Tag Archives: fact

The Disinformation Century

As citizens all over the world confront a daunting number of challenges–climate change, the rise of populism and white nationalism, the decay of social and physical infrastructure, the wealth gap, endless wars, terrorism, and on and on–we find ourselves deprived of an essential tool with which to address them: reliable information.

Such information exists, but it is increasingly countered by seductive propaganda.

I say “seductive” because–thanks to technology– disinformation can be crafted and aimed with precision at people whose profiles suggest the nature of their vulnerabilities.

Remember Cambridge Analytica? It turns out that its influence was far greater than we originally understood.

An explosive leak of tens of thousands of documents from the defunct data firm Cambridge Analytica is set to expose the inner workings of the company that collapsed after the Observer revealed it had misappropriated 87 million Facebook profiles.

More than 100,000 documents relating to work in 68 countries that will lay bare the global infrastructure of an operation used to manipulate voters on “an industrial scale” are set to be released over the next months.

It comes as Christopher Steele, the ex-head of MI6’s Russia desk and the intelligence expert behind the so-called “Steele dossier” into Trump’s relationship with Russia, said that while the company had closed down, the failure to properly punish bad actors meant that the prospects for manipulation of the US election this year were even worse.

The documents were released by a former employee of Cambridge Analytica, Brittany Kaiser, who became a whistleblower. She starred in the Oscar-shortlisted Netflix documentary The Great Hack, and says she decided to go public after last month’s election in Britain.

“It’s so abundantly clear our electoral systems are wide open to abuse,” she said. “I’m very fearful about what is going to happen in the US election later this year, and I think one of the few ways of protecting ourselves is to get as much information out there as possible.”

Kaiser had shared some material with the British parliament in April 2018, but she has since said that there were thousands of additional pages, showing a “breadth and depth of the work” that went “way beyond what people think they know about ‘the Cambridge Analytica scandal.”

Kaiser said the Facebook data scandal was part of a much bigger global operation that worked with governments, intelligence agencies, commercial companies and political campaigns to manipulate and influence people, and that raised huge national security implications.

The firm helped develop what Kaiser describes as a “sophisticated infrastructure of shell companies that were designed to funnel dark money into politics.”

Among the documents are exchanges between Trump donors discussing how to disguise the source of the contributions, and others disclosing tactics used in the election in Great Britain. The most chilling aspect of the new disclosures, however, wasn’t the fact that the organization’s operations were much more far-reaching than previously known, but the description of what it did, and how.

Emma Briant, an academic at Bard College, New York, who specialises in investigating propaganda and has had access to some of the documents for research, said that what had been revealed was “the tip of the iceberg”…

“There’s evidence of really quite disturbing experiments on American voters, manipulating them with fear-based messaging, targeting the most vulnerable, that seems to be continuing. This is an entire global industry that’s out of control but what this does is lay out what was happening with this one company.”

Politics in 2020 are almost guaranteed to be uglier and more misleading than any in the recent past. If we can get past November without self-destructing, however, the growing effort to teach media literacy may make a longterm difference.

Ad Fontes Media has created a very useful media bias chart.  Media Literacy Now has a state report on the status of media literacy education,as well as model legislation for states that currently don’t require such education. There are other, similar efforts underway.

For a long time, it has been popular to claim that “there’s nothing new under the sun,” but we live in an era that disproves the saying. The technical ability to create what the White House celebrates as “alternate reality” is new; we need to respond by creating tools that separate fact from fiction.

Denial Isn’t a River in Egypt

I recently read a sobering report on climate change; apparently, the pace of the predicted rise in sea levels is accelerating. The effects will not be uniform–some areas will see a more rapid rise than others. As the introductory paragraphs noted,

polar ice is melting and the seas are rising faster than at any time in at least 2,800 years. The sea level has climbed by up to nine inches since 1880 and by three inches since 1993, according to research published in Nature.

For Americans living near the coasts and wondering how long before their homes are inundated, a new NOAA report — released on the last day of Barack Obama’s administration — offers region-specific predictions to help them prepare.

I was struck by the matter-of-fact tone of the article. The authors were scientists who obviously believed that they were communicating with readers who would respect settled science based upon verifiable fact and evidence.

Fact and evidence are critically important to human survival.

Because distinguishing fantasy from fiction is so important, we cannot afford to ignore Donald Trump’s constant assaults on reality. That point was made–cogently and emphatically–by Bret Stephens, a Wall Street Journal reporter, in a recent essay for Time Magazine.

You really need to read the entire essay, which is a defense of the importance of objective fact by a conservative journalist.

We honor the central idea of journalism — the conviction, as my old boss Peter Kann once said, “that facts are facts; that they are ascertainable through honest, open-minded and diligent reporting; that truth is attainable by laying fact upon fact, much like the construction of a cathedral; and that truth is not merely in the eye of the beholder.”

And we honor the responsibility to separate truth from falsehood, which is never more important than when powerful people insist that falsehoods are truths, or that there is no such thing as truth to begin with.

Stephens is defending not just reporting, but the importance of credible sources of information in a world where misinformation is a weapon wielded by the unscrupulous.

Ideologically, the president is trying to depose so-called mainstream media in favor of the media he likes — Breitbart News and the rest. Another way of making this point is to say that he’s trying to substitute news for propaganda, information for boosterism.

His objection to, say, the New York Times, isn’t that there’s a liberal bias in the paper that gets in the way of its objectivity, which I think would be a fair criticism. His objection is to objectivity itself. He’s perfectly happy for the media to be disgusting and corrupt — so long as it’s on his side.

As Stephens notes, Trump has a habit of defending questionable or clearly false assertions by saying that “lots of people” agree with him.

Now many people also say Jim Morrison faked his own death. Many people say Barack Obama was born in Kenya. “Many people say” is what’s known as an argumentum ad populum. If we were a nation of logicians, we would dismiss the argument as dumb.

We are not a nation of logicians.

I think it’s important not to dismiss the president’s reply simply as dumb. We ought to assume that it’s darkly brilliant — if not in intention than certainly in effect. The president is responding to a claim of fact not by denying the fact, but by denying the claim that facts are supposed to have on an argument.

For Trump, truth is what you can sell, what you can get away with. For those of us who are astonished by the obvious fact that Donald Trump has gotten away with lying about virtually everything, Stephens has an explanation:

If a public figure tells a whopping lie once in his life, it’ll haunt him into his grave. If he lies morning, noon and night, it will become almost impossible to remember any one particular lie. Outrage will fall victim to its own ubiquity. It’s the same truth contained in Stalin’s famous remark that the death of one man is a tragedy but the death of a million is a statistic.

We all know people who prefer to live in their own realities, no matter how divorced from demonstrable fact. Donald Trump appears to be one of them, and the danger that poses for the nation is–or should be– obvious.

The seas are going to rise whether the new EPA Secretary believes in climate change or not. Home-grown terrorists will continue to pose a greater danger than imported ones, despite Trump’s insistence on blaming Muslim refugees. A “wall” won’t stop the significant percentage of undocumented immigrants who fly into the country legally but then overstay their visas. Protectionism isn’t going to save American jobs that are overwhelmingly being lost to automation, not trade.

To paraphrase Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the thing about facts is that they’re true whether you believe them or not. Basing policies on fantasies rather than evidence is a recipe for disaster.

It’s Complicated, and We’re Scientifically Illiterate

The Washington Post recently reported on correspondence raising an issue that members of the U.S. Senate should respect, but probably won’t.

A letter was sent by ecologists and climate scientists and was endorsed by 65 other researchers, including a number of leaders of forest science, and by several scientific societies, and pointed out that pending bipartisan (!) energy legislation includes claims that burning trees for energy is carbon neutral–a claim that is scientifically incorrect.

“Legislating scientific facts is never a good idea, but is especially bad when the ‘facts’ are incorrect,” say the researchers, led by Phil Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center. “We urge you and other members of the Senate to reconsider this well-intentioned legislation and eliminate the misrepresentation that forest bioenergy is carbon-neutral.”

The amendment in question was introduced by Sen. Susan Collins of Maine; it has seven cosponsors and urges leaders of the federal government to act in ways that “reflect the carbon neutrality of forest bioenergy and recognize biomass as a renewable energy source.”

Shortly after its passage, a press release by Collins hailed the amendment, which, she said, would “help ensure that federal policies for the use of renewable biomass are clear, simple, and reflect the importance of biomass for our energy future.” The release noted the support of groups including the American Forest and Paper Association and the American Wood Council.

The argument for carbon neutrality–which sounds reasonable–is that, although burning trees emit carbon, trees grow back and when they do, they sequester carbon, making the process neutral.

A key problem, say the scientists, is that it takes a long time for trees to grow back after they’re cut down — and a lot can happen in that span of time.

Here’s the real issue: We elect lawmakers to make policy determinations—determinations that inevitably involve tradeoffs. Those tradeoffs may prove to have been unwise, or based upon faulty information, but that’s the nature of the job.

We don’t, however, elect people to legislate scientific fact. (Indiana’s legislature is still the butt of jokes from a century-old effort to change the value of pi.) It may seem like a picky quibble when Congress is doing so much other damage (Yuuge damage), but when lawmakers triumphantly “demonstrate” the falsity of climate change by throwing  snowballs in the Senate chambers, it’s important.

There is a difference between language claiming that a policy choice is being made based upon scientific consensus, or upon careful consideration of contending scientific opinions, and language that characterizes a conclusion as scientific “fact” And it’s an important difference.

In an era where presidential candidates routinely make colossally untrue statements, when Indiana’s governor can tamper with an “independent” report in order to reflect more desirable “factual” findings, when Michigan’s governor can tell Flint’s citizens that he can assess water quality, you might argue that the mere existence of a bipartisan bill recognizing the importance of cutting carbon emissions should be considered a huge win. I get that.

But I think the real lesson is that respecting the distinction between fact and opinion is for that very reason more important than ever.

 

The Attack on Truth

A recent, lengthy column in the Chronicle of Higher Education bemoans what Stephen Colbert used to call “truthiness” and what the author calls an “attack on truth”:

There is simple ignorance and there is willful ignorance, which is simple ignorance coupled with the decision to remain ignorant. Normally that occurs when someone has a firm commitment to an ideology that proclaims it has all the answers — even if it counters empirical matters that have been well covered by scientific investigation. More than mere scientific illiteracy, this sort of obstinacy reflects a dangerous contempt for the methods that customarily lead to recognition of the truth. And once we are on that road, it is a short hop to disrespecting truth.

The author lays much of the blame for this state of affairs at the feet of postmodern literary critics and cultural-studies folks who advanced the argument that truth is relative, and there is no such thing as objectivity.

There is much more, and the entire column is well worth reading, but I think the argument against postmodernism is misplaced. (I think fear, a product of modernity’s disorienting change, has far more explanatory power.) I have my own problems with postmodernism, but there is a difference–which the author glosses over–between “truth” and “fact.” And that difference matters.

Science deals with the discovery of testable facts-– the sort of knowledge that can be confirmed or debunked by experimentation and reason. Facts are demonstrable, and the data upon which they are based can be shared with others who have the necessary skills to evaluate them. The broader meanings and conclusions we humans draw from the facts at our disposal, however, are subject to social construction.

Morality, philosophy and religious doctrines are efforts to identify truths of the sort that cannot be verified in a laboratory and must inevitably remain matters of belief. Or faith.

The author is right about one thing, however: When we choose to disregard facts established by science, we also abandon any pretense that we are searching for those broader truths, or even acting in our own rational self-interest.

When our anti-intellectual policymakers cling ever more frantically to their “willful ignorance,” we’re all in trouble.

Big trouble.

Just the Facts

As regular readers of this blog know, I tend to harp a lot on the inadequacies of the media and the importance of accurate and complete information. My (frequently unarticulated) assumption is that if people agree about the facts of a matter, they are more likely to agree upon what those facts mean. So facts matter. A lot.

Case in point: yesterday, I shared my frustration about Fox News and its incessant drumbeat about a ‘Benghazi scandal’ the details of which the network neglects to specify. One of the commenters purported to fill in the blanks by asserting that the administration had refused to deploy troops that were within range and might have saved lives.

That would indeed be scandalous, if true. But as most other media outlets have reported, every military official in a position to know has emphatically denied the allegation. (Former Secretary of Defense Gates characterized the belief that the nearest troops could have gotten to Benghazi in time to defend the embassy as based upon “a cartoonish understanding” of military operations.) Unless every military expert from Gates on down is part of a conspiracy to protect the administration, the facts do not support the single concrete accusation being made.

I’ve been mulling over the role fact-finding plays in our political debates, because I’ve been reading a book that has been getting a lot of attention lately, Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt’s scholarship is focused upon moral psychology, and the book is an excellent and very accessible exploration of evolutionary morality and the operation of culture on innate human tendencies.

One of the innate tendencies Haidt identifies is a belief in proportionality; that is, a belief that reward should be based upon contribution. Most of us have an innate “fairness” monitor that tells us that the member of the tribe who works hard should be entitled to a greater share of communal goods produced than the slacker.

I think both conservatives and liberals agree with this moral premise. Their dispute is with application—that is, with the facts. For example, if you believe that people are poor because they are lazy and conniving—that is, slackers, you will resent their dependence on public assistance. If you discover that the great majority of poor people work 40 or more hours a week at jobs that simply do not pay enough to allow them to get by, and that those who are “gaming the system” are a very small percentage, you are less likely to feel that you’ve been taken advantage of and more likely to support policies aimed at making the working poor self-sufficient.

There are lots of other examples, but the basic point is: facts matter. Conservatives and liberals (terms that have lost much clarity in any event) share many more moral premises than the pundits and pontificators assume.

What we increasingly do not share is accurate and complete information–and a uniformly credible media.