Monday, March 27, 2017

Lies, Critical Thinking, Conservatives And... Señor Trumpanzee, So-Called Presidente


Let's take a very quick look at 2 random lies, one inconsequential trump bullshit and one a keystone to the conservative policy agenda. First Trump's bullshit: In Renovation of Golf Club, Donald Trump Also Dressed Up History:
When Donald J. Trump bought a fixer-upper golf club on Lowes Island here for $13 million in 2009, he poured millions more into reconfiguring its two courses. He angered conservationists by chopping down more than 400 trees to open up views of the Potomac River. And he shocked no one by renaming the club after himself.

But that wasn’t enough. Mr. Trump also upgraded its place in history.

Between the 14th hole and the 15th tee of one of the club’s two courses, Mr. Trump installed a flagpole on a stone pedestal overlooking the Potomac, to which he affixed a plaque purportedly designating “The River of Blood.”

“Many great American soldiers, both of the North and South, died at this spot,” the inscription reads. “The casualties were so great that the water would turn red and thus became known as ‘The River of Blood.’”

The inscription, beneath his family crest and above Mr. Trump’s full name, concludes: “It is my great honor to have preserved this important section of the Potomac River!”

Like many of Mr. Trump’s claims, the inscription was evidently not fact-checked.

“No. Uh-uh. No way. Nothing like that ever happened there,” said Richard Gillespie, the executive director of the Mosby Heritage Area Association, a historical preservation and education group devoted to an 1,800-square-mile section of the Northern Virginia Piedmont, including the Lowes Island site.

“The only thing that was remotely close to that,” Mr. Gillespie said, was 11 miles up the river at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff in 1861, a rout of Union forces in which several hundred were killed. “The River of Blood?” he added. “Nope, not there.”

...“How would they know that?” Mr. Trump asked when told that local historians had called his plaque a fiction. “Were they there?”

Paul Ryan's lie-- repeated buy every Republicans who could grab a microphone in the run-up to the GOP's humiliation over TrumpCare last week-- about the Affordable Care Act being in a "death spiral" was more serious and, potentially, more consequential. PolitiFact dissected Ryan's focus-group tested lie and labeled it False. "A death spiral," they wrote, "is a health industry term for a cycle with three components-- shrinking enrollment, healthy people leaving the system and rising premiums. The latest data shows enrollment is increasing slightly and younger (typically healthier) people are signing up at the same rate as last year. And while premiums are increasing, that isn’t affecting the cost to most consumers due to built-in subsidies. So none of the three criteria are met, much less all three. We rate Ryan’s claim False."

The GOP reacts to Science and Facts the way vampires react to crucifixes and garlic

DWT readers may know cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist Dan Levitin from his guest posts here or as the best-selling author of This Is Your Brain On Music, but he has a new book out now, A Field Guide To Lies: Critical Thinking In The Information Age and last week the Daily Beast asked him to help it's readers understand the importance of "the F-word," F as in facts, in light of the growing and dangerous problem our political leadership seems to be having with it. Levitin referred to the onset of the Trump Era as "troubling times... to those of us who care about details and facts... We are told by the highest office in the country that facts don’t matter, that those who think they have facts are corrupt, and that 'alternative facts' is a thing (it isn’t). All of these various euphemisms we’ve been hearing, such as alt.truth and fake news, are just obscuring the reality that we are neck deep in lies. My job as a neuroscientist is to help understand how people come to hold the beliefs they do (it’s even in my job description)."
Why do we find so much emotional resonance in lies? There are four reasons that derive from our evolutionary history. We are a social species with relationships built on trust. But there have always been people who would take advantage of us and abuse our trust. No one wants to be a chump. These two instincts-- to trust others but to be suspicious of cheaters-- guide much of our behavior today, and they hang in an uneasy balance. If a (trusted) friend tells us that another person is cheating us, we take it seriously. Cheaters get ahead at our expense-- on the savannah, in the board room or in the bedroom. These are emotional issues, not logical ones. And emotional issues have priority over our brain’s attention.

The second reason is that our brains are wired to err on the side of caution. If that rustling in the grass is a snake I’m better off jumping away than staying put. The cost of doing so is minimal, but the cost of being wrong could be deadly. On encountering information that could tip one way or another, we put our guard up; we become skeptical of the status quo. We try to find facts that line up behind the story.

And this dovetails with the third reason we tend to find lies attractive: we are a pattern-detecting species. This serves us well much of the time, but not all of the time. The problem is that we detect patterns where they don’t exist. We’re told that Capricorns are stubborn. We know some Capricorns and agree that they’re stubborn. But wait! This is not an unbiased, logical way to collect information. To know whether there really is a pattern or not, we’d need to look at all the stubborn people we know and see what their signs are. If you look at the big picture in this way, you’ll find that all traits are equally distributed across all astrological signs-- there’s no pattern in the aggregate, it’s just that a few vivid examples deceive us into thinking there might be one.

Pattern detection also fools us when we get to thinking that correlation and causation are the same thing. Just because two things co-occur, or one follows the other, doesn’t mean that first one caused the second one. We don’t vaccinate children until they reach a certain age because that’s when their bodies can handle immunization. And we can’t diagnose autism until a certain age because, by definition, autism is a delay in normal development-- we need to wait long enough to detect it. And so it happens that a child diagnosed with autism will have received a vaccination before the diagnosis. Of the millions of children who get the MMR vaccine, only a small percentage become diagnosed with autism. And the same proportion of children who don’t get the MMR vaccine are also diagnosed with autism. But our pattern detectors are not equipped to make such reasoned judgments. We need what Daniel Kahneman calls our slow system for that, and that takes deliberate training and practice.

The fourth factor is that we tend to have source amnesia for information we acquire-- we remember the fact (or pseudo-fact) but forget where we heard it. It can take weeks for information to become firmly encoded in long-term memory, and during that encoding process, the information is labile, and repetition can cause it to become stronger. If the source is later discredited, it is very difficult for us to correct the neural record.

So here’s the good news: there are simple things all of us can do to become more rational decision makers, and to avoid being taken in by liars and con-artists who prey on ignorance.

First is education. Education works. And the great thing about it is that it works across all ages and backgrounds. A study from North Carolina State University, led by Dr. Alicia McGill found that explicitly teaching critical thinking skills during a semester significantly reduced students’ belief in pseudoscientific, nonsense claims, compared to a control group. Also relevant is the work of Keith Stanovich, of the University of Toronto. He has developed the rationality quotient or RQ, a measure separate from the IQ (intelligence quotient). And it turns out that you can be very high in RQ and low in IQ, or vice-versa. We need to teach students to build up their RQ. We need to teach evidence-based thinking in K-12 schools and in colleges. And we all need to practice them every day. Fortunately, the current news cycle is giving us much to practice with.

The second thing we can do is to seek out good models for evidence-based thinking. William F. Buckley’s Firing Line was an excellent example of modelling-- whether you agreed with Buckley’s conservative positions or not, the program showed all of us what civilized debate and critical evaluation of the facts look like. We have few if any analogues of that today. Television networks and other content providers won’t make them if there’s no demand for them-- we need to ask for them, for the benefit of all.

The third thing is to pay attention to sources as we encounter new information, and work deliberately to encode them. Ask yourself: is this a reliable source, is the information current, is the person who is posing as an expert actually an expert? Before clicking the thumbs up button on forwarding a social network post, we should each try to figure out if it’s true or not first. We can overcome source memory if we think more like a journalist, scientist or lawyer: who told you that? How do they know?

Finally, it is important that all of us participate in our own information literacy and take an active role in inquiry. As President Obama noted in his exit speech, democracy is neither free nor easy. It demands our participation. We need to think for ourselves-- systematically, rationally-- and we need to support those institutions who help us to do so: an independent judiciary and an independent press. And we should not be complacent in accepting nonsense. Dissent is not disloyalty. We don’t want to be driven by fear into an age of unreason.

Trump is now widely viewed by Americans-- though not by his most hardcore supporters-- as a flat-out liar. Every week his credibility with the public sinks lower and lower. Republican congressmen and staffers who dealt with him on health care report universally that he was all bullshit and bluster and utterly devoid of substance and that he was unaware about what the provisions of TrumpCare even were, let alone how the would impact the nation-- or even the poor schleps who got bamboozled into voting for him. Maybe that's why that new Gallup tracking poll (directly above) shows his job approval rating at 36%, the lowest I can remember any president having since Nixon's lowest ebb, just before he was forced to resign in disgrace. People have limited tolerance for habitual liars. It seems to have finally caught up with Trump.

Goal Thermometer Dan gave us a personally autographed copy of his new book, A Field Guide To Lies, and we're going to give it away to a randomly chosen Blue America contributor who donates any amount-- whether a dollar or $1,000-- to any of the members of Congress on out list of the most effective congressional resistance fighters. You'll find the list by tapping on the ActBlue thermometer on the right. Just make your contribution to the member or members of your choice and within the next 24 hours, we'll randomly select one name and send her or him the autographed book. (Note: Dan's favorite congressman is Ted Lieu, but that doesn't matter one way or the other for this fun little contest. Give a couple of bucks to Ted if you believe in what he's doing, but that isn't going to influence who wins the signed book. Dan doesn't even get to know who gets chosen until after the "contest" is over and the book is on the way to the winner.)

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At 6:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The saddest fact about americans, even sadder than their now congenital excess of raw stupidity, is their RQ of zero. As it stands here and now, a lot of americans would need to check with their clergy or some other guru figure when someone observes that it's sunny today or thunder is loud. We've gone from a population bereft of the ability of introspection to a population totally lacking in self-awareness.

In short, there's 10s of millions of americans who aren't sure they're alive.

Teaching critical thinking to morons like these would seem to be a waste... but I suppose one has to try.

Add in teaching the scientific method and you might have something (same disclaimer as above).

But how you gonna do these at a time when DOE is set up to self-immolate and leave education to the churches?

At 12:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So lies, and our response to them, is embedded in our evolution but deliberate dis-/mis- information, of, by and for our government, just occurred this election cycle - and only by the GOP?

John Puma

At 1:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

“It is my great honor to have preserved this important section of the Potomac River!”
It's not only his honor, but a great gift to all of us, for what else in the way of tourist attractions exists near the Potomac? Job well done, Mr. Businessman!
"People have limited tolerance for habitual liars." Yes.


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