Cathedral Round-Up #29: Pinker, Truth, and Liars

Steven Pinker recently gave a short speech at Harvard (where he works) on how hearing certain facts without accompanying leftist counter-arguments causes people to become “infected” with right-wing thoughts:

The Left responded in its usual, thoughtful, reasonable fashion, eg “If you ever doubted that Steven Pinker’s sympathies lie with the alt-right…” The author of the piece also called Pinker a “lying right-wing shitweasel” on twitter.

Of course this is nonsense; as Why Evolution is True has pointed out, Pinker is one of Harvard’s most generous donors to the Democratic party.

The difference between Pinker and the Left is that Pinker is (trying) to be honest. Pinker believes in truth. He believes in believing true things and discussing true things. He believes that just because you believe a true thing doesn’t mean you have to go down this road to believing other, in his opinion untrue, things. You can believe more than one true thing. You can simultaneously believe “Blacks commit more homicide than whites” and believe “Blacks should not be discriminated against.”

By contrast, the Left is not trying to be honest. It is not looking for truth. It just wants to win. The Left does not want people to know that crime stats vary by race, that men and women vary in average interests and aptitudes, that communism is an atrociously bad economic system. Merely saying, “Hey, there are things you can’t say out loud without provoking a very loud controversy from the left,” has provoked… a very loud controversy from the left:

Link to the original conversation

 

The Left is abusing one of its own because merely saying these things out loud is seen as a betrayal of Leftist goals.

 

And yet he was in the right! They were wrong and he was right. And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’ —George Orwel, 1984

 

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Rumor, Outrage, and “Fake News”

coek9auvuaajigfBack when I started this blog, I had high hopes that the internet would allow people to bring together more and more information, resulting in an explosion of knowledge I referred to as the “Great Informationing.” To some extent, services like Google and Wikipedia have already started this ball rolling by essentially creating searchable databases of crowd-sourced data on a scale and at a speed never known before in human history–indeed, this blog would be much more limited in scope could I not look up at a moment’s notice almost anything I desire to learn.

In the past year, though, I have become disillusioned. While the internet does put a great deal of information at my fingertips, it also puts a great deal of misinformation at my fingertips.

Rumor flies halfway around the world before Truth has got its pants on.–variously misattributed

It’s bad enough to try to delve into subjects where I don’t speak the correct language to read most of the sources and thus can’t even begin properly searching. It’s even worse if the news I am getting isn’t reliable.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about “fake news.” I’m not sure which sites, exactly, have been promoting “fake news,” but I noticed toward the tail end of the election a seeming proliferation of websites and news sources I’d never heard of before. Clicking on these links generally led me to a site plastered with adds and images (which had a high probability of instantly crashing my computer) and headlines that looked lifted from other sources.

Since noticing this trend, I’ve tried to avoid linking to or trusting any headline that comes from a site I don’t recognize on the grounds that I have no way to confirm whether they are trustworthy, and further, I don’t like having my computer crash. The downside to this policy is that the internet is vast and I certainly do not know every respectable site out there.

I noticed some time ago that even “respectable” papers like the WaPo and NYTimes had quite a lot of one-sided or otherwise questionable reporting. Lies and more Lies were another theme that got hounded a lot in the early stages of this blog, but my focus was more on society than the media. Since reading a lot of iSteve, however, I’ve grown more sensitive to the ways media shape narratives, especially via what they chose to report and chose to remain silent on.

When you realize that there are stories the media isn’t commenting on, or is giving you a particular spin on, what do you do?

quote found on Twitter
quote found on Twitter

Look for other sources, I guess.

Last summer I noticed prominent papers printing not just mistakes or one-sided stories, but outright false statements that could only have made it into print because someone purposefully decided to make them up. (For privacy reasons I’m not going into more details, but you can probably supply your own cases.)

There are a variety of things going on with the media, but the internet, sadly, appears to be making matters worse.

borders-store-closingIt’s no secret that traditional print media has had a rough time since the information super highway started jazzing up our lives.

I remember when Borders first opened in my neighborhood. I loved that place. I’d bike over there and spend endless hours browsing the shelves, especially during the summer. I found my first anthropology books there.

And I remember when the Borders went out. The empty husk of the building is still there, unoccupied. It’s been empty for years. I wonder what on Earth is wrong with the person who owns that spot. Can’t they find someone to rent it to?

Newspapers have also suffered; with dwindling subscriptions, they’ve simultaneously cut everyone with enough expertise to demand a high salary and turned to generating click-driving content.

Familiar exploits of beloved characters are related from a respectful, prejudice-free perspective: the Emperor is no longer naked in his new clothes but “is endorsing a clothing-optional lifestyle,” Snow White escapes to the cottage of “seven vertically-challenged men,” and Goldilocks is an ambitious scientist studying anthropomorphic bears. --https://www.amazon.com/Politically-Correct-Bedtime-Stories-Garner/dp/0285640410/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1480157739&sr=8-1&keywords=politically+correct+bedtime+stories
Familiar exploits of beloved characters are related from a respectful, prejudice-free perspective: the Emperor is no longer naked in his new clothes but “is endorsing a clothing-optional lifestyle,” Snow White escapes to the cottage of “seven vertically-challenged men,” and Goldilocks is an ambitious scientist studying anthropomorphic bears. (source)

When you have subscribers who actually pay for newspapers, they value thoughtful, high-quality reporting. (Otherwise, what are you spending all of that money on?) When readers are just clicking through, outrage drives the news cycle. Articles don’t even have to be about something outrageous–the article itself can be the outrageous thing, so long as people link to it and say, “OMG, can you believe they wrote this?”

Every hate click makes things worse.

The outrage machine is helping drive the SJW-fueled obsession with “identity politics,” particularly feminism, anti-racism, and LGBT issues. This isn’t the first time this style of political correctness has broken out–remember the much-mocked silliness of the late 80s? But back then, only the National Enquirer could hope to use stories about transgender elementary school kids to sell papers. Now everyone can.

It’s bad enough being the kind of person who worries about whether or not the division between “tree” and “bush” is just a social construct, or the basic unknowablity of what one doesn’t know.

But now we have to consider the effects of hate-clicks and outrage on everything we know.

Conservatives Over-Generalize; Liberals Under-Generalize

This is a theory about a general trend.

Liberals tend to be very good at learning specific, detailed bits of information, but bad at big-picture ideas. Conservatives tend to be good at big-picture ideas, but bad at specific details. In other words, liberals are the guys who can’t see the forest for the trees, while conservatives have a habit of referring to all trees as “oaks.”

Or all sodas as Cokes:

popvssodamap2

Waitress: What would y’all like to drink?
Lady: Oh, I’ll have a Coke.
Waitress: All right, what kind of Coke?
Lady: Diet Pepsi.

When conservatives speak of general trends among people, liberals are prone to protesting that “Not all X are like that.” For liberals, the fact that one guy might be an exception to a general trend is important enough to mention in any discussion. Liberals who want to un-gender pregnancy discussion, because “men can get pregnant, too,” are a perfect example of this. (See my previous post about TERFS.)

This post was inspired by a friend’s complaint that “Trump keeps saying untrue things,” to which I responded that the Hillary also says lots of untrue things. It seems to me that there is a distinct pattern in the kinds of untruths each camp engages in.

Source
Source

If you ask the average conservative to define the races of man, he’d probably tell you: black, white, and Asian. Give him a crayon and a map of the world, and he’d probably produce something like this:

Ask the average liberal to define the races of man, and he’ll tell you that race is a social construct and that there’s more genetic variation within races than between them.

Diagram of Trans-species polymorphisms, from Evo and Proud
Diagram of Trans-species polymorphisms, from Evo and Proud

Both of these statements are basically correct, (but see here) but in different ways. The Conservative misses the within-racial variety (and may draw the racial borders incorrectly, eg, assuming that north Africans or Australians are Black.) And the Liberal misses that race is actually a real thing, and that the issue of genetic between vs. within also holds true for different species (see: species is a social construct,) and yet we still recognize that “dog” is a useful word for describing a real category of things we encounter in the real world.

Conservatives are prone to saying things like, “Blacks commit more crime than whites,” and liberals are prone to responding that the majority of black people aren’t criminals.

nope-the-claim-trump-says-clinton-acid-washed-her-email-4623517I find that it helps a lot in understanding people if I give them the benefit of the doubt and try to understand what they mean, rather than get hung up on the exact words they use.

NBC perhaps went too far down this path when they claimed that Trump had lied for saying Clinton “acid washed” her email server, when in fact she had used an app called BleachBit. Sure, bleach is a weak base, not an acid, but I don’t think Trump was actually trying to discuss chemistry in this case.

When the newsmedia claimed that the Syrian refugees pouring into Germany would be “good for the German economy,” this was obviously false. Yes, some Syrians are exceptionally bright, hardworking, motivated people who will do their best to benefit their new home. But most refugees are traumatized and don’t speak the local language. Few people would argue that the Syrian educational system turns out grads with test scores equal to the German system. It’s one thing to take refugees for pure humanitarian reasons, because you care about them as people. It’s another thing to pretend that refugees are going to make the average German richer. They won’t.

When Trump says there is so much wrong with black communities, so much poverty and violence, he is, broadly speaking, correct. When Hillary says there is so much good in black communities, like black businesses and churches, she is, narrowly speaking, also correct.

Of course, as Conway et al caution [warning PDF]:

Prior research suggests that liberals are more complex than conservatives. However, it may be that liberals are not more complex in general, but rather only more complex on certain topic domains (while conservatives
are more complex in other domains). Four studies (comprised of over 2,500 participants) evaluated this idea. … By making only small adjustments to a popularly used dogmatism scale, results show that liberals can be significantly more dogmatic if a liberal domain is made salient. Studies 2–4 involve the domain specificity of integrative complexity. A large number of open-ended responses from college students (Studies 2 and 3) and candidates in the 2004 Presidential election (Study 4) across an array of topic domains reveals little or no main effect of political ideology on integrative complexity, but rather topic domain by ideology interactions. Liberals are higher in complexity on some topics, but conservatives are higher on others.