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What We Owe Each Other: T. M. Scanlon’s Egalitarian Philosophy

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I’ve been watching The Good Place, and though for me it was somewhat slow-starting, it has gotten better and better and taken me into some moral philosophy reading. Martin O’Neill wrote in Boston Review in June 2016:

Some years ago, I had the privilege of studying in graduate school at Harvard under T. M. Scanlon—Tim, as everyone who knows him calls him. As of a few days ago, he has taught his last class as a full-time member of the Harvard philosophy department, where he arrived from Princeton in 1984. But, though he is freshly retired, he has, I hope and expect, not taught his last student. Because Scanlon’s intellectual contributions are important and enduring.

Scanlon is a modest man, so he might not appreciate my saying it, but he stands as one of the most powerful and insightful moral and political philosophers of recent decades. His largest book, What We Owe to Each Other (1998), develops and defends a distinctive approach to interpersonal morality, known as contractualism. Scanlon’s idea is that interpersonal morality—giving others their due—involves being able to justify your conduct to others. Doing right by other people means treating them in ways they cannot “reasonably reject.” More recent work includes a subtle account of the role and function of moral blame in Moral Dimensions (2008) and, in 2014’s Being Realistic About Reasons, a defense of a kind of moral realism, the claim that moral truths exist independently of humans’ beliefs and attitudes.

While Scanlon has been a system-builder in moral philosophy, his work in political philosophy, by contrast, focuses on particular values. His 2003 book The Difficulty of Tolerance includes an account of freedom of expression as well as insightful essays on toleration, human rights, and punishment, among other topics. Now Scanlon is at work on a book whose subject has concerned him for a long time, but which has in just the past five or so years emerged as a central axis of political debate: inequality.

Scanlon’s ideas about equality are philosophically significant. They also have the potential to inform how we ought to approach day-to-day politics.

To see how, it helps first to return to a long-running intellectual dispute over the value of equality and the meaning of egalitarianism. Before I crossed the Atlantic, I studied at Oxford, where, in the 1990s, two important figures of recent political philosophy, G. A. Cohen and Ronald Dworkin, found themselves pitted against each other. The sticking point was the nature and substance of egalitarianism.

In the debates between Cohen and Dworkin, it had somehow come to seem obvious that, whatever else might be said of egalitarian views, equality demanded equal distribution of something. The core question for egalitarians of this stripe was formulated with great clarity by the economist and philosopher Amartya Sen in 1979: “Equality of What?”

Dworkin’s answer was equality of resources. He argued that an egalitarian state should take no particular interest in individuals’ levels of subjective welfare (for which those individuals should take responsibility themselves) but instead should ensure that individuals have an equal claim to the resources needed to form and pursue their own plans and ambitions. The philosopher Richard Arneson, in contrast, endorsed equality of opportunity for welfare. His idea—which was later labelled “luck egalitarianism”—was that individual welfare levels should be a matter of distributive concern for egalitarians. But individuals need not be entitled to a particular level of welfare itself. Rather, individuals’ need equal opportunity to exercise choice and responsibility in their pursuit of welfare. Sen himself favored equality of capabilities, defined as opportunities to achieve particular kinds of valuable individual functionings or states. And Cohen, like Arneson a proponent of a form of luck egalitarianism, went in for a kind of hybrid objective or equilisandum—“access to advantage,” which combined elements of some of these other views.

To my mind, it wasn’t obvious who was correct. It was, however, obvious that all of these writers conceptualized the issues correctly: an egalitarian society distributed some good or other equally to all members.

But my secure sense of confidence, widely shared by political philosophers of my background and training, ran aground against the rocks of Scanlon’s understated resistance to the assumptions of the Oxford view. He argued that the concern with inequality is not some abstract interest in a particular kind of distributive pattern. (He also pointed out that this perspective provides easy grist for anti-egalitarians and those on the political right.) There is, on Scanlon’s view, a great deal more to the normative significance of equality. We don’t just want to see equal distribution of some thing. We want to live together, on terms of equal recognition, in ways that avoid interpersonal domination, prevent the emergence of stigmatizing differences in status, allow people to retain the self-respect that comes with seeing themselves as equal to others, and preserve the kind of background equality that can be a precondition for fair competition in the political and economic domains.

Scanlon’s account of equality isn’t simple; it resists capture in a one-line slogan. It is, one might say, frustratingly complicated. But that is completely right and proper, because the normative reality of our political lives just is frustratingly complicated. Our philosophical thinking about political values should be as simple as possible, but not simpler.


What if democratic societies followed Scanlon and thought about the value of equality as embedded in the character of social relations? Our governments would approach policy questions in a new way.

For example, imagine that you get to choose between two policies to equalize income. The first increases unionization rates, thereby driving up workers’ bargaining power and wages. The second leaves unionization rates low and doesn’t help workers gain bargaining power, but it does pay a wage subsidy in the form of a government transfer payment. This compensates for the bad outcomes of the labor market.

On the distributive model that we argued about at Oxford, we might be indifferent to the choice between these two policies. The decision would come down to empirical facts about which policy delivers more equal amounts of our salient good—whether resources or overall welfare.

So, to fill in some empirical assumptions, let’s further imagine a world in which the second policy, with low rates of unionization, is more economically efficient but involves the creation of jobs that are in some ways sites of domination, injurious to the self-respect of workers. An egalitarian who only cares about the distribution of one “master good”—e.g., welfare or resources—might say that we can then compensate workers for the welfare deficit they experience at work by appropriately increasing the level of their wage subsidy. What matters is just how well off people are left overall.

By contrast, a view such as Scanlon’s, emphasizing the irreducible egalitarian significance of people’s status and self-respect and their protection from social domination, will be much more reluctant to collapse everything into a calculus of overall economic outcomes. A more respectful work environment might therefore be a demand of equality, even if it incurs some cost in terms of economic efficiency.

The distributive approach to equality fits with a model of egalitarian public policy that is essentially compensatory in nature. It may be seen as just a brute fact that, in the economic arena, many people lack opportunities or suffer indignities and harm to their sense of standing and self-respect. A state concerned with promoting greater equality could then come along after the fact and redistribute goods or welfare toward those who have lost out in economic life.

But, on the social egalitarian model that Scanlon advances, ex post compensation is not good enough. Instead, a state concerned with equality must ensure, from the start, that people are able to pursue lives of robust, individual agency within the economic domain, with a secure sense of their standing as equals among others. Instead of being concerned only with redistribution, egalitarian public policy should incline toward predistribution, which aims to reshape economic institutions so that they foster egalitarian social relationships, as well as more evenly distributed economic rewards.

In the political domain, it has been interesting to see that social democratic parties in many places have lately been thinking hard about what an economic agenda focused on predistribution might look like. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

It’s interesting to see the transition from (moral) philosophy to (political) practice.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 December 2019 at 10:46 am

How Disinformation Hacks Your Brain

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Brett Beasley writes in the Scientific American:

Three years ago, Edgar Welch sent a text message to a friend announcing he was “Raiding a pedo ring, possibly sacraficing [sic] the lives of a few for the lives of many.” Two days later, he drove 350 miles to a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor called Comet Ping Pong and entered with a .38 revolver and an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle. He fired shots inside in an attempt to investigate what he believed was a child sex ring with ties to top Democratic Party leaders and sent restaurant patrons and staff fleeing in fear. The sex ring was fake news. The consequences, however, were real. Welch left the premises under arrest and later pled guilty to local and federal weapons charges.

At the time of Welch’s disinformation-driven rampage, “post-truth” had just recently entered the public imagination. A few weeks before Welch’s arrest, Oxford Dictionaries declared it the word of the year. Many people still struggled to understand how a polite, soft-spoken person like Welch could be led so far from reality. But as the disinformation age has continued to develop over the past three years, science has not stood still. It has given us a more detailed picture than ever of the ways that disinformation hacks our truth judgments.

If the picture is detailed, it is also disconcerting. It suggests that you and I are probably not so different from Edgar Welch as we might like to think. Take for example, what happens when we are subjected to repeated false claims. In a recent study, a research team led by Jonas De keersmaecker found that even those of us who are intelligent, analytical and comfortable with ambiguity find statements more believable simply because we have heard them repeated.

This phenomenon, known as the “illusory truth effect,” was first documented in the 1970s, but it is more relevant than ever in the era of fake news. One might immediately think of Donald Trump, who is a prolific peddler of this type of untruth. The Washington Post recently reported that there are “more than 350 instances in which [Trump] has repeated a variation of the same claim at least three times.” In fact, Trump has repeated some false claims more than 200 times—for example, his claim that his border wall is being built. Of course, there’s nothing new about this type of huckster’s grift. But online environments supercharge it. They give repeated false claims instant global distribution. More importantly, they allow the person making false claims to go on doing so while dodging the pressure (and potential legal repercussions) that accompany similar claims in public or in traditional news sources.

Psychologists say that what makes repeated claims seem truer is their “fluency.” Fluency means the cognitive ease with which we process a claim. Repeated claims are easier to represent and comprehend. For that reason, they just feel good. Our minds take this feeling as a cue that the claim is true.

In a recent review of the research, Nadia M. Brashier and Elizabeth J. Marsh identify two additional ways disinformation hacks our truth judgments. One that is closely related to fluency and the good feelings it generates is memory. The information and experiences stored in our memory are powerful weapons in the fight for truth. But, as with fluency, we take our memories as cues, not as the raw materials for forming well-considered judgments. We tend, in other words, to go with “good enough.” We often accept claims as true when they only partially fit with what we know or remember.

Additionally, we can fall prey to the “illusion of explanatory depth,” a tendency to overestimate our knowledge and understanding of the issues we care about. Research shows that when we do, we are more likely to hold extreme beliefs and to accept fake news as true.

Unfortunately, digital tools may be making our memories even weaker and less effective for judging truth. As Brashier and Marsh point out, “search algorithms return content based on keywords, not truth. If you search ‘flat Earth,’ for example, Google dutifully returns photoshopped pictures for a 150-ft. wall of ice that keeps us from slipping off the planet.” For this reason, relying on the internet as truth-on-demand rather than looking to our memories and acquired knowledge can backfire in serious ways.

Brashier and Marsh also point out a more basic mismatch between our brains and the digital environment: We tend to  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 December 2019 at 5:01 pm

Finland is winning the war on fake news. What it’s learned may be crucial to Western democracy

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Eliza Macintosh reports at CNN:

On a recent afternoon in Helsinki, a group of students gathered to hear a lecture on a subject that is far from a staple in most community college curriculums.

Standing in front of the classroom at Espoo Adult Education Centre, Jussi Toivanen worked his way through his PowerPoint presentation. A slide titled “Have you been hit by the Russian troll army?” included a checklist of methods used to deceive readers on social media: image and video manipulations, half-truths, intimidation and false profiles.

Another slide, featuring a diagram of a Twitter profile page, explained how to identify bots: look for stock photos, assess the volume of posts per day, check for inconsistent translations and a lack of personal information.

The lesson wrapped with a popular “deepfake” — highly realistic manipulated video or audio — of Barack Obama to highlight the challenges of the information war ahead.

The course is part of an anti-fake news initiative launched by Finland’s government in 2014 – two years before Russia meddled in the US elections – aimed at teaching residents, students, journalists and politicians how to counter false information designed to sow division.

The initiative is just one layer of a multi-pronged, cross-sector approach the country is taking to prepare citizens of all ages for the complex digital landscape of today – and tomorrow. The Nordic country, which shares an 832-mile border with Russia, is acutely aware of what’s at stake if it doesn’t.

Finland has faced down Kremlin-backed propaganda campaigns ever since it declared independence from Russia 101 years ago. But in 2014, after Moscow annexed Crimea and backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, it became obvious that the battlefield had shifted: information warfare was moving online.

Toivanen, the chief communications specialist for the prime minister’s office, said it is difficult to pinpoint the exact number of misinformation operations to have targeted the country in recent years, but most play on issues like immigration, the European Union, or whether Finland should become a full member of NATO (Russia is not a fan).

As the trolling ramped up in 2015, President Sauli Niinisto called on every Finn to take responsibility for the fight against false information. A year later, Finland brought in American experts to advise officials on how to recognize fake news, understand why it goes viral and develop strategies to fight it. The education system was also reformed to emphasize critical thinking.

Although it’s difficult to measure the results in real-time, the approach appears to be working, and now other countries are looking to Finland as an example of how to win the war on misinformation.

“It’s not just a government problem, the whole society has been targeted. We are doing our part, but it’s everyone’s task to protect the Finnish democracy,” Toivanen said, before adding: “The first line of defense is the kindergarten teacher.”

Sorting fact from fiction

At the French-Finnish School of Helsinki, a bilingual state-run K-12 institution, that ethos is taken seriously.

In Valentina Uitto’s social studies class, a group of 10th-graders were locked in debate over what the key issues will be in next week’s EU elections. Brexit, immigration, security and the economy were mentioned with a flurry of raised hands before the students were asked to choose a theme to analyze.

“They’ve gathered what they think they know about the EU election … now let’s see if they can sort fact from fiction,” Uitto said with a smirk.

The students broke off into groups, grabbing laptops and cell phones to investigate their chosen topics – the idea is to inspire them to become digital detectives, like a rebooted version of Sherlock Holmes for the post-Millennial generation.

Her class is the embodiment of Finland’s critical thinking curriculum, which was revised in 2016 to prioritize the skills students need to spot the sort of disinformation that has clouded recent election campaigns in the US and across Europe.

Continue reading.

In the US, education in critical thinking skills cannot get traction because when students begin exercising those skills, their parents often become upset and pressure school boards to discontinue teaching those skills.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 December 2019 at 4:58 pm

Rhode Island students sue for the right to learn civics

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It has come to this. Stacy Teicher Khadaroo reports in the Christian Science Monitor:

Last Thursday, the same morning that Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that the U.S. House of Representatives would draft articles of impeachment, a federal judge began considering another matter with deep implications for the democracy: whether students have a constitutional right to an adequate public education to prepare them for civic life.

As lawyers argued over moving forward to trial, dozens of teenagers crammed the gallery of the U.S. District Court here, with lead plaintiff Aleita Cook, a recent graduate of a Providence high school, observing from one of the armchairs normally reserved for a jury.

Fourteen named plaintiffs – students and parents – filed the class-action lawsuit, Cook (A.C.) v. Raimondo, against Gov. Gina Raimondo and other state officials last year. It argues that Rhode Island violates students’ constitutional rights by leaving many of them without key skills and knowledge to exercise such basic civic responsibilities as voting or jury duty.

If they win, the case could go down in history as the Brown v. Board of Education for their generation.

It goes to the heart of the relationship between education and the success of the American experiment. Like other fights over educational fairness, the plaintiffs root it in the struggle for civil rights and the nation’s long reach toward ideals of equal opportunity and participatory democracy.

“What I’ve learned as far as civics is, I guess kind of the presidents,” Ms. Cook says after the hearing. “I didn’t learn my voting rights through school,” she says. Nor was she taught about the balancing roles of the three branches of government.

On her own time, she says found her way to a youth activist group that has helped fill in some holes in her civics education. Now that she’s 18, she’s excited to be able to vote. But if students want to learn about civics in school, “it’s more in an AP [Advanced Placement] course rather than a required class,” she says.

Real life as civics lesson

Among the inadequacies noted in the legal complaint are that many immigrant students here are not taught English well enough to qualify to serve on juries once they become adults, and that low-income schools lack not only civics education, but also activities such as debate and student newspaper, the types of training grounds that wealthier districts typically offer. In Providence, schools were recently taken over by the state.

Whether the lawsuit succeeds or fails, for the youths involved, working with lawyers to build a case has already been the civics lesson of a lifetime.

“You’re really the national test case,” Michael Rebell, lead counsel and an education equity advocate at Teachers College, Columbia University, tells the students. “If we can win this, then all kids throughout the United States will have a federal constitutional right.”

Many states have redistributed education dollars in response to state-level court battles seeking justice for students in poor districts. Traditionally, education is a matter of state and local control, so it’s a big hurdle to persuade a federal judge to move forward.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is considering similar questions in a lawsuit by Detroit students against Michigan officials for what they argue is a constitutional right to literacy.

The current case could boil down to how Judge William Smith interprets the 1973 Supreme Court opinion in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez. The 5-4 decision left the funding equity matter in the state’s hands and noted that the U.S. Constitution doesn’t mention education specifically.

Mr. Rebell told the judge Thursday that Rodriguez left an opening for future cases to show a link between an inadequate education and the ability to exercise constitutional rights.

Anthony Cottone, representing Rhode Island education officials, countered that Rodriguez closed the door on federal involvement. There is “no fundamental right to education under the Constitution,” he said.

Rather, Mr. Cottone argued, it is up to local school districts and the state legislature to determine educational standards and funding.

Judge Smith peppered both lawyers with questions. He brought up that only 14% of students in the U.S. were found to be top performers in reading in a recent comparison, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). The remaining 86% couldn’t distinguish between fact and opinion in complex texts, he said, asking Mr. Cottone whether that might raise reasonable concerns about the future of the democracy.

Such concerns are valid, Mr. Cottone said, but federal litigation isn’t the solution.

(Neither of them mentioned that U.S. students outperformed the average of 9.9% of students globally who had mastered those complex reading skills. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development administers the PISA in 79 countries.)

One reason Rhode Island community groups have helped bring the federal lawsuit is that two lawsuits in state court to establish a state constitutional right to education have failed.

Plaintiff June, a third-grader with blond hair in a loose ponytail, sat in the jury box to observe with her mother, Moira Hinderer, and Ms. Cook. But the legal volleys couldn’t compete with her penchant for drawing, and she frequently ducked down to pluck colored pencils out of a purple box in her backpack.

“I have the privilege to have a job where I can take a half day off to take her to court and have a discussion about what a court is,” Ms. Hinderer says. “For a lot of families that’s just not reality. So the school needs to be providing an equitable experience where kids get what they need … to know how you participate in a democracy.”

For many of the urban teens attending the hearing in the statue-flanked limestone Federal Building downtown, it was their first visit to a courthouse.

“The experience was really amazing,” says Jayson Rodriguez, a junior at the Met High School. It “pushed forward my desire to pursue the path of being a lawyer and to eventually understand the vernacular that these people are using,” he says during a pizza lunch with other youth organizers at the office of the Rhode Island Center for Justice, whose executive director, Jennifer Wood, is co-counsel for the plaintiffs.

Symone Burrell found her first court hearing exciting but frustrating. “It was really concerning to hear [the state’s lawyers] just keep stating the point that education was not a right. They just kept repeating it and repeating it,” says the community college student who is active with ARISE, a group that helps Southeast Asian youths. “It’s kind of scary that the people who are running our education think that way.”

It could take several years for potential appeals to play out, if Judge Smith allows a trial to go forward. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 December 2019 at 7:38 am

“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 . . .

Continue reading.

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  . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

14 December 2019 at 3:00 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Education

Why learning a new language is like an illicit love affair

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Marianna Pogosyan, a lecturer in cultural psychology at the IES Abroad in Amsterdam and at the University of Amsterdam’s Politics, Psychology, Law and Economics (PPLE) college in The Netherlands, writes in Aeon:

Learning a new language is a lot like entering a new relationship. Some will become fast friends. Others will hook their arms with calculus formulas and final-exam-worthy historical dates, and march right out of your memory on the last day of school. And then sometimes, whether by mere chance or as a consequence of a lifelong odyssey, some languages will lead you to the brink of love.

Those are the languages that will consume you – all of you – as you do everything to make them yours. You dissect syntax structures. You recite conjugations. You fill notebooks with rivers of new letters. You run your pen over their curves and cusps again and again, like you would trace your fingers over a lover’s face. The words bloom on paper. The phonemes interlace into melodies. The sentences taste fragrant, even as they tumble awkwardly from your mouth like bricks built of foreign symbols. You memorise prose and lyrics and newspaper headlines, just to have them at your lips after the sun dips and when it dawns again.

Verbs after adverbs, nouns after pronouns, your relations deepen. Yet, the closer you get, the more aware you become of the mirage-like void between you. It’s vast, this void of knowledge, and you need a lifetime to traverse it. But you have no fear, since the path to your beloved gleams with curiosity and wonder that is almost urgent. What truths will you uncover amid the new letters and the new sounds? About the world? About yourself?

As with all relationships, the euphoria wears off eventually. With your wits regained, you keep dissecting and memorising, listening and speaking. Your accent is incorrigible. Your mistakes are inescapable. The rules are endless, as are the exceptions. The words – gracebless youonce upon a time – have lost their magic. But your devotion to them, your need for them is more earnest than ever. You have wandered too far from home to turn back now. You feel committed and vulnerable, trusting of their benevolence. On the occasion of your renewed vows, the language comes bearing gifts of inspiration and connection – not only to new others, but to a new you.

Many renowned writers have revelled in the gifts of their non-native tongues. Vladimir Nabokov, for instance, had been living in the United States for only a few years before he wrote Lolita (1955): a work that has been hailed as ‘a polyglot’s love letter to language’ and had him called a ‘master of English prose’. The Irishman Samuel Beckett wrote in French to escape the clutter of English. The Canadian Yann Martel found success writing not in his native French, but in English – a language that he says provides him with ‘a sufficient distance to write’. This distance, observes the Turkish novelist Elif Shafak of writing in her non-native English, leads her closer to home.

When Haruki Murakami sat at his kitchen table to write his first novel, he felt like his native Japanese was getting in the way. His thoughts would rush out of him like out of a ‘barn crammed with livestock’, as he put it in 2015. Then he tried writing in English, with limited vocabulary and simple syntax at his hands. As he translated (‘transplanted’, he calls it) his compact English sentences ‘stripped of all extraneous fat’ into Japanese, a distinctly unadorned style was born that decades later became synonymous with his worldwide success. When the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri started writing in Italian – a language she had been loving and learning for years – she felt like she was writing with her weaker hand. She was ‘exposed’, ‘uncertain’ and ‘poorly equipped’. Yet, she writes in 2015, she felt light and free, protected and reborn. Italian made her rediscover why she writes – ‘the joy as well as the need’.

But affairs of the heart rarely leave any witnesses untouched. Including our mother tongues. My grandmother has a collection of letters that I wrote to her after I left Armenia for Japan. Once in a while, she takes out the stack of envelopes with Japanese stamps that she keeps next to her passport, and reads through them. She knows all the words by heart, she insists with pride. One day, as we sit across each other with a screen and a continent between us, grandma shakes her head.

Something changed, she tells me ominously, skimming my sentences through her oversized glasses. With each letter, something kept changing, she says.

Of course something changed, grandma, I tell her. I moved to Japan. I hit puberty. I…

No, she laments with teacher’s remorse, your writing changed. First, it was the odd spelling mistake here and there. Then, the verbs and the nouns would pop up in wrong places.

Silence settles between us. I keep my eyes on the procession of English letters on my keyboard.

It’s nothing dramatic, she tells me, mostly to console herself, but enough for me to hold my breath every time I stumbled on errors that weren’t there before.

She opens another envelope.

Oh, and then, she exclaims, the punctuation! All of a sudden, there were too many commas. Then a single dot at the end of your sentences.

She lifts her glasses on top of her puff of white hair and begins to wrap her treasures back into my late grandfather’s handkerchief.

The last one that you sent me, she says with a defeated simper, that’s when everything changed. You wrote in our letters, you used our words, but it no longer sounded Armenian.

The truth is that entering an intimate relationship with a new language often colours everything. Our eyes expect the new words. Our ears habituate to the new sounds. Our pens memorise the new letters. While the infatuation takes over our senses, the language’s anatomy etches into our brains. Neural pathways are laid, connections are formed. Brain networks integrate. Grey matter becomes denser, white matter gets strengthened. Then, splatters of the new hues begin to show up in letters to grandma.

Linguists call this ‘second language interference’, when the new language interferes with the old language, like a new lover rearranging the furniture of your bedroom, as if to say – this is how things will be done around here from now on. Somehow, writing exposes this interference (this betrayal, as grandma saw it) more than . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

12 December 2019 at 8:21 pm

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