2021-10-05

Be Optimistic — Or Doomed

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by Neil Godfrey

First, immerse every person in their own cyber-world where their environment identifies their interests and biases.

Ellul, author of Propaganda, The Formation of Men’s Attitudes

Second, feed every person with the news and data that reinforces their biases. Masses and masses of data that serve that purpose. Too much data to critically analyse. So much data that swamps each person with confirmation of their belief systems about the world. Result? Too often, paralysis.

And much of the information disseminated nowadays — research findings, facts, statistics, explanations, analyses — eliminate personal judgment and the capacity to form one’s own opinion even more surely than the most extravagant propaganda. This claim may seem shocking; but it is a fact that excessive data do not enlighten the reader or the listener. They drown him. He cannot remember them all, or coordinate them, or understand them; if he does not want to risk losing his mind, he will merely draw a general picture from them. And the more facts supplied, the more simplistic the image. If a man is given one item of information, he will retain it; if he is given a hundred data in one field, on one question, he will have only a general idea of that question. But if he is given a hundred items of information on all the political and economic aspects of a nation, he will arrive at a summary judgment — “The Russians are terrific!” and to on.

A surfeit of data, far from permitting people to make judgments and form opinions, prevents them from doing so and actually paralyzes them.

(Ellul, Propaganda, 87)

That was written in 1962!! How much frighteningly truer must it be today!

How to fight back in such a dystopian world?

If we believe that we keep ourselves well-informed enough to keep a level head, beware. There is a hidden trap.

To the extent that propaganda is based on current news, it cannot permit time for thought or reflection. A man caught up in the news must remain on the surface of the events he is earned along in the current . . . .

We are more liable to fall into the trap if we think we can recognize or with little effort sift the lies from the truth. This confidence leads to two attitudes:

The first is: “Of course we shall not be victims of propaganda because we are capable of distinguishing truth from falsehood.” Anyone holding that conviction Is extremely susceptible to propaganda, because when propaganda does tell the “truth,” he is then convinced that it is no longer propaganda, moreover, his self-confidence makes him all the more vulnerable to attacks of which he is unaware.

The second attitude is: “We believe nothing that the enemy says because everything he says is necessarily untrue.” But if the enemy can demonstrate that he has told the truth, a sudden turn in his favor will result. . . .

(Ellul, 46, 52)

Edward Snowden

Remember Popper and what he had to say about the necessity to seek to falsify what we think to be true. Edward Snowden a few months ago made the same point:

Here’s a better way to think: in an . . . information-glutted world where you can basically find evidence for any theory you want, where people inhabit separate online realities, we should focus on falsifiability (which can be tested for) over supportability (which cannot). ​​​​​​​

(Snowden, Apophenia)

Do we sense that events are out of control? That the government is an evil force and we are all helpless before it? That nuclear war with China is inevitable? That covid-19 is just the opening salvo of more serious epidemics? That the conditions that made human civilization possible are fast being ripped away from us through climate change? It’s easy to become overwhelmed into inaction.

That feeling is akin to believing in all-powerful hidden forces behind the institutions that shape our lives and there is nothing we can do to change them. Here is where conspiracy theories enter the picture:

This what what the Austrian Jewish sociologist Karl Popper, refugee of the Holocaust in New Zealand and later England, laid out in his theory of science. Popper believed conspiracy theories are exactly what feeds a totalitarian state like Hitler’s Germany, playing on and playing up the public’s paranoia of The Other. And authoritarians get away with it precisely because their pseudoscientific claims, masquerading as sound research, are designed to be difficult to prove “false” in the heat of the moment, when data sets — not to mention a sense of the historical consequences — are necessarily incomplete.

By Popper’s lights—and, I’d argue, by the intuition of basic human decency—we shouldn’t consider these provisional theories “science” at all.

(Snowden, Apophenia. This is the second time I’m drawing upon the same Edward Snowden article.)

Of course, when we take some time to delve into how these institutions actually work (and we have addressed the institution of the media a few times here) we find that people in them too often find themselves spreading consequences they personally would not like, or that they make themselves believe are not so malign after all:

Popper’s a favorite in conspiracy theory studies, but I want to bring in an adjacent idea of his that I think is underemphasized in this context, which is that most human actions have unintended consequences. Instant advertising was supposed to yield informed consumers; the National Security Agency was supposed to protect “us” by exploiting “them.” These plans went horribly wrong. But once you wake up to the idea that the world has been patterned, intentionally or unintentionally, in ways you don’t agree with, you can begin to change it.

(Snowden, Apophenia)

Alone, we can do nothing significant, it is true. But we are social beings. Solitary confinement, as posted about recently, sends us insane.

It is in good faith that whistleblowers around the world bring these contradictions to public attention; they facilitate public epiphany, reminding us that we’re not quarantined in our private, paranoid “stages.” Thinking in public, together, allows us to stage a different performance entirely. We become more like Popper’s social theorists:

(Snowden, Apophenia)

Karl Popper

That’s it. Thinking in public. Being socially engaged. Understanding the world around us requires some effort to pull ourselves over to the bank to stop being carried along in the current that Ellul spoke of. Following is a passage from an essay by Popper.

It is the task of social theory to explain how the unintended consequences of our intentions and actions arise, and what kind of consequences arise if people do this that or the other in a certain social situation. And it is, especially, the task of the social sciences to analyse in this way the existence and the functioning of institutions (such as police forces or insurance companies or schools or governments) and of social collectives (such as states of nations or classes or other social groups). The conspiracy theorist will believe that institutions can be understood completely as the result of conscious design; and as collectives, he usually ascribes to them a kind of group-personality, treating them as conspiring agents, just as if they were individual men. As opposed to this view, the social theorist should recognize that the persistence of institutions and collectives creates a problem to be solved in terms of an analysis of individual social actions and their unintended (and often unwanted) social consequences, as well as their intended ones.

(Popper, “Conspiracy Theory of Society”, 15. Snowden cites the last part of this same paragraph in Apophenia)

Is this naive optimism?

Maybe I’m the deluded one for finding reason for optimism in this idea—and not only because it saves me from letting the former Nazi Conrad have the last word. Popper’s thinking offers an escape hatch from our private worlds and back into the public sphere. The social theorist is a public thinker, oriented toward improving society; the conspiracy theorist is a victim of institutions that lie beyond their control. 

(Snowden, Apophenia)

Noam Chomsky

As Noam Chomsky has said, there is no alternative to optimism. Pessimism leads to disengagement and disengagement guarantees the worst outcome.

Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, it’s unlikely you will step up and take responsibility for making it so. If you assume that there’s no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, there are opportunities to change things, there’s a chance you may contribute to making a better world. The choice is yours.

(Chomsky, On Choosing Optimism)


Ellul, Jacques. Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes. Translated by Konrad Kellen and Jean Lerner. New York: Vintage, 1973. https://archive.org/details/propagandaformat0000ellu

Popper, Karl. “The Conspiracy Theory of Society.” In Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate, edited by David Coady, 13–15. Aldershot, Hampshire, England ; Burlington, VT: Routledge, 2006.

Snowden, Edward. “Apophenia.” Substack newsletter. Continuing Ed — with Edward Snowden (blog), August 6, 2021. https://edwardsnowden.substack.com/p/conspiracy-pt2.

Sustainably Motivated. “Noam Chomsky On Choosing Optimism,” March 12, 2017. https://sustainablymotivated.com/2017/03/12/noam-chomsky-choosing-optimism/.



2017-08-28

The Necessity of being Divisive

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by Neil Godfrey

Prominent bloggers are picking on Sam Harris again.

First there is P.Z. Myers,

There he [Ed Brayton] goes again, picking on the distinguished and august Thought Leaders of Atheism, in this case Sam Harris. It’s easy to do; there are a lot of buzzwords that trigger my rage, and Harris is fond of trotting out indicators of inanity like “identity politics” and “politically correct” and, of course, “divisive”.

I’m not on board with everything I read by PZ so of course I waited till I read Ed Brayton’s post myself:

I am not going to accuse Harris of being a white supremacist, as many have done. I’m going to take his argument at face value and presume, for the sake of argument, that he means well by it. But he’s still utterly, flagrantly, dangerously wrong. A quote from that podcast:

“My tweet was actually fairly carefully written. I mean, it starts with ‘In 2017 all identity politics is detestable.’ And of course I’m thinking about the West, and I’m thinking primarily about America, I was commenting on Charlottesville. And I believe this, you know, I think Black Lives Matter is a dangerous and divisive and retrograde movement, and it is a dishonest movement. I mean, that’s not to say that everyone associated with it is dishonest, but I find very little to recommend in what I’ve seen from Black Lives Matter. I think it is the wrong move for African Americans to be organizing around the variable of race now. It’s *obviously* the wrong move, it’s *obviously* destructive to civil society.”

Ed proceeds to dissect the details of the above but I quote and comment on just one point: Continue reading “The Necessity of being Divisive”


2010-10-12

What’s the difference between a racist and an anti-creationist?

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by Neil Godfrey

Albie Sachs

I have just had the privilege of listening to an interview with South Africa’s eminent Justice and renowned campaigner for justice in apartheid South Africa, Albie Sachs. I recommend the interview to every one who aspires to a more civil and humane society. He woke up after someone tried to kill him with a bomb and was euphoric that he had only lost an arm. He later met and shook hands with the man who planted that bomb to kill him.

Albie Sachs came from a family that knew the Jew-murdering pogroms in Lithuania. He has always stood against racism and every form of discrimination and marginalization of minorities. I was impressed with his insights even to the positive contributions made by the tiny communist parties in South Africa and elsewhere.

We abhor the mocking of the physically handicapped. We hate racism. We protest against the discrimination against women. We now advocate for respect for gays. We demand rights and respect for all humanity.

But some of our public intellectuals, ironically even those who profess to be both public intellectuals and Christians, are not the least bothered by despising, publicly mocking, marginalizing, denigrating and slandering those who think differently from the way they do.

I am not a public intellectual but have had the benefit of a good formal education with some wonderful intellectual guides, and opportunities to learn much since. I have never “attacked” (or if I have I have regretted it) Christians or even Christianity or fundamentalists or those who believe in Atlantis or psychic phenomena or UFOs etc, but I have engaged many adherents of these in forthright and civil discussions. They deserve to be heard because they are not inciting hatred and are sincere. I was once a fundamentalist and anti-evolutionist myself, so I am in no position to ridicule anyone for the ideas they hold.

The noble thing about intellectuals like Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne  and Michael Shermer is their ability to address creationist or intelligent design arguments — and therefore creationists themselves — with respect. They listen to what creationists say. Carefully. And they respond with civility and directness. Where they have found dishonesty, as verified in some cases by court-tested evidence, they have aired this information, too. They show how one can do that without adding unwarranted sneers or name-calling.

Yet some public intellectuals in the field of biblical studies — those who call themselves “Christians” even — have demonstrated the same sorts of ignorance and bigotry against those who challenge their arguments and assumptions as were once commonly directed against the physically handicapped, different races, gays, women. Example, against “Christ myth” arguments.

These public intellectuals also incite public disrespect, even saying that certain people don’t deserve to be listened to because of their different views about an intellectual topic of which they regard themselves the public guardians. This is not how evolutionary scientists defend science against creationists.

Public intellectuals have a responsibility to promote a civil society (meaning civil discourse at all levels) and intellectual integrity. There are too many New Testament scholars who fail dismally in both responsibilities. Even one is too many.


2009-04-18

Politics of Josephus alive and well today

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by Neil Godfrey

Josephus detested political dissidents. He saw nothing good in anyone going out of their way to protest against the government.

All sorts of misfortunes also sprang from these men, and the nation was infected with this doctrine to an incredible degree  . . . . This was done in pretense indeed for the public welfare, but in reality for the hopes of gain to themselves; . . . . (Antiquities, 18.1)

The same meme that equates politial protest with selfishness is, of course, alive and well today. From a Singapore newspaper:

The timely enactment of the Public Order Act will be an effective legal tool to check groups out to disrupt the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit scheduled to be hosted in Singapore in November.

We should not allow others to hijack these pro-Singapore events to satisfy their own selfish political agendas.

and then again in a Malaysian newspaper:

He said it was only a tiny group of irresponsible and selfish individuals who had been pushing this line of civil disobedience in Singapore.

Of course the same meme is with us wherever — even whenever — we live.


2008-02-28

for the sake of peace, think of ourselves as animals

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by Neil Godfrey

Australian Customs ship, Oceanic Viking, has just returned with film footage of recent Japanese whaling for government ministers to study.

Campaigners against cruelty to animals know how to get their message across. Graphic footage works. It is even said to have helped turn public support against the Vietnam war.  Nothing worse than eating dinner and being confronted with footage of clubbing seals that look so damnably cute, mulesing sheep which still have that damnable iconic image of innocence, spearing and shooting whales until they eventually stop struggling against their fate, screaming naked children fleeing napalmed villages.

I can’t quite fathom the ethics that prohibit the publication of graphic pictures of humans being dismembered at times when governments call on publics to back their next war.

Why don’t we campaign for community standards that will favour the contempt of media for failing to show — “show”, that is, graphically — both sides of a story?

Anti-war campaigns rightly need to be salted with comedy, funny masks and silly costumes. But we anti-war campaigners could also take a leaf from the campaigners against cruelty to animals. Sure it upsets people. But that’s good. It should.


2007-10-17

Eggheads need more clowns and theatre

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by Neil Godfrey

A year or so ago a friend and I had a little stall at an International Women’s Day function in a park with the usual literature and a nice quota of friends and few newbies taking a look. But nothing beat the results we got when we decided to hold up silly masks in front of our faces and walk through the streets and shopping malls handing out our little pieces of paper spiel. Continue reading “Eggheads need more clowns and theatre”