Dec 19 2011

Skepticism vs Cynicism

Joe Nickell has been a working skeptic for a long time, and I am very happy to call him a friend. In writing this post I am reminded of something he said to me that struck me as particularly insightful – (paraphrasing) cynicism is a cheap form of skeptical one-upsmanship. In other words, it’s easy to seem more skeptical than the next guy just by being more cynical. True skepticism, however, is hard intellectual work.

This resonated with me, and brought into sharp focus what has bothered me about many encounters I have had in which someone was chiding me for not being skeptical enough. Sometimes this was coming from a perspective that I would now consider denialism, the specific denial of a generally accepted scientific or historical fact for ideological reasons. At other times the cynical pseudoskepticism was really just paranoid conspiracy mongering. For example, I recently received the following e-mail:

I sort of lost interest in you folks way back when OBL was “killed’” and his body disposed of at sea and photographs withheld, all inviting skepticism but instead skeptics earning nothing but ridicule from your team. I decided you weren’t really skeptical enough about some things, just others. Something about the behavior of otherwise excellent minds in the shadow of a powerful military state with an excellent propaganda apparatus. Except that in this case the propaganda was clumsy, the lies flagrant and out there to see …

The e-mailer is referring to our discussion on the SGU of the killing of Osama bin Laden by US forces. At the time we received many e-mails from those who thought we should taken a more “skeptical” perspective – the position that the US government was lying about the killing of OBL to some extent, and perhaps even entirely. Skepticism regarding the government is a typical context for this sort of response.

This can serve as an excellent example, in my opinion, of the difference between true skepticism and the cheap imitation – cynicism.

My approach to such questions is this: Yes, governments lie and cover up their activities. This includes even open democratic governments, like the US. Covering up information can be put into two general categories. The first is legitimate secrecy. The government is very open about the fact that some information is “top secret” and kept from the public for the purpose of national security. There is, however, an internal process by which such information can be assessed by our elected representatives. No one doubts the existence of legitimate secrecy in the government.

The other category of secrecy is illegal secrecy by individuals or groups of people in the government who are trying to cover up their own crimes or mistakes, or perhaps even mean well (they think they are doing what’s right for the country) but are going outside the system. This too, of course, happens. The Iran-Contra affair seems to be an example of this. The public takes for granted that some of this goes on all the time, at least in the form of spinning events or trying to bury inconvenient information without technically breaking the law. We accept a certain amount of this as “politics” – just don’t get caught crossing the line.

The real question is this: is there a third category, of organized deception and propaganda that is extra-democratic but representing the real way that our government operates, not the aberration of individuals? The e-mailer seems to think that the US government is a “powerful military state with an excellent propaganda apparatus.” This does not reflect reality as I understand it. Our government is deliberately not monolithic. There are different branches with a balance of power. There is also a two-party system, with the parties being in strong opposition politically, each more than willing to expose the shenanigans of the other party. And we have a constitutionally guaranteed free press, which may not always be optimally effective, but collectively it works pretty diligently to expose any government lies.

The OBL killing was an interesting event. The government acted partly out of legitimate military secrecy to carry out the operation. Then there was the question of PR – how to handle the aftermath of taking out a figure like OBL. There were many concerns – proving that he was actually killed, but minimizing the making of a martyr out of him, and not wanting to have any remains to act as a shrine or rallying point. I don’t think the government pulled it off optimally. They left far too much room for conspiracy mongering. But I can at least understand their dilemma.

With regard to this event the cynic assumes the government is lying, and assumes they have nefarious purposes and unlimited ability to carry out their deception. But at the same time they are “clumsy” and stupid, so that anyone can see that they are lying. This is conspiracy mongering, not skepticism.

The e-mailer continues:

“I haven’t been listening since much, and so wondered if your skeptical eyebrows raised a detectable scintilla or so when the elite Navy Sal (sic) Team that killed OBL perished in a helicopter crash.”

The conspiracy theorizing cynic sees this event as confirmation that there is a government cover-up. There is no evidence offered for a conspiracy – just take an event and cast it in as sinister and cynical a light as possible, and criticize any who do not follow you down this rabbit hole of not being skeptical.

The Navy Seals have been busy in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it is tragic but not surprising that they are suffering casualties. We don’t need a conspiracy theory to explain this. Further, while members of Navy Seal team 6, the team that killed OBL, were on the helicopter, the US government told the AP that none of them were the individuals involved in the OBL operation. Of course, this could just be another government lie.

I am open to any reasonable interpretation of events and to actual evidence that a specific interpretation is correct. The skeptical point of view is not to just assume the maximally cynical point of view. The skeptical approach is to evaluate the evidence and the plausibility of various hypotheses.

But as Joe said – you can always try to seem more skeptical than the next guy by short circuiting this process and just being cynical.

 

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106 responses so far

106 Responses to “Skepticism vs Cynicism”

  1. banyanon 19 Dec 2011 at 10:02 am

    I know it’s not the kind of rigorous methodology we advocate, but when I hear conspiracy theories, I’ve taken to putting myself into the hypothetical board meeting where the idea for the conspiracy was floated. Assuming I wanted the conspiracy to succeed and had no moral issues with its methods, would I have an obvious way to improve its methodology? If yes, then it probably wasn’t a conspiracy, because some brilliant member of the government would have had the same idea. It usually goes a lot like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uoZ71sj3Kn0

  2. Methodissedon 19 Dec 2011 at 11:55 am

    Steve, you don’t understand propaganda or the sophisticated state propaganda system that immerses our lives from cradle to grave. I agree with the conclusion and content of this post, except for the following inaccuracies:

    1. The e-mailer seems to think that the US government is a “powerful military state with an excellent propaganda apparatus.” This does not reflect reality as I understand it.

    2. Our government is deliberately not monolithic. There are different branches with a balance of power.

    3. There is also a two-party system, with the parties being in strong opposition politically, each more than willing to expose the shenanigans of the other party.

    4. And we have a constitutionally guaranteed free press, which may not always be optimally effective, but collectively it works pretty diligently to expose any government lies.

    To suggest that the U.S. government and its corporate masters don’t have “an excellent propaganda apparatus” is naive. Propaganda by its nature is invisible to the population as it pervasively warps perceptions and behaviors.

    Here are two suggestions to improve your understanding of these issues.

    1. Read “Manufacturing Consent” by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, and then try arguing your point that we’re not immersed in a sophisticated state propaganda system.

    2. Read “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn, and then try arguing claims 2, 3, and 4.

    These four claims are false and therefore provide no support to your otherwise well reasoned argument.

  3. Methodissedon 19 Dec 2011 at 1:05 pm

    Correction – My first book recommendation is also devastating proof that we don’t have a “free press” and seriously damages points 2 & 3. My second book recommendation will leave no illusions that these four claims are false.

  4. mufion 19 Dec 2011 at 1:43 pm

    Methodissed: Even if Chomsky, Herman, and Zinn (or McChesney, for that matter) were the last words on the matter (a naive belief in itself), it’s worth noting that their popularity (at least on the left) owes a debt of gratitude to what Steve called “a constitutionally guaranteed free press.” Of course, they are (or were, in Zinn’s case) not as well funded as the objects of their criticism (e.g. the US gov’t, broadcast news, or the NY Times), but then who ever said that the life of a political radical is a luxurious one?

  5. banyanon 19 Dec 2011 at 1:47 pm

    @Methodissed: I am familiar with Manufacturing Consent (although I saw the movie and did not read the book) and I’ve read much of Zinn’s most famous book (not the whole thing in detail), and it’s my impression that although both raise important criticisms of their respective subjects, they also both overstate their cases somewhat.

    Anyway, I think you mostly misunderstand Steve’s points. Looking at #1, for example, I doubt that Steve denies that the U.S. has a powerful military or engages in propoganda. However, the U.S. does not have the competency to distort reality to the point of covering up a conspiracy of the type alleged. There would be a leak, and the government would lack the resources to either prevent or contain it.

    #2 and #3 are true, although as Chomsky and Zinn will both point out, there are instances in which the interests of the competing institutions will line up. Those instances are important to be able to recognize, but they are the exception, not the rule, and the exception plainly does not apply in this case.

    #4 is basically the same situation as #2 and #3. There are situations that can compromise the free press, and I think looking at how the government reacts to a really free press, i.e. Wikileaks, demonstrates those issues well. However, Chomsky’s critique has been significantly mitigated by the Internet and the rise of groups like Wikileaks and even just bloggers. So even if the mainstream media felt obligated to cover up a major story like the sorts of conspiracies we’re talking about, they would not be able to today.

    Finally, although I’m not so sure about Zinn, it’s worth noting that Chomsky recognizes the limitations of his own thesis. There’s a video out there of Chomsky responding to 9/11 conspiracy theorists where he basically says the same stuff I do. Notwithstanding the interests of the government and the weaknesses of the press, an attempt to carry out a major conspiracy like that would inevitably leak and so to try to carry it out would entail more risks than benefits to government interests.

  6. Methodissedon 19 Dec 2011 at 2:51 pm

    Thank you for the responses Mufi and Banyon. Mufi, my point on free press needs clarification. I agree that we have a constitutionally guarantee – my objection is the second part of Steve’s point #4 about the press, i.e., “collectively works pretty diligently to expose any government lies.”
    Because he denied the existence of “an excellent propaganda apparatus,” I think it safe to assume that believes that the mass media is mostly benevolent and truthful. To the contrary, they collectively and diligently work to hide government deceit and to propagate its lies. Whether or not our government could cover up the Bin Laden assassination is a mute point. I’m objecting to Steve’s four false claims, as noted in my original post.

    Banyan – You said that Chomsky and Zinn gave you the “impression that … both overstate their cases somewhat.” The fact that you only watched a documentary and read part of a book gives me the impression that you haven’t seriously considered their claims. Both Chomsky and Zinn provide devastating critiques of media outlets such as “The New York Times” and “ABC news,” and their works are heavily sourced, i.e., it’s easy to verify the accuracy of their evidence.

    Further, I disagree that Wikileaks and bloggers provide a significant correction to mass media distortions. Their audience is small because most people get their “news” from corporate media, which is necessarily motivated by profit rather than truth. That’s why the media was so focused on Julian Assange’s alleged sexual improprieties rather than the substance of the leaked material. That alone should be enough reason to more seriously question their integrity. Yes, they’ve reported some of the leaks, but that’s part of the distortion process. By appearing to demonstrate integrity, they give the illusion of being truthful and objective, or if you like, fair and balanced.

  7. rezistnzisfutlon 19 Dec 2011 at 2:58 pm

    We all know that there’s funny business that goes on with the government. The same can be said really about any organization out there. I think the point of this article is that skeptics hold out for evidence for whatever is being claimed, while cynics will often assume a lot whether there’s evidence or not. It’s not to say that cynics are necessarily wrong, but typically for skeptics, disbelief or withholding of judgment is the default position until actual legitimate evidence is presented for a claim.

    Cynicism often stems from a general paranoia that sees things that aren’t really there. This can be seen with climate change denialists, creationists, anti-vaxxers, UFO conspirators, woo practitioners, and any number of other conspiracy theorists who assume all government (and perhaps corporations and scientists) is bad, no matter what form its in or what it’s trying to do, and that all humans are innately greedy or have some harmful ulterior motive in mind.

    So, it’s one thing to have what I’d call healthy skepticism, and another to be just paranoid and jump to conclusions. It’s the cynical mindset that has people refusing vaccines, putting us all at risk.

  8. rezistnzisfutlon 19 Dec 2011 at 3:10 pm

    @Methodissed

    While I’ll agree that many of the news outlets aren’t always showing the full story all the time, or even has some other motive than giving the full truth (media bias, etc), I don’t agree that there’s some massive conspiracy going on. If there were, there’d be efforts to silent any number of conspiracy blogs, youtube channels, books and periodicals from ever reaching production.

    It’s more likely that news outlets are more interested in ratings and advertising dollars, than being the lapdogs of the government or corporations. I’m not saying that doesn’t necessarily exist, but given the evidence, there’s no particularly good reason to thing that’s going on.

    There are many competing news organization and independent news sources that would jump at the opportunity to blow conspiracies wide open given the chance, if actual evidence of these things surfaced. Those kinds of things would make fortunes and put small orgs on the map.

    So, the government would either have to be preternaturally good at covering up massive conspiracies to lie to the public, or (more likely, IMO), it’s business as usual, there aren’t nearly as many conspiracies as some people think, and though the government isn’t perfect and there is corruption and cronyism, it’s not nearly to the degree or scope that is commonly thought. Most of the government are just people who are trying to make a living, just like anyone else.

  9. mufion 19 Dec 2011 at 3:43 pm

    Methodissed: What rezistnzisfutl said.

    Aside from that, given that Chomsky et al. work with biases of their own (quite openly in Zinn’s case, as I recall), it’s by no means obvious that they are more in possession of the truth than the objects of their criticism. Rather, it’s at least as likely that, because we share certain values with them (or with Amy Goodman and other adherents to the “Democracy Now!” style of left-advocacy journalism), we are (or would be) receptive to their claims – sometimes uncritically so.

    That’s not to suggest that the propaganda model, or the thesis that history is (usually) written by the winners, completely lacks plausibility or supporting evidence. But I believe that the reality is somewhat more complicated than that (not least given the likely rise in ratings and advertising dollars whenever there’s a new political scandal for the media outlets to cover).

  10. locutusbrgon 19 Dec 2011 at 4:03 pm

    I think that if OBL abduction and execution were fabricated in some major way. Middle eastern extremists would take great joy in exposing this lie. Although some small groups have tried this the major middle eastern disinformation outlets have for the most failed to expose anything. In addition wouldn’t it be worth the safety risk for OBL to just jump on TV and laugh at the US government.
    I realize the arguments put forth have some good points but using OBL conspiracy as an example, weak at best.

  11. cwfongon 19 Dec 2011 at 4:36 pm

    I worked in US counter intelligence for twenty years. We had secrets and we kept them fairly well from alleged enemies and from sometimes stupid if otherwise well meaning friends. We did not however conspire to harmfully and unlawfully keep secrets. That wasn’t in any of our pay grades.

  12. Gehackteon 19 Dec 2011 at 4:42 pm

    I find it.. I don’t know if you would say ironic, but, someone is trying to prove we don’t have free press by citing books that were allowed to be written and released in mass, despite being in disagreement with the very entity being accused of the censorship.

  13. tmac57on 19 Dec 2011 at 6:06 pm

    Gehackte- But don’t you see? It’s all part of the grand scheme.False flag leftist dissenters allowed to
    write and publish whatever they want.What a stroke of brilliance! This goes deeper than we can imagine.Why even my comment is suspicious…wait did I write that..hey what’s going…..

  14. Methodissedon 19 Dec 2011 at 7:05 pm

    I’m not talking about a conspiracy theory in the sense that is discussed on this site. This issue is about propaganda, which is a different animal.

    Propaganda by its nature is pervasive and invisible. You guys don’t see it and therefore deny its existence by rationalizing about surface plausibility (the same tactic used by woomeisters). Have you seriously studied propaganda? That doesn’t appear to be the case.

    The evidence is there if you choose to examine it. If you don’t have the time or inclination, then the appropriate response is to suspend judgment – not a priori rejection.

  15. ConspicuousCarlon 19 Dec 2011 at 7:53 pm

    Methodissed on 19 Dec 2011 at 11:55 am

    Steve, you don’t understand propaganda or the sophisticated state propaganda system that immerses our lives from cradle to grave. [...] Propaganda by its nature is invisible to the population as it pervasively warps perceptions and behaviors.

    So I guess you have the special sunglasses which allow you to see the subliminal messages? Put em on, Frank!

    Propaganda could in theory be secretive and subliminal, but it is not necessarily so “by its nature”. In fact, it typically ranges from liminal to superliminal. You sure do have a weak mastery of language for someone who likes to cite Noam Chomsky.

    If you want us to believe that the propaganda is so clever that we don’t even know about it, you will have to offer more than the opinionated books written by a cunning linguist and a socialist historian who specializes in re-writing history to fit the views of leftists. But the fact that you can read those and take them as overwhelming truth (I’ll accept them as whelming truth) makes me doubt your supposed keen sense for noticing propaganda where others do not.

  16. ConspicuousCarlon 19 Dec 2011 at 7:54 pm

    “the appropriate response is to suspend judgment – not a priori rejection.”

    Nor making up a bunch of crap.

  17. tmac57on 19 Dec 2011 at 8:07 pm

    Propaganda by its nature is pervasive and invisible. You guys don’t see it and therefore deny its existence by rationalizing about surface plausibility (the same tactic used by woomeisters).

    Or…Maybe we have been around the block a few more times than you,and look a obvious propaganda,and say “Meh.Looks like BS to me.” Then we go about our day.

  18. Methodissedon 19 Dec 2011 at 8:44 pm

    @ConspicuousCarl – “So I guess you have the special sunglasses which allow you to see the subliminal messages?” Subliminal messages – really?!?! This is a discussion about propaganda.

    @ConspicuousCarl – “You sure do have a weak mastery of language for someone who likes to cite Noam Chomsky.” Can you say red herring?

    @ConspicuousCarl – “…opinionated books written by a cunning linguist and a socialist historian who specializes in re-writing history to fit the views of leftists.” Where did you acquire that opinion? Let me guess – from the mass media corporations that Chomsky attacks.

    @tmac57 – “Meh.Looks like BS to me.” – So that’s how skepticism works? That same thought process keeps woo-lovers from examining evidence that undermines their beliefs.

    Here’s another idea – examine the evidence or suspend judgment. For a bunch of self-proclaimed “skeptics,” this sure sounds like a woo site.

  19. HHCon 19 Dec 2011 at 9:15 pm

    I think the best film on the bin Laden assassination is from National Geographic. They explained in detail the affair. As for the more recent helicopter crash in Afghanistan, an Army soldier was piloting the chopper with the Navy Seals team. The skeptic is specifically worrying about Team 6 heroes. We mourn all lives lost in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  20. daedalus2uon 19 Dec 2011 at 9:42 pm

    I don’t think it is just cheap cynicism.

    For the OBL death, there are players who would want to demonstrate that OBL is still alive (al Qaeda, Taliban). It would be trivial for them to demonstrate that OBL was still alive (if he was). Pakistan would like to show that the US screwed up, which they could do if the compound that was attacked didn’t have OBL’s extended family in it. There doesn’t seem to have been any serious effort at anyone putting out evidence that OBL is still alive. There is just the clamor for pictures (which are easy to fake). Any other evidence would be even easier to fake. In the case of OBL’s death, if the US government did fake it, the question would be why. If any of the GOP found out that Obama had faked OBL’s death, they would be all over it to discredit him. Unless the GOP was willing to go along for some strange reason, but the GOP is going to great lengths to disagree with Obama even when Obama is doing things that benefit the country.

    It is like Obama’s birth certificate. The Republican governor of Hawaii said it was legitimate and that he personally knew the Obama family when Obama was growing up in Hawaii. There was no evidence that Obama wasn’t born in Hawaii,

    I think there is a component of wanting to believe the opposite of what someone says, no matter what it is. We saw this a lot during the Clinton administration where the GOP would have a certain idea, Clinton would adopt it as his own, and then the GOP would fight against their own idea because Clinton had adopted them.

    We are seeing it now with the Obama administration too. It isn’t just that they are adopting positions that are counter to Obama’s positions, they are adopting mutually exclusive positions that are counter to Obama’s position. I suspect that some of those who believe that OBL wasn’t killed, also believe he wasn’t involved in 9/11, that 9/11 was an inside job by the US government.

    Methodissed, the only way skeptics can decide things is with evidence. In the absence of evidence, skeptics suspend judgment. How can anyone apply judgment in the absence of evidence? Assume the opposite of what someone says? Guess? Believe someone else’s guesses?

    I think that people who adopt as a default the opposite of what someone else says are not trying to arrive at a reasoned position, they are trying to align themselves with the enemies of whoever they are disagreeing with using the heuristic that the enemy of my enemy is my friend and he who believes the opposite of what my enemy believes must believe what I believe.

    Using other people’s beliefs as a basis for making judgments is not what skeptics do. Skeptics look for evidence, not beliefs.

  21. SARAon 19 Dec 2011 at 10:21 pm

    I will continue to look for evidence. If you don’t have anything but theories on why something is true or isn’t true, you don’t have a skeptical position. You may use logic to consider something worthy of investigation but unless there is evidence, you have no position worth holding.

    You could just as easily come up with a conspiracy on why bread is white and not blue. A vast network of assumptions and murky motivations is not enough to create a position.

    Even if you prove the government is a large web of conspiracy, that does not prove that Bin Laden’s capture and death happened in any other way that currently presented. (and I don’t think we have proof that the government is organized around conspiracy.

    And I agree with Steve, it was a foolish choice, since it screams for conspiracy theorists to jump on board. And I doubt that time will ever make them go away. (My last statement is what I consider cynicism, by the way.)

  22. BillyJoe7on 20 Dec 2011 at 5:18 am

    This is one of the rare ocasions where the commentary outdoes Steven Novella’s article.

    Having said that, it is obvious that methodissed has got the wrong cat by the tail.
    My gut feeling when this story came out was that it was true. When I analysed my gut feeling I was easily able to confirm that my gut feeling was indeed backed by logic (as outlined in the first paragraph of daedalus comment). After reaching that fairly obvious conclusion, I was actually surprised to come across the view that OBL death was faked amongst those whom I had considered to be sceptical but whom I now see as cynical. That was the accusation I levelled to the first person who I heard express that view. After that I just gave up.

  23. Methodissedon 20 Dec 2011 at 7:06 am

    I’m confused BillyJoe7. How is it “obvious that methodissed has got the wrong cat by the tail”? Is it because my view is different from yours? How is that different from other people who are mistaken and see alternate perspectives as “obviously” wrong?

    Please note that as noted in my original post, I agree with Steve’s conclusion about OBL. I’m questioning some of the claims he made to justify his conclusion.

  24. Steven Novellaon 20 Dec 2011 at 7:13 am

    I agree that there are legitimate criticisms of the press. I make them myself all the time. But conspiracy theorists ascribe to malice what can more easily be explained by incompetence or laziness.

    When I said that the press “collectively” gets the story out, that does not mean or imply that most of the press is doing a good job. It only implies that some journalist somewhere will get the story out. There are so many media outlets and independent journalists, and it only takes a minority to be diligent on any one story.

    We have a free press. They don’t always do their jobs well, and media outlets have ideological and sometimes corporate biases – but different outlets have different biases.

    There is no evidence that the US government controls or can control the press as an entity. There is plenty of evidence that this is not the case.

  25. Methodissedon 20 Dec 2011 at 7:42 am

    Thank you for weighing in Steve. I’ve read your writings for years and am always impressed with your clarity, reasoning, and hard-hitting yet tactful approach. This is the first time I’ve disagreed with you on any substantial point.

    I appreciate the clarification about the press, though I disagree with your comment that, “There is no evidence that the US government controls or can control the press as an entity.” To the contrary, there is an enormous amount of contemporary and historical evidence that the elite in this country control the message from our corporate owned media. When you consider the influence that corporations have over our government, that claim at least has surface plausibility. As you know, alternate media sources and blogs such as this are mostly invisible to the general public. It’s the mass media that moves the masses.

    Perhaps at some point you’ll challenge yourself to read “Manufacturing Consent” and then demonstrate why Chomsky is wrong. If nothing else, you’d be fascinated by the blatant omission and commission that he meticulous cites from trusted sources like the New York Times.

    If he’s right, imagine the implications for the skeptical movement and the public at large.

  26. Steven Novellaon 20 Dec 2011 at 8:04 am

    But the corporate owned media is not the only media out there. I know many independent journalists who would bristle at the suggestion that they are silenced by corporate masters, or the government. There are enough journalists out there who actually take their constitutional rights seriously enough that any significant story would get out. That’s my point. The US government doesn’t have anywhere near the level of control of the media to cover up a major conspiracy. At best they can manipulate the media – not control it. And they do so at the risk of exposure.

  27. eeanon 20 Dec 2011 at 8:19 am

    Even Chomsky doesn’t claim you, as an individual news consumer, can’t get the story if you know how to look for it and where to look. I read Manufacturing Consent when I was in high school and it was and is very influential in how I read the news.

    But the thesis of the book (if i remember correctly, it was like 10 years ago) was that the news media systemically ignores some stories and props up others in service of the US elite. And that, for instance, this doesn’t happen so much in other countries because the electorate there doesn’t elect the politicians who control the worlds most powerful military. I mean the book is about just what the title says its about. You don’t actually need to control all information to ‘manufacturer consent’, just need to filter the information known to the general (American) public.

    So basically in regards to the OBL story: a systematic basis of the NYT and its repeaters are pretty much irrelevant. If there is a story there, we do have a worldwide media who can find it.

  28. Methodissedon 20 Dec 2011 at 8:51 am

    Steve, what you “know” to be true is preventing you from examining well documented evidence that contradicts your beliefs about propaganda and our government.

    As someone who embraces a perpetual pursuit of truth, consider this an opportunity to better understand conspiracy thinking. Warning – Be prepared for massive cognitive re-wiring.

  29. 2_wordson 20 Dec 2011 at 9:26 am

    Methodissed, what you “know” to be true is prejudicing your examinations of evidence that confirms your beliefs about propaganda and our government.

    You have your filters others have theirs. There is always a special arrogance that comes with those certain that their pursuit of the truth is more truthy than others.

    It is good that you woke up to the fact that media is not veridical, but it is easy to forget that other people have as well. You’re a couple steps from calling people “sheeple.”

  30. mufion 20 Dec 2011 at 9:38 am

    eean: You don’t actually need to control all information to ‘manufacturer consent’, just need to filter the information known to the general (American) public.

    Right. And, of course, governments and businesses try to control the messages that they send out to the public. Who doesn’t?

    But how does the propaganda model explain the divisiveness of the American public (including the sector that works in government) – not only with respect to values (e.g. conservative vs. liberal/progressive), but also with respect to facts (e.g. the current president’s place of birth immediately comes to mind)? As far as I can tell, it doesn’t. At best, it predicts what many of us already take for granted (whether we’ve already read Chomsky et al. or not): that conflicts of interest are a constant threat to journalistic ethics, which warrants critical thinking and a diversity of news sources (which, thanks to developments in electronic media, is easier to come by than it used to be).

    Methodissed: Be prepared for massive cognitive re-wiring.

    Or not, as evidenced by those of us who have also consumed Chomsky et al. and yet do not share your criticism of Steve.

  31. tmac57on 20 Dec 2011 at 11:21 am

    Methodissed-You dismissed my “meh” (admittedly snarky) comment,with a cherry picked snippet.But 2-words,and Mufi’s comments above,really said better what I was getting at.You are naively thinking that we are not fully aware that there are forces out there that are trying to manipulate our understanding of reality,but clearly,that is what the Skepticism movement is all about,and,by the way,the reason that we aren’t buying everything you assert,hook,line,and sinker.

  32. daedalus2uon 20 Dec 2011 at 11:27 am

    Scientists are used to dealing with sources of information of unknown reliability. That is what scientific papers are. Being able to weed-out error in scientific papers and come up with a single unified conceptualization of reality is what scientists do.

    It is the same with differential diagnosis. There can be multiple things going on, multiple presentations, idiosyncratic symptoms and there might even be something new.

    Scientists and skeptics really do focus on the evidence, weigh it and try to weave it into a coherent conceptualization of reality. This is very different than how people who are not scientists or skeptics think. Non-skeptics focus on the source of the information, and if the source is considered “correct”, then the information is accepted. This is how beliefs with no evidence get passed along. People simply believe because they were told it by someone who they considered to be “correct”. A religious leader, a parent, a politician, a friend, someone from your tribe who shares your values and your prejudices. Once someone has the belief, then they can look for evidence to support it. This is how the creationists have arrived at their beliefs. There is no data that supports them, there are only the unsupported statements by self-proclaimed religious leaders.

    In my comment upthread, when people who use the identity of the person who is the source of the information receive information from someone they don’t trust, they believe the opposite. This is why YECs can believe in talking snakes, but not in radioactive decay.

    When a skeptic looks at the evidence, the “evidence” for creationism is words written in a book many centuries ago. The evidence for evolution is written in the DNA of extant creatures, in the fossils of the Earth, and a great many other things. If you change who tells the story (nameless figure in antiquity vs Joseph Smith), people change whether they believe it or not. If you change the scientists who did the measurements, the data and evidence doesn’t change.

  33. Methodissedon 20 Dec 2011 at 11:35 am

    @2_words -”There is always a special arrogance that comes with those certain that their pursuit of the truth is more truthy than others.”

    Everyone thinks their beliefs are correct – otherwise they would update. I’m not saying that people should believe me. I’m challenging people to strive to objectively examine the evidence. So far I’ve mostly seen a priori rejection. But of course that’s not arrogant.

    @Mufi – “…as evidenced by those of us who have also consumed Chomsky et al.”

    As impressive as that sounds, we might remember that many biblical scholars study the bible in great depth yet cannot see past its nonsense. Like religious indoctrination, I’m talking about deeply rooted beliefs that necessarily generate significant cognitive dissonance.

    I have no way of knowing how seriously you’ve studied the issue, though you haven’t claimed to have read the book. I do, however, understand the fallibility of the human brain (yes, that includes mine). Perhaps its time for a closer look rather than assuming the issue is settled.

  34. mufion 20 Dec 2011 at 12:18 pm

    Methodissed: Perhaps I will take a closer look at Manufacturing Consent. (I’m pretty sure that I read it back in the 90′s – and have, in any case, read and listened to Chomsky speak on this topic more than once – but a review wouldn’t hurt.)

    For that matter, given the feedback that you’ve received here, perhaps you should follow your own advice and not be so dismissive of counter-arguments to the propaganda model. It makes you come off like a fundamentalist (which renders your allusion to religious indoctrination quite ironic).

  35. Methodissedon 20 Dec 2011 at 12:30 pm

    @Mufi – “perhaps you should follow your own advice and not be so dismissive of counter-arguments to the propaganda model. It makes you come off like a fundamentalist…”

    So how would you respond to a religious believer who says the same thing to you? The objections I’m receiving here are mostly a priori rejection and rationalization – which are not impressive “counter-arguments.”

    P.S. I’m well aware of the fallacy called “arguing from ignorance” and am not suggesting that people prove me wrong.

  36. Steven Novellaon 20 Dec 2011 at 12:45 pm

    I have looked seriously at this issue. I think it’s possible to find legitimate fault with any institution and then exaggerate the significance of the flaws to argue that the institution is fatally flawed. We see this with science – promoter of woo weave the legitimate criticisms of how it is conducted, fraud, conflicts of interest, etc and blow them out of proportion to argue that science is completely broken. They then call anyone naive if they have a different view, and claim I haven’t looked at the evidence.

    You can do the same this with democracy, or education, or medicine, or anything you like. It’s all flawed – but not all flaws are fatal flaws.

    The institution of journalism is also flawed, but it is not broken to the degree being suggested.

    Here is some evidence – Watergate, Iran Contra, Monica Lewinski, White-Water gate, and every other scandal that has plagued government and politicians in the US. The press will ferret out scandals, because it sells papers (or generates clicks) if nothing else. If the government had the level of control over the press as claimed, how would these scandals have broken? And that is precisely what we are talking about with a coverup of OBLs killing.

    I agree we need to worry about corporate control of media – but this does not translate to the conclusion that we don’t have a free press, or that the government has totalitarian control over a propaganda machine. What’s the evidence for that?

  37. tmac57on 20 Dec 2011 at 12:58 pm

    As impressive as that sounds, we might remember that many biblical scholars study the bible in great depth yet cannot see past its nonsense.

    So you feel comfortable dismissing the bible as “nonsense”.Can we presume then that you have the same or greater depth of knowledge of it as the scholars do? Probably not,but then we all come to conclusions about things with less than exhaustive knowledge.
    Chomsky is an intelligent and persuasive writer and intellect,but he suffers from the same frailties that we all do,so just take his writings with a grain of salt,or better still,read critiques of his works,and then see if they have any merit,before declaring him as the last word on the subject.

  38. joshmotronon 20 Dec 2011 at 1:21 pm

    I don’t buy the Chomsky arguments to use against what Steve’s saying about our country’s propaganda. The four big news sources he checked (CBS, New York Times, Time, Newsweek) merely seemed to correlate with what the government wanted us to believe – i.e., Honduras good, Nicaragua bad; Polish bishop worthy of press, Latin American bishops – not so much. In some ways this makes sense. It may even end up self-correcting. For instance, Stephen Hersh, one of the correspondents he talks about, ended up writing a book on the horrors seen within Nicaragua as result of US action. Chomsky was able to prove that what the big guys said was false through other pieces of journalism! If the government really did, even indirectly, tell the big news stations what to say, they’re still not doing a great job of hiding the real information. I buy a lot of what Chomsky says and I feel it helps to do what Steve says, and that’s be skeptical, not cynical. (There are also plenty of sources Chomsky sites that are decidedly quite large themselves to counter mass media propaganda.)

    Heck, in Amy Goodman’s book Static, which I’m reading right now, talks about how the Pentagon really did contract companies to filter propaganda (in true federal government fashion, they hired groups with no journalism experience), and the propaganda was so bad, even the Iraqi people could easily sniff out our $300 million investment.

    Maybe I’m biased because I used a lot of Steve’s arguments to other people directly following OBL’s death, but most were pretty self-evident. I read the conspiracy-esque articles or heard the arguments, one of my friends would ask something about it, and the first thing that came to my head was exactly what Steve wrote. Our government may want the “masses,” whomever they may be, to believe certain things, but if you put in any effort at all, there’s 30 different sources that you can find the “truth” from. Your Third World countries may have the same types of propaganda systems (that is, bad), but you don’t get the 30 other sources because they don’t exist.

  39. 2_wordson 20 Dec 2011 at 1:35 pm

    “Yes, they’ve reported some of the leaks, but that’s part of the distortion process. By appearing to demonstrate integrity, they give the illusion of being truthful and objective, or if you like, fair and balanced.”

    So the appearance of demonstrable integrity is only proof of their distortion process?

    ‘Be prepared for massive cognitive re-wiring. ‘ Is an arrogant, silly thing to say. To say that there could be an objective examination of evidence after such “rewiring” sounds like “after you’ve read my propaganda you’ll see my point.” Of course if it is “good” propaganda then it becomes “truth.”

  40. daedalus2uon 20 Dec 2011 at 1:42 pm

    Methodissed, you say

    “Everyone thinks their beliefs are correct – otherwise they would update.”

    That is not correct. Skeptics don’t have beliefs, they have provisional ideas based on the evidence they are aware of. As the evidence they are aware of changes, so do those provisional ideas. The ideas always remain provisional.

    For something like evolution, it may have a likelihood of 99.99999999999999+%, but it is still provisional.

    For something like OBL’s death, I put it at maybe 90-99%. Pretty likely, but I am not in a position to make decisions based on what I think the likelihood might be, so I don’t need any degree of precision on what I consider the likelihood to be. What is interesting is hearing the arguments of people with a much lower likelihood. Those arguments are often not based on any evidence, but are based on conspiracy theories, that the government is lying, that Obama is a bad president and couldn’t have done anything right, that Obama wouldn’t order the death of a Muslim, all arguments which are not based on data but on feelings and beliefs.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osama_bin_Laden_death_conspiracy_theories

    I think the arguments being used say much more about the people making them than they do about OBL. The belief in a grand conspiracy in the absence of evidence is symptomatic of belief based beliefs and not evidence based ideas. The motivated reasoning that the conspiracy is so effective that all the evidence has been hidden isn’t evidence and doesn’t provide differential likelihood between conspiracy and non-conspiracy. At some point, the conspiracy hypothesis becomes unlikely because it would have to be too perfect.

    I am much more certain of evolution, but I use arguments from evolution a lot in my research, so understanding the magnitude of the actual likelihood is important.

    I agree that people who think in terms of beliefs have a hard time understanding that is not how skeptics think. I think that skeptics have a hard time appreciating that people who believe do so from a completely evidence-free basis. What they call “evidence” isn’t evidence it is usually just something that someone said, or motivated reasoning. Evidence, and relevant evidence is something that can falsify a hypothesis. If the arguments or evidence you are looking at can’t falsify the hypothesis, then it is pretty useless to look at it. But non-skeptics aren’t looking to falsify a hypothesis, they are looking to confirm a belief.

  41. mufion 20 Dec 2011 at 2:15 pm

    Steve said: Here is some evidence – Watergate, Iran Contra, Monica Lewinski, White-Water gate, and every other scandal that has plagued government and politicians in the US.

    These are the kinds of examples that I had in mind in my earlier comment (“But I believe that the reality is somewhat more complicated than [what Chomsky's propaganda model suggests] (not least given the likely rise in ratings and advertising dollars whenever there’s a new political scandal for the media outlets to cover”).

    Such examples fit a profit-seeking model quite well; i.e. one that rests on the modest assumptions that: (1) the interests of profit-seeking media corporations do not always align with those of politicians and bureaucrats; and (2) politicians and bureaucrats are not always so effective at filtering information.

    But even that model has likely shortcomings; e.g. given the moral and/or ideological forces that typically motivate human behavior [i.e. even if someone like Chomsky were to judge such behavior irrational (which reminds me of some books that I've read in recent years, like Predictably Irrational by behavioral economist Daniel Ariely and The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain by cognitive scientist/linguist George Lakoff)].

    Methodissed said: The objections I’m receiving here are mostly a priori rejection and rationalization – which are not impressive “counter-arguments.”

    Well, at least you are not claiming to have argued your case any better (instead, you simply outsource the labor to Chomsky et al.). Fair enough. I believe it’s unreasonable to expect much more than a trade of assertions from blog comments, anyway.

  42. BillyJoe7on 20 Dec 2011 at 3:14 pm

    Methodissed,

    Someone I knew and loved for twenty years before we had a falling out, had only ever read one book which was called “How to be a Millionaire”. He became known amongst his former friends as “the two bob* millionaire”. He believed every word of that book and it changed the way he conducted his life and how he related to the people he supposedly cared for.
    I’m not saying that you have read only one book, but it seems that you have been unduly influenced by that one book you keep referencing.

    *’bob’ is Australian slang for ‘shilling’ as in “pounds, shillings and pence”. We nw had “dollars and cents” of course. A shilling was the equivalent of ten cents.

  43. eeanon 20 Dec 2011 at 3:45 pm

    Maybe we need some context here of what a protofascist Republic actually looks like:
    http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/19/hungarys-constitutional-revolution/

  44. Kobraon 20 Dec 2011 at 5:43 pm

    This conversation is moot because you cannot translate the scientific skeptical model into other domains, like business, or politics.

    When it comes to geopolitics, we do not get all the information, nor are we allowed to view all the information. Information is kept secret either for national security purposes or for whatever other purposes they may be. Therefore, we cannot logically conclude that ‘because there is no evidence, so-and-so assumption, conspiracy theory, or whatever, cannot be true.’ This is a fallacy and playing ‘out of sight, out of mind’ in the realm of geopolitics, and even business, is a dangerous game. Afterall, some people couldn’t fathom that we had CIA blacksites, but we do. Some people, or even shareholders for that matter, couldn’t imagine that Ken Lay would cook the books for Enron, or that Healthsouth’s Rich Scrushy would help commit accounting fraud. Does human fallability and the thirst for power make others cynical? sure, skeptical? absolutely, but not in the scientific sense because you cannot apply the same model to an area where the facts are deliberately skewed or left out.

  45. _parallellines_on 20 Dec 2011 at 6:29 pm

    I always find it kind of funny how much people assume corporate masters control the journalistic content of their sources. I’m a journalist currently working freelance but I’ve worked in a few newsrooms over the years.

    The most common way media outlets “control” the information produced is purely through hiring practices. Essentially news outlets tend to hire journalists who are a good fir for their editorial outlook. That being said, raw talent or experience can trump these practices.

    I’m not sure if this is true for the US, but in Canada most publishers exhibit little control over their journalists. Editors do get final say wether a piece will run or not, but they generally don’t have the time or resources to micromanage all of the content of their papers. I can count the number of times on one hand where a piece of mine was altered to pulled due to the content – and the majority of those were actually at Alternative media outlets (usually far left and completely independent.)

    Newspapers are also not necissarily as cohesive as most people think. There is always a constant battle between the newsroom and its publishers on what content goes where. It’s not uncommon for something to get bumped or pulled for an ad, or at its worst an advertorial.

    Just some food for thought.

  46. daedalus2uon 20 Dec 2011 at 8:23 pm

    Kobra, in what branch of science is all information transparently laid out? Since you seem to not be a scientist, I will tell you, in none of them.

    A lot of people couldn’t fathom that space and time were not separate and absolute, hence Einstein had significant difficulty getting his ideas of Relativity accepted. Those who could understand it, appreciated that it explained the previously unexplained data better than previous ideas. Those who didn’t eventually retired, and then died, and so now essentially all living physicists understand and appreciate relativity. It has only taken 105 years.

    It has been known for a long time that General Relativity and quantum mechanics are fundamentally incompatible. Both seem to be correct in every way that each has been tested, but they both can’t be right.

    I think a lot of people imagined that Ken Lay could lie and cook the books. That is why there are laws against it. Everyone knows that people sometimes lie. That is why skeptics look for evidence, not testimony.

    People could use skepticism in global politics, but they choose not to because they think that lying will give them an advantage. You say:

    “When it comes to geopolitics, we do not get all the information, nor are we allowed to view all the information. Information is kept secret either for national security purposes or for whatever other purposes they may be. Therefore, we cannot logically conclude that ‘because there is no evidence, so-and-so assumption, conspiracy theory, or whatever, cannot be true.’ This is a fallacy and playing ‘out of sight, out of mind’ in the realm of geopolitics, and even business, is a dangerous game.”

    But that is a straw man. No skeptic thinks that way. Dr Novella didn’t say that a conspiracy theory “cannot be true”, he merely said it is unlikely given all else he knows.

    There is a quote from Feynman that is similar.

    “Some years ago I had a conversation with a layman about flying saucers — because I am scientific I know all about flying saucers! I said “I don’t think there are flying saucers”. So my antagonist said, “Is it impossible that there are flying saucers? Can you prove that it’s impossible?” “No”, I said, “I can’t prove it’s impossible. It’s just very unlikely”. At that he said, “You are very unscientific. If you can’t prove it impossible then how can you say that it’s unlikely?” But that is the way that is scientific. It is scientific only to say what is more likely and what less likely, and not to be proving all the time the possible and impossible. To define what I mean, I might have said to him, “Listen, I mean that from my knowledge of the world that I see around me, I think that it is much more likely that the reports of flying saucers are the results of the known irrational characteristics of terrestrial intelligence than of the unknown rational efforts of extra-terrestrial intelligence.” It is just more likely. That is all.”

  47. cwfongon 20 Dec 2011 at 8:28 pm

    Actually Watergate was a conspiracy, but one of those (as in most of those) that was done and gone wrong.

  48. Methodissedon 21 Dec 2011 at 1:30 am

    @Steven Novella – “this does not translate to the conclusion that … the government has totalitarian control over a propaganda machine. What’s the evidence for that?”

    Here’s some devastating evidence that will probably surprise you. It’s a copied verbatim from “Manufacturing Consent.”

    After the Vietnamese had ousted Pol Pot in December 1978, although the United States and its allies denounced Pol Pot as “another Hitler” committing “genocide,” they quickly became his supporter, allowing him to retain Cambodia’s U.N. seat and otherwise aiding and protecting him in his Thailand refuge.

    Vietnam was severely punished — by harsh sanctions and by U.S. support for a Chinese invasion to teach Vietnam a lesson — for having terminated Pol Pot’s atrocities! President Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski stated in 1979 that, “I encouraged the Chinese to support Pol Pot. I encouraged the Thai to help D.K. [Democractic Kampuchea, Pol Pot’s forces]. Pol Pot was an abomination. We could never support him, but China could.”

    In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, as the Vietnamese sought to end their isolation by exiting from Cambodia, but insisted as a condition for withdrawal that Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge be excluded from returning to power, the United States objected and insisted, with eventual success, that the Khmer Rouge be included as a contestant party in the post-occupation settlement.

    What dominated U.S. policy and led to its support of Pol Pot was the classic rule that the enemy of my enemy (Vietnam) is my friend, and perhaps also the new tilt toward China, also hostile toward Vietnam. The support of Pol Pot was awkward, given the prior denunciations of his policies, but the mainstream media handled it with aplumb, and the U.S. public was surely completely unaware that the United States had become his ally and supporter. (The explicit statement of support by Brzezinski quoted above was never mentioned in the New York Times, the Washington Post, or Newsweek; it was quoted once in both the Los Angeles Times and Time. …

    The New York Times summary of “Pol Pot’s Rise & Fall (April 17, 1998) lists for 1979-1990: Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge are given refuge at Thai border where they fight back against the Vietnamese.” “Given refuge” is misleading: they were given economic and military aid and political support by the United States and its allies. …

    The Washington Post blacked out the inconvenient fifteen-year period of support of Pol Pot with this summary: “After the nightmare of Khmer Rouge rule and genocide, the United States and its allies pumped millions of dollars into Cambodia to help rebuild and to hold elections. …

    But in Suharto’s case, we move to an ambiguous responsibility, which means none at all: in the New York Times, for example, “a 1965 coup led to the massacres of hundreds of thousands of supposed communists” (editorial, Aug. 23, 1996), where we have no agent doing the killing; or “a wave of violence that took up to 500,000 lives and led Suharto to seize power from Sukarno in a military coup” (Seth Mydans Aug 7, 1996), where the massacre not only has no agent, but is falsely situated before the takeover of power by Suharto. In a later piece, the Mydans states that, “more than 500,000 Indonesians are estimated to have died in a purge of leftists in 1965, the year Suharto came to power” (April 8, 1997). Note the passive voice, never used in connection with Pol Pot, the word “purge” instead of “slaughter” or “massacre,” and the continued failure to identify the agent. [Manufacturing Consent pages xxxvii-xxxix]

    @Steven Novella – “Here is some evidence – Watergate, Iran Contra, Monica Lewinski, White-Water gate, and every other scandal that has plagued government and politicians in the US.”

    True, but as demonstrated above, the issue to consider when evaluating whether we’re being deceived by systemic propaganda is to identify what we *don’t* see. There are good reasons why some scandals get exposed.

    • Watergate – Nixon overstepped his bounds by attacking an elite power structure (the Democratic Party).

    • Iran Contra – Reagan overstepped his bounds by sneaking behind the back of an elite power structure (The U.S. Congress)

    • Monica Lewinski – One elite power structure saw the opportunity to gain the upper hand on their only competition. The risks were nominal compared to the potential benefits.

    It’s easy to attack woo, but proficiency in that realm can result in overconfidence in one’s competence to assess less familiar realms. Frankly, I’ve had my fill of a priori rejection and rationalization. To everyone who has responded to me, if you strive to seriously and objectively evaluate the preceding evidence, I’d be happy to continue this discussion.

    Please note that this short piece can’t begin to do justice to the entire book. It should, however, justify further investigation.

  49. 2_wordson 21 Dec 2011 at 9:21 am

    So is this evidence of systematic propaganda or evidence of journalistic integrity?

    “Here’s some devastating evidence that will probably surprise you.” Again, you do not know what other people are already aware of, this just sounds like the person most suprised by the “media lies” was you.

  50. daedalus2uon 21 Dec 2011 at 9:59 am

    Methodissed, you are right, I am shocked that any politician or political group would spin and manipulate events for their own benefit.

  51. Methodissedon 21 Dec 2011 at 9:59 am

    @2_words – So is this evidence of systematic propaganda or evidence of journalistic integrity?”

    Both. Your reply is evidence of a priori denial and rationalization

  52. mufion 21 Dec 2011 at 10:08 am

    2_words to Methodissed: Again, you do not know what other people are already aware of, this just sounds like the person most suprised by the “media lies” was you.

    It also sounds like disbelief that anyone who has read or heard these claims before does not accept them uncritically as the last and only words on the matter. (I used to get that a lot from religious evangelists, after I told them that I’d already read the Bible.)

    What’s more, note how any counter-evidence to the propaganda model is interpreted as support for it, even though Steve’s examples are a better fit for a different model (not that any model of human behavior – as complex as it is – is perfect) – namely, that of a profit-motivated free press.

    But it’s one model to rule them all! All shall love Chomsky and despair! :-)

  53. 2_wordson 21 Dec 2011 at 10:36 am

    It is odd because I’m not really disagreeing.

    I just don’t get surprised, cognitively rewired by journalism pointing out how journalism is propaganda.

    The rhetoric is a cliche really, when one feels like they have moved from ignorance to illumination they feel that everyone else must have been in the dark.

  54. mufion 21 Dec 2011 at 1:58 pm

    2_words: I, too, am familiar enough with such claims that I don’t get surprised, let alone “cognitively rewired”, by them. But I may be a bit more selective about how I use the word “propaganda” than the Chomskyites.

    For example, notice how the quotes from Manufacturing Consent above fault the NY Times and the Washington Post for its poor coverage of events in Southeast Asia. While they do indeed suggest a systemic bias among the staff of those media outlets (namely, one that leads to soft-pedaling on coverage of US foreign policy), they provide no clear evidence of direct government control and coercion – that is, of the kind of authoritarian media manipulation that I (and, I suspect, most people) typically think of as “propaganda.”

    And, besides, systemic bias does not necessarily entail deliberate lying (as in “the media lies”). If it did, then we’d also be obliged to accuse the Chomskyites of lying, since they are clearly biased against any information that does not fit their left-libertarian narrative.

  55. 2_wordson 21 Dec 2011 at 3:25 pm

    The easy thing to agree upon is that there is systemic bias. Now, who has the bias and what the bias is, I would not claim is so cleanly parsed. The individuals are not easily separated from the abstract entities of “the government” and “the media.”

    Personally, it is tiring to hear “You are wrong because you are biased but I am right because of these books/authors, I am not biased, I can look at evidence objectively, I have pierced the veil of lies and shadows. Aren’t you lucky I am here to tell you how I am not affected by the sophisticated state propaganda system that you all are immersed in?”

    Of course with “an excellent propaganda apparatus” anything and anyone is suspect and may be a tendril of the apparatus because all information has been filtered through the apparatus. What you know is only what it wants you to know, including that it exists. But to think that would be rather cynical.

  56. tmac57on 21 Dec 2011 at 6:16 pm

    Mufi and 2_words- Thanks for your well thought out comments. I think that anyone who pays attention to external events,sometimes goes through what Methodissed is experiencing,and that is understandable,but what you have pointed out,is that the issues of misinformation in the press,and other sources,have a more nuanced set of origins,and motivations than just “We are all being controlled by a vast and powerful monolith”. Sometimes,it really is just about “Will this hurt our bottom line?”,and other times,it’s about making a deadline,or making a name for yourself…oh yeah,and sometimes,it really is a government disinformation campaign.

  57. mufion 21 Dec 2011 at 7:24 pm

    tmac57: Thanks. I couldn’t have summarized my position any better than you just did.

    Given the foreign policy skew of this thread (which follows naturally from any citation of Chomsky on the media), I feel obliged to add that I consider the recent trend of embedded journalism (i.e. situations where journalists sign contracts “with the military promising not to report information that could compromise unit position, future missions, classified weapons and information they might find”) to be a disturbing – albeit, somewhat overt – example of a “government disinformation campaign.”

    Fortunately, plenty of journalists are still “unembedded”, but it’s a quality that one now has to seek out.

  58. thequiet1on 21 Dec 2011 at 9:09 pm

    Methodissed,

    Chomsky never argued that you couldn’t find information if you knew where to look. One of his strengths is his ability to source information that was not presented in American mass media to show how historical events often run counter to popular perception, such as your example with Pol Pot.

    So yes, information is filtered by the mass media. This is not in any way a controversial claim.

    But the idea that the government and elite interests can control information to such an extent that a motivated skeptical or even cynical person can not ever access it is something else entirely. If there is a take-home message from manufacturing consent it’s that you need to look beyond the mass media for your information. I don’t believe the book argues that information can be controlled absolutely (yes, I have read it. You will find many in the skeptical community who have).

    This has never been truer than today. There are so many channels for disseminating information outside the mass media that anyone with the will can do so. And anyone with the will can receive it.

    The war in Iraq is a good example. The government and military have a very strong interest in only allowing positive, supportive information out. Yet we have a wealth of information about American misdeeds, due both to journalists and whistle-blowers within the establishment. The mass media may not give due attention to these matters, but the information is available.

    “Perhaps its time for a closer look rather than assuming the issue is settled.” – I think that sounds like a fine idea, don’t you?

  59. rezistnzisfutlon 22 Dec 2011 at 3:06 am

    Even if the government and corporations are feeding us disinformation, etc, in such a way that’s invisible to us, what are we supposed to do? We can’t do a whole lot other than keep alert, take the rhetoric with a grain of salt no matter what the source, and keep an open mind, until actual verifiable, reliable evidence is presented. Jumping to conclusions or assuming dastardly deeds are being performed behind our back isn’t going to do much for us. Assuming the worst isn’t keeping an open mind.

    No conclusion can be drawn if there’s not any legitimate evidence. Making conclusions is begging the question, and can too easily and often lead to the wrong conclusion which can be harmful. That is exactly how conspiracy theories, CAM, woo, and anti-vaxxers start, by jumping to preconceived conclusions because there either isn’t enough information, the information presented isn’t understood (which is usually the case in this scientifically illiterate society), or the information isn’t trusted not matter how many controls are set or how independed the source is.

    So, unless we can get reliable, verifiable evidence of conspiracy, the default position of a skeptic is to remain skeptical. It’s not because the government has us so well programmed that we’ll believe anything they tell us, it’s because we haven’t received enough convincing evidence to make us believe the thousands of claims every nutjob or conspiracy theorist has out there. Just like with god claims, one cannot logic or reason god into existence no matter what the argument is, there MUST be evidence to support it, especially when it comes to extraordinary claims.

  60. rezistnzisfutlon 22 Dec 2011 at 3:08 am

    “Making conclusions is begging the question”

    I meant to add that making conclusions in the absence of evidence is also an argument from ignorance fallacy.

  61. Methodissedon 22 Dec 2011 at 10:14 am

    I’m fascinated by the responses to my original post and supporting evidence (though not surprised). Like people who are immersed in other propaganda systems, e.g., Nazi Germany, Russia, USSR, and China, you can’t see how systemic lies and distortions have warped your beliefs and behavior. In the context of such history and contemporary knowledge about propaganda, and given the fallible nature of the human brain, it is arrogant (and very human) to think that you’re immune to the effects of state sponsored deception.

    Back to my original post — you don’t understand propaganda. Of the four false claims that I objected to, we’ve been focusing on #4, i.e., our free press “collectively works pretty diligently to expose any government lies.” I just clearly demonstrated an embarrassing case where this is clearly not true (the other three claims are equally false). Our government knowingly and secretly supported a genocidal monster, because doing so served our economic and political interests. And, they have successfully kept this appalling truth hidden from the public consciousness for decades. As evidenced in the quoted text above, mass media collusion continues to this day. That’s called propaganda folks.

    Like devout Christians who are faced with claims that their invisible friend is not real, you are unable to examine the evidence. This stems from cognitive dissonance and a host of biases that protect our brains from having to endure the psychological pain inherent to substantial re-wiring. You can’t seriously study books like “Manufacturing Consent” and “A People’s History of the United States” any more than Christians can seriously study the bible. Doing so would upset your cognitive apple cart.

    When considering the Pol Pot evidence, you should be appalled and be asking yourselves, “How else have I been deceived?” “What impact has that had on my worldview and subsequent behavior?” Instead, the goal post has moved. You’re continuing your pattern of a priori denial and rationalization, and the blather continues.

    Here’s a question for you. If the truth was significantly different from what you believe to be true, would you want to know?

  62. 2_wordson 22 Dec 2011 at 10:48 am

    Reading comprehension is not your strong suit.

    “When considering the Pol Pot evidence, you should be appalled” To say people are not appalled is insulting, you do not know what people are or are not appalled by. To think that because they have not commented as such here is an arrogant assumption in which you dehumanized those that disagree with you and claim moral superiority.

    The comments are only saying that “it aint neccasarily so.” You have the difficult job of showing it is so and have resorted to the usual responses of “There’s none so blind as those who will not see.” If your really cared about changing the minds of people to see “the truth” wouldn’t you be a little bit better at relaying it?

    If one claims there is systemic lies and distortion that have warped beliefs and behaviors, the description of “systemic propaganda” applies to the claimant as well. Your vision is not necessarily clearer, you’ve just picked glasses a different tint.

    To put it another way, when you walked out of your cave and into the light, you forget that you are only in another cave, albeit a brighter one.

  63. tmac57on 22 Dec 2011 at 11:40 am

    Methodissed- Congratulations on being successfully “rewired” ! It apparently has now become ‘hardwiring’.

  64. Methodissedon 22 Dec 2011 at 12:12 pm

    More blather, an unwillingness to seriously study the issue, and avoidance of my question. Here it is again:

    If the truth was significantly different from what you believe to be true, would you want to know?

  65. daedalus2uon 22 Dec 2011 at 12:29 pm

    On August 25, 1978, George McGovern called for an international force to invade Cambodia and expel Pol Pot. If you don’t remember your history, George McGovern was the anti-war presidential candidate in 1972. I remember it. It was known what was going on in Cambodia, to some degree, just no one wanted to do anything about it. I was appalled at the time.

    The same thing happened in Rwanda, there was a genocide of 500,000 and no one wanted to do anything about it. Clinton felt ashamed that he didn’t intervene, which is a major reason why he did intervene in Bosnia where he did prevent a much larger genocide from happening than what did happen. The Congress was against the intervention in Bosnia, except for a few individuals (like Bob Dole).

    There were people who saw through the propaganda of the rush to war in Iraq. I did. I participated in anti-war protests.

    Essentially to a person, the GOP opposed Obama’s intervention in Libya. Why? Because it was Obama’s idea.

    I am not sure what your point is. That skeptics can’t sift through noisy data because we are all blinded by propaganda? Maybe when I was a child I was blinded, but a lifetime of skepticism has made me pretty much fact based. That is skepticism based on evidence, facts and logic and not cynicism based on being a contrarian.

  66. 2_wordson 22 Dec 2011 at 12:30 pm

    If you found that the truth was not something that could be gotten would you accept that?

  67. daedalus2uon 22 Dec 2011 at 12:33 pm

    Methodissed, you don’t understand skeptics and skepticism. We don’t have beliefs. We have tentative hypotheses that best explain the data that we are aware of. When we acquire more data, we change those hypotheses. When some data is found to be in error, that data is discarded and new hypotheses are generated.

    Most non-skeptics are unable to appreciate how skeptics think. If they could appreciate how skeptics think, they would be skeptics too.

  68. 2_wordson 22 Dec 2011 at 12:39 pm

    Methodissed

    This is not “an unwillingness to seriously study the issue” again people can look at the same issue and see differing things, this doesn’t mean they haven’t “seriously studied the issue” or are so afraid of their “cognitive apple cart” being nocked over.

    Sounds like you have a “pattern of a priori denial and rationalization” of why people do not seem to agree completely with you.

  69. mufion 22 Dec 2011 at 12:40 pm

    thequite1: If there is a take-home message from manufacturing consent it’s that you need to look beyond the mass media for your information. I don’t believe the book argues that information can be controlled absolutely…

    That jibes with my (10 year-old+) recollection of the book (and related essays, speeches, & interviews).

    In any case, that would logically have to be so in order for Chomsky to lay claim to higher-quality information, right? Otherwise, what makes him a more reliable source than the mass media?

    There are so many channels for disseminating information outside the mass media that anyone with the will can do so. And anyone with the will can receive it.

    Yes, which means that we likely run up against a different (and, in some ways, even more challenging) problem than media bias or government propaganda: namely, that of the apathy (or cognitive bias, in general), which resides in the typical (or non-news-junkie) consumer.

    As George Orwell once put it: “The ordinary man is passive. Within a narrow circle, home life, and perhaps the trade unions or local politics, he feels himself master of his fate. But otherwise he simply lies down and lets things happen to him.”

    And, I might add, “to others.”

    While that might sound cynical, I think it’s realistic – and by no means negates the moral force of attempts to improve upon that reality.

  70. sonicon 22 Dec 2011 at 12:49 pm

    a skeptical approach involves doubt and questions about evidence (is this really true?) and assumptions (what are they, are they true?) and logic (does the conclusion follow?)
    a cynical approach is to question the motives of the other person (you are saying ‘x’ because you are… paid to, trying to fool us, afraid, …)
    It is possible to do both.
    As far as government hiding things- try “MKULTRA” as an example of hiding in plain sight.
    As far as conspiracies go– where is Jimmy Hoffa buried, anyway?

  71. Methodissedon 22 Dec 2011 at 1:19 pm

    Hey, what’s for dinner? Red Herring.

    Why, I wonder, are you all maneuvering in various directions rather than answering my very specific and simple question?

    I’ll ask it a third time. If the truth was significantly different from what you believe to be true, would you want to know?

  72. 2_wordson 22 Dec 2011 at 1:33 pm

    The maneuvering is because the question is childish. And one that most, hopefully, have worked through long before you got here.

    “The Allegory of the cave” is not a recent work, surely you are familiar. Is it suprising that there are those that have gone further down the rabbit hole than you?

  73. Methodissedon 22 Dec 2011 at 2:44 pm

    @2_words – “The maneuvering is because the question is childish.”

    Is that a “yes?

  74. 2_wordson 22 Dec 2011 at 2:58 pm

    That is a way of showing there is no good answer to the question of “have you stopped beating your wife.”

    To ask the question would you want to know the truth if you could, implies that anyone wouldn’t.

  75. Methodissedon 22 Dec 2011 at 3:15 pm

    How could there be “no good answer to the question?” Unlike your faulty analogy (“Have you stopped beating your wife”), I didn’t ask a loaded question.

    @2_words – “To ask the question would you want to know the truth if you could, implies that anyone wouldn’t.”

    I wasn’t implying a negative answer and in fact expected the opposite. Your refusal to answer and evasive maneuvering does, however, imply that your skepticism is situational.

  76. 2_wordson 22 Dec 2011 at 3:24 pm

    Yes, I want to know the truth even if it is significantly different from what I believe to be true. Which implies that I am significantly wrong at present.

    No, I do not want to know the truth even if it is significantly different from what I believe to be true. Which implies that I do not want to know the truth and do not at present.

    Which are you? Ignorant or or willfully ignorant? Any non-direct answer is evasive.

  77. Methodissedon 22 Dec 2011 at 3:33 pm

    @2_words – “Which are you? Ignorant or or willfully ignorant?”

    That’s another faulty analogy because both answers point in the same direction. You’re not very good at this.

  78. 2_wordson 22 Dec 2011 at 3:54 pm

    Well, the truth scares me and my cognitive apple cart is so very fragile I must defend it. I see now that there must be certainty otherwise there is only degrees of truth and I get a nosebleed when someone does not agree with my every point. I am so very immersed in the systematic propaganda I can’t see how systemic lies and distortions have warped my beliefs and behavior. Truly, I am scared and shocked by the surprising evidence you have brought. Thank you. I’ll try to understand the world in black and white terms, grey is such a very cognitively dissonant shade.

    I’ll try to display more moral outrage next time at the shocking points you bring up but I probably don’t have a well devolved sense of empathy.

  79. 2_wordson 22 Dec 2011 at 4:11 pm

    Also, I didn’t make an analogy. I asked if you were ignorant or willfully ignorant, you gave no direct answer. So I guess you’re being evasive and this means something about your skepticism.

    I answered your question. I answered it twice.

    But I am not very good at this, so…

  80. Methodissedon 22 Dec 2011 at 4:28 pm

    @2_words – “Also, I didn’t make an analogy.”

    Yes you did. It was fallaciously used to justify your previous faulty analogy.

    You don’t know what an analogy is, let alone how to recognize a fallacious one. This does not speak well for your reasoning skills.

  81. 2_wordson 22 Dec 2011 at 4:38 pm

    Evasion.

  82. Methodissedon 22 Dec 2011 at 4:45 pm

    Expecting someone to answer a loaded question is fallacious. You’re on a roll.

  83. 2_wordson 22 Dec 2011 at 4:54 pm

    Self-reflection is difficult.

  84. Methodissedon 22 Dec 2011 at 5:02 pm

    @2_words – “Self-reflection is difficult.”

    You just committed the tu quoque fallacy. Geez. Maybe its time to stop talking.

  85. 2_wordson 22 Dec 2011 at 5:05 pm

    Massive cognitive re-wiring will do that I supose.

  86. Methodissedon 22 Dec 2011 at 5:19 pm

    Red herring

  87. 2_wordson 22 Dec 2011 at 5:24 pm

    “If the truth was significantly different from what you believe to be true, would you want to know?”

    State of Ignorance, being ignorant of the truth = truth being significantly different from what one believes to be true.
    Would you want to know = willful or not.

    Are you in a state of ignorance willfully or ignorantly?

    Why the evasion?

    Why all the talk of fish, are you hungry?

  88. Methodissedon 22 Dec 2011 at 5:26 pm

    That response speaks for itself. Thanks for the humor.

  89. tmac57on 22 Dec 2011 at 5:32 pm

    If the truth was significantly different from what you believe to be true, would you want to know?

    If I don’t know the truth now,then how will I know that you,or anybody else can tell me what’s true? In other words,if up till now my judgement and acquired knowledge has let me down,then why would I trust my judgement enough to accept your version of ‘the truth’? You might have it,but now my ability to discern fact from fiction is shaken,and I can’t trust anyone. As a matter of fact,who do you work for…what is your game anyway?

  90. 2_wordson 22 Dec 2011 at 5:35 pm

    Wait, don’t go, did I do some other fish? How ill I get out of the all powerful propaganda machine? What about my painkillers, am I using them right? What other baked goods am I on?

    My cognitive apple cart is stuck in a priori… oh dear.

  91. 2_wordson 22 Dec 2011 at 5:45 pm

    Honestly, though what does leaving my pain killers unplowed and unseeded during the growing season have to do with anything.

  92. Methodissedon 22 Dec 2011 at 5:49 pm

    Tmac57, it’s a hypothetical question which was intended to direct the conversation away from the endless rationalization, and instead explore how how we can best determine what is likely to be true.

    As with any such effort, this shouldn’t be about who’s right. It’s about the philosophical ideal of pursuing truth. It seems that you’re more concerned with defending your deeply held beliefs, and are therefore framing this as a competition.

    Apparently this type of conversation is too threatening.

  93. 2_wordson 22 Dec 2011 at 6:04 pm

    Threatened what beliefs? It is funny since I never said mine. I just like poking the most seemingly certain. They are usually respond most insecurely.

  94. tmac57on 22 Dec 2011 at 6:23 pm

    Methodissed- Hypothetically,yes I would want to know the truth.
    The reason that I and (I guess) 2_words are not answering you directly,is that we both realize that we do not live in a hypothetical world,where ‘truths’ are easily discerned.I have gone through many ‘truths’ in my life,and the strange thing is, that they keep being displaced by other ‘truths’.
    At this stage, I now am more cautious about total acceptance of any radical departure from what I provisionally accept as fact. I can be convinced by facts,and I can be fooled by fiction. Figuring out which is which,is an ongoing life’s project.
    Did I mistakenly defend a deeply held belief here?If so what did I say that you disagree with,maybe
    I will reconsider.
    By the way,will you answer your own question that you posed?And if so,how do you know when to accept something as ‘the truth’,and by that I don’t mean just probable,but ‘THE TRUTH’?

  95. Methodissedon 22 Dec 2011 at 6:53 pm

    @tmac57 – “Will you answer your own question that you posed? And if so,how do you know when to accept something as ‘the truth’,and by that I don’t mean just probable,but ‘THE TRUTH’?”

    The answer is a no-brainer, unless you’re more motivated to defend belief rather than pursue truth. The how is wonderfully elucidated in Steve’s many posts on this site, and other respectable resources. Examples include:

    * Embrace the truth seeking principle (and other principles of argumentation)
    * Strive to understand and minimize your own biases
    * Require clarity and precision in definitions and terminology
    * Seek out and fairly evaluate alternate perspectives
    * Make logically sound arguments
    * Reject fallacious reasoning
    * Determine which hypothesis is best supported by the evidence
    * Hold your conclusions provisionally
    * Etc.

    Note that “a prior denial” and “rationalization” didn’t make the list.

    I would never claim to know “THE TRUTH” as you put it. Conclusions should be probabilistic, not certain.

    Answering a hypothetical question about one’s willingness to embrace the truth seeking principle does not imply that “truths are easily discerned.” Frankly I’m a bit perplexed that there was so much push-back over a very reasonable and relevant question.

  96. 2_wordson 22 Dec 2011 at 7:06 pm

    The only one defending a belief here is Methodissed. All the other comments have been an agreement of the general premise of there being propaganda but not to what exact extent or purpose.

    The truth question is just an example of poor logical rhetoric.

  97. rezistnzisfutlon 22 Dec 2011 at 7:26 pm

    Sure, I think most of us here would want to know the truth if it were different from what we already think we know. The question begging is, what evidence is there that the “new” truth is different from what we already think we know? Is it compelling enough in a scientific sense to actually change our minds?

    I think what’s being suggested here is that many people are dogmatically clinging to what they think is the truth when in fact there is another “truth” that we are blind to, because we are, what, afraid, willfully ignorant, stubborn, hopelessly brainwashed? In general, the default position skeptics hold is disbelief until legitimate, verifiable evidence is presented, primarily for the more extraordinariy claims such as presented by the conspiracy theorists, religious, or CAM types, etc.

    The thing is, most of us here are bombarded with all sorts of junk information day in and day out. We’ve seen enough of flim-flam artists, conspiracy theory nutcases, and snake-oil salesmen that we have pretty decent BS detectors, at least enough to critically question what is being claimed.

    So, when someone comes along claiming giant conspiracies a la “The Matrix”, sure, we’re skeptical. It’s not to say we’re outright denying what is being claimed, but we need more than just someone’s word that this kind of thing is occurring, at least to the degree that is being claimed.

    I don’t think anyone here is so innocent and naive to think there’s nothing funny going on with the government or media outlets, but I also think most people here don’t believe there’s a lot more than that, simply because we haven’t seen evidence for it. If the powers that be are so adept at it to make it invisible to us, what can we do about that? We can’t necessarily do anything beyond what we have to work with, which is the actual evidence that’s presented.

    However, if someone came along and presented actual legitimate, compelling evidence, I think most people here would likely listen and take it into consideration, even if it goes against what they think they know as the truth (their worldview), and even change their minds in the end.

    For myself, I don’t know how many times when I was in college that I thought I had a good grasp of the material, until someone came along and explained it better; at that point, I HAD to adopt what they explained or else get an F on the next exam.

    I don’t see where this is a whole lot different. Most of us here would like to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible.

  98. rezistnzisfutlon 22 Dec 2011 at 7:36 pm

    Whether for good or bad, when most of us hear someone spouting conspiracy theories, that tends to be a red flag. Too often, conspiracy theories are where those who have no compelling evidence or decent arguments go, especially when someone else is critical of what they’re claiming. This is very often seen with CAM, anti-vaxxers, and political extremists.

    A “good” skeptic (whatever that really means) would fairly and objectively consider whatever (new) evidence is presented. However, most of us here have seen most of the “evidence” out there, and perhaps that gives the impression that we’re close-minded, when in fact we’ve seen the same thing again for the hundredth time.

  99. 2_wordson 23 Dec 2011 at 9:00 am

    When evidence counter to the propaganda model is seen only as further proof of the propaganda model, that is a red flag.

    When you can disseminate information, evidence exposing the complete control of the government and their corporate master, this is evidence that they do not have the thing described. Unless that is what they want you to know…

    When any differing opinions to your idea is interpreted as “they are not serious” or “they are just scared of my big ol’ truths” or “I know this stuff you don’t” or “my ideas must be threatening,” that is a red flag.

    But then again I am a fish of a particular hue and should not be trusted.

  100. tmac57on 23 Dec 2011 at 10:11 am

    2_words- I find your ‘red flag’ argument to be colorist,and a blue fin tuna!
    You just keep on defending your deep sea beliefs! Pshaw…and…uh…blather!

  101. sonicon 23 Dec 2011 at 1:10 pm

    It seems Methodissed is using a cynical argument (pointed at motivations) while 2_words and tmac57 and rezistnzisfutl try to turn the subject onto the evidence- skeptical.
    Thank-you for the example.

  102. Methodissedon 24 Dec 2011 at 2:11 pm

    Rezistnzisfutl, thank you for that well written response. I made the mistake of letting myself get sucked back into the peripheral discussion. In my frustration, I became unnecessarily confrontational and therefore apologize to everyone, especially 2_words.

    Let’s step back from the details and look at the big picture.

    SYNOPSIS OF THIS DISCUSSION

    1 — I challenged a list of four claims on the original blog post, and recommended two books with extensive factual counter-evidence.

    2 — A reasonable goal post was set and examples of good evidence were offered (evidence supporting the status quo). I was asked to provide counter-evidence.

    3 — I responded with factual (and therefore falsifiable) evidence, that if true, met the established goal post with flying colors. For example, the statement from President Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski shows clear intent by our government to deceive. Likewise, references to specific newspaper stories demonstrate collusion between our government and the mass media. Finally, this appalling evidence surprises almost everyone who reads it, demonstrating that the effects of this propaganda are lasting and pervasive.

    Remember, one example of good evidence that was offered to me was the Monica Lewinsky scandal. It’s exposure is easily explained by the dynamic of competing political power. From a moral perspective, lying about sexual impropriety is trivial when compared to our government secretly aiding and supporting someone they knew to be a genocidal monster, and getting away with it for decades. This is an outrage of biblical proportions.

    Back to our synopsis.

    4 — The goal post set by Steve was moved by others. Now I was expected to provide conclusive proof on a much broader scale. Rather than falsifying my evidence, the group was overwhelmingly dismissive, and even refused to publicly embrace the truth seeking principle. Three times I asked, “If the truth were substantially different from what you believe to be true, would you want to know?” The response varied from sudden silence to the accusation that I was asking a loaded question.

    That’s a summary of what happened. Let’s see what we can learn from this interaction.

    TWO KEY PRINCIPLES OF SKEPTICISM AND CRITICAL THINKING

    1 — Truth Seeking Principle — We should perpetually pursue truth wherever it leads, and abandon or reduce confidence in our existing beliefs when they are refuted by the evidence.

    2 — Fallibility Principle — Closely aligned with the truth seeking principle, we must acknowledge that we could be wrong, i.e., hold our views tentatively and keep our minds open to alternate perspectives.

    EVALUATING THE FACTS

    I responded to the goal post criteria with factual data including names, dates, and quotes (the book itself is extensively sourced). Unlike the typical woo claim, this type of evidence is ideal, because it’s open to falsification and is therefore relatively easy to refute.

    The a priori dismissal of factual evidence, rhetorical acrobatics, and an unwillingness to commit to the truth seeking principle suggest that this evidence has teeth. An epistemological correction of this magnitude, if true, would be HUGE. Given the strength of evidence above, advocates of the truth seeking and fallibility principles should at least be curious – you genuinely want to know the truth, right? Why run when you can falsify?

    I will ask again that further commentary focus on whether my evidence is factual and sufficient to meet original goal post requirement. Clearly it is easier to shoot fish in a barrel (attack woo), than it is to internalize and apply the expectations that we impose on others. Even if the evidence I provided was falsified, the group response is enlightening. We have much in common with our woo-loving friends, i.e., we’re all human.

    I recognize that this is a holiday week and this issue is no small matter. I will patient wait for a serious factual critique of the evidence that I was asked to provide.

    RELEVANT QUESTIONS

    1 – Once the goal post is set, are you obligated to fairly evaluate the requested evidence and to discuss its merits and failings?

    2 — If the goal post requirement is met, what should happen next?

    3 – As a seeker of truth, if you were being duped by propaganda, thereby pulling your beliefs and worldview significantly in the wrong direction, would you want to know?

    4 – If state-sponsored propaganda is pervasive, how could you further verify its existence?

    END NOTE

    (a) — I was challenged a couple times above for using the word “belief.” I understand the objection and appreciate the positive effects of framing your thoughts to better focus on evidence and probability. I struggle though with complete avoidance of the term, because its use appropriately implies that we are fallible by nature, i.e., we all have beliefs – some are right and some are necessarily wrong. I like the word because, as with science, it reminds us of the need to hold our conclusions (beliefs) provisionally.

  103. 2_wordson 24 Dec 2011 at 6:56 pm

    To label those those one is trying to convince that they disagree in a way similar to the enemies of truth seekers (willfully ignorant) or those brainwashed by the state (ignorant) is counter productive.

    I hope someone replies in a way that generates the discussion you were looking for.

    Time to swim away.

  104. daedalus2uon 24 Dec 2011 at 10:26 pm

    Methodissed, no. The topic of the post was the death of OBL, and whether or not it was faked by the US government and should we be cynical and disbelieve what ever the government says or should we be skeptics and evaluate the evidence.

    You set out to destroy Dr Novella’s argument and you failed, badly. You set the goalposts yourself and then failed to meet them.

    Dr Novella cited some general principles and why he didn’t think that the US was a “powerful military state with an excellent propaganda apparatus” in the context of faking the death of OBL. You countered with a 20 year old documentary (Manufacturing consent) and a 30 year old book (“A People’s History of the United States”). What do these old sources have to do with current events and the current state of information? Both of these were long before the internet.

    You haven’t demonstrated that the US government is monolithic. Last time I checked (this afternoon) it wasn’t, and the House had just shot themselves in the foot because the government was not monolithic.

    You haven’t demonstrated that there is not a two-party system and that the two parties are all lovie-dovie about everything. Last I checked, they weren’t, with Romney saying that Iran would get nuclear weapons if Obama was elected.

    You haven’t demonstrated that there is nothing close to a free press. What wikileaks demonstrates is that there is a lot of embarrassing stuff, with diplomats saying unflattering things about other diplomats.

    You then proclaim that you have thus destroyed Dr Novella’s argument and proven it false. Nonsense. You seem to think that the US has an excellent propaganda apparatus, but that you can see through it. So which is it? You “prove” that the US doesn’t have a free press by citing two sources that have been around for decades? Carter hasn’t been president for 30 years, and his presidency was (probably) one of the least dishonest ones in recent memory. Citing a member of his administration on the lies that the US government tells us isn’t any kind of refutation of what Dr Novella was talking about.

    You don’t seem to be interested in any information or evidence as to the question at hand (the death of OBL), but rather seem bent on stirring up anti-US propaganda and telling us we can’t be good skeptics because 20 and 30 year old sources say the government can’t be believed.

    Instead of telling us how we are all being unwittingly deceived by the US government, how about tell us how to avoid being deceived? Other than by some vague “principles” which are not new to any skeptic?

    When you say all of us have beliefs, you are not speaking for all of us. I know I don’t have beliefs. You are projecting that you have beliefs onto the rest of us. I am pretty sure that Dr Novella doesn’t have beliefs either. Some of us skeptics do appreciate how difficult it is for non-skeptics to approach life without having beliefs. The reason we can appreciate it is because it has taken a lifetime of skepticism to not have beliefs. Being a skeptic 24/7 makes it easier to do some kinds of thinking. Being a skeptic 24/7 isn’t something that is easily turned off, and once you have lived that way for a long time, it isn’t something you want to turn off, even if it was easy to do so.

  105. mindmeon 30 Dec 2011 at 1:16 pm

    I think some people just assume skepticism = “I doubt the official story”. They don’t understand it’s a process, not a political position.

  106. Methodissedon 07 Mar 2012 at 3:49 pm

    @daedalus2u – “You set out to destroy Dr Novella’s argument and you failed, badly. You set the goalposts yourself and then failed to meet them.”

    I objected to four key premises that were essential supports to the conclusion of the original post. In argumentation it is appropriate to object to the premises of an argument. We narrowed the discussion to #1 & #4. If I’m right, then other two premises are seriously in doubt. Steve asked me for supporting evidence and provided examples of good evidence (that’s a goal post). I responded with a stunning example. At that point, he disappeared, never to return.

    @daedalus2u – “You countered with a 20 year old documentary (Manufacturing consent) and a 30 year old book (“A People’s History of the United States”).”

    The two “books” I offered are not outdated. In fact “A People’s History of the U.S.” was last edited in 2010. Just because my example dates back to the Vietnam era doesn’t invalidate my objection. In fact it strengthens my argument by demonstrating that our propaganda system has effectively hidden this important historic truth from the public consciousness for decades. I could offer many contemporary examples, but 50 posts after my Pol Pot example, there is not a single attempt to refute the evidence that evidence.

    @daedalus2u – “I know I don’t have beliefs.”

    You believe that your view on this issue is correct. That’s a belief bud.

    Like everyone else here, you’re completely ignoring hard factual evidence and trying to shift the discussion elsewhere (red herrings are running rampant). I’ll ask again, if you’re truly motivated to pursue truth, then why run when you can falsify?

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