MUSINGS BEYOND THE BUNKER
CONSPIRACY, MANIPULATION AND TRUTH
There are disturbing trends in society with people willing to accept authoritarianism, abandoning science and reasoning, buying conspiracy theories, and allowing themselves to be easily manipulated by Facebook posts and those seeking to sow dissention. This is a series of Musings on these subjects, including manipulation, conspiracy, QANON, and reasoning.
DISTURBING CURRENTS IN OUR SOCIETY
The attraction of authoritarianism. I’m not suggesting he’s a dictator—but he is a tough-talking, brash, “tell it like it is” politician. While comparisons with historic dictators is not founded, it is precisely this type of behavior—and the promise of short-term economic success and national pride—that propelled Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, and lesser despots like Ortega, Maduro, and Castro. Rarely in history has it ended well. Here’s a fascinating article about how authoritarianism may be at the heart of much of the President’s support: https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/10/12/trump-voter-authoritarian-research/. I don’t think most people love authoritarians. But I do believe people are looking for “quick fixes”—what pill do I take—what thing do I buy—quickly, to make my life better. I also believe people really are happier not accepting responsibility for their actions. At heart, I think passing the buck to someone else who maintains “only they” can solve the problem, is comforting. Knowing that there is someone with a steady hand at the helm might seem desirable but, of course, it depends on whose hand and the motivation of that hand.
Inability to connect the consequences of voting with the anger felt at the voting booth. There is a new book out now called What Were We Thinking, by Carlos Lozada. In it, he suggests that We have become a society “that has forgotten its civics lessons or, remembering them still, has decided they don’t matter.” Indeed, an dwindling percentages of Millennials and GenXers support the idea of democracy. This obviously is cause for concern. Lozada excoriates everyone in this calm dissertation. In his analysis of the literature about Trump, Lozada maintains that “Never Trumpers” also are “Only Trumpers,” in that it took Trump for them to emerge and stand for something. In his review of the book, Joe Klein writes that “we have spent the past 50 years undermining the basic institutions of society—not just our sense of common purpose and identity, but also normative values like truth and duty and expertise. The politics of consumerism—and grievance—have overwhelmed the politics of unity and responsibility.”
We have allowed ourselves to become atomized into a series of communities unconnected with each other. This started with Bowling Alone. We engage less with our neighbors and each other. There seems to be no more “civic good” or “we’re all in this together.” Society is a series of seemingly unmixable societies of right and left, Trump versus science, religious and heathenistic. The “other” is vilified and must be destroyed.
Americans have allowed themselves to be manipulated. Russian interference in our elections doesn’t continue because it doesn’t work. It continues because it does. A former CNN executive explained to me last week that when CNN attempted to plow a middle ground as true journalists, it was routed by MSNBC and Fox. The people don’t WANT journalism. They want their views spouted back. And they don’t care about fact checking in the media. They willingly sign on to the manipulation of what they are fed and what they should think. Facebook and Twitter manipulate the information people receive on those platforms because it works. We want manipulation. We want conspiracy theories. We want to believe there is a bogeyman that explains why the other side is wrong, even in the face of data that should give us pause. We are torn apart because we have allowed it to happen.
WHY DO SO MANY PEOPLE REJECT THE IDEAS OF EXPERTS?
I just read a reader’s book review on Amazon where the reviewer panned the book and said “the author acts like he knows more than anybody else.” I was struck by this because I agreed—but it was a good thing—he knew more than me and was sharing that knowledge with me! The author was an expert in his area and I am not.
We are living in a moment where inconvenient facts are labeled as “fake news,” where conspiracies gain traction through elaborate methodology to spread their word through social media, and when the advice of experts is dismissed as the elitism and rejected in favor of the opinions of talking heads and celebrities. But part of this is just that people think they know more than the experts—that one’s personal experience, a data set of one, or the anecdotes of a few friends, can take precedence over scientific studies or years of learning.
I learned there is actually is a thing called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. The findings of Messrs. Dunning and Kruger are described in their study’s name, worth quoting in full:
“Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.”
Their work, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1999, relies on four studies to show that ignorant people not only make poor decisions, but also lack the metacognitive ability to recognize their own ignorance and bad choices.
There is a point of relative ignorance when one is imbued both with self-confidence and ignorance. It is only with increasing knowledge does one develop the cognition of what one doesn’t know. As further knowledge is acquired, confidence builds again, but nowhere near the confidence of the truly ignorant.
The crowd of the deceived and misled includes people scream “fake news,” many convinced that they don’t need to wear masks or social distance, the anti-vaxxers, those convinced that the Mueller investigation uncovered no wrongdoing by our Commander-in-Chief and his minions, that the Bidens drove engage in completely unsubstantiated (and undefined) activity in Ukraine, those who follow Qanon and the crazy theories proliferating on the Internet, and those who ascribe to the crazy conspiracy theories about a cabal of the “deep state.” Ignorance apparently not only is bliss, but also a guarantee of absolute certainty and gullibility.
I am pretty confident of my knowledge level and abilities in areas that might push me toward the right end of the scale. But there are plenty of things about which I am not expert and find myself on the left side of the ignorance scale. It is in these areas that we must resist the tendency to draw quick conclusions and acknowledge our ignorance and rely upon experts. Experts may not always be right, but they evolve as information increases. Personal experience, the experience of your Aunt Mildred, the anecdotes gleaned from friends, and the pronouncements of political allies or celebrities, are not a substitute for science and expertise.
Seems logical (of course, I relied in part on a study, written by an expert).
CONSPIRACY AND COVID
It seems pretty obvious. Sometimes the scientists and physicians know what they’re talking about. It seems nuts that some people continue to take issue with what epidemiologists around the world are telling them, professionals who have dedicated their lives to research on viruses, their transmission, therapies and eradication. Some of the claims bandied about include:
This is being “overhyped” for political purposes.
This is an overreaction to something “a lot like the flu.”
Even if a major problem, it is worth allowing the disease to run through the population, killing hundreds of thousands (or more), and burdening our health care system beyond capacity, on some theory that it will “burn itself out.”
On the first theory, if it’s all political, it’s being utilized by politicians the world over, of different parties, political philosophies and economic systems. What a wonderful diverse coalition of conspirators! The second statement is just false. It’s like a flu in the same way a Humvee is like a tricycle. The third is inhumane and deadly wrong (plus, what would Kant say?).
Why can’t we listen to the experts? When did experts become suspect? And why is it that people are so willing to conjure up a conspiracy theory when a simple answer exists? I’m sorry, but I believe Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole gunman (and if you’re not sure, read Case Closed, by Gerald Posner), men landed on the moon, and vaccines actually save lives. People conjure conspiracies to justify their beliefs or ease their anxieties. These theories often run counter to logic, the observed world and expert advice. Sometimes the facts are just the facts. Perhaps there isn’t a conspiracy around every corner. Perhaps the experts actually know what they’re talking about.
Just as is the case with anti-vaxxers, those who argue against “shelter in place” are downright irresponsible and are propounding deadly theories.
As the country and the world face difficult challenges and choices in the coming weeks and months, it is hard not to turn the clock back to the beginning of March, when we were in collective denial and were being lied to by our government about this virus, our preparedness, and the implications of this crisis. Regardless of one’s politics, I think it is generally accepted (even by his supporters, who have rationalized his behaviors in the past) that we are governed by a person unconcerned with truth. I find this Jonathan Swift quote particularly apt for times when those not telling the truth can sway opinion and endanger us all, including anti-vaxxers, conspiratorial theorists, and our national leadership:
“Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men who come to be undeceived, it is too late.”
In the current moment, we are too late to avert the crisis; perhaps we are not too late to minimize its effects. Let us all be vigilant, so as not be deceived again.
WE ARE IN THE WORLD OF MISINFORMATION
I really need to stop visiting Facebook. Here's a quote from a well known influencer with thousands of followers:
"My patient just showed me a video of a truck picking up a voting box with thousands of ballots in front of the library in Tarzana today! 55 electoral votes were given to Biden without counting the votes here. If you think your voice matters in California or other parts of the country where we are witnessing potential fraud, think again. Beyond sad for our democracy."
It's hard to know what to say:
1. No one gave any electoral votes to anyone. The calling of elections by Edison and the AP (upon which the media rely) is just a formulaic conclusion based upon early counts, exit polls, prior history, and typical performance of specific areas. The electoral college votes later...
2. No one knows how many votes are in the box.
3. What the Trump people who claim fraud throughout the country don't appreciate is that there are Republican election observers at most (if not all) polling places (as there are Democrats) and where the votes are counted. And with such representation, where they witness performance and can lodge complaints, we have seen remarkably little fraud. And see above on the failure of these frauds (as if there were any meaningful number) to vote "correctly" down-ballot...
CONSPIRACY VS. MANIPULATION
Those who know me are well aware of my skepticism about any sort of conspiracy. I’m a firm believer that the easiest explanation for an observed event is usually the correct explanation. This concept is known as Occam’s Razor, posited in the 14th century.
Amazon’s algorithm feels otherwise, with any number of conspiracies of QAnon moving up the charts: https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/tech-news/amazon-qanon-conspiracy-book-climbs-charts-algorithmic-push-n979181. This is deeply disturbing news. The sales numbers and positive ratings on the Internet are the product of a well organized campaign by these conspiracy theorists to lend plausibility and legitimacy to their theories. By pushing book reviews and buying in mass, the book appears to have quite a following and likely will be purchased by the unsuspecting public (which the numbers would tend to support). For an interesting article about how the Internet is a hotbed for such theories, here’s a Wired article from 2018: https://www.wired.com/story/wired-guide-to-conspiracy-theories/
I think people really struggle to comprehend events that to them are seemingly incomprehensible. They scream out for a unified theory that can “explain it all” in ways that make it more palatable, notwithstanding how wildly implausible the conspiracy may seem, the loose connections between and explanations of events, and the remarkable ability of so many people to maintain a juicy secret for so long.
One of the best books debunking myriad theories about a single event is Case Closed, by Gerald Posner. I have been recommending this book for years. Mr. Posner meticulously examines each of the major theories surrounding the Kennedy assassination (including the “magic bullet,” the extra gunshot, the smoke on the grassy knoll, the man with the umbrella…everything). By most accounts, Mr. Posner’s work was the definitive work to resolve the simple fact that Lee Harvey Oswald indeed pulled the trigger of the only gun pointed at the President. Whether he might have had connections to the Russians or the mob is discussed in the book as well, and generally resolved but with some room for doubt about these connections.
I am just finishing a book by Mr. Posner called Pharma. It is a methodical history of the pharmacy industry of a coordinated effort to deceive and mislead, perpetrated by the pharmaceutical industry. The story begins with the early days of patent medicine and elixers through the early days of Merck, Abbot, Parke, Davis, Squibb—real people who created an industry that has helped millions. Posner goes on to explain the history of modern pharmaceuticals, its testing, and distribution, charting the great successes of this industry. But then the book takes a turn to describe an industry that for decades hid data and tests that showed serious risks. It created journals that published industry-funded articles to tout the value of medications of questionable efficacy. But it was the application of advertising skills, paying off doctors, manipulating the press, and pushing pills to the public and their health providers, that changed the landscape and profitability of these companies. The scourge of the opioid crisis is only the latest in a series of nefarious activities by an industry pledged to save lives.
That Posner, a great skeptic of the assassination narratives, so definitively and ruthlessly demonstrates the problems in this industry, is stark. The book’s subtitle is “Greed, Lies, and the Poisoning of America.” While great advances have been made in medical care, this book demands that changes must be made in an industry that has lost its way. Saving lives is admirable; but the senseless sacrifice of lives on the altar of corporate profits is shameful. The Sackler name rightly will go down in history along with the names of other criminal enterprises.
WHY ARE WE WILLING TO BE DECEIVED?
I’ve been thinking about the Russian interference in the 2016 election. That was merely the beginning, as there is more to come with Chinese, Russian and other foreign interests meddling with the news, news feeds, and purported interest groups. It seems pretty clear to most people that we need to do something to stop this sort of meddling. Yet Republicans are reluctant to act, presumably since any action necessarily is conflated with validation of the Mueller investigation (which, to be clear did not exonerate the President and his campaign team). The Senate seems consciously determined to enter the election season without protections against these bad actors for purely political reasons.
We are quick to place blame on the Russians (whose actions have been conclusively proven, while the unsubstantiated “they did it too” claim of Ukrainian interference has not). But perhaps the blame rests with us. We have become lackadaisical in our critical analysis and are so desirous of reading things—regardless of how preposterous, that support the reader’s world view. The Russians are successful because we’re so bad not only at preventing the posting of their manipulations, but because so many of our fellow citizens are so easily manipulated. The Russian strategy only works if people are susceptible to having their fears exploited. In this age of political polarization, egged on by politicians, Super-PACs and the media, and an age of easily accepted conspiracy theories, our population is ripe for exploitation.
SHOULDN’T WE BE EDUCATING AND PREPARING OUR POPULACE FOR THE WORLD?
There is a battle in our school boards and in the media about the content of curriculums in primary and secondary education. I’m going to ignore the fight against science—that’s a whole different question.
The battle lies in the teaching of the humanities. The very name speaks to the fact that these subjects are what make us human—and what elevates the human experience from beyond the mere quotidien to something greater. These subjects, like music, art, and literature, as well as the social sciences, are underfunded and often completely eliminated at the altar of “STEM” and teaching toward college admissions tests. There is much literature on this, but here’s a great short introduction from Education Weekly (entitled, “For the Sake of Humanity, Teach the Humanities”): https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2016/11/16/for-the-sake-of-humanity-teach-the.html
There is another, related, critical battle to be joined and that’s the need to teach our youth—the citizens and leaders for the future—to be better citizens. These lessons are critical—good behaviors (like wearing a mask to protect the vulnerable around you), society’s responsibility for all its citizens, understanding our representative democracy, and appreciating how laws and regulations are promulgated. And, most importantly, we need to teach critical thinking—the ability to recognize when one is being bamboozled—discerning and weighing information receives based upon the qualitative difference between sources, understanding that the reporting of facts is different from expression of opinion, and the just plain unfounded assertion. We can best battle Russian bots (or bloviators) when we understand and can respond to manipulation when we see it.
While we’re at it, we are falling behind in the teaching of basic personal economics, and valuable skills of dexterity, and the arts that prepare one for careers and for life. While I am not exactly “Mr. Fixit,” I learned some of this in my middle school, which offered wood shop, metal shop, and drafting (our school even had a fully functioning auto shop)—which we all had to take. And we learned a thing or two about how to balance a checkbook and what credit was all about. Today, we send kids out into the world with scarcely any notion of how to organize themselves financially, or practice basic life skills.
What we need most is basic civics taught in our secondary schools. Perhaps then we will have better defenses to the seemingly limitless manipulations coming from inside and out—from election meddling to fantastical conspiratorial theorizing to truly dangerous anti-science like the anti-vaccination movement.
WE ARE EASILY MANIPULATED
Much has been written about Russian manipulation of social media to sow the flames of distrust and resentment among segments of our society. Indeed, they have been proven to post inflammatory material that is grist for the mill of both the right and left on the very same issue. It also has been established that news outlets that blur the line between reporting and opinion are riling people up for ratings. Add to this the politicians that are using key words and phrases to spark discontent and rally their bases. Top that off with the “click bait” that is forwarded our direction by the algorithms and the masters of manipulation on the internet and one has the recipe of continuing discord.
But here’s the thing: You can only be manipulated if you are predisposed to manipulation. And Americans seem to suffer from this propensity in spades. We are studied and polled and analyzed—and have been for years—to determine our hot buttons for electoral advantage and to determine our tastes so that we can be sold every sort of item that we probably don’t even need. And if you don’t yet believe that we are being manipulated into purchasing things we don’t actually need, consider Oscar Mayer Bologna, Cheez-Whiz or half the stuff hawked on informercials.
All of the manipulation that poisons our politics and our human interaction presupposes that the American people will “rise to the bait” (whether click bait or otherwise) when presented with something. The American people are being manipulated by Russians and bots and fringe groups not because it doesn’t work but because it does. It seems that people are willing to suspend their instinct to question what they read when it comes from a source they are inclined to accept (even when it seems preposterous). Until we are able—as a society—to place critical analysis ahead of blindly following perceived opinion leaders, we have little hope of coming together to address the profound problems we face.
We all know that a fire can only continue as long as there is fuel. The most basic way to put out a conflagration is to deprive the fire of oxygen. In this case, the oxygen is the Internet and cable “news.” It is why it is so important that companies like Facebook, which control much of what we see and how often we see it, must take a lead in “draining the swamp” of lies, hate speech, calls for violence, and misinformation. And if they can’t or won’t do it, we need to consider other ways in which the distributors and re-publishers of these lies and invective can be regulated.
FIRST THE SERIOUS STUFF ON THE CONSPIRACY THEORISTS
What follows is a deeply troubling article about the rise of followers of QAnon. I know I sound like a broken record (there’s a simile for the ages…!), but it is deeply troubling that Facebook and other social media platforms provide a center for crazies like this to communicate with each other and propound absurd theories to attract uninformed followers. But it now appears Facebook is not only a place where conspiracy theorists can congregate and be found by random web-surfing, but the platform’s algorithms are actually directing people to this conspiracy site. Hopefully it will be taking action to restrict this dangerous group’s ability to use social media for proselytizing others.
The NBC article says:
“Facebook aided that growth with its recommendations feature, powered by a secret algorithm that suggests groups to users seemingly based on interests and existing group membership.”
And this, from the Wall Street Journal, regarding Facebook’s dilemma with the falsehoods and their complex relationship with the truth and censorship: https://www.wsj.com/articles/facebook-knows-it-encourages-division-top-executives-nixed-solutions-11590507499
WHY IS IT SO HARD TO BELIEVE?
I’ve been reading some crazy reports of polling. We have become obsessed with polling of Americans’ opinions on all sorts of things. I of course understand the desire of people to follow the election leanings of the populace. But in general, I feel we are being overly polled. The results of polls are considered regular news items. But they’re not news at all. It is grist for the cable news and social media mill—more opinions to bandy about and analyze, as if there is actually meaning behind it. Are any of the following actually “news”?:
How many Americans believe COVID is a hoax
How many people believe that masks don’t reduce the risk of COVID transmission
How many people believe Obama authorized “spying” on Trump
Percentage of Americans who believe in climate change
WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE—AND DO WE CARE?
What people “believe,” regardless of the scientific data, isn’t news. Well, in some cases it is news of pervasive idiocy—not anything of any practical value. Here are some startlers:
31% of adults questioned by the Pew Research Survey in 2015 do not believe that humans evolved and instead believe that humans have existed in their current form since the beginning of time. This statistic does not mean that 31% of all adults might be right, nor that there is a 31% chance that evolution is wrong. It means that 31% of adults questioned do not accept proven facts and the scientific consensus. And to be clear, evolution is at the core of our understanding of life and biology…
A poll by Satellite Internet in 2019 found that 18% of Americans age 18-34 believe the moon landing was a hoax. Curiously, this same group has greater faith in aliens having visited Earth (75% of landing deniers believe aliens have visited us).
According to Public Policy Polling, nearly 50% of all Trump voters believe it may be true that Hillary Clinton was involved in a child sex ring, commonly referred to as “pizzagate.” Pause and think about that for a moment.
Frankly, many of these polls really are polling for something different. We gain no insight into climate change by polling Americans on their “opinion” of this scientific fact. THEIR OPINION THAT IT DOESN’T EXIST DOESN’T MEAN THAT THERE IS A HIGH PROBABILITY IT’S UNTRUE. What it means is that people are ignorant, brainwashed or unwilling to critically consider evidence that is presented to them. Some portion believe that it is inconsistent with their religious beliefs and, on that basis, I suppose I give them a free pass.
These polls belong in the CNN newsfeed as “the Ignorance Barometer of the Day.”
QANON AND CRAZINESS
I think there is far few attention given to the troubling rise of QAnon, an internet-based conspiracy theory network that is mushrooming in membership and exposure. This conspiracy site is gaining believers, followers, and those who adopt some or all of their crazy theories. Just to be clear, the FBI has identified this group as a potential domestic terrorist threat.
As recently as this weekend, our President said that there were the equivalent of “good people on both sides,” by suggesting that they are “people that love our country.” Really? And our Vice President, Mr. Pence, claimed he “knows nothing about it.” That said, here are a few things we do know about the beliefs of these folks:
There is a cabal of Satan worshipers trying to dominate the world.
There is a vast international conspiracy based upon pedophilia / child sex scheme in which Hillary Clinton is a participant
These same people are cannibals
There is a conspiracy focused on bringing down Donald Trump, perpetrated by the “deep state”
George Soros is at the base of this
Coronavirus is a hoax
The leader of this movement remains anonymous, even to his/her followers
There is a religious aspect to their fealty to Q
Our President has retweeted from QAnon sites over 140 times
Trump feigned collusion with Russians to enlist Mueller to join him in exposing the ring
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were attempting a coup d’etat
And, of course, the Russians are behind amplifying these theories and further inflaming us: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-qanon-russia/russian-backed-organizations-amplifying-qanon-conspiracy-theories-researchers-say-idUSKBN25K13T
We now have at least two candidates for Congress, one of whom is in a safe Republican district and so, presumably, will be elected, who are members of this “movement”: https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/22/politics/jo-rae-perkins-qanon-oregon-senate-race/index.html. Here she is in her own words, in responding to the number of COVID cases and deaths:
"I totally believe that that the numbers are doctored," Perkins said. "Because they can destroy the economy. They can blame it on President (Donald) Trump, that the economy is not doing good. Look at how phenomenal the economy was doing."
On a completely different side-note, why exactly did the copy editor add the qualifying parenthetical with President Trump’s first name? Is there another President Trump?
Watch for the phrase, “We are the storm,” which is their identifying slogan.
Despite the President’s benign support and the Vice President’s apparent lack of knowledge, others in the Republican party have stood up against this cancerous part of the party. Ben Sasse, Republican Senator from Nebraska bucks the current trend to cozy up to QAnon, saying they are “…nuts—and real leaders call conspiracy theories conspiracy theories.” Liz Cheney calls it “dangerous lunacy that should have no place in American politics.”
WHO ARE YOU GOING TO BELIEVE?
All of this unwillingness to acknowledge the value of science, inability to apply critical thinking skills, and knowing ignorance of the facts reminds me of the Country-Western title, “Who are you going to believe? Me—or your lying eyes?”
QANON IN GOVERNMENT
While we were sleeping, these conspiratorial nutjobs have been running and winning in primaries. Now there are 11 known QAnon supporters running in November. While 11 is a tiny percentage of 435, and the likely winners are an even smaller percentage, it is startling to see that this fringe group is getting traction in some places. Here’s an article from Axios on these stellar citizens: https://www.axios.com/qanon-nominees-congress-gop-8086ed21-b7d3-46af-9016-d132e65ba801.html
And here is the story of the candidate for U.S. Senate from Oregon. Masks are of no value, according to her. She’s not a scientist or a doctor, but “a reader.” Oh boy… https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/22/politics/jo-rae-perkins-qanon-oregon-senate-race/index.html. From that article, a truly whacky exchange:
I pointed out one glaring one glaring inaccuracy. On October 28, 2017, the anonymous "Q" posted, "Hillary Clinton will be arrested between 7:45 AM -- 8:30 AM EST on Monday -- the morning on Oct 30, 2017." That never happened.
But when I asked Perkins about it, she responded with a question of her own, "Do you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, are you a 100% sure that she was never arrested?"
"Are you a 100% sure she was?" I asked.
"No. I'm not," Perkins said adding that she is a "critical thinker" and doesn't have proof of Clinton's arrest but clearly isn't convinced one way or the other.
She goes on to say that "sometimes misinformation is necessary" to flesh out the truth.
Is this actually America? Or Gilead? Or Oceania? Or the World State? Crazy…
THE ANSWER TO REASONABLE DISCOURSE LIES IN MIDDLE SCHOOL DEBATE
I think we all can agree that critical thinking skills are under siege. Many people don’t seem to understand the difference between a wild assertion and a critically reasoned argument. When one gives the same weight to an assertion as one gives to a thoughtful argument with evidence, one ends up where we are. And as bad as this is, it is exacerbated by an apparent failure to differentiate among the various sources of information out there (like the fact that vaccines work, as backed up by countless studies, vs. a “feeling” that they are either ineffective or anecdotally lead to autism). And then I realized the solution. All we need to do is send people to learn a little bit of Middle School debate and it’ll all be good.
For those who don’t know, I’ve been coaching middle school debaters and teaching parents to be debate judges for the past 15 years, along with my partner in crime, Chris Keyser. Before you ask, yes, our wives think we need to “get a life…” In any event, of all the material we cover, there are three key lessons that we try to teach—lessons that apply to our current situation. Sorta think of this as “everything I ever needed to know, I learned in Middle School debate class…”
1. ASSERTION, REASONING, EVIDENCE
An assertion is just an opinion. Anyone can make an assertion about anything. To give it meat, there must be reasoning associated with that opinion—why is it supported by logic? Finally, any assertion, regardless of its logic, requires evidence to back it up. We currently live in a world where assertions are being made by people who hold a title or who have a microphone and sit in a studio. Their reasoning often is nothing more than trying to connect dots—usually incorrectly. As for evidence, there rarely is much of that at all, other than the assertion of yet another person.
Recently I read with interest a discussion on Facebook where people alleged there was plenty of evidence to “prove” massive voter fraud. The example given was that there were “many affidavits” claiming fraud. The mere existence of these claims was sufficient for their purposes to constitute “evidence.” Of course, one can always get a slew of people who will sign a piece of paper to say almost anything. Indeed, a recent study found that 6% of all Americans believe the Moon landing never happened. That’s 18 million people!
Those who cite the large number of people who claim, without a shred of evidence, that the election was “fixed” are nonplussed that court after court has thrown out these assertions. Why did the court’s throw them out? Because they are mere statements and have no reasoning, nor evidence, to back them up. Here is what Judge Matthew W. Brann wrote in throwing out one case that would have disenfranchised nearly seven million people: “[one would have expected the plaintiff to come] “armed with compelling legal arguments and factual proof of rampant corruption.” Instead they provided only “strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations” that were “unsupported by evidence.”
2. YOU HAVE TO LISTEN
Too often, a young debater is so anxious to speak—to state their opinion—that they don’t bother to listen to the other side. This is like most U.S. Senators, most of whose speeches in debate are not actually even communicated to the other side but are read into a near-empty chamber (or sometimes “read into the record” without actually giving the speech—but that’s another matter). The point is that in order to be heard—to truly be heard, one must learn to listen and be able to respond intelligently to the arguments being made by the other side. The space after one concludes a speech and when other people are talking is not simply the opportunity to take one’s breath until the opportunity to speak again. It is the opportunity to hear an opposing point of view and either respond to that point with logical refutation or perhaps modify one’s position. Without pausing to listen to others, there is no communication. We teach the kids to listen carefully and take notes.
3. NOT ALL SOURCES ARE THE SAME AND THEY SHOULD BE WEIGHED DIFFERENTLY
We increasingly live in an environment where people are quick to cite a study or an opinion, with little regard for the source of that opinion. Some sources are experts in the field (although expertise these days seems to count for little). Some sources are people with political agendas. Some sources are retweeting other sources. What do we teach young debaters?
Not all sources of information are of equal import. An op-ed by a scientist appearing in The New York Times or a double-blind study by Stanford University carry just a little more weight than my Aunt Mildred’s opinion.
Anecdotes are illustrative but hardly dispositive. Just because it happened to someone you know or respect doesn’t mean it happens generally. The plural of anecdote, regardless of the credibility of the source, is not necessarily data.
Then there’s the fallacy of authority. We tend to view the pronouncements of public figures with greater deference than we should. Most politicians, regardless of their good faith, have political motivation. And just because someone is Chief Justice or President doesn’t make them an expert on everything. Their pronouncements are merely assertions of opinion, unless backed up by the aforementioned reasoning and evidence. Finally, people shouldn’t trust Gwyneth Paltrow for anything.
TODAY’S DEBATES ARE NOT DEBATES AT ALL—THEY ARE THEATRE AND A FIGHT TO THE DEATH
When we coach students in debate, we remind them that in the sport of debate, one is not trying to persuade the other team—the only persuading that matters is directed to the judge. One would expect that the “undecided voters” are the “judges.” But with so few undecided voters, many of whom don’t pay attention to cable news and social media, the “debate” isn’t a debate at all. Rather, in our current political environment—on cable news, in Congress, and in social media—it is instead about “firing up the base”—those people who already are partisans. Debates in a public forum is generally between partisans. That means that, other than turning up the heat, not much progress is being made. By way of example, rarely has David Axelrod convinced Rick Santorum on CNN that he is right. And no one is about to convince Donna Brazille of anything…
The only way meaningful discourse can occur is if people enter into conversations with the notion that they really want to learn the truth, that they are willing to be persuaded, and that they share certain values and objectives with their opponents. That’s how the give and take of legislation is supposed to work. But so long as there is “discussion” on cable news or across Facebook, with many other people listening to nail their adversaries and propping up the arguments of their favorite talking heads with supportive comments and “likes,” other factors take over. Truth is not based upon “likes” or public opinion polls. Truth is based upon debate and compromise.
As for discussions even among friends, people won’t admit to being wrong in front of others, particularly if an audience is watching. Insecurities dictate that people retreat into their positions and become more adamant—not less. The space between a person’s post and their next should not simply be a pause before firing up the next argument. Rather, the pause should be the opportunity to consider divergent points of view. Today, conversations across social media and cable news is a blood sport that people want to “win,” and not a forum for the free exchange of ideas. It will be tough to get out of this cycle.
WHAT THIS MEANS TO OUR DEMOCRACY
Chris recounts a lecture he attended once. He doesn’t recall the speaker but the message is important. The gist of it is that “the central prerequisite of our democracy is not our shared belief in liberty or equality, but the acknowledgement on each of our parts of the possibility that we might be wrong.” Hear, hear.