How Society Comes To Know Stuff

I read another of those “how could they vote for him?” articles today. As usual, the author offered an explanation that fit his own political and cultural leanings. But he cited an article that includes a nice summary of how an enlightened society should work. This is from “The Constitution of Knowledge” by Jonathan Rauch:

Some Americans believe Elvis Presley is alive. Should we send him a Social Security check? Many people believe that vaccines cause autism, or that Barack Obama was born in Africa, or that the murder rate has risen. Who should decide who is right? And who should decide who gets to decide?

This is the problem of social epistemology, which concerns itself with how societies come to some kind of public understanding about truth. It is a fundamental problem for every culture and country, and the attempts to resolve it go back at least to Plato, who concluded that a philosopher king (presumably someone like Plato himself) should rule over reality. Traditional tribal communities frequently use oracles to settle questions about reality. Religious communities use holy texts as interpreted by priests. Totalitarian states put the government in charge of objectivity.

There are many other ways to settle questions about reality. Most of them are terrible because they rely on authoritarianism, violence, or, usually, both. As the great American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce said in 1877, “When complete agreement could not otherwise be reached, a general massacre of all who have not thought in a certain way has proved a very effective means of settling opinion in a country.”

As Peirce implied, one way to avoid a massacre would be to attain unanimity, at least on certain core issues. No wonder we hanker for consensus. . . .

But that is not quite the right answer, either. Disagreement about core issues and even core facts is inherent in human nature and essential in a free society. If unanimity on core propositions is not possible or even desirable, what is necessary to have a functional social reality? The answer is that we need an elite consensus, and hopefully also something approaching a public consensus, on the method of validating propositions. We needn’t and can’t all agree that the same things are true, but a critical mass needs to agree on what it is we do that distinguishes truth from falsehood, and more important, on who does it.

Who can be trusted to resolve questions about objective truth? The best answer turns out to be no one in particular. The greatest of human social networks was born centuries ago, in the wake of the chaos and creedal wars that raged across Europe after the invention of the printing press (the original disruptive information technology). In reaction, experimenters and philosophers began entertaining a radical idea. They removed reality-making from the authoritarian control of priests and princes and placed it in the hands of a decentralized, globe-spanning community of critical testers who hunt for each other’s errors. In other words, they outsourced objectivity to a social network. Gradually, in the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, the network’s norms and institutions assembled themselves into a system of rules for identifying truth: a constitution of knowledge.

Though nowhere encoded in law, the constitution of knowledge has its own equivalents of checks and balances (peer review and replication), separation of powers (specialization), governing institutions (scientific societies and professional bodies), voting (citations and confirmations), and civic virtues (submit your beliefs for checking if you want to be taken seriously). The members of the community that supports and upholds the constitution of knowledge do not have to agree on facts; the whole point, indeed, is to manage their disagreements. But they do need to agree on some rules.

One rule is that any hypothesis can be floated. [Note: not any hypothesis] That’s free speech. But another rule is that a hypothesis can join reality only insofar as it persuades people after withstanding vigorous questioning and criticism. That’s social testing. Only those propositions that are broadly agreed to have withstood testing over time qualify as knowledge, and even they stand only unless and until debunked.

The community that follows these rules is defined by its values and practices, not by its borders, and it is by no means limited to scholars and scientists. It also includes journalism, the courts, law enforcement, and the intelligence community — all evidence-based professions that require competing hypotheses to be tested and justified. Its members hold themselves and each other accountable for their errors. When CNN, in 2017, fired three senior journalists for getting a story wrong, President Txxxx gloated that the “Fake News” media’s dishonesty had been exposed. (His tweet: “So they caught Fake News CNN cold, but what about NBC, CBS & ABC?”) In fact, the opposite was true: By demanding evidentiary accountability, CNN showed that, unlike Txxxx, it adheres to standards of verification.

On any given day, of course, we won’t all agree on what has or has not checked out. The speed of light is widely agreed upon, but many propositions are disputed . . .  The community that lives by the standards of verification constantly argues about itself, yet by doing so provides its members with time and space to work through their disagreements without authoritarian oversight.

The results have been spectacular, in three ways above all. First, by organizing millions of minds to tackle billions of problems, the epistemic constitution disseminates knowledge at a staggering rate. Every day, probably before breakfast, it adds more to the canon of knowledge than was accumulated in the 200,000 years of human history prior to Galileo’s time. Second, by insisting on validating truths through a decentralized, non-coercive process that forces us to convince each other with evidence and argument, it ends the practice of killing ideas by killing their proponents. What is often called the marketplace of ideas would be more accurately described as a marketplace of persuasion, because the only way to establish knowledge is to convince others you are right. Third, by placing reality under the control of no one in particular, it dethrones intellectual authoritarianism and commits liberal society foundationally to intellectual pluralism and freedom of thought.

Together, these innovations have done nothing less than transform our way of living, learning, and relating to one another.

Unquote.

Yet, according to this month’s exit polls, 92% of White Txxxx voters think climate change is not a serious problem, while 87% think the US is handling the pandemic well and wearing a mask is a personal choice, not a matter of public health.

Is there a way to share more knowledge with them? I don’t think anybody knows.

Sometimes the Internet Works For Us

Yesterday, I visited YouTube to see what the algorithms had for me and saw this video:

Brian Wilson – Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) (Demo Vocal Tracks)”

It’s 2 1/2 minutes of Brian and I guess some of the other Beach Boys performing background vocals for a beautiful song on the Pet Sounds album, my all-time favorite (and #2 in the recent Rolling Stone Top 500 — “Who’s gonna hear this shit?” Beach Boys singer Mike Love asked. . . ).

This morning, the video popped up again. While I was listening, I noticed a link to a song by Fleet Foxes, one of my favorite groups:

Fleet Foxes – Shore (Full Album) 2020 

Fleet Foxes has a new album out? I didn’t know. So I played the first track:

“Wading In Waist-High Water”

It’s beautiful. Fleet Foxes often remind me of the Beach Boys. I wondered how the new album, released in September, was being received. A search for “Fleet Foxes Shore” turned up a review from Pitchfork magazine.

On his fourth album, singer-songwriter Robin Pecknold refines and hones Fleet Foxes’ crisp folk-rock sound, crafting another musically adventurous album that is warm and newly full of grace. 

They gave the album an 8.3, which sounds high.  

As I was looking at the review, I saw this:

Elsewhere, there are explicit nods to contemporary classical music, as on “Jara,” which features hocketing by Meara O’Reilly, and “Cradling Mother, Cradling Woman,” which pairs O’Reilly with a snippet of Brian Wilson counting to resemble Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach, and, in its sampling, also recalls the early work of Steve Reich. 

A snippet of Brian Wilson counting? Well, I had to click on that.

Surprise, surprise! It turned out to be:

Brian Wilson – Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) (Demo Vocal Tracks)”

Yes, YouTube had twice recommended one of the thousands of Beach Boys/Brian Wilson videos they offer, of which I’ve watched many, and that took me to somebody else’s album, which uses part of that particular Pet Sounds session, which is in a YouTube video that’s probably getting attention because Robin Pecknold borrowed Brian Wilson counting “one-two-three-four” for his new Fleet Foxes album, Shore.

In the old days, only ten years ago, I might have quickly ordered the new Fleet Foxes CD. The internet would have succeeded in selling me something. But since CD technology is fast disappearing and I almost never play one except in our 16-year old car, there’s no rush. I can play the whole thing on Spotify and see if I want a copy for the car. 

Was I manipulated? Sure. Were a few more bytes of my data stored away in Google’s innards, only to be mined for heaven knows what purposes? Yeah. But sometimes it’s nice to be a tiny cog in a vast machine, even something to be a little bit thankful for.

Trying To Fill the Void This Thanksgiving

Since we don’t have a real president at this point, Joe Biden is trying to fill the void. I don’t think a president-elect has ever addressed the nation like this, two months before Inauguration Day. His remarks were covered live by all the TV networks. They’re worth hearing.

President-elect Joe Biden Thanksgiving Address – YouTube

Escaping Facebook Hell

Charlie Warzel of The New York Times monitored two average people’s Facebook feeds. It was as bad as you’d expect, but his article suggests solutions to the problem:

In mid-October I asked two people I’d never met to give me their Facebook account passwords for three weeks leading up to and after Election Day. I wanted to immerse myself in the feeds of a type of person who has become a trope of sorts in our national discussion about politics and disinformation: baby boomers with an attachment to polarizing social media.

I went looking for older Americans — not full-blown conspiracy theorists, trolls or partisan activists — whose news consumption has increased sharply in the last few years on Facebook. Neither of the two people I settled on described themselves as partisans. Both used to identify as conservatives slowly drifting leftward until Dxxxx Txxxx’s takeover of the Republican Party offered a final push. Both voted for Joe Biden this year in part because of his promise to reach across the aisle. Both bemoaned the toxicity of our current politics.

Every day, Jim Young, 62, opens up his Facebook app and heads into an information hellscape. His news feed is a dizzying mix of mundane middle-class American life and high-octane propaganda.

Here’s a sample:

A set of adoring grandparents posing with rosy-cheeked babies. “Mimi and Pop Pop’s first visit since March,” the post reads.

Next, a meme of Joe Biden next to a photoshopped “for sale” sign. “For more information contact Hunter,” the sign reads.

After that is a post advertising a “Funny rude” metal sign displaying a unicorn in a tutu giving the middle finger. “Thought of you,” the post reads.

Below that is a screenshot of a meme created by the pro-Txxxx group Turning Points USA. “Your city on socialism,” the post reads, displaying a series of photos of abandoned buildings, empty grocery store shelves and bleeding men in makeshift, dirty hospital beds.

The feed goes on like this — an infinite scroll of content without context. Touching family moments are interspersed with Bible quotes that look like Hallmark cards, hyperpartisan fearmongering and conspiratorial misinformation. Mr. Young’s news feed is, in a word, a nightmare. I know because I spent the last three weeks living inside it.

Despite Facebook’s reputation as a leading source for conspiracy theories and misinformation, what goes on in most average Americans’ news feeds is nearly impossible for outsiders to observe. . . .

After years of reading about the ways that Facebook is radicalizing and polarizing people I wanted to see it for myself — not in the aggregate, but up close and over time. What I observed is a platform that gathered our past and present friendships, colleagues, acquaintances and hobbies and slowly turned them into primary news sources. And made us miserable in the process. . . .

Mr. Young joined Facebook in 2008 as a way to reconnect with his high school classmates from Illinois. He reunited quickly with old friends and neighbors. It was exciting to see how people had changed. . . .

It was a little voyeuristic, nostalgic and harmless fun. Before 2016, Mr. Young told me, he’d see the occasional heated disagreement. It wasn’t until the last few years that his feed really started to turn divisive.

He first noticed it in the comments, where discussions that would usually end in some version of “agree to disagree” exploded into drawn-out, conspiratorial comment threads. Political disagreements started to read like dispatches from an alternate reality. He didn’t enjoy fact-checking his friends or picking fights, but when a post appeared obviously untrue he had to say something.

His time on the site ticked upward.

“It’s like going by a car wreck. You don’t want to look, but you have to,” he said. He believes his feed is a perfect storm for conflict in part because he’s lived in both liberal and conservative areas of the country and throughout his life he’s lived, worked with and befriended all manner of liberals and conservatives. . . .

But then he noticed some of his friends start to post more political memes, often with no link or citation. When he’d try to verify one, he’d realize the post was fake or debunked by a news site. “Most times there’s no real debate. Just anger. They’re so closed-minded. Sometimes, it scares me.”

Scrolling through Mr. Young’s feed after Election Day, I found a number of these posts.

Many examples of misinformation came from Facebook text posts created and shared by Mr. Young’s friends repeating baseless voter-fraud claims, [for example, one claiming] the number of votes in Wisconsin exceeded the number of registered voters (with no links to these numbers or any authoritative news source).

On Nov. 5, one of Mr. Young’s friends posted about “something fishy” alongside a link to a Bing search. The link returned a page of information about voters having ballots thrown out after using Sharpies to fill them out, including a link to a Facebook post on #Sharpiegate with over 137,000 shares.

One featured a screenshot from a Fox 2 Detroit news broadcast with the banner “Detroit Voter Roll Lawsuit.” The screenshot alleged potential voter fraud. “And so it begins!” the friend wrote. According to a Snopes debunk, the segment actually aired in December 2019 and had nothing to do with the 2020 election.

Another text post suggested that people shouldn’t trust Facebook’s fact checkers. “When the fact checkers are controlled by the same people doing the lying, what do you call it?” the post read. Below, commenters sounded off. “Democrats,” one exclaimed.. . . .

Mr. Young’s feed stood in stark contrast to the other Facebook account I spent time in. That feed belongs to Karen Pierce, a 55-year-old schoolteacher from Virginia. Ms. Pierce described herself to me as a “middle-child peacekeeper who is uncomfortable with politics.”

Unlike Mr. Young, she is not politically active on Facebook and never intervenes, even when she sees things she thinks might be conspiratorial or fake. As a result, her feed surfaced less politically charged content. The day after the election, the first post I noticed from a friend in her feed was a simple, apolitical exclamation: “It’s official! I make a damn good pot of stew!”

The political posts that appeared in Ms. Pierce’s feed were mostly anodyne statements of support for the Biden-Harris campaign peppered in between comments from fellow teachers frustrated by remote learning and an avalanche of cute dog photos and memes. Occasionally, a meme popped up mentioning Hunter Biden’s laptop, but most lacked the vitriol or the contentious commenter debates of Mr. Young’s feed.

Yet, in my conversations with Ms. Pierce over the last month, she expressed just as much frustration with her experience on Facebook as Mr. Young. “It’s so extreme,” she told me in mid-October. “I’ve watched people go from debating the issue to coming up with the craziest thing they can say to get attention. Take the whole anti-abortion debate. People started talking, then started saying ‘if you vote for Biden you’re a murderer.’ Now there’s people posting graphic pictures of fetuses.”

When I told her I hadn’t seen anything that extreme on her page, she suggested it was because of a three-month break she took from the platform this summer. “It got to be too much with the pandemic and the politics,” she said. The final straw was seeing people in her feed post QAnon adjacent memes and content. “There was a lot of calling Biden a pedophile. Or Txxxx voters posting pictures with assault rifles. It made me very uncomfortable.”

Like millions of Americans, Ms. Pierce logs onto Facebook to feel more connected. “I use it to see how people are doing,” she said. “I believe in prayer and sometimes I check to see who is struggling and to see who to pray for. And then, of course, you see some news and read some articles.”

It was when she was using the platform for news that she started seeing disturbing, conspiracy posts from people in her network. “It was so disappointing to realize the hate that’s out there,” she said. . . .

She’s worried about the long-term effects of such a toxic environment. “I think it’s affecting the mood of everybody.”

Living inside the Facebook account of strangers — even with their permission — feels invasive, like poking around in their medicine cabinet. But it offered me a unique perspective. Two things stood out. The first is the problem of comments, where strangers, even in the most mundane of articles, launched into intense, acrimonious infighting. In most cases, commenters bypassed argumentation for convenient name-calling or escalated a civil discussion by posting contextless claims with no links or source. In many cases, it appeared that a post from one user would get shared by a friend into his or her network, where it would [attract] strangers.

The more I scrolled through them, the more comments felt like a central and intractable issue. Unlike links to outside articles, comments aren’t subject to third-party fact checks or outside moderation. They are largely invisible to those people who study or attempt to police the platform.

Yet in my experience they were a primary source of debunked claims, harassment and divisive rhetoric. I showed one comment thread to a colleague who doesn’t use Facebook and my colleague found it shocking. “Facebook created a town hall for fighting,” they said. “It’s almost like if you were building a machine to make a country divisive and extreme — if you were to sit down and plan what that would look like —- it would be this.”

[Facebook’s] evolution, from a friendly social networking site into the world’s largest information platform, is the source of its biggest problems.

Sifting through Mr. Young and Ms. Pierce’s feeds and talking to them about what I saw, it became clear that the two found themselves tormented as a result of decisions they made in their early days on the platform. Both explained that they joined to reconnect with old friends.

Like most of us, they gave little thought to the connections they made. Mr. Young added friends he hadn’t spoken to in decades. When Ms. Pierce joined a nonprofit organization she accepted dozens of friend requests — some from people she’d met only in passing. “I meet people on airplanes all the time and we exchange Facebook handles,” she told me.

But as Facebook evolved, these weak connections became unlikely information nodes. Mr. Young and Ms. Pierce were now getting their commentary from people they hardly knew, whose politics had once been unknown or illegible.

“When Facebook first started it made me feel so good. It feels like I signed up for one thing and it’s become something totally different,” Ms. Pierce said. . . .

Joan Donovan, the research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy . . . , described this phenomenon as what happens when “social-networking sites transformed into social media,” creating “a digital economy built on engagement.” Dr. Donovan argues that this decision spawned the algorithmic echo chambers we now live in and created a fertile environment for our information crisis.

For Mr. Young, the fallout of these decisions is painful. After weeks of watching his feed, I presented him with some of the most notorious posters in his feed. When I read aloud the name of one Facebook friend who constantly shared debunked claims, often with language intended to provoke, he sighed. He described the person as a longtime friend and neighbor who was once so close they practically lived at each other’s houses. Now, he spends his time debating whether it’s worth the energy to stop the friend from sharing conspiracy theories. . . .

The psychological toll of watching friends lose touch with reality has both Mr. Young and Ms. Pierce re-evaluating their choice to spend so much time on the platform. Mr. Young, for his part, tried to stay off during election week; Ms. Pierce is heartened that her feed has become less toxic after her Facebook sabbatical and is planning another. “My emotional and mental state improves greatly the further away I get from this place,” she told me.

Even if both manage to stay away from Facebook for good, their stories are just two in a sea of billions. No story is the same because no feed is the same. And yet these same dynamics that tortured my two participants — a sea of contextless news and acrimonious comments revealing their neighbors’ worst selves — are on display for millions of Americans every day. . . .

Unquote.

So what can be done?

  1. CLOSE YOUR FACEBOOK ACCOUNT. IT’S THE EASIEST AND MOST EFFECTIVE SOLUTION.
  2. UNFOLLOW EVERYONE YOU AREN’T CLOSE TO OR WHO SENDS YOU CRAP.
  3. DON’T READ THE COMMENTS, UNLESS THE SUBJECT IS CATS OR DOGS.

One thing Facebook could do is close the accounts of the people whose lies are shared the most. Researchers have found that a small group of social media accounts are responsible for the spread of a disproportionate amount of false information [New York Times].

But since Facebook has no morality and Republicans revel in the lying, see the list above, especially item 1.

White Christian Supremacy Is A Prime Motivator

I didn’t check his math, but Dana Milbank of The Washington Post highlights the importance  to the Republican Party of White evangelical voters:

White evangelicals are only 15 percent of the population, but their share of the electorate was 28 percent, according to Edison Research exit polling, and 23 percent, according to the Associated Press version. Though exit polls are imprecise, it seems clear that White evangelicals maintained the roughly 26 percent proportion of the electorate they’ve occupied since 2008, even though their proportion of the population has steadily shrunk from 21 percent in 2008.

This means White evangelicals turned out in mind-boggling numbers. Because they maintained their roughly 80 percent support for Republicans (76 percent and 81 percent in the two exit polls) of recent years, it also means some 40 percent of Txxxx voters came from a group that is only 15 percent of America.

White evangelicals have, in effect, skewed the electorate by masking the rise of a young, multiracial and largely secular voting population. The White evangelicals’ overperformance also shows, unfortunately, why the racist appeal Txxxx made in this campaign was effective. White evangelicals were fired up like no other group by Txxxx’s encouragement of white supremacy.

A Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary graduate who now runs the Public Religion Research Institute, Robert P. Jones, argues that Txxxx inspired White Christians, “not despite, but through appeals to white supremacy,” attracting them not because of economics or morality, “but rather that he evoked powerful fears about the loss of White Christian dominance” . . .

The Republicans’ Southern strategy stoked White resentment for decades but never as overtly as Txxxx did. White evangelicals responded passionately: Pre-election, 90 percent said they were certain to vote, and nearly half of those voting for Txxxx said virtually nothing he could do would shake their approval. There was little evidence of differences among White evangelicals by gender, generation or education.

They are, as a group, dying out (median age in the late 50s), and their views are hardly recognizable to many other Americans. Majorities of White evangelical Protestants don’t see the pandemic as a critical issue (they’re less likely than others to wear masks), believe society has become too “soft and feminine,” oppose same-sex marriage, think Txxxx was called by God to lead and don’t believe he encouraged white supremacist groups.

White evangelicals have become, in essence, an offshore island, one whose inhabitants are slowly but steadily distancing themselves from the American mainland. The fading Island of White Evangelica will, eventually, lose its influence over America. In the meantime, its existence points to an unfortunate, larger reality. There is vanishingly little that Democrats (or Republicans, for that matter) can do to persuade voters to switch sides, because race, and views on race, are the most important factors determining how people vote. Add to the White evangelicals’ turnout the votes of the smaller proportions of White mainline Protestants and Catholics with high levels of racial resentment, as defined by the American Values Survey, and you’ve accounted for the bulk of Txxxx’s coalition.

I was startled this week when, during a conversation with a prominent figure in Democratic circles, he blurted out to me: “People who want to live in a white supremacist society vote Republican. Those who don’t vote Democrat.” That’s hyperbolic, of course. Democrats are frustrated that four years of chaos and calamity and herculean efforts and expenditures by Democrats did so little to dent Txxxx’s share of the vote.

But his exaggeration contains a grain of truth. Americans are deeply, and for the moment immutably, divided by whether or not they’re nostalgic for what had long been a White-dominated country. Txxxx’s better-than-expected showing, particularly among White evangelicals, . . . shows that he turned out more of the nostalgic.