Category: Weird Internet Ideas

Weird Internet Ideas: A case of Scott Adams

I’ve not the skill or insight for a full discussion of Scott Adams, the lite-alt-right wannabe of Dilbert fame, but this piece crossed my path http://blog.dilbert.com/post/160696999931/how-to-know-you-won-a-political-debate-on-the and informal reasoning and rhetoric are on my list of required blog topics.

It is far from the worst things Adams has ever written but it does exemplify the profound shallows of his style of analysis. The piece is a guide to knowing when you have won an argument on the internet. I should put a mandatory statement about arguments not being about the winning but, well honestly sometimes they can be about the winning rather than the journey. Having said that…any time spent talking to people on the net should be judged against an informal cost-benefit otherwise you can waste your days trying to convince a Twitter bot that it’s wrong about pi being ‘fake news’. So this opening section from Adams is not terrible advice:

“Do you remember the time you changed a stranger’s political opinion on the Internet by using your logic and your accurate data?

Probably not. Because that rarely happens. If you were paying attention during the past year, you learned facts don’t matter to our decisions. We think they do, but they don’t. At least not for topics in which we are emotionally invested, such as politics.  (Obviously facts do matter to the outcomes. But not to decisions.)”

Of course, Adams is missing that in any net discussion there are rarely just two people. Bystanders and other people commenting play a role and sound arguments do help shape their thoughts. Also, not every internet argument is between people with entrenched immutable viewpoints. Nor is a change of mind necessarily immediate – people shift positions in their life, sometimes radically and exposure to alternate ideas can play a part in that. Additionally, strong arguments can shape the behaviour of people whose core opinion doesn’t change – they may avoid advancing a particular argument in that space again or they may adapt their argument over time. There is no simple test of whether continuing with an argument is worthwhile. My own criteria usually amount to “am I bored yet” or “are people I like distressed by this argument continuing”, rarely is it “I’ve won” although I can think of some occasions…

Adam’s continues:

“I propose the Cognitive Dissonance test. If you can trigger your opponent into cognitive dissonance, you win. “

I’ll not get into his use of the term “cognitive dissonance”, I’m not sure it is important but the general gist of Adams use is along the lines of: if your opponent is discombobulated then you’ve won. Yeah, maybe not.

‘You can detect cognitive dissonance by the following tells:

Absurd Absolute

An absurd absolute is a restatement of the other person’s reasonable position as an absurd absolute. For example, if your point is there is high crime in Detroit, the absurd absolute would be your debate opponent saying something such as “So, you’re saying every person in Detroit is a criminal.” ‘

This is not terrible advice in terms of identifying a weak counter-response but it is not a particularly good indication that the person you are arguing with is discombobulated. It may even be present as an idea when the argument starts and it is also a revealing argument – it shows where a misunderstanding (intentional or otherwise) exists in the opposing position. It may well reflect what a person has been told about your generic position. More maliciously, it is an argument that may be offered to intentionally wind you up. Of course, if somebody is just trying to push your buttons then it is worth considering whether your time is being well spent.

In addition, arguments may often turn to broader absolutes even when two parties are arguing with open minds and in good faith. The process of argument can lead you to a better understanding of what assumed & unspoken principles you are appealing to. On occassion, this may help clarify other issues inadvertently. Consider the use of some ‘absurd absolutes’ by defenders of “Obamacare” repeal when responding to the notion that people have the right to free-at-source healthcare – US conservatives have parodied the notion with spurious strawmen claims that this would be like demanding a right to food or a job or housing or…oh wait…, those really are being advanced as strawmen by the right but I agree, people should expect the government to try and ensure people have those things along with healthcare! The absurdity is not what they think it is. Extrapolation and generalisations of arguments and ideas is a productive process in thinking.

Analogy

Analogies are good for explaining concepts for the first time. But they have no value in debate. Analogies are not logic, and they are not relevant facts.”

This is an ignorant point. Analogies are deeply baked into nearly all aspects of our thinking. It is nigh on impossible to avoid them, as Adams then immediately demonstrates by resorting to an analogy about a plumber. Yes, analogies are unreliable, have limitations and are hard to formalise but thinking without analogies is like swimming without water when you are a cake or something else that can’t swim or think or use analogies.

Analogies are not logic? Yeah, sort of – I’ll give it a pass. What I’d say is that the main role of mathematics and logic in human thought has been to find ways of codifying/formalising analogies. It’s why we use the concept of ‘models’ i.e. formalised analogies with known limitations.

So what is Adams actually thinking of? Well, probably forced or spurious analogies. But what do they indicate? They can arise at any point in a discussion and I’d generally take them to be firstly an interesting insight into what the other person is thinking that may be more revealing than they realise and secondly an indication that the other person might still be making some effort to argue in something at least vaguely like good faith,

“Attack the Messenger

When people realize their arguments are not irrational, they attack the messenger on the other side. If you have been well-behaved in a debate, and you trigger an oversized personal attack, it means you won.”

Um, no. OK, yes, yes we can all think of personal examples where this was the case. You engaged in an argument and the other person flips out. Yet even a basic understanding of human behaviour tells us that people can lose their temper for many reasons beyond “cognitive dissonance”, discombobulation or the humiliation of having their argument pulled apart by a keyboard warrior.

What’s really toxic about this point from Adams is how you see it working with some species of troll. If you get to ‘trigger an oversized personal attack’ from your opponent then ‘it means you won’ is a trollish strategy based on following some shallow conventions of civility while finding buttons to push. That would be taking Adams’s point the wrong way as far as causality goes but it is easy for people to convince themselves that they are being reasonable and that their opponent is being emotional.

It is rather like winning a chess game by being so annoying that your opponent refuses to play anymore and walks away, thus forefit the game to you. That does not make you a canny chess player.

Put another way “winning an argument” is arguably one way of being so annoying that a person insults you gratuitously but it is just one way and is also comorbid with “being a smug pedantic git” which can often overlap with “arsehole”. I try to stay out of the last circle of that Venn diagram but not always with success. [Of course if it is Vox Day et al insulting you then yes, you won 😉 ]

More generally there are many ways of annoying people whilst simultaneously following the superficial formalities of polite debate and not making a “winning” argument, not least of which is treating some other kind of social interaction as if it were a debate.

“The Psychic Psychiatrist Illusion

The Psychic Psychiatrist Illusion involves imagining you can discern the inner thoughts and motives of strangers. I’m talking about the unspoken thoughts and feelings of strangers, not the things they have actually said.”

Maybe. It’s the least weak of Adams’s points and I’d broadly agree with it with exceptions.

Your Blood Group is Determined by Biology and is a Social Construct

I doubt this is original but it is worth going through because strange right-leaning people keep shouting about biology at me. Oddly though, I was prompted to write not by an argument about nature v nurture but a different argument about invention v discovery in mathematics. I’m not an expert on blood groups (which is sort of the point) so apologies for any biological errors.  Note also this is a description of one specific relationship between a social construct and biology. Others may have things in common but that doesn’t mean they are the same or have the same relationship between a biological aspect and the associated things that a society may construct around it [i.e. neither the social constructs of gender nor ‘race’ is directly analogous to blood group]. Anyway, here we go.

You probably know your blood group. Once upon a time I regularly gave blood and felt a moral obligation to do so. I’m O negative, which is a handy default blood type for donation as it contains neither A, B or Rh factors and hence shouldn’t trigger an immune reaction in most people of other blood types.

But ABO and Rh are just two blood typing systems and even with those two systems, there are variations. Group A can be further subdivided into approx 20 subgroups of which A1 and A2 account for most type-A people. In terms of inheritance, there are also exceptions to the commonly understood rules – CisAB (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cis_AB ). More generally there are tens of other blood typing systems that categorise other factors that can exist in human blood and which can potentially complicate blood transfusion.

The ABO/Rh system is a very effective simplification of a set of much messier, more organic categories. Yes, it is determined by your biology (you don’t get to pick) but the significance of whether you are “A” or “AB negative” etc depends very much on the existence and practicalities of a blood donation system. That system also has practical constraints but it is effectively something societies choose to do and requires political and social support as well as the existence of hospitals and an infrastructure to support them.

I also said that I used to give blood. I’m not allowed to currently because I lived in the UK during the height of the BSE/Mad cow disease outbreak. Concerns about the transmission of a prion disease via blood transfusion have meant that many countries place restrictions on blood donations. That rationale makes some sense given the extent to which prions are not well understood. What makes less sense is the restrictions imposed on men who have sex with other men (phrased that way to match the eligibility questions). Rules on blood donation to prevent the spread of HIV prevent people who have engaged in ‘at risk’ sexual behaviours (e.g. http://www.donateblood.com.au/faq/sexual-activity ). Such rules prevent many gay men in long-term monogamous relationships donating blood. The rules arise out of medical and practical considerations but such rules also have a social impact and arise because of social aspects (from international travel to personal and sexual relationships).

You should note another trick I employed above: I said ‘type-A people’. Once we have categories that can be applied to aspects of ourselves it is easy to see them as categories of people. I’m O negative, well no, no *I* am not, not really – my blood is O negative for the purpose of blood donation, it really isn’t much of a thing about who I am beyond that. The notion of me being O negative only really makes sense in the context of donating blood or receiving a blood transfusion (or a few other related circumstance). Prior to the development of safe blood transfusion and large scale blood donation, your blood group is not something people would know or care about. Even that history is entwined with complex social factors including the development of modern healthcare infrastructure but also the development of modern warfare.

Blood groups have also generated their own pseudosciences and racist theories – a kind of inevitable consequence of any system that allows a categorisation of people entails a dark desire to identify that categorization with other aspects including personality or as a means of identifying some inherent purity. Suffice to say there is little evidence of blood group actually determining anything other than the most likely blood needed in a blood transfusion (and as we’ve seen even that is a simplification – although a very effective one).

In most developed countries blood donation is voluntary but even such a primarily altruistic system has social implications. It isn’t had to imagine a situation in which blood donation was more heavily required or in which there were more significant socio-economic implications to donating blood. In such a situation the layers of social significance to blood type would be greater both in a direct sense and in the sense in which any social division generates its own myths and stereotypes. A world in which blood transfusions had to be more common and was connected to economic status, would with a capitalist-style economy lead to more weird (and unpredictable without knowing more details) stratifications by blood group.

So what’s my point if it isn’t a point about gender or race? The point is very much NOT that other social construct work the same way as blood group might in a fictional society. However, a broader point remains true. Critics of the term ‘social construct’ treat it as if a person is saying ‘wholly arbitrary’ or ‘completely made up’ or ‘fictional’. Treating the term like that makes it an easy strawman to knock down. No society exists in a vacuum*, so the things that our societies construct** are things that have practical limits and which are influenced by the environment that is constructed in INCLUDING the existence of other constructs. But the physical, ‘real’ influences on how a social construct has evolved over time do not mean that the categories, stereotypes or social expectations that arise apply in a deterministic way to individuals – some elements might (e.g. O- blood is safe for me to receive), others less so (e.g. whether there is a greater moral imperative for ‘O- people’ to donate blood) and others not at all (e.g. pseudoscience blood-group personality types).

tl;dr Societies and social attitudes are shaped by ‘real’ things including biology, but that does not imply that biology (or physics or chemistry) somehow validates them, makes them somehow extra true, or makes departure from them (either as an individual or as a direction for society) some kind of revolt against reality or science.

*[OK maybe there is a society of space squid, plying the void between the stars but that is a separate issue.]

**[You’d think that was obvious from the term ‘constructs’. Anything we physically construct has physical limits and depends on physical rules but can still be a work of creativity in which arbitrary, non-determined choices are made.]

Willful gullibility

Oh this is so delightfully wrong that I can’t help linking to it now even though I can’t write about it in depth until later: http://voxday.blogspot.com.au/2017/03/modern-science-is-non-science.html

I need a sort of happy little gif for times like these that captures the mix of delight and capturing a pokemon-of-wrongness with the sadness of how pervasive the wrongness is.

Hint: we’ve met the protagonist of the story before.

Weird Internet ideas: Are modern nazis imaginary? (spoiler: no, they’re real)

We’ve been busy watching Rabid shenanigans with books covers, but meanwhile over in Sad Puppy domains, Chris Chupik has decided that modern Nazis are largely imaginary. Chupik, for those who don’t know, is notable mainly as a regular commenter on Puppy blogs but sometimes he guest-posts at According to Hoyt. https://accordingtohoyt.com/2017/03/25/coyote-gravity-by-christopher-m-chupik/

[This get’s long so more below the fold…also ‘Spencer‘ is usually an external link but each time to a different article rather than peppering this piece with quotes]

Continue reading

Is It OK to Thump People?

 

thump

I’ve watched several times a video of a guy thumping another guy recently. There is, naturally several sides to consider here:

  • Whether the violent act undermines free speech.
  • Whether, even if provoked by the objectionable views of the person punched, the act lowers discourse in general.
  • Whether violence is ever a justified reaction to a dialogue even with somebody obnoxious.

Having said that I think most people agree that the person doing the thumping was justified. Here is the video again (you’ve probably seen it already).

Yes, naturally I am talking about that time Buzz Aldrin hit lunar-landing denier Bart Sibrel in the face after Sibrel harassed and insulted Buzz and called him a coward and a liar. After multiple provocations, Buzz then, wack, thumps Sibrel in the face. What can one say? It is OK to both deplore violence AND accept that people have actual emotions and that when repeatedly provoked will react accordingly. Buzz doesn’t beat the guy up, he thumps him once.

The LA County District Attorney did not lay any charges on Buzz Aldrin and, according to Wikipedia, Sibrel (the man punched) later apologised to Aldrin.

So there you go. Yeah, maybe sometimes it is OK to thump people – you know if you are provoked enough it would be weird if people DIDN’T react that way. You know, like in the example above in which Buzz Aldrin is repeatedly harassed and called a liar by a guy whose ideas are based on stupidly elaborate conspiracy theories. Just don’t make a habit of it.

 

 

Oh, and apparently alt-right pro-genocide shit Richard Spencer was thumped the other day also. Whereas Sibrel was just a rude guy with an omnifallacious theory that in itself harms nobody, Spencer is a guy who promotes race hate and genocide. As far as I can tell the major ethical issue people have with this is that it wasn’t Buzz Aldrin who hit him.

Weird Internet Ideas: Yeah back to Nazis and left right spectrums again

 

I wrote this post https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2015/06/20/weird-interent-ideas-the-nazis-were-leftists-no-not-in-any-way-that-makes-sense/ in June 2015. At the time the rise of a quasi/neo/ohwhattheheckactual-fascists was mainly seen as a European thing and the US centre and right was still seeing US politics as naturally immune. In the meantime, the forces of the American right have decided to rally behind a demagogue who has surrounded himself with extreme nationalists with zero interest in quasi-libertarian window dressing.

Meanwhile, on Twitter, I was presented with a live example:

Libertarians have kind of liked this idea for a long time. I assume it germinated in to a truism sometime in the 1970s but as I pointed out in the earlier post, it probably dates back to Hayek in the 1940s.

Of course, you can align political movements and ideologies onto any axis which you can think of an ordinal variable to describe…but more government v less government simply doesn’t work as a way of describing how left-right spectrums work in 20th and 21st-century Western politics. You can use that spectrum if you like but it will fail as a predictive model in describing who aligns with who and it fails as a descriptive model of who aligned with who in history.

In the earlier post I concentrated specifically on the notion of the Hitler-era Nazis being leftists (this is also the context of the Tweet quoted above) but in the post I thought I’d spend a bit longer looking at this more/less government thing in general.

To do so, consider counter-examples. Which ideology would be at the furthest end of the more/less axis? Anarchists! Now anarchists aren’t one thing, there are many different flavours and most believe in some kind of social structure that provides cohesion independent of government e.g.

  • anarcho-syndicalists believe in a society where trade-union like organisations provide the organising principle of society.
  • anarcho-capitalists believe in a society where the free-market (and some protection of individual rights) provide the organising principle of society.

Anarcho-syndicalists have, historically, been part of left wing movements. Anarcho-capitalists have, historically, been part of movements associated with individualism – not necessarily right-wing but not obviously left-wing and often critical of the left’s anti-individualism.

Ah, yeah-but! The anarcho-capitalists are even MORE against the government than the anarcho-syndicalists! – says an imaginary person. Hmm, I’m not sure that is true and anarcho-capitalists never amounted to a significant movement whereas the anarcho-syndicalists do actually have a track record of literally fighting fascists but, whatever, let’s imagine that is the case:

leftright

Let’s throw in some other cases. Milton Friedman flavoured conservative-libertarians. Not as anti-government as your classic Libertarian but supposedly more anti-government than those nasty leftists.

leftright2

Now, how about Margaret Thatcher? A vocal enemy of socialism who famously said that she would “roll back the frontiers of the state”, privatised several government-owned industries, was a believer in monetarism (at least nominally) but also increased centralisation of the British state, increased police powers, was militaristic, increased surveillance of citizens and attempted to enforce new government powers such as the “poll tax” (aka community charge). OK, we can still fit her into the scheme, just further along that whole more v less government thing:

leftright3

And let’s add in Augusto Pinochet – a friend of Thatcher’s and an authoritarian military dictator. Not a totalitarian dictator so technically less government than say, Stalin or Mao but definitely way over on the ‘more government’ side of things.

leftright4

I haven’t defined a centre, and it is only an ordinal axis, so I can’t say where the left half begins and the right half starts but I have a bunch of political positions listed below the line that cover a gamut of more (Pinochet) to less (anarcho-capitalists) government.

Let’s go above the line. How about, hmmm, George Orwell. A man with strong views on personal liberty, outspoken about excessive government control and, oh, a man who described himself as a socialist…Here maybe?

leftright5

We are well into apples & oranges now. Arranging the people below the line was relatively easy because one principle was relatively fixed – each of the positions nominally accepted that a laissez-faire approach to the economy was correct. Given that it becomes easier to look at how each position differed in terms of other aspects of government.

However, there isn’t a simple way of comparing libertarian-conservatives with Orwell’s libertarian (in a different sense) socialism. Less of what kind of government are we talking about.

Let’s add some more confusion to the mix. The 1945 Labour government. The not-entirely-post WW2 government nationalised industries (or kept them nationalised as a consequence of the war effort) and famously introduced the National Health Service. It also pursued a policy of decolonisation essentially ending the British Empire. Now if we compare with Thatcher, she privatised industries but not the NHS (although I suspect she would have liked to). Is the 1945 Labour government further down the more government end that Thatch or the less government? No idea. This is a silly scheme which can only function by cherry picking. Still, I’ll throw in Hitler and Stalin for good measure and assume that AT THIS RESOLUTION we can’t spot the difference (Stalin probably more government than Hitler I guess for those playing at home).

leftright6

The scheme does not help us sort left aligned positions from right ones but instead could be used for discriminating between different strands of left or right ideologies. How come? because more/less government is orthogonal to left-v-right as traditionally used.

Truth is we can make up all sorts of axes on our preferred issues. Take the issue of free trade unions. How might that look?

leftright7

But left-v-right is never a single issue. Indeed if it was a single issue there would be no need for the notion of left-v-right. The whole point of the intuitive left-v-right model is to bundle multiple issues and alliances and trends together to work out rough correspondences on a wide range of issues that may even wander over time.

Oh, and Nazis? Still not socialists, and still not left wing.

 

Weird Internet Ideas: DDT

This is a compilation of comments I made in reply to a comment on File770 here: http://file770.com/?p=32058&cpage=3#comment-510449

‘Bring back DDT. “The ban on DDT,” says Gwadz of the National Institutes of Health, “may have killed 20 million children.” Who was more dangerous, Rachel Carson or Pol Pot?’

The answer is Pol Pot.
Rachel Carson killed nobody that I’m aware of.Pol Pot was responsible for the deaths of an unknown number of Cambodians – but 3 million is a plausible figure.

Pol Pot was responsible for the deaths of an unknown number of Cambodians – but 3 million is a plausible figure.So, the first questions

So, the first questions is WHY somebody would compare a woman science writer to a murderous communist/nationalist with a murderous fixation on an agrarian utopia and a hatred of urban intellectuals?Because that is what you’ve been told to think.

Because that is what you’ve been told to think. By whom?

By whom?By some definitely non-communists but who are also nationalists and also seem to have a persistent hatred of urban intellectuals.

By some definitely non-communists but who are also nationalists and also seem to have a persistent hatred of urban intellectuals.‘But, but’ you might say ‘the ban on DDT has killed millions because of malaria and that’s all Rachel Carson’s fault!’

But, but, that is what is known as ‘bullshit’. It is wrong encased in more wrong and built up from wrong.

The evil brilliance of this argument is that it works like the opposite of a Gish Gallop – instead of a whole series of wrong that the debunker has to debunk in multiple directions, this argument uses the BIG SIMPLE LIE instead – to mislead and distract.The lie being – the “ban’ on DDT.

How is the ‘ban’ a lie?
 Well, there are many kinds of things that could be called ‘bans’ on DDT.
 The ‘ban’ that could be ascribed to Rachel Carson’s book ‘The Silent Spring’ is the ban on the use of DDT in the United States of America.
 Of course, THAT ban has not led to millions of deaths in the Third World because it was a ban on the use of DDT in THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, not the world.

Even THAT ban (essentially the EPA limiting its permitted uses) included public health exemptions. So the ban that could be linked to the political pressure from people being convinced by Carson’s book definitely led to zero deaths in the USA – the country that the ‘ban’ applied to.

‘Yeah, yeah, but’ you might say ‘The US ban led to other bans’.

This is true after all DDT is a dangerous substance with real environmental impact. It is well researched.

‘Yeah, but Silent Spring was wrong on these points…’ irrelevant. No restriction on the use of DDT has ever been enacted on the strength of whatever Rachel Carson wrote in Silent Spring alone. She could have written that DDT was haunted by tiny demons from Gloucestershire and it wouldn’t prove anything about the validity of restrictions on DDT. Of course, her arguments were much better than that but they were simply a start of an inquiry – not the foundation of a case. Attempts to disprove ‘Silent Spring’ are just a way to divert from modern evidence on DDT. Of course, Silent Spring didn’t have every fact right – so what? It is like saying we shouldn’t treat cancer because a 1950’s medical manual has errors in it.

‘Yeah but the worldwide ban’…no the ‘worldwide ban’ doesn’t exist. There are worldwide (effectively) limitations on its use. However, the most notable one is the World Health Organisation’s. Yet THAT ‘ban’ ALSO has exemptions for health programs.
So what ARE the bans? The bans have substantially reduced the use of DDT for AGRICULTURAL use.

And?

Well have you heard of evolution?

Evolution – animals change. Mosquitos can become resistant to pesticides. Indeed, fighting malaria, whether it is mosquitos or the nasty creature that actually causes the disease, has been a constant arms race between us and the nasty bastards.So wide scale DDT use for AGRICULTURE means lots of bad news for animals further up the food chain but that kind of uncontrolled use means exposure of malaria carrying mosquitos to DDT in an uncontrolled way. That means more survivors, more resistance and hence LESS EFFECTIVENESS of DDT as a tool of disease control.

So wide scale DDT use for AGRICULTURE means lots of bad news for animals further up the food chain but that kind of uncontrolled use means exposure of malaria carrying mosquitos to DDT in an uncontrolled way. That means more survivors, more resistance and hence LESS EFFECTIVENESS of DDT as a tool of disease control.

Anybody who believes that DDT is the best way of eliminating malaria-carrying mosquitoes should be absolutely in favour of a ban on DDT for agricultural use. Interesting that the people pushing the lie about Rachel Carson *aren’t* in favour of the ban on agriculture.

Of course, whether DDT is effective for public health uses is another question. But, I’ll leave that one. As the key lie has been identified already. Even if DDT is effective for public health campaigns then the bans that are ascribed to Carson definitely SAVED lives rather than resulted in deaths. Without those bans, DDT would have become increasingly ineffective.

Yet, people fall for this glib lie.

Forgive me, but I’ve seen enough of those recently.

I say ‘lie’ because we know who and why this lie was invented.

So why would somebody say something both absurd and also a bit nasty?

Well, I’ll start with something a bit more current. Ladies and gentlemen the next Vice-President of the United Sates, Mike Pence:
https://web.archive.org/web/20010415085348/http://mikepence.com/smoke.html

“Time for a quick reality check. Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill. In fact, 2 out of every three smokers does not die from a smoking related illness and 9 out of ten smokers do not contract lung cancer. This is not to say that smoking is good for you…. news flash: smoking is not good for you. If you are reading this article through the blue haze of cigarette smoke you should quit. The relevant question is, what is more harmful to the nation, second hand smoke or back handed big government disguised in do-gooder healthcare rhetoric.”

Smoking? What’s smoking got to do with it?

The Advancement of Sound Science Center https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advancement_of_Sound_Science_Center was established as a front for the tobacco industry – specifically Philip Morris. Cigarettes, as we all know (except VP elect Mike Pence) smoking kills. As a business model, killing your customers has some drawbacks, not least of which is a kind of selective pressure which ensures that people in charge of such an industry have to have an almost pathological disregard for the welfare of others.
Of course, the TASSC couldn’t just leap in and do a Mike Pence and say smoking doesn’t kill. Nope. A more clever and cynical strategy was employed.

The idea was this: attack science. Throw doubt on notions of expertise and scientific authority. That is not an idea invented by the right – its most excessive expression was during Mao’s cultural revolution in China.

If enough doubt could be seeded in people’s minds about scientific claims of harm – particularly those based on indirect chains of causality or complex statistical evidence – then moves against smoking could be hampered. After all, lung cancer is capricious and the connection between any one cigarette and a malignant tumour in your lungs is hard to establish. The harm is found in broad net effects that grow over time. It is a matter of statistical preponderance.

To make this kind of attack another target could be used.
We’ve had one villain in this story already (Pol Pot) but it is time for another.

Steve Milloy.

Milloy, locked onto the DDT issue as a way of sowing doubt about science-based environmental policy. The brief was to help limit legislation on secondhand smoking but to do that a broader strategy of creating FEAR UNCERTAINTY DOUBT around science policy was being employed. This was not new – a long-term approach to hamper moves on environmental and public health issues was the application of FUD.

It’s why if you are a right-leaning American you probably think that global warming is dubious. For any industry that unfortunately poisons people as a by-product, there are only a few PR gambits you can employ – making people doubt reality is going to be the main one.

In 2001 the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants  was used by TASSC and Milloy to create a set of enduring myths about DDT. While the convention overtly did NOT ‘ban’ DDT for use in vector control, the surrounding discussion was exploited to imply that first-world environmentalists were trying to stop struggling third-world nations from fighting malaria. The claim was false on many levels and had only a limited long-term impact on policy. But that wasn’t the point.

The point was to create a stick with which to attack science-based activism and policy.


Some years ago I was standing in a long Hindu temple that sat on a precipitous cliff edge and below me was all of Cambodia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Preah_Vihear_Temple
The temple is on a disputed piece of territory between Thailand and Cambodia. It lies in Cambodia but is really only accessible from Thailand. For political reasons it isn’t always accessible but at the time it was. Well worth a visit if the border is open. Exquisite. I think it is more impressive than Angkor Wat, although the scale is smaller.

After the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and put an end to Pol Pot’s murderous regime, the Khmer Rouge retreated to various places.One of these was Preah Vihear Temple because of its strategic command of the surrounding territory.

There were stern warnings about minefields, a partly destroyed Russian helicopter, some small artillery pieces (possibly there just for tourists) and Buddhist monk  who treated me as a tourist attraction for a group of visiting Thais because I was the biggest, most obviously Western (‘Farang’) person there.

One of those places which had just way too much history concentrated in one spot.

Now you just can’t help but try and get into the heads of the Khmer Rouge standing in a place like that. It wasn’t just the genocide – and it pointless to try and draw levels of awful when it comes to murder on those levels – but the extent to which it was a kind of self-genocide. During Pol Pot’s reign, he and the Khmer Rouge essentially tried to make Cambodia murder itself. It is nigh on incomprehensible.

Ideology doesn’t explain it. After all, it was another brutal communist regime that eventually brought the mass murder to an end. Some kind of mass traumatic syndrome from the horrors of the decades of war in former French-IndoChina goes someway to explaining it I suppose.

Pol Pot literally wanted to make Cambodia great again. It was nationalism and communism and Maoist obsession with agrarian living that formed a truly appalling mix that led to horrors that should chill every one of us.

But also denial. Denial of learning. Denial that people from the cities had anything to contribute. Denial of learning. Denial of expertise.

When things didn’t go to plan, when the agricultural revolution instead brought starvation, the killing only intensified. When eventually the Khmer Rouge was toppled, the die hards didn’t stop and think ‘we really messed up’ but dug in and kept fighting for decades afterwards UTTERLY CONVINCED that they had done the right thing. To the extent that they would carry on fighting and dying for their beliefs that were so factually and morally wrong.

So who killed more? Pol Pot or people’s capacity to fool themselves with cynical lies? Pol Pot personally could have only ever killed a few people. To kill on the scale that he did required people who would believe and spread cynical lies and CONTINUE TO DO SO in the face of reality demonstrating that what they believed was wrong.

I’ve typed a lot in reply now. Some of what I’ve typed will be incorrect, misleading, inaccurate or exaggerated. Infallibility is not achievable.

Rachel Carson killed nobody by not being 100% correct.
The followers of Pol Pot killed millions by not accepting that he could be anything other than 100% correct.
I know which is a better example for any human regardless of their ideology.