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10.2.17

On Those Trump Voters Who Believe in the Bowling Green Massacre

I've seen a bunch of people breathlessly sharing the results of a recent survey, which showed that 51% of Trump voters say that the nonexistent Bowling Green Massacre justifies the president's travel ban. The implication is that these people are a bunch of idiots who base their political views on fake news, that they sincerely believe that a massacre happened recently in Bowling Green. But I don't think that this particular survey question means quite what everyone thinks it does.

I'm sure there is some set of individuals out there who hold an active belief that a massacre was conducted by Islamic extremists in Bowling Green. Presumably they heard it from Kellyanne Conway, and dismiss all of the media fact-checkers as promoting fake news due to their bias against Trump. But a more common thought process probably goes like this: "There have been a bunch of Islamic terrorist attacks over the last few years, which justify the president's policies. I don't happen to recall the specific details of the attack in Bowling Green, but I assume since they're asking me about it, it must be one of them. I don't want to sound stupid by saying I never heard of it. Nor do I want to have the poll come out showing weak support for the president just because I quibbled about the details of one specific attack. After all, there have been enough of these attacks to justify the policies overall, regardless of the details I've forgotten about Bowling Green. So I'll say yes."

Imagine a poll in which people were asked whether the recent police shooting of LaShawn Dyer justified efforts toward criminal justice reform. LaShawn Dyer was not in fact shot by the police -- I made him up just now. But most liberals who are sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter movement don't remember the full list of outrageous police shootings off the top of their head. So when put on the spot to answer a question about the nonexistent Mr. Dyer, they would go through a similar process to the Trump voter in the previous paragraph. They would answer yes about the specific case of LaShawn Dyer because they know there is a more general phenomenon of unjustified police shootings of black people, and they want to endorse the need for criminal justice reform.

Just because someone reports a false belief on a survey, doesn't mean that they hold that false belief. They may just be coming up with an answer to satisfy the inquiries of the pollster and keep from looking stupid, working on the assumption that the question contains meaningful and relevant information and is not a blatant attempt to trick them. This is a well-known phenomenon among psychologists, known as the issue of constructed preferences.

Consider this classic nonpartisan example. Some years ago, poll respondents were asked whether they supported Congress renewing the nonexistent 1975 Public Affairs Act. Here they don't even have the cues of being told there was a massacre or a police shooting to help them put it in context -- "Public Affairs Act" was deliberately chosen as the most banal bill name imaginable. And yet 43% of people claimed to support or oppose the PAA renewal. I think it's pretty tough to claim that those people hold clear, considered viewpoints on the PAA, that they go about their day actively believing in the existence of this made-up act. So likewise, I suspect most of the people who gave a positive response about the Bowling Green Massacre are not going around actively believing that there was such a massacre.

30.1.17

On the Uselessness of Hypocrisy Arguments

Hypocrisy arguments are pretty popular these days. Trump attacked Clinton for using a private email server, but now his people are using their own private server. Trump slammed Obama for issuing too many executive orders, but now he has issued even more executive orders. I get why these arguments are appealing. They may even be logically sound. But they are also completely ineffective at actually changing one's opponents' minds.

As I said, I get the appeal of hypocrisy arguments. Getting someone to change their mind about substantive issues is tough work. A dedicated pro-lifer is hardly going to be upset if you tell them that Trump is awful because he wants to overturn Roe v Wade. Hypocrisy arguments, on the other hand, seem to leverage the beliefs your opponents have already committed to, in order to hoist them by their own petard. Plus, it's satisfying to believe that your opponents are unprincipled dimwits, whose attacks on your side are just psychological projections of their own flaws.

Nevertheless, hypocrisy arguments don't work. They don't work, first, because it's always possible to find some reason that the two situations being compared are different. Consider the private email servers. If you are bringing to the table a background assumption that Hillary clinton is a fundamentally untrustworthy person, someone who is scheming and unprincipled who doesn't actually care about America and its safety, then hearing that she used a private email server is going to sound pretty bad. How can we trust her not to be doing nefarious, or at least negligent, things with it? Lock her up! Meanwhile, if you bring to the table a general attitude of trust toward Donald Trump, his use of a private server seems like no big deal. He's a businessman, not a bureaucrat, and his main virtue is that he's not flexible and not bound by the way things have always been done. At worst, you might feel like it's a bit careless (if only because it gives liberals a chance to wail about hypocrisy), but he'll probably get his internet security all settled soon enough.

Hypocrisy arguments also come across as insincere. Consider the email issue again. Left-leaning people just spent a whole campaign insisting that Clinton's private server was not a big deal. So when a liberal turns around and tries to use conservative outrage over Clinton's emails as the basis for a hypocrisy charge, a conservative hearer will (reasonably) think "hey, you never cared about emails before. You're only bringing up Trump's emails because you think it's some sort of gotcha." Yes, the crux of a hypocrisy argument is the inconsistency. But it's hard to get an argument off the ground when you're demonstrating that inconsistency by getting worked up about something you don't care about substantively.

Or, think of it this way: when was the last time you were convinced by a hypocrisy argument coming from the other side of the political aisle? For most of us, it's probably been a while. And I can hear you saying: "I would totally accept a valid hypocrisy argument if one were presented to me! It's just that my opponents, in addition to being hypocrites themselves, also seem to only make terrible hypocrisy arguments that are based on spurious claims and unfair comparisons. What a bunch of nincompoops!" Fair enough. But that's exactly what they say about your hypocrisy arguments. And that's why hypocrisy arguments are not the silver bullet everyone seems to think they are.

Hypocrisy arguments rarely sway the other side. They mostly serve as a way for people on the same side to commiserate about what a bunch of nitwits the other side is. If that's your goal in making a hypocrisy argument, then carry on. But don't assume it's going to do more than that.

24.1.17

On Anti-Trump Motivated Reasoning

OK. We've all had a good laugh/cry over Conway and Spicer's recent performances. But here's the thing. You detest Trump, right? Me too -- it seems like a perfectly reasonable reaction to the volcano of awfulness that has been spewing from our new president and those he surrounds himself with. But you have to remember that this makes you -- and me -- very vulnerable to what psychologists call motivated reasoning. Motivated reasoning is when you believe what you want to be true, and what conforms to your preexisting worldview, instead of what the evidence shows. The more you dislike Trump, the more easily you will believe any bad thing about him that comes along. And you will be especially inclined to believe it if it nicely fits one of the specific storylines you have about why Trump is terrible (he's a racist, he's incompetent, he's a Russian puppet, etc).

Motivated reasoning isn't a conservative thing or a liberal thing, it's a human thing. It's just the way our brains work. And patting yourself on the back about how you're rational and concerned about the truth, unlike all those other people who use motivated reasoning, will only make you *more* vulnerable to motivated reasoning. Recognizing that you're vulnerable to motivated reasoning does not mean that Trump isn't actually terrible. But remember that there are lots of people out there who stand to make a buck off of your motivated reasoning. The get clicks, and line their pockets with ad dollars, if they can feed you things that you want to believe.

What you -- and I -- need to do is to remind ourselves to be careful and humble about our psychological biases. If something seems outrageous, carefully check that it's true. If something perfectly illustrates exactly what's wrong with Trump, carefully check that it's true. Do this even if you don't intend to spread the information around -- headlines you've skimmed have a way of worming their way into your memory. Then, if it all checks out, go ahead and share it. I promise you, Trump will do enough actual awful things that you won't need the fake garbage.

Four years is a long time, and you're going to mess up. I guarantee I'll end up sharing something outrageous and fake over the course of the Trump presidency. Hopefully someone else will quickly point out your (and my) mistake. And when that happens, here's what to do: thank the person for the correction. Then breathe a sigh of relief that the item was false. (After all, you don't want Trump to do terrible stuff, right? You're not so hungry for ammuntion to use against him and to justify your worldview that you are hoping he does awful stuff, are you?) Then do what you can to undo the spread of bad information.

What you shouldn't do is say something like "well, the fact that it was so believable really shows how bad Trump is!" It doesn't show that at all. The fact that it was believable shows how bad *you think* Trump is. And maybe he is that bad. (I mean, he is. He's awful.) I get the desire to save face, and to look at the big picture. But your propensity to fall for motivated reasoning doesn't prove his actual badness. Your gullibility is not evidence of anything. Apologize, correct, and put your focus on the actual bad stuff.

31.7.14

PETA, Detroit, and the problem with "Go Vegan"

PETA is in the news again for offering to pay the water bills of 10 households in Detroit who have been threatened with shutoff -- on the condition that they go vegan for a month. It's the latest awful campaign in a string of awful campaigns from a vile organization that makes me embarrassed to be vegan. They're exploiting a real human tragedy as a publicity stunt. If PETA really wants to do something connected to the Detroit water crisis, why not say "we're paying these 10 families' water bills, plus giving them some groceries, because vegans care about everyone, human and animal." Just drop the coercive condition, and you've got a campaign that makes vegans look big-hearted rather than seeing people's tragedy as just a means to further an agenda.


But without reducing the opprobrium rightly directed at PETA in particular, I'd like to suggest that this campaign reveals a problem with the approach of the vegan/animal rights movement more generally. At the core of this and so many other campaigns by a wide variety of organizations is the admonition for individuals to "go vegan." The central mechanism of social change sought by vegan activism is the individual choice to give up use of animal products.


By making "go vegan" the center of the movement's strategy, modern veganism has turned animal rights into a matter of personal sin and purity. Eating meat is framed as an individual failing, and giving it up as an individual virtue. This fits neatly into a neoliberal world in which everything is a matter of personal choice and effort. Everyone should just pull themselves up by their faux-leather bootstraps. Despite vegans' typical lefty, feminist, pro-LGBT, etc. leanings, much vegan activism does not qualify as progressive (even the non-PETA stuff that isn't directly exploiting other forms of marginalization to advance veganism).


(I use the terms "sin" and "purity" deliberately. "Go vegan" activism follows in great detail the cultural template created by evangelical protestantism. Even though vegans are disproportionately likely to be non-Christians, their tactics imitate those of the Chick-tract-wavers. And typical "go vegan" appeals suffer from the same flaws as standard Christian evangelism. Read everything that Slacktivist (a devout liberal Christian) has to say about the flaws in modern Evangelical Christian evangelism. Then replace "Christian" with "vegan.")


But food is not simply a matter of choice. Food habits are shaped by deeply entrenched social structures, from cultural norms to land use planning to farm subsidies to trade policy to technology regulations. Change these, and individual eating habits will follow. And it's these larger structures of the food system, not the personal sins of individual meat-eaters, that drive the scale of animal (and human) suffering that vegans want to end. And it's changing these social structures that should be at the heart of vegan activism.


When mainstream vegan activists recognize the structural issues, they typically do so in a way that assimilates them into the "go vegan" individualistic paradigm. So certain people are granted a sort of indulgence or special dispensation, forgiving them for not going vegan (or granting them extra merit points if they do it) because structural forces make it especially hard for them. But the central focus remains on admonishing those who can make the personal choice to go vegan to do so.


The personal eating habits of poor Detroit households are not what is primarily responsible for animal exploitation in the USA. Indeed, their eating habits are as much an effect of the system as the environmental degradation that PETA claims to be worried about. The choice by a few such households to go vegan (made at much greater cost than a similar choice made by the typical middle-class PETA member) is not going to have much sway over the larger system.


I'm not saying there's anything wrong with an individual deciding to "go vegan." I'm not intending to start consuming animal products, and all else equal it's a positive step when someone "goes vegan." The problem occurs when "go vegan" is the central, or only, message being pushed by vegan activists.

19.4.14

The benefits of cultural cognition

I'm very sympathetic to the "cultural cognition" explanation for controversy over risk issues such as climate change. Cultural cognition holds that our positions in such controversies -- including our interpretation of "factual" evidence -- is largely driven by our identification with certain cultural groups. By and large we believe in or deny anthropogenic climate change because that belief is socially rewarded in our cultural group, not because we've rationally assessed the evidence.

Where I tend to diverge from Dan Kahan (the leading modern proponent of the cultural cognition theory) is over whether cultural cognition is a bad thing. Kahan regards cultural cognition as unreservedly bad -- a sort of disease or pollution in our debate about an issue, something to be prevented or neutralized whenever possible so that we can make rational assessments of the evidence. I, on the other hand (and I like to think this is more in line with the views of Mary Douglas, whose work is the basis for the idea of cultural cognition), tend to believe there are ways that cultural cognition can be functional and beneficial. One such way is suggested in this recent post by David Ropeik.

Ropeik suggests that we shouldn't wait for the public to come around on climate change. Even the most skillful risk communication strategies will never convince the public to make a grand outcry that pushes our leaders to finally take the kind of drastic action necessary to avert the damaging consequences of climate change. Instead, the powerful in politics and business need to be willing to act without a public mandate, exercising foresight to deal with the problem even in the absence of a broad-based push from below. He cites as an example the effort by several major companies, including Apple, to use all renewable power.

It's common for both critics and boosters to think of major corporations as driven wholly by the search for efficiency. The profit motive and the inexorable clench of the invisible hand will, we're told, strip away all extraneous considerations and lead companies into coldly rational decision-making. But in fact corporations are heavily culturally embedded institutions. Even when they're acting purely rationally, they're doing so in a culturally loaded context.

Apple is a prime example of a company heavily intwined with culture. Their brand strategy is all about cultivating a particular image of who an Apple consumer is, and making their products a lifestyle. For convenience, let's call the kind of person who buys Apple products a "hipster." Hipsters are not deeply invested in climate change, and aren't likely (as a group) to generate the kind of mass outcry for change referenced by Ropeik. But they do incorporate a belief in anthropogenic climate change into their cultural identity. And so for Apple to make its operations greener is a good way to align their products better with a hipster cultural identity.

The example of Apple illustrates, then, how the kind of farsighted leadership that might be necessary to solve a problem like climate change can actually be aided by cultural cognition.

28.1.14

Don't sue climate change denialists

Climate scientist Michael Mann has been cleared to proceed with a libel lawsuit against the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the National Review over comments accusing him of academic fraud and comparing him to pedophile ex-football coach Jerry Sandusky. While I think the claims made about Mann are spurious and pernicious, I have doubts that a courtroom is the right place to resolve this issue.

The Sandusky comments seem to me to be obviously permissible, since the CEI and NR didn't accuse Mann of committing specific acts of pedophilia. They fall into the same category of hyperbolic rhetoric as things like "BusHitler" or "Obama is the antichrist." Of more concern is Mann's claim that it's libelious for CEI and NR to assert that his research was biased. Here, he is essentially asking the court to adjudicate a dispute over the quality of scientific work -- to hold that CEI and NR were knowingly calling his research bad when it was in fact good. It seems to me that the court system is in a poor position to do this, and it sets a dangerous precedent for high-profile scientific issues to be subjected to the legal system.

The courts are simply not well-equipped to examine scientific questions. Judges do not have scientific expertise. The court system's own methodological procedures are based heavily on tradition and ritual in contravention to what we know (from scientific research) to be good practice in determining the truth -- such as the heavy reliance on unreliable eyewitness testimony. Perhaps more importantly, a key virtue of scientific procedure is its openness. There is always room for debate and reconsideration within science. Scientific claims never come to one final end where they are declared to be finished fact, though well-supported propositions (such as anthropogenic climate change) do, over time, accumulate broad-based assent. The whole point of the court system, on the other hand, is to issue final rulings. A court must issue a yes or a no, a guilty or an innocent, at the end of its proceedings.

I can understand Mann's desire to take action against people who have ruthlessly attacked him for many years and hindered his ability to conduct his research, but I think that when it comes to allegations about the quality of scientific research, the courts ought to maintain a very high standard for what counts as libel.

23.1.14

Non-Christians are not obligated to fix Christianity

Fred Clark has a very odd post up effectively demanding that non-Christians engage in Biblical exegesis. He posits a friend who believes that Ohio doesn't exist because they believe the Gospel of Matthew denies Ohio's existence. Clark argues that if you take it upon yourself to disabuse your friend of the first falsehood (Ohio's nonexistence), then you are obligated to also disabuse them of the second falsehood (that Matthew denies Ohio's existence). Otherwise, he claims, you have implicitly endorsed the second falsehood, and thus have just shuffled around the falsehoods without decreasing the total number of falsehoods believed. And this is true, he says, even if you are not a Christian and therefore put no stake in what Matthew teaches.

The first problem with this argument is that failing to disabuse your friend of their incorrect Biblical views is not the same as endorsing them. Clark's ultimate goal is to attack secular intellectuals like Neil DeGrasse Tyson who have (falsely) affirmatively endorsed the idea that the Bible teaches young-earth creationism, while (correctly) maintaining that young-earth creationism is wrong. I agree that Tyson and others shouldn't take this position about the Bible (for reasons explained below). But that doesn't mean that someone who challenges the empirical correctness of a wrong interpretation of the Bible is thereby endorsing said interpretation. Our non-Christian Ohio-believer could simply remain neutral on the question of what the Bible teaches about Ohio's existence.

Second, Clark's argument assumes that all falsehoods are equal. He focuses on counting up the total number of falsehoods believed. But of course falsehoods differ in quality as well as quantity. Some falsehoods are farther from the truth than others -- compare "Ohio doesn't exist" to "Ohio is located in the South." And some falsehoods are more relevant to our lives (and thereby more damaging to believe) than others -- compare "Ohio doesn't exist" to "the state of Xhix on the planet Xarth orbiting the star Zeta Reticuli doesn't exist." It is perfectly rational to focus one's energy on the bigger, more consequential falsehoods.

But third and most important, Clark's argument assumes that a non-Christian can engage in debate over the correctness of a Biblical interpretation. Here Clark's non-Christian who insists Matthew teaches nothing on the subject of Ohio's existence is making the same mistake as Tyson is when he claims the Bible teaches young-earth creationism. The Bible (like any other complex text) is not self-interpreting. There is no single meaning that can be proven to be correct through an unimpeachable reading technique. This is a point that Clark himself has repeatedly stressed on his blog. In lambasting Biblical "literalists" (such as the creationists that the post under consideration is aimed at!), he emphasizes that the Bible always requires interpretation and that its meaning cannot be discerned by any simple reading technique. This fact is obscured in the Ohio example because he picked for his Biblical falsehood something so obviously absurd that it's difficult to imagine any realistic hermeneutic that could lead someone to believe that the bible teaches that. But that's certainly not the case for topics like creationism (or gay rights, or feminism, or any other topic where a liberal like Clark would disagree with common assertions about what the Bible says).

In order to determine which reading of the Bible -- the Ohio-affirming or the Ohio-denying, the creationist or the evolution-compatible, the anti-gay or the pro-gay -- is true and correct, one requires faith. I don't mean faith in the sense that God's spirit must guide your reading (though many Christians do believe in such a thing). I mean that if you don't believe in the existence of the Christian god, then it is meaningless to assert that there is a correct and an incorrect interpretation of the Bible. The correct interpretation of the Bible can mean nothing other than the one that God wants his followers to derive from the text. And so if one does not believe in the Christian God, one cannot believe there is a single correct interpretation of the Bible. In the same way that non-Christians can't be asked to distinguish "true" from false Christians, we can't be asked to distinguish true from false interpretations of the Bible. While I certainly hope (for instrumental reasons) that more Christians come around to the kind of pro-science, pro-social-justice strain of Christianity that Clark espouses, that's a debate that has to happen internally among Christians.

Clark's mistake comes from a thread of Christian chauvinism that runs through his otherwise admirable take on his faith. He is rightly appalled by the ends to which people have put Christianity. He believes not just that their ends are wrong, but that they are not true to Christianity, and that the religion can and should be better than that. So far, so good. But in his desire to redeem the faith, to clean his own hands and demonstrate "we're not all like that," he feels entitled to enlist non-Christians in his battle. He wants non-Christians to help him cleanse Christianity of the wrong kind of Christians, so that Christianity can be good and he can avoid being tarred by association with the bad ones. But that is not our battle. Non-Christians have no stake in the fate of Christianity. As long as everyone believes in Ohio (or evolution, or gay rights ...), then it's their own business whether they infer that Christianity must be Ohio-compatible, or whether they reject Christianity as hopelessly Ohio-denying.