Monday, January 30, 2017

Labeling lies and knowing minds

I don't have super strong feelings about whether news outlets should use the word 'lies' to describe Donald Trump's lies. As long are they're super clear about how he's saying that p even though p is false, that seems to me to be the important thing. The controversy over whether to use the 'L-word' doesn't really interest me all that much.

That said, I did find it pretty interesting to read NPR's description of why they don't call Trump's lies 'lies'. The basic thought is this: in order for something to be a lie, it has to be said with an intent to deceive. So in calling something a lie, one is in part making a claim about the intentions behind it. As NPR's Mary Louise Kelly puts it: "without the ability to peer into Donald Trump's head, I can't tell you what his intent was. I can tell you what he said and how that squares, or doesn't, with facts."

This is an epistemological claim—a skeptical one. It's often tempting to say that you can never really know what someone is thinking, because all you really have to go on is how they behave. But skeptical temptations are funny things, and there's probably good reason to resist a lot of them a lot of the time. For example, notice that it's also tempting to say that you can never really know anything about the future, since it hasn't happened yet, or that you can never really know historical facts, since you weren't personally there. At an extreme, Descartes famously argued that you can never really know anything about the external world, since you might be the victim of an evil demon who is manipulating your senses in a way that doesn't correspond to reality.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Selective Sampling

I think that Donald Trump is really dangerous.

Here are some true facts.* These facts include moderately detailed descriptions of sexual assaults—skip past the bullet list if you like; the relevance of these facts will be explained below.

  • In 2008, a 54-year-old New York man named Donald Bowen traveled to Texas in order to pursue a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old boy he'd been grooming on the internet.
  • In 2009, another New York man, one Donald Caban, was convicted of molesting multiple teenage girls in his home over several decades.
  • Donald Darwell, of New York, is a convicted rapist. In 1978 he forcibly raped a woman at knifepoint. She was badly injured in the attack, and was unable to work for nearly a year.
  • In 2006, New Yorker Donald Valentine was convicted on two counts of sexual assault. His victim was a 16-year-old mentally disabled girl.
  • Donald Brown, a 42-year-old New York man, was apprehended in the act of the attempted rape of a 10-year-old boy whose parents had left him in his care.
  • 55-year-old Donald Glenn, of New York, convinced a reluctant acquaintance to go out on a date with him. That night, he overpowered and choked her before raping her both vaginally and anally.
  • Donald Jones struck a female stranger with his fist in 1993, then held her at gunpoint and attempted to rape her. When she screamed, passers-by stopped and he fled, before being caught by police and convicted of first-degree attempted rape.

([*] These are not quite facts, but they're close. In the interest of privacy, I have changed the surnames of these individuals. Importantly, I have left all of their given names unchanged. I've embellished these stories slightly, to give a bit more detail to hang on them. (I did this for vivacity, and to make the fallacy more tempting. I didn't have easy access to the actual details, or I would have used them.) I found these facts via the New York State Criminal Justice Services website.)

Monday, January 23, 2017

Facts, Alternative Facts, and Definitions

One of the courses I often teach is an introduction to epistemology. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with questions about knowledge and rational belief—how is it possible to know something, and why is it important, and what makes some beliefs more reasonable to have than others? I learned early on that one of the first things I have to do for my students is help them get very clear on the difference between, on the one hand, facts and truths, and, on the other, knowledge, belief, and support from the evidence. The former concern how things are in reality, whether or not we have any access to them; the latter concern how we thinkers try, and hopefully succeed, to put ourselves in touch with reality. Many students come into my course a bit fuzzy on this distinction, but getting it crystal clear is a prerequisite for thinking in a rigorous way about epistemology.

This has not been a good winter for the distinction. To cite just a couple of the many examples, when Donald Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes was asked on the Diane Rehm Show whether it's OK for Trump to post made-up lies about who won the popular vote, she explained that "there's no such thing anymore unfortunately as facts". Oxford Dictionaries named "post-truth" as the 2016 Word of the Year. But early indications suggest 2017 will be no better for objective truth. Yesterday my social media feed was overrun with satire, disgust, and incredulity at Kellyanne Conway's description of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer's blatantly false statements about the inaugration crowd size as expressions of "alternative facts".

I don't think Hughes really thinks, or even really meant, that there are no facts. I think she meant there are, within some restricted sphere of politically interesting claims, no facts that are generally accepted and can be assumed without contest. I don't think Conway really thinks there's a kind of fact other than the true kind. I think she was just spewing some garbage language in an attempt to obfuscate. (Note that later in her interview, she retreats from this metaphysical nonsense to an epistemic claim, saying that there's no way to know the size of a crowd. This is empirically (obviously) false, but it's at least not a denial of the idea of a fact.)

Critics of the Trump administration have of course been all over this. I see that already, one can buy "Alternative facts are lies" t-shirts. Some have observed that the concept is straight out of Orwell. I think they're right, and that that's terrifying. But that's not really my point here. I want to take this in a different direction.

The thing is, some of the anti-alternative-fact rhetoric is no less philosophically confused than this post-fact nonsense. Meriam-Webster tweeted:

When I first saw this tweet, I didn't know what the hell it was trying to do. But most of the interactions with it on twitter (38K retweets as I write) interpret it as criticizing Conway's invocation of 'alternative facts'.

And it's not just Trump critics who are reading the tweet that way.

But this is a terrible definition of facts, and one that does not obviously work against the Trump rhetoric. Look, suppose I tell a lie. I tell my students that the author of "Elusive Knowledge" was Barack Obama, writing under a pen name. And I tell them this in a v. serious tone of voice, and expect them to believe me. I'll announce that I plan to put that on the exam. This lie is a piece of information presented (by me) as having objective reality. So it counts as a fact.

Maybe you think a lie doesn't count as a 'piece of information'. Only truths can be information. OK, in that case, why is M-W talking about presenting as objective reality at all? Truths don't become facts when people present them. And indeed, there are lots of facts that haven't been presented as having objective reality, because nobody knows them.

On this definition, Conway's invocation of alternative facts makes perfect sense. If a fact is just an assertion, then the crowd-size experts have one assertion, and the Trump administration has an alternative assertion. Merriam-Webster has offered something more like a definition of a purported fact. But not all purported facts are facts, just like not all alleged murderers are murderers.

This dictionary seems comfortable with the notion of 'objective reality'. It does use that phrase in its definition. Once we have a grip on that notion, we should define 'fact' much more simply. A fact is a part of objective reality. A fact is something that is true, whether or not someone presents it as true, and whether or not anyone or everyone recognizes that it is true.

This is basic stuff. Literally first-day intro-to-epistemology-and-metaphysics material. Being clear on the idea of a fact is the first step to thinking about how we should go about trying to investigate what the facts are. Attacks on that clarity, whether by demagogic governments or by well-meaning resistance tweeters, make this crucial job that much harder.