Category Archives: Politics – Truth

Alternative Facts: Did Orwell Make This Stuff Up?

A photo showing the head and shoulders of a middle-aged man with black hair and a slim moustache.

For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable—what then? ~ George Orwell, 1984.

In an earlier post I wrote how Donald Trump—an amygdala with a twitter account—had tweeted: “In addition to winning the electoral college in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” Later Trump repeated this false claim in a meeting with congressional leaders, and Mike Pence has defended Trump’s false claim by saying: “He’s entitled to express his opinion on that.”

Then, in the first official White House briefing, Press Secretary Sean Spicer blasted the press and contradicted all available evidence by claiming that the crowd was the “largest audience to ever witness and inauguration, period.” Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway recently defended Spicer on “Meet the Press,” saying that Spicer didn’t perpetrate falsehoods but “gave alternative facts …”

These are just two recent examples of Trump’s mendacity. As of November 4th, 2016, The Toronto Star had already collected a database of almost 500 Trump lies. That Trump and his minions lie with impunity is hardly news. But as a retired philosophy professor who devoted his life to a search for truth, I’d like to briefly remind readers why the defenses offered by Pence and Conway are so ridiculous, and why the truth is so important.

Let’s begin by asking:  Do you have a right to your own opinion? For example, suppose that you claim that you don’t believe in evolution since it’s just a theory. In response, I point out that when scientists use the word theory—as in atomic, gravitational, quantum, relativity, or evolutionary—it means what normal people mean by “true beyond any reasonable doubt.” I then explain that multiple branches of science converge on evolution—zoology, botany, genetics, molecular biology, geology, chemistry, anthropology, fossil evidence, etc. I also provide evidence that no legitimate biologist denies evolution, and that evolution is confirmed in laboratories around the world every single day. Now suppose your respond, “well I disagree and I have a right to my opinion.” Is that relevant? No it isn’t! I wasn’t claiming that you didn’t have a right to an opinion, I was showing you that your opinion is wrong.

The key here is understanding what you mean by a right. If you are referring to a political or legal right to believe anything you want, no matter how groundless, then you are correct that free speech allows you to ignorantly profess: “the earth is flat,” or “climate change in a hoax created by the Chinese,” or “the moon is made of cheese,” or whatever other nonsense you believe in. But you do not have a right to believe anything if you mean an epistemic right—one concerned with knowledge and truth. In that sense you are entitled to believe something only if you have good evidence, sound arguments, and so on. Ignoring this distinction, many people believe that their opinions are sacred and others must handle them with care. Then, when confronted with counterarguments, they don’t consider that they might be wrong, instead they take offense. But if someone is really interested in what’s true, they won’t take the presentation of counter evidence as an injury.

Of course many persons aren’t interested in what’s true; they just like believing certain things. If pressed about their opinions, they find it annoying and say: “I have a right to my opinions.” There are many reasons for this. Their false beliefs may be part of their group identity; they may find it painful to change their minds; they may be ignorant of other opinions; they may profit from holding their opinion; etc. But if someone continues to defend themselves against counter-evidence with “I have a right to my opinion,” you can be assured of one thing—they aren’t interested in whether their opinion is true or not. So no Trump doesn’t have an epistemic right to his opinions because generally he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

As for “alternative facts” this idea defends a discredited theory that philosophers call epistemological relativism. The basic idea is that there are no universal truths about the world, just different ways of interpreting it. The theory dates back at least to the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras, who said: “man is the measure of all things.” Today we capture this idea with clichés like: “What you believe is true for you and what I believe is true for me” or ” truth is in the eye of the beholder,” or “it’s all relative.” While it is easy to say such things, it is also easy to see that they are wrong.

Do you really think there are alternative facts? Your math teacher says that 2 + 2 = 4, but you like 6 so your alternative truth is 6. Really? Physicists say that the earth is spherical, but your alternative fact that the earth is flat. Just as good? Engineers have their way of constructing bridges but your alternative fact is that duct tape works just as well. Want to cross that bridge? Your doctor tells you to eat healthy, exercise, maintain an ideal weight, and engage in stress reduction activities, but your alternative facts are that eating poorly, living a sedentary lifestyle, being overweight, and smoking to relieve stress is just an alternative fact. No, you don’t really believe any of this. If you think about it for even a moment, you’ll realize that the truth is independent of your opinions; you’ll realize that there are true statements and false ones. And alternative facts are just falsehoods.

As a professional philosopher who devoted his life to a search for truth, the spectacle of constant lying and bullshitting truly pains me. Here is a great quote from fellow professor Michael Brenner who tells us what we might do in response:




Jason Stanley’s: “Beyond Lying: Donald Trump’s Authoritarian Reality”

“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they’ve been fooled.” — Unknown

Beyond Lying: Donald Trump’s Authoritarian Reality,” The New York Times, Nov. 4, 2016, by Jason Stanley, Professor of philosophy at Yale, author of  How Propaganda Works offers some of the most perceptive commentary on our current, frightening political situation.  The key idea is that authoritarian propaganda disregards truth as a means to gain power. Here are some salient quotes from this perceptive piece.

As the Republican candidate for president in 2016, Donald J. Trump has … engaged in rhetorical tactics unprecedented in recent American electoral history … [and] He repeatedly endorsed obviously false claims …

… the media lacked the vocabulary to describe what was happening. Trump was denounced repeatedly for “lying” and at times the apparently more egregious “bald faced lying.” But that is not a sufficient description. Neither was the charge by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt that Trump was in fact a master of “bullshit,” which is distinct from lying in that the speaker is not just communicating information he knows to be false, but is unconstrained by any consideration of what may or may not be true. While this description is technically true, it is at best terribly misleading … our academic and media class has insufficiently grappled with the problem of mass communication.

Liberal democratic societies by definition have a pluralism of value systems. This poses a problem for the politician seeking to gain office … The total audience consists of sub-audiences with conflicting value systems. The problem of mass communication in a liberal democracy is that of creating and conveying a maximally appealing message to an audience made up of groups with conflicting value systems.

There is a familiar way to respond to the problem in United States presidential politics. It is to convey shared acceptance of a value system to one specific group of voters, while concealing one’s commitment to it to other groups in the audience. In the 2012 campaign, the Republican candidate Mitt Romney repeatedly said that President Obama was weakening the work requirements on welfare. The claim was immediately debunked … The goal was to communicate to a certain group of white Southern voters that Romney shared their racial attitudes. But the strategy of communication was sophisticated enough that it provided plausible deniability to the many Republican and independent voters who do not share racist ideology.

Trump has approached the problem of mass communication differently. He has made explicit what was once implicit. Even if America is not really threatened by African-Americans, immigrants, gays, or non-Christians, when these prejudices are made explicit they seem important to people who aren’t interested in facts.

The goal of totalitarian propaganda is to sketch out a consistent system that is simple to grasp … It is openly intended to distort reality, partly as an expression of the leader’s power …

… The goal is to define a reality that justifies … [Trump’s] value system, thereby changing the value systems of his audience. Two questions remain: What is the simple reality that Trump is trying to convey? And what is the value system to which this simple story is intended to shift voters to adopt? …

The simple picture Trump is trying to convey is that there is wild disorder, because of American citizens of African-American descent, and immigrants. He is doing it as a display of strength, showing he is able to define reality and lead others to accept his authoritarian value system.

The chief authoritarian values are law and order. In Trump’s value system, non-whites and non-Christians are the chief threats to law and order. Trump knows that reality does not call for a value-system like his; violent crime is at almost historic lows in the United States. Trump is thundering about a crime wave of historic proportions, because he is an authoritarian using his speech to define a simple reality that legitimates his value system, leading voters to adopt it …

Trump is … certainly openly insensitive to reality. But … It is … bizarre to be satisfied with a description of the rhetoric of a dictator like Idi Amin’s as “insensitive to truth and falsity.” Why have we been satisfied with such descriptions of Trump? Perhaps our media, as well as our academic class, assumes that we are healthy liberal democracy, and not susceptible to authoritarian rhetoric. We now know this assumption is false.

Denouncing Trump as a liar, or describing him as merely entertaining, misses the point of authoritarian propaganda … Authoritarian propagandists are attempting to convey power by defining reality. The reality they offer is very simple. It is offered with the goal of switching voters’ value systems to the authoritarian value system of the leader.

This campaign season has been an indictment of our understanding of mass communication. Either we lacked the ability or concepts to describe authoritarian propaganda, or we lacked the will. Either way, we must do better … It … requires us to confront the failures of elite policy that have led to an erosion of democratic norms, primarily public trust, that make anti-democratic alternatives suddenly acceptable.

I previously blogged about Stanley’s insightful piece, “Democracy and Demagoguery,” which covers related themes. I highly recommend it.

Do You Have A Right To Your Opinion? Trump & Millions of Illegal Votes

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, December 13, 2016.)

Trump: “I believe that cows can jump over the moon.”
Question: “Is that really true?”
Pence: “He has a right to his opinion.”
Conway: That’s just an alternative fact.”

Donald Trump recently tweeted: “In addition to winning the electoral college in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” Mike Pence defended this false statement by saying: “He’s entitled to express his opinion on that.” (Here is the video.) As someone who has devoted his life to a search for truth, such lying, obfuscation, and bad thinking is painful to watch. I honestly believe that lying is the original source of most human suffering.

This exchange and the recent piece, “A philosophy professor explains why you’re not entitled to your opinion,” reminded me that about two years ago  I wrote a five-part entry on this blog about critical thinking. The first part was titled: “The Basics of Critical Thinking Part 1: You Don’t Always Have A Right To Your Opinion.” Given the new post-truth world we inhabit, I thought it might be wise to post an excerpt from that post. Here it is.

Let’s begin by asking:  Are you always entitled to your own opinion? Consider, for example, that you claim evolution is “just” a theory. I point out that the word theory has a very special meaning in science—it means what normal people means by “true beyond any reasonable doubt.” I explain to you that the “theory” of gravity or relativity or the atom are theories in the scientific sense, and that they bring together millions of observations. I then explain that multiple branches of science converge on evolution—zoology, botany, genetics, molecular biology, geology, chemistry, anthropology, etc. I show you that virtually no legitimate biologist denies evolution. Now suppose your respond, “well I disagree, and I have a right to my opinion.” Is that relevant? No it isn’t! I wasn’t claiming that you didn’t have a right to an opinion, I was showing you that your opinion is wrong. Being entitled to your opinion doesn’t show your opinion corresponds to the facts, it just shows that you believe something.

… Now you do have a right to believe anything you want, no matter how groundless, if by entitled you mean the political or legal interpretation of rights. Free speech allows you to ignorantly profess: “the earth is flat,” or “the moon is made of green cheese.” But you don’t have a right to believe anything if by entitled you mean an epistemic (knowledge, concerned with truth) right. In that sense you are entitled to believe something only if you have good evidence, sound arguments, and so on. This is the distinction that causes difficulty. As a result, many people believe that their opinions are sacred and others must handle them with care. And, when confronted with counterarguments, they don’t consider that they might be wrong, instead they take offense.

To understand why you don’t have an epistemic right to your opinion ask what duty I have that corresponds to your right to hold some opinion. (Having a right, implies that others have a duty to respect it. If you have a right to free speech, I do have the duty to let you speak.) Do I have the obligation to agree with you? Surely not, since supposedly I have a right to my opinion which may be different from yours. Do I have the obligation to listen to you? No, since I can’t listen to everyone, and some people, for example, are just scientifically illiterate. I don’t consult them about physics. Do I have the obligation to let you keep your opinion? Not always. If you don’t see an oncoming car as you start to cross the street, then I ought to try to change your mind about crossing that street, assuming that you don’t want to hit by a car. O,r if you don’t see the rise of an authoritarian regime, I ought to try to change your mind about supporting it. And if someone is really interested in what’s true, they won’t take the presentation of counter evidence as an injury.

Of course many persons aren’t interested in what’s true; they just like believing certain things. If pressed about their opinions, they find it annoying and say: “I have a right to my opinions.” There are many reasons for this. Their false belief may be part of their group identity, or they may find it painful to change their minds, or they may be ignorant of other opinions, or they may profit from holding their opinion, etc.

But if someone continues to defend themselves with “I have a right to my opinion,” you can be assured of one thing—they aren’t interested in whether their opinion is true or not.

Jason Stanley: “Democracy and the Demagoguery”

In yesterday’s post I discussed the important and timely work of the Yale philosopher Jason Stanley How Propaganda Works.

Stanley also touched on a connected problem in his recent New York Times piece “Democracy and the Demagogue.” Stanley wonders why the old rules of at least appearing to be civil in political discussions no longer apply. For example, racists politicians used to disguise their racism with phrases like “welfare queen,” or “young buck.” But now we’ve seen racist language in the mainstream and candidates for the American presidency are rewarded for it. Liberal democratic rhetoric no longer unites, but divides citizens; it is explicitly undemocratic. Given that there once was a facade of equal respect governing political language, Stanley wants to know: 1) what changed this situation and 2) what risks do these changes pose for democracy?

Theoretically, in a representative democracy, “An election campaign is supposed to present candidates seeking to show that they have the common interests of all citizens at heart.” But this has been undermined by two factors: 1) candidates must raise huge sums of money so they represent the interests of these huge donors; and 2) they must appeal to “voters [who] do not share democratic values … voters are simply more attracted to a system that favors their own particular religion, race, gender or birth position.”

Another factor is a media culture that encourages “extreme distrust in the political class.” That a majority of Republicans think the President is a Muslim underscores its profound effects.” All of this leads to insincere politics, and people begin to crave demagogues. Candidates could respond to the widespread disgust to real or imagined hypocrisy by presenting themselves “as champions of democratic values.” But this doesn’t appeal to voters who have rejected those values. A better strategy for winning is

by standing for division and conflict without apology. Such a candidate might openly side with Christians over Muslims or atheists, or native-born Americans over immigrants, or whites over blacks, or the rich over the poor. In short, one could signal honesty by openly and explicitly rejecting what are presumed to be sacrosanct political values.

The desire for politicians who are sincere explains the appeal of politicians who won’t compromise. But democracy is built on compromise, “It requires giving equal weight to values that one does not share. But too often, commitment to this principle appears weak
—a failure to stand by one’s principles.” Voters concerned with authenticity forget:

that commitment to the common interest is a strength, not a weakness. Such a commitment requires more strength, not less, than commitment to almost any other value one can imagine (including for example the values of one’s particular religion). It is much easier to declare that one’s own interests are all that matters. Giving equal weight to a very different perspective requires considerably more strength than simply ignoring it.

While “compromise is a natural expression of a commitment to equal respect” what we see in American politics today “is a yearning for politicians who reject commitment to the democratic value of equal respect,” as well as ones who pay less attention to “the voices of the wealthy and powerful have far too long been given outsize weight in American politics.” And what are the risks to our democracy given the current state of affairs? Stanley provides a great insight:

Since candidates who reject equal respect win office by explicitly flouting democratic values, there is no reason to think that, once in office, they will suddenly embrace them. There is no reason to think that any democratic value, such as free and fair elections, will be safe from them. We can expect such politicians to engage in undemocratic practices like voter suppression and gerrymandering, all in the service of protecting the perspectives of their voters.

Stanley does not advocate silencing anti-democratic speech. “We cannot force politicians to commit to protecting democratic values by restricting their democratic freedoms, chief among them the freedom of speech.” But he does worry:

… that a “towering despot” will inevitably rise in any democracy to exploit its freedoms and seize power by fomenting fear of some group and representing himself as the protector of the people against that fear. It is for this reason that Plato declares democracy the most likely system to end in tyranny … The fragmentation of equal respect is a clear alarm for the United States. We must heed it by categorically rejecting politicians who seek to gain office by exploiting the mistaken belief that democratic values are weaknesses.

I think Professor Stanley is right to worry, and I worry with him. The anti-democratic forces are real. They believe they have a monopoly on truth. Let us hope the fanatics don’t prevail.

Summary of Jason Stanley’s: How Propaganda Works

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of The Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, October 31, 2015)

I generally avoid political issues in this blog,  but there are a number of very disturbing trends in American politics today that demand attention. The reason for that attention is simple. As both Plato and Aristotle reasoned long ago, one cannot have a good life without a good government; without a good government, few of us will be able to live well.

It is hard to know where to begin to talk about the poison in American politics today. The contemporary dysfunction has its roots at least as far back as Nixon’s southern strategy, and war crimes in Vietnam, Reagan’s disastrous economic policies which have led to the vast economic inequality we see today, Newt Gingrich’s disgraceful time as Speaker of the House when he began destroying democratic norms by shutting down the government to get his way, the witch hunt against the Clinton administration, the folly, stupidity, and war crimes of the George W. Bush administration, the scandal of Tom Delay as House Speaker, the current insanity of the Freedom Caucus, Republican congressional threats to crash the world economy by not raising the debt ceiling, and more.

There is undoubtedly an asymmetry between the two parties. While the Democratic party has its problems, the Republican party is a true outlier in the history of American politics, an insurgent, reactionary party incapable of governing. Even conservative scholars agree on this point, as the conservative constitutional scholars Ornstein and Mann discuss in “Republicans Have Gone Wild.”

There is so much more to be said about all this than we can say in a short essay, but a good place to begin to understand our current situation is with Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley’s new book: How Propaganda Works. Here is a summary of some of his basic ideas.

Propaganda in the derogatory sense refers to information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, that is used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view. In today’s America for example, the propagandists tell people that voter fraud is a serious problem, or that Mexican immigrants are rapists, or that more guns will solve the gun-violence problem. The purpose of all this? To suppress voting, get re-elected, or sell guns. (Consider how immigration reform received bi-partisan support in the US Senate in 2014, and was about to be approved the US House of Representatives. But when Eric Cantor lost his primary to a fervent anti-immigrationist the reform was immediately killed. Some congressmen obviously feared they wouldn’t get re-elected in their reactionary and racist districts. For the details see the PBS documentary “Immigration Battle.”)

But Stanley wonders why some falsehoods work and others don’t? And why are these lies so impervious to contrary evidence even when believing and acting upon the truth would be in people’s self-interest? Why, for example, will people reject the scientific consensus on climate change, or the overwhelming evidence that more guns equals more gun violence?

According to Stanley propaganda is the “manipulation of the rational will to close off debate” through the use of deception, emotion, misdirection, intimidation, and stereotype. How does this work in supposedly liberal democracies? The key to understanding this is that Americans now live in echo chambers that reinforce their prejudices and presuppositions. This makes them especially prone to propaganda.

Stanley differentiates between propaganda that supports something—let’s go to war because our enemies are evil—and undermining propaganda, which appeals to values in order to undermine those very values. An example of the latter is the false belief that America has a voter-fraud problem which is used to suppress voting in the name of election integrity. Or the false belief that Christians are discriminated against in America justifies denying marriage licenses to gay couples. So values like equality and integrity are used to undermine equality and integrity. (I would add a third category—confusing propaganda. Just say enough contradictory things that people won’t know what to believe and will then give up the search for truth altogether.)

Stanley also invokes the idea of a flawed ideology which generates false beliefs that are impervious to evidence. Once the flawed ideology has been implanted, then you don’t need propaganda anymore, you just reactivate the false belief. For example. if you convince people that President Obama is a Muslim, then you just use his middle name to bring that belief to the surface. Or if you convince them against all evidence that he wasn’t born in America, you just have to keep talking about how foreign he seems.

Where do these false ideologies come from? Stanley argues that they derive from self-interest, especially the belief that we are good, and from our social identity. For example, the lifestyle of American slaveholders in the pre-Civil War south was dependent upon believing blacks were inferior. And it would be hard to reject such beliefs if your social identity depended on those beliefs. Religious beliefs function similarly. Other believers are members of your clan, and it takes courage to admit that you clan has false beliefs, commits atrocities, etc.

In sum, we develop social identity with people who share our interests, and we naturally avoid contrary ideas. This leads to flawed ideologies based on emotion, stereotype and prejudice rather than reason and evidence. These false beliefs are reinforced by propaganda that tells us that freedom or equality demand that we diminish the freedom or equality of others. Such beliefs are almost impossible to refute because different ideas threaten the believer’s ego and social relationships.

Reflection – But who or what determines what ideas are true and what ones are false? Can’t we just say that everyone just believes on the basis of self-interest and social relationships? We could say that, but it isn’t true. Why? Because some things are really true and some things are really false independent of our prejudices. Climate change really is happening, vaccines are really good for preventing disease, voter fraud isn’t really happening, and there are no significant biological distinctions between races. (For more see “Race is a Social Construct, Scientists Argue.” In fact, the idea of race is not a biological notion.) There really is a truth about these matters which is determined not by what you want to be true, but by what really is true. And the truth is discovered in the world by the careful application of the scientific method.