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An Erratic Orbit

A bipolar perspective on the 3rd planet

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Critical Thinking

How To Avoid Fake News, Propaganda, And Downright Nonsense: 5. Conspiracy Theories. A Socialist Perspective.

‘Conspiracy Theory’ is a phrase invented by the CIA to stop people questioning the official version of events.

These are the words of former CIA operative, Steven Julius Bakerfield, regarding his department’s attempts in the 1960s to frustrate all independent investigations into the assassination of JFK.

SJ Bakerfield in 1968

Although some of us are more wary than others, we are all programmed to believe what we are told (and so what we read). Unless there is something that raises our suspicions the default is to think the other person is telling the truth. This makes sense. Too much paranoia isn’t just physically unhealthy, most of the time people do actually tell the truth, or at least what they think is the truth, so paranoia tends to leave us isolated from, not closer to, reality.

Image from http://wellingtonretreat.com/blog/2013/07/adolescent-psychosis/

This is why, if you didn’t know that the quote that starts the article is a deliberate lie, you most likely believed it. You might have even seen it before. Yet it is not true. Not in the slightest. I made up the name Steven Julius Bakerfield too.

I hope you forgive me. I wanted to drive home the important starting point that gullible IS in the dictionary and it can be applied to anyone, at times. If you are aware that you, like all humans, are fairly easy to fool, then you are already on the way to being one of the least easy to fool.

Dictionary entry for

Conspiracy theories are much older than the 60s and are identifiable products of certain ways of thinking.

Firstly, our amazing ability to see and indeed create patterns. So, you can probably think of something to link Microsoft and dragons, although there is no real world link. For example, dragons are huge powerful creatures who hoard great wealth. That just came to my mind.

Secondly, a tendency to think that big events must have big causes. If the President is shot, the reason must be a huge story to do with the Russians and the Mafia, right? The Russians and the Mafia are part of the background after all, they MUST be the reason. But why, when you think about it? Because we think big events must have big causes. But sometimes they don’t. One man shot John Lennon. One man probably came up with the plan to shoot JFK and carried it out. (I’m not saying he wasn’t a terrorist. Terrorists can act alone and they are still terrorists). We think that it can’t just be about one person because we are looking to make sense of the world. If one person can cause such shockwaves, that’s scary. It’s also true. Sometimes one person can.

A Socialist does have the tools to make sense of this. Though we cannot control the world, we can have the understanding that small causes – Timothy McVeigh, Lee Harvey Oswald, Charles Manson, or even an ISIS cell – are also symptoms. They are signs of the socio-historical forces that influence us all. The Cold War DID contribute to killing JFK, after all, and Jack Ruby WAS influenced by the Mafia. Not directly, most probably. Not in opposition to patriotic motives. One can see how, though, that an organisation exploiting working class deference (and the Mafia, for all intimidation, can’t function without exploiting working class deference) and operating as its own (self-interested) police force could influence Jack Ruby. Individuals can be canaries, their motivations a pocket of concentration of widespread anxieties, showing us little images of the waves and echoes of history at work in a localised sense. Even Donald Trump is a symptom. The forces that installed him are more important than his venality, low cunning, narcissism, disinterest, lack of concentration. Hyperconsumerism (eg Reality TV), alienation, white power, cronyism and various effects of late capitalism are the Why of Trump. Trump’s personality reflects what Capitalism is doing to us as a people.

So there are big causes but they are NOT, most often are not, the deliberate and convoluted plans of vast secretive networks. If something happens that shocks us, the Socialist analysis is not to assume “it can’t be like that” but to look at why it might be like that. It can be that “senseless shootings” happen in American schools. Yet they do make sense in the context of a seam of thinking that runs throughout US history and is perhaps best encapsulated by Ayn Rand. The extreme tiny-state libertarianism of the wealthy US elites is a way of securing their future at the expense of the less powerful. They sell this ‘dream that can become reality for You’ as “Freedom”, but of course it is “might makes right”. Those who own not just the means of production but the means of mass militarisation tell the people that their puny militias of one are the means of liberation. Yet they are ultimately the means of subjugation. The alienation that results does makes sense. You don’t even have to be poor for the dream not to come true. As long as you’re not a square chinned industrialist, you’ve failed. Now this facet of alienation is only a partial explanation of school shootings but there’s a brutal sense here, not a world that is so outside comprehension that tragedies must be staged by crisis actors.

The conspiracy theory is itself only allowed to flourish through alienation. Once we can find a way to accept that awful things happen, or that those who oppose the right/West are often not progressive, or that the Russian Revolution was usurped and went sour, or specifically that ANY Socialism in Russia died a good two decades ago, that the world isn’t fairy tale simple so sometimes even Tory governments tell the truth, or that there might be some nuance regarding the BBC, then we are starting to be Socialist commentators. Only then do we need to bear in mind that “false flags happen” and the like. That is, we understand not only are they rare but we are now beginning to have the tools to engage with such complexity. Before that we are cowering at the messiness of the world and refusing to see it as it is.

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Further reading on the etymology of “Conspiracy theory”: https://www.csicop.org/specialarticles/show/nope_it_was_always_already_wrong

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Part 4

Back to the beginning

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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

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

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