Category Archives: Politics – Truth

Fox News: An Information Ecosystem For Fallicious Reasoning

Fox News Channel logo.svg
© Darrell Arnold, Ph.D. – (Reprinted with Permission)

Fox news has long functioned in the service of America’s conservative movement. What is particularly concerning is their willingness to do so even if it undermines truth and sound reasoning. One way that it regularly undermines truth and clear reasoning is through subtext in the framing of their stories. Another is through editorial decisions on what stories to feature — not the framing of their stories but their framing of their news environment. This creates a kind of informational ecosystem that facilitates fallacious reasoning for ideological purposes. As an example of this latter issue, on their webpage on the day of the Helsinki Summit, after many hours they finally featured a story about “bipartisan backlash.” Yet one of their other featured stories of the day was about — you guessed it — Hillary and Bill Clinton. The day’s lead story thus dealt with the issue of the day. The other though didn’t but served as a reminder for the Fox viewer of all the “Clinton scandals.”

Fox’s decisions in this instance, like on so many others, borders on serving as propaganda, and the informational ecosystem they create facilitates fallacious reasoning in service to their ideological agenda. By selective editorial placement a modern media company like Fox will not exactly commit the Tu Quoque fallacy, sometimes known as Whataboutism (though they do this often in enough of their commentary) — but it can certainly facilitate it among its audience, or create an environment for it.

Whataboutism is a version of the Tu Quoque fallacy. Tu Quoque means “you too” or “who’s talking?” The fallacy in its various forms functions as a diversion, directing people’s attention away from the issue under discussion by focusing on how those making a particular accusation are themselves guilty of the same kind of thing they are accusing others of. Whataboutism in a context of a political scandal will often draw attention away from a scandal by pointing out that an opposing political party also has committed scandals that are just as bad or worse.

In our given example, on the one hand, we have an extraordinarily serious scandal of a sitting U.S. president undermining his own intelligence agencies and the preceding U.S. administration, with no apparent reason other than the fact that Vladimir Putin very strongly protested the charges. Indeed, the event was serious enough that Senator John McCain called it “one of the most disgraceful performances of an American president in memory.” John Brennan, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said “Donald Trump’s press conference … rises to and exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes and misdemeanors.’” Various Democrats also clearly condemned the president’s actions at the summit.

The bipartisan reaction to Trump’s performance is highlighted in the main story of the news of the day. On the other hand, we have the “scandals” about the Clintons, which have been thoroughly investigated but already dismissed. In the case of the Hillary “scandals,” for example, the Benghazi Affair was Congress’s longest investigation, costing over 7 million dollars. The Email controversy was investigated by various bodies over numerous years. In both cases, no criminal wrongdoing was found. But a new story about the Clintons is placed a story or two under the lead story of the day. So we have the Trump issue presented, but the Fox audience is at the same time presented with the question: What about Hillary? What about the Clintons?

Fox is facilitating the Whataboutism fallacy as it subtly suggests a false equivalency between a very real scandal of the day and a trumped up one. This is something they have done regularly over the years and continue to this day, bringing up both of Hillary’s controversies on a regular basis. Through their editorial decisions about what stories to feature and highlight (and to run regardless of credibility) and then by decisions about how to place these in proximity to other stories, media companies and information providers like Fox can serve the purpose of facilitating fallacious reasoning, and in the case of Fox to do so for reasons of ideology.

Though this observation here focuses on one story, an observer of Fox will easily find that this is going on regularly. Add to it the regular commentary of certain media figures and the regularity with which it brings up stories with little credibility at all, and we can see that Fox in particular is essentially an information ecosystem that continually nudges toward fallacious reasoning for ideological purposes. It has long been doing this at the service of the Republican’s moves to undermine democratic norms. Now it is apparently pleased to assume the role in support of an administration with clear authoritarian characteristics.

What To Do About “Fake News”

In a recent post, I expressed worry that the objective findings of the Mueller investigation won’t matter because right-wing media won’t report them, and instead create their own false narratives. This leads Trump’s followers to actually believe these lies—its Clinton who is connected to the Russians, Mueller is a Democrat, etc.—which then puts pressure on Republicans to act based on these lies, and the politicians, fearing primary challenges, then either pretend to believe the lies in order to get re-elected, or are themselves so crazy that they actually believe the lies. So what do we do?

There are only 2 basic strategies I can think of: 1) educating the populace so they don’t believe the lies;  or 2) keeping the lies and misinformation from the people in the first place. Thirty years of university teaching, including at some prestigious universities, convinces me that the first strategy is problematic. Teach critical thinking, logic, and encourage students to take courses in the mathematical and natural sciences by all means, but reptilian brains full of cognitive biases leftover from our evolution naturally rebel. We are just so programmed to fall for bullshit. Better to mandate the teaching of critical thinking to young students, especially as a tonic to the religious indoctrination which typically undermines critically thinking for a lifetime.

The second strategy was once relatively successful in the USA when media was governed by the fairness doctrine. The Fairness Doctrine was a policy of the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC), introduced in 1949, that required the holders of broadcast licenses both to present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was—in the Commission’s view—honest, equitable, and balanced. The FCC eliminated the policy in 1987 and removed the rule that implemented the policy from the Federal Register in August 2011. This set the stage for the rise of Fox News and right-wing talk radio that has coarsened political discourse and undermined truth.

Recently, Finland has made news for its relatively successful effort in combatting fake news. They have combined the approaches above, emphasizing both government action and the teaching of critical thinking in the excellent schools. Apparently, they have been more successful than anyone else so far.

What if Mueller proves his case and it doesn’t matter?

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, November 22, 2017.)

Dave Roberts of Vox has just published what I believe is the most important article I’ve read recently about the crisis of American democracy: America is facing an epistemic crisis: What if Mueller proves his case and it doesn’t matter? Here’s a brief summary of the piece followed by a brief commentary. (For the record I think Trump will fire Mueller.)


The essence of his argument is:

1) Republicans believe fairy tales: Pizzagate, Obama wasn’t born in the USA and wiretapped Trump, Seth Rich was assassinated by Democrats, Trump had millions of votes stolen, uranium deal is a scandal, Clinton using email account is criminal, etc.

2) There is plenty of evidence that makes it highly probable that there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia meant to affect the election.

3) This leads to the following possible scenario:  a) Mueller proves his case; b) Trump and right-wing media reject the evidence and invent fairy tales about the issue; and c) the Republican base believe their media.

4) In other words, the right-wing no longer accepts knowledge.

“What if there is no longer any evidentiary standard that could overcome the influence of right-wing media?” Over the last two decades, conservatives have rejected the mainstream institutions which previously arbitrated factual disputes and disseminated knowledge—government, journalism, science, and the academy. Instead, the right relies on their own parallel set of institutions, especially their media ecosystem.

But the right’s institutions are not of the same kind as the ones they seek to displace. Mainstream scientists and journalists see themselves as beholden to values and standards that transcend party or faction. They try to separate truth from tribal interests and have developed various guild rules and procedures to help do that. They see themselves as neutral arbiters, even if they do not always uphold that ideal in practice.

But the difference, of course, is that the right’s institutions don’t care about values or truths that transcend party or faction. They don’t care to be neutral arbiters; they are only concerned with spreading propaganda. Of course, the pretense for conservative media was that mainstream institutions were biased.

But the right did not want better neutral arbiters. The institutions it built scarcely made any pretense of transcending faction; they are of and for the right. There is nominal separation of conservative media from conservative politicians, think tanks, and lobbyists, but in practice, they are all part of the conservative movement. They are prosecuting its interests; that is the ur-goal.

Indeed, the far right rejects the very idea of neutral, binding arbiters; there is only Us and Them, only a zero-sum contest for resources. That mindset leads to what I call “tribal epistemology” — the systematic conflation of what is true with what is good for the tribe.

Of course, there have always been fringe views on the right, but they were held in check by gatekeepers until “the 1990s and 2000s swept those gatekeepers away, giving the loudest voice, the most exposure, and the most power to the most extreme elements on the right. The right-wing media ecosystem became a bubble from which fewer and fewer inhabitants ever ventured.” And the evidence shows that uber partisanship is primarily on the right. Unfortunately, the mainstream media has never learned to deal with this right-wing bubble.

5) Republican politicians have no incentive to indict Trump since: a) right-wing media demands fealty to Trump; b) the base believes and leans on their politicians; and c) GOP officials, fearing a challenge from the right, pay obeisance. So they can’t cross a base who is being lied to about the Mueller investigation or anything else.

As long as Republican politicians are frightened by the base, the base is frightened by scary conspiracies in right-wing media, and right-wing media makes more money the more frightened everyone is, Trump appears to be safe. As long as the incentives are aligned in that direction, there will be no substantial movement to censure, restrain, or remove him from office.

6) So what happens if Trump is proven guilty and we can’t do anything about it?

Mainstream scholars may not think that Trump will be able to get away with firing Mueller or pardoning everyone involved. But why not? “What if facts and persuasion just don’t matter anymore?” As Roberts puts it:

As long as conservatives can do something — steal an election, gerrymander crazy districts to maximize GOP advantage, use the filibuster as a routine tool of opposition, launch congressional investigations as political attacks, hold the debt ceiling hostage, repress voting among minorities, withhold a confirmation vote on a Supreme Court nominee, defend a known fraud and sexual predator who has likely colluded with a foreign government to gain the presidency — they will do it, knowing they’ll be backed by a relentlessly on-message media apparatus.

And if that’s true, if the very preconditions of science and journalism as commonly understood have been eroded, then all that’s left is a raw contest of power.

Donald Trump has the power to hold on to the presidency, as long as elected Republicans, cowed by the conservative base, support him. That is true almost regardless of what he’s done or what’s proven by Mueller. As long as he has that power, he will exercise it. That’s what recent history seems to show.

Democrats do not currently have the numbers to stop him. They can’t do it without some help from Republicans. And Republicans seem incapable, not only of acting on what Mueller knows, but of even coming to know it.


Roberts concludes his piece by saying “we may just have to live with a president indicted for collusion with a foreign power.” But I think that’s not even the worst of it. The worst part is that society can’t survive without the assumption that people tell the truth. That is the reason why truth-telling is a universal moral imperative.

Of course, the truth will eventually find us. The climate will continue to change, people will increasingly live under a tyrannical government, environmental pollution will steadily worsen, science education will continue to degrade, immigration will end, and we will slowly become a 3rd rate technological power, open to domination by foreign powers. And in the meantime, a democratic society won’t survive if its citizens, who vote on important issues, are systematically misinformed and lied to.

Moreover, once the battle is for power alone, once there is no forum for rational discourse to adjudicate between competing views, force and fraud will be all that’s left. Some will come to increasingly dominate, others to further submit. We will all live in a Hobbesian state of nature. As long as those who have usurped power can hold it, as long as their opponents are not relative power equals, the powerful will succeed. But then they will live in a state of war too, forced to continually look over the shoulder for the next coup. I wonder if that’s really in their self-interest?

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.

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

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, comparative anatomy, fossil evidence, etc. I also show that no legitimate biologist denies evolution, and that evolution is confirmed in laboratories around the world every single day—day after day after 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.