Friday, November 25, 2016

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





Introduction
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.

Conservative
  • Breitbart
  • Conservative Tribune
  • Drudge Report
  • Peterson Institute 
  • We The People of the United States
  • Conservative Review
  • NRA
Liberal
  • 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
  • Reason.com
  • Libertarian https://www.lp.org/
  • 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




Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Your Probably a Dum Voter: Let Me Tell You Why


Introduction
Before you get all offended 'n stuff, this blog post applies to me. Before the election, from my ivory tower  I looked down upon the low information voter. They are ruining democracy! They don't even know what they're voting for! People ought to have to pass basic knowledge tests to be eligible to vote! Plato was right, only the smrt people should be able to vote!

Alas! As I filled in my ballot today I realized I am the very embodiment of the qualities I so despise in others. Basically, I'm writing this blog post to myself: I am the dum voter.

Your Probably a Dum Voter: Reason 1

I'm beginning with an assumption that I don't think is unreasonable but may turn out to be false: The outcomes of local elections affect your life more than outcomes of presidential elections.

Why does this mean your dum? Because you, like most people, spend all your political energy learning about national politics and none or precious little about local politics. Of course it needn't be all of one and none of the other; but a smrt voter should spend at least as much time learning about the local candidates and their polices as they do with national candidates.

When I was voting, the first page was for the presidential candidate. I've watched the debates and read about each candidate enough to have at least a moderate understanding of their views--at least sufficient to make a choice consistent with my own political commitments.

The remaining pages were for state and local positions: Candidates for
  • 6th Circuit Supreme Court Justice
  • the freakin' Chief Coroner (who knew you voted for the chief coroner?)
  • US Senate (5 candidates)
  • US Representative
  • Ohio Justice of the Supreme Court (4 candidates)
  • Ohio Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
  • Ohio State Senator (2 candidates)
  • Ohio State Representative (2 candidates)
  • Wood County Clerk of Common Pleas (I don't even know what that is)
  • Wood County Prosecuting Attorney
  • Wood County Treasurer
  • Wood County Sheriff
  • Wood County Engineer (WTF? I elect the county engineer? How am I supposed to evaluate his/her competence?)
  • Wood County Commissioner 
  • Wood County Common Pleas Court Judge
  • Referendum on tax levy for parks
  • Referendum on tax levy for seniors center
I had no idea how to vote. I had no idea what platforms the respective candidates in each category were running on--let alone know their names. If state and local elections affect my life at least as much as national elections, man am I dum.

On the other hand, consider much time and energy it would take me to learn and critically evaluate the character, record, and policies of each candidate for each position. I mean, who does that? I'm sure some people do, but I'd be shocked...shocked, I tell you! if more that 1/10th of voters do this.

This brings me to the next reason your a dum voter:

Your Probably a Dum Voter: Reason 2
A while ago I saw a study showing that within about 75% accuracy you can predict people's views on scientific issues based on their political affiliation [I tried googling to find it but for some reason I can't find it now. When I find it, I'll post the link]. Think about that for a minute. Why should your political beliefs have any bearing on whether you accept a scientific theory? They are entirely distinct domains of knowledge.

Whether I am Liberal, Conservative, Libertarian, Republican, Democrat, etc... should have no effect on whether I believe the earth is an oblate spheroid. Yet somehow, people's political beliefs infect their empirical beliefs. My evaluation of a scientific theory should be independent of my political beliefs. One should not predict the other.

This way of thinking sounds loco but there's a simple explanation. We have limited time and energy to investigate stuff so we employ a heuristic: We adopt the views of people we know have similar views to us. Their values and worldview are similar to ours and so it makes sense--as a heuristic--to go along with whatever our group believes. Besides, if we don't believe what our group believes, there's a risk that we'll be kicked out of the group.

So, in a way, we can see that it's rational to adopt the dominant beliefs of your political tribe. The problem is that tribes can get things wrong. A more classical view of rationality suggests we should evaluate each of our beliefs independently--especially if they aren't connected in any obvious way.

For example, having a preference for small government (unless it's military spending) isn't logically connected in any way to whether evolution is a better theory than creationism. However, if you're a creationist, darn tootin' I'm going to probably correctly predict that you vote Republican.

Or, having a preference for a strong social safety net isn't logically connected to whether GMOs are safe for human consumption. However, if you're anti-GMO or anti-nuclear, you can bet your bottom dollar you probably identify as a liberal.

So what's going on here? Is it or is it not rational to believe what your group believes and vote along with your group? Here I think we need to make a distinction between our political/ethical beliefs and our scientific beliefs. We'll get back to the issue of scientific beliefs, let's focus on voting practice for now.

Straight-ticket voting is when someone votes one party all the way down the ballot at all levels of gubmint. For most people it's unlikely they have time and energy (and the interest) DO THERE REESURCH on all the candidates at the national, state, and local level and have a job, raise a family, watch cats videos and foosball, etc...  It makes sense to vote according to your party affiliation.

A liberal can say with a reasonable degree of confidence that the Democratic state representative will more closely represent their values than the Republican candidate...and the same logic applies all the way down the ticket. And vice versa for Republicans. (And Libertarians and Greens, for that matter.)

Here's a distinction worth noting. For the reasons described above, I don't think it's unreasonable to vote straight ticket. That is, it's not unreasonable to assume that the candidates at all levels of government representing the party you identify with will put forth and defend policies more or less consistent with your own values (relative to other parties's candidates). Therefore, your not a dum voter for voting a straight ticket.

However, I think it's dum to base your assent or dissent of scientific beliefs based on your political party's beliefs. Generally speaking, scientific knowledge and political beliefs are not (or at least should not) be connected in any obvious way. Turning to your political tribe to determine your scientific beliefs is dum. For your scientific beliefs, you should turn to scientists. That's the correct heuristic.

Conclusion: AmI Dum or Not?
Let it be resolved that I will pay at least as much attention to local politics as I do to national politics. So long as it's reasonable to assume that local politics affect my life at least as much as national politics, I will be less dum if I do this.

Let it be resolved that in the absence of information, it's not dum to vote a straight ticket but it is dum to turn to my political tribe for guidance on my scientific beliefs (and other non political beliefs).

Interesting tidbit: Suppose you learn that someone split their ticket: They voted for representatives of different parties for different positions. You might think, "oh, they must really know all the details!" It turns out that the odds are that this person is a low information voter. Low information voters (LIV) are more likely than moderate and high information voters to vote a split-ticket. LIV split their ticket 34% of the time, average level voters split 18% of the time, and high information voters split only 10% of the time. Article












Friday, July 22, 2016

Freedum Vs Freedom: What's the Difference and Why Should We Care? USA! USA! Edition


Introduction
Freedom. No single word is found more often on the lips of the American politician. It is 'Murika's rallying cry. But what does it mean? And, once we've settled on a meaning, what sorts of actions does that value commit us to? 

As everyone knows, 99% of philosophy consists in asking, "Ah, ha! But what do you mean by X?" That's pretty much all philosophers do. All day. We argue about what words mean. 

Of course, I'm being facetious. Nevertheless, at least part of philosophy is getting clear on the meanings of terms. Meanings do matter, after all--for both practical and theoretical concerns. Suppose you're debating with someone over whether happiness is the meaning of life. If you think happiness is a psychologically pleasant state then you'll formulate your argument one way. On the other hand, if you think, as Aristotle did, that happiness is a way of living--i.e.., living virtuously--then you will formulate different arguments. 

It's also possible for two people to agree that happiness is the meaning of life but disagree about what 'happiness' means. Unless they first clarify their terms, they'll end of talking past each other without any advance in the dialectic. In a political context, they'll likely advocate different policies and fail to understand why they disagree. 

A: "This policy will promote the general happiness (meaning pleasure)"
B: "No, it won't because it undermines virtue!
A: "Huh? What has virtue got to do with happiness?

In a way, I think this is what's going in with respect to 'freedom'.  In America there are two meanings to the term. I'll call the first 'freedum' and the second 'freedom'. People agree that freedom is important but are talking past each other. [Note: There are actually more meanings for freedom, but I'm going to focus on only two of them].

Freedum
Very simply, freedum is the combination of the absence of coercion combined with capacity to act according to your immediate desires. This is 'Murika's definition of freedom. In my more cynical moods, I call it the freedum to be an idiot. 

Ain't no gubmint gonna tell me what to do. If I want to walk around nekit in my front yard and shit on my lawn--it's my property and I'll do what I want. If I want to drive a diesel monster truck to and from work, despite the fact that I'm unnecessarily polluting the air, ain't no gubmint gonna tell me not to. I gots freedum. 


Freedum is the type of freedom an animal in the wild has. A desire pops up and no one is there to tell that animal that it can't act on that desire if it so chooses--no matter the content of the desire. 

Before dismissing freedum as somehow beneath a thinking creature, freedum does have value. Very few of us would want to live in a world where we were restricted from acting according to our desires. There are many important political freedoms that fit with what I've called freedum: Freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to marry whomever you please, etc...

The main point, (to be expanded in the next section) is that at the level of the individual merely acting on whatever fancy enters one's pointy head is an impoverished view of freedom.

I've been overly disparaging of freedum to make a point. It isn't the only kind of freedom worth having, and, I will suggest, there is a more valuable kind of freedom which should sometimes eclipse freedum

Freedom
The absence of coercion is one thing but is doin' whatever the f*ck I want all there is to freedom? Perhaps, if you're a 13 year-old. 

Kant
Kant and subsequent philosophers noted that merely acting according to our desires isn't genuine freedom (to be fair, the idea starts with Socrates and Plato). In broad terms, freedom is acting according to reason. Let me explain:

You don't choose to have the particular desires and preferences that you have. For example, when you get a craving for ice cream, you didn't choose to have that desire. You just have the craving. Acting on your various occurrent desires requires no deliberation. You just act on whichever is strongest. On the other hand, freedom is rationally deliberating on your current set of desires (for current and future ends) and figuring out what the rational/best thing to do/pursue would be, then acting in accordance with what reason tells you to do. 

Similarly, we don't choose our preferences. You don't choose to like the foods, activities, people, books, etc.. that you do. For example, no one says "I think today I'm going to like studying philosophy" or "I'm going to like carpentry". You just do

Freedum would be simply taking these preferences and desires at face value. So long as no external force prevented you from pursuing and fulfilling them, you have freedum. But Kant's point is that genuine freedom takes more than this. As rational creatures we can take our sets of desires and preferences and submit them to rational scrutiny. We can rationally deliberate over whether they are good desires and preferences to have and whether it would be good to act on those desires and preferences. Freedom is freeing ourselves from our unreflective brute inclinations and instead carefully considering what we ought to do.

Freedom is not simply accepting my brute desire to eat a whole pizza to myself--cuz ain't nobody gonna tell me what to do. Freedom is rationally deliberating about whether it would be good for me to eat that whole pizza, concluding that it isn't, then acting in accordance with this conclusion. 

To drive the point home, if freedom were merely a matter of acting on our desires in the absence of coercion, we'd have to say the heroine addict is just as free as the person who carefully plans out and lives a successful and purposeful life.  Thinking this way confuses freedum for freedom and it turns freedom into a mockery of a travesty of a sham. 


Another way of thinking of freedom is self-legislation. I rationally deliberate upon a set of principles and values according to which I live my life. When a desire arises that clashes with my rationally arrived at principles and values (as will happen frequently), I accord my action with my principles and values--not the haphazard desire. 

For example, perhaps one of my values is to become a great philosophy teacher. To do this I know that in the evenings I have to spend time planning my lectures. However, sometimes in the evening I instead have an overwhelming desire to watch a movie. I am free when I live in accordance with my rationally conceived values and principles. And so, if I refuse to indulge the desire I am free. 

Conversely, I might think, "YOLO!!!". If I acquiesce to my occurrent desire, I give up on my own rules and values. I'm not in control of my life anymore--there are no principles guiding my actions. Like Otis, I just act on whatever fancy happens to enter my head in that moment. But I'm not free when I do whatever the f*ck I want. In such a case I only possess freedum

We can think of this notion of freedom not only at the individual but also at the political level. Political freedom can also be understood as self-legislation. We govern ourselves as a society according to the rules, principles, and values that we collectively rationally agree to. Of course, there will be disagreement within a society over exactly what those rules will be. Figuring out what to do in cases of disagreement is the heart and soul of contemporary political philosophy. I won't go into it in this post--I only want to suggest how Kant's idea of freedom extends to the political realm. (For an overview of how political philosophers approach the problem of political freedom, self-legislation, and disagreement see this post.)

Hegel and Marx
Hegel and Marx build on Kant but kick it up a notch in terms of explaining why you aren't free when you merely act on your desires. The best way to understand is by way of my version of an analogy which I loosely borrow from Peter Singer (Singer's original analogy concerns deodorant products).

Economist think an economy is good to the degree that people's actual preferences are satisfied. But the philosopher asks two further question: (a) why do people in that economy have the particular preferences that they do? and (b) are these good preferences to have? 

Take for example the massive popularity of fast food in the US of A. An economist will say that an economy is good in so far as people's preferences for fast food are being met.  The philosopher asks: (a) why do people in the US of A desire fast food so much? and (b) are these preferences for fast food good? Let's examine each in turn.

A little reflection provides several answers to (a) at various levels of analysis. The first point to consider is that the desire for fast food didn't arise spontaneously. It is the result of carefully crafted marketing campaigns to generate the desires. This insight counts as a strike against the idea that someone is free when they act according to their desire for fast food.  The desire came from without, not from within and an action is free only in so far it is the product of conscious deliberation. There's a lot more to the story which I discuss below.

The short version of the story is that our desires and preferences are the product of complex environmental factors external to us. Since their origin is external, accepting and acting upon them isn't commensurate with authentic freedom. Freedom, as should be clear by now, is acting on desires and preferences generated and reflected upon internally.  

Hegel's point (more fully developed in Marx) is that our political preferences--our values and principles that we think ought to order our society--are just like our preferences for fast food. They are the product of our particular place in history and its institutions, attitudes, and practices.

Marx emphasized that our values and preferences don't just shape our institutions and practices (namely capitalism) but our institutions and practices also serve to reinforce the prevailing values and preferences. To understand, we can return to the fast food analogy. 

People have the preference and desire for fast food because not just because of clever marketing but because of our existing practices and the very structure of our institutions. The practice of eating fast food reenforces the preference and serves to generate the desire. The structure of our cities, neighborhoods, and food production systems also serve to generate and reinforce our desire for fast food. 

When you're hungry and out of the house, what's the quickest easiest meal? Fast food restaurants are on every corner. It's much easier to find and pull into a drive thru than to find a quick affordable healthy option. And so, the very structure of our world (in some neighborhoods more than others) pushes us toward fast food. When it's all around us, the desire seems endogenous when in fact it isn't.

We can take further steps back in our analysis and ask why it is that we don't have time for sit down meals. This is also a contingent fact about how are world is currently structured. But it also pushes us toward the practice of eating fast food, desiring fast food, and further creates demand for fast food restaurants which in turn reinforces those material structures in our world. 

We can play this game all day but the point remains the same. Many values, desires, and preferences that we might think come from within, in fact don't. The structure of our world, our institutions, and our practices all serve to generate and reinforce values which fold back on themselves to reinforce the existing structures and practices that were their genesis. Freedom is about acting on internally generated (and deliberated upon) preferences, values, and desires. We are frequently mistaken about the origins of many of our desires; thus, we are also mistaken about the nature of our choices and actions with respect to freedom.

Once we've applied our critique of our values, practices, desires, etc... we must do the real philosophical work. We need to figure out what values and desires we would rationally will that are independent of being externally generated. Returning to the analogy, What would I rationally want to eat--devoid of external forces generating my various gustatory desires? 

More generally, what are the authentic unpolluted rational desires for human beings? For Kant there are universal rational answers to this question since reason is universal and we all (to varying degrees) possess rationality. If we all go to the same well, we all drink the same water. There are universal right answers for what humans should desire. (It's not clear in Kant's philosophy how specific those desires would be). 

Hegel's insight is that we never make choices completely divorced from an implicit value system. Just as we can never perfectly escape our own subjective point of view, we can't escape our point in history and all its implicit accompanying beliefs, values, practices, and attitudes. Nevertheless, through critical analysis we can come to understand the source and origins of our existing institutions, practices, and values and apply rational deliberation to them and the desires they generate.

To continue with the analogy, Kant might have us ban all the fast food restaurants along all the forces that created them. We couldn't rationally want to eat fast food, and so away with it! Hegel would tell us that since we can never exist apart from a value-laden environment we should do the best with the one we currently inhabit:  take the existing fast food restaurants and improve through application of rational deliberation. Fast food restaurants are both good and bad: They offer food that is quick, affordable, and convenient. Unfortunately, the food itself isn't good for us. So, let's tinker with the menu but preserve what's good. Marx might agree with Hegel regarding the menu change, but you best believe he'd also insist labor practices be changed too! 

Let's now apply this framework to life choices. Consider the fact that many students want to be business majors. Why? At the level of freedum, they may just have the brute desire. But a Hegalian analysis gives us much more to consider. We ask, why do they have that brute desire in the first place? If we look around at the structure of our society (capitalism) and the values it inculcates (money, power), the answer is apparent. In a capitalist society, status, power, and success are all tightly bound to how much money one has. Without money, you're in for a rough life.

In one sense, we can say these students are rationally choosing and are thus making choices consistent with freedom. They recognize that in order to be successful in the US of A you need money. Thus, if they had competing desires to go into social work or fine arts, we might say they are rational in choosing to study bidniz. 

But the Hegelian point cuts deeper. It asks how we came to value money so highly in the first place which in turn leads students to have the desire to pursue business degrees. What are the structures, institutions, practices, and attitudes that shape and maintain our value systems which in turn shape our desires? Since we didn't choose the conditions out of which our values arose, there is a sense in which we are not free when we accept them uncritically and the desires they generate--even when they are rational to pursue within a particular historical context.

It can be rational to desire money in a capitalist system and so in a sense you're free when you order your life in pursuit of it. On the other hand, in so far as you don't reflect on the social and historical origins of your deeply held desires and values you are not free. You mistakenly assume that values in your world are eternal and objective. They are the right ones. You fail to see that they are a contingency of your location in history. In so far as you don't see the contingency of your core values and desires, and don't subject them to critical analysis and rational scrutiny, your choices are not consistent with freedom. Otherwise stated, for your choices to be truly free in the Hegelian sense, you have to recognize that your values and desires are the product of your society, your location in history, and a function of various institutions, structures, practices, and attitudes. Only after you've done this intellectual work can a choice be considered to be free.

Conclusion
The next time someone rants about Freedom!!!1!1!!!! USA #1!!!!1!1!! or a politician makes proclamations about freedom, take a moment to reflect on whether they're primarily concerned with freedum or freedom. It's true that the gubbamint can constrain your freedum and that's something we should avoid. But if you reflect a little you might find that restricting your own freedum is sometimes consistent with freedom. And freedom, it seems to me, is frequently to be preferred to freedum. Especially when it comes to living in large groups...









Wednesday, July 13, 2016

You CAN Make Friends with Salad: Giving Up Meat without Giving Up Gainz



Introduction
This post has been a long time coming. Over the last few years I've had a lot people ask me how to reconcile a vegetarian diet with high-level athletic training. Before getting into the nuts and beans, let me first emphasize that I follow a vegetarian--not a vegan diet. There are some examples of successful purely vegan high-level athletes, however, my own experiment with it didn't go well; therefore, it won't work for any of you (anecdote alert!). See end of article for tips for vegan athletes (Thank you to Marcus Schultz-Bergin).

My biggest worry about switching to a vegetarian diet was that I wouldn't get enough protein and I'd consume too many carbs. Most athletes have grown up with the belief that we need at least 1gram of protein for every pound of bodyweight/day. It turns out that's just a myth. It's totally unsupported by any evidence. (Who knew the supplement industry would overstate claims?) You likely don't need more than 0.6 grams/lb.

So, if you're 180 lbs you only need 108 grams which is significantly less than the 180 grams you've been feeding yourself. Basically, Big Sup wants you to believe you need all that protein, but the best evidence suggests you don't--even if you're an experienced athlete. In fact, the evidence suggests that the longer you've been training, the less protein you need (see link below).

Here are a few highlight from what I take to be the definitive article on protein consumption for strength athletes:
• Tarnopolsky et al. (1992) observed no differences in whole body protein synthesis or indexes of lean body mass in strength athletes consuming either 0.64g/lb or 1.10g/lb over a 2 week period. Protein oxidation did increase in the high protein group, indicating a nutrient overload.
• Walberg et al. (1988) found that 0.73g/lb was sufficient to maintain positive nitrogen balance in cutting weightlifters over a 7 day time period.
• Tarnopolsky et al. (1988) found that only 0.37g/lb was required to maintain positive nitrogen balance in elite bodybuilders (over 5 years of experience, possible previous use of androgens) over a 10 day period. 0.45g/lb was sufficient to maintain lean body mass in bodybuilders over a 2 week period. The authors suggested that 0.55g/lb was sufficient for bodybuilders.
• Lemon et al. (1992) found no differences in muscle mass or strength gains in novice bodybuilders consuming either 0.61g/lb or 1.19g/lb over a 4 week period. Based on nitrogen balance data, the authors recommended 0.75g/lb.
• Hoffman et al. (2006) found no differences in body composition, strength or resting hormonal concentrations in strength athletes consuming either 0.77g/lb or >0.91g/lb over a 3 month period.
The other issue with vegetarianism is getting your protein without all them carbs. Beans are one of the best sources of vegetarian protein but they come with carbs. And if you regularly eat them with rice, you risk committing carbocide. All them gainz but no one can see your abs. I am cri :'(

Below I've listed my usual recipes. I've managed to build a meal plan that isn't carb heavy. In short, you CAN make friends with salad if you're willing to grab a few handfuls of nuts...Deez nutz! Ha! Got 'em! Also, eggs and tofu/tofu-based products are your best friends.

Quick Commentary on the Ethics of Eating
The fact that you're reading this entry suggests you're already at least moderately motivated to reduce your meat consumption. From my perspective since the health claims are generally overblown (although not completely without merit) there are two main lines of argument for going vegetarian: Concern for animal welfare and concern for the environment. Most people come to vegetarianism (or veganism) primarily out of concern for the former. Sometimes the two align, sometimes they pull apart. I'm not going to rehash all the familiar arguments but I do want to point out a few things about some of the choices I've made. If you don't care what I think, skip to the next section.

If you're going to be vegetarian instead of vegan you have to accept that your dietary choices will impose some degree of suffering on the animals from whom you get your protein. My position on these issues is still in a state of flux but I'll briefly outline the reasons for the choices I've made. First of all, factory farmed meats are off the menu. There are no plausible arguments for the practice.

I eat shrimp, mollusks, eggs, whey protein, and very occasionally responsibly-sourced fish. The easiest to justify eating are the mollusks. It's unlikely they have much if any capacity to suffer. The main concern is environmental: they are sometimes harvested in ways that destroy ecosystems (see links to below). 

Shrimp are bugs. I don't feel bad about eating bugs (how's that for a convincing argument?). The main concerns with shrimp are the methods by which they are farmed and the labor practices involved. Shrimp from SE Asia comes at tragic environmental cost and is often harvested using slave labor.  If you didn't think there was enough wrong with the world, read here: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-hunger-for-shrimp-and-slavery-destroy-mangroves-excerpt/

Despite the fact that the dairy industry is largely morally indefensible, I consume whey protein powder because it is a waste product of cheese and yogurt-making. Prior to the rise in popularity of protein powder, whey was a massive environmental headache. For example,  Chobani in it's NY plant produces 1 million lbs of greek yogurt every day. For every pound of greek yogurt there are 3 pounds of waste (you do the math). In NY state alone 150 million tonnes of whey is produced/year. That waste is acidic and basically destroys all aquatic life if it ends up in waterways.

A popular disposal method is burning it but that consumes a lot of energy (i.e., fossil fuels). So, although I don't purchase primary dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt), I'm reconciled with consuming what would otherwise be a waste product. Full disclosure: I'll eat cheese/pizza if I'm at an event where it's already being offered. I will also eat ice cream very occasionally in the summer.

As for fish, the ethical concern is that, in commercial fishing, the fish often suffer for long periods of time before they are finally killed. The latest and best research shows that fish have the capacity for suffering and pain

The environmental concern is that most fishing stocks are critically overfished. From 1970-2012 the marine vertebrate population has decreased by 49%. At current rates of fishing, most important fish stocks will be extinct within 10-15 years. Tuna is foremost among them; in fact, Blue Fin tuna is down 70%. This is why I don't eat tuna anymore. They're basically going to be extinct soon unless we change our consumption habits.

Bycatch is another big problem. Depending on the source, for every pound of fish in the supermarket 10lbs (often much more) is thrown out as by-catch. Others estimate that bycatch represents 40% of worldwide catch. That translates into 63 billion lbs per year of marine life killed for no reason. That's not just a tragic waste of life and disruption of ecosystems, but it effectively eliminates a food supply for fish higher up in the food chain.

For an excellent resource on responsible aquaculture and unthreatened fish stocks, I suggest taking a look at this website: https://www.seafoodwatch.org/  They also have an app so if you're in the supermarket or at a restaurant you can quickly check if what you're about to buy is responsibly managed.  

In short, our oceans are pretty much fucked so be judicious in selecting fish if you're going to eat fish. I usually only eat farmed fish since it's sustainable (so long as the farm adheres to best practices).  This is not to say all wild fish aquaculture is bad but before selecting DO YOR REESURCH!!!1!!!1!!! (If you give a fuck). At some point I'll write a post suggesting that environmentalists should be the strongest proponents of (well-regulated) fish farms and GMO salmon. Ideology and fear-mongering notwithstanding, all things considered that's definitely where the evidence points.

Basically, by going vegetarian you're not going to be perfect but this doesn't imply an all-or-nothing approach (see: nirvana fallacy). With informed choices we can at least minimize our negative impact on both animals and the environment.

General Tips for Eating Healthfully
Prepare, prepare, prepare! When do we mess up on our clean eating? When we're hangry and "there's nothing to eat." Always make sure you have ingredients on hand for quick meals and make sure protein is prepped. As a vegetarian (at least my version) that means:
  • Boil eggs a dozen at a time. If you have hard-boiled eggs on hand, you have a no-prep source of protein. Use it to make a 'sammich' or eat them as they are.
  • Stock a variety of protein bars.
  • Have tofu in the fridge. It the summer it's good cold with some soy sauce, sesame oil, and sriracha. Half a block is 30 grams of protein! 
  • Have cans of beans in kitchen.
  • Bulk-buy green pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, peanuts, almonds, flax seeds, and chia seeds.
  • Have lots of peanut butter stocked.
Verboten Foodz--Aus of ze Haus!!!! If you can't see it, you're less likely to eat it. Do not bring junk food into the house. You're way less likely to eat a bunch of junk food if eating it requires getting off your ass and driving to the store to get it. Save it for cheat day!

Avoiding Carbs While Getting Enough Protein: 
Hold your breath. As a vegetarian, you can't just cook up a piece of meat or grab a burger anytime you're hungry. As I mentioned in the intro you have to plan a bit if you want to avoid committing carbocide. However, it's not really a big deal. In fact, it's no trouble at all once you properly stock your kitchen.

Over the course of a regular day I eat 4 small-ish meals and consume one protein shake. I might also have a banana or energy bar before working out. Notice that I get my protein from a variety of sources throughout the day to ensure I get all the essential amino acids.


  • Meal 1: Breakfast is almost always peanut butter and whole grain toast. 
  • Meal 2: One bean-based meal. This is usually post-workout meal so place it appropriately in your schedule.
  • Meal 3: Some kind of egg-based meal. Maybe an egg sammich with avocado or something. Maybe a salad with egg, seeds, and nuts.
  • Meal 4: Tofu-based meal. In the summer I'll often just have cold tofu (see recipe below). If you feel like cooking, stirfry tofu is always good. The latest generation of fake meats are almost indistinguishable from real meat. The difference is negligible anyway. If I have the choice between a cruelty-free, environmentally responsible burger and one that isn't AND they basically taste the same, why on earth wouldn't I eat the veggie burger? Some of my favorite fake meat products are: Gardein's beef tips, chicken strips for stir fry, ground beef, and burgers. Qu'orn fake turkey dinner is also amazing. All of these products are available in the freezer section of your local supermarket. If I can find them in the supermarkets of Bowling fucking Green, Ohio, you can find them where you live. 
  • Meal 3 or 4: Mega Salad (see two sections below)

Meal Plan and Recipes (Summer)
Breakfast:
Nine times out ten, breakfast is peanut butter and whole grain toast with about a liter of tea. Occasionally, I'll have eggs with toast.

Lunch:
Depending on where I am and how much time I have, it will vary.
If I'm aus of ze haus at my office, I might open up a can of chick peas, drain them, pour in some olive oil and hot sauce. You'd be surprised how good it tastes. I know I was the first time.

Alternatively, I might go to Subguey and get an egg sub or if there's a salad bar I'll do that. I'll select all the beans for my toppings and maybe get egg as well if they have it.

If I'm at home I'll usually make either an egg sammich with avocado or I'll make one of my mega-salads (see video).

Post-workout: 
Protein shake and banana

First and Second Dinner:
Bean dish. There are many many ways to prepare beans. In the summer, it's often too hot to cook so I used canned beans. In the winter I'll cook up a 3 day supply and make soups and stews. Here are some simple recipes that don't require any cooking but if you prefer to eat them warm, simply combine the ingredients in a large pan:

Spicy Cold Tofu:
  • 1/2 block of tofu
  • sesame oil
  • soy sauce
  • Sriracha
  • optional: sprinkle with sesame seeds
Chickpea curry: 
  • 1 can of chickpeas, drained
  • curry powder
  • mayo
  • garlic
  • sunflower seeds
  • raw or sautéed onion or chives
  • sautéed mushrooms if you're feeling fancy
  • salt&pepper to taste
  • optional: chopped hard-boiled egg
  • optional: sautéed shrimp
Chickpeas in pesto:
  • 1 can of chickpeas, drained
  • olive oil
  • tablespoon of pesto
  • half an avocado
  • sunflower seeds
  • tablespoon of flax seeds
  • diced tomato
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • diced cheese (if you eat cheese)
  • optional: raw or sauteed onion
  • optional: chopped hard-boiled egg
  • optional: sautéed shrimp.
Super Speedy Chickpea Dish:
  • 1 can of chickpeas, drained
  • olive oil
  • hot sauce 
  • Optional: chopped hard-boiled egg
Speedy Black Bean Chili: 
  • can of black beans, drained.
  • chili powder
  • garlic
  • fresh basil if you've got some
  • sautéed or raw onions
  • sautéed or steamed mustard greens
  • sautéed mushrooms
  • optional: chopped hard-boiled egg or top with a fried egg sunny side up
  • optional: sautéed shrimp
Super Speedy Black Bean Meal:
  • can o' black beans, drained
  • Lowry salt
  • olive oil
  • hot sauce
  • optional: chopped hard-boiled egg
  • optional: cubed cheese
  • fresh parsley and/or basil if you have it
Mega Salad (see below)

Leaning Out with the Mega Salad:
In the summer we all want those abs to emerge quickly from their winter slumber. To get my abs to pop, I only eat mega salads for about 2 or 3 weeks for all meals (except for breakfast). 

How to make the Mega Salad:


Mega salad: 
Get yourself a family-sized salad bowl. You're going to fill it.
  • 2 or 3 different leafy greens. About 3 or 4 leafs of each. I usually use romaine, kale, and mustard greens. Avoid iceberg.
  • 1 tomato
  • 1/2 avocado
  • 1 lg carrot
  • 1 head of broccoli (just use 1/2 if it's really big--TWSS)
  • 1 handful of green pumpkin seeds
  • 1 handful of sunflower seeds
  • 1 handful of sliced almonds
  • 1 heaping tablespoon of flax seeds
  • 1 heaping tablespoon of chia seeds
  • olives, pickles, pickled jalepeno---whatever you like.
  • Optional: Add 1/2 a can of your choice of beans if you're feeling low on carbs
  • Optional: 1 or 2 hardboiled eggs chopped
  • Optional: 1/2 a block of tofu cubed
  • Optional: sauteed/grilled shrimp of fish
  • Optional: cheese cubed (if you eat cheese)
Because the mega salad is..well...mega...you will feel full after eating it. I'm usually unable to finish a whole one if I've added one of the options. The good news is that you're full but you haven't really consumed a lot of calories. And your carbs are very low. Do this for 2 or 3 weeks and you will be noticeably leaner. Oh, invest in a wide variety of salad dressings so you don't get bored (but be sensible with regards to caloric content). 

Concerns about Soy and Estrogen
The science isn't settled here. I've done my own reesurch as well as asked a couple of experts. Here is from personal correspondence on my behalf between Pat Brown, fancy Stanford professor of biochemistry (and my sister's Ph.D advisor) and my sister.
There are compounds with estrogenic effects (phytoestrogens) as well as compounds that can increase circulating androgens in soy as well as lots of other plant foods. So there have been a lot of studies (hundreds of papers) looking at their hypothetical effects (both positive and negative) on male or female fertility, hormone-sensitive cancers (eg., breast and prostate) and other hormone-influenced human physiology and disease.

The upshot is that while there are many weak associations in model systems, there is essentially zero good evidence of any meaningful effect on fertility, cancer, diabetes or any of the other health outcomes that have been studied.
About a year ago when looking into this stuff, I read a study comparing gains in lean muscle mass between experienced bodybuilders consuming 30g of soy vs consuming 30g of whey. There were no differences between groups in gains of lean body mass, neither were there were differences in hormone levels. (I can't find that study at the moment but will link to it when I find it).

Basically, I usually eat one soy-based meal a day which is about 20-30g of soy. That seems safe.

Conclusion
For a longer than I care to admit, I knew vegetarianism was the logical consequence of my ethical and environmental commitments. I was hesitant to change my diet because I thought I wouldn't be able to train like I want to (selfish bastard). I also thought that even if I could train as hard as I like on a vegetarian diet, it would take way too much meal prep time. It turns out both of those concerns were ill-founded.

You can have it all: You can eat more or less consistently with your ethical and environmental commitments while also getting enough protein and avoiding expending unrealistic amounts of time and energy on meal-prep.

Now go forth and make gainz, but this time with less animal suffering.

Bonus Round: Resources for Vegan Athletes
No Meat Athlete (ultramarathon running rather than lifting, but some more general stuff) - http://www.nomeatathlete.com

Vegan Proteins (main site is a vegan protein supplement site, but they have a blog with more general stuff too) - http://www.veganproteins.com/

Vega (maker of vegan protein and meal replacement stuff, but again also has general stuff like recipes and a blog with advice) - https://myvega.com/

Vegan Body Building (name sort of says it all - they sell stuff but have a lot of articles with advice, etc.) - http://www.veganbodybuilding.com/