Category Archives: Discourse

On School Openings

Back in April, I “predicted” we’d see 150 to 200 thousand deaths from COVID-19 in the US.  As we are now in that range, I’m hoping I was right and we don’t go past the 200,000, but of course this is so far outside my expertise that my guess means little.  But here we are and school openings approach.  Some seem deadly afraid of school openings and some seem deadly afraid of schools not opening. (I’m primarily thinking here about K-12, but much of what I say applies to colleges as well—and of course, high school juniors and seniors are more like college freshman than kindergarteners in terms of COVID-19 transmission and symptoms.)

Those conflicting views often accompany two others: that people favoring school openings foolishly think young children are immune to the effects of COVID-19 (or otherwise don’t understand the risks of reopening) and that people opposing school openings don’t care about education (or otherwise overestimate the risks of reopening).  

Meanwhile, I don’t believe any thinking person really thinks any children are immune to COVID-19, despite claims coming from the White House.  Of course, young children do seem to get badly sick from the virus much less than anyone expected back in March.  And there is no reason to believe that those worried about sending kids into closed buildings with hundreds of others don’t care about education.

My biggest issue with discussions about this—and many things—is that people seem unable or unwilling to keep the pros and cons in mind at the same time.  But schools are, by and large, run by groups of people that have to be able to do just that in order to make rational decisions about whether to open, close, reopen, re-close schools—sometimes despite political pressures by governing bodies, unions, parental organizations, and more.

This has to be a hugely difficult question and cannot be made without considering both the costs and the benefits.  At a minimum that includes the following assumptions (yes, I think both of these are true):

-if schools are open, kids and teachers are going to get sick (plexiglass around the kids, masks all day, etc, is not going to stop it). They will also bring the disease to their families, friends, and neighbors.  We’re likely to pass 200k deaths more quickly (and with more children) than we would if schools stay closed.

-if schools are closed, children of working class parents will suffer long term consequences.  Their parents can’t stay home with them and help them with their schoolwork.  Middle class and wealthier parents will hire tutors or join “educational pods” where parents pool resources to monitor children doing school work, but not those from poorer backgrounds.  (And as others have noted, there will be more cases of suicide and spousal and child abuse.)

There are further economic issues that would follow either decision as well, but I’ll not delve into those here.  What I want to urge now is simply (a) not demonizing those you disagree with about this and (b) bearing in mind both the pros and cons if you have decision making capacity here.  

I keep myself limited to those two points as I really don’t know what the best route is for any school (and, of course, different schools in different locales with different population densities and with different student bodies, will be different).  I suspect a lot of thought will be going into it, and not just from current school administrators and school boards.  (And parents—the topic of a future post.)

Hopefully, new ideas will emerge that actually bring new approaches and new institutions that do better for children than schools now do.  Smaller schools with more parental decision making, more variety of teaching techniques, and yes, better use of technology to not merely monitor children and allow for physically distanced communication, but also to spark curiosity.  I can’t predict the innovations; I remain optimistic that they will come and that innovators will consider the many concerns as they seek to appeal to a wide customer base.

This pandemic is going to have long term effects.  We are likely to see more work at home across the board and less use of commercial office space and that may bring new opportunities for housing, lower rents in some areas, and reductions of city populations.  Better systems of education responding to these changes and the above challenges would be a wonderful outcome of a bad situation.

(Thanks to Ronit Elk for the impetus to write this and to  JP Messina for helpful suggestions and comments.)

Social Media Censorship: Four Lessons from the Recent Suppression of Covid-19 ‘Disinformation’

On July 27th 2020, a group of physicians calling themselves “Frontline Doctors” posted a video to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. The video displays licensed medical doctors in front of a supreme court building (1) advocating the reopening of schools, (2) suggesting that there are public health costs of lockdowns (e.g., excess suicides, cases of depression, domestic violence, and substance abuse) and (3) extolling the virtues of zinc and hydroxychloroquine (a drug whose robust supply is essential for managing lupus and other ailments) in treating and preventing COVID-19 infections. By the morning of July 28th, the video had roughly 14 million views and had been removed from every mainstream platform that had initially hosted it for violating their coronavirus misinformation policies. On the same morning, I became curious and watched the video elsewhere. It was not hard to find.

Lesson one: Despite claims that private social media companies regularly violate persons’ free speech rights, actions by private companies to censor content are much less worrying than similar actions by state agents. This is partially because it’s relatively easy to access content that private parties take down. Less so when the state does it.

On July 29th, the New York Times’ David Leonhardt ran a “morning briefing” indicating that the video had been removed for suggesting that hydroxychloroquine was an effective cure and that masks were unnecessary. The remark on masks was a mere snippet of the much broader message. “You don’t need a mask,” Stella Immanuel said, “there’s a cure.”  She herself admits to wearing a surgical mask, so presumably she does not mean that there is no reason to wear a mask in the absence of the drug’s widespread deployment. Other doctors who spoke at the event clearly advocate social distancing and mask-wearing practices.

But leaving this claim aside, there is at least some truth in the main of what these doctors were saying. The segment lasted over 45 minutes, only a small portion of which contained anything about masks and only some of which concerned hydroxychloroquine . Many of the group’s claims about the safety of reopening schools and the hidden public health costs of lockdowns are largely uncontroversial. Others, e.g., that Sweden’s response represents an alternative approach to locking down are likewise true, even if the results of Sweden’s alternative approach have been mixed. Labeling the entire segment false or misleading thus does disservice to what’s true in it.

Lesson two: John Stuart Mill was right that censored content that is false often contains important half-truths and that this matters when considering whether to suppress it.

In the same piece, Leonhardt claimed that confusion induced by social media platforms’ failure to aggressively censor content is among the most noteworthy causes of the United States’ comparatively bad coronavirus outcomes. (Leonhardt also cited Sinclair’s media network, which broadcasts content downplaying the risks of the virus.) Let’s leave aside the fact that the causal explanation of the U.S.’s performance relative to its peers is a matter of some complexity and focus instead on something striking about the causal claim he in fact makes: that social media companies’ lack of censorship deserves a large portion of the blame for these outcomes.

But notice that reporters like Leonhardt at mainstream media outlets have likely done more than any social media platform to spread this particular video’s message. Had the message merely remained on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook (as so much content does) I would not have watched it. The same is surely true for countless others. But because the video’s content, which might have otherwise maintained a kind of cult viewership, was covered by all of the major news outlets, lots of people sought it out. This is the Streisand Effect in action: very often, attempts to suppress information lead to its viral spread. This matters because there are in effect two possibilities: either the ineptly suppressed content is dangerous or it isn’t. If it is genuinely dangerous, then Leonhardt (and others like him) have acted irresponsibly by their own lights by drawing much more attention to it. If the content of the video is not genuinely dangerous, on the other hand, then the main justification for removing the content in the first place is implausible.

Now, you might say the way that mainstream outlets spread the speech was not dangerous insofar as it was framed explicitly as containing disinformation. The problem is twofold. First,  the current media climate is so polarized right now that even once reputable outlets like the New York Times are deemed untrustworthy by a significant subset of the population. (Some go so far as to claim that these outlets are anti-reliable.) When such outlets declare something to be disinformation, then, there is real reason to worry that people skeptical of the outlet will be more favorably disposed to the bad speech than they’d otherwise have been. Second, some research has uncovered an Illusory Truth Effect, according to which people are more likely to believe things that they hear constantly repeated, even if listeners know the repeated claim is false.

Lesson Three: If there’s dangerous content out there, it’s often better to ignore it than draw increased attention to it. Paradoxically, censoring content is among the best ways of promoting it. Given the newsworthiness of social media censorship, were these companies to do what Leonhardt wants them to do and censor content more often, the effect might well be that the allegedly dangerous content reaches a wider audience than it otherwise would.

None of this is to deny that some of what these doctors said sounds crazy. (Though, notably, for some of them, their professional views on the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine are among their most innocuous.) Still, it’s important not to pretend that the coronavirus treatment science is settled—there is still much that we don’t know, and the mainstream medical researchers at least deem the hypothesis that hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment worthy of study in high profile scientific outlets. Until these questions are settled, it’s important for professionals, even fringe professionals, to make their arguments without being dismissed out of hand and derided. Importantly, the arguments regarding hydroxychloroquine offered by the so-called “Frontline Doctors” are largely anecdotal, rely on small sample sizes (n=350), and are afflicted with other problems evident to anyone remotely well-versed in critical thinking. Were these arguments to become widely accepted, it would be important to recognize their flaws and to draw public attention to them. But to think that the conclusions of such arguments are beyond the pale—especially in the context of the broader pandemic, during which those insisting on proper data collection techniques have been derided for not acting quickly enough—is, frankly, not credible. Thus even if these arguments should be discredited and derided, it’s important to take care not to similarly deride and discredit those who argue for similar conclusions from more solid grounds.

Lesson four: If you must draw attention to a bad argument that someone makes on some important issue, focus on the argument’s substance, rather than discrediting what speakers say by taking small claims they make out of context. Doing so is a small first step toward establishing credibility with those who disagree with you. Again, there is no first amendment issue here, but even the most fastidious protection of our rights to speak against government interference is insufficient for ensuring a healthy atmosphere for discourse.

The Quadruple Threat to America Today

America faces a quadruple threat. The four threats are related in various ways, too often mutually supporting. I am not including COVID-19, though it could easily be considered a 5th threat. My reasons for doing this are: (1) it’s a threat everywhere, in no way distinctive of American life; indeed, it would be best considered a global natural disaster; (2) it is related to the threats I do discuss; indeed, like all natural disasters, it’s impact is determined by our responses—and the other threats make bad responses more likely. I offer these for consideration as I think they must all be addressed if liberalism is to survive.

The first threat is straightforward. We might call it xenophobia or extreme in-group bias. It manifests in multiple ways, especially racism, sexism, anti-immigrant biases, and anti-semitism. This may seem to be largely confined to those on the so-called “right,” but it applies to many on the left as well. On the left, one need only think of Bernie Sanders’ anti-immigrant views or Joe Biden’s recent pro-American economic policy; on the right one need only think of talk of the “Wuhan flu” or “China flu” instead of “COVID-19”—both play on the insider/outsider distinction to blame someone else for our problems (or at least prevent outsiders from becoming insiders). Maliciously shifting the blame provides cover for those who seek to refuse to take action to limit the harm. Taking responsibility (not necessarily blame) means working to fix the problem. Many of our governments—and many individuals—refuse to do so. This, of course, is at least part of why the number of COVID cases and deaths in the US is on the rise. Like all natural disasters, how we react to it determines the overall impact it has. Of course, the Black Lives Matter movement is currently the most straightforward evidence of in-group bias, in the form of racism, as protestors correctly point out how institutional racism, especially (but not only) by way of police actions, are extremely unjust and, indeed, a matter of life and death for many. This seems to be a concern primarily of “the left,” but with leading support from libertarians (defying the standard left/right dichotomy). For those interested in that, see Radley Balko’s and Chris Coyne and Abigail Hall’s books (CE*).

The second threat is the economy, as we fail to institute a reasonable response to the COVID-19 pandemic and as we face the repercussions of widespread use of collateralized loan obligations (see this Barron’s piece and this piece in The Atlantic), much as the 2008 recession was at least partly caused by widespread use of collateralized debt obligations. Regarding the latter, it is unfortunate in the extreme that the federal government failed to learn any lessons from the collapse of the housing market bubble or its past support for big banking and the latter’s issuing of bad debt (itself encouraged as the big banks correctly realized that even if the debts really went south, they would be bailed out by taxpayers—because in the US the one thing we like to socialize is big business’s losses). Unfortunately, we may see the same thing repeat. Indeed, it may be worse since there is more invested in CLOs than there was in CDOs and the CLOs largely include commercial debt—and the pandemic is hard on many commercial enterprises. Regarding the government response to the pandemic, we can only note what has been often noted—widespread, enforced, and complete shut-downs of multiple markets may or may not help reduce spread of the disease, but would only do so at the obvious cost of making it more difficult—and more expensive—for people to get necessities. While middle and upper class professionals are often able to work from home with no or little loss in pay, many—especially those in the restaurant and entertainment businesses—cannot. At the end of the day, shutting everything down to save lives is foolhardy as it will cost lives. If markets are all closed, we won’t have food and other necessities. Those who live paycheck to paycheck (and many more) won’t be able to pay rent, etc.

The third threat is authoritarianism, partially with a populist demagogue. We now have a president who is likely more of a demagogue than any president since Andrew Jackson. Of course, he was enabled by changes to the office and the workings of the federal government over the last several decades. The expansion of presidential powers under the past several presidents—Republican and Democrat alike—enabled what we have now. The populism is perhaps as dangerous as anything else—promising voters bread and circuses is always worrisome. Those voters are often not well informed about how government works or about science. Now, of course, we see both the populism and the authoritarianism emerging from the debased Republican Party. The populism is clear in the MAGA crowd’s following their leader in insisting on not wearing masks. The authoritarianism is perhaps worse, as witnessed in federal law enforcement agencies frightening behavior in Portland—with the threat that such behavior will go national. The use of ICE and The Border Patrol Tactical Unit deep within the US Border started months ago (see this in the NYTimes) but seems to be picking up steam—ostensibly because the federal government is so worried about graffiti on federal buildings that they are unwilling to leave such crimes to local authorities. (See Jake’s great piece, which also indicates why this is also about populism.) In reality, of course, this may be merely a piece of political theater, aimed at distracting voters and rallying the president’s base. As already indicated, though, this is not an issue for the current Republican party alone. Presidents Clinton and Obama also expanded their powers while in office. And even now, we see scary authoritarianism from the left, when local authorities claim to have knowledge about what is necessary to prevent further spread of COVID-19 and claim that such knowledge justifies them forcing people to live under house arrest (see this piece about a couple in Kentucky) for refusing to sign a paper saying they would not self-quarantine (whether or not they would self-quarantine). Neither left nor right is blameless and neither seems to recognize that their actions are as scary (at least to their opponents) as those of the other side are (at least to them). Those on “the right” seem to think the Feds behavior in Portland is worthwhile because local authorities aren’t stopping looters. They seem to forget the value of federalism and the freedom of individuals that helps ensure (though they remember it clearly when it serves their interests). Those on “the left” seem to think the Kentucky authorities are doing the work needed given public health concerns. They seem to work with a reified sense of “the public” and forget the freedom of individuals that threatens (though they remember it clearly enough when it serves their interests).

The fourth threat is related to my last post. Its a dangerous lack of commitment to there being anything that is objectively true and to seeking such. Its not just our president that seems to lack any commitment to truth. Our culture is riddled with people who claim their beliefs form “their truth” which may be different from “your truth” or “my truth” but that must be treated as if of equal value. Never mind that there really are experts out there in all sorts of areas. Some believe their views of morality are as valuable as those of academics who spend their lives working out intricate details of moral theories and defending those theories against all manner of objection—though they themselves never subject their own views to criticism. (Why should they, when their view is “true to them,” whatever that means?) No wonder people now consider their views about disease transmission (and curing) as valuable as the CDC’s or Dr. Fauci’s. Or who consider their view of other countries as valuable as people who have actually travelled to or lived in those countries. Or who think their views of politics and economics as valuable as academic political scientists and economists who have been studying these things for decades? Admittedly, insisting that there is objective truth might sometimes sound dogmatic to those who feel insulted when faced with any intellectual opposition—as if insisting that a proposition is true entails rejecting any objection or evidence to the contrary, which it decidedly does not. Giving any belief its due can be considerably difficult. As Schumpter said, “To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian.” We must remain open to the possibility that we are mistaken even when we are convinced we are not—that is what genuine commitment to truth and truth seeking entails.

I’ll end by making some of the connections between the threats explicit: 

-Its easier to favor economic policies that favor the rich (2) when one thinks everyone else is “other” (1). Its easier to favor authoritarian actions (3) when one believes they are only used against people vary unlike oneself (1). Its easier to deny there is any objective truth (4) when one is constantly told those unlike oneself have different values and beliefs (1)

-Its easier to hate outsiders (1) when one mistakenly (4) think they threaten one’s own livelihood and that of those one cares about (2). It is likely easier to endorse authoritarian policies (3) if one thinks they are necessary to maintain economic stability or growth (2). (Less related to this discussion: it is apparently easier to deny there is any form of objectivity (4) if one believes that the only think that matters is subjective preferences (2).)

-Its easier to distrust or hate others (1) or to favor an economic policy (2) when blinded by an authoritarian repeatedly making false statements about them and grandstanding (3 & 4). Its easier, in general, to doubt there is any objectivity (4) when both that same authoritarian (3) and many others—including, if we are honest, many leftist college professors—encourage those doubts.

-Its easier to hate outsiders (1) when one refuses to learn about them (4). Its easier to favor an economic policy (2) when one refuses to consider objections to it (4). Its easier to favor forcing people to live as one thinks they should (3) without doing the hard work of listening to them (4).

I hope its clear we need a response to these threats. Liberalism—and the great American experiment—depend on it.

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About Dialogue

Many people believe civil discourse has deteriorated. I think civil discourse has deteriorated. In this post, I want to make a different point: that what we see today is not merely a deterioration of civil discourse, but a greater and more general loss of genuine dialogue.

Dialogue involves two or more parties.  In genuine dialogue, one party speaks and the other responds, in seriatum.  The second responds to the first and the first responds to the second, etc.  In each of these moves, when one responds to the other, they do not merely make statements—they make statements that directly respond to the last statementThis means, at a minimum, that each successive statement takes into account what was previously said and in some way builds upon it.  The “building” may be a moving of the discussion forward wherein new information is created or shared, or it may be an interrogation of earlier statements that is plausibly expected to lead to clarity such that further building is possible.  

Excluded in genuine dialogue is lying, making statements unrelated to previous contributions to the discussion, mere repetitions of previous contributions (unless used as part of an interrogation meant to allow further building), and tangential statements meant to change the topic.  (Changing the topic is permissible, but doing so means ending one conversation and starting another.)

My contention is simply that these moves that are excluded by genuine dialogue are an extensive part of contemporary conversation.  Putting the point differently, much of contemporary discussion is twaddle rather than genuine dialogue. (This is not an original point; it’s been made many times before throughout history; my favorite statement  about it is by Kierkegaard, in his The Present Age (CE*).)  If this is right, it’s hardly surprising that we have a paucity of civil discourse.  How can we expect civil discourse when people have lost the ability to engage in any real discourse?  When what passes for discourse is “you speak then I speak,” disliking what the faux interlocutor says will not result in honest interrogation or understanding, but hatred.

If you think I am being facetious, consider:

-Walking across a college campus, you might hear someone say “Was your summer fantastic?” Forget the response, what kind of question is this?  What if the person being asked merely had an OK summer?  

-You might here someone say “Its going to rain tomorrow because I looked at the forecast.”  Well…. no.

-Someone might ask a guest if they’d like a drink and receive this reply: “I’m going out to dinner after this.”  This likely should be prefaced with a “No,” but who can be sure?

None of that even touches the fact that some seem to have absolutely no commitment to telling the truth, the results of which is that genuine dialogue can’t progress.  We could, of course, simply look at the White House for examples, but more generally I admit to being flummoxed when faced when someone lies straight to my face—when I realize this is happening, I give up on genuine dialogue with that person.

If contemporary discussion is itself not genuine dialogue, it cannot be civil discourse.  If we care about civil discourse, then, we should work to encourage more genuine dialogue.  That is, we need to encourage people to listen to one another and actually respond rather than merely speak.  (This, by the way, is one reason many of us love university life: at a university, we frequently say “what do you mean by that?,” “can you explain?,” and even “how is that relevant to our discussion?”  We seek and promote genuine discussion all the time.)

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