Politics, Lying, and the Death of Facts

We are living in interesting times. We are living in a time when elected officials can make the most outlandish completely untrue statements and bear little or no repercussions. We are witnessing the death of facts in our public discourse.

A U.S Congressman can falsely claim that 80 Congressional Democrats are members of the Communist party.

A U.S. Senator can assert that over 90% of Planned Parenthood’s budget goes to funding abortions, when it’s actually closer to 3%. That was bad enough. The topper was when one of the senator’s staffers defended him by explaining that “his remark was not intended to be a factual statement”!

Or how about when at-the-time contender for the Republican presidential nomination, Herman Cain, accused the Obama administration as being behind the Occupy Wall Street protests, but then added: “I don’t have facts to back this up.”

President Obama has often characterized by his critics as a “Socialist” — despite the fact that no actual Socialists (or anyone who is the least bit rational in assessing Obama’s positions) believe he is anywhere close to one.

The problem isn’t merely that people in authority continue to make such obviously false statements. The bigger problem is that they get away with it. By this I mean they receive little or no condemnation — other than by those of the opposing party, who are dismissed as “politically motivated.” The lying politicians don’t get booted out of office. To the contrary, their lies often improve their re-election odds, by appealing to their party’s “extreme base.”

Why do they do this? Because no matter how ridiculous the claim, a significant portion of the public winds up believing it. For example, at least in several Southern states, a majority of Republicans still believe that Obama is a Muslim. Many still doubt that he was born in the United States. And don’t even get me started on the public’s willingness to embrace the false attacks on evolution and climate change.

In today’s political landscape, “facts” are defined as something that confirms your pre-existing bias. Anything else is dismissed as “just someone’s wrong opinion.” There is no longer an agreed upon set of facts whose interpretation is debated. Each side in a debate now has their own set of “facts” — with little attention being paid to how true they are.

Mainstream media are of little help in sorting this out. They tend to fall in one of two camps. On the one hand, you have organizations such as Fox News and MSNBC that take such a unilateral and extreme view that they don’t even offer a pretense of being unbiased. On the other side, you have most of the rest of the media. They refuse to even hint that truth may reside more with one side of a controversy than another, lest they be accused of being biased.

Swiftboating

I am reminded of the “swiftboating” of John Kerry in 2004. Concerned about the political advantage of Kerry’s status as a Vietnam War hero, Republicans decided that the best defense was a good offense. So they created the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (SBVT). According to Wikipedia: “SBVT asserted that Kerry was ‘unfit to serve’ as President based upon his alleged ‘willful distortion of the conduct’ of American servicemen during that war, and his alleged ‘withholding and/or distortion of material facts’ as to his own conduct during that war.”

According to a Times survey “about one-third of viewers believed there was at least ‘some truth’ to the allegations.” The claims, in fact, were largely if not entirely untrue. Again, as noted in Wikipedia, “The first SBVT ad was contradicted by the statements of several other veterans who observed the incidents, by the Navy’s official records, and, in some instances, by the contemporaneous statements of SBVT members themselves.” ABC News’s The Note opined, “the Swift Boat ad and their primary charges about Kerry’s medals are personal, negative, extremely suspect, or false.” [See also this snopes.com page.]

The truth didn’t matter. The SBVT ads created enough doubt to swing a significant number of voters. Some believe it was sufficient to have altered the outcome of the election.

One result of all of this is that the word swiftboating became a verb, used to describe the deliberate use of a “harsh, unfair or untrue political attack” in order to discredit an opponent. In other words, a smear campaign.

Sadly, with the 2012 presidential campaign moving into high gear, we can expect to see sort of thing happening again — especially from Republicans who have been very effective at drawing from this well. I expect this season to set new records in negative attacks and false claims. Why? Because they work. And with the new super PACs, there is more money and opportunity to use these attacks than ever before. We’ve already seen this in action, as noted in today’s San Francisco Chronicle: “The super PAC supporting Romney outspent the super PACs supporting Gingrich and Santorum by 20 to 1 over that period, and much of the pro-Romney super PAC trafficked in ‘deceptive’ statements, the nonpartisan Annenberg Public Policy Center found.”

What can politicians do?

One of the most difficult decisions a political campaign faces is what to do when attacked by false statements. They have several choices, none of them ideal (that’s what make these attacks so effective).

• Ignore the attacks. Take the high road. Avoid responding to the attacks on the grounds that any response only lends credibility to the accusations. Data show that repeating a lie can increase its perceived veracity, even if you repeat a lie only to deny it. Over time, many people will recall the lie more than your denial. Even worse, your reply can alert people to an attack that they did not know about before.

This all sounds nice. But the other side is that ignoring an attack lets your opponent control the message. If all the public hears is what your opponent is saying, you lose the debate by default. If public interest in a story dies quickly, you might get away with ignoring it. Otherwise, you have to rebut the attack. And soon. The longer you wait, the more you get hurt.

• Deny the attacks. Deny the truth of the attacks. Do it often, as long as it remains a hot topic. And it isn’t enough to make a simple denial. That’s too weak. You you have to assert your denial vigorously and indignantly. You are “appalled” that such false accusations could even be asserted.

The problem here is that this lends itself to a “he said, she said” situation — where people may wind up unsure who to believe. It helps if you have clear evidence to back up your claim, but don’t get bogged down in a long detailed intellectual presentation. Keep things brief and simple. Sadly, emotional reactions often play a bigger role in these conflicts than evidence.

• Accuse the opposition. Go beyond denial. Accuse your attackers for being unconscionable liars. If possible, show how your opponents have repeatedly lied, not only in this case but in many other situations. The idea is to shift the focus from your opponents’ false claims to your opponents’ ethics, ideally putting them on the defensive.

This can be effective. But there is a risk that your “negative” ratings with the public will go up as a result, even if you take your opponents with you. You can’t spend all your time on accusations. You need to shift back to a positive message at some point.

• Attack the opposition. Fight fire with fire. Instead of responding to your opponents’ false claims, find something even worse about your opponents actions and attack them with it. Again, this can take you off the hot seat and force your opponent to defend against your attacks.

The risk here is that you may be tempted to make dubious attacks, ones that may not be entirely true. If so, you wind up stooping to your opponents’ level. Sometimes this may seem unavoidable (“it’s how hardball politics is played these days; everyone does it”). And, as I’ve said, it can be successful. However, it may lead to the public throwing up their hands and shouting “a pox on both your houses.”

In the end, a politician will likely be required to employ some combination of all of these methods. Exactly what to do will depend upon the specifics of the opponents’ attack, how much media attention it is generating, and what arrows you have in your own quiver to attack back.

What can citizens do?

For starters, don’t limit yourself to soundbites and attack ads for determining how you will vote. Assume these are often misleading at best, and untrue at worst.

Go to the web and do some checking. Two great places to start are FactCheck and PolitoFact.

Check on the record of all candidates you support. If you find that their record for honesty is poor, write them and let them know you are disappointed. Tell them that if they keep on making blatantly false statements, they will lose your support. And mean it.

I know. It’s a bit naive to think this can be very effective. In the end, most people will not be willing to change their vote based on a candidate’s honesty — especially when nearly all candidates are dishonest to some extent. A Tea Party member would never vote for a Democrat, even if he was convinced that the Republican candidate was a chronic liar and the Democratic opponent was a beacon of truth (assuming the member could ever be convinced that such was the case). But there are independents, and even some partisans, out there who might really shift their vote based on such considerations. At least I hope so. In the end, the only way to stop this assault on truth is if politicians come to believe it will not help them get elected.

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Rush Limbaugh and the “pox on both your houses” defense

In the wake of the uproar over Rush Limbaugh’s unwarranted personal attack on Sandra Fluke (and his subsequent so-called apology), the response from some on the right has been to say: “People on the left do the same thing.” This has led to articles, such as one by David Frum, attempting to show why what Rush did is more extreme than the norm — and why the criticism of him is “fair.” While there is much overlap between my viewpoint and that of Frum, there are a few differences as well. I’d like to go on record with my own take. Here it is:

1. I distinctly remember the incident regarding David Letterman and his jokes about Sarah Palin’s daughter(s). My first reaction to hearing Letterman was to cringe. I felt this was unacceptable, beyond the bounds of decency. And I was a David Letterman fan. So you get no argument from me on the point that there can be excesses on the left as well as the right.

As a minor aside, I doubt that my cringing is matched by the typical person listening to Rush’s comments — ever. But that’s another story.

2. Letterman apologized two nights later. It did not appear to me that the apology was given to stem the tide of advertisers who were abandoning ship. And his words were not chosen to sound like “I still think I’m right about what I said although I could have said it a bit more politely” — which is how Rush’s so-called apology came off.

3. Letterman is a comedian, not a political commentator. Dave’s job is to make people laugh. While listening to Rush may also make people laugh, his “job” is to espouse a political viewpoint and influence people. Republicans in Congress worry about what Rush says; the same is not true for Democrats and Letterman. Although this does not absolve comedians from their excesses (see point #1 above), it does give them more latitude in my book.

For that matter, I don’t think of Dave as having a unilaterally left wing slant. In a given week, he may poke fun at a left wing political figure as well as a right wing one.

In contrast, Rush is always on the extreme right wing and wants you to take his statements seriously. He wants you to believe that he really hates whoever he is attacking and that you should hate that person too. If Rush had made his comments as part of a skit on Saturday Night Live, for example, I would have been less appalled — although still upset.

4. For a closer left-wing match to Rush Limbaugh, I would look to Bill Maher. I readily admit that Maher too often goes off the rails. And when he does, I am critical of Bill, just as I am of Rush. I admit that I often agree with Bill’s criticisms and I find him funny. These lessen my negative reaction. But I still would not defend his excesses.

5. I give people more latitude when they comment on public figures, such as politicians and entertainers. Public figures are legitimate targets of satire and ridicule, much more so than “private” citizens. That’s part of what upset me about what Letterman said. At the time, I felt that Palin’s children should have been “out of bounds” as a target. The same is true for what Rush did regarding Sandra Fluke. I say this because comparing what Rush did to leftist insults of President Bush (or other politicians) doesn’t work at all for me. It’s not nearly the same thing.

6. It’s interesting that those on the right apparently needed to go back to something that David Letterman said almost three years ago to offer a counter-example to Rush. If David Letterman was regularly saying things like this, you’d think they could find an example from last week. From the times I’ve listened to Rush, he says outrageous and extreme things every single day. This is his raison d’etre. Left wing blogs seem to critically cite quotes from Limbaugh on an almost daily basis. I don’t see this happening with right-wing blogs and Letterman. The current uproar stems from the fact that Rush went beyond his usual extremes to something almost no one could support, not because what he said was an exception to his general tone.

7. Finally, I emphatically agree with Frum that whatever Letterman or Maher or others on the left may or may not have done is irrelevant to the current situation with Limbaugh. When I criticize Limbaugh, I never add: “…and no one on the left would ever do anything like that.”

To me, pointing out the excesses of the left as a rebuttal to what Rush did is a diversion, a smoke-and-mirrors trick to shift the direction of the discussion and put the left on the defensive. Instead of discussing the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of what Rush said, the argument becomes about whether or not those on the left may or may not sometimes be equally at fault. Great tactic. This is a much better debating position for conservatives than having to defend (or not) Rush. But it’s irrelevant.

To me, this would be as if a right-wing response to news that a conservative talk show host had murdered his wife was: “And so? There are liberals who have also murdered their wives.” Who cares? Anyone who murders anyone should go to jail. One murder should not be seen as an excuse to let the another off the hook. And the same is true for Rush’s obnoxious comments.

If conservatives want to attack a left-wing commentator for some beyond-the-pale statement he made, go for it. But it will have no effect on the fact that Rush’s comments regarding Fluke were inexcusable — and that whatever negative fallout results is well deserved.

Posted in Media, Politics | 1 Comment

Loop-iness

In a recent The Loop article, “OMG iOS is being OS X-ified,” Jim Dalrymple dismisses the idea that OS X is evolving to become more like iOS (as many others, including myself, have claimed). Nonsense, says Jim. He argues that one could just as easily claim that the iOS devices have evolved to become more like Macs. How so? Because iOS devices have web browsers and email clients and appointment calendars and so on — all of which were on the Mac first.

When I first read the article, it was hard for me to take Jim’s arguments seriously. In fact, it was a bit hard for me to believe Jim even intended the arguments to be taken seriously. As pointed out by a reader comment, his logic essentially amounts to a “strawman” argument. So I was glad to see Jim admit, in a comment reply, that the “article was meant to be sarcastic and nothing more.”

Still, I believe there is a serious intent behind the column or Jim would not have written it. In fact, in a previous Loop column, Jim un-sarcastically asserts: “These claims of Mountain Lion being more like iOS are just shit.” That’s a serious charge. So I’d like to offer a serious reply.

Yes, web surfing came to the Mac before it arrived on the iPhone. But that’s not an example of “Mac-ification” of the iPhone, at least not in the sense that Jim intends. The Mac existed for over twenty years before the iPhone was created. There is no doubt that the iPhone included many attributes of the Mac when it was first released in 2007 — such as a Safari web browser and a Mail app. How could it not? The entire iOS operating system was derived from Mac OS X.

But that’s not the point. The much more relevant question is, now that both iOS versions separately exist, each with their own distinct characteristics, do increasing similarities between the two OS versions derive more from changes going from iOS to OS X — or vice versa?

It is clear that the answer is iOS to OS X. Apple makes no secret of this. Steve Jobs stated back in October 2010, in regard to OS X Lion 10.7: “Lion brings many of the best ideas from iPad back to the Mac.” Except for not always agreeing with the “best” part, this is what I and many others mean when we refer to “iOS-ification.” I don’t see why Jim wants to argue with this.

Further, it is almost silly to equate the fact that Macs had an email client or a photo app before iPhones to the fact that OS X Mountain Lion is directly adopting iOS apps such as Reminders and Notes. Almost every computer platform on the planet has an email client and a photo app. These are generic requirements, much like tires on a car. This is quite different from a Notes app in Mountain Lion that is almost a 100% duplication of the look and feel of Notes in iOS. Notes on the Mac is more than a replication of function, it is a replication of design and (most likely) specific code from the iOS version.

Jim further claims: “If Apple were trying to make Mountain Lion more like iOS we would be touching the screen of our computers to interact with out apps instead of using the keyboard and mouse.” This too is a silly exaggeration. First, this is hardly the only criteria by which you can judge what Apple is trying to do here. Second, Apple is using the Trackpad, with its multitouch gestures, to mimic the effect of a touchscreen on a Mac.

Jim even manages to contradict himself in a single paragraph. He writes: “Mountain Lion added the Notes and Reminders apps — that doesn’t make Mac OS more like iOS, it means that…millions of iOS users can open their Mountain Lion computers and have a higher level of familiarity with the apps on their Mac.” Yes, but where does this “higher level of familiarity” come from? It comes from the fact that these Mac apps look and feel more like the matching ones in iOS!

The final question for me is: Why is Jim getting so worked up about this anyway? Why is he so eager to “prove” that this trend is not happening? When I read his columns on this subject, it almost seems as if Jim feels threatened by the idea that OS X might be becoming more like iOS. As if, by admitting this is happening, one would be admitting some essential flaw in OS X, one that Jim feels he must oppose. I’m not sure where all of this comes from.

It is true that some people have been critical of the trend, arguing that moving OS X in the direction of iOS is making the Mac simpler to the point of “dumbing down” the OS. Others (including myself) have argued that some of the changes don’t fit very well; what works on an iPhone is not always suited for a Mac environment. And finally, some have expressed concern that “iOS-ification” will eventually result in a “closed” OS X, where only apps that are purchased from the Mac App Store will run.

These are valid concerns, worth debating. It doesn’t make them automatically true. I see merit on both sides of the arguments. However, Jim doesn’t mention any of this in his columns. In fact, he mentions no basis for his opposition at all. Instead, he just spews venom and sarcasm. So there is no way to know whether or not any of these concerns represent the reasoning behind his position.

Dave Hamilton suggests that Jim and I are, in the end, “saying the same thing; chosen changes are appropriate for Desktop OS.” At some level, perhaps this is so. Maybe the problem is that Jim and I have different definitions as to what “iOS-ification” means. If we could agree on definitions, we might agree in general. Jim and I certainly appear to agree that (as I wrote in my Mac Observer column last week) “Apple has not begun a conversion of OS X to iOS.” Still, both of us would accept that there is an increasing similarity between OS X and iOS — and that such similarity can have the advantage of maximizing “the positive transfer between the two platforms.” Indeed, I find myself largely in agreement with another Loop article on this same subject, written by by Matt Alexander. I assume Jim agrees as well. But the devil, as they say, is in the details. And in the details, Jim’s own postings have taken off in a more extreme and unsupportable direction.

In my view, iOS-ification by itself is neither good or bad. It is good if it works well and improves the experience of using a Mac. I contended, in my just-cited Mac Observer column, that this is precisely what Mountain Lion’s iOS-like features do; the forthcoming OS X “gets ios-ification right.” The trend is obviously bad if and when it goes in the opposite direction. I prefer to focus on such considerations, rather than making specious and dismissive claims that an “iOS-ification” trend doesn’t even exist.

Update: In a Twitter exchange between Jim and myself, which followed the posting of this article, Jim wrote: “If you are saying I don’t get it, you are saying Apple doesn’t get it.” and “Do you honestly think I spent an hour and a half with them and didn’t talk about this stuff?

I find these quotes interesting on two accounts.

First, Jim appears to be implying that his articles are merely a (more colorful) restatement of Apple’s positions. If this is the case, I wish Jim would have acknowledged this in the articles, instead of passing them off as entirely his own opinions.

Second, assuming Jim’s restatements are accurate, he seems unwilling to realize that Apple might “spin” what they tell him. Surely, it is legitimate to disagree with Apple’s public presentation of its actions. If that’s what I am doing (and it’s still not clear to me that this is the case), I would be far from the first person to do so.

Posted in Apple Inc, iOS, iPhone, Mac, Technology | 1 Comment

Would you take this drug?

Here’s a little quiz for you.

Step 1: Read the following warning label for a prescription drug (I’ve substituted “[REDACTED]” for the name of the drug).

Some people have had changes in behavior, hostility, agitation, depressed mood, suicidal thoughts or actions while using [REDACTED]. Some people had these symptoms when they began taking [REDACTED], and others developed them after several weeks of treatment or after stopping [REDACTED].

If you, your family, or caregiver notice agitation, hostility, depression, or changes in behavior, thinking, or mood that are not typical for you, or you develop suicidal thoughts or actions, anxiety, panic, aggression, anger, mania, abnormal sensations, hallucinations, paranoia, or confusion, stop taking [REDACTED] and call your doctor right away.

Also tell your doctor about any history of depression or other mental health problems before taking [REDACTED], as these symptoms may worsen while taking [REDACTED].

Do not take [REDACTED] if you have had a serious allergic or skin reaction to [REDACTED]. Some people can have serious skin reactions while taking [REDACTED], some of which can become life-threatening. These can include rash, swelling, redness, and peeling of the skin.

Some people can have allergic reactions to [REDACTED], some of which can be life-threatening and include: swelling of the face, mouth, and throat that can cause trouble breathing. If you have these symptoms or have a rash with peeling skin or blisters in your mouth, stop taking [REDACTED] and get medical attention right away.

Tell your doctor if you have a history of heart or blood vessel problems before starting [REDACTED], or if you have a history of these problems and have any new or worse symptoms during treatment with [REDACTED]. Get emergency medical help right away if you have any symptoms of a heart attack.

In clinical trials, the most common side effects of [REDACTED] include: Nausea (30%), Sleep problems (trouble sleeping, changes in dreaming), Constipation, Gas, Vomiting. If you have side effects that bother you or don’t go away, tell your doctor. You may have trouble sleeping, vivid, unusual or strange dreams while taking [REDACTED].

Step 2: Before reading further, answer this question: How seriously ill would you have to be before you would be willing to take this drug as a possible treatment? Terminally ill with cancer? A mild cold? Or somewhere in between?

Okay. The drug name is now revealed: It’s Chantix and it’s purpose is to help you stop smoking.

You read correctly. A drug whose sole benefit is to possibly get you to stop smoking can lead to suicide, a fatal skin reaction or a heart attack. Among other unpleasant side effects. Granted, smoking is a serious problem with its own life-threatening possibility. But I have to wonder about taking a drug that, at least in the short term, seems potentially worse than the problem it’s trying to fix.

It’s not just Chantix. Whenever I see a drug advertised on TV, there’s at least a 50:50 chance that the list of possible problems is enough to scare me from ever wanting to take the drug. Some of these drugs may be worth the risk. But you wouldn’t know it from the ridiculous television ads. And yet…these ads must work or I wouldn’t keep seeing them. I guess people attend more to the happy people on the screen than to what the announcer is saying may be about to happen to them.

Posted in General, Media, Politics | 1 Comment