Category Archives: Society

The dismantling of democracy, manipulation by algorithm, and what to do next; Part 2 ofAlgorithms, bullshit, and the dismantling of democracy

Updates 26 April: Faceook’s chief technology officer tells UK Parliament they did not read terms and conditions that enabled Cambridge Analytica’s data grab;  22 April, Facebook reported moving 1.5 billion users out of reach of pending EU privacy law; 2 May, Cambridge Analytica ceases trading, at least under that name, in US and UK. Part 1 here

Computational propaganda; a structural problem

Political bullshit was with us before the rise to dominance of on-line news sources, but developments over the past decade have made things far worse. Philip N. Howard, Professor of Internet Studies at Oxford, studies of fake news and elections, and way back in 2014 he coined the phrase “computational propaganda” to describe what was happening.

Opportunity for such propaganda is built into the very fabric of mass social media. Targeted ads and “suggestions” protocols are not optional features; they are what Facebook is for. People join groups that they agree with, and discussion among like-minded people moves consensus further away from the middle ground. Facebook’s recommendation system makes things even worse. An investigator for Buzzfeed, having signed up for antivaxx sites, found herself getting recommendations for groups about Pizzagate, the perils of fluoride, chemtrails, and Flat Earth.

Facebook also makes it easy to propagate fake news under false flags. Thus the page “Native Americans United”, apparently from the Dakota Pipeline protesters, with the message “Love water Not Oil, Protect Our Mother,” was produced by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm. The same people also gave us a page “Black matters”, ostensively part of the Black lives Matter movement. Special Prosecutor Mueller has indicted 13 members of this troll farm, though they are clearly unlikely to ever enter his jurisdiction.

False news has a further advantage over reality on social media because it is generally more novel and attention-grabbing. Thus an analysis of Twitter shows that false news spreads faster, deeper (longer chains of transmission), and more broadly (total number of tweets) than true news. This seems to be the work of individuals, rather than bots. See here; full report here.


L: Via New York Times, A false Facebook claim from Sri Lanka : “23,000 sterilization pills caught in Ampara. Thank you to the police. Muslim pharmacy owner from Akkaraipattu arrested. Who wants to sterilize the Sinhalese?”

Facebook algorithms automatically promote those messages that keep people spending more time on the site. Read the rest of this entry

Algorithms, bullshit, and the dismantling of democracy; (1) Bullshit

Bullshit is sticky, and by trying to stamp on it you spread it. Because its appeal is directly to the emotions, rational critique is beside the point, while virtuous outrage is as effective as support in sending it viral.

The term bullshit was introduced in its current sense by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt in 2005, and has been the subject of a rash of books since Trump’s emergence as a force to be reckoned with. I have chosen this particular volume as my jumping off point, because I am familiar with the author’s UK perspective, and because the author himself, as a contributor to Buzzfeed, is part of the revolution in electronic publishing that has made bullshit so much easier to propagate.

Lying is lying; bullshit is different

Lying is misrepresentation of reality. Bullshit is something far more serious. Bullshit invites us to follow the leader into a world of subjectivity, where reality comes second to what we choose to believe. Bullshit is the delegitimisation of reality, designed to make rational discussion impossible. It is the triumph of assertion over reality.

This book names names. Boris Johnson (for more on Johnson’s chronic mendacity, see here) the Daily Mail (which is world’s largest news website, because of focus on celebrities), the Canary,1 Brexit, the Daily Express, and, of course, Trump. He also mentions Read the rest of this entry

The “Nazi pug” was offensive; the law far more so. I have written to my MP

“If you don’t believe in a person’s right to say things that you might find ‘grossly offensive’, then you don’t believe in freedom of speech”

I am Jewish. I have known holocaust survivors, as well as families who narrowly escaped the Nazi advance across Europe. I am old enough to remember the images that came out of Belsen, and was old enough and aware enough at the time to realise that but for minor accidents of time and place, that could have been me. To this day, I cannot write of these things without emotion. I have also, to compare small things with large, experienced antisemitism both personal and institutionalised.

I am therefore, presumably, among those whom Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003  would most wish to shield from offence in this case. But the law itself is an offence against my freedom of expression, and I know that there are many who find my own publicly expressed views highly offensive. For this reason, I have written to my MP asking him to support repeal of ths section of the law, and urge my readers in the UK to do likewise.

The facts are not in dispute. A Mr Meechan, apparently annoyed with his girlfriend, trained her dog to raise his paw in imitation of a Nazi salute in response to the cues “Sieg Heil” and “Gas the Jews”, and posted this performance on YouTube, where Read the rest of this entry

What to do about your Facebook settings *right now*

L: Cambridge Analytica’s front page image. Message superposed: “Data drives all we do. Cambridge Analytica uses data to change audience behavior.”

This for starters. Further suggestions welcome. Remember that the way Cambridge Analytica used the Facebook data of 50 million Americans in 2016 is no mere loophole, but built into Facebook’s very nature.

Christopher Wylie describes his part in Cambridge Analytica’s work for Bannon

Remember that sharing your personal information with paying customers is not some kind of glitch on Facebook. It is what Facebook is for. And (actual example) while the shoe company may be interested in your politics because it correlates (indeed it does!) with your taste in shoes, Cambridge Analytica used (uses?) information about people’s taste in shoes in order to target political messages. And if, like me, you have answered online political or personality tests, you may well have helped them.

Remember in what follows that “Friends of friends” is likely to include trolls and spybots.

Click on the tiny downwards arrow at the far right of the blue bar along the top of the page.

Click on “Settings

First, go to “Apps“. I was shocked to discover here a list of all the organisations I had enabled to see my Facebook information, including such details as my Friends list. Ehich I had made accessible to the Daily Express, because I must have signed on to it at one time using Facebook.

Hover in turn over each name listed. If you have any doubts about it, x it out to remove it. Otherwise, click on the pencil icon that appears, in order to edit.

REMOVE permission to see your list of Friends (of course you never consciously gave it; that’s the point), your birthday (for financial security reasons, I gave a fake, which I noted elsewhere, in case I need it to unlock my account), and anything else that you are not happy for that organisation to have. In particular, scan down to remove (I was shocked to discover I had even given) permission to see “likes”. Do you really want these companies to know that much about you? And set “App visibility” to “Only me”.

You can ask the companies whose Apps are shown to delete information they hold about you, but there is no way that Facebook or anyone else can tell if they have actually done so.

Security and login: change your password

Privacy settings and Tools: IMPORTANT – set “Who can see your friends list?” to “Only me”. Otherwise, you are giving away usable information about your friends without their permission. The other settings here depend on how you use Facebook, who you want to see everything you do there, and who you want to be able to  find and contact you.

Timeline and tagging: “Only me” for the right to carrying on your timeline,”Review posts”, and “Review tags” should be On.

Ad preferences: read what Facebook says about these on this page. Once you have done so, you may want to remove some of the information that you have placed on your public profile. Notice that categories of ads you have clicked on then appear on the sub-page “Your interests”,although you may remove these by hovering and x-ing out. I just removed several of these in order to protect my own privacy.

App preferences: this is different from “Apps” and is, designedly, diffcult to get to.I followed the istructions given here; which were: While logged in, open a tab and go to

Then either click the Edit button under “Apps, Websites and Plugins” and disable platform or, my choice, go to “Apps Others Use”, run your eye down what you’ve checked for such apps to read about you (I was horrified), uncheck as necessary, and save changes.

Reporting fake news: details from here; Click on the three dots to the right of the title of the pot, then to “give feedback on this post”, then to “False news” and follow obvious links.

And when you’ve done all that, go to the bottom of the list that came up when you clicked that little arrow and log off. That may make it a bit more difficult for companies (or others carrying out surveillance) to spy on you.

And while we’re at it, why just Facebook? see Pigliucci’s Against the Four (Amazon, Apple, facebook, and Google). I have now replaced Google’s Chrome browser with Firefox, and set my default search engine to DuckDuckGo, which does not record my search history.

I do not claim any special competence in this kind of technical area (the very reverse in fact). So I am sure that this post has many inadequacies, and would strongly welcome comments and suggestions for improvement.

h/t Jim Stone for information on App preferences and on Reporting fake news. Disclosure: WordPress has access to my Facebook friends list. This may be totally unnecessary, but I did not want to risk disrupting communication.

Can Curiosity Kill The Sciences?

I am in the middle of a series of posts about scientific method, so this seemed very much to the point. especially, how to avoid acting like a Doctor Authority Figure Type (DAFT), while still defending the value of expert evidence over anecdote (and, I would add, over ideology)?

The Grumpy Geophysicist

There’s a book out there that seems to be attracting lots of lightning bolts (Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now!).  GG is not interested in reading or discussing that, per se. It sounds as though logic and empirical observation got confused in there (they are not the same). What got his attention was one of the responses by Ross Douthat of the New York Times, who essentially argues that smugness by those who purport to know better will stifle real science. The nub of the argument is in this quote:

I’m reasonably confident that both of the stranger worlds of my childhood, the prayer services and macrobiotic diet camps, fit his definition of the anti-empirical dark. And therein lies the oddity: If you actually experienced these worlds, and contrasted them with the normal world of high-minded liberal secularism, it was the charismatic-religious and “health food” regions where people were the…

View original post 1,180 more words

If you are interested in evolution, get this book

EVOLUTION: What the Fossils Say and why it Matters, Donald R. Prothero (2nd edition)

If you are interested in evolution, get this book. And make sure that your library gets it. And your children’s highschool library. Incidentally, it’s incredible value; list price $35.00/£27.95 from Columbia University Press, with over 400 lavishly illustrated pages.

The book is a comprehensive survey of the fossil record, supplemented at times with other evidence, and framed as one long argument against creationism. It opens with a general discussion of the ideas behind current evolutionary thinking, moves on to a survey of specific topics in (mainly animal) evolution, from the origins of life to the emergence of humanity, and concludes with a brief discussion of the threat that creationism poses to rational thinking. The argument is laid out clearly in the seemingly artless prose of an accomplished writer in love with his subject matter, with plain language explanations that presume no prior knowledge, while the detailed discussions of specific topics give enough detail to be of value, I would imagine, even to a professional in the field. The author is an experienced educator and researcher, with thirty books ranging from the highly technical to the popular, some 300 research papers, and numerous public appearances to his credit, and the work is copiously illustrated with photos, diagrams, and drawings by the author’s colleague, Carl Buell. These illustrations are an integral part of the work, graphically displaying the richness of the data at the heart of the argument. Read the rest of this entry

Take the Pro-Truth Pledge (because we’re all fallible)

Pro-Truth Pledge LogoI  learnt about this pledge from the Skeptic Reading Room. And while I generally loathe public pledges (too much virtue signalling for my liking), I am making an exception for this one, in response to our exceptional times. And the fine print makes admirable reading. Besides,  several hundred public figures and organizations have signed it, including Steven Pinker and Peter Singer, and what’s good enough for them is good enough for me. Many dozens of politicians have signed it as well, and one of the aims is to persuade more to do so, and hold them accountable.

Truth matters. Propagating untruth is big business and big politics. The traditional guardians of truth have abdicated, are compromised, or lack traction. By default, the job of protecting truth falls to us. We need to take our responsibility seriously.

We are all drawn towards confirmation bias, group think (our own group, of course!), lack of diligence in verifying material that agrees with us, lack of charity towards opponents, and more besides. So the pledge is no trivial commitment and I certainly found that reading it gave me much pause for thought about my own behaviour.

Here’s what the pledge commits you to. You can sign it here. I have. Hold me to it.

I Pledge My Earnest Efforts To:

Share truth

  • Verifyfact-check information to confirm it is true before accepting and sharing it
  • Balance: share the whole truth, even if some aspects do not support my opinion
  • Cite: share my sources so that others can verify my information
  • Clarify: distinguish between my opinion and the facts

Honor truth

  • Acknowledge: acknowledge when others share true information, even when we disagree otherwise
  • Reevaluate: reevaluate if my information is challenged, retract it if I cannot verify it
  • Defend: defend others when they come under attack for sharing true information, even when we disagree otherwise
  • Align: align my opinions and my actions with true information

Encourage truth

  • Fix: ask people to retract information that reliable sources have disproved even if they are my allies
  • Educate: compassionately inform those around me to stop using unreliable sources even if these sources support my opinion
  • Defer: recognize the opinions of experts as more likely to be accurate when the facts are disputed
  • Celebrate: celebrate those who retract incorrect statements and update their beliefs toward the truth

Politics on the Rails

The economy exists to serve people. To imagine the reverse is idolatry

Dissenting Radical

A guest post by Brian the Brainy Biking Boxer 

On a packed train swishing north through England’s summer a stand-off simmers: passengers without seats versus a train manager with several. Just one problem: class.

Standard class is jammed. You can’t even stand. Three lost travellers squeeze into a square metre of floor by the toilet, smells and all. One of them spots that most of first class, a coffee-scented oasis spied through company-branded perspex, is empty. But her attempt to claim an unused seat is blocked by a uniform.

“You haven’t paid. If I let you sit in here it wouldn’t be fair to those who have.”

“But we have paid for a seat. There just aren’t any back there. And these ones are empty.”

“I’m sorry; there’s nothing I can do.”

A choice is made: the dignity and comfort of these toilet-dwelling passengers versus the integrity of the train’s…

View original post 451 more words

“The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct”, and other gems from Taylor and Francis

Update: Skeptic has now published a not entirely favourable review of the “conceptual penis” hoax, by Alan Sokal, Professor of Mathematics at University College London, and of Physics at New York University, and author of the famous hoax article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity“. I have asked my University librarian why we carry the journal that published this nonsense, and how much it is costing us. I have not had a reply; but then, if she had not heard of the matter before seeing the title of my email, she may have discarded it as spam. It seems likely that we carry the journal concerned, Cogent Social Sciences, as part of a bundle, since I do not imagine that any academic Department at Glasgow would have requested it.

The article has been retracted, and is no longer available on the journal website, but the published version had been archived and remains available here.

“It is also factually incorrect to associate the anatomical penis with male reproductivity.” (Cogent Social Sciences (2017), 3: 1330439,

The journal that accepted this paper, after peer review, is available through Glasgow University Library, and is published by Taylor and Francis. This in turn is owned by the conglomerate Informa, which has swallowed a number of thoroughly reputable publishing houses. Among them, CRC (who produce a valuable science data reference resource, known for historical reasons as “the Rubber Bible” (though perhaps I should explain in the present context that the vulgar US meaning of “rubber” has nothing to do with it), Routledge, and Gordon and Breach. Wikipedia credits Taylor and Francis with revenue of £490 million in 2016, or over a quarter of a million per employee. Informa is incorporated in Jersey but tax resident in Switzerland.

Go to (or if that link disappears, as it well may, to the authors’ archived link, here,  and you will see an article by Jamie Lindsay and Peter Boyle, of Southeast Independent Social Research Group. There you will be told, at the outset, that

The androcentric scientific and meta-scientific evidence that the penis is the male reproductive organ is considered overwhelming and largely uncontroversial.

But do not be deceived by this social consensus. To quote the paper’s Public Interest Statement,

As a result of our research into the essential concept of the penis and its exchanges with the social and material world, we conclude that penises are not best understood as the male sexual organ, or as a male reproductive organ, but instead as an enacted social construct that is both damaging and problematic for society and future generations. … and is the conceptual driver behind much of climate change. Read the rest of this entry

Removing Church appointees from Education Committees; more good news

Things continue to go better than we could have hoped.

The story so far: For historical reasons, dating back to 1872 and beyond, all Local Authority Education Committees in Scotland must by law include three full voting members nominated by the Churches. Our petition, PE01623, asks for their removal, on grounds of democracy and equality, especially in view of the fact that most parents now describe themselves as having no religion. Spencer Fildes and I gave evidence before the Public Petitions Committee last November, and the Committee, having sought additional written submissions, met again in February.  At that meeting, the Convener, the redoubtable Johann Lamont, laid considerable emphasis on the equalities issue, and quoted the comment from the Jewish community that “none of these issues have been addressed.” The Committee agreed to write again to the Scottish Government, asking about the timescale of the current review of educational governance, and its response to the matters raised.


Spencer Fildes and Paul Braterman give evidence to the Public Petitions Committee, November 2016

Now read on: Last month, the Scottish Government responded, and we in our turn have replied to that response. We see a steady softening in the Government’s position, from asserting in 2014, when faced with a similar petition, that the presence of the Church appointees “provides support to the authority in discharging its duties”, to a 2016 letter saying that it “was viewed” in the 1973 legislation as providing such assistance,  to its present position, which after a review of the legal background goes on to state: Read the rest of this entry

%d bloggers like this: