Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Platforming vs Interviewing

Lately, Megyn Kelly has been under fire for deciding to have Alex Jones on for an interview. This has brought the discussion of platforming individuals with reprehensible opinions to the forefront of our discourse.

The argument that a good number of people, as well as some of the victims of Sandy Hook, have made is that having Alex Jones on a mainstream show, is an unforgivable offence. Alex Jones' position on Sandy Hook is that it never happened and that it was a government fabrication to push an agenda.

Alex Jones, creator of Inowars, has used this kind of preposterous agitprop and has gained an audience on YouTube to the tune of 2 million people. The argument people are reaching for is that by "platforming" this madman, it will somehow make this problem worse. This is not completely unreasonable however, their position is not supported by what cognitive science has produced.

Studies show that information, when consumed with limited biases, is likely to stick, to the point where any future corrections, will be met by resistance. Here's an example of such a study by Wilkes and Leatherbarrow from 1988. They presented subjects with news reports regarding a warehouse fire, informing them that a closet full of paint cans and gas cylinders were the cause. They were then supplied with a correction stating that the closet was, in fact, empty. When the subjects were asked to then explain what caused the fire, they mentioned that it was the paint cans in the closet. This is even when they acknowledged the correction. Their conclusions were statistically at parity with those who did not see the correction at all.

What this shows is that our brains are incredibly susceptible to first impressions and initial information. Knowing this, the position that Megyn Kelly should not interview Alex Jones, becomes untenable.

Having recently watched her interview with Vladimir Putin, it's crystal clear that she is in no way a softball interviewer. Whilst moderating an economic event in St Petersburg, she did not shy away from questioning Putin, in front of hundreds of people, regarding Russian involvement with hacking. This should put to rest any doubt in someone's mind of her capabilities regarding the interviewing process.

It would be far more effective if people's first impressions of Alex Jones would be left in the hands of Megyn Kelly vs letting people discover Alex Jones with their own devices. Unless she completely abandons what was seen in her interview with Putin, there is absolutely no way anyone will see Alex Jones in a good light.   And that should be the ultimate goal.

Someone like Alex Jones, having an audience to the tune of 2 million people, should give everyone pause. The level of misinformation that he and his ilk are producing is a serious problem and, trying to tackle this with current methods of debunking, ineffective as I've demonstrated in my backfire effect video. Having someone like Megyn Kelly, who doesn't even shy away in front of an audience, whilst questioning someone like Putin, is extremely valuable in the landscape of misinformation.

 The only instance where someone is effectively platformed is when that individual has free reign to spout whatever factually deficient nonsense they believe in, unchallenged,  A great example of this would be the Rubin Report with Dave Rubin. Another would be learning institutes and their subgroups inviting people like Lauren Southern on, who uses blogs as her sources for her "informed opinions". Only in these and similar cases, is the argument against platforming, a valid one.

Recognising these differences and being aware of what helps or harms one's cause, is the only way people will be able to curb bad ideas in this information age. In this case, Megyn Kelly is providing a unique service which I fear will be stifled and ultimately lead us in the same predicament as before, regardless of good intentions. People need to stop actively using the word "platforming" as blanket excuse to prevent anyone with terrible ideas from speaking but instead, encourage them to speak as long as their intellectually bankrupt ideas are challenged by someone as adept as Megyn Kelly. To do otherwise, is self defeating.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Cultural Marxism

There's been a term that's been thrown my way a few times now, which is cultural Marxism. The thing is, it never really flowed with the conversation I was having at the time. So, I decided to look deeper into the term and its origins. Boy what I found was a shocker!

Cultural Marxism on its own doesn't really have any proper definition until you actually look into the individual that popularised it. William S. Lind is this person, who, back in the 1980s, created one of the most ridiculous conspiracy theories I've ever heard of. Unpacking this in its entirety, just two seemingly simple words, requires a history lesson. So here we go.

See, Bill(William S Lind), holding a masters degree in history, decided that the best course of action to push his narrative, was to re-write it. Taking a rather innocent philosophical position such as critical theory, he, accompanied by Paul Weyrich, concocted this story that a group of individuals fleeing Germany, re-established their teaching practices in New York with the intention of destroying traditional western culture. The concept of a culture war, was born and was a entirely a product of alternative right wing history.

Terms like multiculturalism and political correctness became synonymous with Cultural marxism. in the circles of paleoconservatives. The fact that the architects trying to undermine Christian religious values, were Jewish, really appealed to them. And that's the thing. This culture war was no more than old men seeing their antiquated belief system becoming obsolete. So they created a boogieman that skulks in the shadows, looking to influence culture with a monstrous weapon. Philosophy.

Now who would these Jewish invaders use to undermine Christian tradition & values according to Bill? A coalition of blacks, students, feminist women and homosexuals of course. For someone who fantasises about what would have happened if the South won the civil war, I could see how those individuals could be terrifying. Especially if those society was looking to treat as equals were actually pawns in a Jewish plot to overthrow "western values".

Of course, an intellectually bankrupt conspiracy theory, such as this one, would be right up Pat Buchanan's alley. Someone with a history of bigoted behaviour would no doubt find solace in the idea that his traditional values were not being left behind because they were antiquated, but because of some nefarious scheme. This is a man who basically wrote love letters to Hitler in the form of his book "Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War" and his blog piece "Did Hitler Want War?". He even went as far as to say Anders Breivik, a mass murdering psychopath that bought into this nonsense, "may be right".

Andrew Breitbart is yet another one of these individuals who latched onto this crazy cultural Marxism conspiracy theory and his legacy, Breitbart.com, has been pushing the idea of a culture war ever since. He called this his one great epiphany as to what happened to the country.

Everything I've seen today from these individuals and others stems from the original musings of a madman. Just question someone on their position in regards to their use of the term "cultural Marxism" and they'll respond with "Just look at the Frankfurt School" as if this is some truth that should be glaringly apparent to anyone. They'll use terms like "culture war", "counter culture", "multiculturalism", "warrior" and "taking the red pill", which ironically seems to be what they're using as a gateway drug to this tripe.

People are essentially fighting a war vs an enemy that doesn't exist. Instead of dealing with each individual aspect of progressive ideas, they've packaged it all into the form of a pill they will eagerly swallow to be able to incarnate a figment of their imagination as the sole cause threatening their traditional values.

These people aren't "woke", they're in a cult. And they'll do practically anything in order to defeat what they consider a loss to their non-existent culture war. Personally, I think it's time they consider alternate medication. History lesson's over. It's time to put away the Kool-Aid



Monday, May 22, 2017

The Backfire Effect

Recently, I've been trying to wrap my head around how polarised discussions have become. For some reason, while taking part in current political discussions, one is left perplexed at certain opinions people hold especially when their positions are demonstrably flawed.

In looking into this phenomenon, I stumbled on David McRaney. Journalist, author and part time cookie monster. He's the reason I have a better understanding of cognitive science as he does a podcast dealing with the various topics within that category. I highly recommend his 3 part series on the backfire effect as I will be summarising a lot of what's covered in order to give my impressions on its impact in current discourse.

So what is the backfire effect?  It's a psychological phenomenon where, when one is presented with evidence counter to one's position, that evidence will be ignored and ones beliefs in their position will become stronger. This is not always the case but it does affect the majority of people. So much so that we're seeing a drastic polarisation when it comes to the political landscape.

Lets take climate change for example. We have myriad scientific studies supporting the fact that climate change is real and that it is man made. However, because individuals have politicised the counter narrative that it's a hoax or simply not caused by us, people have adopted that narrative as truth. In fact, scientists have become quite active in debunking claims that are providing a counter narrative via misinterpreted studies or outright lies, with little to no effect.

Keeping climate change as an example, one of the political options people want to use to curb man made climate change is a carbon tax. Now what if I were to tell you that in a previous instance the introduction of a carbon tax led to doubling energy costs for individuals in Australia? Take note of what's going on in your head when presented with this information. Are you willing to examine alternatives or are you still focused on making the carbon tax work?

Neuroscience has started to tackle this phenomenon. A recent paper published in Nature by Jonas Kaplan, Sarah Gimbel and Sam Harris(yes that Sam Harris) shows how the brain deals with politicised information vs non-politicised information. When political beliefs are challenged, the brain responds by activating our emotional centres that deal with threats as well as the centres that deal with personal identity.

There's a misconception that the less educated and/or intelligent you are, the more susceptible you will be to these types of cognitive biases. This is simply not the case. In fact, intelligence seems to make things worse. The reason is, that when challenged and because of the phenomenon such as the backfire effect, the more intelligent person will have an easier time forging excuses for their narrative than someone who is less intelligent.

In fact, what occurs is something called motivated reasoning and motivated scepticism. We'll seek out information or weave a narrative to confirm our beliefs and, once this is achieved to our satisfaction, we'll stop looking. Rarely will we go out of our way to seek arguments and evidence against our beliefs. Couple that with the backfire effect when presented with evidence that demonstrably contradicts a held belief and you have the current political climate.

So now that you are aware of the backfire effect, the real question that remains is, what do we do to combat it in our every day discourse? Short answer is we're still working on it. There doesn't seem to be a concrete way as of yet to try to get individuals to be mindful of their own biases and correct for it. David McRaney explained in his podcast that removing a falsehood would be like severing the leg off a table. If it is not replaced with something to stabilise one's identity, the brain simply can't deal with that kind of instability.

Now I like that idea but I'm not sure exactly how to go about using this in discourse or debate. Knowing what I know now about how the majority of people perceive matters they identify with, I'm not even sure debate and discourse is even productive. It's possible that the entire exercise is just mental masturbation without the mess. And the problem has only become so noticeable due to our ability to fuel our biases via social media.

At this point I tried turning my attention to people who have gone through the process of changing their minds when it came to their core beliefs and identity. One individual I focused on in particular was Leah Remini. Leah Remini recently came out with a series called Scientology the Aftermath. It deals with her and other individual's struggles within the church and what led to their eventual departure. One theme that kept coming up, was family.

See the church has this policy where, whenever someone starts doing things against the church's wishes, they will be labelled a suppressive  person. If this happens, any and all contact with that individual, despite your relationship with them, is to be severed, even if you are related. For those like Leah, who have strong family values, it seems to have caused a rift between those two identity markers which eventually led  her, and others, to leaving the church. Now there are myriad other practices within the church that have a negative effect but ultimately, this seemed to be the one thing that kept surfacing.

I believe that this may be one of the keys that encourages introspection and gets people to ultimately change their minds. Think of a person's identity as something holding multiple components. Things like family, career, political affiliation, recreational activity; all help fill up the void of what comprises our personhood. Each person has this kind of identity map and any outside influences that try to attack those components will be susceptible to something like the backfire effect. Other things, like food preferences or trivialities, tend not to fall into the core components of one's identity map and are therefore a lot more malleable.

Change seems to occur when one of the core components comes into conflict with another. In that instance, the stronger component seems to be able to defeat the other, removing the proverbial table leg. In the case of Leah, and others in her situation, they were faced with a choice between the church and family. Only then did she start seeking out stories relevant to the church's abhorrent behaviours and adopted them as fact.

Perhaps in the case of debate and discourse one needs to put themselves in a situation where those components come into conflict. For instance, in regards to climate change, press the issue that the next generation and one's own offspring will have to face struggles that only the most unfortunate among us have had to deal with. Maybe then someone will be less likely to reject facts and start taking them seriously.

Otherwise our very nature could be what leads us straight into situations that could have been avoided. Realising that we're not so smart is the first step.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Earth Day 2017

Fire. For most of us sitting by a pile of burning logs, brings comfort. A feeling of safety and security which is no doubt a product of our evolution. For centuries it was one of the tools that allowed to survive and fight back the myriad things that wanted to kill us, whether it was predators or unseen demons that would be cast out by scorching the flesh of the animals we hunted and killed. Of course we know today that these weren't demons but organisms that were just trying to survive themselves through the process of their evolution. And considering our current course, the comfort of a campfire, may be one of the few things we can afford ourselves in the near future, if humanity continues its course.

Earth. It's easy for us to overlook a simple fact when it comes to our planet. We're so busy dealing with our own problems that we forget to look beyond our homes, our neighbourhoods and the lines in the sand that were drawn due to the will of kings and conquerors. The fact that escapes us is that this is the only colony the human race currently has in the entirety of the Universe. And, considering this fact, it's understood that if anything happens to the Earth itself, no amount of comforts, like fire, will be able to save us from our own annihilation.

Our current comforts have been afforded thanks to our ingenuity through the scientific method and establishing quantifiable truths. These truths however are oddly denied when they are in conflict with our pursuit of the same comforts. This line of thinking needs to end if we are to move any further as a race and survive as a colony that hopes to reach the stars.

Water. It's the lifeblood of all life on the planet and without it, life as we know it ceases to be. When I was in grade school, the population of the Earth was around 4 billion. Within my lifetime, that population has almost doubled. As a result, freshwater sources have been taxed to the point where we're now seeing shortages in the various aquifers we rely on in order to survive. 80% of this is locked away in glaciers and ice that, thanks to climate change, are disappearing into the oceans. Making salt water from our oceans drinkable also poses a problem. Desalinisation is a costly process both in respect to energy requirements, cost and impact to aquatic life. No water, no food, no food, no US.

Air. The Earth's air supply is a self contained wonder. We estimate that at least 50% of the Earth's oxygen is supplied via our oceans, and more precisely due to phytoplankton. Currently, due to the sudden high levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, aquatic life has been hard pressed to adapt. Various species are dying at an alarming rate due to ocean acidification, other pollution and massive fishing operations. Coral reefs that used to be abundant in life and colour now sit as bleached wastelands. Upsetting the ecosystem could have disastrous consequences and in time threaten our oxygen supply.


After decades of study and analysis, we've started to see that our predictions have been far too conservative. Couple that with the problems of an ever increasing population. Every piece of evidence that is added for every year we spend studying this phenomenon, from the impact of soil releasing co2 due to warmer temperatures to the arctic showing melting rates and temperatures beyond what we predicted, one thing is absolutely certain.

We're out of time.

If this colony is to survive any future, science needs to be put at the forefront of everything. We need to take action, no matter how difficult, no matter what sacrifices need to be made so that the next generation, that is the children living at this very moment, won't have to face the hardships we've ensured they will suffer. Or at the very least limit the amount of suffering they will have to face. The greatest mass extinction event that nearly killed all life on the planet as we know it, was due to sudden climate change. And we're right on course for a sixth.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Modern tribalism.

Neuroscience has only recently started unlocking the human phenomenon of belief. One thing that is certain is that we're not the free thinking intelligent beings we thought we were. So much so that in situations where we deffer to an authority, we'll be in the likely position to follow instructions without much objection.

In the early years that humans have been around, and even because of our evolutionary ancestors before us. we've adapted to favor a model of compliance within tribes to ensure our survival. Equally essential to our survival was the distrust of competing tribes who may want to press an advantage for their collective. This is not to say that competing tribes didn't work together or eventually merge due to there being a strength in numbers. The larger one's tribe, the better one's chances of surviving. Ultimately, it was still better to be prudent, especially of smaller groups that may be looking to do something out of desperation. The less people one tribe had, the more likely it would be for these people to look to other methods of survival due to disease, failure of crops, inexperienced hunters, etc. Perhaps by sneaking into a neighboring village and pillaging wares while they slumber. Or worse. This could be where the initial distrust of minorities originated from.

Our brains haven't really changed much within the 200000 years homo sapiens have existed. We still have all of those instincts programmed into our heads, influencing our decisions. Findings in neuroscience have already started to confirm this as a reality. Political affiliation, nationality, race, religion, sex, family; these are all tribes we subscribe to and when presented with complications to that identity are quick to dismiss said evidence. This is also where one's belief system starts to manifest depending on the level of compliance of the individual. And, thanks to the model our ancestors used to increase their survivability, those tribes are likely to have a lot more followers than leaders.

It's incredibly important to be mindful of this in our current landscape as we're no longer dealing with the ancient world however we do still possess our ancient and fallible brains. We may think we've arrived to our beliefs out of rationale & critical thinking yet in reality these were only a product of groupthink due to our affiliation to certain modern tribes. We're also susceptible to overlook distressing behavior coming from groups that we're affiliated with, which are glaringly apparent to competing modern tribes.

In order to have an intellectually honest picture of our world perhaps it's time to do away with this kind of thinking, if that's even possible. If the one and only tribe one subscribes to is humanity, perhaps we'll be better off.