Tagged: Politics

The Ethics of Knowing

In the modern American political climate, I’m constantly finding myself at sea in trying to unravel the motivations and thought processes of the Republican Party. The best summation I can arrive at involves the obvious manipulation of the electorate—but that is not terrifically new—combined with a persistent avoidance of evidence and facts.

In my day job, I research a range of topics trying to get enough of a grasp on what we do and do not know such that I can form a plan that innovates from the known facts towards the unknown. Here are a few recent investigations:

  • What is the state of thinking about the origins of logic? Logical rules form into broad classes that range from the uncontroversial (modus tollens, propositional logic, predicate calculus) to the speculative (multivalued and fuzzy logic, or quantum logic, for instance). In most cases we make an assumption based on linguistic convention that they are true and then demonstrate their extension, despite the observation that they are tautological. Synthetic knowledge has no similar limitations but is assumed to be girded by the logical basics.
  • What were the early Christian heresies, how did they arise, and what was their influence? Marcion of Sinope is perhaps the most interesting one of these, in parallel with the Gnostics, asserting that the cruel tribal god of the Old Testament was distinct from the New Testament Father, and proclaiming perhaps (see various discussions) a docetic Jesus figure. The leading “mythicists” like Robert Price are invaluable in this analysis (ignore first 15 minutes of nonsense). The thin braid of early Christian history and the constant humanity that arises in morphing the faith before settling down after Nicaea (well, and then after Martin Luther) reminds us that abstractions and faith have a remarkable persistence in the face of cultural change.
  • How do mathematical machines take on so many forms while achieving the same abstract goals? Machine learning, as a reificiation of human-like learning processes, can imitate neural networks (or an extreme sketch and caricature of what we know about real neural systems), or can be just a parameter slicing machine like Support Vector Machines or ID3, or can be a Bayesian network or mixture model of parameters.  We call them generative or non-generative, we categorize them as to discrete or continuous decision surfaces, and we label them in a range of useful ways. But why should they all achieve similar outcomes with similar ranges of error? Indeed, Random Forests were the belles of the ball until Deep Learning took its tiara.

In each case, I try to work my way, as carefully as possible, through the thicket of historical and intellectual concerns that provide point and counterpoint to the ideas. It feels ethically wrong to make a short, fast judgment about any such topics. I can’t imagine doing anything less with a topic as fraught as the US health care system. It’s complex, indeed, Mr. President.

So, I tracked down a foundational paper on this idea of ethics and epistemology. It dates to 1877 and provides a grounding for why and when we should believe in anything. William Clifford’s paper, The Ethics of Belief, tracks multiple lines of argumentation and the consequences of believing without clarity. Even tentative clarity comes with moral risk, as Clifford shows in his thought experiments.

In summary, though, there is no more important statement than Clifford’s final assertion that it is wrong to believe without sufficient evidence. It’s that simple. And it’s even more wrong to act on those beliefs.

Traitorous Reason, Facts, and Analysis

dinoObama’s post-election press conference was notable for its continued demonstration of adult discourse and values. Especially notable:

This office is bigger than any one person and that’s why ensuring a smooth transition is so important. It’s not something that the constitution explicitly requires but it is one of those norms that are vital to a functioning democracy, similar to norms of civility and tolerance and a commitment to reason and facts and analysis.

But ideology in American politics (and elsewhere) has the traitorous habit of undermining every one of those norms. It always begins with undermining the facts in pursuit of manipulation. Just before the election, the wizardly Aron Ra took to YouTube to review VP-elect Mike Pence’s bizarre grandstanding in Congress in 2002:

And just today, Trump lashed out at the cast of Hamilton for lecturing Mike Pence on his anti-LGBTQ stands, also related to ideology and belief, at the end of a show.

Astonishing as this seems, we live in an imperfect world being drawn very slowly away from tribal and xenophobic tendencies, and in fits and starts. My wife received a copy of letter from now-deceased family that contained an editorial from the Shreveport Journal in the 1960s that (with its embedded The Worker editorial review) simultaneously attacked segregationist violence, the rhetoric of Alabama governor George Wallace, claimed that communists were influencing John F. Kennedy and the civil rights movement, demanded the jailing of communists, and suggested the federal government should take over Alabama:


The accompanying letter was also concerned over the fate of children raised as Unitarians, amazingly enough, and how they could possibly be moral people. It then concluded with a recommendation to vote for Goldwater.

Is it any wonder that the accompanying cultural revolutions might lead to the tearing down of the institutions that were used to justify the deviation away from “reason and facts and analysis?”

But I must veer to the positive here, that this brief blip is a passing retrenchment of these old tendencies that the Millennials and their children will look back to with fond amusement, the way I remember Ronald Reagan.

Euhemerus and the Bullshit Artist

trump-minotaurSailing down through the Middle East, past the monuments of Egypt and the wild African coast, and then on into the Indian Ocean, past Arabia Felix, Euhemerus came upon an island. Maybe he came upon it. Maybe he sailed. He was perhaps—yes, perhaps; who can say?—sailing for Cassander in deconstructing the memory of Alexander the Great. And that island, Panchaea, held a temple of Zeus with a written history of the deeds of men who became the Greek gods.

They were elevated, they became fixed in the freckled amber of ancient history, their deeds escalated into myths and legends. And, likewise, the ancient tribes of the Levant brought their El and Yah-Wah, and Asherah and Baal, and then the Zoroastrians influenced the diaspora in refuge in Babylon, until they returned and had found dualism, elemental good and evil, and then reimagined their origins pantheon down through monolatry and into monotheism. These great men and women were reimagined into something transcendent and, ultimately, barely understandable.

Even the rational Yankee in Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court realizes almost immediately why he would soon rule over the medieval world as he is declared a wild dragon when presented to the court. He waits for someone to point out that he doesn’t resemble a dragon, but the medieval mind does not seem to question the reasonableness of the mythic claims, even in the presence of evidence.

So it goes with the human mind.

And even today we have Fareed Zakaria justifying his use of the term “bullshit artist” for Donald Trump. Trump’s logorrhea is punctuated by so many incomprehensible and contradictory statements that it becomes a mythic whirlwind. He lets slip, now and again, that his method is deliberate:

DT: Therefore, he was the founder of ISIS.

HH: And that’s, I’d just use different language to communicate it, but let me close with this, because I know I’m keeping you long, and Hope’s going to kill me.

DT: But they wouldn’t talk about your language, and they do talk about my language, right?

Bullshit artist is the modern way of saying what Euhemerus was trying to say in his fictional “Sacred History.” Yet we keep getting entranced by these coordinated maelstroms of utter crap, from World Net Daily to Infowars to Fox News to Rush Limbaugh. Only the old Steven Colbert could contend with it through his own bullshit mythical inversion. Mockery seems the right approach, but it doesn’t seem to have a great deal of impact on the conspiratorial mind.

The Linguistics of Hate

keep-calm-and-hate-corpus-linguisticsRight-wing authoritarianism (RWA) and Social dominance orientation (SDO) are measures of personality traits and tendencies. To measure them, you ask people to rate statements like:

Superior groups should dominate inferior groups

The withdrawal from tradition will turn out to be a fatal fault one day

People rate their opinions on these questions using a 1 to 5 scale from Definitely Disagree to Strongly Agree. These scales have their detractors but they also demonstrate some useful and stable reliability across cultures.

Note that while both of these measures tend to be higher in American self-described “conservatives,” they also can be higher for leftist authoritarians and they may even pop up for subsets of attitudes among Western social liberals about certain topics like religion. Haters abound.

I used the R packages twitterR, textminer, wordcloud, SnowballC, and a few others and grabbed a few thousand tweets that contained the #DonaldJTrump hashtag. A quick scan of them showed the standard properties of tweets like repetition through retweeting, heavy use of hashtags, and, of course, the use of the #DonaldJTrump as part of anti-Trump sentiments (something about a cocaine-use video). But, filtering them down, there were definite standouts that seemed to support a RWA/SDO orientation. Here are some examples:

The last great leader of the White Race was #trump #trump2016 #donaldjtrump #DonaldTrump2016 #donaldtrump”

Just a wuss who cant handle the defeat so he cries to GOP for brokered Convention. # Trump #DonaldJTrump

I am a PROUD Supporter of #DonaldJTrump for the Highest Office in the land. If you don’t like it, LEAVE!

#trump army it’s time, we stand up for family, they threaten trumps family they threaten us, lock and load, push the vote…

Not surprising, but the density of them shows a real aggressiveness that somewhat shocked me. So let’s assume that Republicans make up around 29% of the US population, and that Trump is getting around 40% of their votes in the primary season, then we have an angry RWA/SDO-focused subpopulation of around 12% of the US population.

That seems to fit with results from an online survey of RWA, reported here. An interesting open question is whether there is a spectrum of personality types that is genetically predisposed, or whether childhood exposures to ideas and modes of childrearing are more likely the cause of these patterns (and their cross-cultural applicability).

Here are some interesting additional resources:

Bilewicz, Michal, et al. “When Authoritarians Confront Prejudice. Differential Effects of SDO and RWA on Support for Hate‐Speech Prohibition.” Political Psychology (2015).

Sylwester K, Purver M (2015) Twitter Language Use Reflects Psychological Differences between Democrats and Republicans. PLoS ONE 10(9): e0137422. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0137422

The latter has a particularly good overview of RWA/SDO, other measures like openness, etc., and Twitter as an analytics tool.

Finally, below is some R code for Twitter analytics that I am developing. It is derivative of sample code like here and here, but reorients the function structure and adds deletion of Twitter hashtags to focus on the supporting language. There are some other enhancements like codeset normalization. All uses and reuses are welcome. I am starting to play with building classifiers and using Singular Value Decomposition to pull apart various dominating factors and relationships in the term structure. Ultimately, however, human intervention is needed to identify pro vs. anti tweets, as well as phrasal patterns that are more indicative of RWA/SDO than bags-of-words can indicate.

Also, here are wordclouds generated for #hillaryclinton and #DonaldJTrump, respectively. The Trump wordcloud was distorted by some kind of repetitive robotweeting that dominated the tweets.





 #Grab the tweets
 djtTweets <- searchTwitter(searchTerm, num)

 #Use a handy helper function to put the tweets into a dataframe 

 RemoveDots <- function(tweet) {
 gsub("[\\.\\,\\;]+", " ", tweet)

 RemoveLinks <- function(tweet) {
 gsub("http:[^ $]+", "", tweet)
 gsub("https:[^ $]+", "", tweet)

 RemoveAtPeople <- function(tweet) {
 gsub("@\\w+", "", tweet) 

 RemoveHashtags <- function(tweet) {
 gsub("#\\w+", "", tweet) 

 FixCharacters <- function(tweet){

 CleanTweets <- function(tweet){
 s1 <- RemoveLinks(tweet)
 s2 <- RemoveAtPeople(s1)
 s3 <- RemoveDots(s2) 
 s4 <- RemoveHashtags(s3)
 s5 <- FixCharacters(s4)

 tweets <- as.vector(sapply(tw.df$text, CleanTweets))
 if (verbose) print(tweets)

 generateCorpus= function(df,pstopwords){
 tw.corpus= Corpus(VectorSource(df))
 tw.corpus = tm_map(tw.corpus, content_transformer(removePunctuation))
 tw.corpus = tm_map(tw.corpus, content_transformer(tolower))
 tw.corpus = tm_map(tw.corpus, removeWords, stopwords('english'))
 tw.corpus = tm_map(tw.corpus, removeWords, pstopwords)

 corpus = generateCorpus(tweets)

 doc.m = TermDocumentMatrix(corpus, control = list(minWordLength = 1))
 dm = as.matrix(doc.m)
 # calculate the frequency of words
 v = sort(rowSums(dm), decreasing=TRUE)

 d = data.frame(word=names(v), freq=v)
 #Generate the wordcloud
 wc=wordcloud(d$word, d$freq, scale=c(4,0.3), min.freq=min.freq, colors = brewer.pal(8, "Paired"))

djttweets = tweets.grabber("#DonaldJTrump", 2000, verbose=TRUE)
djtcorpus = corpus.stats(djttweets)
wordcloud.generate(djtcorpus, 3)

Bloodless Technonomy

The last link provided in the previous post leads down a rabbit hole. The author translates a Chinese report and then translates the data into geospatial visualizations and pie charts, sure, but he also begins very rapidly to layer on his ideological biases. He is part of the “AltRight” movement with a focus on human biodiversity. The memes of AltRight are largely racially charged, much less racist, defined around an interpretation of Darwinism that anoints difference and worships a kind of biological determinism. The thought cycles are large, elliptical constructs that play with sociobiology and evolutionary psychology to describe why inequities exist in the human world. Fair enough, though we can quibble over whether any scientisms rise far enough out of the dark waters of data to move policy more than a hair either way. And we can also argue against the interpretations of biology that nurtured the claims, especially the ever-present meme that inter-human competition is somehow discernible as Darwinian at all. That is the realm of the Social Darwinists and Fascists, and the realm of evil given the most basic assumptions about others. It also begs explanation of cooperation at a higher level than the superficial realization that kin selection might have a role in primitive tribal behavior. To be fair, of course, it has parallels in attempts to tie Freudian roles to capitalism and desire, or in the deeper contours of Marxist ideology.

But this war of ideologies, of intellectual histories, of grasping at ever-deeper ways of reinterpreting the goals and desires of political actors, might be coming to an end in a kind of bloodless, technocratic way. Specifically, surveillance, monitoring, and data analysis can potentially erode the theologies of policy into refined understandings of how groups react to changes in laws, regulations, incentives, taxes, and entitlements.

How will this work?

Let’s take gerrymandering as an example. There is an uncomplicated competition for power involved in reengineering political districts that can be solved fairly easily via algorithms that remove human decision making from the process (see Wikipedia article for examples of splitline algorithms and isoperimetric quotients). A similar approach that uses experimentation and non-ideological mechanisms can be applied to many (though not all) divisive political problems:

  • Global warming controversial? Apply cap-and-trade or other CO2 reductions at half optimal strength (as argued by proponents). Surveil outcomes and establish a decision criterion for next steps.
  • Health care reform unappetizing? Create smaller-scale laboratories to identify what works and what doesn’t (say, like Massachusetts). Identify the social goods and bads and expand where appropriate.
  • Welfare systems under the microscope? Reform and reimplement using state and community block grants to test alternative ways of solving the problem. Leave existing system intact until the data is in.

Behavioral economics somewhat foreshadows this future of outcome- and data-driven policy development. I’ve coined the term “technonomy” based on Pittendrigh’s notion of “teleonomy” to capture this idea of basing policy decisions on experimental and data-driven methodologies, and to distinguish it from technocracy (it also appears to have other meanings already that involve “synergies” and other vacuous crap). If the AltRight want to deny a specific government action based on racial theories, or if the Very Left want to spend more to correct for a perceived injustice, or if Libertarians want a return to a gold standard, then all that is required is for the groups to design a policy laboratory that controls the variables of interest well enough that the theory can be tested. It will require enormous creativity that goes beyond conspiracy theories and mere kvetching, but would certainly be more informative than the current guerrilla wars of partisan intellectual rage.

Politics is Religion

Anglo-American Analytic Philosophy has steadily distanced itself from Continental Philosophy for many reasons, but the defining difference must be with respect to the correlation of meaning with textual intent. Continental Philosophy deconstructs (at least in recent years) and as a phenomenon there is cultural significance to the motivation to tear down the assumptions that we have carefully nurtured from the Enlightenment through to Modernism. Meaning disconnects from words. It slurs. And reinvention is the only persistent motivation.

Arguably, though, it is only Continental Philosophy that cares about politics and culture, which makes it less abstract and irrelevant than the thumb twiddling of the analytic strain. Modern culture and our claims about significance are the lambs for the slaughterhouse. I thought of that voting in one of California’s ever-present elections today. Simon Critchley carried the water for me with his recent argument that politics is essentially religion (side-note: check out his discussion of Philip K. Dick in the New York Times recently; nothing really new to anyone who has read the VALIS books, but the facts concerning Dick’s later years and death are worth understanding). How is it religion? Because it is easy to redraw the semantic map in Continental Philosophy. Words mean what they are positioned to mean and the positioning is highly variable. The only solidity is in faith-based attachment to a theory of meaning, and politics exemplifies that in a way that is passingly second to religion itself.

We can see the effects of this religion in the defining political conflict of our era. The Pew Research Center’s new report, Partisan Polarization Surges in Bush, Obama Years, shows this political religion at work.  On a majority of issues, the study shows, among Americans who self-identify as Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, there has been a steady increase in the disparity between opinions. If there was an “ultimate” rational basis for deciding policy, and if policies ultimately worked without ambiguity and trade-offs, we should be converging towards democratic perfection (or Marxist perfection, or something). It just ain’t so, though, and will likely never be for Critchley. The best we have in America is the remnants of deism expressed in the collective ciphers that ennoble Enlightenment aspirations, and the symbols that hang from those early yearnings like the rotating placards of a mobile. We only have the shadows: jeremiads over America’s ashes, expectations built on original sin, odes to the failures of progressive ideals, and the cultural symbols that support them.

It is easy to retreat away from this religion, and many Americans do. Don’t vote. Don’t discuss politics. The weather is always interestingly uncomplicated. There is no adjusting the rationality of others, only a slow effort at proselytization. It then becomes a matter of the relative offensiveness of one political religion or another. Who said the most reprehensibly unjustifiable thing? And there are open opportunities to deconstruct and ridicule the strongest claims by politicians and their supporters of all stripes. By doing so, we become cynical critics of these religions but are at least engaged and empowered within the system. So vote early and often, and hone your mocking circuits for going after high value targets. Doubt is the perfect antidote to religious assumptions, but should not be seen as leading to apathy. Instead, doubt is a cure-all for certitude that leaves the door open for action.