Why do People believe wrong things, pt 2

Today’s post is a compare and contrast between articles. From Erin O’Donnell’s interview with Elizabeth Bartholet we have “The Risks of Homeschooling,” and from Michelle Malkin we have “What will it take to stop Google’s Kiddie Predators?

I picked these articles because they hail from opposite ends of the political spectrum (so we needn’t get caught up in blaming one particular side,) but both deal with potential harms to children. Children, of course, are very precious and people are naturally inclined to protect them, so the thought that someone out there is harming them is deeply motivating.

Alas, both of these articles are, if you know anything about the subject in question, absolutely terrible.

On Homeschooling:

Yet Elizabeth Bartholet, Wasserstein public interest professor of law and faculty director of the Law School’s Child Advocacy Program, sees risks for children—and society—in homeschooling, and recommends a presumptive ban on the practice. Homeschooling, she says, not only violates children’s right to a “meaningful education” and their right to be protected from potential child abuse, but may keep them from contributing positively to a democratic society. …

… Only about a dozen states have rules about the level of education needed by parents who homeschool, she adds. “That means, effectively, that people can homeschool who’ve never gone to school themselves, who don’t read or write themselves.”

And from Malkin:

Last spring, Google reported at an education conference that it had started making its cloud platform program accessible to K-12 school districts. Evergreen, Washington, public schools chief Derrick Brown (right) bragged about his district’s data-mining pilot program with Google. “We have tons of data in our school districts,” he is quoted outlining in Education Week,citing information gathered through “student information systems, instructional software programs, online surveys of children’s social-emotional well-being, and special-needs students’ individualized education plans.”

“All that data needs to go in a container,” Brown explained. And that container will be Google Cloud Platform. Now, imagine questionnaires and tests stored in the G-container measuring “social-emotional well-being” of children and their families according to politically correct ideology. Imagine being a parent who objects to mandatory vaccine laws or who holds “America first” views deemed “extremist” and “hateful” or who stores guns responsibly in your home—information that is not the business of a school district or Silicon Valley giant. Where’s the protection for such families? What’s the academic justification for gathering it?

Before we go on, I should probably go into a little depth on what, exactly, makes both of these articles terrible.

Batholet wants to ban homeschooling entirely. This is absurd on its face–no matter how many problems you think there are with homeschooling (like anything, there are of course some), there are also clearly times and places when homeschooling is the best possible option, like literally right now, because I’m writing this in the middle of the Covid pandemic. There are kids who homeschool because they were bullied in regular schools, or because they have chronic illnesses that make regular school days difficult, or because they just plain learn better at home, and all of these kids have an obvious right to carry on doing things that are good for them.

It is quite easy to propose legislation that allows children to homeschool while also protecting them against the kinds of abuses Batholet cites–there is no reason to hurt all of the other kids in the process.

Furthermore, since schools are controlled primarily at the state level, banning homeschooling across the nation would require a massive amount of legal coordination. The Federal government could threaten to withhold funds to states that allow homeschooling, but this would be a practical disaster with states like Texas and Montana. It’s a bit ridiculous for anyone with any knowledge of US law (let alone a law professor) to propose something this far from legal reality.

Batholet is concerned about the quality of education homeschooled kids receive, which is rather precious given that homeschoolers consistently out-perform public schooled kids on standardized tests, eg, Academic Achievements and Demographic Traits of Homeschoolers:

Is it possible for adults without specialized, university-level training in teaching to help their children learn what they need to learn? Numerous studies by dozens of researchers have been completed during the past 25 years that examine the academic achievement of the home-educated (see reviews, e.g., Ray, 2000, 2005; 2009b). Examples of these studies range from a multi-year study in Washington State (Wartes, 1991), to other state-specific studies, to three nationwide studies across the United States (Ray, 1990, 1997, 2000; Rudner 1999), to two nationwide studies in Canada (Ray, 1994; Van Pelt, 2003).

In most studies, the homeschooled have scored, on average, at the 65th to 80th percentile on standardized academic achievement tests, compared to the national school average of the 50th percentile (which is largely based on public schools). A few studies have found the home educated to be scoring about the same or a little better than public school students. …

Research shows that the large majority of home-educated students
consistently interact with children of various ages and parents outside their immediate family (see, e.g., Medlin, 2000; Ray, 1997, 2009b).

The second part of the socialization question asks whether home-educated children will experience healthy social, emotional, and psychological development. Numerous studies, employing various psychological constructs and measures, show the home-educated are developing at least as well, and often better than, those who attend institutional schools (Medlin, 2000; Ray, 2009b). No research to date contravenes this general conclusion. In a few studies, on some of the sub-measures within a study, the home educated have scored slightly lower (i.e., “worse” according to the conceptual paradigm the researcher was using) than those in institutional schools. …

A corollary of the socialization question deals with whether the home-educated child will eventually function well in the world of adulthood… Various studies have addressed this issue in multiple ways. It appears that the home educated are engaged, at least as much as are others, in activities that predict leadership in adulthood (Montgomery, 1989), doing well on their college/university SAT tests (Barber, 2001, personal communication) and ACT tests (ACT, 2005), matriculating in college at a rate that is comparable or a bit higher than for the general public (Ray, 2004; Van Pelt 2003), performing well in college (Gray, 1998; Galloway & Sutton, 1995; Jenkins, 1998; Jones & Gloeckner, 2004; Mexcur, 1993; Oliveira, Watson, & Sutton, 1994), satisfied that they were home educated (Knowles & Muchmore, 1995; Ray, 2004; Van Pelt, Neven, & Allison, 2009), involved in community service at least
as much as others (Ray, 2004; Van Pelt, Neven, & Allison, 2009), and more civically engaged than the general public (Ray, 2004; Van Pelt, Neven, & Allison, 2009). There is no research evidence that having been home educated is associated with negative behaviors or ineptitudes in adulthood.

This particular study found even higher academic success rates for homeschoolers, who consistently scored above the 80th percentile in all tested areas, even science and math. The authors also looked at parental education, which Batholet is so concerned about, and found that a whopping 0.5% of mothers who homeschool their children did not graduate from highschool.

The idea of banning the 99.5% of homeschooling families whose mothers were literate enough to graduate from highschool because of the 0.5% who didn’t is straight up absurd, which is why batholet used imaginary illiterate people instead of real statistics.

What about child abuse? I’d think that would be captured in the overall data on social/emotional well-being and eventual adulthood competency, but maybe people who abuse their kids make efforts not to let them take surveys about how happy they feel. Regardless, homeschooled kids hail from the demographics with extremely low overall abuse rates–the vast majority come from white, middle class households with two married parents, while the kids most likely to be abused come from Native American, Black, poor, single-parent or no-parent households (eg grandparents, foster parents). If you don’t already know this, you have no business talking about child abuse.

Again, if your goal is to help abused children, it is easy to think of much more effective legislation than just blanket targeting all homeschoolers.

Batholet’s final, and frankly most bizarre objection, is that homeschooled children will be unable to contribute to a democratic society. She seems to think there is a cabal of underground monarchists hidden deep in the American heartland, raising their children to heil King George III as the rightful monarch of our land and to agitate for unification with Canada.

Back to O’Donnell’s article about Batholet:

She views the absence of regulations ensuring that homeschooled children receive a meaningful education equivalent to that required in public schools as a threat to U.S. democracy. “From the beginning of compulsory education in this country, we have thought of the government as having some right to educate children so that they become active, productive participants in the larger society,” she says. This involves in part giving children the knowledge to eventually get jobs and support themselves. “But it’s also important that children grow up exposed to community values, social values, democratic values, ideas about nondiscrimination and tolerance of other people’s viewpoints,” she says, noting that European countries such as Germany ban homeschooling entirely and that countries such as France require home visits and annual tests.

Hoooo boy. There’s a lot here to unpack.

First, let’s go back to the beginning of compulsory education in the US, circa 1830. (The Founding Fathers thought compulsory education of so little importance to “democracy” that it took half a century to get going.) I have here in my child-rearing library Bernard Wishy’s The Child and The Republic: The Dawn of Modern American Child Nurture, published in 1968 but still a very good overview of precisely this era in American history.

Spend about half an hour with this book and you will discover first that the subject is quite dull, and second, that you do not care a whit what people in the early 1800s thought about education because their general ideas about child-rearing are so entirely alien to yours.

Many Americans in this era were Puritans who literally believed that babies were inherently evil and would not be good people until they realized the importance of Christianity and were “born again” in Christ. These folks took babies soiling their nappies as evidence of their satanic natures and believed you had to beat the devil out of them.

Although expressed differently by proliferating Protestant sects… by 1800 Calvinist views of the child and of a human destiny under God’s stern judgement had demonstrated remarkable staying power.

This heritage included Jonathan Edwards’ famous words that unrepentant children were “young vipers and infinitely more hateful than vipers.” Another view was that they were “not too little to die…not too little to go to hell.” …

Despite the prestige and weight we now give the more congenital “modern” ideas o the American Enlightenment, in the very hour of the triumph of American independence in the 1780’s there had begun a remarkable resurgence of Calvinist iews and religious conservatism… For the next half-ctury, orthodox ministers would also invoke the convenient spectre of Jacobinism to strenghten their demands for strict disciplien and early religious traiinign of the child. The future of the nation as well as the child’s soul were said to be in danger.

Remarkable parallel.

Continuing with Wishy:

It is perhaps risky to speculate about the hostility to children that the belief in infant damnation and strict training seems to express. … it is likely that the responsibilities and expense of many unwanted children created or intensified hostile feelings towards offspring. Whatever inspired them, the orthodox were reluctant to dampen the fires o Hell awaiting the child who had not started the arduous training needed for saving the soul…

Infants were “by nature sinners, and show us that… the wicked are estranged from the womb, they go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies.” [Reverend Allan Hyde, Essay on the State of Infants, NY, 1830.] …

Among the more conservative writers on the child was the President of Amherst College, Dr. Herman Humphrey. His book Domestic Education (1840) was a cataloge of errors for the day and a guide for perplexed mothers and fathers. … he called for absolute rule by the father, accountable to “no earthly power.” Fathers should try to control the child diligently by the age of four months. …

Complete rejection of the belief in depravity or innate tendencies to wickedness did not appear generally in popular literature until just before the Civil War.

But what about the schools themselves?

… the degree of the workday teachers’ and ministers’ hostility to encouraging intellectual and critical independence in students should also not be underestimated. … Precociousness was unnatural, and “forced feeding” of ideas even worse for the child. …

Some of the most revealing of the “impressions” that might come from the schoolroom have been examined by Ruth Miller Elson in a study of American textbooks before 1865. [Footnote: … This study confirms the evidence presented here of the essential conservatism of the goals sought through new methods of nurture. The textbooks studied stressed: the rejection of Europe, the exaltation of the Anglo-Saxon and scorning of the immigrant, the moral failure implicit in poverty, the acceptance of one’s own station and duties as God’s will, the ignoring or attacking of reform movements, the rightness of class distinctions…]

I have quoted this at length just to emphasize the utter absurdity of Batholet’s claims. Anyone who knows anything at all about the subject knows this is all the exact opposite of what Batholet wants; she is only invoking it because she assumes you don’t know anything about the subject. 

Rather, Batholet is attempting a bait-and-switch, invoking sacred ideas like “democracy” when she actually means “modern progressive liberal values.” And it is totally true that the majority of homeschooling families don’t put much stock in modern progressive liberal values (though a reasonable minority of homeschoolers are liberal hippie types).  The bait and switch and faux-concern for abused children (who could be much more effectively protected via other measures) is necessary because Batholet knows that insisting on educating children about pro-LGBT matters against their parents’ will would never pass First Amendment religious scrutiny.

Now on to Malkin.

Malkin’s piece is a little more over-the-top in tone, but just as disconnected from reality. She starts off by calling Google “kiddie predators,” as though the execs at Google’s offices liked to go raping six year olds in their spare time.

The Silicon Valley behemoth has already admitted it illegally collected children’s personal information on YouTube without parental consent, mines students’ browsing habits and emails, and tracks kids’ locations, audio and search history through Google educational apps and logons that are required for millions of students to participate in public schools.

Is Malkin actually ignorant about the facts of this case, or is she misrepresenting it on purpose?

The recent Youtube decision did not involve YT/Google doing something that it knew was illegal. It involved the government deciding to enforce a particular law in a new way that it hadn’t been used before, which made something YT was doing retroactively illegal.

The law in question prevents websites from gathering data/information from children, but it used to apply only to websites like Facebook where you make accounts that require personal information like your name or age. These laws are why Facebook, Youtube, and similar websites do not allow people under the age of 13 to have accounts: it’s illegal.

What Youtube was doing, which was not illegal, was tracking the viewing patterns of all users. If you watch five videos about car repair, and then you search for a video about truck repair, Youtube notices and in the future is likely to recommend videos about truck repair to people who’ve watched videos about car repair. This is how Youtube playlists and recommendations are generated, not to mention recommended products on Amazon, people you might want to follow on Twitter, not to mention all of the ads. Mom and Pop stores, major corporations, and TV stations also collect similar data about their customers/users.

These algorithms are fundamentally useful. They let Amazon recommend the product you’re looking for, they let Google figure out what you’re trying to type when you misspell something, and they let Youtube figure out that ads for vibrators don’t belong on videos featuring muppets.

The court case which expanded the scope of the original law found that when Youtube collected data like “Users who watched Baby Shark videos tend also to watch Pikachu videos,” even though that data was not attached to a particular name, account, or user, since it was a child on the other end of the screen, the data came from a child and thus was illegal to collect. I would like to emphasize that TV stations do the exact same thing when they look at their ratings and determine that people who watch Dora the Explorer tend to also watch Go Diego Go, but this has not been declared illegal simply because it involves a TV screen instead of a computer screen.

This is a moronic decision, since Youtube has no way of telling who exactly is on the other side of the screen (maybe it’s me, because I think the Baby Shark and Pikachu songs are funny), and cannot effectively figure out who is watching the videos in order to specifically not collect their data. The result has been the mass-demonetization of videos aimed at children, as determined by a combination of YT’s algorithms and creators’ own admission. A variety of other restrictions also now affect these videos, preventing them from showing up in recommendations and disabling comments.

This is a disaster for anyone making content aimed at children, from toy reviewers to teachers, because not only are their videos harder to find, but they also can’t get paid for them. Like everyone else, content creators need to eat.

Worse, there is no clear definition of what is “intended for children,” because the law was not originally written to cover such cases, and the legal threat/burden for determining this is put on the creators, not YT. So if you are making Minecraft videos that you intended for other adults like yourself, but it turns out that 10 year old boys also like watching them, you can be in violation of the law and get prosecuted by the federal government, but if you mark your videos as “for kids” they will at best show up next to “Baby Sings ABCs” videos and you won’t make any money.

Anyway, all of this is what Michelle Malkin is reducing to “illegally collected children’s information on Youtube”. The rest of the article contains similar mischaracterizations or omissions of vital details. Take this:

Can you imagine a similar breach of minors’ photos and videos stored on students’ Google Drives or Chromebooks or smartphones or home computers used to log on to mandatory learning management systems integrated with Google, such as Canvas or Schoology or Blackboard? It’s easy if you try.

I can imagine unicorns. So what? We’re not here to imagine make-believe harms.

Notice how both articles invent hypotheticals or imagined harms. This would be reasonable if we were talking about the effects of proposed legislation or future inventions, but not in the case of already existing legislation and technologies. Since these things already exist, we can talk about their actual effects, not imagined ones.

Malkin’s article is worse in this regard (at least Batholet could cite the case of one homeschooling family that abused their kids, while Malkin could not cite a single case of harm to children due to Google/YT), but both are focused on imagined harm because the real life harms are so rare.

Why are both of these articles so far off-base?

Could the authors/Batholet be lying? I have no reason to think that Batholet is intentionally, consciously lying–she sounds too much like relatives I’ve had conversations with in real life who just spout off about homeschooling without knowing anything about it.

Malkin probably isn’t in it for the money, (being featured on VDare probably does not make you money,) but she could be intentionally misleading people because she sees Google/Youtube as her enemy.

I think both Batholet and Malkin are motivated by dislike of their enemies/outgroup. Malkin has written previously about YT censoring her, and Batholet clearly doesn’t like religious conservatives. Dislike of your enemy makes you more likely to believe absurd things about him (he must do terrible things, otherwise he wouldn’t be your enemy,) and attacking your enemy, even for imagined faults, raises your own social status within your own group. Meanwhile it is difficult for anyone within your group to question your claims because such questions look a lot like ‘trying to argue that the outgroup isn’t actually all that bad’, which leaves you vulnerable to attacks from other status-climbers.

The average in-group reader, then, only hears one dominant side being articulated by people they respect, and so if they do not have any independent knowledge on the subject (and none of us can know everything,) then they are more likely to believe the incorrect information.

So, TL:DR

People are more likely to believe wrong things when they

  1. Don’t know much about the subject at hand,
  2. The incorrect information comes from an authority within their in-group,
  3. It concern the out-group, or
  4. They’re repeating a euphemism without realizing it’s a euphemism.

(eg, Batholet’s claim that homeschooling is bad for democracy is really a euphemism for bad for her politics. If a euphemism gets repeated often enough, people start believing it literally, forgetting what it originally stood for.)

8 thoughts on “Why do People believe wrong things, pt 2

  1. People believe wrong things because there are not only facts and value judgements, there are stories constructed out of a series of facts. And most people care about the stories, because it takes more than one fact to have some picture of causality. It is only experts who care about single facts. And then experts tend to only care about facts, not stories, in the sense that as long as all the facts are true, they do not feel like liars if they assist someone else in constructing a false story out of their true facts.

    To construct a story out of facts, one needs value judgements. There are infinite facts available about the world, and you have to judge what is relevant, what is not, what to include, what to exclude, what to emphasize, what not.

    It is said that coordinated lying about facts requires a conspiracy and it might be true. But a coordinated distortion of stories requires nothing like that, it requires only shared value judgements. A good example is that everybody’s job seeking resume / CV are distorted the same way, to appear smart and conscientous. No false facts i.e. no lies, just inconvenient facts left out and convenient facts presented in a “fleshed out” way. Everybody shares the same value judgement hence adds the same kind of distortion.

    Now the whole point about the existence of ingroups is to share some value judgement. The echo chamber effect makes this sometimes forgotten, as the values become taken for granted. Someone who is an authority is someone whose judgement people trust, meaning assuming he does not only have the right facts but also the same value judgements as themselves so their stories are likely okay.

    BTW the simplest way to see the fact + value = story construction is the https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enthymeme

    A formal syllogism would be like:

    P1 Candide is a typical French novel.
    P2 French novels are vulgar.
    Hence Candide is vulgar.

    The method of the enthymeme is to leave out the value judgement in P2 because it can be assumed that the ingroup one is talking to shares that value judgement: “Candide is a typical French novel; therefore it is vulgar.”

    And please realize that the enthymeme is *how people normally talk all the time*. Shared value judgements are absolutely assumed every minute. Hence every fact gets spun into a mini-story.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. >They let Amazon recommend the product you’re looking for

    My Kindle is linked with Amazon.de and all the recommendations I get from them are those super syrupy romantic womens novels that even intelligent women don’t read, men surely don’t, and the books I have actually bought from them tended to be military sci-fi and suchlike, history, stuff like Hansons Carnage and Culture, making an algorithm an utter fail. I think the reason is that I have bought some baby supplies for our child off Amazon. Still fail. They haven’t even noticed that I buy 90% English language books from them, that is possible through amazon.de, still getting exclusive German language recommendations.

    Well, at least I don’t get to be too paranoid about them knowing too much about me.

    Like

  3. I very much enjoy these reflective pieces, and this series in particular has been very edifying. I think, though, that the Bartholet piece may not be the ideal piece for the discussion you are having, because you spend so much time talking about individual claims she makes that are irrational taken on their face, but quite rational when one “reads between the lines”. In short, I think you fail here to sufficiently account for malice – or, at least, the full scope of her manipulation of language – on the part of the author. A consistent theme in compulsory government schooling has been social control, and she fits well within this tradition of thinking. The notion of her imagining a secret network of monarchists when she talks about “threats to democracy” seems as absurd as any of her claims and almost willfully naive – “threat to democracy” has a very specific illocutionary force in contemporary political discourse that almost always means “enemy of the revolution” – not the Revolution of 1776, but the Revolution of 1968. You hint at this when you make the pivot at the end, but not mentioning that she isn’t just using the language of “democracy” as a smokescreen, but is using coded language that is spoken by those with the power to enact her proposals but not those who would be most effected by her proposals seems almost to render the first several paragraphs of this piece superfluous. In short, she is writing in a different dialect for a different tribal grouo (I’m not speaking euphemistically, I mean that in an anthropological sense) than the dialect and the tribal group you write for, and therefore is using symbols differently. It’s rather like when the Japanese adopted Chinese characters to their own language: because of the way Chinese characters represented sounds, words acquired two meanings, one in Chinese and one in Japanese, meaning the Japanese author could write a word with two decided meanings (the very name “nippon” itself, for example). A similar manipulation of symbols takes place in the two tribes referenced above.

    This means that your argument about “why people believe things that are wrong” is less clearly articulated because it places the more clearly ignorant Malkin in the same mental and ethnographic universe with the more clearly malicious Bartholet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You make a good point. I thought more about the euphemisms about 10 minutes after the piece and so edited it to add the bit at the end, so I didn’t really develop it. I think that sometimes something starts out as a euphemism for one person or group, but people read it and repeat it uncritically until they start to believe it, like “US schools are bad” as a euphemism for “kids in ghetto schools get bad test scores.”

      I can see people repeating in an uncritical way, “oh those homeschoolers, they’re bad for democracy,” without thinking through what they’re saying or what it means.

      Of course you are correct that the “democracy” she is speaking of is not the democracy of 1776 at all. Very good point, thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

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