Friday, November 25, 2016

Post-truth Is a Result of Both the Misunderstanding and Rejection of Post-modernism

We find ourselves in a post-truth world because of the poor way in which we have dealt with the revelations of post-modernism.

Post-modernism does indeed say that there is no truth, but that is only part of the story.  Leaving it there is like saying that there is no time because of Einstein's Theory of Relativity. What Einstein said was that time is relative to the speed an object is traveling at, not that time doesn't exist.

The post-modern revelation was that there is no universal and eternal truths because truth is always relative.  That does not mean that truth is completely arbitrary or completely non-existent.

Truth is relative to time and place, which means it is also relative to the past and the perceived or desired future.  Truth is never simple, and it is rarely easy. It is something that needs to be thought out and also believed in, and it must be believable. It needs to resonate with the people (their experience, community, history and vision of the future) and their physical surroundings.

We live in a post-truth world because some people refuse to believe that truth is relative and insist on a solid universal and/or eternal conception of truth and a storehouse of truths that fit that criteria. These people deny the complexity inherent in reality that post-modernism revealed. Others take up only a simplified and naïve version of post-modernism and insist that truth does not exist at all. 

One side insists on using only truths that deny or ignore the importance of context, truths that they know because of their privileged position and abilities. Meanwhile, the other side takes hold of any idea that is beneficial to them and promotes it as a truth.  Sooner or later, the difference between the sides collapses and they both employ each other's tactics. 

As these two sides fight against one another (and take advantage of the average person as they do so) the idea of truth is torn to shreds.  Both sides use it cynically to gain support for their own agenda. As this goes on any truths that we have and need are trivialized and made ineffective.  People, society and knowledge are left in free-fall, or left to wander in a wasteland.  As this goes on society as a whole and the average person loses. 


Friday, November 18, 2016

Appeal to Offence

I would like to propose a new logical fallacy.

Appeal to Offence

This happens when one side shows they are offended by something the opposition said or the way they said it.

This is followed by insisting that they apologize.

The apology must be complete and without qualification.  (Especially if it was unintentional.)  After all, an apology followed by a 'but' is not really an apology at all. 

Since the opponent cannot say anything else after they apologize, the offended party can then leave the debate or argument with the last word being an apology to them.  The apology can easily be construed as an admission of fault and defeat.

In this way an argument or debate can be easily shutdown and virtually won without providing any further evidence or logical backup for their side. 

(The other outcome is that the offender will refuse to apologize, or will offer an apology that is not accepted because it is followed by a 'but' or some soft of explanation or qualification. In this case the offended can accuse them of being uncivil and exit the situation while claiming the moral high ground.)

Like all fallacies, there are times when it may appear to be a fallacy but is not.  Naming this a fallacy does not mean that you cannot get offended in a debate, discussion or argument.  An appeal to a legitimate authority who knows the issue being discussed is not a fallacy of appealing to authority.  It also does not mean that you shouldn't apologize if you offend someone.  It is a fallacy if it is used as a means to settle the issue or end the debate. 

Being offended and wanting an apology (and giving an apology) is not a fallacy, not a logical problem, as long as it doesn't take precedent over the evidence and logic of the debate or argument.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Amusing Ourselves with Fear, Anger and Hate

To amuse doesn't just mean to entertain much less to do so in a pleasant way. Webster's dictionary has two obsolete definitions that we need to keep in mind when thinking about Neil Postman's critique of modern society: that we are amusing ourselves to death.

We can very easily amuse ourselves into ignoring all sorts of things by escaping into the pleasant and enjoyable. This is what most people will think when they hear the phrase 'amusing ourselves to death'. This is indeed one path, but it is the obvious one and not the one we are on.

Postman is quick to point out that the most obvious and popularly suspected path to a dystopia is usually not the one that will be followed. We are too smart and alert for that.

He points out that the Orwellian dystopia of 1984 is indeed possible but not as likely as the less known and feared dystopia of Huxley's Brave New World. Orwell talks of a totalitarian society that rules over its people with fear and pain, where information is restricted and tightly controlled. Huxley's version has people going along with the totalitarian regime because they are trained to do so and are rewarded (or distracted from anything else) with pleasure. Information does not need to be hidden or restricted because people are out of the habit of looking for it and are too busy indulging in pleasure to bother.

Postman thinks what we are actually heading for is something much more akin to Huxley's vision. We will not want to read or think or question because we will be busy entertaining ourselves (and consuming). We will be indulging in escapism and be confident that we can do so indefinitely with no real consequences. What is worse is that when we do come back from our escape, we are not capable of thinking or communicating in deep, meaningful and constructive ways because we have lost the ability to: amusement and escapism cause our thinking and communication skills to atrophy.

What is really dangerous about this is that there is no organized conspiracy that is doing this to us. The forces that are degrading us through amusement are fragmented and unorganized. They are all just out for their own profit and not colluding to control society. While that means that there is no puppet master pulling the strings and controlling us all, it also means there is no one or no force keeping society together and keeping us from slowing destroying the modern world and society that has been built up over the past two centuries or more.

In short, the main difference between Huxley's dystopia and our modern reality is that A Brave New World had puppet masters behind the scenes making sure it all runs smoothly and is sustainable, while our reality is one that tends more and more towards being unsustainable the more we amuse ourselves.

This is not a dystopia where a group of people's idea of a perfect world or society (a utopia) goes wrong and becomes more horrible and repressive than wonderful and liberating. This is a decent into chaos and disorder and has every potential to be more horrible and repressive than a dystopia.

But back to the word amuse: Are we really amusing ourselves into a downward spiral? The hate and fear that has gripped a large portion of the US and most of its media is not pleasant escapism. The news and politics are not pleasant and entertaining; they are often frightening and angry, and they inspire anger and hate.

The two obsolete definitions of amuse shed light on this: 1) to occupy the attention of, absorb

2) distract, bewilder. These do not necessarily have anything to do with pleasure. They do however have a lot to do with escapism and keeping our attention.

The media and internet distract and bewilder us with mountains of information, misinformation, trivia and data that keep us from paying attention to what is really around us (people, events, problems) and keep us from making decisions or taking action in regards to them even when we do see them. We are first distanced from everything and then paralyzed by the sheer amount of stuff coming at us.

After a while of course, we become numb to the flood that we find ourselves constantly immersed in. At that point you might think that we would find a shore, any shore, to crawl on to and dry out. If we did, we would likely be overwhelmed by the reality and problems we had been distracted from. We may choose to dive back into the flood and stay. But the media cannot allow us to even have that reprieve or the ability to make that choice. They also cannot allow us to remain numb and passive because their business model is based on keeping us actively tuned in.

As a result, they find ways to keep us engaged. After we have taken on all of the mindless pleasing entertainment we can handle and feel a need to do something, feel something, we become restless. In that restlessness we become susceptible to fear, anger and hate. 

It is no longer easy or even possible to lead us into an escape from all reality and problems, so the media leads us back into caricatures of selected realities and problems that are constructed in such a way that we cannot sit back and be passive in the face of them. (Part of the reason we fall for this is that our thinking and communication skill have atrophied.) These grotesque representations of reality are so inflammatory, divisive and seemingly urgent that we must have an opinion and a strong one at that. In this way, the media keeps us insulated from the real problems, the real world, and at the same time keeps us engaged, keeps us from feeling detached and numb.

I am not saying that this is done intentionally, far from it. I doubt that anyone laid this out as a plan and is trying to get something out of it, like political or economic control. It is merely what is happening as people and the media try to make money, keep informed and feel relevant. And, that is the biggest problem: no one is in control. Through this amusement that is more and more filled with fear, anger and hate, we are throwing ourselves down the spiral towards chaos. We are not in or heading into a dystopia where some evil elite or force is in control; we are heading into chaos, and as we go we are destroying our personal abilities and the societal structures necessary to combat that chaos.  It isn’t a path filled with pleasure, but it is a road of amusement that can lead to the death of modern society. 

Friday, November 11, 2016

Our Failure Is Who We Have Become

"When the supply of information is no longer controllable, a general breakdown in psychic tranquility and social purpose occurs. Without defenses, people have no way of finding meaning in their experience, lose their capacity to remember, and have difficulty imagining reasonable futures."
-- Neil Postman from Technopoly

Americans, and especially American parents, we failed not because Trump won, or because Clinton lost. We failed because we bought the hype that this election was historically significant in a unique way. That became a self fulfilling prophecy. It has become uniquely significant because we have become hysterical and irrational, and as a result we have further divided our society.

We failed because many of us are not capable of finding meaning in our everyday lives and in our immediate surroundings. We have lost touch with ourselves and what, and who, is actually around us. Instead, we are consumed with what is behind the little glass screens we carry around.

When the information stops coming, we feel like the lights have gone out. We feel like the sun has disappeared. Instead of realizing that we need to sleep or rest, and that it is a great opportunity to do so, we panic.

We are so used to being awash in information that we don't know what to do, or who we are, without it. As a result, we push to have more and more, and we push to have it be ever more exciting and important. We want the hype because it keeps us from getting bored, from running out of 'information' to consume. We are addicted. That addiction strikes at the core of each one of us because without that information we no longer know who we are or what our purpose is.

In reality, we are not getting more information that we did 10 years ago. We are getting more trivial data, meaningless facts and misinformation. We are getting more uninformed, poorly formed and exaggerated opinions and analysis.

As a result, we are spending less time on the actual information and well informed and carefully though out opinions and analysis that happen to find us. This makes us less informed, less able to make decisions and always close to collapsing from 'information' overload and decision fatigue.

We also take less time to understand the actual information we get. We take things at face value as they are given to us and let our habits of comprehension (our biases) shape them without being the least bit conscious of it. We don't dig deeper and check the facts or the context. We don't understand; we simply react like we are getting hit on the knee by a rubber hammer.

In reality, we can't check, dig or understand because there is too much coming at us, and we are too obsessed with getting beyond what is here now and getting to what is coming next. We are so afraid of missing something that we actually make ourselves miss what we already have in front of us.

With all of that going on, it is hard to remember anything because nothing sinks in. If you don't take the time to understand something on a deeper level or wider plane, you are less likely to remember it. We only remember the sensational and that is only remembered largely out of context and without detail.

With all of this going on we don't have the memory, attention span or accurate information (especially not about our self and our actual immediate surroundings) to imagine a realistic future. We grasp at far flung utopian or distopian visions of the future that are almost certain to disappoint because they were never realistic in the first place.

We wonder why politicians, salesmen, etc. make us promises they don't keep... but the reality is they can't keep them because they are not possible, at least not in the terms and time frame they give them. They may know that they are impossible, or they may not. The real problem is that we don't seem to notice at the time that the promises are not realistic. We crave the new, the special the spectacular so much that we want to believe. It is a symptom of our addiction that helps to plunge us deeper into the addiction.

We have failed because of who we have become, what we do, what we expect and what we have come to rely on. Trump can't fix that, and he can only make it worse if we let him: if we continue to use him as an excuse to indulge in our bad habits that make us more delusional and more divided. Clinton couldn't have fixed it either, and thinking so is simply another one of our strong and comforting delusions.

We have failed because we not only believed the hype, but because we have become dependent on the hype. We may not be amusing ourselves to death, yet... But we are amusing ourselves into greater delusion and deeper division.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Evidence from Psychology to Support My Suspicion of Technology and Dismay at Public Discourse in the US

I recently read an article from a book on Psychology called Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgment. The article is called, “Self-Anchoring in Conversation: Why Language Users Do Not Do What They ‘Should.’” Being a language teacher, I thought the title was interesting... And being annoyed and dismayed by the degradation of public discourse and debate in the US, I thought it was a must read.

First, what does the title mean by 'should'? It means that in order to eliminate or at least avoid ambiguity and miscommunication, speakers and listeners should follow the 'principle of optimal design.' This means that speakers should design a message from the beginning with the audience in mind: their perspective, knowledge and background. At the same time, the listener should interpret from that position too: that knowledge, background and perspective needed to understand it are common, shared. Research shows that that is not actually the case most of the time. Instead they rely on a sort of shortcut system that can be called a heuristic.

The article summarizes studies that explore that heuristic. First speakers think of what they want to say. Second they formulate the sentence(s). Then they review them to see if they fit the audience, and only then will they make changes to fit the audience. When they first decide on what they are saying and formulate how to say it they are basing it (anchoring it) on their (an egocentric) perspective and knowledge. It is only later that they review and change (adjust) the message to see if it is comprehensible to the audience from their perspective and knowledge. The studies also show that the less time or fewer mental resources the speaker has at that moment, the more the last step is cut short or left out. The research also says the same about how people interpret messages: they start (anchor) from their own (egocentric) perspective and only later review to see if there may be a disparity due to the different perspective of the speaker that calls for modification (adjustment) in their understanding.

What struck me most about this is that reaching out to the other person's knowledge, background and perspective is left to the last, and when in a pinch, it is the first thing to be cut back on or cut out. It doesn't surprise me that this is what happens, but what does is that it has been formulated like this and backed up by what seems to be a fair amount of research. Why that surprises me is because it seems to fit exactly what is going on with public debate now in the age of the internet. We have so much information thrown at us constantly from so many different perspectives; we are so busy wading through all of that information; we are so busy contributing our own information to the flood; we are so busy multi-tasking, which really just means jumping back and forth from one task to another constantly being interrupted or interrupting ourselves.

The article itself says that, "When people are overly busy and cognitively occupied, they might not be able to adjust sufficiently from the egocentric anchor. This has clear consequences in our overly busy world."

I see this as part of the way that technology-- though it is hailed as a great uniter-- is actually dividing us. It makes us more "overly busy and cognitively occupied" so that we are less effective communicators. It also strips away context, which is related to background, knowledge and perspective, and makes it seem as if we don't have to adjust our messages or interpretations for different people to communicate effectively. It makes us to busy and so over-taxed that we don't effectively adjust or don't have the time or feel the need to adjust at all. Things are routinely taken out of context, misunderstood, misspoken. Instead of finding the root of these issue and putting them to rest, finding meaning and communicating, we rush off to spread the error and add to it by adding our instinctive response to it. Our response often doesn't itself go through a process of reflection and adjustment because there is no time or mental resources to do so, at least not if we want to get out two cents in before everyone's attention moves on to something else.

I am not saying that we need to rewire our brains to process and create messages differently. That would be taxing and inefficient in many ways, at least in everyday circumstances. The article says that by using this heuristic, "the language user is taking a shortcut that is cheap in mental resources and relatively fast."  Also that it is, "typically successful" when the speaker and listener share much in terms of background, knowledge and perspective-- which is quite often. Doing what we 'should' –building the message from the beginning with the audience in mind— is far more time consuming and taxing. While that approach may be a way to reflect on and modify our heuristic approach sometimes or useful when working on a single very important message, for daily use it would be more trouble than it is worth.

My point is that we should slow down and make sure that we don't constantly short change the adjustment step in the process, and try to never outright skip it. This does not mean to stop using technology and its benefits, but to slow down and use it more effectively to communicate accurately, not simply communicate more in terms of volume: in terms of number of messages and size of audience.

Here are extended quotes from the text that my paraphrasing in the second and third paragraph are based on:
"What we consistently find it that language users do not do what they 'should' do according to common sense and current theory. For example, they do not routinely use readily available information about the perspective of the other. The reason is twofold. First, information about perspective is not only knowledge, it is metaknowledge: It is knowledge about who knows what. Such higher-level information typically takes more cognitive resources and more time to use. By relying on an egocentric interpretation in the case of understanding, and an egocentric plan in the case of speaking, the language user is taking a shortcut that is cheap in mental resources and relatively fast.
"The second reason we rely on an egocentric process is that it is typically successful. In many cases, the overlap between the foci of the speaker and the addressee is such that an egocentric process would be sufficient for successful communication.”

“Nickerson (1999) demonstrates how miscommunication can result from people's mistaken assessment of what others know and their tendency to overimpute their own knowledge to others. We have shown that even when language users are well informed about what others know, they still anchor egocentrically when taking the other's perspective. Although people might be quite good at taking into account differences in perspective when they use language, they only do so through this effortful and time-consuming process of adjustment. When people are overly busy and cognitively occupied, they might not be able to adjust sufficiently from the egocentric anchor. This has clear consequences in our overly busy world.”


Keysar, Boaz, and Dale J Barr. 2002. "Self-Anchoring in Conversation: Why Language Users Do Not Do What The "Should"." In Heuristics And Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgment , edited by Thomas Gilovich, Dale Griffin and Daniel Kahneman, 150-166. New York, NY : Cambridge University Press.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Russian Media Tactics and The Fate of the US

My observations of Russian media and argumentative tactics have lead me to believe that they don't actually want to try to prove anything.   They simply spread so much counter information and half thought-out alternative theories that they undermine any single coherent opinion on the issue. 

Believe or not, I think this is related to the current US election too.

Really what they are doing is to take advantage of the fallacy fallacy. The arguments and evidence their opponents are offering all have faults or counter evidence.  As a result, they must be false and so must their conclusions.

This is bad enough when it paralyzes people's ability to rationally chose a side or story to believe.  But sometimes it damages the idea of truth itself. This is possible when people believe their is one truth and it is obvious once the facts are all laid out.  That idea of truth though is not what logic, experience or science say truth is.  Any truth and the facts it is based on are not infallible, indisputable or singular. 

For many people the type of tactics Putin's Russia uses undermines the authority of truth and facts.  This leaves a vacuum that they can fill with power and force.  This is what keeps chaos at bay and keeps the country from disintegrating. 

For others, who still believe in finding a truth that fits all the facts, it leaves them scrambling to come up with some sort of conspiracy theory that however unlikely is believed because it fits the 'facts.'

In either case, their is so much uncertainty that a people cannot come together to agree on the issue.  In fact most individuals can't even take a coherent opinion on it.

This type of maneuvering is what Trump has in common with Putin's Russia, not foreign policy or business goals.  (Or maybe I should say this should be the only truly disturbing thing.)  It is that he uses these tactics more overtly and than other politicians in the US. 

Clinton uses them too but more subtly.  This kind of thinking allows her to get away with calling Trump a lair whenever he says anything she doesn't agree with. Or to call a whole speech of his a lie just because is has one provable falsehood in it.  (Granted he does have credibility problems, but that doesn't justify her taking such horrible advantage of it. That is if she is indeed concerned about policies and truth.) 
At the same time, whenever something ridiculous comes out of his mouth or is attached to him, she claims that that is the truth and the real Trump.   She does this without pointing out why or giving evidence.  It is just as illogical as the hyperbole that spews from his mouth.   Trump is a bad man, so any thing he says that is good must be a lie; he is the fault in the argument.  Trump is a bad man, so anything bad he says or is associated with must be true; again, he is the fault in the argument. (Or maybe this is just the genetic fallacy, and I am stretching too much when I relate it to the Fallacy Fallacy.  Still, it is no doubt a fallacy.)

What has made Putin's Russia so strong and powerful is what is helping to tear America's democracy apart.  People can't or don't,  at least not in public, make up their own mind on issues because the water is so muddy.  Only that will also tear America apart because their is no dictator who can or will take over to force unity on the American people.  I am glad to say that Trump is really not capable of that.  You may doubt that he will not try or doesn't want to try. But even if you are right and I am wrong, there is a balance of power in the US system.  There is no party in Congress or majority of Supreme Court justices that will back him making the US a dictatorship. 

Putin's Russia is wrong and ridiculous when it acts like this.  It is destructive and even dangerous.  The only thing that holds Russia together in light of that is Putin's power and often ruthless power plays.  People in the US need to stop indulging, and stop allowing the candidates and media to indulge in these tactics.  The US doesn't have a strongman, and the system won't allow for one anytime soon, that can keep the country from falling apart if we don't.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The US Election: What Does Putin Want? Why Should Americans Care?

I think this article misses the whole point of Putin or Russia saying or doing anything regarding this election.  The author is too shortsighted, which Putin is not.  

The Putin/Russian objective is to weaken American.  They can do that no matter who wins (or who is running) by aggravating the divisions amongst the American people and damaging the credibility of the election process.   (These are things they have done in their own country and neighboring countries for years.)

Clinton is playing right into their hands by having such poor information security that her campaign can get hacked.  She should know better. She helps Putin as well when she says the Putin wants Trump to win.   Voters shouldn't care what Putin wants when they go to the polls, the should vote based on who they think will make America stronger and more secure internally and externally regardless of what some dictator says or wants. 

Trump and his surrogates play into Putin's hand just as much, if not more.  The more they talk in such inflammatory language about the system being rigged, (no matter what evidence they do or don't have) the more they undermine confidence in the system.  That can only weaken American and that helps Putin.  The same goes for all of Trump's other divisive rhetoric. (And Clinton's.)

The press, the politicians and the people of the US need to stop playing the game Putin wants them to play: divide, smear and stoke fear.  They need to stop not because it is what Putin wants but because it is bad for the US in all respects and on all levels.  Putin wants it because it breaks down the US from the inside out, from the bottom to the top.  And that is why Americans (the media, the candidates and the citizens)  should stop: because it weakens the US in such fundamental ways.