Friday, August 12, 2016

Ominous Yet Idiotic

     You might be familiar with the name of Cass Sunstein. He’s currently the Obama Administration’s Administrator for the federal Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. (What, you didn’t know we have a Ministry of Truth?) He’s also the hard-left ideologue who proposed (among other things) that the pull-based nature of the World Wide Web gives rise to “me-zines” that “should” be broken up in favor of a “common public experience of the news.” (I cannot say with certainty that he was in the pay of any major media organization, but one never knows.) And it appears that he’s really, really stupid. Some tidbits from the linked paper:

     ...conspiracy theories are a subset of the large category of false beliefs, and also of the somewhat smaller category of beliefs that are both false and harmful. Consider, for example, the beliefs that prolonged exposure to sunlight is actually healthy and that climate change is neither occurring nor likely to occur. These beliefs are (in our view) both false and dangerous, but as stated, they do not depend on, or posit, any kind of conspiracy theory. We shall see that the mechanisms that account for conspiracy theories overlap with those that account for false and dangerous beliefs of all sorts, including those that fuel anger and hatred. But as we shall also see, conspiracy theories have some distinctive features, above all because of their self-sealing quality; the very arguments that give rise to them, and account for their plausibility, make it more difficult for outsiders to rebut or even to question them.

     Mind you, Sunstein and co-author Adrian Vermeule make it plain that they’re looking for active techniques to discredit conspiracy theories. But the very attempt to discredit a conspiracy theory will cause its holders to lump you into the conspiracy. That strengthens the believing community’s internal allegiances: to the theory and to one another.

     (I did say he was stupid. But he’s a Harvard man, so how could that possibly be?)

     But there’s more and better to come:

     This is not, and is not be intended to be, a general claim that conspiracy theories are unjustified or unwarranted. Much depends on the background state of knowledge producing institutions. If those institutions are generally trustworthy, in part because they are embedded in an open society with a well-functioning marketplace of ideas and free flow of information, then conspiracy theories will generally (which is not to say always) be unjustified. On the other hand, individuals in societies with systematically malfunctioning or skewed institutions of knowledge – say, individuals who live in an authoritarian regime lacking a free press – may have good reason to distrust all or most of the official denials they hear.

     The howler there is only implied, but it’s enormous even so, as will become apparent from reading Sunstein’s suggestions about cognitive infiltration:

     What can government do about conspiracy theories? Among the things it can do, what should it do? We can readily imagine a series of possible responses. (1) Government might ban conspiracy theorizing. (2) Government might impose some kind of tax, financial or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories. (3) Government might itself engage in counterspeech, marshaling arguments to discredit conspiracy theories. (4) Government might formally hire credible private parties to engage in counterspeech. (5) Government might engage in informal communication with such parties, encouraging them to help. Each instrument has a distinctive set of potential effects, or costs and benefits, and each will have a place under imaginable conditions. However, our main policy idea is that government should engage in cognitive infiltration of the groups that produce conspiracy theories, which involves a mix of (3), (4) and (5).

     And exactly why should “government” concern itself with conspiracy theories? I think my Gentle Readers can answer that one for themselves...if they can bear to put themselves oh-so-temporarily in the place of “the government.” Apropos of which, apparently we’re supposed to trust those noble souls:

     In Section C, we examine the role of law and judges in fashioning the government’s response. We will ask whether judges do more good than harm by invoking statutes such as the Freedom of Information Act to force government to disclose facts that would rebut conspiracy theories. Our conclusions are generally skeptical: there is little reason to believe that judges can improve on administrative choices in these situations.

     Feeling all warm and cozy about “government,” Gentle Reader?

     Rather than taking the continued existence of the hard core as a constraint, and addressing itself solely to the third-party mass audience, government might undertake (legal) tactics for breaking up the tight cognitive clusters of extremist theories, arguments and rhetoric that are produced by the hard core and reinforce it in turn. One promising tactic is cognitive infiltration of extremist groups. By this we do not mean 1960s-style infiltration with a view to surveillance and collecting information, possibly for use in future prosecutions. Rather, we mean that government efforts might succeed in weakening or even breaking up the ideological and epistemological complexes that constitute these networks and groups.

     How might this tactic work? Recall that extremist networks and groups, including the groups that purvey conspiracy theories, typically suffer from a kind of crippled epistemology. Hearing only conspiratorial accounts of government behavior, their members become ever more prone to believe and generate such accounts. Informational and reputational cascades, group polarization, and selection effects suggest that the generation of ever-more-extreme views within these groups can be dampened or reversed by the introduction of cognitive diversity. We suggest a role for government efforts, and agents, in introducing such diversity. Government agents (and their allies) might enter chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups and attempt to undermine percolating conspiracy theories by raising doubts about their factual premises, causal logic or implications for political action.

     Oh, it’s about “diversity!” Well, that must be all right, then. But this hearkens back to Glenn Beck’s best-known epigram...which I’ll reserve for a moment longer. On to Sunstein’s thrilling Conclusion:

     Some conspiracy theories create serious risks. They do not merely undermine democratic debate; in extreme cases, they create or fuel violence. If government can dispel such theories, it should do so. One problem is that its efforts might be counterproductive, because efforts to rebut conspiracy theories also legitimate them. We have suggested, however, that government can minimize this effect by rebutting more rather than fewer theories, by enlisting independent groups to supply rebuttals, and by cognitive infiltration designed to break up the crippled epistemology of conspiracy minded groups and informationally isolated social networks.

     In fewer words: “This wouldn’t work if we do it only a little, so we should do it a lot! But none of that nasty transparency in government, mind you; we must trust Our Leaders to know best.” IF there’s any stance more capable of fueling conspiracy theories, I can’t think of it at the moment.

     I told you at the outset that Sunstein is stupid. I hope that by now you see what I meant. It’s an open question whether a stupid statist is more dangerous than a smart one, or vice versa. However, America is well supplied with both sorts.

     “First they nudge, then they shove, then they shoot.” – Glenn Beck

     Have a nice day.


daniel_day said...

Well, there's a surprise. Thirty pages of Harvard-polished verbiage and he never once used the word "paradigm".

Francis W. Porretto said...

I didn't notice that, myself. A striking omission, indeed!

Jack Imel said...

Conspiracies…PAH! When I was a child I thought as a child about conspiracy theories; in our nation or any of the others. Before my fiftieth year on the earth I realized that even with the lesser technology of the nineties an effective conspiracy could not exist for long. Just the prevalence of greed and avarice would be enough to weaken the wall of secrecy. However I do believe in creeping culture cancers, a prime example of which is our very own nation’s journalistic core. It just coalesced, pervasively and infectiously, then shut the door behind itself… to keep out the Light. Of course, this is all IMHO, and I’m not all that smart myself; but the number of heads with brains that could think properly had diminished by that time to the critical level for acceptance to be assured. (…and the knowledgeable ones kept silent, which is not a lesser fault.) And yet an even darker evil has slipped right into our heartland...the real test of our resolve has begun...God bless us, every one.

Joseph said...

I thought the best way to discredit conspiracy theories is to act in way that the conspiracy theory did not predict. For example, the best way to stop theories that immigration is part of a conspiracy to replace already-existing Americans is to allow already-existing Americans to defend themselves.

Francis W. Porretto said...

Some conspiracy theories are "enclosed" or "self-sealing." These, being invulnerably defended against adverse evidence, cannot be falsified...and therefore, by Popperian criteria, cannot be verified. That makes them articles of faith.

Tried to discredit anyone's faith lately, Joe?

Anonymous said...

Okay, I... um... well... nevermind. "I got nothin' ". Other than reinforcing my belief that in some instances - Cass Sunstein as prime example - there is such a thing as over educated in an under utilized mind. While 'interesting' to read, when reduced to lowest common denominator; all I read was obfuscation and bullshit... while hearing "Charlie Brown's teacher" in the background. The fact that we as taxpayers are paying the salary of this ignorant turd only exacerbates the anger...
- Grandpa