(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘civil discourse

“The things right in front of us are often the hardest to see”*…

Fake news, like conjuring, plays on our weaknesses — but, as Tim Harford explains, with a little attention, we can fight back…

Why do people — and by “people” I mean “you and I” — accept and spread misinformation? The two obvious explanations are both disheartening. The first is that we are incapable of telling the difference between truth and lies. In this view, politicians and other opinion-formers are such skilled deceivers that we are helpless, or the issues are so complex that they defy understanding, or we lack basic numeracy and critical-thinking skills. The second explanation is that we know the difference and we don’t care. In order to stick close to our political tribe, we reach the conclusions we want to reach.

There is truth in both these explanations. But is there a third account of how we think about the claims we see in the news and on social media — an account that, ironically, has received far too little attention? That account centres on attention itself: it suggests that we fail to distinguish truth from lies not because we can’t and not because we won’t, but because — as with Robbins’s waistcoat — we are simply not giving the matter our focus.

What makes the problem worse is our intuitive overconfidence that we will notice what matters, even if we don’t focus closely. If so, the most insidious and underrated problem in our information ecosystem is that we do not give the right kind of attention to the right things at the right time. We are not paying enough attention to what holds our attention.

The art of stage magic allows us to approach this idea from an unusual angle: Gustav Kuhn’s recent book, Experiencing the Impossible, discusses the psychology of magic tricks.

“All magic can be explained through misdirection alone,” writes Kuhn, a psychologist who runs the Magic Lab at Goldsmiths, University of London. Such a strong claim is debatable, but what is beyond debate is that the control and manipulation of attention are central to stage magic. They are also central to understanding misinformation. The Venn diagram of misinformation, misdirection and magic has overlaps with which to conjure.

[There follows a fascinating unpacking of the relevance of misdirection to to misinformation…]

We retweet misinformation because we don’t think for long enough to see that it is misinformation. We obsess over bold lies, not realising that their entire purpose is to obsess us. We see one thing and assume it is another, even though we are only deceiving ourselves. We will argue in favour of policies that we opposed seconds ago, as long as we can be distracted long enough to flip our political identities in a mirror.

And behind all this is the grand meta-error: we have no intuitive sense that our minds work like this. We fondly imagine ourselves to be sharper, more attentive and more consistent than we truly are. Our own brains conspire in the illusion, filling the vast blind spots with plausible images.

But if you decide to think carefully about the headlines, or the data visualisations that adorn news websites, or the eye-catching statistics that circulate on social media, you may be surprised: statistics aren’t actually stage magic. Many of them are telling us important truths about the world, and those that are lies are usually lies that we can spot without too much trouble.

Pay attention; get some context; ask questions; stop and think. Misinformation doesn’t thrive because we can’t spot the tricks. It thrives because, all too often, we don’t try. We don’t try, because we are confident that we already did…

Simple, but profoundly important, wisdom: “What magic teaches us about misinformation,” from @TimHarford. eminently worth reading in full. (Originally appeared in the Financial Times Magazine, from whence the illustration above.)

Related: the Barnum (or Forer) Effect

Apollo Robbins, world-famous pickpocket and illusionist

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As we dissect disinformation, we might spare a thought for Oscar Hammerstein; he died on this date in 1919.  As a newly-arrived immigrant to the U.S., Hammerstein worked in a cigar factory, where he discovered ways to automate the rolling process.  He patented his innovation and made a fortune– which he promptly reinvested in his true passions, music and the arts.  Possessed of a sharp sense of design and an equally good acoustical sense, he built and ran theaters and concert halls, becoming one of Americas first great impressarios…  a fact worth honoring, as history tends to overlook “Oscar the First” in favor of his grandson, Oscar Hammerstein II, the gifted librettist/lyricist and partner of Richard Rodgers.

Hammerstein (on left, with cigar) and conductor Cleofonte Campagnini

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“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”*…

The number of American university students selecting history as their chosen four year degree has been on the decline since the 1970s…

Tanner Greer (@Scholars_Stage) considers four possible reasons– and what they portend: “The Fall of History as a Major–and as a Part of the Humanities.”

(Image at top: source)

* George Santayana, The Life of Reason, 1905

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As we ponder the practicality of the past, we might we might celebrate a major contribution to the study of history; it was on this date in 1799 (or close; scholars agree that it was “mid-July” but disagree on the precise day) that a French soldier in Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign discovered a black basalt slab inscribed with ancient writing near the town of Rosetta, about 35 miles north of Alexandria.

The stone contained fragments of passages written in three different scripts inscribed by priests of Ptolemy V in the second century B.C.– Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and Egyptian demotic.  The Greek passage proclaimed that the three scripts were all of identical meaning– so allowed French Egyptologist Jean Francois Champollion to decipher the hieroglyphics… and opened the language of ancient Egypt, a written language that had been “dead” for nearly two millennia.

Rosetta Stone (the most-visited exhibit that the British Museum)

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“Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument”*…

Through reading, champion debater Bo Sen learned that disagreement can be a source of good, not ill, even in our polarized age.

Nowadays, disagreement is out of fashion. It is seen as the root of our personal and political troubles. Debate, in making a sport out of argument, seems at once a trivial pursuit and a serious impediment to the kinds of conversation we want to cultivate. But in my first book, Good Arguments, I propose that the opposite is true. Students may train to win every disagreement, but they soon learn that this is impossible. Even the best lose most of the competitions they attend. What one can do is disagree better—be more convincing and tenacious, and argue in a manner that keeps others willing to come back for another round. In the end, the prize for all that training and effort is a good conversation…

He shares several recommendations, e.g…

Thinking in an Emergency, by Elaine Scarry

Scarry, one of my English professors at Harvard, is the rare scholar who can change how you move through the world. She has made a career of bringing language to the ineffable ends of human experience: pain and beauty. In Thinking in an Emergency, she places deliberation at the core of a democratic response to emergencies including natural disasters and nuclear war. Scarry argues that debate, both real-time and prospective, need not hinder action and can instead secure the resolve and coordination needed for rapid response. She warns against leaders who invoke catastrophes to demand that their populations stop thinking. In this era of calamities, natural and man-made, Scarry’s wisdom is essential: “Whatever happens, keep talking.”

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, by Malcolm X and Alex Haley

Malcolm X learned to debate as a 20-something in what was then called Norfolk Prison Colony, a state prison founded on reformist ideals that fielded debate teams against local colleges such as Boston University. In his memoir, X describes the experience of finding one’s voice and communing with an audience as a revelation: “I will tell you that, right there, in the prison, debating, speaking to a crowd, was as exhilarating to me as the discovery of knowledge through reading had been … once my feet got wet, I was gone on debating.” For most people, debate is a pastime of school and university years. This memoir shows that one can make a career and a life from its lessons in fierce, courageous, and resolute disagreement.

When Should Law Forgive?, by Martha Minow

One question I struggle with in Good Arguments is when we should stop debating. Minow, a former dean of Harvard Law School, provides here a model of humane consideration on the limits of the adversarial ethic. Hers is an argument for accommodating forgiveness—the “letting go of justified grievances”—in the legal system. She builds the book as one would a spacious house, each area of the law—juvenile justice, debt, amnesties and pardons—a separate chapter in which readers are invited to stay and reflect awhile. Martha Nussbaum is illuminating on related topics in her critique of anger in Anger and Forgiveness, which elicited rebuttal from Myisha Cherry in The Case for Rage, an argument for the emotion’s usefulness in conditions of resistance. The need to balance dispute and conciliation, accountability and grace, cannot be transcended, only better managed.

Seven more recommendations at “The Books That Taught a Debate Champion How to Argue,” from @helloboseo in @TheAtlantic.

* Desmond Tutu

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As we put the civil back into civil discourse, we might recall that it was on this date in 1966 that the Roman Catholic Church announced, via a notification from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the abolition of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (“index of prohibited books”), which was originally instituted in 1557. The communique stated that, while the Index maintained its moral force, in that it taught Christians to beware, as required by the natural law itself, of those writings that could endanger faith and morality, it no longer had the force of ecclesiastical positive law with the associated penalties. So… read on.

Title page of Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Venice 1564)

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“I rather think that archives exist to keep things safe – but not secret”*…

Brewster Kahle, founder and head of The Internet Archive couldn’t agree more, and for the last 25 years he’s put his energy, his money– his life– to work trying to make that happen…

In 1996, Kahle founded the Internet Archive, which stands alongside Wikipedia as one of the great not-for-profit knowledge-enhancing creations of modern digital technology. You may know it best for the Wayback Machine, its now quarter-century-old tool for deriving some sort of permanent record from the inherently transient medium of the web. (It’s collected 668 billion web pages so far.) But its ambitions extend far beyond that, creating a free-to-all library of 38 million books and documents, 14 million audio recordings, 7 million videos, and more…

That work has not been without controversy, but it’s an enormous public service — not least to journalists, who rely on it for reporting every day. (Not to mention the Wayback Machine is often the only place to find the first two decades of web-based journalism, most of which has been wiped away from its original URLs.)…

Joshua Benton (@jbenton) of @NiemanLab debriefs Brewster on the occasion of the Archive’s silver anniversary: “After 25 years, Brewster Kahle and the Internet Archive are still working to democratize knowledge.”

Amidst wonderfully illuminating reminiscences, Brewster goes right to the heart of the issue…

Corporations continue to control access to materials that are in the library, which is controlling preservation, and it’s killing us….

[The Archive and the movement of which it’s a part are] a radical experiment in radical sharing. I think the winner, the hero of the last 25 years, is the everyman. They’ve been the heroes. The institutions are the ones who haven’t adjusted. Large corporations have found this technology as a mechanism of becoming global monopolies. It’s been a boom time for monopolists.

Kevin Young

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As we love librarians, we might send carefully-curated birthday greetings to Frederick Baldwin Adams Jr.; he was born on this date in 1910.  A bibliophile who was more a curator than an archivist, he was the the director of the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City from 1948–1969.  His predecessor, Belle da Costa Greene, was responsible for organizing the results of Morgan’s rapacious collecting; Adams was responsible for broadening– and modernizing– that collection, adding works by Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Willa Cather, Robert Frost,  E. A. Robinson, among many others, along with manuscripts and visual arts, and for enhancing the institution’s role as a research facility.

Adams was also an important collector in his own right.  He amassed two of the largest holdings of works by Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost, as well as one of the leading collections of writing by Karl Marx and left-wing Americana.

Adams

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“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact”*…

Distortions and outright lies by politicians and pundits have become so common that major news outlets like the Associated Press, CNN, BBC, Fox News,and Washington Post routinely assign journalists and fact-checkers to verify claims made during stump speeches and press briefings. The motivation to uncover falsehoods and misleading statements taken out of context is laudable. But when it comes to real-world complexities, the trouble is that people often see different things when looking at the same event, a phenomenon repeatedly documented by psychologists.

Laboratory studies reveal that, when shown a video of a group of protesters, people see either a peaceful protest or an unruly mob blocking pedestrian access, depending on their sociopolitical beliefs. The world outside the lab shows similar biased perception: For example, 68 percent of Republicans consider the videotaped demonstrations in Portland, Ore., Kenosha, Wisc., and New York City to be riots, versus only 30 percent of Democrats, according to a Fox News poll released in September. Journalists and fact-checkers are human beings subject to the same psychological biases as everyone else—and their analyses of what constitute “facts” is affected by their own political and ideological values, resulting in what psychologists term selective perception.

Fact-checkers’ decisions have significant consequences for debates about fake news that cannot be overstated. Researchers have studied the cascading cognitive effects of misinformation, and their findings are relevant to current concerns about fake news and to the limitations of fact-checking. Misinformation can be insidious; it can seep into the unconscious mind and influence beliefs and behaviors long after we have forgotten its source or the evidence invoked to support it. Under laboratory conditions, a selection of objective facts and complete fabrications can be presented, and researchers can then examine the spread of misinformation about these facts and whether and how this spread results in false beliefs.

Unlike a pristine laboratory setting, however, the world of politics is messy, and there can be deep disagreements about the facts themselves, as the above contradictory claims illustrate. When it comes to partisan fact-checking about complex issues—which describes much of the fact-checking that takes place in the context of political news—the truth as stated is often the subjective opinion of people with shared political views.

One path to a solution is “adversarial fact-checking.” Fact-checking is often done by teams of two or more journalists rather than by a single person. We propose that political claims continue to be aggressively fact-checked, but by teams of individuals with diverse sociopolitical views; for example, by pairing fact-checkers from major liberal and conservative news sources. This would add little, if any, cost. The media should abandon fact-checkers’ pretext of objectivity and political disinterest and instead acknowledge their sociopolitical leanings in much the way that NPR tries to pit pro and con points of view in political coverage…

Having each side’s fact-checkers checked by the other side’s fact-checkers could lead to an infinite regress toward an uncertain truth. But this is preferable to belief in a truth that may not exist. Adversarial fact-checkers would debate the same “evidence” and ensure a balanced presentation of the facts. This may not guarantee that fact-checkers will agree or even that readers will discern the truth. But it will reveal the sometimes-tenuous nature of fact-checkers’ claims and the psychological context in which human cognition unfolds—and this would be a meaningful barrier to the spread of fake news and the creation of false beliefs among voters.

One notes that the Hegelian suggestion above assumes that fact-checkers from each side would be actively seeking to overcome their personal biases, to determine an “objective” truth… that only unconscious– not conscious, weaponized– biases are the issue.

Still, it’s certainly true that at least some fact-checkers aim to get closer to the truth, even as their biases can shroud the very truth they seek: “The Psychology of Fact-Checking.”

* Sherlock Holmes, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”

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As we clean our lenses, we might recall that it was on this date in 1517– All Hallows (All Saints) Eve– that Martin Luther, a priest and scholar in Wittenberg, Germany, upset by what he saw as the excesses and corruption of the Roman Catholic Church (especially the papal practice of taking payments– “indulgences”– for the forgiveness of sins), posted his 95 Theses on the door of Castle Church.  Thus began the Protestant Reformation.

Martin Luther (source)

Lest in this this pandemic-attenuated moment we forget: today, All Hallows (All Saints) Eve, is celebrated as Halloween, which is (if it is, as many scholars believe, directly descended from the ancient Welsh harvest festival Samhain) the longest-running holiday with a set date… and (usually, anyway) the second-biggest (after Christmas) commercial holiday in the United States.

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