In a World of Lies, How Do You Know What to Believe?
Identifying propaganda In order to think more clearly about our world
Back in December 2020, NPR tweeted the following:
I immediately suspected this was a false claim, and said as much at the time. How did I know? Because of my first heuristic for spotting propaganda: Anytime I see a quote that uses the phrases "zero evidence", ‘“scientists say,” and “baseless,” I know I am being propagandized.
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Almost no one makes assertions for which they have “zero” evidence. In fact, conspiracy theorists, paranoid schizophrenics, criminal attorneys, and scientists alike take great pains to accumulate and present evidence for their point of view. What, exactly, do you think flat earthers are doing when they make all those videos? They’re presenting their evidence!
Anyone saying “zero” evidence is not engaging in honest speech about whatever topic is at hand. If there was zero evidence, no rebuttal would be needed. An honest statement would be: “The evidence they have presented has been credibly rebutted by other sources,” with a link to those sources; “There is scant evidence,” or “The evidence is in conflict with mainstream understanding.”
But the point of NPR’s tweet wasn’t to have an honest dialog. It was just propaganda.
“Scientists say” is another obvious propaganda phrase. Science doesn’t exist in some Platonic universal. Science is not run like the Catholic Church - there is no Pope at the top who decides what is or isn’t dogmatic truth. Specific scientists might say specific things, and specific organizations of scientists might take specific positions. Different scientists often disagree - sometimes very strongly. Back in December, many scientists were saying that COVID came from a lab, but those weren’t the scientists that NPR wants to hear from. The same is true of “studies say,” “experts say,” “scholars say,” and so on. Which studies? Which experts? Which scholars? What do they actually say? What do the studies, experts, and scholars that disagree with them say?
“Baseless,” however, is the most powerful word used by propagandists. Assertions of baselessness are the key weapons in their arsenal.
According to the Duhem-Quine thesis, it is impossible to assess a theory in isolation, absent an assessment of its background assumptions. The choice of background assumptions actually determines how evidence is interpreted. To say that a theory is “baseless” is simply to assert that its background assumptions are disagreeable.
For example, if if a writer has a background assumption that we are alone in the universe, then no testimony from any witness, no matter how credible, could ever count as evidence that UFOs are extraterrestrial. Instead, such testimony would count as evidence that the witness is befuddled or dishonest. Thus, despite a number of credible witnesses coming forward to state that UFOs are extraterrestrial, many UFO skeptics will assert that there is “zero evidence” to that effect and label the theory of extraterrestrial origins “baseless”. But that is a lie. An honest statement would be: “I am unpersuaded by the evidence because it conflicts with my background assumptions.” And so on.
Last week, in my essay Why Has Our World Gone So Crazy, I wrote, “Our contemporary consensus is not just wrong here and there, not just mildly out of step on reality. It is wrong on the fundamentals.” In terms of the Duhem-Quine thesis, I am asserting that the background assumptions accepted by the contemporary consensus are all in error. (Unlike them, I am willing to state my presuppositions and explain why I believe in them.) The corollary to that is that any argument I make can and will be dismissed out of hand as “baseless” by those who reject my background assumptions.
Let me give an example of how this works in practice. According to the study “Global Sex Differences in Test Scores,” the standard deviation of male IQ is wider than the standard deviation of female IQ. As a result, the study asserts there will be more males than females with very low IQ and very high IQ, and more females than males with mid-range IQs. From this, a scholar who agreed with this study could make the plausible argument that part of the reason there are more men working in high-IQ fields such as artificial intelligence and string theory is that there are simply more men with IQs high enough to do the work.
However, any attempt to assert this in the mainstream would be rejected as baseless, because it is disagreeable to the presupposition of the contemporary consensus (that men and women are endowed with identical capabilities). Larry Summers learned this the hard way, and it cost him his job as the President of Harvard. You can read the news stories published at that time, and almost nobody bothered to address the scientific basis for his claims; that was irrelevant. The response was simply that his claims were unacceptable. After that, it was ad hominem against him.
It doesn’t matter how credible the speaker was prior to his comment; assertions that violate background assumptions are always treated as baseless and followed by ad hominem labels.
That leads to our final heuristic for evaluating propaganda. Because of the Duhem-Quine thesis, very few arguments about important topics will end in agreement. Instead, important arguments usually end in disagreement over background assumptions. The outcome that honorable interlocutors ought to strive for in such cases is for their presuppositions to be made transparent. At that point, one can agree to disagree, or move to arguing about background assumptions.
But that’s not how propagandists operate. Instead, once someone has asserted something they deem “baseless,” the next step in the propagandist’s game is to move to ad hominem attacks against them.
Given that, as our second heuristic, we can assume that whichever interlocutor in a debate resorts to ad hominem first is probably the propagandist. For instance, imagine the following exchange:
A parapsychologist authors a study demonstrating that conscious attention of observers can have a small but detectible effect on random number generators.
A skeptical critic authors an essay rebutting the parapsychologist’s study asserting certain experimental flaws and errors.
The parapsychologist writes a response to the skeptic explaining that the perceived errors are not significant to the study’s results.
The skeptic goes on YouTube and calls the parapsychologist a woo-woo moonbat.
In this case, the skeptic is probably the propagandist. He’s not a propagandist because he disagrees, but because he resorted to ad hominem.
This heuristic is by far the most valuable tool for spotting propaganda. Anytime you encounter an issue where one side makes dialectical arguments and the other side responds by calling their views “baseless” or some synonym thereof, and then adds ad hominem attacks, you have very probably encountered propaganda.
I’d be interested to know if others have their own heuristics to spot propaganda in the wild. Let me know in the comments.
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