This Blog Is Fake News

Not really, but language is our primary way to communicate.  “This statement is false,” is a classic example of recursive writing.  Sometimes I enjoy annoying, contradictory statements; these conundrums are good exercise for our understanding of language, our value judgements and our unchallenged intellectual sides.  Fake news is fiction dressed up in the trappings of fact.  Those who are fooled operate on faulty assumptions.  Snopes may not be enough to save us.

How important is what we believe?  We make choices every day based on information from others. For long stretches of our history, Americans expected, and demanded professional journalism; we challenged the news with research of our own; we relied on professional information gatherers and presenters; we cherished objectivity.  Walter Cronkite is the example that comes to mind.  He and his news team did not editorialize; they presented the facts they could verify plainly; even when the news was painful, such as the Kennedy assassination, he held his emotions in check, almost.

As the era of journalism fades in our collective awareness, we stumble into an epoch of opinion; the 24-hour news age Ted Turner invented is voracious; anything to fill the hours.  The demand grew for titillating, shocking, insidious, intentional, or just stupid, public lying; I guess there was not enough honest scandal, hyperbole, deception, libel, and defamation.

Now we find completely fabricated articles, meant to harm specific people or raise undue alarm among us. Free speech, or libel?  First Amendment rights, or vicious cowardice?  It seems we are reaping what we have sown.   We have become victims of our society’s lax attitude towards rigor and honor.  We have grown lazy and unwilling to check the things presented to us.

Frankly, I am glad.  Not for the bad things that follow such propaganda, but for the possible reawakening of doubt, curiosity, and inquiry.  Of all the innovations of the 20th century, the internet connection of millions of individuals is the most important, because it reveals and magnifies our human nature and limits. Our naivete allowed us to be fooled by sources we trusted. At last, we know we must check the sources and validity of our vast ocean of daily information.

Humans are suspicious by nature; evolution has left this trait engraved in our genes.  But we can be lulled into gullibility, and we have been.  The opinions of writers and editors may vary all along the spectrum of belief; perspectives may open many windows of human experience; but some grounded facts must be present to sort and distort.  Fake news is just written lies and gossip without honest attribution.

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Whining the Election – Trumpled Aspirations

Over the 52 years and 13 presidential elections I have been eligible to vote, I have never seen such sore losers, and humble winners.

I am disappointed with the disparate responses to the results of the 2016 presidential election.  Smug expectations from pollsters and pundits seem to have set a trap for Hillary’s disciples, and set a stage for impetuous, righteous indignation.  Rejection, disputation, refutation, spoilsport language, protests, and denial among disgruntled Clinton supporters is “over-the-top,” and “unpresidented.”  “He is not my president,” spake Gloria Steinem, Wednesday morning.  (Ironically, in the past, she also said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”) 

Why have Mrs. Clinton’s avid proponents gone off the rails into the deep waters of denial and despair?

I believe the presumption that Hillary Clinton had a commanding lead over Donald Trump was their downfall.  Belief in optimistic statistics led to haughty attitudes and supercilious sneers on the faces of Hillary’s fans.  The extreme vanity of the oracles’ predictions led to nasty, braggadocios, arrogance.  When pride met gravity, the indignity of the pratfall magnified the embarrassment of hubris. The expectations of overwhelming victory were shredded, by the unexpected appearance at the polls of hordes of angry, underserved workers.  The ambush of the uncounted, disenfranchised citizens prevailed.

The carefully crafted deception of optimistic unemployment statistics did not fool the people who took discounted wages and lesser jobs over the last eight years.  These voters had no voice among Democrats who applauded the “champion of hope” for his rescue of the economy, and restoration of the American Dream.  They were not deceived by or grateful for their thinly disguised demotions and the smiling, dismissive, carefully worded denigrations spun by an accommodating media on behalf of the Obama administration.

The scales did not fall from their eyes, because no scales formed as they lost their jobs, houses, cars, and pride.  The Affordable Care Act did not replace the healthcare insurance they lost when their employer dropped their health coverage; when they lost their jobs, their hopes were dashed by the failure of the “marketplace” to make personal health insurance and their out-of-pocket costs affordable.  Instead, they found themselves ravaged by astronomical premiums, deductibles, copays, and incredible prescription prices.  Hospitals and pharmacies raised their nominal, private pay prices to offset the discounts demanded by insurance providers.  The uninsured were left with impossible choices.

Promise after promise lay fallow by the roadside.  Example after example of the USA borrowing trillions of dollars to pay for the rest of the world’s problems and defense festered, while Americans suffered from the Great Recession.  Pact after pact, treaty after treaty left us at disadvantage.  Military efforts left us looking weak, as we shrank from conflicts under cover of spin.  Former allies spat disparaging invectives on our leaders.

Did Hillary’s followers believe she could pull us out of the ditch of weakness and doubt created these past eight years?  Did her apostles think her baggage and prevarications would evaporate by inauguration?  No wonder they were blindsided when Trump won.

Who Examines Presidents? – Whoever They Choose

 

Americans deserve and need to know the health of our President, and our Vice-President; but we do not.

That is right:  There is no impartial national medical team for our country’s top executives, or those who seek those positions.  Each president and vice-president picks their own doctors, and decides what medical information they disclose.  In fact, several presidents have withheld and even falsified their health conditions to the public.  Kind of scary to not know the health of the most powerful politician in the world.  And, a heartbeat away, it also makes knowing the health of the Vice-President more than a casual concern.

The 25th amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides emergency options, should the president be incapacitated.  It lays out protocols for the vice president to take over, temporarily, when the president is stricken.  Why rely on such extraordinary measures when we can anticipate, and avoid problems by knowing the health of our president?  We have the technology.

In a 1993 edition of The Journal of the American Medical Association, former President Jimmy Carter advocated “the creation of a ‘nonpartisan group’ of physicians to help decide when a president’s illness affects his judgment.”   Apparently, doctors of previous presidents said presidential disability was a terrible problem.

Examples of hidden conditions:

Ronald Reagan

Reagan fought hard to dispel any rumors about his ill health, even after surviving an assassination attempt and colon cancer.  Some historians speculate the 40th president suffered from dementia  while he was in office.  He was publicly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease before his death in 2004.

John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy presented the image of youthful vigor, but was in chronic pain due to back troubles from a World War II injury and constantly fatigued from Addison’s Disease (a chronic insufficiency of the adrenal glands).

Franklin D. Roosevelt

FDR hid the severity of his polio until after his death in 1945. Roosevelt was barely able to stand as he governed through World War II.

Woodrow Wilson

Wilson concealed the fact that he had three minor strokes leading up to his run for the presidency.  During his second term, Wilson suffered a massive stroke that left him paralyzed and blinded on the left side of his body.  He couldn’t have a cabinet meeting for nine months.

His vice president, Thomas Marshall, refused to take over; Wilson could only manage his presidential duties with the help of his wife, Edith, who decided which issues deserved the president’s attention.

In this case voters were denied knowledge of conditions that seriously limited Wilson’s ability to govern.

William Henry Harrison

The 9th president of the United States died in his first month in office of “bilious pleurisy” which appeared as “inflamed lungs,” an “engorged liver,” and a “delirious mental state.”

We want to know that our top leaders are healthy enough to perform their vital roles.  As we approach the 2016 election, Americans are concerned that we have no reliable way to learn about the physical and mental health of the presidential candidates, and their running mates.  Right now, with no other mechanism in place, only the candidates can relieve our concerns.

New York Times Silly Defense of Hillary

I woke up this morning to a silly, unchallenged report of Hillary Clinton’s email issues published by the New York Times.  I would have used the terms “inane” or “preposterous” in place of “silly,” but that would have required a higher Lexile level.  Hillary Clinton served as Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013. Neither she nor her staff learned anything about top-level classified information or communications, based on her testimony and interviews.

Come on now; “a top aide to Mrs. Clinton told the company that housed her server to delete an archive of emails from her account.”  The implication of the New York Times article was that the servers were “housed” i.e. located with Platte River Network.

But wait:  Wikipedia reported that, “The domains were pointed to a private email server that Clinton (who never had a state.gov email account) used to send and receive email, and which was purchased and installed in the Clintons’ home for her 2008 presidential campaign.”

Oh, I guess that was just a slip of the keyboard.

“According to the F.B.I., in December 2014 a top aide to Mrs. Clinton told the company that housed her server to delete an archive of emails from her account. The company, Platte River Networks, apparently never followed those instructions.”

“On March 2, 2015, The New York Times reported that Mrs. Clinton had (sic) exclusively used a personal email account when she was secretary of state.  Two days later, the congressional committee investigating the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, and Mrs. Clinton’s response to them, told the technology firms associated with the email account that they had to retain “all relevant documents” related to its investigation.”

But then, so, so conveniently:

“Three weeks later, a Platte River employee had what the F.B.I. documents described as an “oh shit” moment and realized he had not deleted the emails as instructed. The employee said that he then used a special program called BleachBit to delete the files. The F.B.I. said Mrs. Clinton (said she) was unaware of the deletions.”

That is so flimsy, so lame, no wonder Hillary has such low credibility.

Next, the Secretary of State, like all members of the Cabinet, is responsible for classifying information, not standing by expecting department employees to tell them what should be classified.  Who is in charge here?  But we are fed this report:

“In Mrs. Clinton’s interview with the F.B.I., she said she did not recall receiving any emails “she thought should not be on an unclassified system.” She said she had relied on State Department officials to use their judgment when emailing her sensitive information, adding that she “could not recall anyone raising concerns with her regarding the sensitivity of the information she received at her email address.”

But what secure, official email address were they to use?  Apparently she had none.

And then, she gets a reply from Colin Powell warning her about including private email for government communications, “Be very careful. I got around it all by not saying much and not using systems that captured the data.”  In other words, he used secure, government email for business.

According to a summary of her interview, Mrs. Clinton said that she did not know exactly what Mr. Powell was saying in that email and that his message “did not factor into her decision to use a personal email account.”

Mrs. Clinton showed high IQ in every part of her life but this one.  What happened?

Then the article questions the intelligence of either Mrs. Clinton or her staff and closest aides.

“Mrs. Clinton said in her interview that it was “common knowledge” that she had a private email address because it was “displayed to anyone with whom she exchanged emails.” But the F.B.I. said in a summary of its findings that “some State Department employees interviewed by the F.B.I. explained that emails by Clinton only contained the letter ‘H’ in the sender field and did not display her email address.” The F.B.I. said that some of Mrs. Clinton’s closest aides were aware that she used a private email address but did not know that she had set up a private server. The aides told the F.B.I. they were “unaware of the existence of the private server until after Clinton’s tenure at State or when it became public knowledge.”

The rest of the article makes me weary:

“Mrs. Clinton kept her BlackBerry in a State Department secure area, where it was prohibited

According to the summary of the investigation, Mrs. Clinton brought her BlackBerry into a secure area on the seventh floor of the State Department, where such electronics are prohibited. The F.B.I. interviewed three former State Department diplomatic security agents who said that Mrs. Clinton kept her BlackBerry in her desk drawer in the secure area, a so-called Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF. But Huma Abedin, a top aide to Mrs. Clinton, told the F.B.I. that Mrs. Clinton left the secure area to check her BlackBerry, often going to the State Department’s eighth-floor balcony to do so.

Mrs. Clinton had a lot of electronic devices

The F.B.I. said that it had identified 13 mobile devices that Mrs. Clinton potentially used to send emails. Mrs. Clinton’s aides were in charge of buying replacement BlackBerry devices when she was in office, often obtaining them from AT&T stores in the Washington area. Ms. Abedin told the F.B.I. that “it was not uncommon for Clinton to use a new BlackBerry for a few days and then immediately switch it out for an older version with which she was more familiar.” Ms. Abedin and another aide told the F.B.I. that “the whereabouts of Clinton’s devices would frequently become unknown once she transitioned to a new device.” An aide to Bill Clinton, Justin Cooper, who helped set up the server, told the F.B.I. that he recalled “two instances where he destroyed Clinton’s old mobile devices by breaking them in half or hitting them with a hammer.”

This September 2 repeat of the email reports showed nothing new, and seemed to soften the edges on criticisms of what Hillary did.  Tsk, tsk, NYT

American Royalty – Power Without Heart

 

The 2016 presidential campaign harkens back to the earliest years of our nation.  Democracy, Republic, Three Branches of Government, Bicameral Legislature, By The People, Checks and Balances were new ideas.  Did everyone agree?  Not in the slightest.  And they had not invented political correctness in the middle of the 18th century.

No; instead, anonymous, pamphlets of slanderous accusations and invectives, swirled like blizzards across the newly formed United States of America.  The reins of power were not certain or predictable. Contenders for office came from all walks of life with no “party” to promote them.

The evolution of America’s two major political parties took some time, but those in power were hardly poor or neutral; power is the ultimate opioid.  Despite conflicts, Democrats and Republicans play the same games; they expect to win and lose from time to time, but both sides know the rules of placating the masses by making them think they have a voice in what goes on.

Until recently, the pretense of two radically separate political bodies survived, and thrived.  Now, two is not enough, talk is not enough, rhetoric is not enough.  Americans are tired of the same old crap: “They” are bad, “We” are good.  We will fix (what they broke, again).  They found out that there is just one old machine with two faces; they do not want it anymore.

The 9/11 attacks, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the mortgage fiascos, the collapse of investment banks, the explosion of college costs and debts, the Great Recession, the expansion of global terrorism, have shaken our confidence in America, in ourselves, and in our institutions.

We have lost the super in superpower.  Our military is so weak, we have to send the same soldiers back into combat again and again until they break; we spend millions of dollars on a drone strike to kill a dozen enemy soldiers so we can avoid American casualties.  The all-professional military means that average citizens are not involved; we do not feel like we are really at war.  What would make us think that?

The same old promises will not work on brand new problems any better than they did on the old problems.  Conspiracies seem to explain current events better than the lame “official” excuses and falsehoods WikiLeaks keeps uncovering.  And just maybe the truth is not that far off.

We have lost the attention span to take politicians seriously.  Incumbents no longer offer us advantages. Hence the wave of populism, barely dodged by the Democrats secret machine, and now staring the Republicans in the face.  The political czars are going to any length, including crossing over to the other side to avoid losing control of the constituencies they have cultivated.

The trouble is, the new constituencies are awakened, vocal, mobilized, and revolting against Big Brother.  They want purpose, they want independence, they want liberty, and at least a passing chance in their pursuit of happiness.

It looks like the machine, with all its money, influence, propaganda, connections, and experience may win again this time.  I am unhappy that my country, with all its advantages, cannot cultivate enough honorable leaders to field worthy candidates for president, and remain loyal when the voters speak.

Tools from Carl Sagan’s BS Detection Kit

We are in an age of hyper-information/persuasion/spin about all aspects of our lives, from what we eat, to what we buy, to what we attend, to whom we choose as leaders.  Now, as always, we can benefit from screening the inputs to our lives, and weighing our beliefs on a scale of clarity, and verity.  Carl Sagan gave us some sage tools to evaluate and detect fallacies of arguments, and false claims.  After the quote, I will try to translate, without bias, his precise language, and references, into reasonably understandable terms.

A. Evaluate Ideas to Approach the Truth:

  1. Wherever possible,there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
  2. Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  3. Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science, there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
  4. Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
  5. Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.
  6. Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.
  7. If there’s a chain of argument,every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.
  8. Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the dataequally well to choose the simpler.
  9. Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle — an electron, say — in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.
  1. Avoid Common Pitfalls of Common Sense

Just as important as learning these helpful tools, however, is unlearning and avoiding the most common pitfalls of common sense. Reminding us of where society is most vulnerable to those, Sagan writes:

In addition to teaching us what to do when evaluating a claim to knowledge, any good baloney detection kit must also teach us what not to do. It helps us recognize the most common and perilous fallacies of logic and rhetoric. Many good examples can be found in religion and politics, because their practitioners are so often obliged to justify two contradictory propositions.

He admonishes against the twenty most common and perilous ones — many rooted in our chronic discomfort with ambiguity — with examples of each in action:

  1. ad hominem— Latin for “to the man,” attacking the arguer and not the argument (e.g., The Reverend Dr. Smith is a known Biblical fundamentalist, so her objections to evolution need not be taken seriously)
  2. argument from authority(e.g., President Richard Nixon should be re-elected because he has a secret plan to end the war in Southeast Asia — but because it was secret, there was no way for the electorate to evaluate it on its merits; the argument amounted to trusting him because he was President: a mistake, as it turned out)
  3. argument from adverse consequences(e.g., A God meting out punishment and reward must exist, because if He didn’t, society would be much more lawless and dangerous — perhaps even ungovernable. Or: The defendant in a widely publicized murder trial must be found guilty; otherwise, it will be an encouragement for other men to murder their wives)
  4. appeal to ignorance— the claim that whatever has not been proved false must be true, and vice versa (e.g., There is no compelling evidence that UFOs are not visiting the Earth; therefore, UFOs exist — and there is intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe. Or: There may be seventy kazillion other worlds, but not one is known to have the moral advancement of the Earth, so we’re still central to the Universe.) This impatience with ambiguity can be criticized in the phrase: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
  5. special pleading, often to rescue a proposition in deep rhetorical trouble(e.g.,How can a merciful God condemn future generations to torment because, against orders, one woman induced one man to eat an apple? Special plead: you don’t understand the subtle Doctrine of Free Will. Or: How can there be an equally godlike Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in the same Person? Special plead: You don’t understand the Divine Mystery of the Trinity. Or: How could God permit the followers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — each in their own way enjoined to heroic measures of loving kindness and compassion — to have perpetrated so much cruelty for so long? Special plead: You don’t understand Free Will again. And anyway, God moves in mysterious ways.)
  6. begging the question, also called assuming the answer (e.g., We must institute the death penalty to discourage violent crime. But does the violent crime rate in fact fall when the death penalty is imposed? Or: The stock market fell yesterday because of a technical adjustment and profit-taking by investors — but is there any independent evidence for the causal role of “adjustment” and profit-taking; have we learned anything at all from this purported explanation?)
  7. observational selection, also calledthe enumeration of favorable circumstances, or as the philosopher Francis Bacon described it, counting the hits and forgetting the misses (e.g., A state boasts of the Presidents it has produced, but is silent on its serial killers)
  8. statistics of small numbers— a close relative of observational selection(e.g., “They say 1 out of every 5 people is Chinese. How is this possible? I know hundreds of people, and none of them is Chinese. Yours truly.” Or: “I’ve thrown three sevens in a row. Tonight I can’t lose.”)
  9. misunderstanding of the nature of statistics(e.g., President Dwight Eisenhower expressing astonishment and alarm on discovering that fully half of all Americans have below average intelligence);
  10. inconsistency(e.g., Prudently plan for the worst of which a potential military adversary is capable, but thriftily ignore scientific projections on environmental dangers because they’re not “proved.” Or: Attribute the declining life expectancy in the former Soviet Union to the failures of communism many years ago, but never attribute the high infant mortality rate in the United States (now highest of the major industrial nations) to the failures of capitalism. Or: Consider it reasonable for the Universe to continue to exist forever into the future, but judge absurd the possibility that it has infinite duration into the past);
  11. non sequitur— Latin for “It doesn’t follow” (e.g., Our nation will prevail because God is great. But nearly every nation pretends this to be true; the German formulation was “Gott mit uns”). Often those falling into the non sequitur fallacy have simply failed to recognize alternative possibilities;
  12. post hoc, ergo propter hoc— Latin for “It happened after, so it was caused by” (e.g., Jaime Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila: “I know of … a 26-year-old who looks 60 because she takes [contraceptive] pills.” Or: Before women got the vote, there were no nuclear weapons)
  13. meaningless question(e.g., What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? But if there is such a thing as an irresistible force there can be no immovable objects, and vice versa)
  14. excluded middle, or false dichotomy — considering only the two extremes in a continuum of intermediate possibilities (e.g., “Sure, take his side; my husband’s perfect; I’m always wrong.” Or: “Either you love your country or you hate it.” Or: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem”)
  15. short-term vs. long-term— a subset of the excluded middle, but so important I’ve pulled it out for special attention (e.g., We can’t afford programs to feed malnourished children and educate pre-school kids. We need to urgently deal with crime on the streets.  Or: Why explore space or pursue fundamental science when we have so huge a budget deficit?);
  16. slippery slope, related to excluded middle (e.g.,If we allow abortion in the first weeks of pregnancy, it will be impossible to prevent the killing of a full-term infant. Or, conversely: If the state prohibits abortion even in the ninth month, it will soon be telling us what to do with our bodies around the time of conception);
  17. confusion of correlation and causation(e.g., A survey shows that more college graduates are homosexual than those with lesser education; therefore, education makes people gay. Or: Andean earthquakes are correlated with closest approaches of the planet Uranus; therefore — despite the absence of any such correlation for the nearer, more massive planet Jupiter — the latter causes the former)
  18. straw man— caricaturing a position to make it easier to attack (e.g., Scientists suppose that living things simply fell together by chance — a formulation that willfully ignores the central Darwinian insight, that Nature ratchets up by saving what works and discarding what doesn’t. Or — this is also a short-term/long-term fallacy — environmentalists care more for snail darters and spotted owls than they do for people)
  19. suppressed evidence, or half-truths (e.g., An amazingly accurate and widely quoted “prophecy” of the assassination attempt on President Reagan is shown on television; but — an important detail — was it recorded before or after the event? Or:  These government abuses demand revolution, even if you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs. Yes, but is this likely to be a revolution in which far more people are killed than under the previous regime? What does the experience of other revolutions suggest? Are all revolutions against oppressive regimes desirable and in the interests of the people?)
  20. weasel words(e.g., The separation of powers of the U.S. Constitution specifies that the United States may not conduct a war without a declaration by Congress. On the other hand, Presidents are given control of foreign policy and the conduct of wars, which are potentially powerful tools for getting themselves re-elected. Presidents of either political party may therefore be tempted to arrange wars while waving the flag and calling the wars something else — “police actions,” “armed incursions,” “protective reaction strikes,” “pacification,” “safeguarding American interests,” and a wide variety of “operations,” such as “Operation Just Cause.” Euphemisms for war are one of a broad class of reinventions of language for political purposes. Talleyrand said, “An important art of politicians is to find new names for institutions which under old names have become odious to the public”)

Like all tools, the baloney detection kit can be misused, applied out of context, or even employed as a rote alternative to thinking. But applied judiciously, it can make all the difference in the world — not least in evaluating our own arguments before we present them to others.”