One Month of Daily Blogging

It’s February! How’d that happen?

(Time passes. Listen. Time passes.)

I’ve successfully written and published at least one post for every day of January 2018. I believe that’s the longest I’ve ever done so. Yay me!

Several days I had two posts! WordPress (reluctantly) tells me I had 38 posts totally19,603 words. Woof!

This was the first day I didn’t have a backlog post waiting (feel a little short on the scheduling). I had a day where I posted a lot on LGM and grading and other crazed works stuff intervened, as did illness.

But still! I did do it. Even if today is a wiffy, blog introspection post.

But everything counts. Let’s see how February goes. It’s black history month! I’ll try to post at least one pertinent thing a week.


Changed The Theme

It was the first theme that had a wide enough column to show 80 characters. I’m not super fond of the current one, but it at least fixes that.

I wish more themes let me tweak the content aspects!

Oh and some how I’m mired in the “new style” editor web interface. I’m trying not to be miffed. Stupid flat style deciding that “lines” around “editable areas” is soooo passé. I’ll be asking for scroll bars next.

ETA: Sorry, this is awful, but must prep for flight.

ETA on Friday: Found one that doesn’t quite suck. Or at least not as much.

RIP Lynne Rudder Baker

She died last month.

I first heard of her cognitive suicide argument at a Wesleyan Philosophy of Mind symposium (a futile attempt to keep Ken Taylor there, IIRC). Jay Garfield discussed it (his talk also was my introduction to Sellarsian dot quotes). I was fascinated by it. My thesis proposal came out of that fascination (and because a different sort of cognitive suicide).

(In the attic purge, I found lots of thesis printouts. I may be able to look at them.)

I didn’t realise how theistic she was!   That’s interesting. It puts some of her intellectual history in a new light, although don’t think she was a supernaturalist in any real way. I suspect that she’s a bit Kantian in wanting to make room for God, freedom and immortality (though again, not in a supernatural way).

I never met her or see her talk, but Saving Belief was a friend. We grew apart, but I still have fond college memories of it.

One Week Of Blogging 2018

Thus far…not bad! At least a post a day, and sometimes more. WordPress is not very nice with the incentives, though. Where’s the “you’ve posted every day this week! good show! your mother still doesn’t read it but she’d be proud!”?!

Key drivers:

  1. New year’s resolution. That should be running out about now.
  2. The WordPress iPhone app. It’s much better for me now and I was able to build up a backlog.
  3. The idea of building up a backlog. I try to write more than one post when I can write and schedule them for future days. That way, if I have a couple of no writing days (like Thurs and Fri this week), I still have posts! THE STREAK CONTINUES!!!!
  4. Tab clearing. I’ve been trying to reduce my open tabs across the 3 to 8 browsers I have open at once. Usually, I sadly bookmark it (or send it as an email, or onetab it, or…). But now, I’ve been writing little posts about them. Like back in the day when a blog was a web log.
  5. Posting slightly fewer comments on LGM/posts on Facebook/tweets on twitter? nahhhhh!

It’d be nice to have a way to gather up all my disqus, FB, and twitter stuff so I could easily do a weekly roundup (hey! one more day!!!). But that’s work to figure out!

What isn’t really happening is nice graphics and photos and stuff. Sorry WordPress, you still suck at that.

(ETA: and of course I had 2017 instead of 2018 in the title. Thanks to Michelle, this is fixed.)

Hoping for Grace

Awful things happened this week. Awful things happen every week and most we (for various values of “we”) don’t know about.

But I go back to Obama’s elegy for those killed in Charleston:

As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind.

For too long, we’ve been blind to the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation. (Applause.) Sporadically, our eyes are open: When eight of our brothers and sisters are cut down in a church basement, 12 in a movie theater, 26 in an elementary school. But I hope we also see the 30 precious lives cut short by gun violence in this country every single day; the countless more whose lives are forever changed — the survivors crippled, the children traumatized and fearful every day as they walk to school, the husband who will never feel his wife’s warm touch, the entire communities whose grief overflows every time they have to watch what happened to them happen to some other place.

That’s what I’ve felt this week — an open heart. That, more than any particular policy or analysis, is what’s called upon right now, I think — what a friend of mine, the writer Marilyn Robinson, calls “that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.”

That reservoir of goodness. If we can find that grace, anything is possible. (Applause.) If we can tap that grace, everything can change. (Applause.)

Amazing grace. Amazing grace.

Of course, Zoe’s song keeps it in my mind:

Obama said,

According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God — (applause) — as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Grace.

This is a pretty general notice of grace in religious traditions. I don’t believe in God, so grace cannot be a favor of any god or divinity. But I do use a variant of the concept, though a bit more related to “graceful”. Grace is a way of being and acting that has a rightness that’s only partly aesthetic. When we act with grace we bring together the beautiful and the sublime such that it feels like a gift…effortless and beyond effort.

Grace is something we can give each other, but it’s not built brick by brick (though it might emerge from small efforts).

I keep looking for it in all things.

Living in End Times

Climate change is scary. The sixth extinction is scary. Trump, North Korea, and nukes are scary.

Hans Rosling would do great presentations about how things are getting better. And in many ways they are.

And yet.

People have thought they lived in the end times throughout human history. Sometimes just a few. Sometimes large parts of a society. We can easily fixate on the negative.

And yet…the end times happen once. That they have not happened is not proof of future performance.

In the 20th century, we acquired the capability to destroy the world in less than a day. Real end times became possible.

Catastrophic ecological change is slower moving, but we seem to be hitting a rapid phase with multiple possible tipping points.

Of course, it’s not over until it’s over, but given the demonstrated capacity of our existing institutions to handle complex phenomena, it’s hard to be confident.

People who falsely believed that the world was ending were still living with that believe. Many of them lived out their lives so we know it’s possible to survive the stress of “knowing” you are living in the end times.

It seems to be a skill we need to culture.

Countering (Massive Numbers of) Lies Doesn’t Work

Lies are dangerous in a number of ways. Putting aside that there are lots of situations where a false belief leads to very bad action (e.g., believing homeopathy is an effective cancer treatment leads to forgoing treatment that would have saved one’s life or mitigated suffering). They are also dangerous because people with bad agendas tend to resort to lying because they can’t win on the merits. And they don’t just resort to a bit of deception, or even clever deception. It turns out that wholesale, massive, shameless, easily rebutted lies are pretty effective, at least for something.

Consider the decades long attack on the EU:

But Britain has a long and well-observed tradition of fabricating facts about Europe—so much so that the European Commission (EC) set up a website to debunk these lies in the early 1990s. Try our interactive quiz below and see if you can spot the myths.

Since then the EC has responded to over 400 myths published by the British media. These range from the absurd (fishing boats will be forced to carry condoms) to the ridiculous (zippers on trousers will be banned). Some are seemingly the result of wilful misunderstandings.

Sadly, for all the commission’s hard work, it is unlikely to be heard. The average rebuttal is read about 1,000 times. The Daily Mail’s website, by contrast, garners 225m visitors each month.

And, of course, the Leave campaign, itself, was almost wholly lie based. Remain made some (economic) predictions that were falsified (and that needs to be understood), but it didn’t traffic in wholesale lies, to my knowledge.

Similarly, we have a decades long campaign, almost entirely easily-debunked-lie based, against Hillary Clinton. Just take claims about her honesty (esp. next to Trump). Robert Mann produced a very interesting graph of Polifact’s fact checking of a selection of politicians:

It isn’t even close! HRC is one of the most honest politicians (in terms of telling falsehoods) and Trump is one of the most dishonest.

Yet, when I was debating folks on Democratic leaning blogs, I had people saying that Clinton was a pathological liar. When presented with this chart, they stuck to their guns. (Note, they didn’t think Obama was a liar.)

You can quibble with the methodology (see Mann’s blog post for a discussion), but Polifact’s fact checker tries to be evenhanded. One should be at least a little struck by this evidence.

But correction often just doesn’t work, backfires, or isn’t effective in changing attitudes and behavior. For example,

Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

Or consider Emily Thorson’s concept of belief echoes:

However, through a series of experiments, I find that exposure to a piece of negative political information persists in shaping attitudes even after the information has been successfully discredited. A correction–even when it is fully believed–does not eliminate the effects of misinformation on attitudes. These lingering attitudinal effects,which I call “belief echoes,” are created even when the misinformation is corrected immediately, arguably the gold standard of journalistic fact-checking.

Belief echoes can be affective or cognitive. Affective belief echoes are created through a largely unconscious process in which a piece of negative information has a stronger impact on evaluations than does its correction. Cognitive belief echoes, on the other hand, are created through a conscious cognitive process during which a person recognizes that a particular negative claim about a candidate is false, but reasons that its presence increases the likelihood of other negative information being true. Experimental results suggest that while affective belief echoes are created across party lines, cognitive belief echoes are more likely when a piece of misinformation reinforces a person’s pre-existing political views

We see this in the various formulations of the Clinton Rules.

One major harm of such mechanisms is that it opens up a line of defense for very bad people, e.g., Trump, to wit, that there are “Trump rules” and the bad things pointed out about him are fake. They aren’t, but why trust a gullible media about it?

I’ve had personal experience of this. I used to comment a lot on LGM. One commenter with a propensity for persistently saying very silly things (about, e.g., statistics, causality, politics, and even the law (they are a lawyer)) got to a point where they couldn’t stand my repeated refutations (including pointing out how they’d been refuted before). They embarked on a pretty systematic campaign to lie about me, primarily about my mental health and that I was “stalking” them, on the verge of a breakdown, that they were frightened of me, that I had no sex life or other kind of life, that I spent large period of times looking things up on them (stalking!), etc. These were transparent lies and obvious gaslighting. No one took them directly seriously, but they did have effects. People would see an exchange and assume that there was some fault on my part (however mild). This would pop up elsewhere, in other comments.  Some of these people were more sympathetic to a gaslighting liar than they had any right to be.

So, pretty exemplary behavior and a sterling reputation vs. transparent lies and extremely bizarre slanders and…well, I’m the one not commenting any more. It worked, in a way. (Trump winning had an effect too. It’s not solely due to this bad behavior.)

Given sufficient shamelessness and no structural counter (e.g., moderation) and no big effort on my part (e.g., an active campaign), there’s little penalty for such lying and it advances their noxious cause.

These examples can be multiplied easily (anti-vaccine, pro-tobacco, climate change denial campaigns come to mind).

It’s very difficult to deal with. We need to.


How severe is the problem? I just saw a report on a survey using Trump’s and Obama’s inauguration crowd photos:

For the question about which image went with which inauguration, 41 percent of Trump supporters gave the wrong answer; that’s significantly more than the wrong answers given by 8 percent of Clinton voters and 21 percent of those who did not vote.

But what’s even more noteworthy is that 15 percent of people who voted for Trump told us that more people were in the image on the left — the photo from Trump’s inauguration — than the picture on the right. We got that answer from only 2 percent of Clinton voters and 3 percent of nonvoters.

The article discusses the idea of “expressive responding”:

Why would anyone give the wrong answer to a pretty simple question?

To many political psychologists, this exercise will be familiar. A growing body of research documents how fully Americans appear to hold biased positions about basic political facts. But scholars also debate whether partisans actually believe the misinformation and how many are knowingly giving the wrong answer to support their partisan team (a process called expressive responding).

Expressive responding is yet another form of lying with potentially far reaching consequences.