by motivating his supporters to his defense and it will also appeal to the folks who do think that the liberal media is out to get conservatives.

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Scandal & Resignation

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 14, 2011
Anthony Weiner

Image via Wikipedia

After his attempt to have an affair via Craigslist was exposed, Chris Lee apologized and resigned. On the face of it, that was the honorable and right thing to do.

Anthony Weiner’s case is slightly different. Rather than using Craigslist in an attempt to have an affair, he used various means of communication (Twitter, phone, etc.) to send photos and engage in talk about sex. He alleges that he did not have an actual affair and had no intention of doing so. Since his credibility is rather low, it is not a matter of certitude that he did not have an actual affair or that he did not attempt to initiate one. However, his virtual affairs were morally unacceptable and his lying was certainly unethical.

As to whether he is worse or better than Lee is something of a tough call. While Lee intended to have an affair, he apparently did not succeed. Weiner, however, engaged in ongoing virtual affairs and then engaged in a prolonged campaign of deceit. I am inclined to say that Weiner is worse.

As far as whether a politician  should resign after a sex scandal, much depends on the specifics of the case. However, some general comments can be made.

On one hand, if the actions are not illegal and do not violate the specific rules governing the office (such as congressional ethic), then the actions would not seem to warrant resignation. After all, what would justify expecting a person to resign would seem to require that it be actually relevant to the job. So, for example, if a congressman has an affair using his own resources, then he would not seem to have acted in a way that violated the conditions of his job. If a congressman used federal money to pay for his hookers, then that would be a rather different matter. On this view, Lee need not have resigned.

On the other hand, such a scandal can indicate that the politician’s moral character is deeply flawed in ways that render him (or her) untrustworthy. Unlike many jobs, a high level politician is expected to act in ethical ways and not grossly violate community standards. While this seems odd to say, politician’s depend on their reputation and a politician who has been involved in sex scandal often damages this asset to the point were they can no longer effectively function. While we will tolerate all sorts of sneaky dealings and we expect politicians to lie, the public is still very intolerant of sexual straying on the part of politicians. Bill Clinton is, however, an obvious example. As such, there is also the concern that such a politician will damage his party, thus also giving a practical reason to resign.

The worst part of the Weiner case is not the sexual aspect. That made him into a joke. The worst part is the campaign of lies. While we do expect deceit from politicians, that degree of unrelenting deception in this matter showed that Weiner is quite willing to lie in an unrelenting manner. It also shows that he has some rather weak reasoning skills-at least in certain areas. As such, it seems reasonable to question whether or not he is actually capable of representing the people of his district. There is also the question of whether or not they want him-which is something that must be decided by the due process of the next election. Since there are not any real competency requirements for most political offices, the confidence of the voters seems to be the only real test.

 

 

 

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Weiner

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 2, 2011
Anthony Weiner

Image via Wikipedia

While the Weiner Incident is actually a non-incident, the media has been busily stoking (or stroking, if you want to go there) the matter in the hopes of keeping the attention of the American public.

For those who are not aware of the incident, a shot of a man’s underwear covered groin was sent, via Anthony Weiner’s Twitter account, to a woman. Weiner denies that he sent it, though he does not deny (with certitude) or confirm  that the groin is his. He claims that he was hacked. The media (especially bloggers) have turned this into a major battle. As I see it, this matter is largely a non-issue in itself, but does indicate some interesting things about the media. Before getting to that, I will address the incident directly.

Obviously, there are two main possibilities: Weiner sent it or he did not (and was presumably hacked). Hacking Twitter is obviously a very real possibility and it also makes sense that someone would try to prank Weiner with a wiener shot. It is also possible that the shot is really of Weiner and was taken from his computer. Naturally it is a bit odd that he is not denying that it is him, but perhaps he is the sort of guy who has pictures taken of his groin and hence cannot be sure that it is not him. In my own case, I would be rather certain about any photos purporting to be of my groin.

If Weiner were hacked, it really is not a big deal. Twitter is hardly a high value account and while sending such a photo is wicked creepy, it is probably not a crime. After all, the image can be shown on TV and is no worse than an underwear ad. Hacking Twitter might count as crime, but perhaps not-the legality of such things can be a bit fuzzy and much would depend on how the alleged hacking was conducted and with what intent.

If Weiner Tweeted the image, intentionally or (much more likely) accidentally, it is also not a very big deal (at least for anyone not directly involve). As noted above, the image was tasteless but tame and hence probably not a violation of any laws. Also, Weiner has been rather cautious in his claims (which lends credence to the claim that he sent the Tweet) and hence it would be harder to claim that he lied about it not being his wiener. After all, he has not (as of this writing) claimed it was not his with certainty.

While Weiner is clearly a smart guy, smart guys do stupid things all the time. Even me, although I have never sent out any Junk Tweets (or Jweets)). Elliot Spitzer and Bill Clinton are both smart guys, but they did exceptionally stupid things when it came to sex. As such, it is certainly possible that Weiner sent the Tweet. If he did send it, then he would have shown rather poor judgment in sending the Tweet and then trying to do damage control by attributing it to a hack or prank. He is, however, right to claim that it was not significant. However, if he did send it, then his defense could end up creating a situation that is, in fact, significant.

One of the most interesting aspects of the incident is how the media has handled it. While Weiner has given them some openings, the media folks have done their very best to make this into a story by interpreting Weiner’s actions and claims in ways clearly calculated to create the appearance of a cover up or controversy. Interestingly, this is exactly the sort of thing that conservatives generally criticize media folks about. Of course, Weiner is engaging the press rather than trying to avoid them. This, in some ways, plays into their hands. After all, if he engages with the media, then it creates the impression that it is something important enough for a congressman to spend his time dealing with. However, if he did not engage, then some media folks would take that as a sign that he had something to hide.

While the media folks should be criticized when it creates controversies over nothing, keeping tabs on public officials is part of their job, be those officials Republicans or liberal Democrats.

 

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A Vast Right Wing Conspiracy?

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 28, 2009

President Clinton was recently asked whether the “vast right wing conspiracy” that allegedly plagued his administration is still around or not. His view is that it is not as strong as it was, but is still virulent. Naturally, one might wonder whether there is such a vast conspiracy or not.

People do love conspiracy theories of this sort.  The left has this “vast right wing conspiracy” while the right has its own favorite: the liberal media conspiracy.  Such theories are very appealing to folks. First, it is appealing to the ego to think that your are so important that a vast conspiracy has risen up against you (or your cause). Second, it provides a useful scapegoat in case of failure (“it wasn’t me, it was the vast conspiracy”).  Third, conspiracy implies secrecy, so it is a difficult thing to disprove.

Fortunately, the application of a little reason can help sort out the matter.

First of all, the conspiracy cannot be all that vast. After all, if it were truly vast, then Obama would not be in office. Of course, it could still be fairly large (just not large enough to stop Obama or the Democrats).

Second, most right wingers seem to be very open about their dislike. If they are conspiring, they don’t seem to get the idea that a conspiracy is supposed to be secret.

Third, the idea that the conspiracy is vast certainly implies that it is a unified movement. However, the right wing does not seem to be unified to the degree required for it to count as a vast conspiracy. Sure, there are folks that are right wing and are up to various sneaky things, but I would not consider this a vast conspiracy. If the right were so well organized and unified that it could maintain a vast and secret conspiracy, it seems unlikely that the Democrats would stand a chance against it.

Does this mean that there are not well organized right leaning groups that act in secrecy against the Democrats? No, not at all. Clearly there are such groups. Just as there are left leaning groups that act in secrecy against the Republicans. However, there seems to be no vast conspiracy on either side. Or perhaps they are so good at conspiracy, that they have been able to hide their vastness and amazing abilities behind the illusion of smallness and fallibility.

Health Care Rhetoric II

Posted in Medicine/Health, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 22, 2009

As CNN pointed out in a recent online article, Bill Clinton tried his hand at health care reform and failed in this attempt. Now that Obama is pushing his own health care reform, certain folks are hoping to make sure that he suffers the same fate as Bill Clinton.

One tactic that is being employed is the use of advertisements calculated to make people fear government based health care. One such ad claims that the health care plan will put a government bureaucrat between the patient and the doctor. The ad includes the nice visual touch of a bureaucratic geek menacing the doctor and patient in a dire nerdly manner. This nicely taps into the fear of some folks of geeks and, of course, bow ties.

It is, of course, reasonable to be concerned that the government will act in ways that would interfere with health care. As Thoreau argued, governments have a tendency to get in the way of things and sometimes it is best to have a government that governs less.

The approach of the ad does, however, have some serious flaws. The first is that it is unsupported rhetoric (hyperbole), scare tactics and most likely a straw man attack. After all, no plan has been formalized and hence the ad is attacking a plan that does not even exist yet.

One concern about the ad is that it presumably is intended to imply that the current system does not put a bureaucrat between the patient and the doctor. This is hardly the case. Insurance companies are bureaucratic entities and they obviously decide what will and will not be covered. This clearly impacts the sort of care that a patient is able to receive. For example, when I had my quadriceps tendon repair, I was informed that my insurance (Blue Cross/Blue Shield) stopped covering adjustable leg braces shortly before I had my surgery. So, I had two choices: I could do without something essential to my treatment and recovery or I could pay for it out of my own pocket. While no geek came to menace my doctor, a bureaucrat did try to come between me and my treatment. I was clearly told that the brace was essential to my recovery-it was not an optional thing. Yet, my insurance company had effectively told my doctor that it was optional and not worthy of coverage.

This is, of course, just one example. Unfortunately, a little research will easily turn up many cases of insurance companies decisions affecting treatment (or lack thereof).  Insurance companies decide what they will cover and how they will cover it. As such, to imply that the government presents a special menace in this area is hardly accurate. True, the government might stick in a government bureaucrat to screw things up, but this would merely be replacing an insurance company bureaucrat. Whether the government bureaucrats would do a worse job or not is something that is worth considering, of course.

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