Saturday, February 25, 2017

Democracy and Free Speech in the Age of Ignorance: Google Delists Natural News from Search Results

EDIT: After I wrote this post, Google tweeted a statement clarifying why Natural News had been delisted. It had nothing to do with the content, rather they were using redirect techniques prohibited Google's webmaster guidelines. Regardless of why Google delisted, my arguments still apply but should be interpreted as a policy going forward.

The Situation
Here's the dealy-yo. The Google just delisted Natural News (a purveyor of medical misinformation, pseudoscience, and science denialism) from its search results. Natural news is quite a popular website and often ends up in the first few search results on medical and health searches. This is no coincidence. The founder of the website/store is primarily trained in web design and search engine optimization. The problem is that most of the information on the site is extremely misleading--and that's being nice about it. A sweet innocent googler, not knowing any better, could easily end up being mislead.

Let's get one thing off the table. Delisting isn't a violation of freedom of speech as it is described in the US Constitution. The First Amendment (second only in importance to the right of all Americans to own bazookas) concerns government restrictions on free speech--not private restrictions. Since the Google is a private company, the First Amendment does. not. apply.

Of course, as Dr. Steven Novella points out in his excellent blog post, things aren't so simple. We can think of search engines like Google as public utilities. As such, perhaps we ought to be skeptical of excluding sites from results:
Google is by far the most popular portal to the web, which is now an invaluable general resource. Private utility companies are regulated by the government (or in some countries even nationalized) because they provide an essential service to the public. If Google is viewed as an essential utility, you can argue that they should not discriminate in this way.
The idea is that since Google has become somewhat of an essential service, we ought not exclude people or organizations from it perhaps in the same way we wouldn't exclude unsavory business from a telephone book.

The Real All-Natural Truth!!11!!1
My own view is that it doesn't matter two bits whether Google is considered to be a public utility or not. It's beside the point. The purpose of a search engine is to provide information that is both accurate and relevant to the search terms. Natural News fails on both counts.

If someone wants to know how to treat a particular cancer, turmeric is not the answer. And if someone needs antibiotics, oregano oil is a poor choice. And, (this will shock you!!!!) coconut oil doesn't provide relief from HIV or cancer.

Now, I know what you're thinking (I hope). How could anyone believe this stuff?

My sweet innocent child. 

My little lamb. 

That is precisely the problem. Famously, P.T. Barnum said that there's a sucker born every minute. That was before the internet. In the internet age, that is a gross underestimation. For a variety of reasons people are remarkably credulous. 

You might think, "Meh, so what? If people want to make stupid decisions, that's on them. Health care freedom!!!11!!!1 U. S. A!  U. S. A!  U. S. A!"

Perhaps. But this doesn't undermine my claim that NN fails to fulfill the criteria for being a relevant and accurate search result for the likely query. If I genuinely want to know how to address my health problem, a site that peddles misinformation (deliberately or not) should not show up in the results. It undermines the very purpose of making such a query in a search engine. 

Furthermore, the harms of believing that coconut oil cures cancer are real. Here is a running list of what were avoidable deaths caused by belief in pseudoscience and misinformation of the kind peddled by NN. When people forgo science-based treatment for chelation therapyfaith healinghomeopathy people die unnecessarily. 

The Real Problem
But wait! There's more! All this is small potatoes to the real problem. A liberal democracy is committed to the idea that policy ought to be justifiable, in some sense, to everyone subject to it. Contemporary liberal democracies are, by definition, replete with diverse ideas about what we ought to value and the ordering of those values. These disagreements aren't going away any time soon. 

Agreeing on how we ought to address particular public health problems is difficult enough when there is disagreement over values and their relative priority. When you add in disagreement over basic scientific facts, any hope of agreement evaporates.

And this is precisely the problem with sites like NN. They deliberately mislead people with regard to the basic science on issues such as vaccines, cancer treatment, water fluoridation, and more. They also undermine trust in epistemic authorities by publishing inflammatory and misleading "exposees". In effect, they undermine the capacity for science-based public health care policy. 

When you tell people that vaccines cause autism or that vaccines are part of a depopulation plot by the Illuminati-Rothchild elite, they won't sign on unless you coerce them. And coercion is something we try to avoid in democracies. The problem is that people who read NN only have to be coerced because NN misrepresents the science. I'm not going to go into it here but, no, vaccines do not cause autism. And no, vaccines are not part of a world depopulation scheme by some shadowy world government. 

Check out articles on or if you're a fence-sitter and are interested in hearing what medical researchers have to say.

Let the People Decide!
At this point you might say something like we should "let the people decide" or "the solution to misinformation isn't censorship (which this isn't, anyway), it's critical thinking." 

Oh! My sweet babe!

My pure unsullied child!

You think the average person can detect bullshit? How quaint! You are the well from which hope springs. Let me drain that well with--what else?--statistics about the general public in the US. 
  • 50% of adults cannot read a book written at an eighth grade level 
  • 45 million are functionally illiterate and read below a 5th grade level 
  • 44% of the American adults do not read a book in a year 
  • 6 out of 10 households do not buy a single book in a year 
(Source: National Institute for Literacy, National Center for Adult Literacy, The Literacy Company, U.S. Census Bureau)

The US ranks 14th in scientific literacy in OECD countries. However, just about every country's rate of scientific literacy is low. So it's kind of like being of average intelligence relative to a group of high school drop outs. Think Not Sure in Idiocracy.

That's not the standard one should be aiming for. 70 percent of Americans cannot read and understand the science section of the New York Times. Approximately 28 percent of American adults currently qualify as scientifically literate (Source).

Add to the above these statistics on health care literacy:
Only 12 percent of adults have Proficient health literacy, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. In other words, nearly nine out of ten adults may lack the skills needed to manage their health and prevent disease. Fourteen percent of adults (30 million people) have Below Basic health literacy. These adults were more likely to report their health as poor (42 percent) and are more likely to lack health insurance (28 percent) than adults with Proficient health literacy. (Source: Kirsch IS, Jungeblut A, Jenkins L, Kolstad A. 1993. Adult Literacy in America: A First Look at the Results of the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education.)
All this to say: Yes, in an ideal world we could let people's critical thinking sort things out but this is wildly unrealistic given the educational deficit in the general population. Worse yet, is that those who are most vulnerable are most likely to be duped by false claims since they are most likely to not have received a good education:
  • 3 out of 4 people on welfare can’t read 
  • 20% of Americans read below the level needed to earn a living wage 
  • 50% of the unemployed between the ages of 16 and 21 cannot read well enough to be considered functionally literate 
  • Between 46 and 51% of American adults have an income well below the poverty level because of their inability to read 
  • 3 out of 5 people in American prisons can’t read 
  • 85% of juvenile offenders have problems reading 
  • Approximately 50% of Americans read so poorly that they are unable to perform simple tasks such as reading prescription drug labels 
  • (Source: National Institute for Literacy, National Center for Adult Literacy, The Literacy Company, U.S. Census Bureau)
When a policy, institution, or practice disproportionately adversely affects the most vulnerable members of society there are good reasons to make changes such that they don't suffer these effects. Currently, search engines make it all-too-easy for unwitting people to be mislead and they are often the ones who can least afford to waste money on ineffective treatments.

There's a strange irony here. The lower the general level of critical thinking and education the more people will probably yell and scream about how such screening amounts to a violation of freedum. However, such populations are the ones most in need of screening results. 

Conversely, the higher the level of reasoning and education, the less such screening policies will matter. Such people already have the critical reasoning capacities to dismiss sites like NN as the steaming mound of manure that they are. In such populations, NN will drop out of the search results on their own. No one will go there aside critical thinking instructors like myself who use the site as a valuable source of case studies in reasoning errors.

Yeah, But....
One last possible objection to delisting such sites: From the perspective of True Believers, delisting only lends credence to their claims that such sites are dispensing information that THEY don't want you to know about. 

To this I say, we aren't concerned with the True Believers. They are impervious to reason and evidence. They're a lost cause. If you don't believe me, spend a few minutes in the comments section of one of their articles. You'll have as much luck changing their mind as you will converting Alex Jones to Islam. 

Our policies concern those that are genuinely looking for accurate information who have yet to completely fall prey to systematic misinformation. If NN and similar sites don't come up in a search, the innocent Googler is better off and they lose nothing. Besides, all they wanted to know was how to treat a particular medical condition. They didn't want to get pulled into some grand conspiracy about Big Pharma in conjunction with Bill Gates poisoning their children and that the True cure to what-ails-them is colloidal silver or powdered twigs from the Himalayan foothills (all conveniently available for purchase on the site). 

The lost causes who have already been sucked into the epistemic black hole of conspiracism can hoot an holler all they want about "censorship." Nothing is stopping them from typing in the web address of their favorite crank website to get their daily dose of misinformation. Delisting doesn't make NN and similar site inaccessible. It just prevents the further spread of misinformation into the public domain. And this is a massive public good.

Yeah but Slippery Slope
Some people might worry that having someone else determine which sites come up in our search is somehow how bad or is a slippery slope to objectionable censorship. 

A) No matter what (including now), decisions have to be made regarding the ordering of websites in response to search terms. There is no neutral ordering unless Google's algorithm is a results randomizer. Popularity isn't necessarily a good one either. I'm going to be wildly controversial and say accuracy ought to be the primary ordering criteria of search results.

B) Yeah but who determines what's accurate?
(1) An algorithm can give/remove points based on the credentials of the people running the site. 
(2) For some domains of knowledge there won't necessarily be a consensus but where there is, use that as a standard. To the degree that a website deviates from that standard, to that degree they get points.

Let me conclude with one of my favorite recent quotes: 
“We live in a world of radical ignorance, and the marvel is that any kind of truth cuts through the noise.” Robert Proctor, science historian. 
Agreement on public health care policy is difficult enough as it is. But when large segments of the population believe wild conspiracies about the CDC, vaccines, and the efficacy of various treatments, democratic policy-making becomes all-but-impossible. To function, a democracy needs trust in our experts and institutions, and possess a shared set of facts from which to work. Sites like NN unjustifiably undermine each of these critical elements with outright false claims, innuendo, and distortion. 

If we value what's left of our diminishing ability to form effective and mutually justifiable public policy, search engines like Google should--nay! MUST!--diminish the visibility of those sites that contribute to the radical ignorance of the world we currently inhabit. Democracy itself is at stake. 

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Thinking Critically about Politics: Executive Orders and Executive Overreach

Article II of the Constitution allows the POTUS to bypass Congress and issue orders that are binding on federal administrative agencies. Lately, we're hearing about--and should continue to hear about--the issue of "executive overreach". The general claim is that the executive branch's exercise of power through executive order is used excessively.
Currently, liberals and liberal-leaning media are all up in arms with regard to Trump's deluge of executive orders. Previously, Republicans made quite a ruckus about Obama's executive orders and decried the legitimacy of the practice itself. As with most things in politics, people support whatever procedures bring about their favored outcomes and rail against those that don't--when they don't. In justifying a particular process they forget that when the opposition is power, the same means will be available to the opposition. This is the point that libertarians have been making all along. We need to pay attention to the legitimacy of a process rather than focus on our like or dislike of an outcome.
There are two points we can make here with regards to critical thinking. The first is has to do with consistency. If you claim a process is illegitimate then you should hold that it is illegitimate regardless of who uses it.
In politics, outcome ought not to be the only concern. As I mentioned above, you should also be concerned with how an outcome is achieved. It's hypocritical to scream about executive overreach when your team isn't getting what it wants yet say nothing when it works to your favor--and vice versa. Doing so would be inconsistent.
A beautiful specimen of a tu quoque.
One of the four core concepts in my critical thinking course is Relativity. By this I mean that for every evaluative claim we must ask, "compared to what?".  Republicans had tantrums over Obama's executive orders in regards to their quantity suggesting that the number met the standard for "executive overreach". To evaluate whether Obama met the criteria for executive overreach we must look at the average annual number of executive orders he signed and compare that number to other presidents. We must ask, "Did Obama, on average, issue more executive orders compared to past presidents?"
It turns out that Obama signed an average of 35 executive orders per/year. Compared to other US presidents he had the lowest average number of executive orders than any other president in 120 years. 120 years ago, Cleveland also averaged 35/year. If Obama engaged in executive overreach then it follows that either
  1. all presidents engaged in executive overreach OR
  2. we have defined our term incorrectly.
Trump, (in less than a week) has signed twelve executive orders. Suppose someone opposed Obama's use of executive orders on the grounds that 35/year met the threshold for executive overreach. Consistency (an often bothersome concept) suggests that that same person should be extremely concerned with Trump.
We have noted that someone might also have opposed Obama's use of executive orders on the grounds that all executive orders--no matter the number--are illegitimate. It follows that (consistent) Republicans who supported their arguments against Obama with this reason should also be up in arms over Trump's affinity for the executive order.  I'm extremely confident Republicans will start ranting and raving about Trump's executive overreach any moment now. Social media's about to asplode! Here it comes...Wait for it....Wait for it...
To be fair, Democrats had nothing good to say about executive orders when Dubya was president (I never thought I'd say this, but we miss you!). But when Obama used them, nary a peep was heard from democrats. Incidentally, Dubya averaged only 1 more executive order/year than did Obama.
To the credit of libertarians, they have (generally) consistently opposed executive orders whereas Democrats and Republicans generally seem only to scrutinize them when they don't yield the outcome they want. It's interesting to consider if libertarian consistency is merely a consequence of the fact that libertarians typically opposed the outcomes of executive orders on both sides. It will be interesting to watch hardcore libertarians if Trump, via executive order, defanges (or outright dissolves) the EPA and other regulatory agencies that libertarians generally oppose. Will they too put on the ideological blinders? Given what we know about cognitive biases and social psychology, I'm not going to hold my breath. But for now I'll give them the credit they're due.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Annual Fitness Post: How to Be Aristotle in the Gym

I always enjoy writing my annual fitness post. I’m frequently surprised by how much I learn about fitness each year even though I’ve basically been involved in it my whole life. Before we get started here are my past fitness posts for future reference:

I often like to mock click-baity headlines in my posts. However, in this year’s post I find myself actually believing that what I’m about to discuss in this post IS the “one weird trick” that will allow you to achieve your fitness goals. 

Let’s Start General…
Across many life activities distraction from connected devices is a major problem. This shouldn’t be a revelation to anyone with a smart phone. I spend a significant amount of time contemplating how to avoid digital distraction in my own life and have only met moderate success. In my teaching I also try to establish classroom culture and conventions to minimize the possibility of digital noodling. 

The way I see it, digital distraction is a genuine threat to quality of life. It pulls us out of the activity we are doing and prohibits the deep engagement necessary to make that activity meaningful and, hence, worthwhile. Also, genuine learning requires deep engagement and concentration. In short, if you’re doing something while your mind is elsewhere, you’re only getting a fraction of the benefit: You’re leaving money on the table.

Distracted Fitness: You’re Losing Precious Gainz!
The implications of digital distraction for fitness should be obvious. Depending on the gym I’m in I’ll often see up to 2/3rds of people texting and scrolling between sets. And while on the cardio machines, it’s even worse. 

I won’t go so far as to say it’s the only ingredient for success, but you simply cannot make worthwhile progress in your fitness if your mind and body aren’t working together when you train. Every top bodybuilder, fitness model, and athlete I’ve ever trained with will talk about the importance of the mind-body connection when they’re training. (Bodybuilders will say ‘mind-muscle’ connection—same, same).

Try imagining for a moment an Olympic athlete checking their social media while they are in the middle of a training session. This would be insane. Even if they're catching their breathe between intervals, they need to be focussed on what's next and assessing what they just did. 

Success requires total engagement. Every time you glance at your digital device you’re pulling your mind out of what you’re doing. This constant engagement, disengagement, and reengagement never permits the deep emersion necessary for worthwhile results.

Of course, you aren’t training for the next Olympics but you are training to get particular results, aren’t you? I mean, why the heck are you there if you’re not? And if you don’t have any goals, get some

The bottom line here is intensity or as some philosophers have called it, passion. You are at the gym for a reason and that reason isn’t to check your social media account. Take a just one measly freakin’ hour away from your phone to fully engage in training your body. Commit to it. I see so many people essentially wasting their time in the gym.

If you want to get more out of your gym time, practice mindfulness. 

But How?
Let's begin with the painfully obvious: Leave your freakin' phone in the locker room. ("But I need if for my music." Buy a freakin' ipod, you maroon!). 

Moving on...

When I’m lifting weights I’m doing several things. First, I’m paying attention to my breathing. Second, I’m paying attention to what each muscle is doing. Do each repetition with a conscious and deliberate contraction of the target muscle(s): squeeze at the top and stretch at the bottom. 

Slow down. 

Pause at the bottom of the movement and make sure you have the correct muscles engaged before you begin the repetition. Focus your mind on contracting those particular muscles. At the peak, squeeze; then pause just enough to stop the momentum of the movement. If you can't feel which muscles are contracting, you're just moving the weight up and down. It's not the same thing.

Make everything deliberate. 

Fitness is a form of meditation. Just because lifting weights or doing cardio isn’t steeped in Ancient Wisdom woo, it should be just as meditative as yoga. At its best it is discovery and contemplation of your physical self. You are learning and creating what’s possible for your body to do and become. You are forging and strengthening the connections between the mental and physical aspects of your self. 

On the cardio machines, I like to do interval training or set the machine to random. Regardless of which one I’m doing I set goals for my rate (rpm or steps/minute). If I don’t set goals I can never push myself beyond my comfort zone. In the long term this means I can never improve my fitness level; or if I do, my improvement will be far below what it could have been. 

At the ‘random’ setting I like to give myself a minimum rpm that I don’t allow myself to go below regardless of the resistance. When I can achieve my time interval at that rpm, I either raise my target rpm or increase the overall level of resistance. I want to know how far I can push and develop my body. I treat my training time as a journey of self-discovery and creation.

Aimless and distracted training rob me of this fruit.

I also pay close attention to my breathing and posture: Doing so is yet anther way of developing and achieving knowledge of my physical self. So many people have no awareness of what their body is doing or how it is positioned.

Aristotle in the Gym
Aristotle is probably the most plagiarized philosopher in history. Most self-help and management books are basically cheap rip-offs of his ideas.

At the core of Aristotle's Ethics is the idea that you become what you do repeatedly. Otherwise stated, you are your habits. 

The lesson here is simple and familiar, but invaluable. To change aspects of yourself, change your habits. Find people who you want to be like and adopt their habits in respect to those aspects you want to become. 

Aristotle’s philosophy doesn’t just apply to particular skills or professions but—and most importantly—to character

If you want to become courageous you have to do courageous things. If you want to become generous, you have to do generous things. 

I see a lot of people generally unwilling to push themselves. These individual surrenders accrue over time to form a habit which manifests, in the long term, as satisfaction with mediocrity. No one should be content with mediocrity. It's a waste of a life.

Sadly, when done repeatedly, mediocrity becomes a habit and part of one’s character. I see so many students unwilling to push themselves mentally to produce truly excellent work. I see people in the gym satisfied with merely showing up and going through the motions. 

Aristotle and the ancient Greeks would have had a fit. A good life—one worth living—is one that is lived excellently; that is, in the pursuit, development, and actualization of our human virtues (i.e., excellences)… 

This tendency toward mediocrity has many causes--some blameworthy, some not. But I contend that distracted living is a big one and, fortunately, one we can legitimately control. People will say they want to be great at x, y, or z but when it comes time to do the work they can’t get themselves to do it. The more they fall prey to distractions the more engrained this trait—this unwillingness to push—becomes in their character.

It’s the Small Things
There’s a happy flip-side to all this. We aren't stuck with poor character traits. We can practice toughness and become tough. Frankie Edgar, a UFC fighter, is known for his mental toughness. He has a reputation for being the mentally toughest fighter in the entire organization. He’s undersized for his division but still became the champion. He has an indomitable will. No matter how badly he has been losing a match he never quits. When asked what makes him so mentally tough, he replied that “[he] practice[s] mental toughness every single day.”

He suffers no delusion that he can train in the comfort zone; i.e., quitting whenever training gets a bit too hard, and then on fight night magically become mentally tough. This kind of thinking is pure fantasy and only happens in movies.

Edgar, the unwitting Aristotelian, offers us some great advice for all aspects of life—whether it’s to a student who wants better grades, someone looking to get in good shape, a musician who wants to become great or whatever. Every time you quit mentally you are contributing to the formation of a habit which in turn becomes part of your character

Habits are default behavioral responses. They eliminate deliberation. 

Developing mental toughness requires practicing mental toughness every day. In a fight, Edgar doesn’t decide that *now* he’s going to be tough. There’s no decision to make. He already is.

In Book 2 of the Ethics, Aristotle explains the nature of and relationships between virtue, habit, and character:
Virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name (ethike) is one that is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit). From this it is also plain that none of the moral virtues arises in us by nature; for nothing that exists by nature can form a habit contrary to its nature. For instance the stone which by nature moves downwards cannot be habituated to move upwards, not even if one tries to train it by throwing it up ten thousand times; nor can fire be habituated to move downwards, nor can anything else that by nature behaves in one way be trained to behave in another. Neither by nature, then, nor contrary to nature do the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit. 
The idea is that no one is born with particular moral virtues of character or of intellect. True, people have dispositions but this doesn’t undo the central claim that our character is mostly cultivated through habit.

Back to the Gym: 
If you want to be mentally tough you must practice mental toughness.

When you’re on the cardio machine and your rpm drops below the minimum rpm you set for yourself, you are faced with a choice: You can say to yourself, “waaah! this is hard, I’m going to slow down” or you can say to yourself, “challenge accepted.”

We all experience such moments of choice. It may seem like a small insignificant choice. You’re just riding a damn cardio machine. How can slowing down possibly affect your life in any significant way?

But, if there is any truth to what Aristotle says, it is precisely these small choices that affect, nay, generate the nature of our lives and character. Every action, positive or negative, contributes to habit formation. Which habit are you going to cultivate? Mental toughness or resignation and satisfaction with mediocrity? There are no neutral actions.

The more we quit, the easier it is to quit. The more we rise to the challenge, the easier we are able to. Habit removes deliberation and replaces it with character. We are the habit. That is, the virtue or vice comes to constitute our character.

The challenge to live excellently appears great but do not despair: Rejoice! Aristotelian philosophy offers us hope. Moral virtues like courage and mental toughness aren’t generated by infrequent momentous acts nor are they genetically determined. Instead they are cultivated through the small seemly insignificant choices we make every day. 

Excellence is easily within everyone's grasp. 
[Ok, Aristotle would have disagreed with universal claim the last sentence but who cares...I'm trying to leave you feeling hopeful and sell you my new Quantum Spirit Inspiration book and seminar!)

The above lessons have both wide and narrow application. Broadly we can apply the following lessons to live better:

1. Eliminate digital distractions.
2. Don’t multitask. 
3. Set up your environment such that deep immersion in your activity of choice is possible. 
4. Identify the character traits you want to have and do small things every day that embody that trait. 

For the gym:
  1. Leave your phone in the got-tam locker room.
  2. Make every action conscious and deliberate.
  3. Pay attention to your breathing and posture.

For School (things I do and am trying to do better):

  1. When doing a writing assignment unplug your modem.
  2. If your writing requires online sources, download them into PDFs then unplug your modem. 
  3. Put your phone in another room while doing work.
Some times life throws a lot of shit at us and merely surviving another day is a feat in itself. In times like these, pushing yourself to the limit could be counter productive. It might rob you of the energy you need to get through your day. On the other hand, winning small battles is a way to rebuild our self-esteem. Fitness usually takes place in a controlled environment where success is a simple equation: More effort=more success. Outside of the gym, all sorts of confounding factors creep into this otherwise simple formula. If you're looking to regain a sense of control over your life, doing so in a controlled environment might be a good way to go. 

A final qualification has to do with the nature of your work day. Some people have extremely demanding jobs--periodically or consistently. They have to be at 100% intensity all day. For people with these sorts of jobs, the gym is often a place to relax. It's an escape from the intensity of work. If your job requires long and intense days, pushing yourself extra hard in the gym might make working out unpleasant for you. If that's the case, it's better that you're showing up without maximizing than not showing up at all. Aristotle famously advocated the doctrine of the mean. That is, any trait in excess is harmful.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

RRAR! A Four Step Method for Critical Thinking in the Digital Age

In philosophy it's often said that there are 'lumpers' and 'spliters'. Lumpers try to unify discrete kinds under one category while spliters argue for maintaining (and insisting on more) distinctions between kinds. When it comes to critical thinking, I tend toward the former. Especially at the end of a semester, I always find myself obsessing about the best way to distill an entire course into as few basic principles as possible. Some textbooks explicitly do this (see Robert Shanabs and Sharon Gould's excellent TLC method)  while others approach critical thinking from the point of view of discrete modules.

Here is my latest distillation.

RRAR! Method: Critical Thinking for the Digital Age
Preliminary Step: Set Up
Before we begin any evaluation we need to put the subject of our evaluation into premise-conclusion form. I'm not going to fully explain it here but if you're interested, here is the unit from the beta version of the textbook I'm writing (I'm still editing it so don't scream at me about layout and the typos n' stuff!). Basically, identify the conclusion (i.e., what the author is trying to persuade you to believe) and the main premises (the reasons and evidence used to support the conclusion). List the premises with the conclusion at the bottom.

(P1). The activities and decisions that most affect your well-being require you to be able to think well in order to make the right choices.
(P2). Critical thinking is a systematic method for thinking well.
(C).  Therefore, you should study critical thinking if you want to increase your well-being.

Step 1: R=Reliability of the Source
When we approach an article, video, meme, and so on, our first step should be to evaluate the reliability of the source. Dismissing an argument outright based on its source is an instance of the genetic fallacy, so we should be careful not to do that. However, if an argument comes from a source known to be heavily biased or unreliable this tells us that we need to be extra skeptical during our investigation. Importantly, this means we should be on the look out for slanting by distortion or omission and the fallacy of confirming evidence (see the third section in the link).

Step 2: R=Relevance of Each Premise
In the context of arguments, the definition of relevance is the degree to which a premise increases the likelihood of the conclusion being true. Relevance comes in degrees. To understand the concept of relevance let's look at some common fallacies: The argument from tradition and the naturalistic fallacy. They are both fallacies because their main premise is irrelevant to the conclusion.

Example 1: Women should stay home and raise the children since that's what they've always done.

Standard Form:
(P1) Women have always stayed home and raised the children.
(C)  Therefore, woman should stay home and raise children.

Notice that even if (P1) is true it doesn't meaningfully increase the likelihood of the conclusion being true. What women have done is the past has no bearing on what they should do now. Someone might point to other reasons (e.g., having mammary glads) for which women should raise children. But that's a separate argument--whatever you think of it. Merely pointing to what women used to do isn't on its own relevant to what they should do now.

If you're not convinced, let me give you another example using the exact same reasoning (appeal to tradition)

Example 2: Humans have always murdered and raped therefore humans should murder and rape.

Standard Form:
(P1) Humans have always murdered and raped.
(C)  Therefore, humans should murder and rape.

Again, while (P1) is probably true it isn't relevant to whether we should murder and rape now. It doesn't meaningfully increase the likelihood of the conclusion being true. Some bleeding-heart liberals might even suggest there are reasons against murdering and raping [GASP!]. Some traditional human behaviors are good, some are bad, and there's everything in between. Merely knowing that something was done traditionally doesn't tell us either way whether it's good or bad or whether we should do it.

Example 3: This snack is natural therefore it's good for you.

Standard Form:
(P1) This snack is natural.
(C)   Therefore it's good for you.

Whether something is natural or not doesn't tell us whether it's good for us. There are probably more poisonous things in the world than non-poisonous, so merely knowing that something is natural doesn't increase the probability of it being true that it's good for us.

A more advanced way of evaluating relevance is to identify the enthymeme but that's another lesson. We'll just stick to basics here.

Step 3: A=Acceptability of the Premises
By 'acceptable' I mean something close to 'true'. Suppose it turns out that all the premises in an argument are relevant to the conclusion. That doesn't mean a hoot if they're all false! In critical thinking I don't like to use the word 'true' for many reasons which I'll skip over here. Instead I use 'acceptable'. Here I mean simply that a premise would be accepted to a reasonable audience without further evidence. At Step 3, I apply the reasonable person test to each premise.

If we answer "not sure"or "there could be disagreement" to a premise then we get on our google machine and investigate. Also, this is where the Reliable Source criteria comes in: If the source of the argument is known to be unreliable or heavily biased, we should--nay! must!--verify each premise. The reasonable person test won't suffice.

Step 4: R=Relative to What?
Step 4 is going to be applied at all stages of the evaluation. It makes me cringe to say this but with respect to a lot of things, "everything is, like, relative maaaaaaan."

With respect to the source of the argument, reliability is relative. Suppose Source A is considered to be reliable. It contains an argument that X is false. However, I encounter Source B that argues that X is true. The relative reliability of B and A will inform my evaluation. Even though A is a reliable source B could be more reliable, just like it could be less so. All things being equal, I should go with B over A if B is more reliable relative to A.

Relevance also needs to take into account relativity.  Suppose an argument presents relevant evidence in favor of a conclusion. I need to weigh that evidence against the relevance of the evidence against the conclusion. For example, there might be a preclinical trial that shows that X cures cancer. Pre-clinical trials have very small sample sizes and rarely have control groups or blinding. They are low quality evidence. However, there's a Phase II trial (blinding, control group, larger sample size) that shows X doesn't cure cancer. The strength of the evidence that X cures cancer is weak compared to the evidence against the claim. The Phase II evidence is more relevant to the conclusion relative to the pre-clinical trial. Claims rarely have all and only evidence in one direction. To repeat, I must consider the relevance of positive evidence relative to the relevance of negative evidence.

The same goes for acceptability. Some premises will be more easily accepted by reasonable people than will other premises.

Both relevance and acceptability require we apply the concept of relativity in another respect. Very often arguments (and conclusions) will make claims that include words like increase, decrease, good, bad, effective, ineffective, cheap, expensive, risky, beneficial, harmful, and so on. In order to even interpret claims that contain these words we must know the appropriate comparison class.

For example, if I say that the stock market increased, before I can even evaluate whether that's relevant or acceptable I need to know relative to what? To yesterday? An hour ago? Ten years ago? To the Japanese stock market? To the bond market? To interest rates?

If a policy causes some people to pay higher taxes I need to know relative to what? Relative to last year? 40 years ago? Relative to another group? Which group? It's vitally important to know what the comparison class is. Without it we can't evaluate either relevance or acceptability.

I'm thinking about creating a worksheet for students that looks like this for each argument they must evaluate:

Set Up: Put the Argument into Premise-Conclusion Form


Step 1: Reliability of the Source
Score:    /7  1=Very low reliability 7=very high reliability
Explain why you gave the source the score you did:

Step 2: Relevance
For each premise assign a relevance ranking of low, medium, high then in a sentence explain your ranking. Identify any claims that might be comparative and identify the comparison class or write "ambiguous".
P1. Low/Medium/High because:

P2. Low/Medium/High because:

P3. Low/Medium/High because:

P4. Low/Medium/High because:

*If premises are low relevance, their acceptability won't matter. A true but irrelevant premise doesn't increase likelihood of the conclusion being true.

Step 3: Acceptability
For each premise state whether it is acceptable, unacceptable, or unsure. If unsure because of language problems look for contextual clues. If unsure because you don't have enough information, google it then reassess. Cite your sources. If unsure because of ambiguous comparison class, try to identify the author's implied comparison class.

P1. Acceptable/Unacceptable/Unsure because:

P2. Acceptable/Unacceptable/Unsure because:

P3. Acceptable/Unacceptable/Unsure because:

P4. Acceptable/Unacceptable/Unsure because:

Step 4: Relative to What?
With respect to the conclusion, identify the correct comparison class. For example, if the conclusion is that a certain policy is bad, compared to what alternative policies? Make the appropriate comparison of both costs and benefits.

Well, there you have it. The most recent incarnation of a critical thinking system based on as few principles as I can get away with. If for every argument you apply these four steps, you'll soon find yourself to be a beast of critical thinking, RRAR!

Friday, November 25, 2016

Fake News vs "Fake" News: Critically Thinking About Media in a Fact-Free World

Post-Trump and leading up to his election there's been much hullaballoo about fake news. Various online publications have weighed in providing lists of fake news sources. Reading these articles leads me to believe there's some conceptual cloudiness that needs clearing away. "Fake news" is being used to refer to several different phenomena. Let's distinguish and discuss each in turn as they pertain to good "epistemic hygiene" and good critical thinking habits. In short, I will offer you one weird trick  (OK, it's actually 3) to reduce your likelihood of falling for fake news. Fake news creators hate me!

Fake News vs "Fake" News
By 'fake news' (vs "fake" news) I mean news that is genuinely fake. It is manufactured whole cloth. It has little or no grounding in any actual events that occurred in the real world. Fake news sites manufacture content to fit a particular group's narrative then hope that the story gets picked up by other sites in that ideological bubble. More clicks=more advertiser revenue.

For example, Jestin Coler runs several media platforms that publish fictional news. One of his sites, Denver Guardian, created the widely circulated story that an FBI agent who leaked Clinton emails was killed. He says that in just over 10 days the site got 1.6 million views.
"The people wanted to hear this," he says. "So all it took was to write that story. Everything about it was fictional: the town, the people, the sheriff, the FBI guy. And then ... our social media guys kind of go out and do a little dropping it throughout Trump groups and Trump forums and boy it spread like wildfire." See NPR interview
To repeat, 'fake news' refers to fictional stories circulating in the media. Very often, the large sites that republish the fake news don't know (or care) it's fake since the story didn't originate with them (and draws traffic to their site). The origin, motivation, and nature of fake news gives us our first hint regarding how to deal with fake news:

Rule 1: If a story fits too perfectly with your world-view, it's probably fake or missing important qualifications.

Recall that fake news is designed to get people to "like and share." In order to ensure this effect, creators reverse engineer what a particular audience will *want* to be true. We are almost never skeptical of articles or headlines that confirm what we already believe. However, the opposite should be true. We should be most skeptical of articles and headlines that conform to our beliefs. In such cases, we are much more likely to be fooled because our biases quickly override our critical faculties.

Rule 2: If all links go back to the same source article, be skeptical. 

We know that larger online media sites that repost articles don't fact check--especially if it conforms to their audiences's narrative. They will, however, show a link back to the original source. This link makes the article appear more legitimate. Your brain says, "oh, it's not just this site saying it. They have an outside source! It must be true!" Links to sources are only a superficial indicator of legitimacy. You have to check the actual source. If all articles point to the same source, be skeptical!

"Fake" News 
Many of the articles I read lumped together fake (i.e., fictional) news sources with biased news sources. The two are not the same. Also "biased" can be further subdivided into legitimate and illegitimate bias.

Two Kinds of Bias
People often fail to distinguish between two kinds of bias. In the first instance, bias merely means having a point of view. It's not objectionable in itself and nor is it troublesome from the point of view of critical thinking. The second kind of bias is objectionable because it interferes with our ability to correctly evaluate arguments and evidence. I'm not saying that the two kinds of bias can't bleed into each other, rather that they are distinct and must be recognized as such. Having a point of view doesn't necessarily undermine one's ability to reason. If it did, we'd be in trouble because no one is without a point of view. Let's work though some examples to distinguish between the two kinds of bias and how we ought to approach them from the point of view of critical thinking.

The first kind of bias I'll simply call "world-view" or "legitimate bias." Consider that for every event--even something as simple as brushing your teeth--it could be described in an infinite number of ways. It could be explained from the point of view of physics, psychology, sociology, economics, history, at molecular level, and so on...The fancy phrase for this is "level (or frame) of description."

Now, consider any complex event like an election, the introduction of a piece of legislation and its potential impact, a natural disaster, a protest, a political issue like marriage equality, or a foosball game. Recall that for each of those events, like brushing teeth, there are infinitely many facts and infinitely many levels of description.

Take a moment and imagine all the events that have transpired around the world in a 24 hour period. Taking into account that any event can be described infinitely many ways and has an uncountable number of facts, suppose you are asked formulate a report on what happened in the world within the last 24 hours AND you must do it all within 22 minutes. And two and half minutes of that has to be the weather. Essentially, this is what a news site is asked to do. It is simply impossible to present all facts, all points of view, and all events--even if we confined our subject to events in a country or state.

This is where world-view comes in. The media platform--be it TV, radio, newspaper, website, etc... must pick and choose which events it will cover, which perspectives of those events it will cover, and which facts it will cover. It can't do all of everything. Choices must be made. World-view of the target audience is in part what's going to guide these choices. Different media outlets focus on different events and different perspectives on those events. It doesn't follow automatically that they misrepresent the events.

Picking and choosing a focus isn't problematic so long as doing so doesn't objectionably interfere with an audience's ability to reason about the event. Space and time constraints on which events and perspectives can be covered in any reasonable detail implies that inevitably, if we consume media from only one source, some events and perspectives will be underrepresented. This leads us to

Rule 3: Consume media from a wide variety of perspectives. No single media source will represent all perspectives and kinds of events proportionately. 

A media platform's world view will necessarily underrepresent some kinds of events and perspectives. This is being charitable. While some media platforms passively underrepresent some views, others will intentionally do so. Worse still, they will [GASP!] misrepresent and distort other perspectives. (I know, I know...Say it ain't so!). This is what's called illegitimate bias. Knowing in advance that this will happen should push us even more strongly to observe Rule 3. [Everyone should read this article on fake news after finishing mine].

Here's the deally-yo. Most people live in an ideological media bubble. Rather that seeking out a variety of views, people prefer to consume media that reenforces their present ideology and world-view. However, if you really are interested in being informed and are willing to change your views in the face of evidence, you should get a significant portion of your news from sources that you disagree with. There, and only there, will you find information that challenges your views and your favored media sources.

Everyone thinks the other guys are getting fed lies or are misinformed. But I submit that it's impossible for one source or one bubble to get it right all the time. At least skimming through antagonistic news sources gives you a chance to check you own believes. If you only inhabit a media echo-chamber you'll never run into challenges to your beliefs.

And let's face it, it's simply statistically impossible that every single one of your beliefs is true while everyone who holds contradictory beliefs to yours are all wrong. Experience tells us that we've all been wrong in the past and so there's no good reason to believe that right now, at this one magical point in time, you've finally figured out the truth about all things. You are the Truthwhisperer.

What Do I Do?
Many of the articles I read on what to do about fake news suggested the very opposite of what I suggest. They suggest we insulate ourselves from heavily biased (and fake) news. I think that's precisely the wrong way to go about it.

Indulge my gym analogy: What's the best way to avoid the discomfort of lifting a heavy weight? One way is to never go to the gym. That's what many articles have essentially suggested with regard to avoiding fake news (both kinds). The other alternative is to get your ass in the gym, and lift that weight 3-4 days a week. Soon it won't be hard to lift. This I believe is the correct solution. You can never develop your critical thinking capabilities by running away from the work of critical thinking. You must exercise it to develop it.

Surround yourself with a diversity of sources. Some intentionally bad, some intentionally good, some intentionally expounding a world-view different than your own. Subscribing to bad news sources (fake or heavily biased) allows you learn what to look for so when you encounter it in your own favored sources you'll be able to identify it. Over time, with some luck, your views might even change to conform with evidence and arguments rather than ideology!

Here's what I do. In my newsfeed I get news from at least 5 conservative, 5 libertarian, 5 conspiracy, 5 liberal, 5 science news sources. [I pity the data miner/algorithm that tries to figure out my views.]

A couple notes on what I find to be good sources on political news. First of all, as a rule, the party that is out of power tends to be more critical of government. So, if you want a critique of whatever government party is in power, subscribe to media from the opposing party. During Obama's reign of terror, if you wanted criticism, the liberal media wasn't as fertile as a (thoughtful) right wing source.

This all brings me to something that pains me as a good liberal to say: If you want consistently good criticism of government I suggest following libertarian news sources. They're never in power so they criticize both sides equally. This isn't to say that all their criticism is good, and certainly not that I agree with all of it. Rather that since they've never been in power and oppose government generally, they probably are the most logically consistent in their criticism. The left and right seem to flip flop on a lot of issues depending on whether they're in power or not. Libertarians don't care who's in power. It's gonna get criticized.

Here's a list of some of my main/favorite media sources I have in my news feed. Some I have on my list so I can know what crazy people and the extreme ends of the ideological spectrum think..

If you know of other good sources in the relevant categories, please leave a comment and I'll add to the lists.

  • Breitbart
  • Conservative Tribune
  • Drudge Report
  • Peterson Institute 
  • We The People of the United States
  • Conservative Review
  • NRA
  • Alter-net
  • Democracy Now
  • Mother Jones
  • Slate
  • Salon
  • Washington Post
  • New York Times
Non-Ideological/Liberal Light
  • Aeon 
  • Atlantic
  • NPR
  • The Intercept 
  • The Economist
  • Libertarian
  • Bleeding Heart Libertarian
  • The Cato Institute
  • Skeptical Libertarian 
  • The Federalist
Crazy People
  • Natural News
  • Alex Jones/Info Wars
  • March Against Monsanto
  • Food Babe
  • Vaccine Information Network (Orwell would love this name).
Science Blogs
  • Risk Monger
  • Neurologica 
  • Sciencebased Medicine 
  • The Credible Hulk
  • Genetic Literacy Project
  • Skeptics' Guide to the Universe
  • Skeptic Wars
  • Scientific American
  • Skeptical Science