(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘disinformation

“Our beauty lies in this extended capacity for convolution”*…

John Semley contemplates an America awash in junk mail and junk science…

… In the long interregnum between Trump’s loss and his unceremonious retreat from the White House, the postal service would play a critical role in what the pundit class liked to call his Big Lie. He framed mail-in ballots, baselessly, as being especially susceptible to fraud and manipulation. Even before the election, back when he could still avail himself of Twitter, Trump tweeted that such ballots would lead, irrevocably, to “MAYHEM!!!” His lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, freshly clowned-on in the new Borat movie, would likewise crow that hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots tilted the results. Elsewhere, on newly struck TV ads, postal workers were framed as pandemic-era heroes, delivering parcels to communities squirming under stay-at-home orders.

This contest over the image of the postal service—and mail itself—revealed a more profound tension, a deeper crisis facing democracies in America and elsewhere. It is a fundamentally epistemic crisis: about the control and promulgation of information, and how that information comes to shape a worldview, and how those worldviews come to bear on the world itself. And it’s just one front in a war of epistemologies that has been raging since at least the republic’s inception. Because to control the mail, as [Seinfeld‘s] Newman himself once memorably snarled, is to control information.

The control of information is key to any ideological project….

There follows a fascinating historical rumination on postal services and America’s history with information and mis/disinformation, and a consideration of our current moment, replete with insights from observers ranging from Scientific American to Thomas Pynchon– richly informative, genuinely entertaining, deeply provocative, and, in the end, at least mildly optimistic: “America, Ex Post Facto,” from @johnsemley3000 in @thebafflermag.

* Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

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As we scrutinize sense and sensibility, we might recall that it was on this date in 1998 that Clarence E. Lewis Jr. was named Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President of the U.S. Postal Service, becoming the highest-ranking African-American postal employee to that date. He had started his postal career as a substitute city letter carrier in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1966. On his retirement in 2000, he was given the Benjamin Franklin Award, the Postal Service’s highest honor.

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“Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth”*…

Gerardo Dottori, Explosion of Red on Green, 1910, oil on canvas. London, Tate Modern. [source]

A crop of new books attempts to explain the allure of conspiracy theories and the power of belief; Trevor Quirk considers them…

For the millions who were enraged, disgusted, and shocked by the Capitol riots of January 6, the enduring object of skepticism has been not so much the lie that provoked the riots but the believers themselves. A year out, and book publishers confirmed this, releasing titles that addressed the question still addling public consciousness: How can people believe this shit? A minority of rioters at the Capitol had nefarious intentions rooted in authentic ideology, but most of them conveyed no purpose other than to announce to the world that they believed — specifically, that the 2020 election was hijacked through an international conspiracy — and that nothing could sway their confidence. This belief possessed them, not the other way around.

At first, I’d found the riots both terrifying and darkly hilarious, but those sentiments were soon overwon by a strange exasperation that has persisted ever since. It’s a feeling that has robbed me of my capacity to laugh at conspiracy theories — QAnon, chemtrails, lizardmen, whatever — and the people who espouse them. My exasperation is for lack of an explanation. I see Trump’s most devoted hellion, rampaging down the halls of power like a grade schooler after the bell, and I need to know the hidden causes of his dopey rebellion. To account for our new menagerie of conspiracy theories, I told myself, would be to reclaim the world from entropy, to snap experience neatly to the grid once again. I would use recent books as the basis for my account of conspiracy theories in the age of the internet. From their pages I would extract insights and errors like newspaper clippings, pin the marginal, bizarre, and seemingly irrelevant details to the corkboard of my mind, where I could spy eerie resonances, draw unseen connections. At last, I could reveal that our epistemic bedlam is as a Twombly canvas — messy but decipherable…

Learn with @trevorquirk: “Out There,” in @GuernicaMag.

* Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

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As we tangle with truth, we might send rigorous birthday greetings to Gustav Bergmann; he was born on this date in 1906. A philosopher, he was a member of the Vienna Circle, a a group of philosophers and scientists drawn from the natural and social sciences, logic and mathematics, whose values were rooted in the ideals of the Enlightenment. Their approach, logical positivism, an attempt to use logic to make philosophy “scientific,” has had immense influence on 20th-century philosophy, especially on the philosophy of science and analytic philosophy… even if it has not, in fact, eliminated the issues explored above.

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We might also send birthday greetings in the form of logical and semantic puzzles both to the precocious protagonist of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and to her inspiration, Alice Liddell; they were “born” on this date in 1852.

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“Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities”…

Richard Whately’s 1843 book on whether Napoleon actually existed deserves to be turned into a documentary. It is either (1) an extreme example of skepticism, or (2) satire, or (3) satire of an extreme example of skepticism, or (4) a straightforward debunking of Napoleon’s existence, or—and my preferred interpretation—(5) the first example of French deconstruction…

Faulkner argued that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Ted Gioia (@tedgioia) offers a timely historical example: “Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Buonaparte.” Via his wonderful newsletter.

* Voltaire

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As we contend with conspiracists, we might we might recall that it was on this date in 1804 that Napoleon Bonaparte was in fact proclaimed Emperor of France by the French Senate– at least in part an unintended consequence of Britain’s declaration of war against France (again), exactly one year before, in response to Napoleon’s “activities” in Italy and Switzerland… (Napoleon formally crowned himself “Emperor Napoleon I” on December 2, 1804 at Notre Dame de Paris.)

Jacques-Louis David’s portrait of Napoleon (1812)

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 18, 2021 at 1:01 am

“In so far as a scientific statement speaks about reality, it must be falsifiable: and in so far as it is not falsifiable, it does not speak about reality.”*…

Kirsten Thompson, the lead scientist on the Arctic Sunrise, takes water samples for eDNA sampling near Paulet Island at the entrance to the Weddell Sea. Photo by A Trayler-Smith/Greenpeace/Panos

If you ask philosophically minded researchers – in the Anglophone world at least – why it is that science works, they will almost always point to the philosopher Karl Popper (1902-94) for vindication. Science, they explain, doesn’t presume to provide the final answer to any question, but contents itself with trying to disprove things. Science, so the Popperians claim, is an implacable machine for destroying falsehoods.

Popper spent his youth in Vienna, among the liberal intelligentsia. His father was a lawyer and bibliophile, and an intimate of Sigmund Freud’s sister Rosa Graf. Popper’s early vocations draw him to music, cabinet making and educational philosophy, but he earned his doctorate in psychology from the University of Vienna in 1928. Realising that an academic post abroad offered escape from an increasingly antisemitic Austria (Popper’s grandparents were all Jewish, though he himself had been baptised into Lutheranism), he scrambled to write his first book. This was published as Logik der Forschung (1935), or The Logic of Scientific Discovery, and in it he put forward his method of falsification. The process of science, wrote Popper, was to conjecture a hypothesis and then attempt to falsify it. You must set up an experiment to try to prove your hypothesis wrong. If it is disproved, you must renounce it. Herein, said Popper, lies the great distinction between science and pseudoscience: the latter will try to protect itself from disproof by massaging its theory. But in science it is all or nothing, do or die.

Popper warned scientists that, while experimental testing might get you nearer and nearer to the truth of your hypothesis via corroboration, you cannot and must not ever proclaim yourself correct. The logic of induction means that you’ll never collect the infinite mass of evidence necessary to be certain in all possible cases, so it’s better to consider the body of scientific knowledge not so much true as not-yet-disproved, or provisionally true. With his book in hand, Popper obtained a university position in New Zealand. From afar, he watched the fall of Austria to Nazism, and commenced work on a more political book, The Open Society and its Enemies (1945). Shortly after the war, he moved to the UK, where he remained for the rest of his life.

For all its appealing simplicity, falsification was quickly demolished by philosophers, who showed that it was an untenable way of looking at science. In any real experimental set-up, they pointed out, it’s impossible to isolate a single hypothetical element for disproof. Yet for decades, Popperianism has nonetheless remained popular among scientists themselves, in spite of its potentially harmful side-effects. Why should this be?

The notion that science is all about falsification has done incalculable damage not just to science but to human wellbeing. It has normalised distrust as the default condition for knowledge-making, while setting an unreachable and unrealistic standard for the scientific enterprise. Climate sceptics demand precise predictions of an impossible kind, yet seize upon a single anomalous piece of data to claim to have disproved the entire edifice of combined research; anti-vaxxers exploit the impossibility of any ultimate proof of safety to fuel their destructive activism. In this sense, Popperianism has a great deal to answer for.

When the constructive becomes “deconstructive”– Charlotte Sleigh (@KentCHOTS) explains how a powerful cadre of scientists and economists sold Karl Popper’s “falsification” idea to the world… and why they have much to answer for: “The abuses of Popper.”

See also: “Why ‘Trusting the Science’ Is Complicated.”

* Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery

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As we re-engage with epistemology, we might recall that it was on this date in 1997 that Ian WilmutKeith Campbell, and their colleagues at the Roslin Institute (part of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland) announced that they had successfully cloned a sheep, Dolly, who had been born on July 5, 1996. Dolly lived her entire life at the Institute, where (bred with a Welsh mountain ram) she gave birth to six lambs. She died in February, 2003.

 Dolly’s taxidermied remains

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 23, 2021 at 1:01 am

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”*…

A reporter at work covering the Eichmann trial, 1961 [source]

The [New York] Times is becoming a newsy entertainment outlet, à la Jon Oliver, with a business model more like Netflix or Hulu than catchphrases like All The News That’s Fit to Print might suggest. The Times says so itself, announcing a slew of movie and TV deals with Netflix and Amazon, the Hollywood writing room replaced by the New York newsroom. To quote [the Times‘ media columnist, Ben] Smith in a recent piece slamming one of his colleagues: “The paper is in the midst of an evolution from the stodgy paper of record into a juicy collection of great narratives, on the web and streaming services.”

The customer always gets what they want: In the case of an ads-driven business model where the advertiser is the true customer, that’s balanced political news alongside frivolous lifestyle stories as a canvas for ads. In the case of subscribers, it’s being flattered by having their own worldviews echoed back at themselves in more articulate form. Nobody actually pays for news, unless your livelihood depends on it, which is why outlets like The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg will still flourish, but nothing vaguely resembling news will otherwise remain in a subscription-driven world…

Ideology is like body odor: someone else’s absolutely reeks if strong enough, but you can’t even notice your own. If you remain convinced, in the year 2020 AD, that this or that national outlet remains the megaphone of disinterested chroniclers and selfless truth-seekers, then the BO in question is surely your own. But don’t expect everyone else to put up with the stink.

The Times will triumph financially, dramatically so, and utterly fail as an intellectual institution, at least by its former standards. Sure, the Times staff, like fourth-century Roman emperors intoning the half-remembered tropes of the Roman republic, will speak of ‘objectivity’ and ‘the first draft of history’. But only they and their subscribers will actually believe it. The editorial branding will be august pronouncements about ‘the paper of record’, but the business model is pure Netflix: All The News Fit To Binge.

Advertising-funded journalism is not, as some journalists persist in believing, some ineluctable law of the universe. It’s an entirely contingent artifact of a weird confluence of factors: industrialization and the mass consumer economy, urbanization and burgeoning immigration, plus the secular decline of 19th-century Jacksonian political machines.

As I’ve written before, in century-ago-seeming 2019, and which is doubly correct now, American media is in the process of regressing to 19th (or perhaps even 18th) century models of journalism. Ben Franklin posted under two-dozen different pseudonyms including such bangers as Silence Dogood and Alice Addertongue, and displayed as much nastiness or wit as such modern-day lights like @neontaster or @ComfortablySmug.

Gonzo journalism? Samuel Adams helped organize the Boston Tea Party, and then reported about it after the fact, a level of ‘gonzo’ that even Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson never quite reached. Through almost the end of the 19th-century, the revenue model for most newspapers was subscriptions from party loyalists when a paper like The Press Democrat meant just that: the Democratic paper in that town giving that faction’s version of events (with some anodyne wire-service news mixed in).

We assume that this idiosyncratic late-20th-century form of American journalism is an essential ingredient to liberal democracy, the sine qua non juju that makes civil liberties and accountable government possible. And yet, our Western European peer nations, which one side of the American political spectrum loves to draw comparisons with when they’re not threatening to move there, have an utterly different journalistic culture…

Antonio Garcia-Martinez (@antoniogm) muses on his interview with Martin Gurri (author of The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium)… Into the morbid interregnum? “Twilight of the Media Elites.”

Garcia-Martinez’s full piece is eminently worth reading in full– and best understood in tandem with his conversation with Gurri: “The Prophet of the Revolt.” (For a variation on this diagnosis, see also: “Why Facts Are Overrated.”)

For an argument that yes, the full range of facts and the journalism that reports them do matter, but no, we’re not necessarily doomed to a cacophonous interregnum– that journalistic institutions, while troubled, can be saved– see “The First Amendment in the age of disinformation” by Emily Bazelon (in the New York Times…).

And for a set of painful reminders that this conversation is taking place against an active set of campaigns to widen social and cultural divisions via disinformation, see “The Media Manipulation Casebook.”

* Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks

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As we sieve signal from noise, we might recall that it was on this date in 1924, four days before a British General Election, that the [London] Daily Mail published the “Zinoviev letter.” Purportedly a directive from Grigory Zinoviev, the head of the Communist International (Comintern) in Moscow, to the Communist Party of Great Britain, ordering it to engage in seditious activities, it “predicted” that the resumption of British-Soviet diplomatic relations (by a Labour government) would hasten the radicalization of the British working class. Offensive to many British voters and frightening to others, the letter– now widely-viewed by scholars as a forgery– aided a Conservative landslide.

But historian A. J. P. Taylor argued that the more important impact was on the psychology of Labourites, who in his estimation for years afterwards blamed foul play for their defeat. Though that was accurate, it distracted them from grappling with the broad political forces at work in Britain and postponed what (Taylor argued were) necessary reforms in the Labour Party.

Zinoviev, who never had to lift a finger…

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