Posts Tagged ‘Communications’

Some while back, Scott Adams (my general disdain for him noted but unexpanded, since I’m not in the habit of shitting on people), using his knowledge of hypnosis, began pushing the string selling the narrative that our Commander-in-Chief is cannily adept at the art of persuasion. I, for one, am persuaded by neither Adams nor 45 but must admit that many others are. Constant shilling for control of narratives by agents of all sorts could not be more transparent (for me at least), rendering the whole enterprise null. Similarly, when I see an advertisement (infrequently, I might add, since I use ad blockers and don’t watch broadcast TV or news programs), I’m rarely inclined to seek more information or make a purchase. Once in a long while, an ad creeps through my defenses and hits one of my interests, and even then, I rarely respond because, duh, it’s an ad.

In the embedded video below, Stuart Ewen describes how some learned to exploit a feature (not a bug) in human cognition, namely, appeals to emotion that overwhelm rational response. The most obvious, well-worn example is striking fear into people’s hearts and minds to convince them of an illusion of safety necessitating relinquishing civil liberties and/or fighting foreign wars.

The way Ewen uses the term consciousness differs from the way I use it. He refers specifically to opinion- and decision-making (the very things vulnerable to manipulation) rather than the more generalized and puzzling property of having an individual identity or mind and with it self-awareness. In fact, Ewen uses the terms consciousness industry and persuasion industry instead of public relations and marketing to name those who spin information and thus public discourse. At some level, absolutely everyone is guilty of seeking to persuade others, which again is a basic feature of communication. (Anyone negotiating the purchase of, say, a new or used car faces the persuasion of the sales agent with some skepticism.) What turns it into something maniacal is using lies and fabrication to advance agendas against the public interest, especially where public opinion is already clear.

Ewen also points to early 20th-century American history, where political leaders and marketers were successful in manipulating mass psychology in at least three ways: 1. drawing the pacifist U.S. public into two world wars of European origin, 2. transforming citizens into consumers, thereby saving capitalism from its inherently self-destructive endgame (creeping up on us yet again), and 3. suppressing emergent collectivism, namely, socialism. Of course, unionism as a collectivist institution still gained considerable strength but only within the larger context of capitalism, e.g., achieving the American Dream in purely financial terms.

So getting back to Scott Adams’ argument, the notion that the American public is under some form of mass hypnosis (persuasion) and that 45 is the master puppeteer is perhaps half true. Societies do sometimes go mad and fall under the spell of a mania or cult leader. But 45 is not the driver of the current episode, merely the embodiment. I wouldn’t say that 45 figured out anything because that awards too much credit to presumed understanding and planning. Rather, he worked out (accidentally and intuitively — really by default considering his job in 2016) that his peculiar self-as-brand could be applied to politics by treating it all as reality TV, which by now everyone knows is its own weird unreality the same way professional wrestling is fundamentally unreal. (The term political theater applies here.) He demonstrated a knack (at best) for keeping the focus firmly on himself and driving ratings (abetted by the mainstream media that had long regarded him as a clown or joke), but those objectives were never really in service of a larger political vision. In effect, the circus brought to town offers its own bizarre constructed narrative, but its principle characteristic is gawking, slack-jawed, made-you-look narcissism, not any sort of proper guidance or governance.


As I reread what I wrote 2.5 years ago in my first blog on this topic, I surmise that the only update needed to my initial assessment is a growing pile of events that demonstrate my thesis: our corrupted information environment is too taxing on human cognition, with the result that a small but growing segment of society gets radicalized (wound up like a spring) and relatively random individuals inevitably pop, typically in a self-annihilating gush of violence. News reports bear this out periodically, as one lone-wolf kook after another takes it upon himself (are there any examples of females doing this?) to shoot or blow up some target, typically chosen irrationally or randomly though for symbolic effect. More journalists and bloggers are taking note of this activity and evolving or resurrecting nomenclature to describe it.

The earliest example I’ve found offering nomenclature for this phenomenon is a blog with a single post from 2011 (oddly, no follow-up) describing so-called stochastic terrorism. Other terms include syntactic violence, semantic violence, and epistemic violence, but they all revolve around the same point. Whether on the sending or receiving end of communications, some individuals are particularly adept at or sensitive to dog whistles that over time activate and exacerbate tendencies toward radical ideology and violence. Wired has a brief article from a few days ago discussing stochastic terrorism as jargon, which is basically what I’m doing here. Admittedly, the last of these terms, epistemic violence (alternative: epistemological violence), ranges farther afield from the end effect I’m calling wind-up toys. For instance, this article discussing structural violence is much more academic in character than when I blogged on the same term (one of a handful of “greatest hits” for this blog that return search-engine hits with some regularity). Indeed, just about any of my themes and topics can be given a dry, academic treatment. That’s not my approach (I gather opinions differ on this account, but I insist that real academic work is fundamentally different from my armchair cultural criticism), but it’s entirely valid despite being a bit remote for most readers. One can easily get lost down the rabbit hole of analysis.

If indeed it’s mere words and rhetoric that transform otherwise normal people into criminals and mass murderers, then I suppose I can understand the distorted logic of the far Left that equates words and rhetoric themselves with violence, followed by the demand that they be provided with warnings and safe spaces lest they be triggered by what they hear, read, or learn. As I understand it, the fear is not so much that vulnerable, credulous folks will be magically turned into automatons wound up and set loose in public to enact violent agendas but instead that virulent ideas and knowledge (including many awful truths of history) might cause discomfort and psychological collapse akin to what happens to when targets of hate speech and death threats are reduced, say, to quivering agoraphobia. Desire for protection from harm is thus understandable. The problem with such logic, though, is that protections immediately run afoul of free speech, a hallowed but misunderstood American institution that preempts quite a few restrictions many would have placed on the public sphere. Protections also stall learning and truth-seeking straight out of the gate. And besides, preemption of preemption doesn’t work.

In information theory, the notion of a caustic idea taking hold of an unwilling person and having its wicked way with him or her is what’s called a mind virus or meme. The viral metaphor accounts for the infectious nature of ideas as they propagate through the culture. For instance, every once in a while, a charismatic cult emerges and inducts new members, a suicide cluster appears, or suburban housewives develop wildly disproportionate phobias about Muslims or immigrants (or worse, Muslim immigrants!) poised at their doorsteps with intentions of rape and murder. Inflaming these phobias, often done by pundits and politicians, is precisely the point of semantic violence. Everyone is targeted but only a few are affected to the extreme of acting out violently. Milder but still invalid responses include the usual bigotries: nationalism, racism, sexism, and all forms of tribalism, “othering,” or xenophobia that seek to insulate oneself safely among like folks.

Extending the viral metaphor, to protect oneself from infectious ideas requires exposure, not insulation. Think of it as a healthy immune system built up gradually, typically early in life, through slow, steady exposure to harm. The alternative is hiding oneself away from germs and disease, which has the ironic result of weakening the immune system. For instance, I learned recently that peanut allergies can be overcome by gradual exposure — a desensitization process — but are exacerbated by removal of peanuts from one’s environment and/or diet. This is what folks mean when they say the answer to hate speech is yet more (free) speech. The nasty stuff can’t be dealt with properly when it’s quarantined, hidden away, suppressed, or criminalized. Maybe there are exceptions. Science fiction entertains those dangers with some regularity, where minds are shunted aside to become hosts for invaders of some sort. That might be overstating the danger somewhat, but violent eruptions may provide some credence.

Several politicians on the U.S. national stage have emerged in the past few years as firebrands of new politics and ideas about leadership — some salutary, others less so. Perhaps the quintessential example is Bernie Sanders, who identified himself as Socialist within the Democratic Party, a tacit acknowledgement that there are no electable third-party candidates for high office thus far. Even 45’s emergence as a de facto independent candidate within the Republican Party points to the same effect (and at roughly the same time). Ross Perot and Ralph Nader came closest in recent U.S. politics to establishing viable candidacies outside the two-party system, but their ultimate failures only reinforce the rigidity of modern party politics; it’s a closed system.

Those infusing energy and new (OK, in truth, they’re old) ideas into this closed system are intriguing. By virtue of his immediate name/brand recognition, Bernie Sanders can now go by his single given name (same is true of Hillary, Donald, and others). Supporters of Bernie’s version of Democratic Socialism are thus known as Bernie Bros, though the term is meant pejoratively. Considering his age, however, Bernie is not widely considered a viable presidential candidate in the next election cycle. Among other firebrands, I was surprised to find Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (often referred to simply as AOC) described in the video embedded below as a Democratic Socialist but without any reference to Bernie (“single-handedly galvanized the American people”):

Despite the generation(s) gap, young adults had no trouble supporting Bernie three years ago but appear to have shifted their ardent support to AOC. Yet Bernie is still relevant and makes frequent statements demonstrating how well he understands the failings of the modern state, its support of the status quo, and the cult of personality behind certain high-profile politicians.

As I reflect on history, it occurs to me that many of the major advances in society (e.g., abolition, suffrage, the labor movement, civil rights, equal rights and abortion, and the end of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War) occurred not because our government led us to them but because the American people forced the issues. The most recent examples of the government yielding to the will of the people are gay marriage and cannabis/hemp legalization (still underway). I would venture that Johnson and Nixon were the last U.S. presidents who experienced palpable fear of the public. (Claims that Democrats are afraid of AOC ring hollow — so far.) As time has worn on, later presidents have been confident in their ability to buffalo the public or at least to use the power of the state to quell unrest (e.g., the Occupy movement). (Modern means of crowd control raise serious questions about the legitimacy of any government that would use them against its own citizens. I would include enemy combatants, but that is a separate issue.) In contrast with salutary examples of the public using its disruptive power over a recalcitrant government are arguably more examples where things went haywire rather badly. Looking beyond the U.S., the French Reign of Terror and the Bolsheviks are the two examples that leap immediately to mind, but there are plenty of others. The pattern appears to be a populist ideology that takes root and turns virulent and violent followed by consolidation of power by those who mange to survive the inevitable purge of dissidents.

I bring this up because we’re in a period of U.S. history characterized by populist ideological possession on both sides (left/right) of the political continuum, though politics ought to be better understood as a spectrum. Extremism has again found a home (or several), and although the early stages appear to be mild or harmless, I fear that a charismatic leader might unwittingly succeed in raising a mob. As the saying goes (from the Indiana Jones movie franchise), “You are meddling with forces you cannot possibly comprehend,” to which I would add cannot control. Positioning oneself at the head of a movement or rallying behind such an opportunist may feel like the right thing to do but could easily and quickly veer into wildly unintended consequences. How many times in history has that already occurred?

I’m on the sidelines with the issue of free speech, an observer with some skin in the game but not really much at risk. I’m not the sort of beat my breast and seek attention over what seems to me a fairly straightforward value, though with lots of competing interpretations. It helps that I have no particularly radical or extreme views to express (e.g., won’t find me burning the flag), though I am an iconoclast in many respects. The basic value is that folks get to say (and by extension think) whatever they want short of inciting violence. The gambit of the radicalized left has been to equate speech with violence. With hate speech, that may actually be the case. What is recognized as hate speech may be changing, but liberal inclusion strays too far into mere hurt feelings or discomfort, thus the risible demand for safe spaces and trigger warnings suitable for children. If that standard were applied rigorously, free speech as we know it in the U.S. would come to an abrupt end. Whatever SJWs may say they want, I doubt they really want that and suggest they haven’t thought it through well enough yet.

An obvious functional limitation is that one doesn’t get to say whatever one wishes whenever and wherever one wants. I can’t simply breach security and go onto The Tonight Show, a political rally, or a corporate boardroom to tell my jokes, voice my dissent, or vent my dissatisfaction. In that sense, deplatforming may not be an infringement of free speech but a pragmatic decision regarding whom it may be worthwhile to host and promote. Protest speech is a complicated area, as free speech areas designated blocks away from an event are clearly set up to nullify dissent. No attempt is made here to sort out all the dynamics and establish rules of conduct for dissent or the handling of dissent by civil authorities. Someone else can attempt that.

My point with this blog post is to observe that for almost all of us in the U.S., free speech is widely available and practiced openly. That speech has conceptual and functional limitations, such as the ability to attract attention (“move the needle”) or convince (“win hearts and minds”), but short of gag orders, we get to say/think what we want and then deal with the consequences (often irrelevance), if any. Adding terms to the taboo list is a waste of time and does no more to guide people away from thinking or expressing awful things than does the adoption of euphemism or generics. (The terms moron, idiot, and imbecile used to be acceptable psychological classifications, but usage shifted. So many euphemisms and alternatives to calling someone stupid exist that avoiding the now-taboo word retard accomplishes nothing. Relates to my earlier post about epithets.)

Those who complain their free speech has been infringed and those who support free speech vociferously as the primary means of resolving conflict seem not to realize that their objections are less to free speech being imperiled but more to its unpredictable results. For instance, the Black Lives Matter movement successfully drew attention to a real problem with police using unnecessary lethal force against black people with alarming regularity. Good so far. The response was Blue Lives Matter, then All Lives Matter, then accusations of separatism and hate speech. That’s the discussion happening — free speech in action. Similarly, when Colin Kaepernick famously took a knee rather than stand and sing the national anthem (hand over heart, uncovered head), a rather modest protest as protests go, he drew attention to racial injustice that then morphed into further, ongoing discussion of who, when, how, why anyone gets to protest — a metaprotest. Nike’s commercial featuring Kaepernick and the decline of attendance at NFL games are part of that discussion, with the public participating or refusing to participate as the case may be. Discomforts and sacrifices are experienced all around. This is not Pollyannaish assurance that all is well and good in free speech land. Whistleblowers and Me Too accusers know only too well that reprisals ruin lives. Rather, it’s an ongoing battle for control of the narrative(s). Fighting that battle inevitably means casualties. Some engage from positions of considerable power and influence, others as underdogs. The discussion is ongoing.

A paradoxical strength/weakness of reason is its inherent disposition toward self-refutation. It’s a bold move when undertaken with genuine interest in getting things right. Typically, as evidence piles up, consensus forms that’s tantamount to proof unless some startling new counter-evidence appears. Of course, intransigent deniers exist and convincing refutations do appear periodically, but accounts of two hotly contested topics (from among many) — evolution and climate change — are well established notwithstanding counterclaims completely disproportionate in their ferocity to the evidence. For rationalists, whatever doubts remain must be addressed and accommodated even if disproof is highly unlikely.

This becomes troublesome almost immediately. So much new information is produced in the modern world that, because I am duty-bound to consider it, my head spins. I simply can’t deal with it all. Inevitably, when I think I’ve put a topic to rest and conclude I don’t have to think too much more about it, some argument-du-jour hits the shit pile and I am forced to stop and reconsider. It’s less disorienting when facts are clear, but when interpretive, I find my head all too easily spun by the latest, greatest claims of some charming, articulate speaker able to cobble together evidence lying outside of my expertise.

Take for instance Steven Pinker. He speaks in an authoritative style and has academic credentials that dispose me to trust his work. His new book is Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018). Still, Pinker is an optimist, whereas I’m a doomer. Even though I subscribe to Enlightenment values (for better or worse, my mind is bent that way), I can’t escape a mountain of evidence that we’ve made such a mess of things that reason, science, humanism, and progress are hardly panaceas capable of saving us from ourselves. Yet Pinker argues that we’ve never had it so good and the future looks even brighter. I won’t take apart Pinker’s arguments; it’s already been done by Jeremy Lent, who concludes that Pinker’s ideas are fatally flawed. Lent has the expertise, data, and graphs to demonstrate it. Calling Pinker a charlatan would be unfair, but his appreciation of the state of the world stands in high contrast with mine. Who ya gonna believe?

Books and articles like Pinker’s appear all the time, and in their aftermath, so, too, do takedowns. That’s the marketplace of ideas battling it out, which is ideally meant to sharpen thinking, but with the current epistemological crises under way (I’ve blogged about it for years), the actual result is dividing people into factions, destabilizing established institutions, and causing no small amount of bewilderment in the public as to what and whom to believe. Some participants in the exchange of ideas take a sober, evidential approach; others lower themselves to snark and revel in character assassination without bothering to make reasoned arguments. The latter are often called a hit pieces (a special province of the legacy media, it seems), since hefty swipes and straw-man arguments tend to be commonplace. I’m a sucker for the former style but have to admit that the latter can also hit its mark. However, both tire me to the point of wanting to bury my head.


One of the very best lessons I took from higher education was recognizing and avoiding the intentional fallacy — in my own thinking no less than in that of others. Although the term arguably has more to do with critical theory dealing specifically with texts, I learned about it in relation to abstract fine arts, namely, painting and music. For example, the enigmatic expression of the Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci continues to spark inquiry and debate. What exactly does that smile mean? Even when words or programs are included in musical works, it’s seductively easy to conclude that the composer intends this or the work itself means that. Any given work purportedly allows audiences to peer into the mind of its creator(s) to interrogate intent. Conclusions thus drawn, however, are notoriously unreliable though commonplace.

It’s inevitable, I suppose, to read intent into artistic expression, especially when purpose feels so obvious or inevitable. Similar excavations of meaning and purpose are undertaken within other domains of activity, resulting in no end of interpretation as to surface and deep strategies. Original intent (also originalism) is a whole field of endeavor with respect to interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and imagining the framers’ intent. Geopolitics is another domain where hindsight analysis results in some wildly creative but ultimately conjectural interpretations of events. Even where authorial (and political) intent is explicitly recorded, such as with private diaries or journals, the possibility of deceptive intent by authors keeps everyone wondering. Indeed, although “fake news” is modern coin, a long history of deceptive publishing practice well beyond the adoption of a nom de plume attests to hidden or unknowable intent making “true intent” a meta property.

The multi-ring circus that the modern information environment has become, especially in the wake of electronic media (e.g., YouTube channels) produced by anyone with a camera and an Internet connection, is fertile ground for those easily ensnared by the intentional fallacy. Several categories of intent projected onto content creators come up repeatedly: profit motive, control of the narrative (no small advantage if one believes this blog post), setting the record straight, correcting error, grandstanding, and trolling for negative attention. These categories are not mutually exclusive. Long ago, I pointed to the phenomenon of arguing on-line and how it typically accomplishes very little, especially as comment threads lengthen and civility breaks down. These days, comments are an Internet legacy and/or anachronism that many content creators persist in offering to give the illusion of a wider discussion but in fact roundly ignore. Most blogs and channels are actually closed conversations. Maybe a Q&A follows the main presentation when held before an audience, but video channels are more often one-way broadcasts addressing an audience but not really listening. Public square discussion is pretty rare.

Some celebrate this new era of broadcasting, noting with relish how the mainstream media is losing its former stranglehold on attention. Such enthusiasm may be transparently self-serving but nonetheless rings true. A while back, I pointed to New Media Rockstars, which traffics in nerd culture entertainment media, but the term could easily be expanded to include satirical news, comedy, and conversational webcasts (also podcasts). Although some folks are rather surprised to learn that an appetite for substantive discussion and analysis exists among the public, I surmise that the shifting media landscape and disintegrated cultural narrative have bewildered a large segment of the public. The young in particular are struggling to make sense of the world, figure out what to be in life and how to function, and working out an applied philosophy that eschews more purely academic philosophy.

By way of example of new media, let me point to a trio of YouTube channels I only recently discovered. Some More News parodies traditional news broadcasts by sardonically (not quite the same as satirically) calling bullshit on how news is presented. Frequent musical cues between segments make me laugh. Unlike the mainstream media, which are difficult not to regard as propaganda arms of the government, Some More News is unapologetically liberal and indulges in black humor, which doesn’t make me laugh. Its raw anger and exasperation are actually a little terrifying. The second YouTube channel is Three Arrows, a sober, thorough debunking of news and argumentation found elsewhere in the public sphere. The speaker, who doesn’t appear onscreen, springs into action especially when accusations of current-day Nazism come up. (The current level of debate has devolved to recklessly calling nearly everyone a Nazi at some stage. Zero points scored.) Historical research often puts things into proper context, such as the magnitude of the actual Holocaust compared to some garden-variety racist running his or her mouth comparatively harmlessly. The third YouTube channel is ContraPoints, which is rather fanciful and profane but remarkably erudite considering the overall tone. Labels and categories are explained for those who may not have working definitions at the ready for every phrase or ideology. Accordingly, there is plenty of jargon. The creator also appears as a variety of different characters to embody various archetypes and play devil’s advocate.

While these channels may provide abundant information, correcting error and contextualizing better than most traditional media, it would be difficult to conclude they’re really moving the conversation forward. Indeed, one might wonder why bother preparing these videos considering how time consuming it has to be to do research, write scripts, assemble pictorial elements, etc. I won’t succumb to the intentional fallacy and suggest I know why they bother holding these nondebates. Further, unless straight-up comedy, I wouldn’t say they’re entertaining exactly, either. Highly informative, perhaps, if one pays close attention to frenetic online pace and/or mines for content (e.g., studying transcripts or following links). Interestingly, within a fairly short period of time, these channels are establishing their own rhetoric, sometimes useful, other times too loose to make strong impressions. It’s not unlike the development of new stylistic gestures in music or painting. What if anything worthwhile will emerge from the scrum will be interesting.

Among the myriad ways we have of mistreating each other, epithets may well be the most ubiquitous. Whether using race, sex, age, nationality, or nominal physical characteristic (especially genital names), we have so many different words with which to insult and slur it boggles the mind. Although I can’t account for foreign cultures, I doubt there is a person alive or dead who hasn’t suffered being made fun of for some stupid thing. I won’t bother to compile a list there are so many (by way of example, Wikipedia has a list of ethnic slurs), but I do remember consulting a dictionary of historical slang, mostly disused, and being surprised at how many terms were devoted specifically to insults.

I’m now old and contented enough for the “sticks and stones …” dismissal to nullify any epithets hurled my way. When one comes up, it’s usually an obvious visual characteristic, such as my baldness or ruddiness. Those characteristics are of course true, so why allow them to draw ire when used with malicious intent? However, that doesn’t stop simple words from giving grave offense for those with either thin skins or being so-called fighting words for those habituated to answering provocation with physical force. And in an era when political correctness has equated verbal offense with violence, the self-appointed thought police call for blood whenever someone steps out of line in public. Alternatively, when such a person is one’s champion, then the blood sport becomes spectacle, such as when 45 gifts another public figure with a sobriquet.

The granddaddy of all epithets — the elephant in the room, at least in the U.S. — will not be uttered by me, sorta like the he-who-shall-not-be-named villain of the Harry Potter universe or the forbidden language of Mordor from the Tolkien universe. I lack standing to use the term in any context and won’t even venture a euphemism or placeholder using asterisks or capitalisms. Reclaiming the term in question by adopting it as a self-description — a purported power move — has decidedly failed to neutralize the term. Instead, the term has become even more egregiously insulting than ever, a modern taboo. Clarity over who gets to use the term with impunity and when is elusive, but for my own part, there is no confusion: I can never, ever speak or write it in any context. I also can’t judge whether this development is a mark of cultural progress or regression.

If the previous blog in this series was about how some ideas and beliefs become lodged or stuck in place (fixity bias), this one is about how other ideas are notoriously mutable (flexibility bias), especially the latest, loudest thing to turn one’s head and divert attention. What makes any particular idea (or is it the person?) prone to one bias or another (see this list) is mysterious to me, but my suspicion is that a character disposition toward openness and adherence to authoritative evidence figure prominently in the case of shifting opinion. In fact, this is one of the primary problems with reason: if evidence can be deployed in favor of an idea, those who consider themselves “reasonable” and thus rely on accumulation of evidence and argumentation to sharpen their thinking are vulnerable to the latest “finding” or study demonstrating sumpinorutha. It’s the intellectual’s version of “New! Improved!”

Sam Harris exploits rationalism to argue against the existence of free will, saying that if sufficient evidence can be brought to bear, a disciplined thinker is compelled to subscribe to the conclusions of reasoned argument. Choice and personal agency (free will) are removed. I find that an odd way to frame the issue. Limitless examples of lack of choice are nonequivalent to the destruction of free will. For example, one can’t decide not to believe in gravity and fly up into the air more than a few inches. One can’t decide that time is an illusion (as theoretical physicists now instruct) and decide not to age. One can’t decide that pooping is too disgusting and just hold it all in (as some children attempt). Counter-evidence doesn’t even need to be argued because almost no one pretends to believe such nonsense. (Twisting one’s mind around to believe in the nonexistence of time, free will, or the self seems to be the special province of hyper-analytical thinkers.) Yet other types of belief/denial — many of them conspiracy theories — are indeed choices: religion, flat Earth, evolution, the Holocaust, the moon landings, 9/11 truth, who really killed JFK, etc. Lots of evidence has been mustered on different sides (multiple facets, actually) of each of these issues, and while rationalists may be compelled by a preponderance of evidence in favor of one view, others are free to fly in the face of that evidence for reasons of their own or adopt by default the dominant narrative and not worry or bother so much.

The public struggles in its grasp of truthful information, as reported in a Pew Research Center study called “Distinguishing Between Factual and Opinion Statements in the News.” Here’s the snapshot:

The main portion of the study, which measured the public’s ability to distinguish between five factual statements and five opinion statements, found that a majority of Americans correctly identified at least three of the five statements in each set. But this result is only a little better than random guesses. Far fewer Americans got all five correct, and roughly a quarter got most or all wrong.

Indiscriminate adoption by many Americans of a faulty viewpoint, or more pointedly, the propaganda and “fake news” on offer throughout the information environment, carries the implication that disciplined thinkers are less confused about truth or facts, taking instead a rational approach as the basis for belief. However, I suggest that reason suffers its own frailties not easily recognized or acknowledged. In short, we’re all confused, though perhaps not hopelessly so. For several years now, I’ve sensed the outline of a much larger epistemological crisis where quintessential Enlightenment values have come under open attack. The irony is that the wicked stepchild of science and reason — runaway technology —  is at least partially responsible for this epochal conflict. It’s too big an idea to grok fully or describe in a paragraph or two, so I’ll simply point to it an move on.

My own vulnerability to flexibility bias manifests specifically in response to appeals to authority. Although well educated, a lifelong autodidact, and an independent thinker, I’m careful not to succumb to the hubris of believing I’ve got it all figgered. Indeed, it’s often said that as one gains expertise and experience in the world, the certainty of youth yields to caution precisely because the mountain of knowledge and understanding one lacks looms larger even as one accumulates wisdom. Bodies of thought become multifaceted and all arguments must be entertained. When an expert, researcher, or academic proposes something outside my wheelhouse, I’m a sitting duck: I latch onto the latest, greatest utterance as the best truth yet available. I don’t fall for it nearly so readily with journalists, but I do recognize that some put in the effort and gain specialized knowledge and context well outside the bounds of normal life, such as war reporters. Various perverse incentives deeply embedded in the institutional model of journalism, especially those related to funding, make it nearly impossible to maintain one’s integrity without becoming a pariah, so only a handful have kept my attention. John Pilger, Chris Hedges, and Matt Taibbe figure prominently.

By way of example, one of the topics that has been of supreme interest to me, though its historical remove renders it rather toothless now, is the cataclysm(s) that occurred at the conclusion of the last ice age roughly 12,000 years ago. At least three hypotheses (of which I’m aware) have been proposed to explain why glacial ice disappeared suddenly over the course of a few weeks, unleashing the Biblical Flood: Earth crust displacement, asteroidal impact(s), and coronal mass ejection(s). Like most hypotheses, evidence is both physical and conjectural, but a sizable body of evidence and argumentation for each is available. As I became familiar with each, my head turned and I became a believer, sorta. Rather than “last one is the rotten egg,” however, the latest, most recent one typically displaces the previous one. No doubt another hypothesis will appear to turn my head and disorient me further. With some topics, especially politics, new information piling on top of old is truly dizzying. And as I’ve written about many topics, I simply lack the expertise to referee competing claims, so whatever beliefs I eventually adopt are permanently provisional.

Finally, my vulnerability to authoritative appeal also reacts to the calm, unflappable tones and complexity of construction of speakers such as Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, and Charles Murray. Their manner of speaking is sometimes described pejoratively as “academese,” though only Pinker has a teaching position. Murray in particular relies heavily on psychometrics, which may not be outright lying with statistics but allows him to rationalize (literally) extraordinarily taboo subjects. In contrast, it’s easy to disregard pundits and press agents foaming and fulminating over their pet narratives. Yet I also recognize that with academese, I’m being soothed more by style than by substance, a triumph of form over function. In truth, this communication style is an appeal to emotion masquerading as an appeal to authority. I still prefer it, just as I prefer a steady, explanatory style of journalism over the snarky, reinterpretive style of disquisition practiced by many popular media figures. What communicates most effectively to me and (ironically) pushes my emotional buttons also weakens my ability to discriminate and think properly.

Yet still more to come in part 5.

YouTube ratings magnet Jordan Peterson had a sit-down with Susan Blackmore to discuss/debate the question, “Do We Need God to Make Sense of Life?” The conversation is lightly moderated by Justin Brierley and is part of a weekly radio broadcast called Unbelievable? (a/k/a The Big Conversation, “the flagship apologetics and theology discussion show on Premier Christian Radio in the UK”). One might wonder why evangelicals are so eager to pit believers and atheists against each other. I suppose earnest questioning of one’s faith is preferable to proselytizing, though both undoubtedly occur. The full episode (47 min.) is embedded below: (more…)

Language acquisition in early childhood is aided by heavy doses of repetition and the memorable structure of nursery rhymes, songs, and stories that are repeated ad nauseum to eager children. Please, again! Again, again … Early in life, everything is novel, so repetition and fixity are positive attributes rather than causes for boredom. The music of one’s adolescence is also the subject of endless repetition, typically through recordings (radio and Internet play, mp3s played over headphones or earbuds, dances and dance clubs, etc.). Indeed, most of us have mental archives of songs heard over and over to the point that the standard version becomes canonical: that’s just the way the song goes. When someone covers a Beatles song, it’s recognizably the same song, yet it’s not the same and may even sound wrong somehow. (Is there any acceptable version of Love Shack besides that of the B52’s?) Variations of familiar folk tales and folk songs, or different phrasing in The Lord’s Prayer, imprinted in memory through sheer repetition, also possess discomfiting differences, sometimes being offensive enough to cause real conflict. (Not your Abrahamic deity, mine!)

Performing musicians traverse warhorses many times in rehearsal and public performance so that, after an undetermined point, how one performs a piece just becomes how it goes, admitting few alternatives. Casual joke-tellers may improvise over an outline, but as I understand it, the pros hone and craft material over time until very little is left to chance. Anyone who has listened to old comedy recordings of Bill Cosby, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, and others has probably learned the jokes (and timing and intonation) by heart — again through repetition. It’s strangely comforting to be able to go back to the very same performance again and again. Personally, I have a rather large catalogue of classical music recordings in my head. I continue to seek out new renditions, but often the first version I learned becomes the default version, the way something goes. Dislodging that version from its definitive status is nearly impossible, especially when it’s the very first recording of a work (like a Beatles song). This is also why live performance often fails in comparison with the studio recording.

So it goes with a wide variety of phenomenon: what is first established as how something goes easily becomes canonical, dogmatic, and unquestioned. For instance, the origin of the universe in the big bang is one story of creation to which many still hold, while various religious creation myths hold sway with others. News that the big bang has been dislodged from its privileged position goes over just about as well as dismissing someone’s religion. Talking someone out of a fixed belief is hardly worth the effort because some portion of one’s identity is anchored to such beliefs. Thus, to question a cherished belief is to impeach a person’s very self.

Political correctness is the doctrine that certain ideas and positions have been worked out effectively and need (or allow) no further consideration. Just subscribe and get with the program. Don’t bother doing the mental work or examining the issue oneself; things have already been decided. In science, steady evidenciary work to break down a fixed understanding is often thankless, or thanks arrives posthumously. This is the main takeaway of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: paradigms are changed as much through attrition as through rational inquiry and accumulation of evidence.

One of the unanticipated effects of the Information and Communications Age is the tsunami of information to which people have ready access. Shaping that information into a cultural narrative (not unlike a creation myth) is either passive (one accepts the frequently shifting dominant paradigm without compunction) or active (one investigates for oneself as an attribute of the examined life, which with wizened folks never really arrives at a destination, since it’s the journey that’s the point). What’s a principled rationalist to do in the face of a surfeit of alternatives available for or even demanding consideration? Indeed, with so many self-appointed authorities vying for control over cultural narratives like the editing wars on Wikipedia, how can one avoid the dizzying disorientation of gaslighting and mendacity so characteristic of the modern information environment?

Still more to come in part 4.