Tag Archives: logic

The Difficulties of Discourse

This article originally appeared on Disinfo.com

The futility of political discourse seems all-too-evident in America, whether at the highest levels of power concerning the nonexistent ‘fiscal cliff’ or the debt ceiling, or around the family reunion dinner table concerning guns and health care. Both ‘sides’ are guilty of pseudoscientific claims, misrepresenting the opposition, sowing division with unnecessary ‘othering’, and usually no real clue as to where they actually stand on the issues or why they stand there at all.

Authors like Alex Berezow and Hank CampbellChris Mooney and Jonathan Haidtclaim to have found the secrets behind flawed political brains, usually on the opposite ‘side’ than their own. Many studies and online polls posit to have found the mechanisms by which liberals and conservatives operate; liberals are smarter,conservatives are happierliberals stereotype moreconservatives bow to authority more. While many of these trends can and do show up again and again, it ignores the diversity within and without party lines, the cognitive dissonance along the ideological spectrum, and the subtler reckonings of individual issue orientation. It defies capitulation, conciliation, and compromise. The sweeping generalizations that each ‘side’ usually eschews concerning class, race, religion, gender and sexuality do not seem to apply when considering others in the political landscape.

As Peter Lawler discusses in a recent BigThink post, there is actually a very wide diversity of conservative opinion, some with more depth than others. If we understand the common history, traditions, populist underpinnings and umbrella themes of even widely disparate worldviews, we can begin to work together towards reasonable approaches and solutions to society’s ills.

What’s the big difference between American conservatives and leftist nationalists?  They have different views on how much big government can remedy the excesses of big business.  Another difference concerns their view of the goodness and enduring viability of local institutions and traditional morality.  They actually tend to agree that Marx’s description of capitalism as reducing our freedom to “nothing left to lose” is largely true.  They differ a lot on the goodness and efficacy of some socialist antidote.  From a socialist view, the [The Front Porch Republic] are agrarian reactionaries.  From a Porcher view, the Marxists are irresponsibly “Gnostic” utopians.

Clearly, generalizations and sterotyping are an impediment to progress on either “side”. Even this false dichotomy of language (a relic of the oligarchy’s division tactics and oversimplified media portrayal), contributes to the unhealthy ‘othering‘ that ultimately serves to dehumanize one’s debate opponent. If the other side wants to murder unborn babies, then they are inhuman monsters. If the other side allows people of color to live with poverty and police brutality, then they are heartless misanthropists.

Because, just as with any intellectual pursuit that involves reason, logic, and candor, striving for thorough understanding is hard. It would be much simpler to only intake the sources that validate our reactionary conservatism, religious zealotry, neoconservative militancy, wall street greed and austerity, party cheerleading, progressive utopia, new age psycho-babble, left-wing anarchism, conspiracy theory, or UFO dreamland.

Party affiliation can be deceptive, as can positioning oneself along the political spectrum, rife with overgeneralizations and false associations. Although it’s also inaccurate to outright deny existing on the spectrum at all; the truth lies somewhere in the middle. On issues, you exist more on a web, an amalgam of strands as varied as the visible spectrum of light (and even the invisible, if our mixed metaphor allows for our hidden biases and subconscious belief systems). Taken as a mean, however, it is fair to place yourself somewhere, at least initially for comparison.

So does a progressive have more in common with an anarchist or socialist than a neocon? Do a Democrat and a Republican each have more in common with a centrist or moderate than the radical extremists in their own parties? Do the moderates of each ‘side’ have more they can agree on than the loud and oversampled minority flanking their ranks?

Talking Points Memo highlighted the efforts of a small, but responsible, group of conservatives who are “pro-same-sex marriage, pro-choice, pro-tax Republican activists.” They may be on the rise, as the Tea Partiers whoenergized frenzied the base resulted in embarassing media coverage, abominable policy stances, a fractured party and a disastrous election. The cry to distance themselves may be ‘Everything in Moderation!’, as we all realize that those social issues are always going to be nagging ethical arguments nuanced between us, but that the majority of Americans are actively under attack by unprincipled predators.

Most people honestly believe their delusions and logical fallacies. They came by them honestly. It will only take the incessant jackhammering of facts to break them free. Whether they believe that there is a massive Kenyan conspiracy or that the mushrooms can talk to us, they are not crazy nor liars. The endeavor of discourse, be it personable, in the media, or the national conversation, should aim to correct misconceptions, preconceived notions, and mistakes. We are not concerned with intellectually dishonest actors here. Do not lower yourself into debate with manipulators and charlatans who are mostly concerned with power and greed. They are not usually themselves radicals or revolutionaries, unless they are using and steering such a group for their own self-interests. As a rational, reasonable debater, you will find your considerable efforts at chipping away the hard exterior of an entrenched acolyte to be far easier than dealing with an unremitting fraud. You can pull the former closer to a more moderate position with enough time and work. After all, they believe themselves pursuant to the truth; they have just fallen down a corridor of errors in their search. A liar has no such allegiance.

It is true that what is ‘moderate’ and ‘centrist’ changes over time. This is not a post-modernist statement endorsing relative morality or truth. It is evident that our national dialogue, and the pandering rhetoric of our elected demogogues, swings over time. There is nothing innate in it that demands it become more progressive or reactionary over time. Other trends such as changing demographics, current events, media, law, those in power gaming the system, and technological transparency help define what the New Normal is. We all contribute to it. We are all in a constant tug-of-war game.

It may be the case that in the grand scheme of the social contract and evolution, we are hardwired by default for authoritarianism, and to conserve the status quo. Think of gene preservation and proliferation and likewise other outlier mutations. But just because something is the popular consensus (logical fallacy: argumentum ad populum) or rules by our leaders (logical fallacy: argument from authority) doesn’t make it right. Likewise, just because something is novel or progressive (logical fallacy: appeal to novelty) doesn’t make it right. It is right because it is right. No, evidence and a factual revelation of how reality works should govern our beliefs and ideology, not the other way around.

We strive as civilized animals for societal progress; to protect the unprotected, to feed the hungry, to clothe the cold, to shelter the homeless, to defend the defenseless. Members in every camp can be reached who feel a sense of justice, fairness, equaility, and civil liberty as part of our American tradition and values. Only those actively working against a righteous human condition need be discounted from the discourse (unfortunately, they are often given center stage, the sensationalist media spotlight, a louder voice within their respective parties than the rest).

And there are a variety of radicals in every camp as well; neoconservatives, tea party conservatives, anarchists, corporatists, new agers, creationists, paleoconservatives, anarchoconservatives, tax protestors, ecoterrorists, corpofascists… Their numbers do not represent the larger percentage of each group (though on specific beliefs, biases and issues, there are predispositions from one group to another). That’s not to say that somebody with some crazy ideas can’t be right every once in a blue moon (see: Alex Jones or Terence McKenna), or that their outsider theories may not hold a kernal of interesting truth. A broken clock is right twice a day, and a logically fallacious argument can still happen to be right coincidentally.

Of course, given two theories, one should not simply report on both and say the middle ground is accurate. This is what has allowed climate change denialists to voice their ‘relative truth’ to an uncritical and overly open-minded media in defiance of the overwhelming and reliably tested scientific consensus (not to be confused with popular consensus or sentiment). The right has its fair share of creationist loonies and neoliberal acolytes. And the left has plenty of crystal-worshipping, anti-vaxxer, alternative cancer cure morons as well. It seems too silly to argue which unsubstantiated claims are more damaging to scientific advancement and public policy. We all have our false dogmas, and they all damage us all.

Proposed or theoretical truths are subject to analysis, and should be eviscerated by criticism, replicated by study after study, and broken down into underlying mechanistic principles. Only after these theories hold up (be they scientific, economic, legal or political), only then should they be added to ‘The Canon.’ The Canon, despite its strict title, is ever changing, ever flowing with both the passage of time, new discoveries and contemporary understanding.

If the austerians believe that we should continue to empower the rich (“the engines of the economy”) at the expense of the poor and middle classes, then theirs should not be the default prevailing Beltway wisdom. The burden of proof is on their economic religious dogma to bear that out, especially considering how disastrous the practiced results of just such strategies have been worldwide. If any policy-maker or pundit honestly believes the inane bullshit that comes out of their pieholes, they should be exposed to harsh skepticism. They may be honestly deceived (or self-deluded), or they may themselves be revealed as a deceiver.

The onus is on all of us to research understand the arguments we are making. Just as it is inappropriate to attack Chris Christie based on his weight (logical fallacy: ad hominem), bear the responsibility of understanding a religion before criticizing its adherents, whether fundamentalist Christian, zionist Jew or radical Muslim. Explore the finer points of your debate opponent’s political philosophy by forcing them to delve into their deepest motivations, cited sources, and logical mechanisms. Who knows? You might alter your stance a bit as well.

Challenge entrenched and unfounded belief systems, especially your own. Do so with a relentless fervor, sincerely try to falsify yourself and above all be rational, be reasonable! Learn the rules of argument and logical fallacies so that you can identify when they are employed against you, by either frauds or self-deluded. Turn the incisiveSocratic Method against all claims, but do so patiently and peaceably. Make it known when you are only playing Devil’s Advocate for the sake of comprehension. Question relentlessly and mercilessly, but also earnestly and nonjudgementally. This will force someone to defend themselves not from your close-mindedness, but from critical-thinking and logic itself. It may reduce them to tears. It may change minds. It might just change the world.

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Ancient Peoples

If you watch any of these “historical documentaries” about visitors from outer space interfering with our ancient progenitors, you’d see the proponents of these theories claim that there is no way that massive sculptures and architecture could have been done without extraterrestrial help. Those mainstream historians and archaeologists just don’t understand when they claim that the evidence of UFOs and aliens in old artwork or texts is something more reasonable, when they posit some Earthly, mundane explanations.

Our ancestors, the ancient alien experts claim, weren’t stupid. And the official story makes them seem dumb, by not giving them the full credit they deserve for recognizing obvious aliens when they saw them, and then sitting back as said aliens (or gods, or whatever) did all the work that our stupid, useless ancestors could never have figured out on their own.

But they weren’t stupid. They were able to make complex astronomical calculations, invent forms of art, agriculture, writing, and design marvels such as the pyramids. Some of them would have been smarter than others, of course. Some of the people of that age probably believed some really weird things; perhaps they believed that their ancestors were visited by even more ancient aliens, whom they gave all the credit for all previous human efforts, without any evidence.

I’m just saying that their knowledge and sophistication was limited by the understanding of their time. People would have made dumb logical fallacies back then, like arguments from antiquity or arguments from ignorance.

Hm. Come to think of it. If we had aliens helping us out throughout history, we’d probably be a lot further along, and wouldn’t fall in such intellectual gaps.

Blinded!

With science journalism paltry and underfunded in the dying newspaper industry era, and blogs still not the dominant political force of commentary (despite being the dominant social force), it would be insincere to hope that better science education would find its way into the contused field.

Journalism in this country is SHODDY WORN USED LIKE A CHEAP (excuse me *ahem*) and it is a mistake to think that more science in journalism is just for the benefit of science journalism. No, but for the very embiggening of the power of journalism itself, the scientific method must be more rigorously applied.

While even our so-called tech-savvy president seems to only react and respond and capitulate to the center-right to far-right mainstream media or Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and the Wall Street Journal, he seems to be out of touch with progressive fact-finders like TYT and TPM. We cannot count on K Street, Wall Street, and Congress to utilize the internet for better information, indeed, they often do not even let the experts speak to them concerning technical matters for which they are ignorant.

Skepticism and critical thinking has not just historically been scientific or philosophical, but provides important watchdog services to journalistic integrity. As it has become, the fourth estate instead refers to the corporate mouthpieces of myopic agendas. Hard-hitting news has been almost completely replaced with flashy entertainment. Why is it that the most fantastical line of an article is taken out of context and made into the sensational (and misrepresentational) headline?

Though the internet is unimaginably vast, with enough dedicated investigation, a less relativistic definition of truth is soon revealed.

We need that widespread dissemination of information, like viruses, or even better like vaccines against the stupid, memes of novelty wave out and spread, with particularly brilliant, mutated individuals using their unique perspective to build each Hegelian block. At the same time, the massive hive thought MUST utilize critical thinking and skepticism in order to falsify incongruent precepts, since the democratizing forces of social media also allow crazies to discover one another, confirming each other’s biases, regardless of reality. Most of us only hear and accept the voices we already agree with, and deepen our belief systems accordingly. Ethan Zuckerman’s TED talk addresses how to escape these traps.

Brain plasticity has made us the apex species of the planet, and diverse adaptability and resourceful critical thinking and second-guessing has allowed us to survive at all. Thinking outside the box and truly examining ideas and theories should be done by all, as I am truly convinced that good thinking will lead to correct conclusions, but only provided the input data is factual and reliable. Stupidity and ignorance result in hurting the entire herd.

Scientific methods lack in both mainstream and independent (even hacker) journalism, leading to the press quackery of Arianna Huffington, Glenn Beck, and Alex Jones.

Even the once-laudable Ron Paul has extremely questionable theories regarding alternative medicines, homeopathy, and the FDA (as well as race, but that’s another topic). I suppose you have the ability to cherry-pick from the opinions of ‘experts’ and professionals, but no one can logically justify cherry-picking data. And celebrities are terrible judges at this stuff anyway.

Brian Dunning of Skeptoid has recently published his list of the Top 10 Worst Anti-Science sites on the web, and although pathetic examples such as the Daily Mail and any of the various Examiners do not make the list, the internet-renowned Huffington Post does. But how would one know to find such a list unless they were already clued into the skeptical network?

The of-course-brilliant Neal Stephenson has written an article concerning the need for good science fiction writing, as it fosters critical thinking, as well as the lofty fantasy of engineers and futurists. Since none of us exist in a vacuum, if we all want to progress then the best way to facilitate this is with better knowledge on scientific subjects. Sure, Google provides great answers for those researchers who know how to look effectively. For many, this is a daunting task.

How can one know the truth with so many liars and so many internets? The veritable flood of information from our social media sites alone threatens to drown us, with a wealth of news sites and supposed experts spouting often contradictory opinions and personalized “facts” at every turn.

It comes down to trust, and reasonable common sense. Most outlandish claims are just that. And when logic appears fuzzy, it usually is. Erroneous “facts” abound on the web, but so too does the number of resources for checking such facts. Not everyone has the time to do this, and as a result they will be under-served or mis-served bad informations.

Just as it is the responsibility of writers to inspire, and scientists to discover, and politicians to represent constituencies (har har), journalists owe the populace hard facts and realistic conclusions. No justification can be accepted for anything less.

Ultimately, it is only the news agencies that will lose if they do not adapt. They will eventually lose face, faith, and the trust of their flock. Once lost, they will not return, and information consumers such as myself will be happy to aggregate our news from such tailored sources as TED, Wired, ArsTechnica, and NewScientist.