Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Big Lie and How It Travels

After White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer audaciously lied, in his first news media briefing, about the attendance estimates at Friday's presidential inauguration, a friend on Facebook posted an analysis that has since gone viral on social media, particularly on Twitter.  For instance, Oscar-winning composer John Legend, Helen Hayes award-winning actor Will Gartshore, and Republican political consultant Ana Navarro all tweeted a screenshot of the mini-essay to their thousands of Twitter followers.

The provocative analysis has caused a stir -- a real conversation about facts, lies, and propaganda -- so, since the original author gave his permission to "copy and paste" his status as long as his name was removed and the originator remained anonymous, I'm offering it here to expand its reach. It deserves to be read, reposted, restated, and challenged.

White House tourists police propaganda Trump
The White House
If you are puzzled by the bizarre "press conference" put on by the White House press secretary this evening (angrily claiming that Trump's inauguration had the largest audience in history, accusing them of faking photos and lying about attendance), let me help explain it. This spectacle served three purposes:

1. Establishing a norm with the press: they will be told things that are obviously wrong and they will have no opportunity to ask questions. That way, they will be grateful if they get anything more at any press conference. This is the PR equivalent of "negging," the odious pick-up practice of a particular kind of horrible man (e.g., Donald Trump).

2. Increasing the separation between Trump's base (1/3 of the population) from everybody else (the remaining 2/3). By being told something that is obviously wrong—that there is no evidence for and all evidence against, that anybody with eyes can see is wrong—they are forced to pick whether they are going to believe Trump or their lying eyes. The gamble here—likely to pay off—is that they will believe Trump. This means that they will regard media outlets that report the truth as "fake news" (because otherwise they'd be forced to confront their cognitive dissonance.)

Capitol Washington tulips propaganda
U.S. Capitol
3. Creating a sense of uncertainty about whether facts are knowable, among a certain chunk of the population (which is a taking a page from the Kremlin, for whom this is their preferred disinformation tactic). A third of the population will say "clearly the White House is lying," a third will say "if Trump says it, it must be true," and the remaining third will say "gosh, I guess this is unknowable." The idea isn't to convince these people of untrue things, it's to fatigue them, so that they will stay out of the political process entirely, regarding the truth as just too difficult to determine.

This is laying important groundwork for the months ahead. If Trump's White House is willing to lie about something as obviously, unquestionably fake as this, just imagine what else they'll lie about. In particular, things that the public cannot possibly verify the truth of. It's gonna get real bad.

The point is, if the Trump administration and the President himself are willing to lie about such petty things as the number of people who were or were not on the National Mall on January 20, what will they do when they want to send American soldiers into battle in some far-off place? What will they do when the Bureau of Labor Statistics issues a monthly unemployment figures that is unflattering to the Administration? What will they do when the number of anti-Administration protesters far outnumbers the guests at the inauguration?

A final note: Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau proves himself amazingly adept at interpreting Donald Trump. His comic strip today, which had to have been drawn days before the inauguration, as the President in the White House challenging the news media's reports on the inauguration's attendance numbers. You can't make this stuff up.

Update: Russian chess champion and political dissident Garry Kasparov made a similar, and pithy, point on Twitter:

Friday, January 20, 2017

A Quick Transition: Inauguration 2017

This is what the White House web site landing page looked like at 11:59 a.m. on January 20, 2017:

Barack Obama Inauguration Day

And this is what it looked like at 12:01 p.m. on January 20, 2017:

Donald Trump Inauguration Day

Proof positive that Donald J. Trump is the 45th President of the United States.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

From the Archives: Justin Bieber, Gary Becker, and the future of marijuana prohibition

Publisher's note: This article was originally published on on January 7, 2013. The publishing platform was discontinued July 1, 2016, and its web site went dark on or about July 10, 2016. I am republishing this piece in an effort to preserve it and all my other contributions to since April 6, 2010. It is reposted here without most of the internal links that were in the original.

Justin Bieber, Gary Becker, and the future of marijuana prohibition

What do teen heartthrob Justin Bieber and a Nobel prize-winning economist have in common?

It turns out that both, in their own way, have made a strong argument in favor of ending the War on Drugs.

Bieber, the Canadian singer and actor, was allegedly caught on film smoking a blunt (marijuana in a cigar wrapper), as reported by celebrity gossip site TMZ. The incident occurred not long after Bieber was involved in a traumatic accident that resulted in the death of a paparazzo trying to photograph the teen idol in his white Ferrari on a Los Angeles street.

Soon after the photographs surfaced, Bieber tweeted to his fans: “everyday growing and learning. trying to be better. u get knocked down, u get up” – not an apology but a subtle acknowledgment that the allegations may have substance.

Losing the war

The same day that TMZ published the Bieber photos, Nobel laureate economist Gary Becker published an article in the Wall Street Journal asking, “Have We Lost the War on Drugs?

Becker and his co-author, University of Chicago economist Kevin Murphy, point out that the “paradox of the war on drugs is that the harder governments push the fight, the higher drug prices become to compensate for the greater risks. That leads to larger profits for traffickers who avoid being punished. This is why larger drug gangs often benefit from a tougher war on drugs, especially if the war mainly targets small-fry dealers and not the major drug gangs. Moreover, to the extent that a more aggressive war on drugs leads dealers to respond with higher levels of violence and corruption, an increase in enforcement can exacerbate the costs imposed on society.”

Becker and Murphy argue for, at the very least, decriminalizing now-illegal drugs, as Colorado and Washington state voters did with regard to marijuana in last November's election.

“Decriminalization of all drugs by the U.S. would be a major positive step away from the war on drugs,” the economists said in the Wall Street Journal.

“In recent years, states have begun to decriminalize marijuana, one of the least addictive and less damaging drugs. Marijuana is now decriminalized in some form in about 20 states, and it is de facto decriminalized in some others as well. If decriminalization of marijuana proves successful, the next step would be to decriminalize other drugs, perhaps starting with amphetamines. Gradually, this might lead to the full decriminalization of all drugs.”

Saving money, raising revenue

Becker and Murphy are not the first notable economists to argue for an end to the drug war on the grounds that it is economically indefensible.

In 2005, a statement signed by 500 economists, including Nobel laureate Milton Friedman and several from Virginia's George Mason University, argued that ending marijuana prohibition “would save $7.7 billion per year in state and federal expenditures on prohibition enforcement and produce tax revenues of at least $2.4 billion annually if marijuana were taxed like most consumer goods. If, however, marijuana were taxed similarly to alcohol or tobacco, it might generate as much as $6.2 billion annually.”

The absence of a public outcry over Justin Bieber's alleged pot smoking, along with the Colorado and Washington initiatives and the adoption of laws permitting the medicinal use of marijuana in 18 states, suggest that the American people are more open to a rational discussion about ending the drug war. Bieber's non-apology on Twitter itself suggests that he views the incident as uncontroversial and unworthy of further attention.

While Gary Becker and other economists make erudite and logically rigorous arguments against drug prohibition, Bieber's near-silence is eloquent in its own way and equally compelling.

Politicians do not seem to be following expert opinion or public sentiment, however. While two years ago, then-Delegate Harvey Morgan (R-Gloucester) introduced legislation with the effect of decriminalizing marijuana possession, this year the emphasis in the Virginia General Assembly seems to be toward extending the reach of drug laws. Delegate Bill Carrico (R-Grayson County), for instance, has submitted a bill that would require welfare recipients to be tested for cannabis and other drugs. Nobody in Richmond seems to have taken on Delegate Morgan's mantle in the wake of his retirement.

Eventually, as Becker and similar thinkers point out, the law will catch up to public opinion.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Guest Post: What the magi had in common with scientists

by Roger Barlow, University of Huddersfield

Picturesque and exotic, with their crowns and camels, the three kings regularly appear on Christmas cards and in nativity scenes. But how much is original, and how much is later addition for the sake of a good story?

All we know is what Matthew’s gospel tells us, and that does not include their number. They brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but to suppose that three gifts means three givers is no more than a guess. More importantly, they were not kings. In his account Matthew consistently describes the visitors as magoi which is the same as the English word “mage”. It’s an unusual word and is often translated as “wise men”.

The early church upgraded them to royal status, perhaps because of descriptions in Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72 of kings worshipping the messiah – but Matthew himself, whose gospel is full of references back to the psalms and prophets, does not make this link, and he would never have let such an opportunity drop.

What they saw

They had seen a star, which shows they were astronomers – or astrologers as there was no difference back then. What was this star? Some scholars have posited that in 7BC there was a triple conjunction (when the planets catch up and overtake each other: quite a dramatic sight) of Jupiter and Saturn, in the constellation of Pisces. These three elements were linked in astrology to royalty, the messiah and the Jews respectively.

Some astronomers, for example Patrick Moore, are unhappy with this theory and suggest that the star the wise men followed was a nova, a comet, or meteors. But there is no firm evidence for any of these. They point out that conjunctions are rare but not unique, and ask why were there no emissaries to Israel on other occasions. Perhaps there were – we only have this single record because of its link to the larger story.

I think what really worries them is that if you accept this interpretation it implies accepting the validity of astrology, and today’s astronomers really hate astrologers (never ask an astronomer what their star sign is). But you don’t have to. Even the sceptical can accept that a visit to Jerusalem and Bethlehem by foreigners looking for the messiah would have made a good story which would be told and retold – and eventually get attached to the birth of Jesus. Matthew wrote his gospel for a Jewish readership, and the Jewish religion then was hostile to astrology, so the suggestion that he just made up the story as propaganda is implausible.

A familiar approach

We can imagine the situation. The star was not a surprise: conjunctions are predictable – today lists of upcoming ones are available on the internet – and even if this was not available 2,000 years ago, astronomers then made careful observations on which they could make predictions using geocentric theories which were fundamentally wrong but which nevertheless seemed to work.

Stonehenge astrology astronomy science
Stonehenge astronomical observatory
For months and years beforehand the “wise men” will have discussed and organised the expedition: the practicalities, the funding. We know how they must have felt, planning a project, looking for money to pay for it, arguing whether their theory’s predictions were really firm or could have some other interpretation.

At this point we realise that we have a better word to translate magoi – a word not available to the translators of the Authorised Version of the Bible in King James’ reign, as it was only invented in 1833.

The word is scientists.

Looking back 2,000 years, they and we are not so different. They used their understanding of the universe to predict what would happen in the world – and, working as a group, they investigated their predictions, despite the cost and trouble and hardships. This is something any scientist today can recognise and identify with. Their understanding of the universe is crude and primitive in our eyes – but what will today’s scientific theories look like in 2,000 years time?

So, when we see pictures of the three kings at Christmas, we should spare them a thought, as colleagues who believed in their theories and followed through the consequences, despite the trouble and expense and personal effort involved. The strength of their conviction and their resolution to follow it, 2,000 years ago, can be an example to us today.

The Conversation

Roger Barlow, Research Professor and Director of the International Institute for Accelerator Applications, University of Huddersfield

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Guest Post: The psychology of New Year’s resolutions

by Mark Griffiths, Nottingham Trent University

Research has shown that about half of all adults make New Year’s resolutions. However, fewer than 10% manage to keep them for more than a few months.

As a professor of behavioural addiction I know how easy people can fall into bad habits and why on trying to give up those habits it is easy to relapse. Resolutions usually come in the form of lifestyle changes and changing behaviour that has become routine and habitual (even if they are not problematic) can be hard to do.

new year resolutions balloons
Happy New Year, 2017!
The most common resolutions are: losing weight, doing more exercise, quitting smoking and saving money.

The main reason that people don’t stick to their resolutions is that they set too many or they’re unrealistic to achieve. They may also be victims of “false hope syndrome”. False hope syndrome is characterised by a person’s unrealistic expectations about the likely speed, amount, ease and consequences of changing their behaviour.

For some people, it takes something radical for them to change their ways. It took a medical diagnosis to make me give up alcohol and caffeine and it took pregnancy for my partner to give up smoking.

To change your day-to-day behaviour you also have to change your thinking. But there are tried and tested ways that can help people stick to their resolutions – here are my personal favourites:

Be realistic. You need to begin by making resolutions that you can keep and that are practical. If you want to reduce your alcohol intake because you tend to drink alcohol every day, don’t immediately go teetotal. Try to cut out alcohol every other day or have a drink once every three days. Also, breaking up the longer-term goal into more manageable short-term goals can be beneficial and more rewarding. The same principle can be applied to exercise or eating more healthily.

Do one thing at a time. One of the easiest routes to failure is to have too many resolutions. If you want to be fitter and healthier, do just one thing at a time. Give up drinking. Give up smoking. Join a gym. Eat more healthily. But don’t do them all at once, just choose one and do your best to stick to it. Once you have got one thing under your control, you can begin a second resolution.

Be SMART. Anyone working in a job that includes setting goals will know that goals should be SMART, that is, specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. Resolutions shouldn’t be any different. Cutting down alcohol drinking is an admirable goal, but it’s not SMART. Drinking no more than two units of alcohol every other day for one month is a SMART resolution. Connecting the resolution to a specific goal can also be motivating, for example, dropping a dress size or losing two inches off your waistline in time for the next summer holiday.

Tell someone your resolution. Letting family and friends know that you have a New Year’s resolution that you really want to keep will act as both a safety barrier and a face-saver. If you really want to cut down smoking or drinking, real friends won’t put temptation in your way and can help monitor your behaviour. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and support from those around you.

Change your behaviour with others. Trying to change habits on your own can be difficult. For instance, if you and your partner both smoke, drink and eat unhealthily, it is really hard for one partner to change their behaviour if the other is still engaged in the same old bad habits. By having the same resolution, such as going on a diet, the chances of success will improve.

Don’t limit yourself

Changing your behaviour, or some aspect of it, doesn’t have to be restricted to the start of the New Year. It can be anytime.

Accept lapses as part of the process. It’s inevitable that when trying to give up something (alcohol, cigarettes, junk food) that there will be lapses. You shouldn’t feel guilty about giving in to your cravings but accept that it is part of the learning process. Bad habits can take years to become ingrained and there are no quick fixes in making major lifestyle changes. These may be clich├ęs but we learn by our mistakes and every day is a new day – and you can start each day afresh.

If you think this all sounds like too much hard work and that it’s not worth making resolutions to begin with, bear in mind that people who make New Year’s resolutions are ten times more likely to achieve their goals than those who don’t.

The Conversation

Mark Griffiths, Director of the International Gaming Research Unit and Professor of Behavioural Addiction, Nottingham Trent University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.