Tuesday, September 04, 2018

The Truthers and the Fakers

Can truth be said to exist? Most of us certainly like to think that it does, and, furthermore, that we actually know something about it. We tend to prioritize knowledge over ignorance, and bridle at the idea that some of what we consider to be knowledge may be false rather than true. This seems justified: compared to false knowledge, it is certainly true that ignorance is bliss. But there are few avenues of escape that are open to us when we are confronted with the notion that most of what we know for sure “just ain’t so.”

The most common avenue of escape, and also the least valid, is to indulge in a bit of ad hominem fallacy by claiming that the challenge to your treasured certainties is the wrong kind of challenge because it comes from the wrong sort of person. For example, these days, it doesn’t take much to run afoul of certain people, and to get them to label you as a “fascist racist misogynist homophobe.” Nor does it take much to cause certain other people to label you a “libtard.” And both of these groups would be only too happy to declare you to be “Putin’s troll” the moment you try to say anything vaguely positive about Russia.

And the most valid avenue of escape is some sort of public trial. The least assailable of these are held in academic contexts, in the hard sciences, because natural laws are not amenable to political or social pressure. Courts of law, on the other hand, can be good or bad in battling false knowledge, depending on the political environment in which they operate, but all of them are at least forced to maintain appearances of adhering to the truth by following various rules that exclude hearsay, anecdotal evidence or evidence invalidated by a broken chain of custody. The recent trial in California, which concluded that Monsanto’s Roundup is indeed a carcinogen (no doubt causing Capt. Obvious to do a little happy dance) is a hopeful sign that some sort of justice can be served even in the face of relentless political pressure.

And what’s worse than any court at all, with one exception, is the court of public opinion. How many reputations and careers have been ruined in the course of the recent sexual harassment hysteria, where self-declared victims lobbed accusations unsubstantiated by any evidence? Such “trials” are on par with those held by the Inquisition: if the witch drowns, she wasn’t a witch, sorry, too bad; if she floats, she is obviously a witch and is then burned at the stake. Such “trials” are also similar to lynchings, where an extrajudicial “trial” was held before the execution, except here the trial is itself the execution, albeit a nonlethal one.

The one exception is the category of courts organized with defined political aims in mind. Soviet-era show trials are one example; the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia, which was dissolved at the end of 2017, is another. The latter’s main purpose was to punish Serbia; two-thirds of those it put on trial were Serbs. The proceedings held during China’s Cultural Revolution were also in this same vein.

More recently, and in a similar vein the US government has taken to essentially kidnapping foreign nationals around the world, forcibly transporting them to the US and imprisoning them, either after holding an extraterritorial, and therefore illegitimate, trial, or after holding a secret tribunal or, as in the case of most prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, without any trial at all. These are all politically motivated mockeries of justice where facts (should any valid ones play any role) are used not to deliver justice, but as political weapons with which to oppress preselected groups of victims.

Setting aside for the moment such profound deviations from anything that could be considered pursuit of the truth, truth itself, as a philosophical concept, turns out upon close examination to be fantastically intricate and fragile, and its very existence is often uncertain. In epistemic logic, which I studied at Boston University with Prof. Hintikka, the truth value of any given proposition may not be known a priori. Hintikka, along with several other luminaries, had set out to formalize the process by which the truth value can be determined, based on game semantics. His Game-Theoretic Semantics combined epistemic logic with game theory. In GTS, the truth value of a proposition is determined through the interplay of a Verifier and a Falsifier who traded off moves. If there exists a winning strategy for the Verifier, the proposition is true; if for the Falsifier, false.

These are games played on paper using mathematical symbols, but what they formalize has numerous analogues in everyday reality. The interplay between the Verifier and the Falsifier is quite similar in nature to Socratic dialogues and other dialectical systems of thought. Somewhat later, Manichaeism was for a time a popular and widespread religious philosophy that displaced classical paganism and competed with Christianity. In it, the forces of light and darkness wage battle over the world. The forces of light lose out eventually, as perhaps happened when Manichaeism was finally extinguished, somewhere in southern China, and was supplanted by the one true faith—Catholicism in the west and Islam in the east. But the forces of light and of darkness still battle each other in the oppositional system used in courts of law, where in criminal cases the prosecution seeks to prove (verify) the proposition that the defendant is guilty while the defense seeks to disprove (falsify) this proposition.

A key feature is that in all of these games of strategy the Falsifier is under no obligation whatsoever to establish what is true. The Falsifier’s one and only obligation is to establish what is false—to invalidate the proposition under consideration as quickly and efficiently as possible. We will return to this key feature in a moment, but there is a larger context to consider, which is that of late in many instances the pursuit of truth has become rather beside the point. Numerous recent developments have made opinion all-important and actual knowledge of provable facts borderline irrelevant. These include:

• Social and political alienation and polarization, driven by increasing wealth inequality and enforced diversity
• The automatic segregation and voluntary siloing of people in social media, which has made it fashionable for people to avoid being exposed to opinions that differ from theirs, to the point where some have started to take offense whenever this happens
• Plummeting educational standards where independent reasoning abilities are no longer even taught and where the rewards go to those who are able to regurgitate knowledge they have accepted unquestioningly.
• The slow agony of traditional print and broadcast media where rigorous fact-checking was once considered absolutely necessary but no longer is, and where now the overarching concern is to run stories that sell advertising
• The rise of blogging, where a few validated facts are easily drowned in a sea of opinion, where what is accepted as real is determined through a popularity contest, and where a typical response to public disagreement is “go get your own blog.”

The endpoint of this process is now in sight: as a basis of reality, truth matters not at all. Reality still exists, but as an artificial construct, and is fractured, with different versions of reality tightly targeted to specific audiences that are receptive to one set of opinions and narratives while being easily outraged by all others. In such circumstances, appeals to truth-based knowledge start to seem quixotic—or even a matter of casting pearls before swine.

But perhaps we can still influence how the artificial reality is constructed, to steer it away from particularly fraught danger zones. Can anything be salvaged of the previous intellectual rigor of epistemic logic and Socratic dialectic?

Let us assume that the process by which the popularity (not the truth) of any given narrative or set of opinions (not proposition) is established is still a game of strategy between two interlocutors: the Faker and the Truther. The roles are reversed: the Faker’s goal is to produce a steady barrage of distortions and outright falsehoolds (fake news, disinformation, propaganda, etc.) in the hopes of making them popular; the Truther’s role is to knock them out through whatever means possible (pointing out internal contradictions, ridiculous assumptions, evidence to the contrary, conflicts of interest, hidden agendas, corrupt practices, etc.) in the hopes of making them unpopular.

Fakers rely on certain methods that make the Truthers’ job harder. The first is to lie early and often; the best way to make a false version of events stick is to advance it before anyone else, then to simply repeat it forever. The second is to always have a full clip of fake news ready to fire on full auto: as soon as one bit of fake news starts looking shaky, here comes another one! Yet another is to cast aspersions on anyone who disagrees, labeling them as conspiracy theorists.

Fakers generally do better by making their fakes maximally outrageous while minimizing their reliance on facts. For example, a recent bit of fake news broadcast by the German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle was that it was Nazi Germany that won at the battle of Kursk—which was, for those of you who don’t know, the largest land battle ever fought, and the one that sealed Nazi Germany’s fate. Deutsche Welle’s fake version of events was easily disproven using archival information, although it did score a point or two by lying early and often. But it could have done even better by circulating an even more outrageous, entirely fact-free fake: “Horrible Russians invaded Europe and drove Hitler to suicide!”

The Truthers have it much harder than the Fakers, but a key point in their favor is that while Fakers are charged with constructing fake realities, the Truthers’ main task is simply to destroy them. A classic example is 9/11: the Fakers say that two skyscrapers were demolished by terrorists who flew one airplane into each. In response, the Truthers may that no, the number of skyscrapers was in fact three, not two (WTC1, WTC2 and WTC7), so that’s 2/3 of an airplane per skyscraper, and then sit back and laugh at whoever still believes the fake story.

This may be disconcerting to some people, because inquiring minds want to know the truth, even if what drives them is idle curiosity. Besides, walking around after realizing that you’ve been lied to by people you were taught to trust, and that you are surrounded by trusting fools who believe such an obviously fake story to be true, is rather disheartening. But you may take heart in this: the only things you really need to know (as in, know to be true) are the things on which you can act, and here truth can still generally be arrived at in the usual manner, be it through (internal) debate or through experimentation and trial and error.

And one of the things you really need to know is that those who base their actions on actual knowledge sometimes win while those who base them on fake, constructed realities always lose in the end. You can simply wait them out. To avoid getting caught in their trap, you just need to know how to sniff out fakes, and then either laugh at them or simply ignore them.

6 comments :

DurangoKid said...

It may not suffice to wait out a fake. You may have to evade them because in their delusional state they can do a lot of damage to people and things around them. At that point you could follow the advice from Monty Python and the Holy Grail and "run away!" If running isn't an option, they you're left with confrontation or submission. Confrontation is risky because the crazier person may also have the bigger weapons. You lose. Submission on the other hand, preserves your life at the cost of tribute or swearing an oath or some such sacrifice. The upside to submission is that now that you've identified this nut-job, you can plan for a future escape provided the routes of egress are not blocked. Another option is to submit, fortify, and retaliate. Bide your time and attack when said nut-job is weak or distracted. Then you can more safely utilize the "run away!" option or if it looks like you can prevail, stand and fight. Above all, be mindful of the costs as well as the benefits of your choice. Avoiding trouble is usually cheaper than confronting it.

Jeff Lovejoy said...

". . . constructed realities always lose in the end. You can simply wait them out."

If you live that long.

There is another philosophical construct, a destructive one, which the Greeks called "the freedom to deny" or Eleuthreia. This philosophy was best described by the English novelist, John Fowles in his 1960s book, "The Magus." The last time this philosophical construct was practiced was by the Nazis during World War II. Simply put, you deny your opponent's every utterance using the behavior of the bully, finally putting a bullet in his or her head. And then behaving like you have an infinite supply of ammunition to support any argument you care to make.

The closest recent practice of this "freedom to deny" was during the reign of terror of good old Joe McCarthy here in the United States. Joe had a list with nobody on it. But Joe said he had a list and that was that. With his list Joe would go about demanding that somebody tell him if they were on his list, which was impossible. But that didn't matter, and wasn't really the point.

Joe held hearings, because everybody in power to say "No" were too scared they might just show up on Joe's list if they didn't. Here is how good old Joe McCarthy got things going. "Have you or anyone you know ever been a member of the Communist Party?"

If you denied being on Joe's list then he just bellowed: "But I have this list!" After which you were blackballed from your former and any future employment. People killed themselves, many with their own bullets (how considerate). Many moved to Mexico on what money they had left. That's the nice thing about the practice of Eleuthreia in the United States; you can kill somebody in every way possible, long before the real, or the actual, death sets in. The Nazis had to waste a bullet (and they wasted millions of them), but if you love shooting people then that was enough. I guess.

This went on until it could go on no longer. And then it stopped. Until now.

Now we have the Democrats who cannot even win a rigged election so they commenced a witch hunt. Instead of admitting that they lost because the American people had grown tired of professional politicians, the Democrats claimed that the Russians stole the election.

One of the leaders of this witch hunt bears special notice here. This is besides the 90-percent of U.S. Mainstream Media MSM (owned by just five (5) corporations), who recently organized themselves with 300+ newspapers to say 100-percent mean, nasty, impolite, downright rude, lying, seditious, and treasonous things about a duly-elected President of the United States. There is also a special prosecutor (persecutor Herr Mueller), with his own fictitious list and unlimited powers to carry out any kind of Spanish Inquisition he wishes. And there is the truly evil South Carolina GOP Senator Lindsey Graham, a RINO. Under the political mandate that "those Commie bastards are at it again," Senator (in name only) Graham has employed the latest edition of Eleuthreia -- making the accused go bankrupt with legal fees defending themselves from something that never happened, mainly.

The latest victim made a very lifelike Charlton Heston parting comment to Senator Graham when he said: "Damn you, sir. Damn you all to hell."

This is how things go these days. The Neo-McCarthyites have several Joe McCarthys, each attacking the body politic in their own ways -- each being very lethal in delivering a thousand cuts -- and again without the need to fire a single shot.

"And so it goes." -- Kurt Vonnegut.

Jayhawk said...

Today we also have the McCarthy-like spectacle of the "MeToo" movement, in which being accused of "sexual misconduct" is sufficient in and of itself to ruin a life. Trial and conviction is not needed, and is not done. Denying the charge is worse than useless, because it merely causes more accusers to pile on.

toktomi said...

Human cognition has absolutely nothing to do with knowing anything.

Unfortunately it has everything to do with the illusion of knowing.

And apparently the vast majority of even the brightest among us fail to comprehend this concept.

Nils said...

Would you have a link to the Deutsche Welle fake news piece or a report about it?

Jean-Paul Printemps said...

Often interlocutors will try to make the skeptic solve the crime. The game theory strategy is helpful to keep you from being deflected in this way.