What democracy and science demand: The ‘Smartmatic vs Fox News’ case
The opening lines of Smartmatic's $2.7 billion lawsuit against Fox News lay bare the culture of denial in the US.
- Smartmatic, an election technology company, has filed a $2.7-billion-dollar defamation suit against Fox News for making false claims about its voting machines during Fox's dishonest campaign against the 2020 US presidential election results.
- The lawsuit opens with three powerful statements of fact: A scientific truth, a mathematical proof, and an objective political fact: More people voted for Joe Biden than for Donald Trump.
- We owe the Smartmatic lawyers a debt of gratitude for so cleanly demonstrating what this ongoing election battle is all about. What is at stake is not a political ideology. It's a fight to acknowledge the shared reality we all live in.
"The Earth is round. Two plus two equals four. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the 2020 election for President and Vice President of the United States."
So begins the 2.7-billion-dollar legal suit filed by Smartmatic, an election technology company, against Fox News. The suit, filed two weeks ago, argues that Fox News, its hosts, and others defamed the company by making false claims about their voting machines to back up other false claims that the US election had been stolen. There is much about this suit which, like our times, is remarkable. For readers of 13.8, however, those three opening sentences are what matter. Linking those three statements of fact is more than just rhetorical flourish. Instead, they reveal a unity of ideals lying at the heart of modern scientific and democratic societies. They are the keys to living in a richly diverse and yet peacefully shared reality. Those ideals are now at risk.
So, to understand exactly what's at stake in these remarkable times, and what the suit proposes, let's unpack each of these statements and what they point to separately.
The "Big Lie" about the 2020 elections was the most egregious attempt to deny that there are shared facts about a shared world.
The first statement of fact the Smartmatic lawyers drawn upon is a scientific truth about the physical world. Specifically, it relates to geology and planetary science. Earth, a planet, takes a spherical configuration. The truth of that statement has been demonstrated by direct observation for many millennia. For example, when ships sail away from a harbor, they not only appear to get smaller as they grow more distant, but their masts are also seen to sink below the horizon. The fact that there is a "below the horizon" means the planet is not flat. In the modern era we have sent cameras far enough from Earth to get direct image-based evidence for the sphericity of our home world.
The second statement of fact relates to mathematics. There are rules for summing two integers. Those rules are known and can be applied such that everyone agreeing to those rules can agree on the result of such a summation. Also, the rules are associated with basic statements of logic. These include holding that fact can't be both true and false at the same time. So, to deny the rules and results of math would mean to deny the possibility of reason.
The third statement of fact is where things get interesting. It concerns the outcome of counting votes. Like imaging Earth from space, or carrying out a mathematical proof, the outcome of counting votes will lead to an objective fact. Either Joe Biden got more votes than his opponent or he did not.
But the reality of votes is not the same as the reality of planets or math. That is why the construction of the Smartmatic suit is so revealing. Planets are just given to us by the universe. We find ourselves on one whether we like it or not. Likewise, mathematical proofs don't care how you are feeling about life that day. They always give the same result. But votes don't have to exist the way planets and math does. Votes emerge from an idea about self-governance.
Voting is a creation of the human mind to solve a very human problem: How do we all get along? How do different people with different concepts, ideas, and feelings all live together without resorting to beatings every time they disagree on something?
Voting is a democratic mechanism that helps us "get along." Here, former vice president Mike Pence and house speaker Nancy Pelosi preside over a joint session of Congress to certify the 2020 electoral college results.
Credit: Erin Schaff / POOL / AFP via Getty Images
This "how to get along" question is an old, old problem for humans, and we have tried many approaches including kings, dictators, and tyrants. Voting was a pretty radical idea when it was first tried out in ancient Greece. But by the time it was proposed in places like the nascent United States, it had taken on an entirely new character. Proposals for democracy in the 18th century emerged from the constellation of ideas we now call the Enlightenment. More than anything else, Enlightenment-era thinkers believed they had found a path toward a better world. It was a path laid down by reason and by science.
For Enlightenment thinkers, "knowledge, innovation, freedom, and social advancement go together," writes Timothy Ferris Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin saw their new nation as an "experiment" in self-rule. John Adams thought that the data gained from the experiment could be combined with reason to produce a "science of government." Science as both metaphor and reality were so important to the framers of the US Constitution that they put the patent system into the document's very first article.
The framers of American democracy wanted a political system that would reflect the order and transparency they found in the natural world through science. And in science, such order and transparency occur because there are clear mechanisms for establishing facts. Even more important there are, indeed, facts to be found. There is a shared reality we all inhabit regardless of religion or disposition or party affiliation. In this way, the number of votes cast in an election is an objective fact. By establishing the system for self-governance and agreeing to its rules, a tally of votes cast for a candidate is a reality of our shared civic space.
What denial, in all its modern forms, wants is to destroy that civic space. It hopes to break the agreement about shared reality. But, in doing so, it also destroys the capacity for science, our most powerful tool for understanding the world.
American teacher John Thomas Scopes (second from left) standing in the courtroom during his trial for teaching Darwin's Theory of Evolution in his high school science class. Dayton, Tennessee, 1925.
Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
I've been writing about science denial for some time now. It began a century ago in arguments over evolution. After the famous Scopes Monkey trial, it seemed that battle was over. It was climate change, however, that mainstreamed denial in the modern era. Through climate denial we first began to see people in positions of power make blatantly false claims about the shared reality revealed by science. It was, more than anything, a rejection of the possibility of knowing anything, of having expertise. Then, over the last five years, denial exploded beyond claims of science to touch all domains of public life including the most basic facts about the world (i.e., which inauguration was attended by more people). The "Big Lie" about the 2020 elections was the most egregious attempt to deny that there are shared facts about a shared world.
By explicitly linking facts about the physical, mathematical, and civic worlds, the Smartmatic suit explicitly rejects that denial. While it's impossible to know what will happen to their legal case, we owe the Smartmatic lawyers a debt of gratitude for so cleanly demonstrating what this ongoing battle is all about. What is at stake is not a political ideology. It's not about Democrats or Republicans. Instead, what lies before us is an effort to reestablish the core beliefs that underpin the continuing global experiment in democracy and science.There is a world we share, and we can know something about it. We can agree on what we know and, most importantly, we can use that knowledge to make things better for everyone.
Cow cuddling is getting ever more popular, but what's the science behind using animals for relaxation?
- An Indian non-profit hopes to help people relax by giving them cuddle sessions with cows.
- This is not the first such center where you can chill out with cattle.
- Like other emotional support animals, the proven health benefits are limited.
Who needs a therapy dog when you can hug a cow?<p> Located outside of the Indian city of Gurugram, the new Cow Cuddling Centre will be run by a non-profit <a href="https://interestingengineering.com/ngo-launches-cow-cuddling-therapy-center-in-india" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">headed</a> by the former Chairman of the Animal Welfare Board of India, SP Gupta.</p><p>Pitched as a way to escape the stresses of modern life and "forget all your problems," the founders of the establishment have high hopes for it, suggesting that spending time with the cows can cure "respiratory diseases, blood pressure, spinal pain, heart problem, depression but also sadness, anxiety and all kinds of tensions" in a <a href="https://www.indiatimes.com/news/india/cow-science-exam-may-be-postponed-but-an-ngo-is-launching-a-cow-cuddling-centre-in-haryana-535024.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">press statement</a>.</p><p>While you might be thinking that cow cuddling only exists in India because of the cultural importance placed on the animal there, <a href="http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20201008-is-cow-hugging-the-worlds-new-wellness-trend" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the Dutch beat them to it.</a> Cow cuddling farms exist in the United States as <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/12/style/self-care/cow-cuddling-therapy.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">well</a>.</p>
Is there any science behind the idea of cuddling with a cow over a more traditional, travel-sized pet?<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/QG3fOOT7xWQ" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> Like many claims about emotional support animals of any kind, there is a limited amount of data on this.</p><p>What studies do exist on emotional support animals are <a href="https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08927936.2015.11435396" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">small</a>, <a href="https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15228932.2013.765734" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">limited</a>, and should be considered to be the beginnings of more extensive <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1479-8301.2009.00268.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">studies</a> which will settle the question of how much help these animals can <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5127627/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">provide</a>. This is different from work on well-trained service animals, which are <a href="https://content.iospress.com/articles/neurorehabilitation/nre1345" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">proven</a> to be very <a href="http://www.cf4aass.org/uploads/1/8/3/2/18329873/psd_and_veterans_living_with_ptsd_-_gillett_march_23_2014_2.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">helpful</a> when doing the <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0965229913002148" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">tasks</a> they are specially trained for. <br></p><p>Regarding cows, the <a href="http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20201008-is-cow-hugging-the-worlds-new-wellness-trend" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">BBC</a> suggests that chilling with cows can cause relaxation by boosting oxytocin levels in humans, though they do not cite a specific study supporting that stance. One often-referenced study from several years back suggests the cows might like and get relaxation out of cuddling <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0168159107000445" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">too</a>.<br></p><p>However, Dr. <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/contributors/michael-ungar-phd" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Michael Ungar</a> suggests in this <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/nurturing-resilience/202001/cuddle-cow-the-new-psychotherapy" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Psychology Today</a> article that cow cuddling might be comparable to equine therapy, which, while also lacking in rigorous scientific support, does seem to provide some people certain benefits.</p><p>The news magazine <a href="https://www.indiatoday.in/india-today-insight/story/cuddling-a-cow-the-latest-wellness-trend-1764558-2021-01-31" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">India Today </a>featured a brief interview with professor Ritu Dangwal, who also suggests that cow cuddling might have some benefits:</p><p> "As a psychologist and someone who herself experienced it, being with cows is extremely therapeutic. We are stuck in a rat race and our anxiety is at an all-time high. Being with an emotive animal, one that has no judgement and loves unconditionally, does wonders."</p><p>What relaxes some people might be somewhat surprising to others or difficult to generalize in a scientific study. While you might not get prescribed a day in the pasture anytime soon, cow cuddling is an increasingly popular way to relax that gets people back into nature and interacting with animals in a way that many of us rarely get the chance to. While the science isn't quite all there, some people might find it worth the time.</p><p>Just be sure to wear closed-toed shoes if you go.</p>
Millions of doses of Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine could be distributed as early as next week, if the FDA and CDC authorize it.
- The FDA and CDC will soon vote on whether to authorize the distribution of Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine.
- If approved, it would become the third vaccine available in the U.S., the other two being vaccines produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
- The new vaccine has a lower efficacy rate, but clinical data suggest its highly effective at preventing hospitalization and death.
Mediteraneo via AdobeStock<p>What makes Johnson & Johnson's vaccine unique is that it's effective after just one dose, while the vaccines produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna require two doses administered over several weeks.</p><p>And unlike the other two vaccines, Johnson & Johnson's vaccine doesn't need to be frozen during shipping and storage, it just needs to be refrigerated. That's because the vaccine protects against COVID-19 by delivering coronavirus proteins to the body through a common cold virus known as adenovirus type 26. In contrast, the other two vaccines perform a similar function, but they do it through mRNA, which is more delicate and requires freezing.</p><p>Not having to freeze the single-shot vaccine will make it cheaper and easier to distribute across the country, and it could result in many more people getting vaccinated.</p><p>But it's worth noting that Johnson & Johnson's vaccine doesn't seem to be as effective as the other two vaccines. According to the FDA analysis, the vaccine is about 66 percent effective at preventing moderate to severe cases of COVID-19, "when considering cases occurring at least 28 days after vaccination." Meanwhile, clinical data show that the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are about 95 percent effective at preventing severe cases of the disease.</p>
peterschreiber.media via AdobeStock<p>Still, that doesn't necessarily mean Johnson & Johnson's vaccine is inferior. The FDA analysis found that nobody who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was hospitalized or died due to COVID-19 (at least among cases that occurred 28 days after getting the shot).</p><p>So, while some people who receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine may still contract coronavirus, the vaccine does seem to significantly reduce the severity of COVID-19. The same holds true for the other two vaccines: Getting the shot (or shots) won't completely protect you from the virus, but it does protect you from the disease, reducing the chances of becoming hospitalized or dying to almost zero.</p>
COVID-19 vaccines and transmission<p>But what's less clear is the extent to which the vaccines prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Because the vaccines don't completely protect against infection, it might be possible for a vaccinated person to spread the virus. But COVID-19 vaccines might make transmission less likely.</p><p>After all, even if a person who gets vaccinated contracts the coronavirus, the virus would have a harder time replicating in their body, because the vaccine bolsters the immune response. So, one would expect that person to "shed" less of the virus out of their mouth and nose. In short: fewer infections means less replication, less shedding and less transmission. </p><p>That's the theory, anyway.</p><p><span></span>Scientists are still working to understand how exactly these vaccines affect transmission. But early data is promising. In a <a href="https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.02.06.21251283v1.full-text" target="_blank">preprint paper published on medRxiv</a>, Israeli researchers measured the amount of coronavirus within about 2,900 people who had received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Analyzing positive SARS-CoV-2 test results following inoculation with the BNT162b2 mRNA vaccine [the Pfizer vaccine], we find that the viral load is reduced four-fold for infections occurring 12-28 days after the first dose of vaccine," the paper said. "These reduced viral loads hint to lower infectiousness, further contributing to vaccine impact on virus spread."</p><p>But until the data on vaccines and transmission become clear, the CDC recommends that vaccinated people still wear masks and practice social distancing.</p>
How does philosophy try to balance having free will with living in a deterministic universe?
- People feel like they have free will but often have trouble understanding how they can have it in a deterministic universe.
- Several models of free will exist which try to incorporate physics into our understanding of our experience.
- Even if physics could rule out free will, there would still be philosophical questions about it.
Hard Determinism<p> Some philosophers have taken the argument of casual determinism mentioned above and used it to say that there is no room for free will at all. This stance, called "hard determinism," maintains that all of our actions are causally necessary and dictated by physics in the same way as a billiard ball's movement. </p><p> The Baron d'Holbach<strong>, </strong>a French philosopher, explained the stance:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"> "In short, the actions of man are never free; they are always the necessary consequence of his temperament, of the received ideas and of the notions, either true or false, which he has formed to himself of happiness; of his opinions, strengthened by example, by education, and by daily experience."</p><p> While physics and philosophy have both advanced since the enlightenment era, hard determinism still has supporters.</p>
Indeterminism<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/DMNZQVyabiM" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> As some of you are probably thinking right now, quantum physics, with its uncertainties, probabilities, and general strangeness, might offer a way out of the determinism of classical physics. This idea, sometimes called "<a href="https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/incompatibilism-theories/" target="_blank">indeterminism</a>," occurred to more than a few philosophers too, and variations of it date back to ancient Greece.</p><p> This stance holds that not every event has an apparent cause. Some events might be random, for example. Proponents of the perspective suggest that some of our brain functions might have random elements, perhaps caused by the fluctuations seen in quantum mechanics, that cause our choices to not be fully predetermined. Others suggest that only part of our decision-making process is subject to causality, with a portion of it under what amounts to the control of the individual. </p><p> There are issues with this stance being used to counter determinism. One of them is that having choices made randomly rather than by strict causation doesn't seem to be the kind of free will people think about. From a physical standpoint, brain activity may involve some quantum mechanics, <a href="https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22830500-300-is-quantum-physics-behind-your-brains-ability-to-think/" target="_blank">but not all of it. </a>Many thinkers incorporate indeterminism into parts of their models of free will, but don't fully rely on the idea. <br><a href="https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22830500-300-is-quantum-physics-behind-your-brains-ability-to-think/" target="_blank"></a> </p>
Soft Determinism<p> Also called "<a href="https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism/" target="_blank">compatibilism</a>," this view agrees with causal determinism but also holds that this is compatible with some kind of free will. This can take on many forms and sometimes operates by varying how "free" that will actually is. </p><p> <a href="https://www.informationphilosopher.com/solutions/philosophers/mill/" target="_blank">John Stuart Mill </a>argued that causality did mean that people will act in certain ways based on circumstance, character, and desires, but that we have some control over these things. Therefore, we have some capacity to change what we would do in a future situation, even if we are determined to act in a certain way in response to a particular stimulus. </p><p> Daniel Dennett goes in another <a href="https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/iphi/files/free_will_2016_01.pdf" target="_blank">direction</a>, suggesting a two-stage model of decision-making involving some indeterminism. In the first stage of making a decision, the brain produces a series of considerations, not all of which are necessarily subject to determinism, to take into account. What considerations are created and not immediately rejected is subject to some level of indeterminism and agent control, though it could be unconscious. In the second step, these considerations are used to help make a decision based on a more deterministic reasoning process. </p><p> In these stances, your decisions are still affected by prior events like the metaphorical billiard balls moving on a table, but you have some control over how the table is laid out. This means you could, given enough time and understanding, have a fair amount of control over how the balls end up moving. </p><p> Critics of stances like this often argue that the free will the agent is left with by these decision-making models is hardly any different from what they'd have under a hard deterministic one. </p>
Libertarian Freedom<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UZmpUGl6eRc" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> This is the stance with the premium free will people tend to talk about—the idea that you are in full control of your decisions all the time and that casual determinism doesn't apply to your decision-making process. It is "<a href="https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/incompatibilism-theories/" target="_blank">incompatibilist</a>" in that it maintains that free will is not compatible with a deterministic universe. </p><p> People holding this view often take either an "agent-casual" or "event-causal" position. In an agent-casual stance, decision-makers, known as "agents," can make decisions that are not caused by a previous action in the same way that physical events are. They are essentially the "prime movers" of event chains that start with their decisions rather than any external cause. </p><p> Event-casual stances maintain that some elements of the decision-making process are physically indeterminate and that at least some of the factors that go into the final choice are shaped by the agent. The most famous living proponent of such a stance is Robert Kane and his "<a href="https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/incompatibilism-theories/#2.3" target="_blank">effort of will"</a> model.</p><p>In brief, his model supposes an agent can be thought responsible for an action if they helped create the causes that led to it. He argues that people occasionally take "self-forming action" (SFA) that helps shape their character and grant them this responsibility. SFAs happen when the decisions we make would be subject to indeterminism, perhaps a case when two choices are both highly likely- with one being what we want and one being what we think is right, and willpower is needed to cause a choice to be taken. </p><p> At that point, unable to quickly choose, we apply willpower to make a decision that influences our overall character. Not only was that decision freely chosen, but any later, potentially more causally-determined actions, we take rely at least somewhat on a character trait that we created through that previous choice. Therefore, we at least partially influenced them. </p><p>Critics of this stance include Daniel Dennett, who points out that SFAs could be so rare as to leave some people without any real free will at all. <br></p>
Can’t we just outsource free will to physics?<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/R-Nj_rEqkyQ" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> No, the question of free will is much larger than if cause and effect exist and apply to our decisions. Even if that one were fully answered, other questions immediately pop up. <br></p><p>Is the agency left to us, if any, after we learn how much of our decision-making is determined by outside factors enough for us to say that we are free? How much moral responsibility do people have under each proposed understanding of free will? Is free will just the ability to choose otherwise, or do we just have to be responsible for the actions we make, even if we are limited to one choice?<br></p><p> Physics can inform the debate over these questions but cannot end it unless it comes up with an equation for what freedom is.</p><p>Modern debates outside of philosophy departments tend to ignore the differences in the above stances in a way that tends to reduce everything to determinism. This was highlighted by neuroscientist Bobby Azarian in a recent Twitter <a href="https://twitter.com/philipcball/status/1356244216385560581" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thread</a>, where he notes there is often a tendency to conflate hard determinism with naturalism—the idea that natural laws, as opposed to supernatural ones, can explain everything in the universe. .</p><p> Lastly, we might wonder if physics is the right department to hand it over to. Daniel Dennett awards evolutionary biology the responsibility for generating consciousness and free will.</p><p> He points out that while physics has always been the same for life on Earth, both consciousness and free will seem to have evolved recently and could be an evolutionary advantage of sorts—not being bound to deterministic decision making could be an excellent tool for staying alive. He considers them to be emergent properties we have and considers efforts to reduce us to our parts, which do function deterministically, to be <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=joCOWaaTj4A" target="_blank">unsound</a>. </p><p> How to balance our understanding of causal determinism and our subjective experience of seeming to have free will is a problem philosophers and scientists have been discussing for the better part of two thousand years. It is one they'll likely keep going over for a while. While it isn't time to outsource free will to physics, it is possible to incorporate the findings of modern science into our philosophy. </p><p> Of course, we might only do that because we're determined to do so, but that's another problem. </p>
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by Freethink Media, Inc. All rights reserved.