Waking from the Dream of Total Victory in the Contests for Public Truth

Civil American, Volume 3, Article 1 (January 19, 2018).

| By Paul Croce |

Can academics support the democratic struggle not just to critique fake news, but also to engage the public in the stories that make those false facts appealing?

 

Adobe logo, to serve as a link to the Adobe PDF version of the transcript.The Oxford English Dictionary named “Post-Truth” its Word of the Year for 2016. The dictionary cites “appeals to emotion or personal belief,” which have gained more influence than “objective facts … in shaping public opinion.” The sober scholars of the OED spotlighted this word not to glorify this way of thinking, but to call attention to a disturbing trend. In 2005, Stephen Colbert had already identified “truthiness” as the posture of public figures who “feel the truth” even in the face of contrasting facts and reasons. The particular items of recent history are new, such as the claim that Democrats have been managing a ring of pedophiles out of the Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria in Washington, DC, but fabricated news has always been the exaggerating cousin of political spin. The multiplication of media outlets appealing to diverse clusters of people has made it particularly difficult to sort out corrupted truths from authentic stories.

This image is in the public domain.

Intellectual responses surely help identify the really true stories, but the problem of fakery runs deeper because of the way fake stories can seem plausible, at least to segments of the population, as a way to explain what’s happening around them. The political problem with “post-truth” is that, in its tendencies toward exaggerations of the truth, it reinforces already sharp suspicions about contrasting points of view. And it gets worse: people convinced by the fake stories, especially ones with lurid depictions of contrasting positions, tend to believe that the other side should not even get a hearing. At the righteous extreme of these extreme reports, fake news encourages the assumption that one side will simply need to defeat the other.

 

  1. Making a Case for Listening to the Stories that Make Fake News Appealing

Post-truth statements are not hidden in dark corners gaining no attention. The kindred label, “Alt.Truth,” is in wide enough circulation to be the name of a popular Homeland episode. The wide appeal of these distortions, not their merits, makes them an issue. And it is our democratic culture and commitments that makes popular appeal significant. Respect for the voice of the people calls for attempting to understand how stories stripped of truth gain support. That suggests a special role for academics and teachers, as long as they do not get so caught up in their learned ways that they come to believe that they can’t learn anything from the thinking of the average citizen. One of our most intellectual of presidents, Thomas Jefferson, even believed that the tangible experiences of “a ploughman” would foster a better decision on “a moral case” than the abstract reasoning of “a professor.” Even when not learned, citizens can shed light on the lived experience of democracy, and those lessons travel on the wings of stories instead of the highways of scholarship.

In The Death of Expertise, professor of comparative politics Thomas Nichols honors the “specialization and expertise” that have produced the marvels of the modern world, and he laments the squandering of those achievements by the “unfounded arrogance” of citizens with “stubborn ignorance.” Philosopher Zach Biondi has issued a call to action for philosophers to help the public “recognize incompetence and poor argument.” Investigative journalists gamely try to bridge the gap between knowledgeable professionals and citizen indifference about expert insights. The organization Snopes evaluates public statements from True to Mostly False to downright Legends that circulate despite their lack of factual support. These experts do great work and deserve wide support. This approach shows great faith in the power of knowledge, with the tacit assumption that people just need to learn objective facts to correct the appeal of false facts.

William James.

William James.

Accuracy of facts is surely important, and they can sometimes be persuasive, but the appeal of misinformation persists. American psychologist William James offers helpful insights for addressing this challenge. He formed his thoughts in the late nineteenth century, just as the age of information abundance and expertise was taking on its modern shape. His psychology both helps to explain the appeal of false facts and suggests ways to respond to them. Without understanding the appeal of fakery, the responses won’t get very far. His insights can actually support the goals of the experts and fact checkers.

First, James points to the formative role of selective attention in the establishment of sharply different views. In the vastness of experience, there is not only room for different interpretations of facts, but also for selection of different facts. To make sense of situations, James observes, we select portions of the abundant facts to construct likely stories, which provide guidance within the complexities of experience based on prior assumptions. The most basic elements of false information can generally be corrected rather directly with true information. But the false is often not simple; more complex settings call for deeper inquiry into the sources of those likely stories.

Second, when facing the resulting cacophony of different points of view, James acknowledges the complexity, and suggests the humbling effect that awareness of this range of interpretations can have for coping with this diversity. In reminding that “to no one type … whatsoever is the total fullness of truth … revealed,” his point is not that there is no truth, but that truth is immense and complicated. Even with his awareness of human limitations in the face of the vastness of experience, he firmly critiques those ready to use the elusiveness of truth as a cover for active promotion of untruths. In recognizing the rich complexity of truth, he points to the need for constant inquiry and cooperation among us mere mortals who each have portions of truth in degrees. Attention to the truths of others can even shed light on one’s own truths.

James’s insights about selective attention and the overarching complexity of experience suggest the importance of looking at problems of fabricated news not just as reported (false) information, but also as storytelling, people’s efforts to find meaningful truth in their experiences. Every claim to fact is embedded in a story, which enables that fact to be accepted or not based on the plausibility of the story surrounding it. Awareness of the power of stories is not an endorsement of the sometimes false facts within them, but an acknowledgement of their significance in the human mind, and this awareness can also serve as a resource for addressing their unsavory power. This is especially important when the well-informed voices of experts are not enough to persuade citizens. And this is most especially important in a democracy that values the voice of the people.

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A group of SOPHIA members will meet and lead a discussion about Episode 1 of Philosophy Bakes Bread, on The Molemen and Plato’s Cave Today, with the University of Kentucky Philosophy Club!

A group meeting for a SOPHIA conversation.

If you can listen to the episode in advance, great! If not, no worries, as we have the handout about it so that we’re all on the same page.

Here’s the episode: https://www.philosophersinamerica.com/2017/01/19/ep1-the-molemen-and-platos-cave-today/

The meeting is meant to be genuinely conversational, and to introduce people to what SOPHIA is all about.

Join us!

Date: November 29, 2017
Time: 04:00-05:00 p.m.
Event: Lexington SOPHIA Group Chat about Plato's Cave Today
Topic: Plato's Cave Today
Sponsor: The University of Kentucky Philosophy Club
Venue: White Hall, room 231
Location: 140 Patterson Drive
Lexington, KY 40506
USA
Public: Public

Not a member of SOPHIA yet? Consider joining!

Oxford MS Chapter of SOPHIA

Founding information and inaugural event

SOPHIA is still working on the technical system that we will use to manage our chapters. For now, we will announce our chapters with a post like this one, for chapters that we’ll have made official, such as the Oxford MS Chapter. We have groups around the country, who’ve been working with SOPHIA for years, but we are just now formalizing our new system and mechanisms for making these chapters official. More information will be coming out soon about what’s involved. We will also be offering mini-grants to initial chapters who apply for the support. Here’s info about the chapter in Oxford, MS!

Dr. Deborah MowerChapter President: Dr. Deborah Mower

Membership Officer: TBD

Operations Officer: TBD

 

Core Members: 

Dr. Robert BarnardDr. Robert Barnard.

 

Dr. Deborah MowerDr. Deborah Mower

 

Dr. Neil MansonDr. Neil Manson.

 

Dr. Steven SkultetyDr. Steven Skultety.

 

Inaugural Meeting

Image of the poster announcing the Great Debate on "Confederate History Month" at the University of Mississippi. The University of Mississippi chapter of SOPHIA held its inaugural event of “The Great Debate” on April 27th, 2017. Each year, students from the UM Ethics Bowl Team will address a difficult question and debate the issues for an audience of students, faculty, staff, and all members of the community. This year’s question was “Should the governor of the state of Mississippi declare April ‘Confederate Heritage Month’?

Governor Phil Bryant has declared April to be ‘Confederate Heritage Month’ in both 2016 and 2017. In 2016, the proclamation was on the Governor’s website with the purpose of the designation: “it is important for all Americans to reflect upon our nation’s past, to gain insight from our mistakes and successes, and to come to a full understanding that the lessons learned yesterday and today will carry us through tomorrow if we carefully and earnestly strive to understand and appreciate our heritage and our opportunities which lie before us” [CNN]. In 2017, the Governor’s office did not post the proclamation on the website, but a copy was posted on the Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans website [MDSCV and now on their Facebook page]. As stated on the website, the purpose of the organization is “to encourage the preservation of history, perpetuate the hallowed memories of brave men, to assist in the observance of Memorial Day, to aid and support all members, widows and orphans, and to perpetuate the record of the services of every Southern Soldier” [MDSCV’s About page]. In addition, the home page explains that “The citizen-soldiers who fought for the Confederacy personified the best qualities of America. The preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South’s decision to fight the Second American Revolution. The tenacity with which Confederate soldiers fought underscored their belief in the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. These attributes are the underpinning of our democratic society and represent the foundation on which this nation was built” [MDSCV].

In The Great Debate, audience members were presented with a case with pertinent details, arguments, and concerns on both sides of the issue, along with a copy of common fallacies made in arguments. The UM Ethics Bowl Team each took a side of the issue and presented careful arguments, which were projected on screens via PowerPoint to help the audience follow the intricacies of their position. After the debate presentation, the team members fielded questions first from three guest judges (who modeled the kind of civil and insightful inquiry of the event) and then from the audience designed to clarify their initial arguments and to press follow-up points. After the Q and A and discussion, everyone was invited to a catered reception to continue the conversation informally. Through the clear presentation of claims and civil dialogue, we hope to institute this as a yearly event to demonstrate how to make progress on thorny ethical and political questions in our society through civil dialogue.

For more information about the Oxford MS Chapter of SOPHIA, contact Chapter President Mower.

‘What Ifs’ and No Regrets

Civil American, Volume 1, Article 1 (October 31, 2016), https://goo.gl/IEMKOJ.

| By Shane Courtland |

You only live once.One often hears the expression “You should live your life without regrets” in the same situations that one hears expressions such as “carpe diem” and “YOLO.” The basic idea is that you should live your life to the fullest. One day, if you are lucky to be living, you will be able to look back on your life. When you do so, you do not want to feel that it was wasted merely because you were too timid and afraid to embrace it. Have courage, these slogans implore – reach the fullest potential of a happy and fulfilling life.

In what follows, I want to articulate a different way to understand this expression.This understanding is inspired, in part, by a passage in Epictetus’s The Enchiridion. In passage #25, he writes:

The logo for this publication series, 'Civil American.'

Print of Epictetus.“Is anyone preferred before you at an entertainment, or in a compliment, or in being admitted to a consultation? If these things are good, you ought to be glad that he has gotten them; and if they are evil, don’t be grieved that you have not gotten them. And remember that you cannot, without using the same means [which others do] to acquire things not in our own control, expect to be thought worthy of an equal share of them. For how can he who does not frequent the door of any [great] man, does not attend him, does not praise him, have an equal share with him who does? You are unjust, then, and insatiable, if you are unwilling to pay the price for which these things are sold, and would have them for nothing. For how much is lettuce sold? Fifty cents, for instance. If another, then, paying fifty cents, takes the lettuce, and you, not paying it, go without them, don’t imagine that he has gained any advantage over you. For as he has the lettuce, so you have the fifty cents which you did not give. So, in the present case, you have not been invited to such a person’s entertainment, because you have not paid him the price for which a supper is sold. It is sold for praise; it is sold for attendance. Give him then the value, if it is for your advantage. But if you would, at the same time, not pay the one and yet receive the other, you are insatiable, and a blockhead. Have you nothing, then, instead of the supper? Yes, indeed, you have: the not praising him, whom you don’t like to praise; the not bearing with his behavior at coming in.”

The basic idea, as far as I can tell, is that Epictetus is reminding us that everything in life has opportunity costs. In order to get something of value, one always forgoes something. The man who gets to go to the party paid for it by having to sell his praise. Epictetus then tells the reader, “But if you would, at the same time, not pay the one and yet receive the other, you are insatiable, and a blockhead.”

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Introducing Civil American

A digital, peer-reviewed journal run by The Society of Philosophers in America (SOPHIA).

The logo for 'Civil American,' SOPHIA's online peer-reviewed publication.

The Society of Philosophers in America (SOPHIA) announces the opening of Civil American, our latest venue for public philosophical engagement, released as a peer-reviewed digital journal on our Web site. Each piece will be released individually and will then be archived in a yearly volume. Civil American is a place for scholars in philosophy or other fields, students, and SOPHIA members to submit short essays, between 700 and 3,000 words (shorter and longer pieces will be considered), on topics of importance for living and policy-making, as individuals and communities.

Given our 2015 strategic planning initiative, the mission of the Society of Philosophers in America (SOPHIA) is “to use the tools of philosophical inquiry to improve people’s lives and enrich the profession of philosophy through conversation and community building.” In pursuit of that mission, two of our four strategic goals are “to use technology effectively” and to “to engage with the profession on public philosophy and digital humanities.”

To these ends, we open up SOPHIA’s online space as a forum for publicly engaged philosophy, to talk about issues and problems that matter to people both in and beyond the academy. Our emphasis is on accessibility of style and importance of subject matter. Following trends of digital publishing, we will consider the pieces released here to be in a volume gathered by year.

Cover of an issue of Scientific American.SOPHIA Trustees Dr. John Shook and Dr. Eric Thomas Weber first envisioned Civil American as a journal targeting general-audiences, a philosophical equivalent to the great publication, Scientific American. The United States have an immensely rich intellectual tradition, yet much discourse in the public sphere tends to be sensationalist, rather than civil and philosophical.

We welcome proposals for panels of submissions from groups interested in writing on topics in common. Gathered pieces may also be invited to join together in further advancement of their projects for growth in The Public Philosophy Journal‘s developmental and open peer-review process. Shorter projects can begin here and, if desired, be lengthened and deepened through such collaborations.

Photo of Dr. Shane Courtland.More information about Civil American is forthcoming now that we have selected the new editor for the journal, Dr. Shane Courtland. If you have any questions or proposals for submission to Civil American, you can email the Editor here.

Archive

Volume 2: 2017

  • Humanizing Monsters
    October 31, 2017 | By Casey Dorman | I was listening to NPR recently and an interviewer was talking to Thomas Hegghammer, a Norwegian professor of political science, who had just published an edited collection of essays/research studies called Jihadi Culture: The Art and Social Practices of Militant Islamists. One of the interviewer’s questions was “Aren’t you afraid that ...
  • John Stuart Mill and Charlottesville
    October 20, 2017 | By Dale E. Miller | I consider myself a Millian—that is, a follower of the Victorian philosopher of morals, social life, and politics (and much else besides) John Stuart Mill (1806–73). Usually I’m a fairly confident Millian; some might even say smug. Mill’s work has, like the work of all important philosophers, been subjected to ...
  • Clutter
    September 16, 2017 | By John Lachs | When our ancestors lived in caves, every tool was a prized possession. Furs for comfort and drawings to decorate the cave were difficult to come by. They were passed down from generation to generation. Later, when human productivity made the goods of the world readily available, our grandparents became collectors. Growing control ...
  • State-Sponsored Hacktivism and “Soft War”
    May 25, 2017 | By George R. Lucas | A Moral and Legal Challenge in the Cyber Domain | Skeptics (e.g., Thomas Rid, 2013) have cast doubt on the notion of authentic cyber warfare.  Cyber conflict consists, the skeptics argue, solely of activities which fall well short of full scale warfare:  e.g., crime, vandalism, “hacktivism” (political activism by individuals and ...
  • The Illusion of Purely Rational Discussion: A Reply to Courtland’s Reply
    January 3, 2017 | By Sergia Hay | I’d like to thank Shane Courtland for his reply to my response to his original posting, “Faith and Betrayal of the Philosophical Method.” I’m eager to continue this conversation about an important and timely subject: free speech in the classroom, and perhaps more broadly within public discourse. As such, it is also ...

Volume 1: 2016

  • Faith Without Dead Dogma: A Reply to Hay
    December 21, 2016 | By Shane Courtland | After reading a thoughtful response from Dr. Hay regarding my previous blog post, I thought it would be helpful to discuss my philosophical pedagogy. Even if you have never taken a philosophy class before, the core elements of my teaching method are still applicable outside of the classroom. Moreover, describing how ...
  • What Philosophy Is For: A Reply to Courtland
    December 13, 2016 | By Sergia Hay | I wholeheartedly agree with Shane Courtland when he writes in Civil American that being a philosopher means “giving pride of place to open discussion, encouraging intellectual diversity, and allowing a difference of opinion regarding even dangerous ideas.” I also believe it means, among other things, laying bare assumptions, defining terms, distinguishing between seemingly ...
  • Faith and Betrayal of the Philosophical Method
    December 4, 2016 | By Shane Courtland | Please note: The following essay is autobiographical. I thought it might be helpful to share my experience. As with all personal events, those who have experienced this on the other side have very different feelings about the situation. The way I have always viewed philosophy, regarding its practice and how it ...
  • Breaking Out of the Bubble: Fixing American Politics
    November 11, 2016 | By Shane Courtland | For approximately 5 years, I was the director of the Center for Ethics and Public Policy (CEPP) at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. As the director, I was charged with producing and executing various campus wide events.  My specialty, was the panel discussion.  This would bring multiple experts to the table ...
  • ‘What Ifs’ and No Regrets
    October 31, 2016 | By Shane Courtland | One often hears the expression “You should live your life without regrets” in the same situations that one hears expressions such as “carpe diem” and “YOLO.” The basic idea is that you should live your life to the fullest. One day, if you are lucky to be living, you will be ...