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An Erratic Orbit

A bipolar perspective on the 3rd planet

How To Avoid Fake News, Propaganda, And Downright Nonsense: 4. Only The Lonely

Remember the quiet girl in your class who one day died her hair, put on thick black eyeliner, and embraced Satan (or Robert Smith)?

Goth girl
“All at St Mary’s are saddened Felicity Allsop has left the choir. We wish her every success in future endeavours.” (Image: https://gothgirl1981.deviantart.com)

Whether the subcultures of your time were mods, rockers, and hippies, or Teddy boys, or punks, juggalos, or sk8rs, all these groups have their own fashions, signs, slang, music… That is, although rebellion against “the mainstream” might be one part of the deal, most of it is actually about conforming. You wear the clothes, do the dance, wield the chain, talk the talk… and then you belong.

A group of Teddy Boys seen in Tooting
Alamy stock photo

In every alternative movement there will be a handful of people doing the odd thing truly different but mainly it’s about fitting in. Being conventional within the norms of the group.

It’s the same with politics. It’s the same with religion. To go against the group is to be an outcast. And to be an outcast is the role of the truth seeker, because to believe is to belong, and your desire is not to belong but to say “Hold on, that’s not right.”

Even if you don’t say it aloud (and there are plenty of good reasons not to, at least not so forthrightly, some of which we have covered and some we will come to), you are now different, a heretic, and just a bit less one of the others.

Sword of Truth
Image: https://eblackmore.deviantart.com

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Back to Part 1

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How To Avoid Fake News, Propaganda, And Downright Nonsense: 3. Getting Over Ourselves

In his later years, the story goes, Albert Einstein, the mind once most attuned to the strange workings of nature, was now out of touch, little more than a famous sideshow. That he could not adapt to a new paradigm is often remarked upon but is not all that unusual (even if we insist the weirdness of the new Physics shouldn’t have sent a great scientist into a spin).

Electron spin diagram
Image: https://www.eetimes.com/document.asp?doc_id=1322589

If anything, the fertile period of Einstein’s career was remarkably protracted: Whereas he made occasional memorable contributions to Physics up to his sixtieth year, it is about par for elite scientists to produce vital work before their thirty-fifth birthday and then little to compare after it.

Mad scientist, over 35.
Image: http://ianthro.com/mad-scientist-and-actress

Nonetheless, Einstein suffered from the same problem as all those mere geniuses. He had invested a lot of time and effort in certain ways of seeing and doing things. Our preconceptions are the biggest hurdles to finding truth but each time we let go a deep conviction and allow ourselves to accept a fact, we are -ever so briefly- borne above most of the mental life of even the very greatest thinkers. That is to say, our fundamental view of the world is more important to us than isolated examples of truth, almost always.

If a fact fits well with what we think we know, especially our political or religious views, we accept it easily. We like to believe what we are told. It’s comfortable, pain free. If it contradicts deeply held beliefs, usually we will reject it.[1][2]

Still from Breaking Bad. Jesse looking bewildered, haunted

The first thing this reminds us is that if we really value truth then the stories to check most thoroughly are the stories that ring true. This seems counterintuitive but we are already going to discount, perhaps try to disprove, stories that don’t fit with what we think we know. If we want to avoid being fooled, we have to remember to hold the “right-sounding” stories to scrutiny too. This series of articles, which will go from the basics to ever more sophisticated techniques for truth-finding, is intended to do mainly one thing: Remind us to put more effort in. It’s not so much that we are lazy but there are shortcuts we all use that are good for not being eating by lions yet are less useful in the information age. These include emotional responses that keep us from the truth. This is not say that it’s impossible to know anything. Far from it. Rather, we must constantly remember that not only are we liable to get it wrong but psychologically we often want to be comfortable more than we want to know what is true. This is the case for you, me, and everyone we know.

Everyone has some notion of the truth being very important. Almost everyone will come across situations where the truth is secondary. Those do exist. Sometimes, for example (such as if the Nazis are looking for your neighbours), it is right to lie. However, is knowing the truth ever secondary? Arguably, it is only fear that ever prevents us from wanting to know the truth.

Scared woman
Detail from painting by Guido Reni c.1611

What should we fear? I have already hinted that to come across facts that contradict our worldview can be genuinely painful. Our brain doesn’t like it and often we will reject a fact just to feel more at ease. It is hard to face that you may have believed something untrue and even acted on that premise. Our pride may kick in. But what do we do when we hide our head in the sand? Nothing useful. Nothing brave.

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[1] https://psmag.com/news/why-even-your-best-arguments-never-work-64910

[2] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-people-fly-from-facts/

See also

The Backfire Effect

https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Backfire_effect

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Part 4

Back to part 1

How To Avoid Fake News, Propaganda, And Downright Nonsense: 2. Evaluating Sources

For most of us, video and written news are the sources we are most likely to deal with. It is very important to be aware that reporters often do NOT see all of what they report even if they are in the area. It is better to go straight to the horse’s mouth, which we can usually do for documents and expert testimony if not witnesses. It is also important to note that the words that accompany video footage, and how the video is edited, can very easily be misleading.

Picture of Alison Moyet
What has this relatively recent picture of 80s pop icon Alison Moyet (taken from http://www1.pictures.zimbio.com/) got to do with anything?

A comprehensive article on a subject or event will often reference several other sources. As obvious as it then might be to say Wikipedia can be useful for identifying multiple sources[1] (although we absolutely must check those sources ourselves), many people stick to the sources that tell the story they want to hear. If we want to do better than that, looking at Wikipedia might be a start, since -all other things being equal[2]– each extra source which agrees makes the given information more likely to be true.

A cow in a field
All will be revealed. Image: Dohduhdah (Public Domain)

If one person tells me they’ve seen a cow at the bottom of the high street, they might be lying or mistaken. If two people tell me separately, a few minutes apart, it’s not so likely they would both be mistaken. Perhaps they are in it together, conspiring to make me think there is a cow at the bottom of the high street when there isn’t. If ten people tell me, I’m probably going to think they aren’t all likely to be mistaken. They could ALL be in it together, but the more people involved then generally the more work required to keep up a lie. When it comes to whether there’s a cow in a built up area, why bother going to that much trouble to lie?

Guildford High Street
Guildford High Street. There’s a cow at the bottom. (Image: http://www.nosilleg.com)

It also helps if the person telling us about the cow is known to be trustworthy. The information ideally will not conflict with other knowledge we hold either. If all cows on Earth were killed by nanorobots released by a mad scientist[3] then it wouldn’t be very likely there was a cow anywhere.

Now, what if rather than a big lie deliberately involving many people, one person started a rumour about a cow on the high street and they told someone else, who told someone else, and so on, and then ten or more people told you? Then it doesn’t matter how many people tell you about the cow: It would all be coming from one person, either lying or mistaken. So in the pursuit of truth we need also to make sure that our sources are independent. That is, we need to know if they witnessed the cow for themselves without being influenced by others.

Lastly, if half the people we talk to say there definitely is a cow and the other half say, no, there definitely ISN’T, then who are we to believe? So conflicting accounts -as long as they are trustworthy, independent, and equally direct (e.g. two witnesses to the event)– rightly cause doubt.

To recap the features to look out for:

– First hand accounts and documents. Note that even a news piece contains much that is indirect and checkable.

– Trustworthy sources.
– Multiple sources.
– Independent sources.

– Agrees with what we already know.

– All things being equal, the story is likely.
– Not many independent conflicting accounts.

That’s the basics. Before we go into each of those in detail, it is of the utmost importance to deal with the one person who most gets in the way of finding out the facts. They will be the subject of Part 3.

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[1] Wikipedia footnotes are clickable links which bring up citations, themselves usually clickable. If you’re not sure what a citation is or how to read one, here’s an explanation.

[2] All things aren’t equal, but we’ll come to that in good time.

[3] Fortunately, 80s pop icon Alison Moyet foiled the scientist and the only harm done was minor abrasions to two cows in a field in Letchworth.[4]

[4] Citation needed.

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Back to the introduction (Part 1)

How To Avoid Fake News, Propaganda, And Downright Nonsense: 1. Introduction

Although it may seem as if truth is ever harder to find, we live at a time when the majority of the (UK) population has easily-searchable, near-instant access to by far the most comprehensive store of knowledge that ever existed. And whereas once all news came through a very few channels, today eyewitnesses can post video to the world within seconds. The flipside of this is that we are exposed to dizzying amounts of stuff.

Person stressing out surrounded by drawing of lots of internet related things
Image: https://associationsnow.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/0211_overload-800×480.jpg

A lot of this stuff, or information, is not actually informative. Some of it is outright propaganda:

All of us grow up believing most of what we are told. This has some survival advantages but of course adults have to be a bit smarter than that. However, adult scepticism, particularly about official or “mainstream” sources, is easily exploited. If we believe one source is biased or downright manipulative then it’s easy, and perhaps comforting, to accept a near opposite version of events wherever it comes from. This is entirely unsatisfactory too, because the world isn’t that neat, baddies aren’t only opposed by goodies, the world isn’t two-dimensional, and even when there is a side who is morally justified (or “in the right”) we are not guaranteed accurate, let alone honest, reporting in support of it.

It’s far too simplistic to dismiss every word of, say, BBC journalists, as a lie. To then swallow an alternative version whole is to retreat into an infantile view of the world.

So we must not only be vigilant but find nuanced ways to evaluate the stories we are exposed to, and even more so if we are initially inclined to believe them, because- as the scientist Richard Feynman said- the easiest person to fool is yourself.

Newspaper with the headline
Image: https://inforrm.files.wordpress.com/2017/03/fake-news.jpeg

Luckily there are methods developed by humans to help find which stories are truthful and which are not. They aren’t perfect but if we follow them we will have a lot better idea of what is really going on than if we don’t. They require a bit of effort but that’s the price of admission to an informed discussion. Anyone is welcome to ignore them, and they will find plenty of other people who will agree with the fake news they have no way of avoiding, but generally such voices are not influential outside of their circle. Although there is always a risk of populism and/or ideology overriding rigour. Later in the series we will examine the circumstances surrounding some of the more notable historical examples, such as the persistent Conservative narrative of the “undeserving poor”, drugs policy in most countries, and the ideologically driven pseudoscience that took hold under the Nazis (Aryanism) and Stalin (Lysenkoism).

In Part Two we will look at the first method we can use to help avoid repeating similar historical mistakes. Evaluating sources.

Part 2

Bob Dylan had a Jewish name. So he changed it.

One saviour. A man imposing his considerable will on the world. The artist endlessly reinventing themselves. (And, America isn’t racist). These narratives are why you have to include the search term “Jewish” to find mention on the internet of the most simple reason Bob Dylan changed his name. Every Jewish entertainer did back then. Simon and Garfunkel, formerly (no lie) Tom & Jerry, were amongst the first to buck the trend and they were already IN New York and that was in 1963. The far less urbane Zimmerman was calling himself Dylan before the start of the decade.

“It wasn’t the right name for Rock N Roll”. Well of course not. It’s not Anglicised. It’s actually the same point, disguised.

If we want to credit Dylan for invention, of course he is fundamental to the new form Rock (as distinct from Rock N Roll) that emerged from the mid 1960s. Often grandiose, rambling, and cryptic. The same goes for most Rock Journalism. As someone who is themselves often grandiose I don’t mean it as pure criticism. Reach for the cosmos by all means. Employ labyrinthine structures. The Wasteland is grandiose and none the worse for it. Rock was, in many respects, Pop outgrowing its form, embracing modernism, getting literary, getting symphonic… all that. As much precocious as pretentious. Yet, this is why, especially on the internet, simple truths are sometimes set aside or overlooked.

The Brexit Metonym

If anything is certain about Brexit it is that it will go down in European history as a metonym for rushed decisions made on the basis of prejudice rather than good information.

Rotting strawberries
Picture: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/feb/09/lack-of-migrant-workers-left-food-rotting-in-uk-fields-last-year-data-reveals

As highly knowledgeable, well informed, anti-racist campaigner Lexiteers will be aware, that doesn’t mean it was the wrong result. Although, clearly it was, for much the same reason you don’t free a cat by dragging it through a barbed wire fence. You can tell me how awful the fence/barbed wire/cat/metaphor is in the comments but I don’t think you can do a damned thing about the collective European consciousness now you’ve voted to not be a part of it.

“What do you mean? I didn’t vote for that! I voted Leave because the EU is a protectionist neoliberal barrier to world Socialism. And because I like Tony Benn. We’re still Europeans, Dave! It doesn’t mean we voted to cast ourselves adrift from Europe.”

Actually, it does mean that. You didn’t mean it to mean that but here is the enduring symbol of Brexit, like it or not. Rotting fruit on a vine and the fruit farmer who voted Leave.

“That’s not a vine, it’s a forb. As a well-informed Lexiteer I’m as certain of that as I am that the EU will hinder Corbyn’s proto-Socialist agenda-”

-thus, as much by virtue of the human tendency to commit to a classification on the basis of a single common feature rather than meaningful commonalities here you are… fucking up my monologue rather than- Tell you what just look at the bloody picture and look at the fruit farmer. Is he you? No.

The same picture of rotting strawberries
Look at it

…What?…You have to imagine the fruit farmer. I understand that might be beyond the capabilities of a Brexiteer… imagining things…

That was just a joke. Obviously simply because you voted for Brexit along with idiots who believed Brexit would mean £350 million a week for the NHS that doesn’t mean you believed that. Just look at the picture. That’s what I’m telling you. That’s what Brexit means. That’s ALL it will mean in the collective European consciousness in fifty years. It will be in films, on posters…

“But Dave, a business shouldn’t be run on the basis of cheap migrant labour, should it?”

No, it shouldn’t. But you’re forgetting the fruit farmer aren’t you? He voted for this. Him. Not being able to imagine that the people he wanted to control away from our borders might be the same people who wouldn’t want to come pick his fruit any more. So fuck off out of my monologue. I won’t tell you again…

One more time
Sans fruit farmer. “Sans” means “without”. Not that it matters any more.

There will be coasters, keyrings, pencils, mugs with this picture of the rotting fruit and no, not the fruit farmer because the person who bought the mug didn’t vote to leave the EU did they? So they can IMAGINE the fruit farmer… Huge billboards, pop up ads… “Don’t Be Like The British”… cautioning you to install antivirus software before browsing porn, with a picture of rotten strawberries…The collective European consciousness, which none of us Brits, not even me, can be part of now… rotting strawberries… and [deep bass voiceover] “Imagine A World Without Jam”…

…and Claude or Bruno or whatever his or her name is- What do we care? We’ll never meet anyone with those names again- Claudia or Brunhilde will shudder and she’ll dip into her jam and thank her lucky yellow stars. But remember this, that jam she’ll be eating will be subject to EU regulations. And do you know what that means? For the purposes of EU regulations that jam she’s eating- I mean we won’t have any jam but if you could imagine there was such a thing as jam in some far distant place like France- that jam Brunhilde is eating could, according to EU regulations, be made from cucumbers or sweet potatoes or radishes. All those things they define as jam, made from some faceless Brussels bureaucrat’s idea of fruit… Cucumber jam! Imagine…

So, all things considered, on balance, it’s probably quite a good thing we’re leaving.

Children In Need 2009

Essentially Human

“It either is or it isn’t” they said, fingering the holes between stitches in the murderer’s cardigan. Of course it never was. Although, if it ever had been, there was not nor could there be ‘essence of murderer’ upon it. But could you get one person to put on that cardigan? No you could not.

Humans not only are confused by false essences, this way of looking at the world is central to our psychology. That is, not looking at what IS but in terms of persistent, even transferable, features that we logically know are not real let alone persistent. At best we simultaneously hold Einstein’s pen knowing it cannot make us smarter yet at the same time feeling it must. You’ll note we could not have magic without this phony essentialist psychology and if we could not have magic we could not have religion.

Perhaps we could not have complex social behaviour. Our friend Julia must persist, we must have a narrative of her, even though each moment in its coming into being is a death, a negation of what came before.

It may even be that there can be no consciousness without psychological essentialism, for consciousness is the ultimate persistence at odds with material facts.

In a universe that constantly bifurcates, if that is so, psychological essentialism is being and becoming, the mystical bond between worlds. Yet from this view, the real question becomes an unanswerable chicken and egg. Do we choose freely or are all choices caused? In other words, does Will have some ontological reality that brings our world into being, an imposition upon discrete material? Or, is Will the illusion, the essentialism that makes stories, somehow arising from the fully conditioned material phenomena that constitute a thinking entity?

All this abstraction is only my way of coping with the ugliness of those who, angrily, insistently, want to decide who is in and who is out based on notions of race, womanhood, or sexuality that have nothing to do with anything but crude stories of those concepts, and snap judgements as to who are the acceptable characters in those stories.

“It either is or it isn’t” he/she said, fingering the holes between stitches in the murderer’s cardigan. Every storyteller must embrace duality, and every good storyteller must unpick it.

The anger is blood rising into the face. That I see, the hateful face. All the different expressions of anger. There is no discussion here. Had I not been lulled by alcohol, I would have been able to continue to sidestep a pointless topic. There was never any hope of persuasion or understanding. I’m disappointed that I allowed myself to get dragged down even in the slightest.

They make various attempts to explain, essentially, why flight is required of birds. As the good professor said, you don’t get to use biology to justify bigotry, it’s far too weird for that.

Now, the chemical cocktails, those I don’t see. If I had taken myself away and thought of the beauty of the chemistry of anger, all that makes the head go purple, I would have been fine. Yet how do you transport away from the insistent narrative of those people, nominally friendly acquaintances, who are furious, every single one?

You break it down, break the world down, accept that threats are perceived where there are none, and, simply, that you don’t ever have to listen to a single minute of that ever again.

“No, that is not what I mean!”. That is to be human but you don’t have to drown in anyone else’s shit. People disappoint. The number of friends you have depends on how you look at it. Unpicking the holes between stitches, it’s a constant.

Party Politics

Party politics is millionaire MPs justifying why they voted to deny disabled people a reasonable quality of life. Party politics is “I know the country isn’t a meritocracy but” where what follows is the unconscious belief in why you deserve the property portfolio, the large salary, to be wined and dined, the expensive clothes, the restaurants several times a week… while making up excuses for “pragmatism” that are entirely down to your own mindset, that ole middle class self interest.

Party politics is smiling politely and using the right knife. It’s where our status quo is better than their status quo. It’s where those who have the least are accused of tyranny, ill discipline, and unfairness against high earning owners of prime real estate. It’s where white middle class sticklers in tiny secretive committees replicate society by dispensing “discipline” to outspoken black women and the wrong sort of Jew.

Party politics is where minority interest groups shut down the interests of minorities.

Party politics is being told to play nice with the friends of proto-Fascists because “We Are All The Party”.

Party politics is a wheedling ghost in my ear using every dirty trick to protest against my part in its downfall. Yet it was not me who killed the comfortable life for the middle. I’m just here with a mirror. And a knife which could never entirely be to your liking.

Party politics is a swelling mass movement, a new broom, bright light on the cobwebs, the release of steam, the new found confidence of the left, seeing through the games, dragging the leviathan screaming, half a million scalpels, the collective drive to a new universalism that is the only efficient future that doesn’t require the subjugation of the masses.

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