Language, Society

Don’t lead with lies, even quoted ones

To anyone in the media who might ever read this, I beg you to stop spreading propaganda through your well-meaning but counterproductive efforts at “fact checking.”

When a politician releases propaganda, they want the propaganda to spread. They’re hoping for people to repeat it as often as possible. They’re trying to exploit the illusory truth effect — the way familiarity breeds belief.

Whether the propaganda is repeated approvingly or disapprovingly doesn’t matter. As long as the repetition – the transmission – occurs, the goal is achieved. If you, as a member of the media, repeat the propaganda and then explain why it’s false, you’ve still repeated it and served the goal of the politician who wanted precisely that to happen. This applies especially to the genre of fact checking.

When you fact-check a statement by a politician, you often do it in two steps. First, you recite the statement: “Politician X said ‘Pigs can fly.’” Second, you address the veracity of the statement: “There is no evidence that pigs can fly.”

It matters what you lead with.

Leading with a falsehood – even a quoted one – is a terrible approach because it gives the falsehood the spotlight. Wouldn’t it be great if pigs could fly? You should give the truth the spotlight instead. The truth is at a disadvantage because it’s less titillating than the lie. Pigs are earthbound – how boring! If your goal is to promote the truth, you need to work extra-hard to compensate for its inherent disadvantage. Showcase the truth by introducing it first. Explain why it matters. Only then, once the truth has been firmly established, quote the lie. Then repeat the truth. “Pigs definitely can’t fly. But Politician X claimed today that they can. But we know they certainly can’t.”

After this “truth sandwich” has been presented – truth-lie-truth – you should then examine the motivations behind the lie. “Given that pigs can’t fly, why would a politician want citizens to believe the falsehood that pigs can fly? What is at stake?”

Realize that your audience consists of some people who trust you more than they trust Politician X, and some people who trust Politician X more than they trust you. If an audience member is in that first category – if they’re already suspicious of Politician X – then your fact-checking probably doesn’t tell them anything they didn’t already assume. You’re only asking them to dedicate more of their mental energy to considering a falsehood that they’ve already rightly dismissed. But if an audience member loves Politician X, they’re going to cling to what Politician X said. When you quote Politician X they’re going to concentrate on the quote itself, ignoring the analysis that you offer next. They’ll forget your quibbling assertion that Politician X’s statement is false because what you’re saying isn’t as exciting and they don’t really trust you to begin with.

The only way to make fact-checking effective as a tool for promoting the truth is to make it about the truth. The truth is the story. The truth is the main character. The truth gets the spotlight. The propaganda – the false statements that are being fact-checked – should be given a minor role. They should only be allowed an appearance after the truth has had its initial say. And once the propaganda gets its turn, the truth should get another turn, the final say.

When I started writing this post, I assumed I was developing the material on my own. Indeed, fact-checking has been a pet peeve of mine for some time and I had written about it back in 2016. But when I searched for the term “truth sandwich,” I came across an NPR article from 2018 citing the linguist George Lakoff. I vaguely remembered reading it back then. I must have internalized the idea and forgotten the source — not unlike someone who remembers a claim they heard during a “fact check” session and then forgets the fact-checking part. So… the “truth sandwich” idea isn’t mine – the credit goes to Lakoff. Back in 2018, Lakoff’s proposal got a few mentions. A few members of the media discussed it and published articles on it. I fear that two years later, the lesson has not been widely learned and propaganda maintains the upper hand, happily co-opting the efforts of those who attempt to fact-check it out of existence. So I will do what I can to promote Lakoff’s truth sandwich. I hope you will too.

Society

Belief

Let’s be candid: there are few things more infuriating than other people’s stupid beliefs. What is an example of a stupid belief? Take the idea that the coronavirus is a hoax. I call this idea stupid because the virus has caused 640,601 worldwide deaths as I type, and I call this idea infuriating because it leads to behavior that increases transmission, making the situation worse for all of us. When I hear someone fiercely advocate for such a stupid belief, even saying that masks are bad for our health, I feel a sense of shock. How could a person possibly believe a thing so wrong? To answer the how question, I must examine why I am shocked in the first place.

My working theory of belief, I confess, is a simplistic one. I tend to think that every person is on a search for truth. Beliefs are the outcome of a search for truth. We all search for truth in our own ways, and it turns out that some people are quite bad at conducting this search, so they end up with beliefs that don’t make any sense. When I am confronted with such ludicrous beliefs, I tend to give the believer the benefit of the doubt. They are on a quest, just like I am on a quest, but they took a wrong turn in this particular case, just like I have certainly done in other cases. The outcome of their failed search for truth may be an outlandish and toxic belief, but nevertheless it arose from a desire that’s noble and universal: the desire to understand the world.

When I am shocked by a ludicrous belief, my shock comes from not understanding how anyone could be so ignorant of the facts in front of them, so incapable of simple reasoning, so inept at the most basic things we do when we search for truth. You would think that a person who believes the coronavirus is a hoax wouldn’t survive a day on this planet. Forget about their catching the virus. Surely they’d burn themselves on a stove, thinking the flame was a hoax, and promptly get hit by a bus, thinking physics is a hoax. But they don’t. It turns out that lots of people who believe horribly stupid things are actually great at surviving in the world. Not only do they not get hit by buses especially often, but they sometimes achieve great popularity and wealth despite their believing – or perhaps because of their believing the equivalent of 2+2=5. The fact that this surprises me tells me that my working theory of belief needs revision.

After years of watching American politics, observing the American response to climate change, and now the American response to the coronavirus, I’m forced into a sad conclusion: people, for the most part, aren’t on a search for truth, and beliefs are not best conceived as the outcome of a search for truth. Beliefs are simply stories that people adopt because there is a payoff of some sort. When we are shocked that someone holds a particularly irrational belief, our shock arises because the payoff is not apparent to us. If we were to identify the payoff, then we would find it clear why the person holds the belief.

A belief is an investment. If you are to make a financial investment, like purchasing a mutual fund or a piece of real estate, you first need to encounter it. You might find it on your own, or someone might actively pitch it to you. You might resist at first, but a skilled salesperson might overcome your objections. When you buy it, there might be a transaction cost. As you hold it, there will be ongoing maintenance costs, but you will accept these because there is a hopefully larger return. The investment might have some “intrinsic” value, but this intrinsic value might be totally disconnected from the returns you experience. If market conditions work in your favor, you might experience a great return on something that is intrinsically worthless.

When you adopt a belief, there is a transaction cost too. You might have to abandon something else you currently believe, and there might be something unpleasant in the new belief that you have to come to terms with. You might have to admit you were wrong in the past. As you hold the new belief, there will be an ongoing maintenance cost. Your own mind might periodically challenge the belief, finding gaps and contradictions within it. Your friends and family might challenge the belief, arguing with you, and even ceasing to associate with you. If you keep holding the belief in light of these costs, that’s likely because the returns are greater. If the belief happens to be true, then perhaps it helps you solve problems or navigate situations that require an accurate model of reality. But even if the belief is false, it may have other, more attractive returns. The belief might make you feel good. The belief might place you in a community of other believers whose company you enjoy, or distinguish you from those whose company you hate. The belief might make you feel superior to those who make you afraid. The belief might win you the attention you want. The belief might get you a job. The belief might serve as a social bonding mechanism, a calling card, or a salve.

The cost of maintaining a belief may depend somewhat on its veracity, but only somewhat. One would hope that it is harder to maintain a false belief than a true one, since the false belief would conflict with observed reality or contain logical inconsistencies that trouble the mind. But this is only a problem if the believer constantly searches for logical inconsistencies among his or her many beliefs and constantly tests those beliefs against observed reality. If the believer isn’t in the habit of doing these things, the maintenance costs go down considerably.

I used to imagine that a person’s many beliefs existed in some vast common space in their mind – mingling with each other as if in a great ballroom – and that if two beliefs contradicted each other, the host would inevitably notice this and feel disturbed enough to seek a resolution. I don’t see it this way anymore. The space of belief is more like a forest at night, filled with hiding places. Denizens of the forest who might antagonize or kill each other if they met in daylight hide quietly in their own nests.

A person might hold two contradictory beliefs without those beliefs ever meeting and doing battle. And a person who valiantly endeavors to rid their beliefs of contradictions will have a hard time of it, because that person has no way of acquiring a complete inventory of their beliefs, no better chance than a naturalist might have of cataloguing every living being in a vast and dark forest. The mind harbors no unified list of beliefs that can be printed out. You can try to write all your beliefs on paper but I would wager that there are dozens of beliefs you will not know about and dozens that you may be too uncomfortable to write. There may be some that you begin to write and promptly deny. There are beliefs that only become apparent through one’s actions, in situations where one is too distracted to articulate them as beliefs.

When I look at the news and hear that throngs of people still think the coronavirus is a hoax, or still think climate change a hoax, I am astonished because I think of how painful it would be for me to hold those same beliefs. These beliefs would clash with my confidence in science and my faith in the scientific establishment. My friends, all of whom accept the coronavirus and climate change as real, would laugh at me. I would have to reconsider all the efforts I am making in my own life to try to reduce my carbon footprint. I would have to change my news sources and my idea of who is a trusted authority. When I imagine holding these beliefs, I am so caught up in the pain I would feel that I find it difficult to conceive there could be a payoff of any sort.

To understand people who call coronavirus or climate change a hoax I must imagine that the economics are different for them. For me, the transaction cost and ongoing maintenance cost of these conspiratorial beliefs might be very high; for them it might be very low. Their friends might already agree that the virus is hoax and cheer them on for saying the same. Announcing the belief might bring them love. They may not feel any great allegiance with the project of science, no matter that they use its products (computer, cellphone, modern medicine), so they would feel no hesitation in disputing scientific authorities. As they assert these beliefs, they may feel a sense of pride and power in challenging an establishment they consider oppressive. Believing the virus is a hoax may mean, for them, that they get to share more laughs and have more beers with friends. For them, the experience of holding the belief might be entirely pleasant. Why wouldn’t they believe it?

We might wish that it couldn’t be so pleasant to believe in something so dangerous, that it couldn’t be so lucrative to invest in something so wrong, but it can. A person’s beliefs may be more a record of what rewarded them than of what brought them closer to truth. Perhaps the dynamics of belief share the same skewed outcomes as market-based capitalism: beliefs are adopted, just like financial investments are made based on the immediate payoff, without accounting for externalities or hidden social costs. One can easily believe something, or invest in something that damages the common good, without ever realizing or paying for the damage, and so the damage accumulates, compounding until there is a collapse.

Life, Society

Stalling Coronavirus

Coronavirus has thrown lives, governments, and markets into a state of uncertainty, but our moral obligation in this time is certain.

It’s natural that many people are evaluating their personal risk, asking the question “Will I die?” In an attempt to calm the public, authorities keep saying that anyone who’s young and healthy will, for the most part, experience mild symptoms. This reassurance steps over the fact that almost everyone who’s “young and healthy” has a dozen friends and loved ones who are not young and not healthy, and if the “young and healthy” people catch the virus they can transmit it to those who aren’t. To put it bluntly, if you get the virus as a young and healthy person, you might not die, but you might contribute to someone else’s death. Therefore, everyone should see it as their moral obligation to avoid catching the virus for as long as possible, not only to protect their own personal health, but to protect the health of those who might inadvertently catch it from them.

There has been a lot of talk about the death rate. It’s important to understand that the death rate depends on the availability of care. If the virus is allowed to spread quickly, hospitals will run out of beds, health care workers will run out of protective gear, and critically ill patients will die because they could not be treated. But if we manage to slow transmission down and “flatten the curve,” we can buy time for hospitals to ramp up capacity, aiming for a scenario where even as the number of cases grows, everyone is able to receive the care they need.

Once you see the connection between the death rate and the availability of care, it follows that each of us has some agency over the death rate. We can help to reduce the death rate by not catching the virus ourselves, or at least by delaying for as long as possible that unfortunate time when we do catch it, keeping those emergency rooms available for the people who most desperately need them.

In life, there are so many gray areas, so many debatable points, so many requests made of us which we might accept or reject according to our own value scheme. But I feel that what the current situation demands of each person is crystal clear. If each one of us can save lives – maybe one, maybe a hundred, maybe a thousand — by not becoming a carrier of this virus, then the only moral course of action is to do everything we possibly can to avoid becoming a carrier, starting now.

Of course, we can’t see the virus and can’t fully control whether we’re exposed or whether we expose others. But there are things we can do. The easier ones are washing our hands, keeping our hands off our faces, covering our coughs, disinfecting surfaces, and avoiding large crowds. Experts say we’ll need to do harder things too — we’ll need to practice extreme social distancing – we’ll need to stay home whenever possible, despite all the hardships it might entail. If we’re employers or event organizers, we’ll need to enable others to stay home. And if we’re the neighbor or friend of someone who doesn’t have the resources to stay home we must look for ways to help them out.

Should we stay home even if our own town hasn’t been placed on lockdown? As I write this on March 11, 2020, the entire nation of Italy is on lockdown but in the US it’s still business as usual in many places. We are starting to see cancellations of major conferences, cultural events, and political rallies; we are starting to see school closures; and the first containment zone has been established in the town of New Rochelle in New York. But elsewhere you might look around and never know that a pandemic is underway. Should those of us who haven’t been told to stay home do so anyway?

I’m not an epidemiologist or an expert in public health. But there are experts who say we should be as proactive as possible, shutting things down and staying home before the first cases are discovered in our area. (See this interview with Nicholas Christakis, for example, or this Atlantic piece titled Cancel Everything.)

In two weeks we will have a better sense of how many transmissions are occurring in the country right now; in two weeks we will probably wish we had done more, two weeks ago, to stop those transmissions. So let’s start doing everything we can now — before our government gives us the order — to protect each other.

Leaving Facebook, Society

The Myth of the Guarded Facebook User

When I heard that Wade Roush is planning to leave Facebook, I took note. Wade is a veteran technology journalist and the host of the podcast Soonish. He is not the first person to take a stand against Facebook, but when someone who follows technology and thinks about the future as a profession makes such a decision, it’s a big deal. Wade’s announcement reminded me of my own plan to get off Facebook, a plan that’s been in the works for, oh, five years now. It made me wonder if there’s anything I can contribute to the “Fexit” discussion, so I’ll explore that here.

Continue reading

Society

Fact Checking

The word “fact” can mean “something that actually exists; reality; truth” but it can also mean “something said to be true or supposed to have happened,” and of course those meanings are very, very different but in politics they are often conflated. I don’t like the term “fact check” because it tends to impart too much credibility to the statement being considered. Yes, politicians sometimes make statements that they genuinely believe to be true, and such sincere assertions, such “possible facts,” are indeed worthy of being “checked.” All too often though, politicians make statements crafted for political gain that they know to be false. To subject such deliberate falsities to a so-called “fact check” is to dignify the falsity by suggesting that it might possibly be true or that an informed person might reasonably have considered it as true until learning some new information uncovered during the investigation. But there was never such a possibility: the statement was always a deliberate and obvious lie. There is a phenomenon where the media will play a soundbite where a candidate loudly asserts an obvious falsehood and then a commentator will proceed to “fact check” the assertion and conclude that it is false: the candidate “got the facts wrong,” a minor offense. The “fact check” makes it seem like the commentator is doing his or her job by both reporting on the assertion and subjecting it to scrutiny. Really, the media is allowing itself to be played by the politician whose only goal was to have the falsehood broadcast as often and as widely as possible. Mission accomplished. “Fact checking” the falsehood is superfluous, or even dangerous, because the soundbite will linger in memory much longer and with more vividness than any boring commentary accompanying it (even if that commentary directly contradicts it) and also because the falsehood was never meant to appeal to those with a strong concern for factual accuracy in the first place. Rather, the statement was meant to appeal to those who will applaud any “jab” against their perceived enemies, and every broadcast of the soundbite (whether accompanied by a fact-check or not) is another hit, another point scored. The logical approach to dealing with a person who repeatedly spouts falsehood is not to continuously “fact-check” that person but to ignore the person; unfortunately, the person’s very mendacity makes the person a spectacle that everyone wants to watch, and ignoring a spectacle is not good for ratings. How do we solve this?

Society

Halloween Costumes

[Facebook post from November 10, 2015]

The controversy over Halloween costumes at Yale appears to position those who advocate for freedom of expression against those who advocate for cultural sensitivity. The conflict is artificial.

The right to free speech may be honored and protected without being exercised at every opportunity.

Racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression may be fought without ascribing the worst possible intention to every careless or insensitive act.

Above all, we should be good neighbors to each other. That means we should avoid offending each other without a good reason; conversely, we should explore all avenues before taking offense. I should risk offending you, and you should risk offending me, if one of us has something important but uncomfortable to say. But I should not risk offending you, and you should not risk offending me, if the only gain is a fleeting thrill for one of us, while the loss is our relationship itself.

You might perceive a Halloween costume as offensive, while I might consider it silly and benign. To be a good neighbor to you, I should avoid wearing it. I should avoid it simply because I know it offends you, and because I value our relationship as neighbors above whatever fun the costume would afford me: I should make this choice even if I can’t fully understand the costume’s significance in your eyes. In respecting you, I should not fear that I have jeopardized my own freedom of expression, because that freedom is still available. At the same time, if I were to wear the costume, and if you were to see me wearing it, you should not condemn me without knowing my intent, and if my intent is frivolous, not malicious, you should treat me as someone ignorant, not malicious. If, in the end, you choose to look away from the costume, you should not feel that you have given up the important battle against the prejudice you see represented in the costume; the battle goes on.

Friend 1: Amen. To put it less eloquently and less delicately, trumpeting the constitutional right to be an asshole is not a coherent ethical position.

Friend 2: Rudi, I am in agreement with the sentiment of your overall argement but I think it’s worth noting that behaviors that, in this case, may seem frivolous and not malicious, are part of a much more complex issue that goes beyond a single racist act (i.e. an inappropriate costume). Should the stereotypes and misconceptions that are the root these “ignorant” behaviors manifest themselves in the workplace or other areas of society, then they have far more negative impacts on minorities and people of color. When we often look at single events, we can miss the systemic impact that these viewpoints have on our neighbors, friends and our own society as a whole. I’m very encouraged that students at Yale are speaking up about their concerns and that in our country we’re seeing more discussion of these issues in the media.

Me: Thanks so much for your words here. I take the point that some forms of oppression are systemic — what might appear as a single insensitive gesture is in fact part of a longstanding trend that disadvantages an entire group of people. Still, a person who commits a single insensitive gesture in a thoughtless way should be welcomed to become more thoughtful and better informed, rather than being swiftly branded as racist, vile, disgusting and essentially irredeemable, as if they bore responsibility for the full weight of that historical injustice.

I too am encouraged that Yale students are speaking up about their concerns; at the same time I am startled to see some students involved in the Christakis incident assume a mob mentality where they would shout down and demand the resignation of a college master who aired no racist views, but only argued that the students themselves and not the administration should police their behavior on Halloween. That’s not to say I agree with everything in the Christakis’s position — I don’t — but if the videos and reports of the students’ immediate reactions are to be believed, I see an unfortunate breakdown in civility there. No matter the depth of their outrage at historical injustice, I hope the students value civility as a virtue that is compatible with activism.

Friend 1: Rudi, while I admire the Kantian universality you endorse here, I think it glosses over the asymmetries that [Friend 2] raises. I’d agree that someone who thoughtlessly commits an insensitive gesture “should be welcomed to become more thoughtful and better informed,” but the passive voice does away with the question of who’s doing the welcoming and informing. My view from inside the higher ed machine is that students of color are called on too often to educate and humanize their white peers and forgive their hurtful stupidities. (Indeed, the very rhetoric of diversity is often couched in terms of illumination for the majority rather than inclusion and justice for minorities.) Christakis, as a figure of authority at the college, should be held to a different standard than an offensive-but-teachable college student. (Glad to discuss my objections to her email but I’ll spare you that here.) There are good reasons, too, to question the power asymmetries hidden in the assertion of “civility” as a standard for public discourse (see the recent Salaita kerfuffle at the U of Illinois). I think that students are learning something about the politics of solidarity and direct action, which is bound to look ugly in its internet close-up, but which is hardly reducible to mob rule.

Friend 2: Yes [Friend 1], that was the point I was getting at. Yes we should encourage individuals to grow in compassionate ways–but I think the more we discuss a single insensitive act, the more we can ignore that those individual acts are part of a larger system of bias, privilege and cultural ignorance. Ultimately, the Dean’s suggestion that student police themselves and tell someone if a costume is offensive misses the point—as did the entire premise of the Atlantic Friedersdorf article in my opinion. This is of course about more than costumes. It revealed a serious blind spot in understanding the experiences of minority, marginalized individuals. It is often difficult for a minority individual or group to feel comfortable enough to speak up in these types of situations and when a university (an institution of power) suggests to students they should pay attention to an issue, it does a service to everyone in helping open the discourse that might otherwise be difficult to do.

Me: I agree that Mrs. Christakis misused her position as associate master to question a message from the IAC which was not nearly as threatening to freedom of expression as she seemed to think; worse, her email completely ignored student concerns about racist Halloween attire and attributed those concerns entirely to some heavy-handed administrators. Her email was insensitive and poorly written. But I find it startling that this message resulted in Mr. Christakis being cursed at, told that he is disgusting, should resign, and should not sleep at night. Students report they simply cannot feel comfortable in Silliman knowing this email had been sent by an administrator? I acknowledge that minority groups are unfairly and disproportionately called upon to explain and defend themselves; furthermore, as you say, direct action is not always pretty. But, though it should have been said elsewhere and could have been said better, the Christakis email does raise a question about whether Yale should be a safe space where students don’t encounter offensive behavior, or where they encounter it and respond. It should be possible for people to be on different sides of that debate without condemning each other’s character. I hope that what comes next from the students shows more concern for civility than we’ve seen in the Christakis incident so far, and I expect it will. I use the word “civility” to mean mutual respect and a willingness to engage in discussion; I don’t use it to mean meekness, silence, or unwarranted deference, which would indeed turn it into an oppressive concept.

Friend 1: The “safe space” question is important and nuanced, I think, and a lot of what I’ve seen in the media reduces the issue to a caricature of coddling hypersensitive students. College is and should be a place to encounter unfamiliar and disturbing ideas and perspectives, to have one’s intellectual/emotional/political boat rocked. I don’t think that conflicts with colleges’ responsibility to provide a safe environment where that encounter with difference and danger can take place. I doubt that *anyone* thinks that Yale will protect them from offensive behavior. It has a responsibility to protect them if that offensive behavior crosses the line into harm or harassment–including a hostile environment. I’d agree that some students’ responses to Mr. Christakis were confrontational and rude, but that rudeness is not simply a refusal to be civil; it also suggests that, from the perspective of those angry students, the preconditions of civility (mutual respect and safety) have not been met. I think it’s possible to build a bridge between “civility” and “safe space” as norms for public discourse and behavior, but not if one of those norms is dismissed right off the bat.

Also–on civility. I am all for mutual respect and engagement! But I’m also wary of the long history of “civility” as a term of class and racial exclusion–and an insistence that marginalized groups can only express their grievances according to the dominant group’s standard of decorum. Plenty of oppression is carried out in terms that look civil, and plenty of legitimate political discourse has been excluded in its name. We as a culture have a pretty bad record of excusing the apparent incivility of dominant groups (e.g., “boys will be boys”).

Friend 2: This point really resonated with me: It also suggests that, from the perspective of those angry students, the preconditions of civility (mutual respect and safety) have not been met. As we strive for a time when we can all discuss issues openly and with compassion, we simply are not there yet as a society and the dominant culture can have huge gaps in understanding/compassion for those in other groups. But I am glad to have had this civil debate among us on this issue and thinking through the terms we use. And I’m interested to see how it is discussed further in the media–this is a dramatic shift away from just looking at racial and cultural tensions as a police issue, which the media has cycled through again and again for over a year.

Friend 3: I thought this piece from Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker was good: https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/race-and-the-free-speech-diversion

Friend 4: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQsZMzcfYa0

Friend 5: Finding fault with the other is always easy. Acknowledging one’s own is much more difficult. A healthy dose of introspection and gratitude for the presence of the other will sooner settle this conflict than a grandiose war of intellectual analysis.

Me: This article offers the perspective of someone who has both attended Yale and taught there. It suggests that the students have more leverage than they know, or are willing to exercise. https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/194874/person-up-yale-students

Friend 6: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iKcWu0tsiZM