Later On

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Archive for December 14th, 2019

Extremist cops: how US law enforcement is failing to police itself

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Maddy Crowell and Sylvia Varnham O’Regan report in the Guardian:

Ever since he was a teenager, Joshua Doggrell has believed that the former slave-holding states of the American south should secede from the United States. When he was a freshman in college at the University of Alabama in 1995, Doggrell discovered a group whose worldview chimed with his – the League of the South. The League believes that white southern culture is in danger of extinction from forces such as religious pluralism, homosexuality, and interracial coupling. Doggrell wanted to protect that culture. In 2006, when he was 29 years old, he applied to be a police officer in Anniston, Alabama, a sparsely populated city at the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, where more than half of the residents are people of colour. On his police application, Doggrell wrote that he was a member of the League. Shortly after, he was hired.

During nearly a decade on the police force, Doggrell was a vocal advocate for the League, working to recruit fellow officers to the group. He encouraged his colleagues to attend the League’s monthly meetings, which he held at a steakhouse not far from the police station. On Facebook, he posted neo-Confederate material, including a photo of an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan, and wrote that he was “against egalitarianism in all forms”. He often refused to be in the room when the department recited the pledge of allegiance in front of the American flag.

In 2013, Doggrell delivered the opening speech at the League’s annual conference, on how to “cultivate the good will” of police officers. “The vast majority of men in uniform are aware that they’re southerners,” Doggrell told the audience, which included the prominent neo-Nazi Matthew Heimbach and another Anniston police officer Doggrell had recruited to the group. Doggrell added that most southern officers were “a lot closer” to joining the League than they were 10 or 15 years ago. “My department,” he added, “has been very supportive of me. I’ve somehow been promoted twice since I was there.”

“Everybody knew he was in the League of the South,” Matt Delozier, a retired sergeant from the Anniston police department, told us when we met him near Anniston earlier this year. “I think the general consensus was that nobody understood – if you’re out here in law enforcement in a supervisor’s role, why are you involved in this group?” But it wasn’t until 2015, when a leaked video of Doggrell’s speech led to a report that went viral across the US, that the city’s manager fired him. (Doggrell’s superiors did not raise any concerns over his conduct as an officer.) Doggrell went on to appeal the dismissal and sue both the city and the city manager, arguing that his termination had violated his constitutional rights.

Although it is unusual for a police officer to be so open about his involvement in an extremist organisation, for decades, anti-government and white-supremacist groups have been attempting to recruit police officers into their ranks. “It is something a lot of folks are overlooking,” says Vida B Johnson, an assistant professor of law at Georgetown University. “Police forces are becoming more interested in talking about implicit bias – the unconscious, racial biases we carry with us as Americans. But people aren’t really addressing the explicit biases that are present on police forces.”

According to Johnson’s research, there have been at least 100 different scandals, in more than 40 different states, involving police officers who have sent racist emails and text messages, or made racist comments on social media, since the 1990s. A recent investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting found that hundreds of active-duty and retired law enforcement officers from around the country were members of confederate, anti-government and anti-Islam groups on Facebook. But there is no official record of officers who are tied to white supremacist or other extremist groups because, in the US, there is no federal policy for screening or monitoring the country’s 800,000+ law enforcement officers for extremist views. The 18,000 or so police departments across the country are largely left to police themselves.

To much of the rest of the country, the town of Anniston, Alabama is primarily known as the site of a traumatic episode in the American civil rights movement. On 14 May 1961, the Freedom Riders, a group of black and white civil rights activists, arrived by bus in Anniston to protest segregation. They were attacked by a mob of Ku Klux Klansmen, who slashed the bus’s tyres, broke its windows and set fire to it in an attempt to kill the protesters. Even though the Anniston police department was only a block away, the officers didn’t show up on the scene until the early afternoon, and made no arrests.

Today, Anniston remains sharply divided along racial lines. The majority of the city’s black community lives south-west of downtown, in run-down, single-storey houses. East of the city centre, manicured lawns and picket fences adorn the predominantly white neighbourhood. Although roughly 50% of the city’s 24,000 residents are black, the people who govern the city are mostly white. “It always comes down to leadership,” said David E Reddick, one of the city’s two black council members and a former president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, when we met in his office. “You’ve got a city where you’ve got three whites and two blacks on the council, and you need three votes to get anything done.”

“Blacks are being targeted in this city,” Reddick continued. According to the city’s other black council member, Ben Little, its officers regularly pull black people over for minor offences such as traffic violations. Little also said that members of the police department had often intimidated and harassed him, or stood by while others did. After being particularly vocal in his criticisms of police abuses in 2012, he woke up one morning to find caution tape wrapped like a noose around his truck. When Little and Reddick voiced their concerns about local policing two years ago, the local newspaper, the Anniston Star, responded with the headline: “NAACP leaders, with little evidence, claim racism by police, courts”.

Joshua Doggrell claims that his views are not unusual in Anniston. “My people are Southern people and we grew up proud of our Southern heritage,” he told us, when we met him at a restaurant where he used to host League of the South meetings. He is solidly built, with a round, puffy face, and drove a black pickup truck with Confederate flags on the front bumper. He insisted that he was not a racist or a white supremacist, and claims that he had ceased his involvement with the League by early 2015, but admitted he thought “there are some things the white race did better throughout the history of mankind, like governing”. He couched his extremist views in careful terms, often centred on his religious beliefs: he wasn’t “against blacks”, he claimed – he just didn’t believe God had created the races to be mixed.

Doggrell presented himself as a victim who had been wronged by the city when he was fired from the police department. When he joined the force in 2006, none of his superiors flagged his membership in the League of the South as an issue, he told us. (The police department refused multiple requests for interviews.) Three years later, Doggrell started a local chapter of the League, and invited a number of fellow officers to its first meeting. At the meeting, the League’s founder, a former history professor named Michael Hill, argued that the time had come for a new civil war. “The way I look at it,” Hill told the group, “This is round two of the same battle.”

The department’s tolerance for Doggrell seemed to be mirrored by some of the local press. When Doggrell held his League chapter’s first meeting, in an Anniston diner, he invited a reporter from the Anniston Star to cover it. The Star published a 380-word account of the meeting that read like the announcement of a new seniors’ night at the bingo hall: “Local Secessionists Hold 1st Meeting.”

But several people of colour in Anniston recognised Doggrell’s name in the report and were alarmed. Abdul Khalil’llah, the director of an Anniston-based civil rights organisation, sent letters to the Alabama attorney general’s office and the US secretary of homeland security in April 2009. “I was basically astonished to hear that a police officer – someone who’d taken an oath to uphold the law – could be in a neo-Confederate type of organisation,” Khalil’llah said.

Khalil’llah’s letters went unanswered, but in response to his complaints, the Anniston police department decided to conduct an internal investigation into Doggrell later that year. A few officers had found Doggrell’s views odd, but the department decided to take no action against him. “He is a dedicated, professional police officer,” then police chief, John Dryden, wrote in a report. “He has never showed any radical action in his duties as a police officer.” It was not a concern to the police department that Doggrell was part of an organisation that the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors rightwing extremist organisations, had labelled a “hate group” since 2000. (The SPLC “can label anything”, Dryden wrote in the report.)

Not long after the investigation, Doggrell was promoted to sergeant and then, a few years later, to lieutenant. Doggrell’s former boss, Layton McGrady, acknowledged at a 2015 hearing into Doggrell’s dismissal that Doggrell’s association with the League of the South wasn’t a factor when he was up for promotion. Asked why not, McGrady said it “didn’t affect his job performance or the police department”.

While not every police officer who is tied to a white supremacist group will necessarily act out their beliefs violently, the presence of even a single radicalised officer can terrorise a community. “Even if the number of officers is numerically small, because of the intense risks posed of having a ticking time bomb like that in a department, that’s a big deal,” said Brian Levin, a former NYPD officer who directs the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism in California.

In a number of cases, ideologically radicalised police officers have gone on to commit extreme forms of violence. In one of the most disturbing cases, a civil rights lawsuit from 1991 alleged that a group of officers from the Los Angeles county sheriff’s department systematically terrorised and harassed minority residents by vandalising their homes, beating and torturing them, and even killing members of the community. The accused officers turned out to be members of the Lynwood Vikings, a “neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang”, according to a federal judge. (The county settled the case for $9m.) In 2012, an officer in Little Rock, Arkansas who had once attended a KKK meeting, shot and killed a 15-year-old black boy. Earlier this year, in Holton, Michigan, an officer was fired after a framed KKK application and Confederate flags were discovered in his home.

“Since the inception of this nation, black people have been under threat from the police,” said Whitney Shepard, who works at the DC-based organisation Stop Police Terror Project. “There’s not really ever been a time in this country where the police have protected our communities.”

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Written by LeisureGuy

14 December 2019 at 4:22 pm

Out of this darkness we must find the will to fight back

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George Monbiot writes in the Guardian:

Yes, it’s dark. Darker, arguably, than at any point since the second world war. We have a government not of conservatives but of the radical right, who will now seek to smash the remaining restraints on capital and those who accumulate it. They will take their sledgehammers to our public services and our public protections. They cheated and lied to assist their victory; they will cheat and lie even more to implement their programme.

They are led by a man who has expressed overtly racist views, who won’t hesitate to stir up bigotry and xenophobia whenever he runs into trouble, scapegoating immigrants, Muslims, Romany Gypsies and Travellers, the poor and the weak. They will revel in outrage and affront, using every attack on common decency to normalise the unacceptable. This government has no vision for the country, only a vision for the oligarchs to whom it is bound, onshore and offshore.

So I don’t want to minimise the scale and horror of what we face. But documenting it is one task; the other is resisting it. Here, roughly and briefly, is an outline of how we might begin. I am as tired and shocked and frazzled as you are, so please forgive me if I have missed some essential elements.

First, we must park the recriminations and blame. We need to be fully occupied fighting the government and its backers, not fighting each other. Solidarity is going to be crucial over the coming months. We should seek, wherever possible, to put loyalty to party and faction aside, and work on common resolutions to a crisis afflicting everyone who wants a kinder, fairer, greener nation.

All the progressive manifestos I’ve read – LabourGreenSNPLiberal DemocratPlaid Cymru – contain some excellent proposals. Let’s extract the best of them, and ideas from many other sources, and build an alliance around them. There will be differences, of course. But there will also be positions that almost everyone who believes in justice can accept.

I believe we need to knit these proposals into the crucial missing element in modern progressive politics: a restoration story. A powerful new narrative is the vehicle for all political transformations. While all the progressive parties in the UK have proposed good policies, none of them have told a story that exactly fits the successful narrative template. Let’s work together to craft the story of change.

We should use the new story, and the proposals this narrative vehicle carries, to build mass resistance movements, taking inspiration from – and building on – highly effective mobilisations such as the youth climate strikes. We will draw strength from the movements in other nations, and support them in turn.

A major part of this resistance, I believe, must be the reclamation of a culture of public learning. Acquiring useful knowledge requires determined study. Yet we have lost the habit of rigorous learning in adulthood, once seen as crucial to social justice. This makes us vulnerable to every charlatan who stands for election, and every lie they amplify through the billionaire press and social media.

Those who govern us would love to keep us in ignorance. When they deride “elites”, they don’t mean people like themselves – the rich and powerful. They mean teachers and intellectuals. They are creating an anti-intellectual culture, to make people easier to manipulate. Let’s reinvigorate the workers’ education movements. Let’s restore a rich public culture of intellectual self-improvement, open to everyone. Knowledge is the most powerful tool in politics.

We must expose every lie, every trick this government will play, using social media as effectively as possible. We must use every available tool to investigate its financial relationships, interests and strategies. We should use the courts to sue and prosecute malfeasance whenever we can.

But while all this is happening, more and more people will fall through the cracks. I recognise that charity is no substitute for justice, and we can never fully compensate for the failures of the state. Even so, we must enhance the support and giving networks for the people this government will neglect or attack. No one should have to face the coming onslaught alone.

We will create, to the greatest extent possible, a resistance economy. This means local cooperative networks of mutual support, which circulate social and material wealth within the community. The astonishing work of . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

14 December 2019 at 3:52 pm

“I became part of the alt-right at age 13, thanks to Reddit and Google”

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An anonymous teenager writes in Fast Company:

When I was 13, I was convinced that Jews controlled global financial networks and that black Americans committed homicide at a higher rate than whites. I believed that the wage gap was a fallacy fabricated by feminists, and I was an avid supporter of the men’s rights movement. I accepted all of the alt-right maxims I saw as a Reddit moderator, despite my Jewish upbringing in a liberal household with a tight-knit family that taught me compassion, empathy, and respect for others.

Now, I’m 16, and I’ve been able to reflect on how I got sucked into that void—and how others do, too. My brief infatuation with the alt-right has helped me understand the ways big tech companies and their algorithms are contributing to the problem of radicalization—and why it’s so important to be skeptical of what you read online.

My own transformation started when I switched into a new school in the middle of eighth grade. Like anyone pushed into unfamiliar territory, I was lonely and friendless and looking for validation and social connection. But unlike others, I found that validation on the alt-right corners of the internet. The alt-right and the tech platforms that enable it became the community I needed—until I finally opened my eyes and realized it was turning me into someone who I never wanted to be.

A few weeks after I started going to my new school, I noticed that a bunch of the guys in my class were browsing a website called Reddit. I didn’t understand what the site was or how it worked, but I was desperate to fit in and make a mark in my new environment. I went up to one of those guys during study hall and asked how to use Reddit. He helped me set up an account and subscribe to “subreddits,” or mini communities within the Reddit domain. I spent the rest of that period scrolling through Reddit and selecting the communities I wanted to join.

That’s how I discovered r/dankmemes. At first, I only understood about half of the posts that I saw. A lot of the content referenced political happenings that I had never heard of. There were hundreds of sarcastically written posts that echoed the same general themes and ideas, like “there are only 2 genders,” or “feminists hate men.” Since I had always been taught that feminism and social justice were positive, I first dismissed those memes as abhorrently wrong.

But while a quick burst of radiation probably won’t give you cancer, prolonged exposure is far more dangerous. The same is true for the alt-right. I knew that the messages I was seeing were wrong, but the more I saw them, the more curious I became. I was unfamiliar with most of the popular discussion topics on Reddit. And when you want to know more about something, what do you do? You probably don’t think to go to the library and check out a book on that subject, and then fact check and cross reference what you find. If you just google what you want to know, you can get the information you want within seconds.

So that’s what I did. I started googling things like “Illegal immigration,” “Sandy Hook actors,” and “Black crime rate.” And I found exactly what I was looking for.

The articles and videos I first found all backed up what I was seeing on Reddit—posts that asserted a skewed version of actual reality, using carefully selected, out-of-context, and dubiously sourced statistics that propped up a hateful world view. On top of that, my online results were heavily influenced by something called an algorithm. I understand algorithms to be secretive bits of code that a website like YouTube will use to prioritize content that you are more likely to click on first. Because all of the content I was reading or watching was from far-right sources, all of the links that the algorithms dangled on my screen for me to click were from far-right perspectives.

I liked Reddit so much that after around a month of lurking, I applied for a moderator position on r/dankmemes. Suddenly, I was looking at far-right memes 24/7, with an obligation to review 100 posts a day as a moderator. I was the person deciding whether to allow a meme onto the subreddit or keep it off. Every day, for hours on end, I had complete control of what content was allowed on r/dankmemes. That made me even more curious about what I was seeing, leading to more Google searches—all of which showed me exactly what I already believed to be true—and subsequently shoving me deeper into the rabbit hole of far-right media. I spent months isolated in my room, hunched over my computer, removing and approving memes on Reddit and watching conservative “comedians” that YouTube served up to me.

In my case, the alt-right did what it does best. It slowly hammered hatred into my mind like a railroad spike into limestone. The inflammatory language and radical viewpoints used by the alt-right worked to YouTube and Google’s favor—the more videos and links I clicked on, the more ads I saw, and in turn, the more ad revenue they generated.

Some of the other moderators were under the influence of this poison, too. They started to focus on the same issues that alt-right forums and online media pushed into the headlines, and we would sometimes discuss how women who abort their children belong in jail, or how “trauma actors” would be used to fake school shooting events like the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary. Granted, not all of the moderators took part in these talks. It only takes a few though, and those were the few that I admired the most. It soon felt like a brotherhood or a secret society, like we were the few conscious humans that managed to escape the matrix. We understood what we believed to be the truth, and no one could convince us otherwise.

The alt-right’s appeal started to dissipate that summer, when I took a month-long technology break to go to sleepaway camp before the start of my ninth grade year. But the biggest step in my recovery came when I attended a pro-Trump rally in Washington, D.C., in September 2017, about a month after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where counter-protester Heather Heyer was murdered by a white supremacist. I wanted to show my support of Trump while being able to finally meet the people behind the internet forums where I had found my community. After many tries, I finally managed to convince my mom to take me, telling her I simply wanted to watch history unfold (she wrote about the experience in the Washingtonian). But really, I was excited to meet the flesh-and-blood people who espoused alt-right ideas, instead of talking to them online.

The difference between the online persona of someone who identifies as alt-right and the real thing is so extreme that you would think they are different people. Online, they have the power of fake and biased news to form their arguments. They sound confident and usually deliver their standard messages strongly. When I met them in person at the rally, they were awkward and struggled to back up their statements. They tripped over their own words, and when they were called out by any counter protestors in the crowd, they would immediately use a stock response such as “You’re just triggered.” They couldn’t come up with any coherent arguments; they rambled and repeated talking points.

The rally left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Seeing for myself that the people I was talking to online were weak, confused, and backwards was the turning point for me. It wasn’t immediate, but I slowly and gradually began to reduce my time on Reddit, and I eventually messaged the other moderators and told them that I was going to quit to focus on school. They all said that they wanted me to stay and pleaded with me to just take a break and come back later. I stayed on as a moderator in name only, no longer making decisions about any of the content assigned to me. A few months later, Reddit sent me a message with the subject line: “You have been removed as a moderator of r/dankmemes.” I felt like the character James Franco plays in 127 Hours as he walks out of the canyon that had imprisoned him for days on end, bloodied but alive nonetheless.

At this point, we’re too far gone to reverse the damage that the alt-right has done to the internet and to naive adolescents who don’t know any better—children like the 13-year-old boy I was. It’s convenient for a massive internet company like Google to deliberately ignore why people like me get misinformed in the first place, as their profit-oriented algorithms continue to steer ignorant, malleable people into the jaws of the far-right. My own situation was personally very difficult but had no wider consequences. But don’t forget that Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who murdered nine people in a Charleston, South Carolina, church in 2015, was radicalized by far-right groups that spread misinformation with the aid of Google’s algorithms. It all started when Roof asked Google about black-on-white crime.

YouTube is an especially egregious offender. Over the past couple months, I’ve been getting anti-immigration YouTube ads that feature an incident presented as a “news” story, about two immigrants who raped an American girl. The ad offers no context or sources, and uses heated language to denounce immigration and call for our county to allow ICE to seek out illegal immigrants within our area. I wasn’t watching a video about immigration or even politics when those ads came on; I was watching the old Monty Python “Cheese Shop” sketch. How does British satire, circa 1972, relate to America’s current immigration debate? It doesn’t.

If we want to stop destructive, far-right, and alt-right ideologies from spawning domestic terrorism incidents in the future, tech companies need to be held accountable for the radicalization that results from their systems and standards. Google and YouTube should own up to their part in this epidemic, but I doubt they will. Ethics and morals have no meaning when millions of dollars are at stake. That’s the America that I, along with millions of other Gen Z kids, are growing up in.

During my ordeal into and out of the online alt-right, I’ve learned that . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

14 December 2019 at 3:09 pm

The best books on Critical Thinking

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Critical thinking is something lacking in many aspects of current life. At Five Books Cal Flyn interviews Nigel Warburton about five books on critical thinking:

Do you know your straw man arguments from your weasel words? Nigel Warburton, Five Books’ philosophy editor and author of Thinking from A to Z, selects five of the best books on critical thinking—and explains how they will help us make better informed decisions and construct more valid arguments.

We’re here to talk about critical thinking. Before we discuss your book recommendations, I wonder if you would first explain: What exactly is critical thinking, and when should we be using it?

There’s a whole cluster of things that go under the label ‘critical thinking’. There’s what you might call formal logic, the most extreme case of abstractions. For example take the syllogism: if all men are mortal, and Socrates is a man, you can deduce from that structure of arguments that Socrates is mortal. You could put anything in the slots of ‘men,’ ‘Socrates,’ ‘mortal’, and whatever you put in, the argument structure remains valid. If the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. That kind of logic, which can be represented using letters and signs rather than words, has its place. Formal logic is a quasi-mathematical (some would say mathematical) subject.

But that’s just one element of critical thinking. Critical thinking is broader, though it encompasses that. In recent years, it’s been very common to include discussion of cognitive biases—the psychological mistakes we make in reasoning and the tendencies we have to think in certain patterns which don’t give us reliably good results. That’s another aspect: focussing on the cognitive biases is a part of what’s sometimes called ‘informal logic’, the sorts of reasoning errors that people make, which can be described as fallacious. They’re not, strictly speaking, logical fallacies, always. Some of them are simply psychological tendencies that give us unreliable results.

The gambler’s fallacy is a famous one: somebody throwing a die that isn’t loaded has thrown it three times without getting a six, and then imagines that, by some kind of law of averages, the fourth time they’re more likely to get a six, because they haven’t yet got one yet. That’s just a bad kind of reasoning, because each time that you roll the dice, the odds are the same: there’s a one in six chance of throwing a six. There’s no cumulative effect and a dice doesn’t have a memory. But we have this tendency, or certainly gamblers often do, to think that somehow the world will even things out and give you a win if you’ve had a series of losses. That’s a kind of informal reasoning error that many of us make, and there are lots of examples like that.

I wrote a little book called Thinking from A to Z which was meant to name and explain a whole series of moves and mistakes in thinking. I included logic, some cognitive biases, some rhetorical moves, and also (for instance) the topic of pseudo-profundity, whereby people make seemingly deep statements that are in fact shallow. The classical example is to give a seeming paradox—to say, for example ‘knowledge is just a kind of ignorance,’ or ‘virtue is only achieved through vice.’ Actually, that’s just a rhetorical trick, and once you see it, you can generate any number of such ‘profundities’. I suppose that would fall under rhetoric, the art of persuasion: persuading people that you are a deeper thinker than you are. Good reasoning isn’t necessarily the best way to persuade somebody of something, and there are many devious tricks that people use within discussion to persuade people of a particular position. The critical thinker is someone who recognises the moves, can anatomise the arguments, and call them to attention.

So, in answer to your question: critical thinking is not just pure logic. It’s a cluster of things. But its aim is to be clear about what is being argued, what follows from the given evidence and arguments, and to detect any cognitive biases or rhetorical moves that may lead us astray.

Many of the terms you define and illustrate in Thinking from A to Z—things like ‘straw man’ arguments and ‘weasel words’—have been creeping into general usage. I see them thrown around on Twitter. Do you think that our increased familiarity with debate, thanks to platforms like Twitter, has improved people’s critical thinking or made it worse?

I think that improving your critical thinking can be quite difficult. But one of the ways of doing it is to have memorable labels, which can describe the kind of move that somebody’s making, or the kind of reasoning error, or the kind of persuasive technique they’re using.

For example, you can step back from a particular case and see that somebody’s using a ‘weak analogy’. Once you’re familiar with the notion of a weak analogy, it’s a term that you can use to draw attention to a comparison between two things which aren’t actually alike in the respects that somebody is implying they are. Then the next move of a critical thinker would be to point out the respects in which this analogy doesn’t hold, and so demonstrate how poor it is at supporting the conclusion provided. Or, to use the example of weasel words—once you know that concept, it’s easier to spot them and to speak about them.

Social media, particularly Twitter, is quite combative. People are often looking for critical angles on things that people have said, and you’re limited in words. I suspect that labels are probably in use there as a form of shorthand. As long as they’re used in a precise way, this can be a good thing. But remember that responding to someone’s argument with ‘that’s a fallacy’, without actually spelling out what sort of fallacy it is supposed to be, is a form of dismissive rhetoric itself.

There are also a huge number of resources online now which allow people to discover definitions of critical thinking terms. When I first wrote Thinking from A to Z, there weren’t the same number of resources available. I wrote it in ‘A to Z’ form, partly just as a fun device that allows for lots of cross references, but partly because I wanted to draw attention to the names of things. Naming the moves is important.

The process of writing the book improved my critical thinking quite a lot, because I had to think more precisely about what particular terms meant and find examples of them that were unambiguous. That was the hardest thing, to find clear-cut examples of the various moves, to illustrate them. I coined some of the names myself: there’s one in there which is called the ‘Van Gogh fallacy,’ which is the pattern of thought when people say: ‘Well, Van Gogh had red hair, was a bit crazy, was left-handed, was born on the 30th of March, and, what do you know, I share all those things’—which I do happen to do—‘and therefore I must be a great genius too.’

That’s an obviously erroneous way of thinking, but it’s very common. I was originally going to call it the ‘Mick Jagger fallacy,’ because I went to the same primary school as Mick Jagger (albeit not at the same time). People seem to get a kick out of the idea of sharing irrelevant features—it might be a birthday or it might be a hometown—with somebody famous. But so what? It doesn’t mean you’re going to be Mick Jagger, just because you went to the same primary school. In the end I called it the Van Gogh fallacy, and it’s quite amusing to see that it’s actually now got some currency online and elsewhere. People use it as if it were an established term, which I guess it is now.

I love that. Well, another title that deals with psychological biases is the first critical thinking book that you want to discuss, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. Why did you choose this one?

This is an international bestseller by the Nobel Prize-winning behavioural economist—although he’s principally a psychologist—Daniel Kahneman. He developed research with Amos Tversky, who unfortunately died young. I think it would have been a co-written book otherwise. It’s a brilliant book that summarizes their psychological research on cognitive biases (or its patterns of thinking) which all of us are prone to, which aren’t reliable.

There is a huge amount of detail in the book. It summarizes a lifetime of research—two lifetimes, really. But Kahneman is very clear about the way he describes patterns of thought: as using either ‘System One’ or ‘System Two.’ System One is the fast, intuitive, emotional response to situations where we jump to a conclusion very quickly. You know: 2 + 2 is 4. You don’t think about it.

System Two is more analytical, conscious, slower, methodical, deliberative. A more logical process, which is much more energy consuming. We stop and think. How would you answer 27 × 17? You’d have to think really hard, and do a calculation using the System Two kind of thinking. The problem is that we rely on this System One—this almost instinctive response to situations—and often come out with bad answers as a result. That’s a framework within which a lot of his analysis is set.

I chose this book because it’s a good read, and it’s a book you can keep coming back to—but also because it’s written by a very important researcher in the area. So it’s got the authority of the person who did the actual psychological research. But it’s got some great descriptions of the phenomena he researches, I think. Anchoring, for instance. Do you know about anchoring?

I think so. Is that when you provide an initial example that shapes future responses? Perhaps you’d better explain it.

That’s more or less it. If you present somebody with an arbitrary number, psychologically, most people seem prone when you ask them a question to move in the direction of that number. For instance, there’s an experiment with judges. They were being asked off the cuff: What would be a good sentence for a particular crime, say shoplifting? Maybe they’d say it would be a six-month sentence for a persistent shoplifter.

But if you prime a judge by giving an anchoring number—if you ask, ‘Should the sentence for shoplifting be more than nine months?’ They’re more like to say on average that the sentence should be eight months than they would have been otherwise. And if you say, ‘Should it be punished by a sentence of longer than three months?’ they’re more likely to come down in the area of five, than they would otherwise.

So the way you phrase a question, by introducing these numbers, you give an anchoring effect. It sways people’s thinking towards that number. If you ask people if Gandhi was older than 114 years old when he died, people give a higher answer than if you just asked them: ‘How old was Gandhi when he died?’

I’ve heard this discussed in the context of charity donations. Asking if people will donate, say, £20 a month returns a higher average pledge than asking for £1 a month.

People use this anchoring technique often with selling wine on a list too. If there’s a higher-priced wine for £75, then somehow people are more drawn to one that costs £40 than they would otherwise have been. If  that was the most expensive one on the menu, they wouldn’t have been drawn to the £40 bottle, but just having seen the higher price, they seem to be drawn to a higher number. This phenomenon occurs in many areas.

And there are so many things that Kahneman covers. There’s the sunk cost fallacy, this tendency that we have when we give our energy, or money, or time to a project—we’re very reluctant to stop, even when it’s irrational to carry on. You see this a lot in descriptions of withdrawal from war situations. We say: ‘We’ve given all those people’s lives, all that money, surely we’re not going to stop this campaign now.’ But it might be the rational thing to do. All that money being thrown there, doesn’t mean that throwing more in that direction will get a good result. It seems that we have a fear of future regret that outweighs everything else. This dominates our thinking.

What Kahneman emphasizes is that System One thinking produces overconfidence based on what’s often an erroneous assessment of a situation. All of us are subject to these cognitive biases, and that they’re extremely difficult to remove. Kahneman’s a deeply pessimistic thinker in some respects; he recognizes that even after years of studying these phenomena he can’t eliminate them from his own thinking. I interviewed him for a podcast once, and said to him: ‘Surely, if you teach people critical thinking, they can get better at eliminating some of these biases.’ He was not optimistic about that. I’m much more optimistic than him. I don’t know whether he had empirical evidence to back that up, about whether studying critical thinking can increase your thinking abilities. But I was surprised how pessimistic he was.


Unlike some of the other authors that we’re going to discuss . . .

Staying on Kahneman for a moment, you mentioned that he’d won a Nobel Prize, not for his research in psychology per se but for his influence on the field of economics. His and Tversky’s ground-breaking work on the irrationality of human behaviour and thinking forms the spine of a new field.

There has been a significant tendency in economics to talk about an ideal subject, making rational decisions for him or herself, and that didn’t take into account the kinds of cognitive biases that we’ve been discussing. The discipline of behavioural economics, which is very firmly established now, is kind of the antidote to that. You factor in these patterns of behaviour actual people have, rather than these idealized individuals making rational assessments about how they satisfy their desires. That’s probably a caricature of economics, but that’s the gist of it.

Let’s look at Hans Rosling’s book next, this is Factfulness. What does it tell us about critical thinking?

Rosling was a Swedish statistician and physician, who, amongst other things, gave some very popular TED talks. His book Factfulness, which was published posthumously—his son and daughter-in-law completed the book—is very optimistic, so completely different in tone from Kahneman’s. But he focuses in a similar way on the ways that people make mistakes.

We make mistakes, classically, in being overly pessimistic about things that are changing in the world. In one of Rosling’s examples he asks what percentage of the world population is living on less than $2 a day. People almost always overestimate that number, and also the direction in which things are moving, and the speed in which they’re moving. Actually, in 1966, half of the world’s population was in extreme poverty by that measure, but by 2017 it was only 9%, so there’s been a dramatic reduction in global poverty. But most people don’t realise this because they don’t focus on the facts, and are possibly influenced by what they may have known about the situation in the 1960s.

If people are asked what percentage of children are vaccinated against common diseases, they almost always underestimate it. The correct answer is a very high proportion, something like 80%. Ask people what the life expectancy for every child born today is, the global average, and again they get it wrong. It’s over 70 now, another surprisingly high figure. What Rosling’s done as a statistician is he’s looked carefully at the way the world is.

People assume that the present is like the past, so when they’ve learnt something about the state of world poverty or they’ve learnt about health, they often neglect to take a second reading and see the direction in which things are moving, and the speed with which things are changing. That’s the message of this book.

It’s an interesting book; it’s very challenging. It may be over-optimistic. But it does have this startling effect on the readers of challenging widely held assumptions, much as Steven Pinker‘s The Better Angels of Our Nature has done. It’s a plea to look at the empirical data, and not just assume that you know how things are now. But pessimists tend not to notice changes for the better. In many ways, though clearly not in relation to global warming and climate catastrophe, the statistics are actually very good for humanity.

That’s reassuring.

So this is critical thinking of a numerical, statistical kind. It’s a bit different from the more verbally-based critical thinking that I’ve been involved with. I’m really interested to have my my assumptions challenged, and Factfulness is a very readable book. It’s lively and thought-provoking.

Coming back to what you said about formal logic earlier, statistics is another dense subject which needs specialist training. But it’s one that has a lot in common with critical thinking and a lot of people find very difficult—by which I mean, it’s often counter-intuitive.

One of the big problems for an ordinary reader looking at this kind of book is that  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 December 2019 at 3:00 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Education

6 ways to get started on a plant-based diet

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When I decided to follow a whole-food plant-based diet, I just switched overnight. It was somewhat confusing at first — not having any repertoire of meals made me flounder a bit, not to mention not knowing where to start planning the meal. I

It strikes me now as allied to the disorientation one gets when, long accustomed to watching movies or plays with a clearly defined leading role or roles accompanied by supporting roles, one watches an ensemble piece: the experience of unconsciously searching for the lead character is at first confusing — “Who are all these characters? Who’s the lead?” Compare “The Return of the Secaucus Seven ” or “The Anniversary Party” the “star” to “Hamlet” or “High Noon” — the latter two are involve a central character and various supporting roles; the former two have equal billing for various roles.

The same with a plant-based meal: it’s an ensemble piece, not one with a lead (the role meat plays in most meals). But, like any good ensemble movie or play, a plant-based meal can, in my experience, be more interesting than the traditional structure of having the whole thing centered on one character (or food). The interplay and relationships among the characters/ingredients enrich the whole with an equality of diversity.

Still, if you are accustomed to preparing meals on the lead-character model, the ensemble meal is at first somewhat bewildering: “Who’s the lead?” becomes “Where do I start?” That’s what I discuss in this previous post.

I personally like jumping in with both feet because I enjoy the sensation of gradually emerging from confusion into understanding — a sensation available only if you first plunge yourself into confusion. Many people really don’t like the sensation of confusion: it triggers a kind of panic, as though you’re trapped — it can feel as though you’re suffocating, but for lack of clarity and understanding rather than air. But in fact it won’t kill you and you will not be a permanent resident in that state of confusion. If you relax and view the experience as a tourist, taking note of interesting aspects and continuing to walk through it until things start to come together and make sense, the entire experience becomes pleasurable and interesting. It’s a (remote) cousin of the experience of solving a crossword puzzles: challenges along the way but great satisfaction as everything snaps into place — cf. also jigsaw puzzles. What interests me is a puzzle experience that one naturally encounters in a life situation.

But YM, as they say, MV. So the website created for The Game Changers documentary includes this step-by-step way of easing into a plant-based diet:

When it comes to making food choices, everyone has their own goals and their own rate of change. Some people cut out animal products entirely, while others start by including more plant foods, and going from there. The bottom line is that every time you choose “more plants” you are making a positive choice. And contrary to what most diet plans will tell you, every positive step counts. Here are a few of our tips for getting started:


For some people, this could mean choosing one meal a day to eat plant-based (like breakfast.) For others, this could mean dedicating one or two days per week to eating fully plant-based. In both cases, deciding ahead of time and planning accordingly is usually key.


You might be surprised to discover just how many of the foods you already enjoy are plant-based, including stir-fries, soups, pasta dishes, sandwiches, and grain-based breakfasts like granola and oatmeal, not to mention the huge variety of naturally plant-based meals from international cuisines including Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Mexican, Middle Eastern, and African.


If you like cereal for breakfast, experiment with a plant-based milk. If you typically grab a fast-food burger once a week, opt for a plant-based one. Same goes with protein powders. If you like chilli for lunch, use your usual recipe but just stick with beans or swap in a ground beef substitute. If you like enchiladas, curries, stews, sliders, pasta bolognese, etc., our Recipes offer plant-based versions that have the same look, comfort and taste. Focus on options that feel familiar, before jumping into unfamiliar ingredients and dishes.


In addition to having a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, beans, grains, nuts, seeds, and spices on hand, also make sure you stock your fridge, freezer and cupboards with plant-based milks, burgers, burritos, pizza, nut butters, dark chocolate, and so on. The foods you get started on should taste good and fill you up, even if they aren’t perfectly healthy. It’s much more important to enjoy your new way of eating than drudge through bland meals and snacks that leave you unsatisfied.


Deprivation diets never last long, but eating patterns that taste good, feel good, and yield tangible results (improved energy, fitness, appearance, health, etc.) create a positive feedback loop that gets stronger and stronger over time. You will likely also be surprised by just how varied plant-based eating actually can be, with literally thousands of new flavors, textures and combinations to try.

6. . . .

Continue reading.

Although they don’t specifically say it, it’s clear that they are talking about a whole-food plant based diet, not one that relies on refined foods or products foods manufactured using industrial processes from refined ingredients and sold packaged under a brand name.



Written by LeisureGuy

14 December 2019 at 9:09 am

A brief history of the Nanaimo bar

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The Nanaimo bar is surprisingly good, and it originated just up-island from where I live now. Sara Bonisteel reported in the NY Times earlier this year:

The Canadian city of Nanaimo, in British Columbia, has been a scrappy outpost of the Hudson’s Bay Company, a coal mining center and a timber town. But its place in history may be forever entwined with its culinary namesake, one of the world’s sweetest treats.

The Nanaimo bar (pronounced nuh-NYE-mo) is a three-layer no-bake square that for the last seven decades or so has been a steadfast source of comfort to Canadians at weddings and funerals, birthdays and bar mitzvahs. Across the country, you’ll find the sugary bars for sale at small-town gas stations and supermarkets, where they compete with Nanaimo bar baking kits. In 2017, the Tim Hortons restaurant chain created a filled doughnut with the flavors of the Nanaimo bar for the nation’s sesquicentennial, a nod to its status.

Even its name is proudly Canadian.

“I like to call it the Kardashian of Canadian desserts because really, if it had been named anything else, I don’t think it would have lasted,” said Lenore Newman, the author of “Speaking in Cod Tongues: A Canadian Culinary Journey.” “But it’s the Nanaimo bar, so of course people make it.”

The square looks something like a geological cross section. Its base is sedimentary: coconut and chopped walnuts bound together by a buttery silt of cocoa and crushed graham crackers. A middle layer of yellow buttercream teeters on the brink of liquefaction. And its top crust of chocolate, hard and brittle, thaws like the Arctic tundra the longer it lingers at room temperature.

“It’s that balance of sweetness and texture that makes it just so appealing, and it looks pretty,” said Anna Olson, a pastry chef and the host of the Food Network Canada show “Bake With Anna Olson.” “For the home cook, it’s an attractive dessert: It doesn’t look sloppy, it doesn’t look crafty.”

The Nanaimo bar’s story begins with the so-called dainty recipes of the mid-20th century, treats engineered to be whipped up for unexpected company from pantry staples.

“The base layer was one of these 1950s recipes that circulated among housewives in mill towns all around the British Empire,” said Dr. Newman, a geography professor at the University of the Fraser Valley, in British Columbia, who also noted that a New Zealand dessert, the caramel slice, has a similar base.

Dr. Newman believes that the women of Nanaimo added the middle and top layers. The first mention that she and a student, Shea Wind, could find was in a 1953 recipe in The Vancouver Sun for London smog bars, which stated that they were also called Nanaimo bars.

The use of custard powder — an instant custard mix, which was a pantry staple of the empire, devised for those with egg allergies — gave their new dainty its distinctive yellow belt.

Around the same time, bakers in Canada’s prairie provinces were serving up a similar creation, also called the smog bar, which Jean Paré, 91, learned how to make from her mother, Ruby Elford, in Irma, Alberta, a town of 250 about 110 miles southeast of Edmonton.

“I forget how many do’s I went to before I finally found that they were called Nanaimo bars by other people,” she said in a phone interview, using an old-fashioned term for a gathering.

Mrs. Paré (pronounced Perry) is a well-known Canadian cookbook author whose “Company’s Coming” books have sold by the millions. She included Nanaimo bars in her first book in the series, “150 Delicious Squares,” in 1981.

Before she wrote cookbooks, Mrs. Paré catered events. Nanaimo bars were almost always on the dessert-square tray, which would make an appearance anytime a sweet snack was required, often at the “midnight lunch” served after the dinner and dancing at Albertan wedding receptions. “I didn’t have to bake them, and they froze so well,” she said.

Only once, she said, did she decide to sub out the Nanaimo bar, and people asked for them by name: “So that was the last time I ever tried that.”

Susan Mendelson was a university student in Vancouver in the 1970s when she started making the bars and selling them at a local theater, using a recipe from a classmate. They were a hit, and she opened a catering company, the Lazy Gourmet, with a friend.

She published the basic recipe in her first cookbook, “Mama Never Cooked Like This,” and variations in subsequent ones, including the official cookbook of the 1986 world’s fair in Vancouver, which Dr. Newman credits with helping to spread the bar’s fame. Ms. Mendelson’s version of the bar was so good that the novelist Margaret Atwood included it in her “Canlit Foodbook,” which compiled writing and recipes from Canadian authors.

And the city of Nanaimo finally took notice of its well-traveled square. A mascot, Nanaimo Barney, turned up at public functions, and a contest was held in the 1980s to find the ultimate Nanaimo bar recipe. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Article as a PDF.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 December 2019 at 8:39 am

Posted in Daily life, Food

Gillette 1940’s Aristocrat and Creed Green Irish Tweed

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Creed’s Green Irish Tweed is a classic fougère fragrance, and their shaving soap is excellent though grossly overpriced. This tub I got some years back at a much lower price, but even then it was too much. Still, I do enjoy it, and the Rooney Victorian I have is a wonderful brush—a good resilience with fuzzy tips.

Three passes with the Gillette Aristocrat of that era — Gillette loved the name and used it for a variety of razors, the last being the gold-plated Slim Handle — left my face smooth and ready for an application of GIT EDT.

The weekend begins!

Photo was enhanced with effects, thus the coloration.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 December 2019 at 7:59 am

Posted in Shaving

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