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
Do we need more studies on vaccines, GMOs, climate change, etc.?
An undefeatable strategy for delaying or doubting. As the Civil Servant Sir Humphrey advised Jim Hacker in Yes, Minister, when he wanted to avoid taking action about smoking, “Say the scientists disagree. Say there is a need for more research. Scientists always disagree with each other about something or other, and there is always a need for more research.”
I frequently encounter people who state that, “I’m not anti-vaccine/GMO, I just think that we need more studies” or “we need more research before we take major action on climate change.” I have, however, noticed that whenever someone declares, “I’m not X” they usually end the statement with some pathetic justification for why they are in fact X, and that is definitely the case in this situation. The cry for more studies on vaccines, GMOs, etc. is nearly always hypocritical and stems from a willful ignorance about just how many studies there actually are. The reality is that topics like vaccines have been so well studied that they have achieved the status of settled science. So, the problem isn’t that there aren’t enough studies; rather, the problem is that people refuse to read or accept the hundreds of studies that we already have. To be fair, I have occasionally encountered…
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Scottish schools: we don’t invite antivaxxers so we shouldn’t invite antievolutionists
There is still time to sign the petition calling on the Scottish Government to give this badly needed guidance:
Calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to issue official guidance to bar the presentation in Scottish publicly funded schools of separate creation and of Young Earth doctrines as viable alternatives to the established science of evolution, common descent, and deep time.
We don’t invite antivaxxers into our schools to present their “alternative point of view”. That is because what they say is untrue, yet dangerously persuasive, as shown by the re-emergence, thanks to them, of diseases such as measles that, in the industrialised nations at least, were almost extinct. No school would dream of hosting a debate between an antivaxxer and an immunologist, inviting pupils to make up their own minds. Nor would any school invite a group convinced of the wickedness of vaccination to send activity-filled buses. To do any such thing would totally undermine important teaching about health. The antivaxxers may complain that this is unfair, because although in a free society they have every right to express their point of view. Too bad; freedom of speech does not include the right to demand a platform, least of all the authoritative platform of a school assembly hall, and we do not give them that because they don’t deserve it.
Yet this is exactly the way that we treat anti-evolutionists, whether they call themselves Creationists, Creation Scientists, Biblical Christians, or Intelligent Design advocates. It is almost impossible to determine the extent to which such creationism has influenced classroom teaching, especially as many Local Authorities regard the identity and affiliation of school chaplains as protected confidential information for Freedom of Information Act purposes. However, we note with alarm that the extreme anti-science West Mains Church was allowed to operate for eight years without question, that the Challenger Bus, which carries literature from Answers in Genesis, makes regular visits to many schools, and that at least two schools have organised debates or Q&A sessions with creationist speakers, thus placing creationism on an equal footing with scientific reality.
According to the website of PWAMM (People with a Mission Ministries), whose Challenger Buses pay regular visits to Scottish schools, and who sell Answers magazine, a publication of Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis,
The purpose of Answers magazine is to illustrate the importance of Genesis in building a creation-based worldview, and to equip readers with practical answers so they can confidently communicate the gospel and biblical authority with accuracy and graciousness.
PWAMM also offers schools materials for Religious and Moral Education, dealing with such questions as “what Christians believe the Bible is” (Primary) and “Information about the Bible; multimedia presentation summarising what Christians believe” (Secondary). I do not think it unreasonable to wonder whether these materials promote “a creation-based worldview”, with all that that implies, and how far they do justice to the wealth of Christian interpretations of the Bible, beyond mere blinkered literalism.
Present Scottish Government policy is to leave these things to the discretion of individual teachers. This is to place an impossible burden on them, especially as creationist utterances are liable to come from chaplains, who are not part of the teaching establishment, and may be put forward in contexts such as Religious Observance where they could hardly be challenged, or as part of professionally prepared packages for RME. Creationists are plausible, and well practiced in presenting their arguments. They commonly make direct factual claims, based on spurious science, which pupils (or indeed teachers without a background in biology) will not recognise as the untruths that they are. The creationist tactic is to pretend that their point of view as having an equal claim to be heard, thus appealing to reasonableness and fair play, and to maintain that the kind of policy sought in this petition is an unfair restriction of free speech. We would not accept such an argument from those who deny the benefits of vaccination, or the historical fact of the Holocaust, or that the Earth spins on its axis, and should not accept it from those who deny the reality of evolution either.