Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Stephen Law

On Bullshit

This  article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday June 1 2017,

https://ceylontoday.lk/print20170401CT20170630.php?id=22261

Bullshit

By

Padraig Colman

My first article published in a Sri Lankan magazine was for LMD nearly ten years ago. My subject was truth and lies and broken promises in politics and business. The immediate trigger for the article was my reading of Harry G Frankfurt’s best-selling little book (67 pages) On Bullshit.  Since reading Frankfurt, I have also read a book by another philosopher, my Facebook friend Stephen Law – Believing Bullshit. Stephen goes into a lot more detail with practical examples of bullshit and what to do about it. Frankfurt is one of the world’s most influential moral philosophers. This could be a false memory but I seem to recall that the LMD editors were too squeamish to print the word ‘bullshit’.

Post-Truth

Ten years on, bullshit is still around and still being written about. Evan Davis has published Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What We Can Do About It, Buzzfeed correspondent James Ball weighs in with Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World, and political journalist Matthew d’Ancona contributes Post Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back.

In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries chose post-truth as word of the year, with the definition “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. Trump spokesperson Kelly-Anne Conway has come up with the phrase “alternative facts” to explain her boss’s s bizarre claims about the weather and the crowds on the day of his inauguration.

Lies, Humbug and Bullshit

LMD could have substituted the word “humbug”, which Frankfurt considers a genteel alternative. There is a subtle difference between bullshit and lies (Sisela Bok’s book Lying is a must-read). Frankfurt argues that bullshit is speech intended to persuade, without regard for truth. The liar cares about the truth and attempts to hide it; the bullshitter only cares whether or not the listener is persuaded. Frankfurt argues that bullshitters misrepresent themselves to their audience not as liars do, that is, by deliberately making false claims about what is true. Bullshit need not be untrue at all. Bullshitters seek to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned about whether anything  is true. They change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant.

Frankfurt concludes that although bullshit can take many innocent forms, excessive indulgence in it can eventually undermine the practitioner’s capacity to tell the truth in a way that lying does not. Liars at least acknowledge that it matters what is true. By virtue of this, Frankfurt writes, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are. Bullshit is everywhere, because people must create prose about things they don’t actually understand.

Entitlement to Opinion

A cliché on social media is “opinions are like arseholes; everyone’s got one and they all stink”. The Cambridge philosopher, Jamie Whyte wrote: “You are entitled to an opinion in the epistemic sense only when you have good reason for holding it: evidence, sound arguments and so on. Far from being universal, this epistemic entitlement is one you earn. It is like being entitled to boast, which depends on having something worth boasting about.” Der Spiegel wrote about Trump: “He doesn’t read. He doesn’t bother to peruse important files and intelligence reports and knows little about the issues that he has identified as his priorities. His decisions are capricious and they are delivered in the form of tyrannical decrees.”

Facebook

Thanks to Facebook, bullshit is unavoidable when people are convinced that they must have opinions about events and conditions in all parts of the world, about more or less anything and everything – so they rant about things they know virtually nothing about. However, Facebook and the internet in general are tools and we perhaps should not blame them for the way they are used. Columbia University researchers analysed 1.3m articles published online before the US presidential election. The report’s authors insist that it is neither fake news nor Facebook that poses the real challenge to the mainstream media, but a “propaganda and disinformation-rich environment”.
Churnalism

Thanks to parlous economic conditions, newspapers cannot afford to employ reporters to dig out the facts. Like an urban myth or an internet hoax, a story gets passed around and is treated as legal currency. The neologism “churnalism” has been credited to BBC journalist Waseem Zakir who coined the term in 2008. “You get copy coming in on the wires and reporters churn it out, processing stuff and maybe adding the odd local quote.” Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” – “We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist”.

It seems to me that there is more bullshit around than there was ten years ago. Look at the current President of the United States. Many have written about Trump’s incessant lying but his modus operandi seems to me to be more akin to bullshit. Frankfurt wrote: “The bullshitter is involved in a program of obfuscation, not merely the substitution of truth for lies.”

Twittering Trump

Trump uses Twitter ceaselessly and undermines the efforts of his spin doctors. Trump’s election and the Brexit vote relied on distrust of experts and disregard for knowledge. There are so many opportunities for people to sound off without knowing what they are talking about. It is disturbing when the person sounding off without knowledge is the president of the United States. As I write, I am looking at footage showing the leaders of NATO countries tittering in bemusement as Trump holds forth mistaken views about how NATO works. Trump’s claim that American allies are “underpaying” or owe NATO money has been repeatedly debunked.

Principles of Conversation

Yet another philosopher, HP Grice (1913-1988), described in his 1975 book Logic and Conversation, ‘maxims’ that are assumed by people engaged in conversation. The co-operative principle means that speakers and listeners assume that their interlocutors stick to certain speech norms. There is a kind of unstated contract about quantity, quality, relevance and manner. If the maxims are violated you get bullshit: quantity – too much or too little information; quality – utterances that are intentionally false or lack evidence; relevance – shifting ground from the topic under discussion; manner – utterances that are ambiguous, unnecessarily prolix or disorderly. Grice could be describing Trump. The elements Grice outlines may be added to the condition of the bullshitter’s indifference to the ideal of truth. Another philosopher, Bernard Williams, brings trust into the equation. Williams sees any person lied to or who has bullshit tipped onto him or her as a victim of an abuse of power who has been put in a powerless position that results in resentment and rage.

Blind Faith and Bullshit

Frankfurt comes to a somewhat surprising conclusion: ‘sincerity is bullshit’. Frankfurt rests his case on a critique of those who claim for sincerity a position formerly occupied by a trust in objectivity. He disputes the view that our nature is a more reliable guide to truth than ‘facts’. He has no time for faith or gut feeling, seeing those as part of bullshit.

Stephen Law takes this up and offers strategies for avoiding getting trapped in what he calls the black holes of bullshit – belief systems constructed in such a way that unwary passers-by can be imprisoned. Even the most intelligent and educated, not just the ignorant, are potentially vulnerable. Beware! You might think you are smart but you too can be bullshitted.

I am myself guilty of churnalism and also of having opinions about events and conditions in all parts of the world. I have been confidently condemning Jeremy Corbyn for voting against the Good Friday Agreement. I believed it because I had read it so many times on the internet. I am a bullshitter! I may have to eat my hat. According to Channel4 Corbyn did, in fact, vote for the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. He voted against the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.
Here is the relevant extract from Hansard showing that Corbyn did support the Good Friday Agreement.

https://www.publications.parliament.uk/…/debte…/80731-06.htm
My apologies to Mr Corbyn.

The Numbers Game and Critical Thinking

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on February 19 2016.

Colman's Column3

Critical Thinking and Ethics

I have long gained deep intellectual satisfaction from the application of critical thinking. A number of writers have analysed the obstacles to successful critical thinking. Reams have been written to define the  term but Webster’s has the short definition: “the mental process of actively and skilfully conceptualising, applying analysing, synthesising, and evaluating, and evaluating information to reach an answer or  conclusion”.

I would have expected to be able to engage in calm and rational discussion on most topics. Sadly, this has not always happened. It seems to be impossible to discuss Sri Lankan politics without encountering bizarrely false assumptions about my character, beliefs, allegiances and associations. I have been called both a government stooge and a Tiger sympathiser sent by sinister foreign agencies to undermine the state.

Kenan Malik

My taste for critical thinking with an ethical and humanist background led me to the writings of Kenan Malik, a lecturer and broadcaster who has published many books and articles defending rationalism and humanism in the face of what he has called “a growing culture of irrationalism, mysticism and misanthropy”.

I was dismayed when Mr Malik used his visit to the Galle Literary Festival in January 2016 to recycle the fictional figure of 40,000 plus civilian casualties at the end of the war against the LTTE. I have given this matter of “the numbers game” a great deal of thought, researched the topic extensively and discussed it with many people. I do not think that Mr Malik has had the time in his busy schedule to study the matter in so much depth. This has not deterred him from putting forward strong views on the topic.

Darusman Report

Mr Malik claims to have “done his homework” before intervening in Sri Lankan affairs but seems to be unaware of the vast amount of research that has been done. He responds to criticism by Professor Michael Roberts by citing what he calls “The 2011 UN report on the final stages of the war” as if it were a neutral and accurate investigation of the last days of the war. In reality, this was not an official UN report but a report by a “panel of experts” called by the UN General Secretary as a preliminary to further investigation and action. The panel did not carry out any investigations of its own (and recognized that it had no mandate to do so) but had to rely on second-hand “evidence” that was not evidence in the normal sense of the word. The Marga Institute evaluation of the report said that this forced the panel “into an adversarial stance with the Government” in which it assumed the role of prosecutor.

Moving the Goalposts

In his response to comments by Professor Roberts and myself, Mr Malik shifted his ground and brought in the idea of “apologists for the Sri Lankan Army.” “The question of numbers dead in the final phase is not central to the argument I was making.” He continued: “where the figures are disputed, it makes sense to settle for those provided by more objective collectors of those figures, which is what I did.”

I would contend that the figures I cited were even more objective as many of them were calculated by Tamils, including Navi Pillay of the UNHRC and the Tigers’ own website. Mr Malik’s argument now seems to be that the SLA deliberately targeted Tamil civilians and that anyone who disagrees with that position is an “apologist”. The true number of civilians killed is crucial to that very argument. If one looks at a spectrum from the zero casualties ludicrously asserted by the government at one time, to the 147,000 claimed by Frances Harrison, zero casualties would demolish the contention that the SLA was targeting civilians (unless their aim was very poor). If it is true that 147,000 were killed, the case that there was deliberate targeting becomes very strong. The numbers do matter.

War Crimes Apologist?

Mr Malik is putting words in Professor Roberts’s  mouth when he says Roberts was arguing that “the actions of the LTTE somehow justified the actions of the Sri Lankan Army”. I have read and re-read Professor Roberts’s words and he is saying nothing remotely like what Mr Malik attributes to him. The actions of the SLA may legitimately be discussed and if necessary condemned, but, if they behaved badly, it was not a tit-for-tat because the LTTE behaved badly. Malik claims “You do not, as far as I can see, contest the empirical claim that the Sri Lankan Army fired into what it had declared to be No Fire Zones or on hospitals or civilian areas.” Michael Roberts and many others have indeed contested that claim.

Universal Expertise

In his helpful book Thinking from A to Z, philosopher Nigel Warburton list alphabetically the many tropes used to manipulate argument. One trope is “truth by authority”. Warburton writes: “Unwary members of the public may make the unreliable assumption that because someone is a recognised authority…in a particular area he or she must be capable of speaking with authority on any other subject”. The problem is that when one covers a vast array of subjects, one exposes oneself to the danger of being downgraded from polymath to dilettante.

Tropes Employed by Online Commenters

One Facebook commenter chose to place his trust in the UN. He wrote: “I doubt if the UN plucked this figure out of thin air”. He ignored the many analyses which showed in detail why it seemed that the UN figure was plucked out of thin air. He does not explain why he refuses to  accept criticisms of the Darusman Report but relies on faith: “The UN report was done by eminent legal personalities and it is doubtful if they would quote numbers which they cannot defend in a court of law. If not their reputation would be in tatters.”

Immunising Strategies

In his book Believing Bullshit philosopher Stephen Law uses the term “immunising strategies”. He shows how Young Earth Creationists counter the arguments of evolutionists by claiming that, however much evidence is presented, they will still claim it is provisional and incomplete. Those who claim high figures of civilian casualties dismiss contesting calculations with responses like: “It was a war without witnesses” or: “No-one can know without forensic evidence”. Informed estimates have been made which could be refuted or accepted. “Comparing high-resolution satellite images of the second No-Fire-Zone between February and April 19, indicates that the No-Fire-Zone as a whole did not witness anything like the scale of sustained bombardment required for there to have been more than 40,300 fatalities” contends the IDAG report. There were witnesses. Murali Reddy was embedded with the SLA and wrote about what he saw for the Tamil Nadu magazine Frontline.

Guilt by Association

It is a common trope on comment threads, particularly with Sri Lankans, to avoid discussion by saying “He’s not worth considering because he has an agenda or he is close to so and so or his father did blah”. I have decided to call this move “The Mandy Rice-Davis Trope”. One commenter claimed that he had inside knowledge that two of the people whose calculations I cited were “buddies of Gota”. He refused to say which two so we could concentrate on the others.

 

I asked  why would Sir John Holmes (of the UN) , Navi Pillai (of the UNHRC), Tamil Net (website of the LTTE), Rohan Guneratna (head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research), the Voice of the Tigers (the LTTE media organisation), the South Asia Terrorism Portal, Dr Rajasingham Narendran, Dr Muttukrishna Sarvananthan (of the Point Pedro Institute of Development), Dr Noel Nadesan, the Independent Diaspora Analysis Group – Sri Lanka, all come up with lower figures? “Are they all buddies of Gota? Have you read any of their arguments?”

Do Numbers Matter?

The aim of the SLA (the legitimate armed forces of a democratically elected government trying to end an insurrection within the borders of its sovereign territory) was to defeat the enemy (at that point the most vicious terrorist group ever known with no democratic mandate) with as little harm to civilians as possible. It was not to punish Tamil civilians for the crimes of the LTTE. Many will disagree with me, but I do not believe that civilians were targeted as a matter of policy. I do believe that the aim was to limit the number of civilian casualties as far as possible in a situation where the enemy was using its own people as human shields. In this context, the number of dead being cited is of crucial importance if one is making the assumption that the government deliberately engaged in the punitive “mass killing of civilians”. Mr Malik, having raised the issue brushes it aside as “not central to his argument” when challenged.

A longer version of this article with footnotes can be found here:

https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2016/02/12/the-numbers-game-and-critical-thinking/

 

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