Why There is a Crisis of Fake News

Call it the law of unintended consequences.

The internet is a disruptive technology comparable to the Gutenberg press. Initially it was seen as a global encyclopedia, making all human knowledge available to everyone.

Then social media arose, and I saw this as revolutionary for two reasons:

  • It allows people around the world to see each other and recognize their common humanity rather than being portrayed as faceless enemies to be feared.
  • Radio, TV and the press are one-way media that promote the interests of the rich and powerful. Peer-to-peer communication by passes these gatekeepers and allows other ideas to compete.

What I missed in this optimistic analysis was that the gatekeepers also performed the valuable task of checking facts and assembling a coherent, credible story, albeit with the possibility of bias.

With great power comes great responsibility.

The power we have is that peer-to-peer networks facilitate the dissemination of news that does not fit the ruling narrative.

The corresponding responsibility is that we must check the facts and assess the credibility.

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You Only Have Six Original Thoughts in Your Life

By an original thought, I mean putting together existing ideas and observations and coming up with a new thought or product or process that you’ve never met before.

All developments are constructed from the raw materials of our present knowledge, and new discoveries are often made independently by a number of people. There are many examples of such duplications such as the point-contact transistor, protein denaturation and calculus.

There is a huge range of creativity, from very little for some people all the way to thousands of ideas from someone like Richard Feynman; six is just a guesstimate for the average, taken from my personal experience.

It follows that nearly all of your beliefs, whether big or small, are those of other people:

  • What is consciousness?
  • Is there a God?
  • How should society be organized?
  • Does this hat look good on me?

Just because those beliefs didn’t originate with you doesn’t make your answers invalid, of course, but it does place on you an obligation to look into the basis for your beliefs.

Welcome to the New World of Perpetual War

Spontaneous street protest at start of Iraq war

It’s a New World of Perpetual War:

All this for only $2,000 each (that’s $8,000 for a family of four) or $4,500 each when you count indirect costs.

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Censorship on Conservative Sites

I have long had the experience of being censored on conservative sites, despite making a point of being meticulously respectful. On reddit, I have been blocked from the subreddits conservative, askaconservative and The_Donald, but they are famous for being hyper-sensitive. I did not anticipate censorship from a prestigious publication like the National Review.

David French wrote an article with the tongue-in-cheek title Does the Left Lose because It’s Too Civil? and most of the comments were extremely uncivil about the left, thus refuting his point. I engaged with one of the commenters and found that some of my responses were being deleted. After the first one, I did screen captures:

I found it ironic that the article complained that civil discourse with liberals wasn’t possible, yet a polite dialogue was being disrupted.

I reached out to David French and the National Review about this, but heard nothing back.

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The entire canon of Western thought, from Aristotelian logic to George Boole (he of boolean arithmetic) to the divide-and-conquer approach of science, invites us to view and categorize the world according to its differences, not its similarities. A table is a table and a chair is a chair.

Language is the tool we use for this dissection. It is the framework within which we place all experience. And yet this cannot be the only way to understand the world. Before language was invented, say 100,000 years ago, we managed to live and survive in the world; we understood the world, but in a very different way. Yet that way must still exist within us, although eclipsed by language.

To know it, we must set aside language – a very difficult task. Meditation is one way to do this. For instance, zazen involves watching and counting the breath. Whenever a thought arises, start counting from one again. This is extraordinarily difficult, yet it demonstrates that attention without thought is possible. Yet what we find there remains there. We cannot bring it back and speak about it: it is, by definition, unspeakable.

Arthur Koestler coined the word “holon” to mean something that is complete in itself, yet also part of a larger whole. A human is composed of organ systems like the respiratory and digestive systems; each is constructed of cells, and so on, down to the quarks and leptons of physics. But individuals are also part of larger groupings: a species, a phylum, and life.

This multiple existence is hard to acknowledge.

So we are indisputably these larger groups at the same time as being our individual self, in the same way that a cell is indisputably human as the same time as it lives its life as a cell.

This is the realm in which we find the greater self, and to find it we must transcend the ego, not in the sense of denying it, but of not remaining attached to it.

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Only Protest If It Is Invisible

Street protest at outbreak of Iraq war.Do you remember when BLM was protesting in the streets and people said “I support their right to protest, but not at the expense of inconveniencing other people?” So players avoided inconvenience by kneeling during the National Anthem, and that still upsets people. It seems that protest is only allowed when it is completely invisible and can be ignored.

The Financial Value of DACA

This graph* shows the net value to society of a person as they age. Initially, a child costs money for food, health and education. During the working years, they generate more value than they consume. In retirement, living and health costs reduce their value, but at death, there is, on average a small net value, and accumulated over many lives and millennia, these net values have accumulated to create the social assets we all share: roads, museums, libraries, scientific knowledge and technical skills.

The potential value of a person is greatest at the end of their education, and that is precisely what we are rejecting when we deport DREAMers. The benefits will all accrue to the other countries.

* The graph is an average across the population, and the exact shape will be different, e.g. there will be a steep drop at end of life. Nevertheless, the graph as drawn illustrates the point.

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Political Financing: A Modest Proposal

Here’s how to reduce the influence of money in elections: no politician should be allowed to accept contributions from outside their district.

This applies at all levels: city, county, state and nation. The Federal Election Campaign Act bans foreign contributions, and we need a Keep Elections Free Of Outside Money Act.

Senators would only be allowed to raise money from within their state, and Representatives from within their district. The same would apply to City and County officials.

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What Are They Thinking?

March for Science in Santa Barbara

I often check Fox News online to get the conservative slant on news. Poor as it might be, the comments are ten times worse. Here are some from their March for Science reporting.

  • These people are a joke. The problem with ignorance is that ignorant people are too ignorant to know they are ignorant. Such idiocy.
  • Getting rid of the US Dept. of Energy would pretty much make this climate change claptrap go away.
  • God creates the climate… What’s the question here?
  • It’s about time the American taxpayer stopped funding many of these pseudo science projects. Most of them are just welfare to liberal universities.

These are just from a single page of comments, and are typical of the level of attack. How is it be possible to reach a compromise with right-wing voters? This question worries me every day.

Reconciling the Various Reasons for Trump

After the election, I concluded that Trump won with three appeals:

  • Bring back jobs
  • Drain the swamp
  • Build the wall

and that I approved of the first two. (It’s now clear that all three are unlikely to happen.)

Many people have offered reasons why Trump won, and they fall into three areas:

  • Election problems
  • Economic hardship
  • Racism

I won’t go into the electoral issues (Comey, gerrymandering, fake news, Clinton, Russia) here. There are stats that make a good case for both jobs and racism being the cause. Can we reconcile the two?

I have an article (not out yet) arguing that fear of others is the defining characteristic of conservatives. Edsall says that only cities with a population greater than 1 million showed economic growth, so maybe low population density causes both xenophobia and weak economic opportunities.

EDIT 4/17/17: a Political Science professor just analyzed the recently released 2016 American National Election Study and found racial bias was more significant than authoritarianism or income inequality.

Finally, the statistical tool of regression can tease apart which had more influence on the 2016 vote: authoritarianism or symbolic racism, after controlling for education, race, ideology, and age. Moving from the 50th to the 75th percentile in the authoritarian scale made someone about 3 percent more likely to vote for Trump. The same jump on the SRS scale made someone 20 percent more likely to vote for Trump. Source

EDIT 5/19/17: PRRI analyzed what factors motivated white working-class voters to support Donald Trump

  1. Identification with the Republican Party: 11 times more likely to support Trump
  2. Fears about cultural displacement: 3.5 times more likely
  3. Support for deporting immigrants living in the country illegally: 3.3 times more likely
  4. Economic fatalism: almost twice as likely
  5. Economic hardship: 1.7 times more likely to support Clinton
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