Dishonest Opinions

>> Tuesday, July 21, 2009

I read an interesting bit of opinion today (yes, in the New York Times). Ostensibly, it's about health care, but I felt like it was more about intellectual integrity and arguments that are so disingenuous as to go beyond honest political discourse.

What do I mean? Well, I've spoken before about using critical thinking, using one's logic and native intelligence to sniff out the BS instead of buying just anything you hear.

But there's another side of the coin. I'm all for uppin' the general level of intelligence for the populace and reducing the overall gullibility. But what about holding those telling those tall tales responsible for the fertilizer they spread?

We make a big deal out of freedom of speech and we should. The ability to express ourselves without fear of reprisal for being unpopular is key to any society that claims to be free. But with any freedom, there is another side to it, responsibility, especially when one is speaking as the voice of authority.

And I don't think we hold people responsible for abusing that authority quite enough. We get so used to being lied to, no matter how extreme the story, no matter how foolish the argument, no matter how skewed the logic, that those of us who routinely think skeptically pay little to no attention. Nor do we tend to do more than shrug when the less critical of us swallow the most ridiculous nonsense, figuring, eh, live and let live.

But knowingly spreading misinformation isn't harmless, especially when its emotionally charged and designed to touch the public emotionally instead of rationally. Doctors who trumpet the risks of vaccines cost children's lives and stand to reverse much of the progress against childhood disease of the last century (and are likely in a position to profit from some vaccine alternative that has no scientific backing). Scientists and doctors on the payroll of tobacco companies that told us, straight-faced, there was no risk from secondary smoke and addiction have cost untold lives and health care dollars to treat preventable lung conditions in smokers and their children. "Scientists" spreading doubt (on Big Oil's payroll under cover of "think tanks") about climate change and CO2 in the atmosphere despite all the evidence to the contrary - the bill for that feet-dragging hasn't come up yet, but I wouldn't expect the price to be small.

And politicians. Yes, we expect them to lie to us, to support the interests of special interest, to say bad things about the people of the "other" party even if they're doing the right thing (like that happens often if ever). But why do we let them get away with it?

Politicians are almost always paid by us to represent our interests - why are we complacent about them throwing our interests over for health insurance companies or bankers (the latter, of course, who aren't reticent about requesting money from us but not so happy about sharing it back)? Why do we shrug and move on when they provide mindless arguments about why Americans should continue to be screwed over for our own good? Why do we accept the lies as part of doing business?

It's not about ideology. It's about telling the falsehoods because one has an agenda, a self-serving motive. Bad enough being told that by advertisers who are being paid by those they work for but particularly unpleasant being lied to by those who work for us.

It's not harmless. Hitler told a self-serving set of lies, emotionally laden, that caused good people to do some truly heinous things. We're lying to ourselves if we think it can't happen here, though hopefully never to that degree. Never again.

But I'm not sure prosecution is effective. Perhaps that just legitimizes the bullshit. Maybe we need to respond the the crapola with laughter, long and hard, and not relent. Maybe, if we start treating being patronized with emotionally charged manipulative garbage with amused contempt, we can entice a new breed of authority who won't speak unless they have something to say they can justify with facts or data, with logic or history.

God, I am such a dreamer.


  • Aron Sora

    Can't the free market take care of this? Won't the lairs, eventually, lose all their power.

    I think this will change as social media and augmented reality evolves. I can see almost everything about a person as it is. Social media only will bring more information about people to me. I can see everything that influences a person. You can't lie when you are transparent.

  • Stephanie B

    The problem is that the media can spread misinformation as readily (if not more readily) than the truth. As fewer sources of information are held accountable for what they say, it's possible (even likely) that the sensationalist will take front and center, truth be damned.

    And, yeah, that scares me.

  • Roy

    Politicians are almost always paid by us to represent our interests...

    No, we vote for politicians to represent our interests. Unfortunately, they're bought and paid for by the special interests who want to screw us. That's how politicians get enough money to run for office in the first place - he or she who collects the most money from the biggest corporations wins the election. In that first sentence I almost said we elect the politicians, but we don't, we only vote for them; the special interest lobbies and the corporations actually elect them.

    Does that sound cynical? That's 30-some odd years of electoral experience speaking. I voted for a president who I thought was finally going to get us a single-payer health care system so we could join the rest of the civilized world. Unfortunately my Senators, and one in particular (both Democrats, mind you), sabotaged that effort toward a single-payer system because the health care industry pays them to represent their own interests (and one of those Senators' family fortune is based on part-ownership of CVS). So yes, I'm cynical.

  • Stephanie B

    You're right in that that's what they end up doing, but I'm right in what they SHOULD be doing. We DO pay them to represent us. They get a salary. It's just that the side business is so much more lucrative.

    But railing on that is a whole other post.

  • flit

    have you been reading Gather again? Honestly, some of the CARP that gets posted there is beyond belief.

  • Aron Sora

    Read this from the TED talk "James Surowiecki on the turning point for social media"

    "But there is a dark side to this, and that's what I want to spend the last part of my talk on. One of the things that happens if you spend a lot of time on the Internet and you spend a lot of time thinking about the Internet is that it is very easy to fall in love with the Internet. It is very easy to fall in love with the decentralized, bottom-up structure of the Internet. It is very easy to think that networks are necessarily good things, that being linked from one place to another, that being tightly linked in a group, is a very good thing. And much of the time it is. But there's also a downside to this -- a kind of dark side, in fact -- and that is that the more tightly linked we come to each other, the harder it is for each of us to remain independent.

    One of the fundamental characteristics of a network is that once you are linked in the network, the network starts to shape your views and starts to shape your interactions with everybody else. That's one of the things that defines what a network is. A network is not just the product of its component parts. It is something more than that. It is, as Steven Johnson has talked about, an emergent phenomenon. Now, this has all these benefits: it's very beneficial in terms of the efficiency of communicating information; it gives you access to a whole host of people; it allows people to coordinate their activities in very good ways. But the problem is that groups are only smart when the people in them are as independent as possible. This is, sort of the paradox of the wisdom of crowds, or the paradox of collective intelligence, that what it requires is actually a form of independent thinking. And networks make it harder for people to do that, because they drive attention to the things that the network values.

    So, one of the phenomenons that's very clear in the blogosphere is that once a meme, once an idea, gets going, it is very easy for people to just sort of pile on, because other people have, say, a link. People have linked to it, and so other people in turn link to it, et cetera, et cetera. And that phenomenon, that phenomenon of kind of piling on the existing links is one that is characteristic of the blogosphere, particularly of the political blogosphere, and it is one that essentially sort of throws off this kind of beautiful decentralized bottom-up intelligence that blogs can manifest in the right conditions.

    The metaphor that I like to use is the metaphor of the circular mill. A lot of people talk about ants. You know, this is a conference inspired by nature. When we talk about bottom-up, decentralized phenomenons, the sort of ant colony is the classic metaphor, because, you know, no individual ant knows what it's doing, but collectively ants are able to reach incredibly intelligent decisions. they're able to sort of reach food as efficiently as possible; So, the ant colony is a great model -- you have all these little parts that collectively add up to a great thing. But we know that occasionally ants go astray, and what happens is that, if army ants are sort of wandering around and they get lost, they start to follow a simple rule -- just do what the ant in front of you does. And what happens is that the ants eventually end up in a circle. And there's this famous example of one that was 1,200 feet long and lasted for two days, and the ants just kept marching around and around in a circle until they died. And that, I think, is a sort of thing to watch out for. That's the thing we have to fear, is that we're just going to keep marching around and around until we die. "

    If we make people aware of their network, then they will see how the people around them effect their views. I've become more Evangelical about space since actively participating in the space community. Luckily, Dr. David Livingston's podcast keeps my honest and questions the base of my thinking.

  • Shakespeare

    I am normally an idealist, but in this case I can't be. For every one person intelligent enough to see the lie, there are a thousand far too stupid and/or lazy to get a clue. And it is those people who are truly in control. The media blitzes are not intended for me--or for many of us here visiting this site. They are intended for the People magazine readers of the world, the people who can't seem to concentrate for more than the length of a commercial, who can't follow a train of thought with any complexity or a sentence that's more than ten words long.

    As long as stupid or ignorant people dominate the world and think it's okay to be as stupid or ignorant as they are, the lies will seem like truths to the majority, no matter what the more thoughtful and intelligent few understand to the contrary.

    Sorry to sound bitter, but there it is...

  • The Mother

    Media and misinformation (plus ideology)--fun. I don't have a solution, except, as the article suggests, aggressive skepticism.Unfortunately, the tools for that are sadly outside the level of competence of most of the American public.

  • Stephanie B

    OK, so what do we do? Sitting quietly to the side, wringing our hands doesn't work (see Hitler).

    Clearly, something must be done. I'm open to ideas.

  • bozzle

    I've been having a relevant argument (or tantrum, in my case) on another forum.

    One of the defining characterstics of a bleeding-heart liberal (me) is that we've usually tried to accomodate everyone and be tolerant of opposing viewpoints. I know that I, for one, have learned my lesson well, during the last eight years, on what that will get you.

    I would love to have civilized, rational conversations with right-wing conservatives, but am at the point that I am taking pointers from Limbaugh and Coulter. Be as nasty and as noisy as you need to be to get your point across. Enough of the high road. They don't respect it and don't deserve it.

    Amused contempt is a start. Railing against the system is a good second step.

  • Stephanie B

    I know others who have reacted that way. I can't, or rather, won't do that, bozzle. What others do reflects on them. What I do, no matter how provoked, reflects on me.

    And that thing is, there are thinkers on every side of an issue. Ranting appeals to the non-thinkers but convinces no one who thinks.

    I don't believe it's hopeless. One can make a difference with intelligence and patience, but it's not easy. But I do believe you can't fight hatred with hatred. In the end, you won't be able to tell one hater from the next.

    At least, that's how I see it.

  • Aron Sora

    IF we could somehow require everyone to go to a liberal arts college, I think we can get this fix...

    But, XKCD points out the dangers of this

    Main quote: "More harm has been done by people panicked over social decline the social decline ever did"

    If we start freaking out about this and trying to fix it, it could become worst.

  • Stephanie B

    I'm very much against panic. And I'm not sure a liberal arts college is the cure for everything...but then I went to the University of Oklahoma.

  • Aron Sora

    Only 85.2% of the US population has a HS degree (Source: and 27.7% of the US population has a Bachelor's degree. I think that those numbers contribute to this problem. Fix that and I think you make people a lot more logical. Maybe we could get rid of the option to dropout... But, that may cause a lot of harm, I know a really smart person who had to drop out because they got really sick. (She got around this problem by doing a home school program, she's fine now)

    Liberal arts, I think teaches critical thinking the best. But, I've been brain washed by Columbia, so I'm biased.

  • Relax Max

    I don't know, Stephanie. There's an awful lot here to deal with. At least 10 posts. But you and I write by the dump-truck load, so I understand. Impossible to comment on ALL the points you make, of course.

    You start out by mentioning the New York Times in the same breath as "intellectual integrity, and before the same (first) paragraph is finished you throw in a foreign concept called "honest political discourse," so that's a clue right off the bat that this post is going to be tough going for this poor disadvantaged anti-liberal anti-big government high school dropout. But here I am, giving it a feeble shot anyhow, eh? :)

    Next, you reference a (supposedly) serious opinion column written by humorist who is writing about ethics (this by a guy who once accepted an Emmy award that was mistakenly given to him, but never gave it back - a bit of an ethics breach for Stephanie herself for not mentioning that and for treating this columnist as an honest broker on ethics.)

    As to the lying unethical scum Republicans... how could I possibly hope to rebut the well thought-out logic of the liberal (Arts) opposition? It would be a waste of time to even try, since opposing points of view are stupid and lazy and uninformed.

    You yourself ain't nearly so bad lately, though. I do think your mind has begun to expand to new ideas and possibilities. I like that a lot. :)

    Repeat after me: big government is not the answere. Big government is not the answer. Not even to health care. Not even to...

    I see I've lost you again. :)

  • Tanisha's Place

    God, who is this Relax Maxx character? How rude!

  • Stephanie B

    Now, Relax Max, you seem to think it should matter where I read something that gets me thinking or who said it. I have quotes by people I positively despise on my list because almost anyone can say things that make sense to me. I didn't include the history of the author of this column because (a) I didn't know him and don't think I've read anything of his before and (b) I don't care. What I cared about was what he had to say. In this case, at least, I agree with him. That doesn't mean he is or isn't a crappy human being.

    And I don't agree with you on big government - and there are dozens of successful government run health care plans out there to provide me data and only our own broken system to support yours. But let me know if you get any data of your own(that isn't anecdotal).

    I've always been open to new ideas or possibilities - as long as they involve better logic, data or reasoning than my own. And, here I thought it was YOU coming around :)

  • Stephanie B

    Relax Max knows I don't mind being challenged, Tanisha. His patronizing can be irksome, but I'm learning to compensate. I think his heart is in the right place and I know he's capable of rational thought. I respect his right to think differently - and express it.

  • Relax Max

    Let me be more patient then. The PEOPLE are supposed to run things and do things. The GOVERNMENT is supposed to REGULATE and keep the insurance companies and health institutions honest.

    Because our congress is (as you stated in your post) in the pockets of special interests who represent insurance companies and the health "industry" in general, these people DON'T get properly regulated. You said you were a dreamer. You damn sure are if you think the Federal Government can run a quality and responsive health system for 300 million people. Lord!

    Yes, I have the answer. I will write about it on my blog. This heath care thing isn't going away as long as our president has it on his mind. So I may as well explain how it should be. God, Stephanie! - they haven't even passed a bill yet and ALREADY they are fighting over the pork!

    And narrow-minded people like this Tanisha person the world could do without. I hope she doesn't start hanging around here and confusing the issues.

  • Stephanie B

    RM, I don't agree with you, though I can understand where you're coming from.

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