Are Liberals Hypocritical, Especially at Colleges?

The Washington Post recently published an article describing how Charles Murray, a conservative scholar and author of The Bell Curve, met with vitriolic protests last Thursday at Middlebury College in Middlebury, VT. And not too many weeks before that, some students at Berkeley not only protested but may have been in the riots that  erupted surrounding the scheduled apeech of Milo Yiannopoulos  on campus.  I hesitate to equate these two individuals, because Milos is anything but a scholar as a former editor at Breitbart, and Murray’s book expounded that IQ and race were equated, but both drew the ire of students at liberal universities.

I can’t think of an intelligent liberal who would not support including wide ranges of research, opinions and thought, especially at a liberal college.  The whole point as I have always understood it is to be expansive in thinking and inclusive of ideas, with the theoretical goal of weeding out the whacky with concrete thinking and analysis, not by attacks of the physical kind nor shutting someone down before giving them a chance to speak.

I would bolster that argument by saying that over the course of human history, radical, socially unacceptable, and unpopular ideas and theories have ultimately been proven true and have become more than just accepted: the earth is not flat, the earth is not the center of the universe and things revolve around it, Obamacare is not equatable with death panels.

Yet, there does seem to be something more nefarious and hostile afoot today, if not in how far off a thought or theory might be, but how virulent it can be promoted and slipped into everyday conversations and acceptance.  I doubt if Copernicus or Galileo would be given grants by Congress or Trump, and we kinda know what is happening to healthcare.

Myths have become alternative facts, and outright lies have become Twitter fodder and news headlines on “that” section of the media.

Let me shift to a subject matter many  people, even liberals, hate:  Bill Maher.  Two weeks ago on Real Time, he had  Milo Yiannopoulos As a guest and last Friday Jeffrey Lord not as panelists but solo interviewees.  In both cases, he was courteous and polite but tough as nails in his questions and pretty much nailed them on the outrageous things they had to say and had said.  Whether you like him or not, if you watched those two interviews you would be impressed at his demeanor, and I submit it is the correct way to engage with – what should I call them? – different thinkers.  Don’t shun them don’t ignore them and don’t shout them down.  Do have a challenging dialogue with them, politely so if they permit it, walk away if they don’t.

A campus speaker poses a very different scenario.  They get the podium, maybe some questions and answers, but they are on stage looking down at the audience. Students asking questions may, and perhaps almost always are, angry and hostile when they hear something that sounds horrific or offense to them.  Yes, their passion is honorable in many cases, but in no case does it expose the illogical, bigoted or misguided notions some of these speakers might bring.  When viewed by conservatives – the general population, not the pundits – they see bratty spoiled rich kids or illegal looking immigrants acting out: they would like to pull them over their collective knees and spank them soundly.

When this happens it is an always-win situation for speakers like these; no matter how wrong, or bizarre, or just weird their views are, they become martyrs in the battle for mind-share that has swept this country and likely most of the world.  Logic, reason, facts and analytical thinkers are lumped into the marginalized liberal elite and lose like La La Land. Clinton, and the Atlanta Falcons did.

So what’s to be done? Never, ever ban speakers.  School administrations and faculties have to take ownership and responsibility for speaking engagements.  No invited speaker should merely have the stage to his or herself.  A faculty member or administrator (one if not more) should moderate the presentation, and they should emphasize  and enforce campus policies that demand respectful behavior, courtesy and decency to any guest.  That does not mean agreement with the ideas, acquiescence to principles or ethics. But those points can be made, as Bill Maher did, with stinging effectiveness in civil, if disagreeing, dialogs.

When students or faculty or anyone for that matter yells down someone they do not agree with and shuts out opposing ideas, nothing good comes of it.  Such behavior reinforces stereotypes, gives red meat to talk show hosts, bloggers and certain media outlets.  But most of all, it does not offer the opportunity for students to take responsibility for taking in the world around them, processing differing opinions, and learning what their own beliefs and principles are.  That is what ultimately gets shut out.

 

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Me. No, Really – ME! Your Brain at Work

Some Brain Stuff

It may be reasonable to assume just about everybody thinks of themselves as a rational, logic person,  yet each of us is most definitely not.  There is plenty of proof, what some would call pesky facts.   I hope after you read this post, you watch Brain Games, which you can watch on You Tube, or on Netflix and Amazon Prime.  Brain Games originally aired on the National Geographic Channel.

You won’t find academic scientific papers when  you watch Brain Games, but you will see and hear everyday examples that explain why what we hear, see and think is quite often detached from objective reality.  You don’t think so?  Then watch as they show us two bars of equal length, but with railroad tracks behind them.  Because the tracks are really parallel but appear to get closer and closer together the farther away we are, one bar looks very much longer than the other.  Or because of shading and shadows, two identical colors look vastly different.  Think you have a good memory? So did a handful of people who witnessed a “robbery” (done by actors) while watching a game of three card monte.  Were their memories (and yours also watching it) faulty, and worse, could they be manipulated by subtle but wrong clues?  You have to watch this episode, amazing.  Or do you think you can multi-task?  David Copperfield and other illusionists and magicians show you can’t.  But we can, in our minds, right?

This is a circuitous route to some other social science and psychology experimentation and research.  In particular, let’s consider the Ultimatum Game and the Prisoner’s Dilemma. They emerged a few decades ago in the experimental realm but quickly spread to gaming theory interpretations and practical applications like economics, war games, and likely the military (think interrogation methodologies, but I don’t know for certain).

The Prisoner’s Dilemma goes like this: two suspects who are gang members are arrested for a crime, but into rooms that are isolated from each other and have no way to communicate. Despite being in a gang, they have no allegiance one to the other.  Each are offered a deal; rat on the other one, who will get a three-year sentence but that one will  go free.  However, if both choose to rat on each other, they will both serve two year sentences.  If neither rats on the other, then they each serve a one year sentence.  What is the best strategy for each of them?

By co-operating with each other meaning both keeping quiet, they only get a one year sentence.  But selfishly, each is tempted to choose giving the other a longer sentence but avoiding one of their own.  If both choose this strategy, they both get the worst possible outcome, three years each.  Gaming theory predicts that co-operation is the logical, rational choice.  In experiments, it is rarely what players choose to do.  More astonishing is that if the same players repeat the choices successive times, the best strategy does not emerge.  Their selfish and non-rational behavior prevails.

The Ultimatum Game also involves two players.  One is given a sum of money, let’s say $100.  That player then announces how the money will be split between the two players, anywhere from $0-$100 for player one and from $0-$100 for player two.  Player two must approve the choice, otherwise neither player gets anything. You might be tempted to think that $50-$50 is the best strategy, but you would be wrong.  It is, however, the preferred choice after many different teams have played the game.  The optimum strategy, on the other hand, is for player one to suggest $99.99 to keep and $0.01 to give to player two.  Why?  Because each will have more than before the game is played. Why doesn’t that work in practice?  Well, play the game in your mind and be player 2, and then answer it yourself.

You probably came up with fairness as the reason why you wouldn’t approve the deal, right?  Why should the other person get so much more than you?  Aren’t you just as deserving?  As good a person? As logical and rational a thinker?

My early thoughts about the Ultimatum Game made me wonder:  is this a uniquely American result, or is it uniform in different cultures and different social structures? What the research has shown is that the offers themselves differ by some cultures as well as gender (men as player two seem to get better offers when women are player one, but you knew that, right?).  There is also some variation in what the threshold split is, about 20% for player two, but less than you would think.  Likely this behavior is just how our brains are making decisions for us we think we are making for ourselves.

Some Politics

How can two people hear the same speech, read the same news story, be faced with similar concerns about the welfare of themselves, their families, and their country yet have vastly different conclusions and opinions, even see the same set of facts differently?  It is our brains, not the lack of them as some would say about “the others.” In the same way a group of people can watch a robbery but remember very different things about it, and later be completely convinced that as their memories were altered by outside influences, still remain certain of what they remembered they saw, we can watch or read something political and then not remember what it was but only what someone wanted us to remember.  It happens, it is not new, and it will happen again and again.

Watch the episode of Brain Games about magic and illusions, discover how we don’t see things so obvious because we have been told to look at something else; maybe you’ll laugh at yourself when you miss the six foot tall penguin.  Now, how is it again that fake news works?

And when we vote for a candidate who gets into office and enacts measures that are against our self interests, but we still love him or her, think about how well we do at the Ultimatum Game and the Prisoner’s Dilemma.  We really don’t choose well, do we.  When we complain that we don’t want our tax dollars paying for abortions, for illegal immigrants, or for someone else’s healthcare, it’s just our sense of injustice and not being fair.  Never mind that their tax dollars pays for the roads you travel on, the police and firemen who protect you, buy the goods and services for the company where you work who provides your healthcare, and for the schools you elect not to send your kids to.  None of it, really, is fair, is it?  It’s not fair to pay taxes for FEMA unless it is your house that is flooded or destroyed by a storm.  Maybe there is a pattern here?

So when you want to rant against someone because of their political leanings and opinions, because of their religious beliefs, because of whatever it is that makes them different from you, it is literally all in their heads.  And in you head, too.

Now go watch Brain Games.  Read up on these cool games and experiments.  Science is waiting to help you understand your mind, even if you can’t control it.

 

Truth or Consequences

When I was in early junior high, I developed a crush on a girl in my class; I believe her name was Cheryl.  While I may not remember her name, I distinctly remember that I thought she was cute, and she had a more mature figure than just about any other girl in school.  Let me quickly add two key points:  first, no romance ever blossomed between us, and second, she had a younger sister with whom she did not get along.  Her younger sister and I were friendly, though, and she was the one who told me that Cheryl, or whatever her name was, wore a heavily padded bra.

Now this was amazing news to me.  My first recollection of fake news was in fact falsies, themselves fake.

I can’t identify the precise moment other fake news and news-like things dawned on me, but I had a growing sense of the disconnect between what I would later call conventional or accepted views and the nagging sense that something wasn’t quite right.  On TV, all of the married couples slept in twin beds, but when I would go to friends’ houses, none of their parents did, nor did mine.  I applied the early inklings about procreation to this deliminator and figured out that either TV couples wanted no more kids, or it was a contrived situation.

Teenage boy interest in females in the late 1950’s seem to have as its only source of visual fulfillment issues of National Geographic.  We had no real life experiences, no Internet, and not even Playboy or other later liberating publications to deliver us the images we so badly craved.  It wasn’t for a few years later that I realized National Geographic taught me more about the effects of gravity than anatomy.  A bit more fake news.

On the road to early adulthood, I had other occasions to question, and later verify to my satisfaction, other forms of fake news.  Propaganda was a word we all knew and identified with the Soviet Union, and with that bit of real news, assumed that everything from there was just fake news.  Well, maybe.  But the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and the political upheaval that took place in the 1960s provided a smorgasbord of fake news delights.  It took a long time, in most cases, for the real news to emerge and be recognized.  A bit later, Watergate, and fake, fake news as real news.

Back then, in that pre-historic time, there were people and places we could turn to and be somewhat confident that what we saw and heard was indeed truthful.  CBS News and Walter Cronkite, Jim Leher and Robert McNeil at PBS, are examples that come to mind.  Plus, when TVs were not ubiquitous but movies were, there were newsreels. Maybe a mix of fake and reliable news, but at least we got to see it with our own eyes.

Also remarkable to me was that some very real news from the era became the source of completely fake news: conspiracy theories.  No moon landing, the Kennedy assassination, on and on.  We once thought this the stuff of crazy kooks. I was always amused and delighted, in a perverse sort of way, going through the checkout lanes at the supermarket to see the headlines on tabloids:  “Mother gives birth to alien” or “Pack of wild dogs take over South American country” or – well turn on your crazy machine.  But now, how different are the tabloids from an immense pool of Internet sites?  Can it be that  the kooks outnumber the sane?  And are running things?

Has fake news always been there? I am no academic historian, but I would bet soundly it has been.  Shakespeare’s plots suggest fake news was a way to vanquish enemies, win love interests, or in other ways to gain power.  Dickens had fake news at the heart of many of his tales.  They were hardly the only writers through the ages that recognized this probably innate human trait;  it’s just the media has changed from secret parchment dispatches to smartphones.

When my daughter was a senior in high school, she came home one day and told me that one of her teachers was looking for parents to volunteer to teach a class.  Insanity gripped one, or both, of us and I found myself in front of a class of mostly bored looking and inattentive high school kids; who wouldn’t at that age be bored when someone’s dad is going to give a lecture?  What I had prepared was a slide deck that I told them consisted of 10 really astonishing things I found on the Internet.  In fact, only one was actual; the other nine I completely made up.  My intent was to make them be skeptical of Internet things, but I was wrong.  When I told them of my “fake news,” no one seemed interested or surprised.  Much less concerned. I wrote it off as teenage boredom.  Probably my second mistake.

Today we might think fake news happens when someone, or some government, puts up a web site that looks authentic and legitimate and pushes out stories that are knowingly false (like I did for my high school lecture).  Those activities, much like government sponsored propaganda from the cold war days, was intentionally designed to deceive and control what people believe.  But maybe there is a lot more to it.

The rise of conservative, and to some extent progressive, talk show hosts has blurred the lines between opinion and news facts.  When they are aggressive, loud, extreme in their opinions and didactic, few of their devotees see them as anything other than authentic and their words relate what no one else will say: the truth they have been waiting to hear.  Sure, they are biased in their beliefs and opinions (or maybe just good entertainers or both), and sure, they want to convince you of their truth, but it doesn’t a priori mean their news is fake.  At least in as much as they openly present who and what they are.  Listeners and watchers have to make judgements on whether what they hear and see is accurate.

And that is a big part of what fake news has become to mean:  my real news is your fake news and vice versa.  You may love the New York Times and believe that it is a publication that strives for fair and accurate reporting, and I may believe everything is made up to rob  me of my rights to liberty and life while I stand by Fox News as the only major media outlet who tells it like it is.  Multiply that on down the line to countless talking heads, newsletters, web sites, and stupid bloggers like me and the result is a couple of parallel universes of truth and fiction, or at least lack of fact.

There might well be other sources of fake news that are not so obvious, that may in fact be part of the divide that creates my fake and your fact:  internal voices.  In the January 9 issue of the New Yorker, the article “The Voices in Our Heads” by  Jerome Groopman discusses how he talks to himself (he is a staff writer on science and medicine) and that a lot of people do the same.  The first reaction might be to cross to the other side of the street if you saw any of them coming, but he suggests it may not always be a pejorative malady but instead part of some people’s neurobiology.  He cites the work of Charles Fernyhough, a British professor of psychology at Durham University, in England, who has researched and written on the subject and who himself has “inner voice” dialogues.

There is no conclusive evidence yet to fully understand why this is true for some people, or whether it is important (you see, real science doesn’t work like fake news although some fake news grabs onto science and connects dots not there).  But history (another fake news source?) has lots of anecdotal tales that relate to it.  Joan of Arc heard God speak and command her to lead the French in an uprising against the English rule (burning at the stake has fallen out of favor with talk show hosts I’m afraid).  The Old Testament of the Bible is replete with conversations between men and God, and Muhammad was the Prophet guided by God according to the Koran.  These contrast a bit more favorably with the guy carrying the sign about the end of the world on the street corner downtown, but we don’t know for sure.

We can be fairly certain that most people, hearing a voice certainly different from their own, coming from no discernible specific location, and whom they attribute to God or even some other strong force (any number of sci-fi movies covers this very well) wouldn’t hesitate to believe what they hear in their heads.  It’s not pathological per se, but it is understandable.  And you think there is any way you are going to convince them those internal voices are speaking fake news?

I heartily suggest reading the article at http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/01/09/the-voices-in-our-heads.  It is wide ranging, does not focus on conversations with divine entities, but instead sheds some new light on how our brains might work.  Never ever a source of anything but amazement and wonder to me.

For the foreseeable future, fake news in all its forms of delivery and acceptance is here to stay and part of the fabric of our daily lives.  Vice News did a clever video gathering clips from dozens of news shows basically joking that fake news is fake itself.  Sigh.

I love being around smart, really smart people.  There is so much to learn and know.  One of the signs I look for in really smart people is their recognition of what they don’t know.  They are humble in that regard, healthily skeptical and inquisitive.  It is, I believe, a significant part of what makes them smart.

I would like to hang out around you, so please try and be smart in that humble, inquisitive and skeptical way.