Thursday, 15 December 2016

Guerrilla Wordfare and Asymmetrical Rhetoric

     There is a rhetorical strategy known as the "Gish Gallop", named for the creationist Duane Gish who uses it in his debates against evolutionists. In a typical public debate, each side is allotted some fixed amount of time for an opening presentation (say, 15 minutes) and then there's time for rebuttals and questions and perhaps some more informal back-and forth. The Gish Gallop is when you use your alloted time to give a very brief summary of a host of superficially plausible individual claims that each seem to support your position. The key is the sheer number of claims (not their actual validity), and the limited time available to the opponent to rebut them. While any one claim (for example, "Evolution violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics!") can be addressed and fully rebutted by anyone who actually understands these things, the trouble is that these things are actually pretty complicated subjects (worthy of Nobel prizes), and the full explanation takes a fair bit of time. So even if your opponent does manage to decisively demolish any one claim (no small accomplishment in only 15 minutes), there's little time left to address any of the others, and so they are left standing by default.

     The parallel with asymmetrical warfare is clear. Asymmetrical warfare is so-called because the sides are vastly different in their conventional capabilities; one side is typically a nation-state with a properly trained and equipped military, while its opponent (usually a non-state actor) lacks these assets, and thus resorts to sabotage, assassination, guerrilla tactics, terrorism, and other low-budget approaches. Since they cannot field a proper army to take and hold territory, their objective is rather to make it costly and difficult for their opponent to control the territory it does hold. And instead of standing and fighting in a pitched battle, they launch a raid here, a raid there, and melt away into the hills/jungle/alleyways to go strike somewhere else. The conventional army is then forced to either chase them all over the place, spreading itself thin and never fully securing anywhere, or prioritize the objectives to secure and the objectives to leave undefended.
     Expert knowledge is like a conventional army in the sense that it's very expensive to acquire. It's overwhelmingly powerful at establishing claims in a straight up fight, but not particularly agile; it takes a lot of preparation to bring its arguments to bear in a convincing way. If the expert knowledge is given the time to develop its position, point by point, logical inference by logical inference, the only thing that can have a chance against it is another expert with better evidence and sounder reasoning. And in the end, in a proper battle of experts, the odds are usually pretty good that the Truth (or something closer to it than we started with) will prevail.
     But all of this takes time and effort. That's why the Gish Gallop works so well against it; it does not afford the audience the time to understand all the complexity and nuance in a difficult subject like evolutionary biology, and instead throws out loud and easy-to-digest slogans more aimed at raising doubt than positively convincing anyone.

     Professional obfuscators, like Gish, often rely on these sorts of tactics to prevent ideas they don't like from securing a hold on mental real estate. It is easier to destroy than to create, and it is easier to spread doubt than to explain. The tobacco industry invested heavily in generating a whole lot of noise intended to cast doubt on the idea that cigarettes are addictive and harmful, but they never had much hope of establishing the idea that cigarettes are good for you. It was a holding action, as are the current efforts to cast doubt on climate change or evolution.
     These are professional guerrilla rhetoricians, and they choose these tactics for a reason. But the other thing about asymmetrical rhetoric, just like asymmetrical warfare, is that since it is available to anyone, with or without professional training, you find a lot of ill-trained amateurs using it clumsily because they just don't know any better. Like the pathetic loser who poses for heavily-armed selfies before shooting up a restaurant, or the 2nd Amendment patriot who imagines himself effectively resisting government tyranny with scattered small arms fire, they are overly impressed by their own machismo and firepower and naively expect others to be simply overwhelmed by it. And so, when you argue with them, they will tend to madly fling out every argument they can think of without bothering to consider whether the arguments are consistent with one another, whether they're plausible or well-supported, or even whether they actually support the claim.
     The result is a debate that gets nowhere, especially if it's between two people who argue the same way. He says abortion is murder and causes cancer and encourages irresponsible promiscuity and she fires back with stop trying to control women and what about cases of rape or incest and some other arguments that completely fail to hit their targets because he's moved on to how many people want to adopt newborn babies. It's the equivalent of two rival gangs or religious sects or feuding clans just exchanging retaliatory blow after retaliatory blow; at best they may win by sheer attrition, but they can establish no positive claim to any other objective this way.

     I have been in countless arguments like this, and I've found that the best way to resolve the problem is to pick some point in contention, and focus only on that until it is either resolved or rendered irrelevant. Your opponent will probably keep bringing in other side issues, but you must not chase those yet. If the issue at hand is whether or not abortion is murder, then focus solely on why it is or why it isn't; this may require a discussion of whether or not the fetus should be considered a human being, but if you get distracted by arguments about respect for autonomy of the mother, you'll not be able to secure the question of whether it's murder. If you both end up chasing each other around, claiming temporarily undefended hills and then running to recapture the one your opponent has just left, you'll both be exhausted and frustrated and no closer to resolving the argument. So pick a hill, and either seize it and deny it to the enemy, or abandon it and adopt a strategy that doesn't depend on support from that hill anymore. Leaving it unoccupied just means he can run up it, fire a few harassing potshots at you from it, and run away again.

     Against unskilled amateurs, it's a good way to win arguments. It's a little tougher when you're facing a practiced Gish Gallop in a formal setting. There, what you need to do is make very clear to the audience what the tactic is, and expose its illusory power. Force a decisive pitched battle, instead of chasing guerrillas all over the place.
     "Ladies and Gentlemen, you've just heard a very impressive number of claims intended to make you think the theory of evolution is dangerously flawed. Each of those claims sounds pretty persuasive, if you don't look at it too closely, and that's the trick. All of them together seem overwhelming. But science is not simple. It took very smart people many years of hard work to figure these things out, and if my opponent can whip together 20 or so claims like this in 15 minutes, it's only fair to assume that someone who's been working on the problem for decades might have thought of it, too, and found an answer. And they have. Every single one of my opponent's examples is based on a simplistic misunderstanding of what scientists actually are talking about. I could use up my full 15 minutes here and maybe explain one or two of these points in sufficient detail to convince you. My opponent might even generously concede that, okay, that point was mistaken, but what about all the others? And I'd have no time left to address any of them.
     "I assure you, all of these arguments have been addressed, but I simply do not have time to answer them all here. And so I would like to challenge my opponent to pick the single most powerful, most persuasive one of the many points he's brought up, and I will refute it. If I can do so, I'd suggest to the audience that it is only our limited time here that prevents me from effectively refuting all of the others."

     Throughout history, guerrilla warfare has been good at one thing: making it hard for an invader or government to hold onto territory. By itself, it's pretty bad at seizing and holding territory of its own, because it's all about disrupting rather than establishing order. And in the same way, guerrilla wordfare is just peachy for preventing yourself from being convinced by your opponent. If all you want to do is hold onto the opinion you have unchanged, then that's a fine way to close your mind up to new insights. I can't imagine why anyone would want to do that, but you're welcome to try to convince me.

Friday, 2 December 2016

An Object Lesson in Critical Thinking

     We are awash in a sea of ignorant nonsense and insidious propaganda, thanks in no small part to social media and the ease with which we can share any attention-grabbing meme that crosses our path. Pedantic spoilsports like me can try patiently to debunk them, one by one, but in the long run the most important defence will always be the critical thinking capacity of the audience. We need to learn how to read intelligently, so we won't be as easily taken in by ridiculous claims. To that end, I'd like to walk you through a particularly silly chain letter that's come across my feed at least a dozen times over the last few years. I want to show one approach to recognizing its nonsense by drawing on really very basic background knowledge and applying it.

     Here's the specimen:

     I'll type in the text directly, so people googling for it can find it here.

GOOD LUCK EVERYONE !!! This year December has 5 Mondays, 5 Saturdays and 5 Sundays. This Happens once every 823 years. This is called money bags. So share it and money will arrive within 4 days. Based on Chinese Feng Shui. The one who does not share, will be without money. Share within 11 minutes of reading. Can't hurt so I did it. JUST FOR FUN.

(Not gonna type in the Facebook URL. If you really want to reward the purveyors of such nonsense, type it in yourself.)

     So, there are a few questions that are good to keep in mind while considering, well, anything anyone tries to tell you, ever.

(1) Who is telling me this and why?
(2) How do they know what they're telling me?
(3) Is it logically consistent with itself?
(4) Is it consistent with other things I know?

     These questions aren't the only or best ones to ask, but they are helpful. So let's try to apply them to the meme.

(1) Who is telling me this and why?
     This is actually a pretty difficult question with memes in general, because the person who shared it with you is rarely the original author, although by sharing it you can assume they're at least endorsing the contents to some extent. But this one in particular is especially tricky, because it is explicitly self-referential. It talks about what will happen if you share it and what will happen if you don't, and specifies how long it will take for the money to arrive and how quickly you must send it out. It even explicitly says "Can't hurt so I did it". Did what? Forwarded the meme you just received? But then the "I" here doesn't refer to the original author, but the most recent forwarder.
     So who is actually making these claims, that this is based on Chinese Feng Shui or that it only happens every 823 years or that I'll receive money if I share it? Maybe the owner of the Facebook page referred to at the bottom, but probably not even them, given how many such pages repurpose and resend this kind of thing.
     There's no obvious way to track down the original author, but we can consider a couple of likely motives, based on the content.
     Maybe they believe it, and want to send good luck to everyone?
     Maybe they want to compile a list of suckers who respond to chain letters?
     Maybe, as they say, they really are doing it "JUST FOR FUN"? (Personally, I fail to see the fun in it, but I am, after all, a pedantic spoilsport.)

(2) How do they know what they're telling me?
     This is only an issue if you think they believe it and want to send good luck to everyone. As far as your friend who shared it is concerned, they "know" it only because they received a chain letter telling them all this stuff; in other words, they are in exactly the same epistemic position you are, since you've received the same chain letter. So how do you know this letter is true? You don't, and neither did the person who forwarded it to you, so you cannot rely on your friend's testimony.
     But the problem gets worse as you look deeper. How did the original author know any of this stuff? They're claiming that you'll receive money within four days, if you send it out within 11 minutes. They couldn't know this by experimentation and observation of how long it takes people to reply and which ones ended up rich or penniless, because that data could only have been obtained after they sent out the chain letter, and that would make this a different letter from the first one they sent out. I suppose we could imagine some powerful wizard or psychohistorian, learned in the arcane rules that govern mystical runes of luck magic, might derive a text from some formula and confidently predict that this particular text will produce these effects. If you think that's plausible, then maybe you might want to forward that chain letter promptly, but I think it's reasonable to expect a little more evidence before just inventing such a bizarre claim and assuming it to be true.

(3) Is it logically consistent with itself?
     All by itself, it's not obviously self-contradictory, except for the bit where it says, "Can't hurt so I did it." But it also says "The one who does not share, will be without money." And it promises that if you do share, you'll receive money, so clearly it is claiming to have some kind of power to benefit or harm people, depending on whether or not they share it. So which is it? Can it hurt, or not?
     Alternatively, the "Can't hurt" may only refer to how it can't hurt if you comply within 11 minutes, but it can mess you up bad if you ignore it. So it's not necessarily self-contradictory. But it doesn't inspire a great deal of confidence.

(4) Is it consistent with other things I know?
     Here's where we'll differ; we know different things. But this chain letter is inconsistent with some things that pretty much everybody knows, although it takes a bit of analysis to see this.
     First, a quick look at the calendar will show that, in fact, December 2016 only has four Sundays and four Mondays. The chain letter is simply wrong about "this year", but perhaps it was written for a different year and is just still in circulation. (I googled for the phrase "Saturday, December 1" and quickly learned that there was such a Saturday in 2012.)
     Second, it stands to reason that for a 31 day month like December to have five Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays, December 1 must fall on a Saturday. There are only seven days of the week to choose from, so unless there's some complicated math involved, you'd expect a "money bags" December every seven years or so, not every 823 years. But maybe leap years mess it up somehow?
     So let's think about that a bit. There are 7 possible regular years, one starting on each day of the week. And then another 7 for leap years, for a total possible 14 unique calendars. Since a leap year comes every four years, it would take 28 years to cycle through all 7 available leap years, and then that same cycle would repeat exactly, during which time there would be several regular years that also had a "money bags" December.
     Yet the chain letter tells us it happens only once every 823 years? That's just not consistent with what every school kid knows about the Gregorian calendar. Unless I've done my math wrong, it just seems plain flat out wrong, and quite ridiculously so.

     There's more, of course. "Based on Chinese Feng Shui." Really? I am no expert on Feng Shui, but I've got some exposure to Chinese culture, and as I understand it, Feng Shui is a set of principles for arranging furniture and architecture and the like in harmonious ways. Some talk about it as channelling good luck energy, but others say it's just about aesthetics and ergonomics. In any event, I don't see how it relates to calendars, and what's more, the traditional Chinese calendar is lunar, and doesn't involve 31-day months called "December" at all. I suppose it's possible some Feng Shui specialist applied their theory to our western Gregorian calendar and came up with this "money bags stuff", but it seems more likely to me that some nitwit who knows even less about it than I do decided to lend false authority to their ridiculous chain letter by referencing Mysterious Secrets of the Inscrutable Orient.

     I know the chain letter says "JUST FOR FUN", and I hate to be a spoilsport, but this is getting to be pretty serious. There's a lot of really, really stupid and dangerous stuff circulating right now, and people are making dangerous decisions based on it. Good, independent critical thinking habits must be practiced and cultivated until they become natural and instinctive. Conversely, every time you uncritically click "Share" on something like this, you're actually practicing and reinforcing bad habits of gullibility, and you're encouraging other people to do the same.