Tuesday, September 04, 2018
The Truthers and the Fakers
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.”
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.