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Ancient Greeks devised a way to fight disinformation
Sophists used rhetoric and debate to arrive at practical truths.
- Sophists were more interested in arriving at practical truths through rhetoric than an absolute Truth (Sophia).
- Their techniques were heavily criticized by Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates.
- Asha Rangappa and Jennifer Mercieca write that Sophist techniques are particularly useful for recognizing and fighting disinformation.
Octavian had a bone to pick with Mark Antony. The latter claimed the Eastern Roman Empire as he moved in with his lover, Cleopatra. Octavian wasn't having it. He read Antony's official will and testament on the Senate floor in Rome. The document described how Antony was planning on leaving everything to his cunning Egyptian mistress and their children, an idea poking at the many fears and biases Romans held of powerful women. Being a foreigner didn't help Cleopatra. Antony was made out to be a traitor.
The problem? The document was possibly fake.
Whether or not it was actually fake will likely never be known. Octavian's propaganda mission is certainly true, however. He even sketched anti-Antony slogans into coins to denounce his rival. Only the fate of the Roman Empire hinged on their battle.
Disinformation is nothing new. In 1835, the New York Sun published a half-dozen articles about the discovery of life on the moon. The radio broadcast of H.G. Wells's "The War of the Worlds" will not be forgotten anytime soon. Nazi propaganda was so effective that a small percentage of people today believe the Holocaust never happened. People even believe vaccines cause autism.
A convergence of forces produced the dizzying array of propaganda and disinformation in our world today: political manipulation; willful ignorance; social media; anti-intellectualism; scientific ignorance; YouTube. The question is not whether or not disinformation will always exist—it will—the question is how to fight it. For that, we should consider Sophism.
That's the suggestion of Yale University lecturer and CNN analyst Asha Rangappa and American political rhetoric historian Jennifer Mercieca. While they note Plato's skepticism of Sophistry, they believe "clever rhetorical tricks" used by Sophists were necessary for a democracy to function.
The Sophists (A History of Western Thought 8)
Initially, Sophists secured wealthy clients. In exchange for payment, they taught education and rhetoric, as well as music and other arts. Philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Xenophon were not fans; they believed Sophistry to be a lowly endeavor designed to sound deep. Socrates sang the praises of Truth (Sophia) alone; his student, Plato, thought Sophist rhetoric manipulated audiences. Sophistry could never lead to Sophia.
Mercieca and Rangappa believe Plato's dialectic was not sufficient to resolve political decisions, however. Socrates's insistence on Truth is debatable, as decades of neuroscience research on memory and perception now tell us. Arriving at one Truth on a planet of nearly eight billion people is impossible; we aren't designed to handle such volumes of data. Even 2,500 years ago, the Sophists strove for Phronesis, or practical truth. They knew that nuance matters.
"Sophists taught the skill necessary for the practice of democracy—how to reach consensus about the truth. They taught people how to create arguments, to persuade audiences to believe their side, and to solve thorny political problems."
Mercieca, a professor, and Rangappa, a lawyer, argue that their professions are more like sophistry than philosophy. Whereas sophistry is usually portrayed as disingenuous, it accurately reflects the shared reality we experience in society.
We shouldn't get caught up in the current usage of sophistry. Words change meaning over time: the Hindu svastik, "auspicious," was co-opted by the Nazis; mythology, with an etymological root meaning "legend" or "story," became synonymous with myth, a falsity. Mythologies are the foundations of cultures, not fabrications.
Employed correctly, sophistry presents an argument that builds into a practical truth, not the Ultimate Truth. In this sense, Sophists and Buddhists share common ground in their love of debates. Monks have a long tradition of critical inquiry often accentuated with hand claps or loud syllables. A handclap (or for that matter, a koan) doesn't sound like a path to truth, yet in the right circumstance it reveals profound meaning. Not all learning is logical.
Debates are essential for democracy. Sadly, social media platforms are designed more for unfriending and trolling than introspection and dialogue. Screens are poor replacements for pantomimes. You read text in your voice instead of the writer's, skewing your understanding of their argument. Lack of intimate contact instigates retreat. You believe the fight is over when the bell hasn't even signaled round one.
Tourists take pictures in front of the Athens Academy adorned with sculputures depicting ancient greek philosophers , Plato (L) and Sokrates (R) on June 10, 2016.
Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP via Getty Images
Disinformation is especially insidious in the digital age. Social media platforms allow for the quick spread of conspiracy theories. A particularly sophomoric form of persuasion is currently practiced by wellness influencers, who claim to be "just asking questions" while sharing anti-vaxx and anti-5G rhetoric. They then pretend to "not take sides." The problem, as Merciera and Rangappa allude to in the following sentiment, is that propaganda disguised as philosophy promotes an mindset made infamous by George Bush the younger: "You're either with us or against us."
"Propaganda and disinformation are persuasion without consent: In fact, by offering new versions of "facts," their authors try to hide that they're persuading us at all. These forms of communication provide a conclusion based on manipulation rather than reason. Propaganda and disinformation create a realm where disbelief is disloyalty, rather than a shared attempt to search for truth."
Propaganda is compliance, they continue, the preferred vehicle for authoritarians. (Likewise, Plato wasn't a big fan of democracy; he didn't think everyone could access Truth.) Bringing it home to today, the authors cite Twitter fact-checking Trump: an old democratic method, yet one sadly ill-equipped to handle Truth when anything that questions the king is taking a "side." This trend of being "all in" for charismatic figures leaves us on shaky ground. It's how cults form.
A healthy democracy, they conclude, should promote curiosity and debate, tactics more aligned with Sophism than the search for an absolute yet ever-elusive Truth.
"Accusations—rather than argument—and compliance—rather than persuasion—are incompatible with a democratic dialogue. The ancient Greeks rejected unquestioned propaganda and disinformation as well outside of democratic norms. So should we."
America isn't healthy. Our modern Octavian does far more damage than print slogans on coins. This administration has helped foment social conditions that reward vitriol over curiosity. Until a mechanism for questioning propaganda is invented—be it technologically or, more likely, rebooting the operating systems nature has endowed us with—constructive debate will always seem like ancient history.
- New study identifies three groups who believe fake news - Big Think ›
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- How to Win an Argument with a Sophist - Big Think ›
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
A leading British space scientist thinks there is life under the ice sheets of Europa.
- A British scientist named Professor Monica Grady recently came out in support of extraterrestrial life on Europa.
- Europa, the sixth largest moon in the solar system, may have favorable conditions for life under its miles of ice.
- The moon is one of Jupiter's 79.
Neil deGrasse Tyson wants to go ice fishing on Europa<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="GLGsRX7e" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="f4790eb8f0515e036b24c4195299df28"> <div id="botr_GLGsRX7e_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/GLGsRX7e-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/GLGsRX7e-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/GLGsRX7e-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Water Vapor Above Europa’s Surface Deteced for First Time<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9c4abc8473e1b89170cc8941beeb1f2d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/WQ-E1lnSOzc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
A unique exoplanet without clouds or haze was found by astrophysicists from Harvard and Smithsonian.
- Astronomers from Harvard and Smithsonian find a very rare "hot Jupiter" exoplanet without clouds or haze.
- Such planets were formed differently from others and offer unique research opportunities.
- Only one other such exoplanet was found previously.
Munazza Alam – a graduate student at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.
Credit: Jackie Faherty
Jupiter's Colorful Cloud Bands Studied by Spacecraft<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8a72dfe5b407b584cf867852c36211dc"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GzUzCesfVuw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
- The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims.