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Why We Let Politicians Lie. The Difference Between Being Lied TO, and Lied FOR
There is much being written about the lies Paul Ryan told in his speech at the Republican Convention. I know, “lies” is a pretty strong word. But a ‘fabrication’, ‘taking liberties with the truth’, ‘bearing false witness against they neighbor’ (Commandment #8)…call it what you will…when you knowingly say something that’s not true, that’s lying.
So why, if to kids Paul Ryan is, as are so many other politicians of all stripes, a “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire”, do we hem and haw and call some of things Ryan said “factual shortcuts” (NPR’s language) or “spin”, the turn of phrase of FactCheck.org. It’s not ‘spin for Ryan to charge that President Obama failed to keep a manufacturing plant open that closed before Obama took office. It’s a lie. It’s not spin to blame President Obama for the loss of a AAA credit rating for the U.S., when Standard & Poor’s specifically blamed the downgrade on the uncompromising stands of Congress (which includes Congressman Ryan), both Republicans and Democrats. It’s a lie. Neither should it be politely called spin when a pro-Obama SuperPac ad suggests that Mitt Romney killed a child because Romney’s private equity company took over a business and reduced worker health care benefits which an employee/mom needed for her sick child. Romney killed the kid? Please! That’s not stretching the truth. That’s first degree False Witness.
The question here is, why do liars who lie in the course of running for office get, at worst, a slap on the wrist, when lying lands you in jail if you do it to a jury, costs you a lot of money if you do it to regulators when you are a business owner, and even costs you your position in office if your lies get your elected and THEN you lie it once you’re there, as with President Richard Nixon, who ultimately was forced to resign not for overtly trying to subvert democracy itself, but for lying about his involvement. We shouldn’t want liars in charge of government, should we? Well, when they are candidates, it depends on whether they are lying TO us, or FOR us.
Psychologists have lots of names for the mental tricks we use to hear what we want to hear, and trust and believe who and what we want to trust and believe; selective perception, motivated reasoning, cognitive dissonance. These are all subconscious mental tools that help us interpret information in order to make judgments and decisions that are good for us. And this subjective denial of reality is really powerful, so powerful that we can believe stupendous lies, like President Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya, or that Mitt Romney killed that child? Why? Because at its heart, this subjective ‘reasoning’ is tied to nothing less than our safety and survival.
In the case of the lying pol, if that pol represents our party or ideology, believing him/her allows us to remain a member in good standing of our tribe. Supporting the tribe by agreeing with the tribal view, as pronounced by the tribal leader (in campaigns we call our tribal leaders ‘nominees’), enhances tribal cohesion, and that helps the tribe win in combat with other tribes (we call some of these battles ‘elections’). Tribe matters to social animals like us. We have evolved to depend on our tribe literally for our health and safety. So we instinctively agree with our tribal leaders, even when they tell in-your-face whoppers, and we do all sorts of cognitive wiggling to see the facts the way they do, rather than objectively. Objectivity is not the goal. Social cohesion, and survival, are.
Why are we forgiving of some lies but not others? Well, it depends on whether we are being liked TO, or lied FOR. The candidate’s lie, told in the name of party/tribal success, subconsciously feels like a lie told in the name of your well-being. Paul Ryan was lying FOR his tribe. The lie told TO you, that harms you or cheats you or treats you unfairly in the selfish best interest of the liar (and his tribe)…that sort of lie is a violation of the basic morality and honesty toward one another that social animals have to have in order to survive in the grand tribe of all of us. Being lied TO, by somebody trying to get ahead at your expense…that’s threatening.
When we are ALL being lied TO, by a company or government official or just a plain old crook, we all agree that’s universally unacceptable and we toss them in jail or out of office. But a candidate isn’t lying TO everyone, just TO the members of the other tribe. So this morning, Democrats are calling Ryan a liar (though they may use less harsh language). Republicans, those being lied FOR, don’t think Ryan lied at all.
The more threatened we feel (about our financial welfare, health, how much control we feel like we have over our life and future), the more powerful this gets…the more we subconsciously rely on our tribe to help protect our health and welfare. These are unsettled, threatening times…which makes them more tribal/polarized times…and so they are times when our nominees/tribal leaders can tell more and more bold-faced lies, and inspire our support rather than offend our intelligence.
Politics is not for the truth, political conventions even less so. They are like the camp fire on the night before battle (or the day before the big game), when the chieftains rally the troops, impassion the tribe, fire up the true believers, or, as politicians might put it, appeal to the base. Politics are about tribal divisions, conflict, victory in the name of power and control and safety, and if truth ends up as road kill along the way, so be it. So we roll our eyes and call dishonesty ‘spin’ or ‘stretching the truth’ or something less harsh than the out-and-out lying it is, because every side uses it, including ours, and winning keeps us safe, and that’s what matters most.
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From "if-by-whiskey" to the McNamara fallacy, being able to spot logical missteps is an invaluable skill.
- A fallacy is the use of invalid or faulty reasoning in an argument.
- There are two broad types of logical fallacies: formal and informal.
- A formal fallacy describes a flaw in the construction of a deductive argument, while an informal fallacy describes an error in reasoning.
Appeal to privacy<p>When someone behaves in a way that negatively affects (or could affect) others, but then gets upset when others criticize their behavior, they're likely engaging in the appeal to privacy — or "mind your own business" — fallacy. Examples:<br></p><ul><li>Someone who speeds excessively on the highway, considering his driving to be his own business.</li><li>Someone who doesn't see a reason to bathe or wear deodorant, but then boards a packed 10-hour flight.</li></ul><p>Language to watch out for: "You're not the boss of me." "Worry about yourself."</p>
Sunk cost fallacy<p>When someone argues for continuing a course of action despite evidence showing it's a mistake, it's often a sunk cost fallacy. The flawed logic here is something like: "We've already invested so much in this plan, we can't give up now." Examples:<br></p><ul><li>Someone who intentionally overeats at an all-you-can-eat buffet just to get their "money's worth"</li><li>A scientist who won't admit his theory is incorrect because it would be too painful or costly</li></ul><p>Language to watch out for: "We must stay the course." "I've already invested so much...." "We've always done it this way, so we'll keep doing it this way."</p>
If-by-whiskey<p>This fallacy is named after a speech given in 1952 by <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noah_S._Sweat" target="_blank">Noah S. "Soggy" Sweat, Jr.</a>, a state representative for <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mississippi" target="_blank">Mississippi</a>, on the subject of whether the state should legalize alcohol. Sweat's argument on prohibition was (to paraphrase):<br></p><p><em>If, by whiskey, you mean the devil's brew that causes so many problems in society, then I'm against it. But if whiskey means the oil of conversation, the philosopher's wine, "</em><em>the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman's step on a frosty, crispy morning;" then I am certainly for it.</em></p>
Slippery slope<p>This fallacy involves arguing against a position because you think choosing it would start a chain reaction of bad things, even though there's little evidence to support your claim. Example:<br></p><ul><li>"We can't allow abortion because then society will lose its general respect for life, and it'll become harder to punish people for committing violent acts like murder."</li><li>"We can't legalize gay marriage. If we do, what's next? Allowing people to marry cats and dogs?" (Some people actually made this <a href="https://www.daytondailynews.com/news/national/cats-marrying-dogs-and-five-other-things-same-sex-marriage-won-mean/dLV9jKqkJOWUFZrSBETWkK/" target="_blank">argument</a> before same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S.)</li></ul><p>Of course, sometimes decisions <em>do </em>start a chain reaction, which could be bad. The slippery slope device only becomes a fallacy when there's no evidence to suggest that chain reaction would actually occur.</p><p>Language to watch out for: "If we do that, then what's next?"</p>
"There is no alternative"<p><span style="background-color: initial;">A modification of the </span><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_dilemma" target="_blank" style="background-color: initial;">false dilemma</a><span style="background-color: initial;">, this fallacy (often abbreviated to TINA) argues for a specific position because there are no realistic alternatives. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used this exact line as a slogan to defend capitalism, and it's still used today to that same end: Sure, capitalism has its problems, but we've seen the horrors that occur when we try anything else, so there is no alternative.</span><br></p><p>Language to watch out for: "If I had a magic wand…" "What <em>else</em> are we going to do?!"</p>
Ad hoc arguments<p>An ad hoc argument isn't really a logical fallacy, but it is a fallacious rhetorical strategy that's common and often hard to spot. It occurs when someone's claim is threatened with counterevidence, so they come up with a rationale to dismiss the counterevidence, hoping to protect their original claim. Ad hoc claims aren't designed to be generalizable. Instead, they're typically invented in the moment. <a href="https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Ad_hoc" target="_blank">RationalWiki</a> provides an example:<br></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Alice: "It is clearly said in the Bible that the Ark was 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Bob: "A purely wooden vessel of that size could not be constructed; the largest real wooden vessels were Chinese treasure ships which required iron hoops to build their keels. Even the <em>Wyoming</em> which was built in 1909 and had iron braces had problems with her hull flexing and opening up and needed constant mechanical pumping to stop her hold flooding."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Alice: "It's possible that God intervened and allowed the Ark to float, and since we don't know what gopher wood is, it is possible that it is a much stronger form of wood than any that comes from a modern tree."</p>
Snow job<p><span style="background-color: initial;">This fallacy occurs when someone doesn't really have a strong argument, so they just throw a bunch of irrelevant facts, numbers, anecdotes and other information at the audience to confuse the issue, making it harder to refute the original claim. Example:</span><br></p><ul><li>A tobacco company spokesperson who is confronted about the health risks of smoking, but then proceeds to show graph after graph depicting many of the other ways people develop cancer, and how cancer metastasizes in the body, etc.</li></ul><p>Watch out for long-winded, data-heavy arguments that seem confusing by design.</p>
McNamara fallacy<p>Named after <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_McNamara" target="_blank">Robert McNamara</a>, the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Secretary_of_Defense" target="_blank">U.S. secretary of defense</a> from 1961 to 1968, this fallacy occurs when decisions are made based solely on <em>quantitative metrics or observations,</em> ignoring other factors. It stems from the Vietnam War, in which McNamara sought to develop a formula to measure progress in the war. He decided on bodycount. But this "objective" formula didn't account for other important factors, such as the possibility that the Vietnamese people would never surrender.<br></p><p>You could also imagine this fallacy playing out in a medical situation. Imagine a terminal cancer patient has a tumor, and a certain procedure helps to reduce the size of the tumor, but also causes a lot of pain. Ignoring quality of life would be an example of the McNamara fallacy.</p><p>Language to watch out for: "You can't measure that, so it's not important."</p>
A new study looks at what would happen to human language on a long journey to other star systems.
- A new study proposes that language could change dramatically on long space voyages.
- Spacefaring people might lose the ability to understand the people of Earth.
- This scenario is of particular concern for potential "generation ships".
Generation Ships<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a1e6445c7168d293a6da3f9600f534a2"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/H2f0Wd3zNj0?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Many of the most popular apps are about self-improvement.
Emotions are the newest hot commodity, and we can't get enough.