Friday, July 28, 2017

You're own evil demon

I came across this rather interesting use of a very old thought experiment. Descartes was trying to figure out if he existed independently, or if something was controlling him, like an evil demon. He eventually concluded his ability to think proved his independence. The use of this is something I see people doing to themselves or trying to do to others. They try to make people into their own “Cartesian demons”.
You can do it to yourself by thinking you are a failure, then believing it. You can let others do it by allowing them to tell you that you are in some way flawed. You can let them convince you that they are smarter, or that all humans are incapable of understanding some fundamental truth or that none of us know the real way things work. Of course they have the answer, and if you believe them, you give yourself up to them to get it. Or, you just give up to the idea. Either way you’ve let an imaginary “demon” take control.
The extreme case is a cult, but less extreme cases can be seen every day with fake headlines or fake science and claims that reality is fakes. Well established facts become a conspiracy of the elite. Extensive investigations into voter fraud are tossed aside because one paper ballot was counted twice. Always left unmentioned is that the problem was caught and corrected, otherwise, how would we know it ever happened?
People believe we can’t make a difference and that we are being controlled by invisible forces. They fear poison in the water, in our food and even in our medicines. We accept the status quo that there will always be poor despite centuries of solving social problems. There is always some disaster or someone being slighted to prove the point.

The good news, no special powers are required to escape this demon. Just think for yourself. If it’s a claim about science, then find all the research you can and learn how a scientific consensus if formed. If it’s government, get involved. The US just had two polar opposites in the presidency. I’m guessing no one is controlling this. If it’s just that we can’t know everything and we’re just animals, then how do you know that? You would need to know everything to know that we can’t know it. There is nothing to do but learn more. You don’t know what your limits are.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Truth Pledge

People say I argue a lot on facebook. I’m not going to argue about that. But most of the time, I’m trying to just get the discussion on to an honest track. I try to find agreement about basic facts, like pain hurts, and people die, and life is risky, and there are things we don’t know, and love is better than hate. Okay that last one is not a fact, but you get the idea.

 I Pledge My Earnest Efforts To:

 Share truth

  • Verify: fact-check information to confirm it is true before accepting and sharing it
  • Balance: share the whole truth, even if some aspects do not support my opinion
  • Cite: share my sources so that others can verify my information
  • Clarify: distinguish between my opinion and the facts

 Honor truth

  • Acknowledge: acknowledge when others share true information, even when we disagree otherwise
  • Reevaluate: reevaluate if my information is challenged, retract it if I cannot verify it
  • Defend: defend others when they come under attack for sharing true information, even when we disagree otherwise
  • Align: align my opinions and my actions with true information

 Encourage truth

  • Fix: ask people to retract information that reliable sources have disproved even if they are my allies
  • Educate: compassionately inform those around me to stop using unreliable sources even if these sources support my opinion
  • Defer: recognize the opinions of experts as more likely to be accurate when the facts are disputed
  • Celebrate: celebrate those who retract incorrect statements and update their beliefs toward the truth

I heard about this through Bart Campolo’s podcast where he pointed out the people who sign this are going to be the people you already trust. Maybe. Or they are going to be those “others” that you don’t trust and you see as people who sign pledges and don’t understand them. Yep. But it’s a start. If enough people, important people, people who are in positions that are supposed to be trustworthy, sign it, it will begin to carry some weight.

It’s very short and all you do is click the orange button. Email is required, which I know will scare a few people off. It’s not for everyone.

Meanwhile, we can actually start doing this with each other. It’s like recycling. We can shake our fists at the big polluters of the world, but if we aren’t reducing our plastic consumption and separating our garbage, nothing is going to change. As Bart says, “Science can’t proceed unless people agree to be honest with each other about their results. Everything has to be verifiable. When people lie about their results, it slows down the whole process. Science is a conversation and this conversation can only go forward if we agree to these ground rules. In the same way, collective governance, the social contract, social cooperation can only really do well if we agree to have the conversation where we all use the same facts. If we are going to live together, have a community, large or small, we’ve gotta agree to some rules of conversation. The first of those is everybody’s gotta tell the truth about physical things, money that can be accouted for, etc. Without that, we can’t make any decisions, we can’t even argue.”

Oddly enough, I’m now going to cite a study on Buzzfeed. It was also mentioned in the podcast. Usually I don’t trust Buzzfeed, but this one has been reviewed and cited by more reputable sources. It compares the top 20 fake news items on facebook in the last election cycle to the top 20 real news stories. The fake news engaged 8 million people, while real news only had 7 million shares. That’s you. That’s every time you share something and say, “I’m not sure about this, but I’m sharing it anyway.” Or even when you say, “This is dumb.”

I know that’s hard not to do sometimes, but it’s something I’m trying to do lessof myself. There are ways to avoid it and still engage the issues.Share an article that discusses the bad science or “alternative facts” and provides the facts that were left out, or explains the bad analysis. Sometimes, in the case of bad science, the counter argument is to simply show the actual scientific study underlying the discussion. Often, the summary of the study tells you the opposite of what the fake news story says. If we do that we’ll have a facebook full of actual data instead of the interpretation of someone who knows little or nothing about the field. With politics, link the full speech, or to a chapter from Adam Smith, or the Supreme Court decision that is being claimed as supporting evidence, or a longer story of the historical event in question, or a Pew poll,anything but the fake news. You can refer to the fake article by giving the source, title, author and date if you want. I can usually determine fakeness just by examining those four things.

There is also a menu item in facebook to report fake news. This of course requires that you read it and do a little fact checking, but it’s the tool we have for now. Some of you have already figured out to just not join facebook, but I’m assuming you aren’t reading this, so I’m not talking to you. This is for all of my online relationships.

One little story before you go. I participated in my first online discussion group back in 1993. It was a computer group supporting getting technology into the community. In the middle of some other discussion, someone popped in and said we should all be concerned about congress wanting to tax email. He included a number identifying the bill. I dismissed it. This urban legend continued to make the rounds on the Internet for years, making it all the way to the 2000 presidential debate between Al Gore and George W Bush. Neither of them knew how to answer the question or had heard of this bill, because it never existed.

Back then, I learned about Snopes.com and started educating people about this and other stories that only existed in emails and discussion forums. It took over a decade to get rid of that one story. It would have been great if Al had known about fake news, but the term wasn’t on anyone’s radar at the time.It sure is now, but it is already out of control and it played a yuge part in the 2016 election. We owe it to ourselves to create a public square filled with honest discussion.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Fake News

I have an ongoing "discussion" with a local columnist in the free rag in Duluth. He writes about every conspiracy under the sun, his favorite being "Big Pharma". I write to the editor, and get published most of the time. This one is about where fake news comes in general, and how to spot it:

As Gary moves on to the next conspiracy theory, let’s look at his strategy in general. I showed Gary these steps. He says this is what Big Pharma and mainstream media and whoever else he rails against does. I’ll show how you can tell fake from real after showing this 7 step method of phony science.
This system starts with an industry that is somehow threatened by established science facts. It funds and creates information that looks scientific, but isn’t. You can see where the Duluth Reader begins to play a role in this, somewhere around step 5. Whether the Reader or Gary Kohls are unwitting participants or willing supporters of these industries is known only to them.

1 – Create uncertainty about accepted views of science. Not with new science, but by cherry picking papers or experiments that were never confirmed or were proven false. Any isolated article will do.
2 – Spoon feed the press with this disinformation through non-profits and bloggers.
3 – Build and finance industry-aligned front groups that appear to be grassroots efforts.
4 – Recruit professionals into the campaign.
5 – Talk-radio and cable news and more from the earlier steps should pick up the story at this point. They might not realize the source.
6 – The political support is now there. Votes can be had by supporting the ideas. Questioning these unscientific sources can get you labeled as the one who hasn’t read the latest research.
7 – The industry behind the phony science can now step out of the shadows, supported by every aspect of mainstream society. They can appear to be neutral and positive voices in the debate. Maybe even play the victim.

How can we recognize this is happening? It’s not as hard as you think. You need to compare the stories that are published through all the steps with the actual science. You don’t need a degree in every possible science, but you need to learn what actual science looks like. It looks like the articles printed in accepted journals like Nature or Scientific American. It looks like what is being taught in Universities around the world.

You may not be able to evaluate every study but you can evaluate the methodology. You can see who did the study and see if they have knowledge and experience and if they are respected by others with similar knowledge and experience. You can see if something was predicted based on their knowledge that was later shown to be true. You can evaluate where they say their knowledge came from. Did it come from institutions of learning where you would send your children or are they someplace you’ve never heard of? If a study is quoted, get the name of it and who wrote it. Look it up and look up if it has been refuted or even retracted. Often, you need look no further than whatever article you are reading. Does it have a byline saying who wrote it? If there are sources, check a couple of them with the above tests. I have seen citations that actually don’t lead anywhere, or lead to studies that don’t say what the article says it does.


Try this test. There is probably something that comes from universities and science journals that you accept, like the earth is 4.5 billion years old, we went to the moon, climate change is being caused by human action, or germs make you sick. Look at how you were convinced of whatever you accept as true. Look at all the things that would need to be explained if they were not true. Now, apply those standards to vaccines or chemtrails or whatever else is being questioned. If you apply standards of logic and evidence honestly and equally, you will arrive at the best conclusions that humans are currently capable of. If you want to align yourself with the real world, you should at least give it a shot.

If you want more, and I know you are dying for it, click here. My comments are signed with various versions of John W. They go back 3 weeks. I have ones for June 14 and May 25th somewhere, I'll try to get them online. The one with the graphs is a doozy. May 17th is probably my favorite. That's where I started.