Tag Archives: stupidity

Fake News: Who’s Too Blame?

alien-abduction-waltonShould we blame the creative originators of fake news, conspiracy theories, disinformation and click-bait hype? Or, should we blame the media for disseminating, spinning and aggrandizing these stories for their own profit or political motives? Or, should we blame us — the witless consumers.

I subscribe to the opinion that all three constituencies share responsibility — it’s very much a symbiotic relationship.

James Warren chief media writer for Poynter has a different opinion; he lays the blame squarely at the feet of gullible and unquestioning citizens. He makes a very compelling argument.

Perhaps if any educated political scholars remain several hundred years from now, they’ll hold the US presidential election of 2016 as the culmination of a process where lazy stupidity triumphed over healthy skepticism and reason.

From Hive:

The rise of “fake news” inspires the press to uncover its many practitioners worldwide, discern its economics and herald the alleged guilt-ridden soul-searching by its greatest enablers, Facebook and Google.

But the media dances around another reality with the dexterity of Beyonce, Usher and septuagenarian Mick Jagger: the stupidity of a growing number of Americans.

So thanks to Neal Gabler for taking to Bill Moyers’ website to pen, “Who’s Really to Blame for Fake News.” (Moyers)

Fake news, of course, “is an assault on the very principle of truth itself: a way to upend the reference points by which mankind has long operated. You could say, without exaggeration, that fake news is actually an attempt to reverse the Enlightenment. And because a democracy relies on truth — which is why dystopian writers have always described how future oligarchs need to undermine it — fake news is an assault on democracy as well.”

Gabler is identified here as the author of five books, without mentioning any. Well, one is 1995’s Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity. It’s a superb look at Walter Winchell, the man who really invented the gossip column and wound up with a readership and radio audience of 50 million, or two-thirds of the then-population, as he helped create our modern media world of privacy-invading gossip and personal destruction as entertainment.

“What is truly horrifying is that fake news is not the manipulation of an unsuspecting public,” Gabler writes of our current mess. “Quite the opposite. It is willful belief by the public. In effect, the American people are accessories in their own disinformation campaign. That is our current situation, and it is no sure thing that either truth or democracy survives.”

Think of it. The goofy stories, the lies, the conspiracy theories that now routinely gain credibility among millions who can’t be bothered to read a newspaper or decent digital site and can’t differentiate between Breitbart and The New York Times. Ask all those pissed-off Trump loyalists in rural towns to name their two U.S. senators.

We love convincing ourselves of the strengths of democracy, including the inevitable collective wisdom setting us back on a right track if ever we go astray. And while the media may hold itself out as cultural anthropologists in explaining the “anger” or “frustration” of “real people,” as is the case after Donald Trump’s election victory, we won’t really underscore rampant illiteracy and incomprehension.

So read Gabler. “Above all else, fake news is a lazy person’s news. It provides passive entertainment, demanding nothing of us. And that is a major reason we now have a fake news president.”

Read the entire essay here.

Image: Artist’s conception of an alien spacecraft tractor-beaming a human victim. Courtesy: unknown artist, Wikipedia. Public Domain.

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Occam’s Razor For a Trumpian World

William_of_OckhamOccam’s razor (or Ockham’s razor) is a principle from philosophy popularized by 14th century philosopher and logician William of Ockham.

Put simply, it states that if there are two or more explanations for a possible occurrence, the simplest explanation is usually the best. That is, the more assumptions required for a possible hypothesis, the less likely is the explanation for that hypothesis.

While Occam’s razor has been found to apply reasonably well in the philosophy of science and more generally, it is not infallible. So, in this 21st century, it’s time to give Occam’s razor a much needed, fresh coat of paint. Further, it also requires an update to make it 100 percent accurate and logically water-tight.

So, let me present Trump’s razor. It goes like this:

Ascertain the stupidest possible scenario that can be reconciled with the available facts and that answer is likely correct.

Unfortunately I can’t lay claim to this brilliant new tool of logic. Thanks go to the great folks over at Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall and John Scalzi.

Read their insightful proposal here.

Image: William of Ockham, from stained glass window at a church in Surrey. Courtesy: Wikipedia. Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0.

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Social Media Metes Out Social (Networking) Justice

Before the age of Facebook and Twitter if you were to say something utterly stupid, bigoted, sexist or racist among a small group of friends or colleagues it would, usually, have gone no further. Some members of your audience may have chastised you, while others may have agreed or ignored you. But then the comment would have been largely forgotten.

This is no longer so in our age of social networking and constant inter-connectedness. Our technologies distribute, repeat and amplify our words and actions, which now seem to take on lives of their very own. Love it or hate it — welcome to the age of social networking justice — a 21st century digital pillory.

Say something stupid or do something questionable today — and you’re likely to face a consequential backlash that stretches beyond the present and into your future. Just take the case of Justine Sacco.

From NYT:

As she made the long journey from New York to South Africa, to visit family during the holidays in 2013, Justine Sacco, 30 years old and the senior director of corporate communications at IAC, began tweeting acerbic little jokes about the indignities of travel. There was one about a fellow passenger on the flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport:

“?‘Weird German Dude: You’re in First Class. It’s 2014. Get some deodorant.’ — Inner monologue as I inhale BO. Thank God for pharmaceuticals.”

Then, during her layover at Heathrow:

“Chilly — cucumber sandwiches — bad teeth. Back in London!”

And on Dec. 20, before the final leg of her trip to Cape Town:

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

She chuckled to herself as she pressed send on this last one, then wandered around Heathrow’s international terminal for half an hour, sporadically checking her phone. No one replied, which didn’t surprise her. She had only 170 Twitter followers.

Sacco boarded the plane. It was an 11-hour flight, so she slept. When the plane landed in Cape Town and was taxiing on the runway, she turned on her phone. Right away, she got a text from someone she hadn’t spoken to since high school: “I’m so sorry to see what’s happening.” Sacco looked at it, baffled.

Then another text: “You need to call me immediately.” It was from her best friend, Hannah. Then her phone exploded with more texts and alerts. And then it rang. It was Hannah. “You’re the No. 1 worldwide trend on Twitter right now,” she said.

Sacco’s Twitter feed had become a horror show. “In light of @Justine-Sacco disgusting racist tweet, I’m donating to @care today” and “How did @JustineSacco get a PR job?! Her level of racist ignorance belongs on Fox News. #AIDS can affect anyone!” and “I’m an IAC employee and I don’t want @JustineSacco doing any communications on our behalf ever again. Ever.” And then one from her employer, IAC, the corporate owner of The Daily Beast, OKCupid and Vimeo: “This is an outrageous, offensive comment. Employee in question currently unreachable on an intl flight.” The anger soon turned to excitement: “All I want for Christmas is to see @JustineSacco’s face when her plane lands and she checks her inbox/voicemail” and “Oh man, @JustineSacco is going to have the most painful phone-turning-on moment ever when her plane lands” and “We are about to watch this @JustineSacco bitch get fired. In REAL time. Before she even KNOWS she’s getting fired.”

The furor over Sacco’s tweet had become not just an ideological crusade against her perceived bigotry but also a form of idle entertainment. Her complete ignorance of her predicament for those 11 hours lent the episode both dramatic irony and a pleasing narrative arc. As Sacco’s flight traversed the length of Africa, a hashtag began to trend worldwide: #HasJustineLandedYet. “Seriously. I just want to go home to go to bed, but everyone at the bar is SO into #HasJustineLandedYet. Can’t look away. Can’t leave” and “Right, is there no one in Cape Town going to the airport to tweet her arrival? Come on, Twitter! I’d like pictures #HasJustineLandedYet.”

A Twitter user did indeed go to the airport to tweet her arrival. He took her photograph and posted it online. “Yup,” he wrote, “@JustineSacco HAS in fact landed at Cape Town International. She’s decided to wear sunnies as a disguise.”

By the time Sacco had touched down, tens of thousands of angry tweets had been sent in response to her joke. Hannah, meanwhile, frantically deleted her friend’s tweet and her account — Sacco didn’t want to look — but it was far too late. “Sorry @JustineSacco,” wrote one Twitter user, “your tweet lives on forever.”

Read the entire article here.

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Text Stops. LOL

Another sign that some humans are devoid of common sense comes courtesy of New York. The state is designating around 100 traffic rest stops as “Text Stops”. So, drivers — anxious to get in a spontaneous email fix or tweet while behind the wheel — can now text to their thumbb’s content without imperiling the lives of others or themselves.

Perhaps this signals the demise of the scenic rest stop, only to be replaced by zones where drivers can update their digital status and tweet about reality without actually experiencing it. This is also a sign that evolution is being circumvented by artificially protecting those who lack common sense.

From ars technica:

Yesterday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a new initiative to stop drivers from texting on the road—turn rest areas into “Text Stops” and put up signage that lets people know how many miles they’ll have to hold off on tweeting that witty tweet.

91 rest stops, Park-n-Ride facilities, and parking areas along the New York State Thruway and State Highways will now become special texting zones for motorists who may not have noticed the wayside spots before. WBNG (a local news site) lists the locations of all 91 Text Stops.

“We are always looking at new and better ways to make the highway even safer,” Thruway Authority Executive Director Thomas J. Madison said yesterday, according to WBNG. “Governor Cuomo’s Text Stops initiative is an excellent way for drivers to stay in touch while recognizing the dangers of using mobile devices while driving.”

In total, 289 new signs will alert motorists of the new texting zone locations. The signs advertising the re-purposed zones will be bright blue and will feature messages like “It Can Wait” and the number of miles until the next opportunity to pull over. The state is cracking down on texting in terms of fines as well—the penalty for texting and driving recently increased to $150 and five points on your license, according to BetaBeat. WBNG also notes that in the summer of 2013, New York saw a 365 percent increase in tickets issued for distracted driving.

Read the entire article here, but don’t re-tweet it while driving.

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The Benefits of Human Stupidity

Human intelligence is a wonderful thing. At both the individual and collective level it drives our complex communication, our fundamental discoveries and inventions, and impressive and accelerating progress. Intelligence allows us to innovate, to design, to build; and it underlies our superior capacity, over other animals, for empathy, altruism, art, and social and cultural evolution. Yet, despite our intellectual abilities and seemingly limitless potential, we humans still do lots of stupid things. Why is this?

From New Scientist:

“EARTH has its boundaries, but human stupidity is limitless,” wrote Gustave Flaubert. He was almost unhinged by the fact. Colourful fulminations about his fatuous peers filled his many letters to Louise Colet, the French poet who inspired his novel Madame Bovary. He saw stupidity everywhere, from the gossip of middle-class busybodies to the lectures of academics. Not even Voltaire escaped his critical eye. Consumed by this obsession, he devoted his final years to collecting thousands of examples for a kind of encyclopedia of stupidity. He died before his magnum opus was complete, and some attribute his sudden death, aged 58, to the frustration of researching the book.

Documenting the extent of human stupidity may itself seem a fool’s errand, which could explain why studies of human intellect have tended to focus on the high end of the intelligence spectrum. And yet, the sheer breadth of that spectrum raises many intriguing questions. If being smart is such an overwhelming advantage, for instance, why aren’t we all uniformly intelligent? Or are there drawbacks to being clever that sometimes give slower thinkers the upper hand? And why are even the smartest people prone to – well, stupidity?

It turns out that our usual measures of intelligence – particularly IQ – have very little to do with the kind of irrational, illogical behaviours that so enraged Flaubert. You really can be highly intelligent, and at the same time very stupid. Understanding the factors that lead clever people to make bad decisions is beginning to shed light on many of society’s biggest catastrophes, including the recent economic crisis. More intriguingly, the latest research may suggest ways to evade a condition that can plague us all.

The idea that intelligence and stupidity are simply opposing ends of a single spectrum is a surprisingly modern one. The Renaissance theologian Erasmus painted Folly – or Stultitia in Latin – as a distinct entity in her own right, descended from the god of wealth and the nymph of youth; others saw it as a combination of vanity, stubbornness and imitation. It was only in the middle of the 18th century that stupidity became conflated with mediocre intelligence, says Matthijs van Boxsel, a Dutch historian who has written many books about stupidity. “Around that time, the bourgeoisie rose to power, and reason became a new norm with the Enlightenment,” he says. “That put every man in charge of his own fate.”

Modern attempts to study variations in human ability tended to focus on IQ tests that put a single number on someone’s mental capacity. They are perhaps best recognised as a measure of abstract reasoning, says psychologist Richard Nisbett at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “If you have an IQ of 120, calculus is easy. If it’s 100, you can learn it but you’ll have to be motivated to put in a lot of work. If your IQ is 70, you have no chance of grasping calculus.” The measure seems to predict academic and professional success.

Various factors will determine where you lie on the IQ scale. Possibly a third of the variation in our intelligence is down to the environment in which we grow up – nutrition and education, for example. Genes, meanwhile, contribute more than 40 per cent of the differences between two people.

These differences may manifest themselves in our brain’s wiring. Smarter brains seem to have more efficient networks of connections between neurons. That may determine how well someone is able to use their short-term “working” memory to link disparate ideas and quickly access problem-solving strategies, says Jennie Ferrell, a psychologist at the University of the West of England in Bristol. “Those neural connections are the biological basis for making efficient mental connections.”

This variation in intelligence has led some to wonder whether superior brain power comes at a cost – otherwise, why haven’t we all evolved to be geniuses? Unfortunately, evidence is in short supply. For instance, some proposed that depression may be more common among more intelligent people, leading to higher suicide rates, but no studies have managed to support the idea. One of the only studies to report a downside to intelligence found that soldiers with higher IQs were more likely to die during the second world war. The effect was slight, however, and other factors might have skewed the data.

Intellectual wasteland

Alternatively, the variation in our intelligence may have arisen from a process called “genetic drift”, after human civilisation eased the challenges driving the evolution of our brains. Gerald Crabtree at Stanford University in California is one of the leading proponents of this idea. He points out that our intelligence depends on around 2000 to 5000 constantly mutating genes. In the distant past, people whose mutations had slowed their intellect would not have survived to pass on their genes; but Crabtree suggests that as human societies became more collaborative, slower thinkers were able to piggyback on the success of those with higher intellect. In fact, he says, someone plucked from 1000 BC and placed in modern society, would be “among the brightest and most intellectually alive of our colleagues and companions” (Trends in Genetics, vol 29, p 1).

This theory is often called the “idiocracy” hypothesis, after the eponymous film, which imagines a future in which the social safety net has created an intellectual wasteland. Although it has some supporters, the evidence is shaky. We can’t easily estimate the intelligence of our distant ancestors, and the average IQ has in fact risen slightly in the immediate past. At the very least, “this disproves the fear that less intelligent people have more children and therefore the national intelligence will fall”, says psychologist Alan Baddeley at the University of York, UK.

In any case, such theories on the evolution of intelligence may need a radical rethink in the light of recent developments, which have led many to speculate that there are more dimensions to human thinking than IQ measures. Critics have long pointed out that IQ scores can easily be skewed by factors such as dyslexia, education and culture. “I would probably soundly fail an intelligence test devised by an 18th-century Sioux Indian,” says Nisbett. Additionally, people with scores as low as 80 can still speak multiple languages and even, in the case of one British man, engage in complex financial fraud. Conversely, high IQ is no guarantee that a person will act rationally – think of the brilliant physicists who insist that climate change is a hoax.

It was this inability to weigh up evidence and make sound decisions that so infuriated Flaubert. Unlike the French writer, however, many scientists avoid talking about stupidity per se – “the term is unscientific”, says Baddeley. However, Flaubert’s understanding that profound lapses in logic can plague the brightest minds is now getting attention. “There are intelligent people who are stupid,” says Dylan Evans, a psychologist and author who studies emotion and intelligence.

Read the entire article after the jump.

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