Superweapon Proliferation Worries

I felt it necessary to inject a short thought here, considering the increasing rate of emergence for erisologically relevant concepts. After only a few months with ”fake news” we now also have ”alternative facts”.

The controversy regarding the audience size of Donald Trump’s inauguration is absurd. Why keep twisting reality in such obvious ways? Such childish and inconsequential ways? Simply to see what you can get away with? Are we going to have these ridiculous controversies all the time these next few years?

I suppose this is the first time an american president has moved from spin into outright trolling. That’s somewhat surprising; I was one of the people who suspected Trump couldn’t possibly be as unhinged as he appeared and might drop the act and calm down after his accession and be a surprisingly moderate president. I’ll admit it doesn’t look like that’s happening.

But I’m not interested in writing about him. I don’t see a great need, since a significant portion of the industrial capacity of the western hemisphere is already dedicated to producing writing about Donald Trump. I’m more interested in the new concepts, like “fake news”, “alternative facts”[1], “post-truth society” and ”fact-resistance” (the last being more common in its Swedish version ”faktaresistens”, but I’ll include it).

The whole cluster makes me uncomfortable. Uncomfortable, not outraged. Outraged would be easier and sweeter — I could rant against anti-intellectualism, people not caring about the truth and just going with whatever they want to believe and be comfortable in my position as defender of truth and objectivity. I could be on the good team. It seems like there aren’t many issues where it’s this easy to come down clearly on one side.

Yet…

One of the major themes on this blog is ”everybody has a point”[2]. I don’t like the tendency to treat discourse like a fight and go ”I’m right, you’re wrong”. Some cases really are black and white, but they aren’t most cases.

Few (important) disagreements are about concrete and verifiable facts, because people tend to disagree about them in non-complicated ways and they’re easily resolved. The implication behind phrases like ”fake news”, ”post-truth society” and ”fact-resistance” is that people have simply stopped changing their minds when faced with overwhelming evidence. That might be partially true —  I don’t know if people are psychologically different on this point than they used to be — but not the whole story. Pretending that disagreements are typically about simple facts is self-serving, thickheaded and counterproductive.

It’s counterproductive because if you want to make someone change their mind through sheer force of argument there must be no way for them to think that you’re wrong. It’s entirely possible to stay committed to a claim only a little bit true[3], since you can perfectly legitimately disagree with anyone who dismisses it completely. Do not give anyone a reason to dismiss you, such as (1) pretending you’re 100% right when you’re not, or (2) pretend someone else is 100% wrong when they aren’t.

Solution 1: Make sure your opponent is completely and verifiably wrong. This is much harder that it appears, because being 99% wrong is not enough.

Solution 2: Make an effort to understand what they mean[4] and acknowledge their damn point. Understand (and empathize with) why it makes sense to them, preferably without condescension. Then help them understand yours.

These words point to real things. There really are fake news and people who refuse to acknowledge facts. But there is literally no chance that these words won’t be used also on things they shouldn’t really apply to. They’re easily generalized anti-contrarian weapons, and that’s what makes me uncomfortable.

It’s easy to slip and start to move from condemning things that are simply false to things that are merely false in some interpretations, or only false if taken literally, or not known to be false but unlikely to be true, or not false but really skewed and unfair, or not false but implies or insinuates something false, or not false but supports a “false” narrative, or technically true but supports a harmful narrative.

When you get to the generous end of that scale most news can be called “fake”, as news are presented in narrative form and selected according to someone’s standard of importance and interest. Of course there are accounts of reality that ”establishment media” doesn’t tend to give, narratives that could be formed but aren’t, and facts that are picked and spun in accordance with the writer’s worldview. Lack of trust in the media isn’t entirely undeserved, something I think few would disagree with if they weren’t in the middle of an argument.

Like all news are potentially “fake” if you make the definition as broad as you’re tempted to when using it as a weapon, research suggests we’re all fact-resistant to some degree. Some more than others, but resisting data that contradict what we already believe is something we need to do to keep sane in a world with limited, confusing and seemingly contradictory information. That’s universal enough that implying “those other people do that but we don’t” is exactly the kind of overstepping that makes someone dismissable. Let he who is without bias cast the first accusation.

Even further: expert opinion shouldn’t be trusted blindly. Science is hard and social science doubly so. History is littered with purportedly scientific overconfidence and overreach and in many cases ”standard scientific knowledge” isn’t all that good. Certainly not as good as we’re led to believe; limited, conflicting and hard-to-interpret evidence is more the rule than the exception[5] and scientific success stories like physics, chemistry, biology and astronomy are not indicative of how far we’ve come on things like nutrition, medicine, psychiatry, pedagogy, psychology, sociology, economics and pretty much everything else[6].

We underestimate how much uncertainty, ambiguity and subjectivity there is in the world. We can’t legitimately defend that sin by pointing to a few cases where we really are certainly, unambiguously and objectively correct and act as though those are typical.

•••

[1] “Alternative facts” seems to have been created as a weapon against terms like “fake news”, but it took about eight seconds before it became a term of mockery.

[2] Including those who say “not everybody has a point”.

[3] By “a little bit true” a mean something that’s true in some interpretations and not others, literally or metaphorically, in some contexts and situations and not others, in part and not in whole, captures something real in hyperbolic language and so forth. Jumping to an interpretation and then arguing against it regardless of what was meant is on the top ten list of bad things people do when arguing.

[4] Again, much harder than it appears, because our opinions are influenced by the totality of our personality, our experiences and our knowledge. Something may be convincing to someone but not to someone else without us understanding exactly why.

[5] Almost any post on science methodology on Slate Star Codex will make you lose your faith in science. That’s fine, you should have respect and appreciation for science, but not faith.

[6] I might dislike the tone of much written about the sociology of science, but they (like everyone else) have a point and social and political factors do taint the ideal of the pure pursuit of knowledge, just not fatally. Likewise with Michel Foucault’s views on the history of psychiatry.

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2 thoughts on “Superweapon Proliferation Worries

  1. I agree on all counts. Certainly it does look like with the election and inauguration of this new administration, completely false “facts” seem to be thrown around in place of subtle spins as you allude to. Donald Trump, in my view, got elected by appealing to a group of people for whom concrete facts have little meaning but tribal loyalty does — for them, the word “honest” doesn’t refer to factual accuracy but to “speaking how one really feels”. And yet, now that “fake news” has become a common buzzword used by anti-Trump election analysts, I’ve noticed that Trump has grabbed it to use as a weapon for his side (witness his putdowns of various media organizations at the recent press conference).

    This reminds me of another fairly new and related superweapon out there which is really concerning me lately: the concept of “gaslighting”. Apparently, “gaslighting” can now be used (at least by social leftists) to refer to pretty much any form of contradicting the beliefs that someone derived from their own experiences. It’ll only be so long before social anti-leftists pick it up and use it to back up their opposing views — some of the same leftists who use it now are giving them plenty of ammunition with condescending “I know better than you” tones, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting spotting about how “honest” have different meanings. Totally agree. Before I started this blog I had thoughts of writing more narrowly about “word failures” and this does seem to be a common source of problems.

      About facts being less important than tribal loyalties… I think that yes, this seems to be a particularly stark example but to me it’s just a more intense version of what’s already normal, not a wholly new thing. There is probably also a confusion between concrete fact statements and vague fact-like ones that are really compressed narratives (and therefore not really true or false). As I said I suspect there is more disagreement about narratives than facts, and if you interpret a compressed narrative as a concrete fact claim things aren’t going to go wrong.

      True about “gaslighting”. It and “fake news” and many other such terms that are justified when applied to some central examples but reliably gets expanded and weaponized are, in short, bad. I wonder if the speed with which the fringes of the culture war (who I sometimes feel deserve each other) turn the other side’s weapons back against themselves will eventually lead to a truce of some kind. One can hope.

      Like

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