Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Confirmation Bias

I grew up in a different world than today. My teachers at the college prep school that I went to taught me how to have a reasoned debate. That skill seems to be lost today. In speech/debate class we'd be assigned a topic and a side to take. As time went on, our teacher learned our individual opinions and assigned us the opposite position to defend. If I were unable to defend the antithetical viewpoint, he would say, "It sounds like you don't have enough information to justify the opinion you have." The point being, unless you really understand the opposing views, you don't understand your own.

Holding an opinion that you are uneducated about is okay, as long as your mind remains open as you investigate further. Closing your mind to more information, particularly that which disagrees with you, is the hallmark of those who are doomed to living in ignorance and prejudice. Even scientists are vulnerable to this problem of only paying attention to results that agree with their hypotheses, it is called confirmation bias and it is the reason that no scientific experiment is accepted until after peer review, including review of the methods and data of the original experiment and a repetition of the experiment by a team who disagrees with the hypotheses.

It used to be that journalism was held to a similar standard. Before a story could be reported, facts had to be checked and opposing viewpoints had to be given at least some air time. Then came the 70s and the best journalists all retired from the broadcast media and the print media became almost exclusively anti-establishment. Journalism began a rapid decline into investigation to confirm the suspicions of the reporters, editors and owners of the networks. With one-sided stories being reported in the mainstream media, our educational institutions began a similar decline, even in the realms of science education. As a result, very few come out of our universities knowing how to adequately form a solid opinion. Those who don't attend a university have very little hope, since our high schools don't even try to teach the acquisition of knowledge.

This sorry state does not stop us from being surrounded by people with opinions that they are all too happy to share. Talk Radio is the only profitable category out there. The generally liberal bias of the media has spawned FoxNews as counterpoint. FoxNews has spawned those who feel a need to respond to it. TEA parties sprout up to respond... and it never ends.

I have relatives, friends, colleagues and acquaintances who only watch CNN, MSNBC and other decidedly liberal outlets. That these folks cannot see that bias is merely evidence of their own lack of perspective. Those same people think that Michael Moore's movies were fair and balanced. They criticize Clinton for being too centrist and anything associated with Bush II is the worst thing that has happened to the modern world. They also cannot understand the existence of TEA parties or why anyone would object to universal health care. And, since they are unwilling to listen to any opinion that differs with theirs, they never will understand. All they will do is become more and more frustrated with those who disagree with the only sound position there is.

I have other relatives, friends, colleagues and acquaintances who only listen to FoxNews, Rush Limbaugh, Christian Radio and other decidedly conservative outlets. These folks exhibit the same bigotry as the liberals I mentioned above. They think that Glenn Beck is the one voice of reason out there, that the President and Congress are out to get us and that universal health care will be the end of the world as we know it.

Each of these groups cannot abide listening to the opinions of others with any attempt to actually hear what they have to say. They only listen long enough to find something to attack about or to give them a good reason to quit listening. Without a listening ear, they are doomed to reinforce their own prejudices since confirmation bias will only serve to strengthen their already entrenched positions. We are locked in intellectual trench warfare, neither side can really advance, yet neither wants to retreat. How do we break this impasse?

Some even go so far as to break friendships and discontinue relations with their relatives because they don't like politics and they no longer want to deal with it. Of course, they also refuse to acknowledge that it is exactly their politics that is causing their stress and is separating them from the relationships that would help heal their wounded souls.

If it were just these politics that caused the problems between people, we could easily hide our problems by just avoiding that topic. Unfortunately, the problem is our loss of ability to carry on an informed discussion. In order to hold these discussions, we have to be able to speak the language of the other side and continue to converse without deprecation nor accusation.

That this is true is evident in other topics besides pure politics. We have politicized science in our discussions of global warming: some argue with the clear evidence that average temperatures are going up and have been for a while. Others take the timing as incontrovertible evidence that the warming is anthropogenic, even the climatologists, supposedly scientists, are falling for the common logic fallacy: post hoc ergo propter hoc (after which, therefore because of which). Neither side wants to say, "I'm not sure." Conservationists want the results that reducing carbon output will bring, irrespective of whether it is causative or not, therefore they do not want to listen to nor support anything that might show other sources of the warming. Those who see the impact these measures will have on our economy don't want to take the bitter pill until we are sure of the diagnosis. Of course, since our level of debate doesn't allow for such a reasoned position, they choose to question the climatological studies. Back to the trenches, men!

A similar breakdown is happening with religious discourse. While it has always been considered bad manners to speak of particular religions, their tenets and doctrines in polite company, there has historically been a tolerance of the existence of religion, indeed an assumption that most people are religious is built into our foundational documents. Since the mid 20th century, society has been growing less and less tolerant of the existence of religion. In response, Christianity in America has become much more fundamentalist, and on the world stage, radical Islam has arisen. Scientists like Sir Richard Dawkins rally radical atheism to attack religion. Sadly, none of these parties gives one moment study to find out the positions of the other side. A friend who is the pastor of an evangelical church in my area only spends enough time studying any other religion so he can demonstrate its fallacies to his flock. Although Mohamed encouraged coexistence with Christians and Jews to his followers, his nephews and subsequent generations have found it more profitable to sew dissension. Dawkins and his ilk take the perspective that the religious experience they were exposed to as a child is the sum total of religion, so their arguments seem very childish to those of a different tradition. Dig in, we're in it for the long haul!

In the end, unless we can learn to get back to informed discussion, we are condemned to shouting matches that go nowhere, unless the "tyranny of the majority" takes over and a portion of the populace justifiably feels disenfranchised. We must break this cycle before it leads to unfortunate reactions on the part of those who are losing their rights. Breaking the cycle begins with educating ourselves, since our schools are failing in that area.

Friday, September 11, 2009

What's the Word?... Oh Yeah, HYPOCRISY

As I sit in the Boston Logan airport, I have a lot of things on my mind. But the one thing that keeps bubbling to the surface is all of the hypocrisy I witnessed this week. Before I start, I want to establish something about myself politically: I don't consider myself a member of any of the parties in the American political process. I disagree at a very fundamental level with absolutely every party out there. I also have some strong agreements with both of the political parties that actually mean anything (Democrats and Republicans), but partisan politics and its rhetoric leave me cold. My comments here are as an interested outsider.

Being in Boston this week, I was in the front row to see a cynical display of hypocrisy in how the state is going to deal with the death of Ted Kennedy. Eight years ago, when they had a Republican governor and one of their senators, John Kerry, was running for vice-president, they amended the state (commonwealth) constitution to say that only the people should be allowed to pick his replacement. Now, with a Democratic governor, their strong belief in democracy has evaporated. It is fine to let the governor appoint a replacement. The Massachussetts "Democratic" party is acting pretty authoritarian. And then, our president is weighing in, telling the Boston state legislature that they should violate the state constitution and allow the appointment. I hate seeing such blatant hypocrisy in the Oval Office. Then there is the media, who have said nearly nothing about this travesty. I guarantee that had the former president done something similar, the mainstream media would be having a heyday.

Another interesting example was how a congressman, known for his inflating of issues and stretching the truth beyond the limits of polite assumption that he might be mistaken, had the temerity to yell out, "You lie!" while the President was making his speech. Just on principle, no politician should ever use that phrase--it reeks of hypocrisy.

But then, the speech that he was heckling had that same stench about it, too. While castigating the opposition for fear mongering and inflating claims, Mr. Obama talked of how, without his plan people would die and we would never get out of our economic downturn. If the congressman's outburst would have come then, I would have had to agree with him. Watch your rhetoric, Mr. President, you are guilty of what you are saying you will "call them out" for.

Elsewhere in the same speech, our President said the words that indicated he wanted this to be a bi-partisan effort, but at the same time, those of us who have studied rhetoric saw that he was sowing the seeds of dissension and division. He was very careful to blame the entire deficit on the Bush administration. While I agree that the excesses of the last 20 years have led us here, there is no one administration that must shoulder all of the blame. Bush did not bail out AIG and the auto industry, Bush did not change the financing rules that led to the housing crash. Nor did he cause the "dot-com" meltdown of 7 years ago that made all the budget numbers from the 90s disappear. By indicating that it was all Bush's fault, President Obama has ensured that the debate in Congress will be sharply divided on party lines.

The last piece of hypocrisy I saw this week was on a site that I use to share favorite web sites with my friends. It is called StumbleUpon. I shared my previous blog entry here, "Taxes Will Be the Death of Us", over there, to let people know how I saw the big economic picture. In that post, I called the Obama-Pelosi push to spend us into prosperity as I see it: malarky being spouted by people who don't understand basic economics. I have had 2 people over there decide they don't want to be my friend because I am not respectful enough of the Presidency. What is interesting is that both of those people have several very disrespectful comments about former-President Bush. And not of his statements or positions, but of the man himself, as a human being. Such reactions are not just hypocritical, they show a fundamental lack of understanding of how our political system and, indeed, polite society work. I can disagree with a position. I do not have to respect a position that is based upon ignorance or misinformation. But I do have to (morally and ethically) respect the persons who hold those positions. It is probably good that those "friends" decided to unfriend me, they don't seem to want to learn the basics of polite society. Again the hypocrisy astounded me.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Taxes Will Be the Death of Us As a Nation

I posted this note on FaceBook a few weeks ago. I wanted to post it here. I will post all the comments from there here following:

Taxes. In the USA, they are going to go up significantly in the next few years. Our deficit will dictate it. As Americans, we already pay, on average, over 50% of what we earn as one tax or another (Federal Income, Excise, State Income, Sales, Property, Fuel, etc.). That's just the direct taxes that we pay. We also indirectly pay the taxes for all of our suppliers, because they just pass the costs on in the form of higher prices and additional fees.

The Congress and the President will probably try to hide the new taxes that are coming by telling us that they are taxing the "fat-cat" corporations. If you don't realize that YOU are paying those taxes, you need some education in economics.

You also need an education in economics if you believe the malarky that Obama and Pelosi are currently spouting about how the government needs to take over health care in order to help the recovery. Spending money will not solve our biggest problem: our deficit. You and I will have to pay that bill, and sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, that will probably kill any recovery that might start.

The Great Depression was not resolved by the spending of the FDR administration. We came out because a very nervous world started buying raw materials and manufactured products from American businesses in preparation for the war they saw coming. We have, regettably, sold our birthright by offshoring our manufacturing.

We are currently offshoring our creation of intellectual property too, leaving us, as a nation, with little to offer the world in order to get the income we need to defray our expenses. Somehow, we need to stop the short-term thinking of corporate management that keeps dismantling our revenue-producing infrastructure in favor of improvement on quarterly balance sheets.

On the government side, the expenses just keep escalating with a President and Congress who have no sense of fiscal responsibility and nothing to keep them in check. As a people, we have to stop the demagoguery and let our voices be heard that the situation is unacceptable.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

It's Probably Time

Andy Warhol was wrong. No one is limited to just 15 minutes of fame. We can all be famous in our own right, for as long as we want to be. It is a matter of time before the lure of possibly being heard draws us like moths to the flame of celebrity.

Some choose outrageous dress, grooming or behavior, others extreme sports to make themselves known. Some try their hand with more traditional outlets: music, acting and other forms of art. Yet others decide to become active in politics at some level. But what of those of us who find outrageous behavior distasteful? That value life and limb too much to go for extreme sports? Whose talent or looks are not good enough for the arts and entertainment world? That don't have the time to run for and perform in political office?

For the rest of us, we have blogging. To that end, I hereby set off on the flight surrounding that flame.