Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘debate

Opinion corridors and related topics

with 6 comments

I recently randomly encountered a Wikipedia article on “opinion corridors”, or “åsiktskorridor” in the original Swedish.* While this particular word had flown under my radar, it is hardly a surprise that my native Swedes are the inventors: Sweden is one** of the countries, outside of dictatorships, where the tolerance for “heretic” opinions is the lowest, where those holding such opinions are exposed to the most denouncement*** (sometimes even hatred and persecution), and where politicians are the most likely to ostentatiously profess their (real or pretended) orthodoxy. Indeed, the expression “the Official Truth” (“den Officiella Sanningen”) is often used to derogatorily describe the problem that an unholy alliance of media, politicians, pseudo-academics from the field of “gender studies”, and various interest groups has dictated a certain “truth”****, the questioning of which is grounds for a virtual excommunication: Those with the “wrong” opinion are condemned, censored, see their positions severely distorted (e.g. by leaps like “He said something negative about Islam; ergo, he must hate Muslims.” or “He wants to reduce immigration; ergo, he is racist.”), etc.

*While the Wikipedia article lacks a formal definition, the general intent is easy to understand: Opinions that lie within or move along a certain corridor are acceptable; others are not.

**Unfortunately, this problem has been rapidly expanding in the rest of the world, including the U.S., over the last one or two decades—and is the reason why I have great fears about the current obsession with “hate speech”: The cure could very easily turn out to be a greater threat than the supposed disease.

***Note that I speak of a denouncement on more-or-less moral grounds—not factual analysis and sound argumentation, as can be used against e.g. homeopaths, or even a “you are so wrong that you must be an idiot”. No, a typical reaction amounts to “anyone with such opinions is evil”.

****Often it has little or nothing to do with the real truth, stands in contrast with actual statistics, disagrees with real science, …

This concept, along with several others linked to in the article (including Overton window and Hallin’s spheres), overlap strongly with many of my previous texts, observations, and complaints.* Indeed, one of my most repeated claims is that only actions, not opinions, can be a legitimate cause for condemnation—while e.g. many members of the PC crowd engage in wholesale moral condemnation of opinion and allow themselves to take any action they see fit to silence dissenters. (Leading me to repeat another observation: Fascist is as Fascist does.)

*To mention but a few: [1], [2], [3], [4], [5]. Also note a great many earlier texts on the topic of censorship, especially through feminist bloggers.

This issue complex is one of the most important in today’s Western world, and one of the greatest threats against democracy, enlightenment, sound governance, and even science. Worse, it is a threat against the finding of truth and the development of human knowledge and understanding: We cannot know with certainty, which of our opinions, no matter how plausible they seem or how many others share them, are right or wrong—but we can say with virtual certainty that some of them will be wrong to at least some degree, possibly entirely. By preventing the expression of dissent, the development and improvement of opinion is severely hampered.

That this is not a hypothetical situation can be seen e.g. in the feminist blogosphere where exactly the comments that stands the greatest chance of affecting a change in opinion, e.g. through solid arguments and published statistics, are those most likely to be censored—and in the mean time, the pseudo-knowledge of propagated Woozles, slogans void of arguments, and emotional perception remains the “truth”.

A very interesting example of how opinion corridors, Overton windows, et al., can exert undue influence is the situation of the Christian Churches* (especially the Catholic): Large blocks of the population seem to believe the absurdity that the Churches must modify their opinions (e.g. regarding homosexuality and female priests) to match the surrounding world. However, if we accept** that the premises of a religion are true, the opinions, behavior, whatnot of a Church must obviously be based on these premises—not on the current opinion corridor. There can be legitimate instances of changes to an official stance, e.g. because of new revelation, a find of alternate text sources (like with the Dead-Sea Scrolls), a development of the understanding of old texts based on new scientific methods, the discovery of an incorrect translation, …—or, obviously, a previous minority interpretation developing into a majority interpretation. For instance, if a scroll is found, pre-dating the Gospels, relating Jesus’ blessing of female priests, and considered authentic by the Vatican, this could be valid reason to allow female Catholic priests. In contrast, to reject some two thousand years of policy, with a base in Biblical interpretation or theological contemplation, merely because the opinion corridor in overall society has changed, would not be a valid reason.

*While these are the potential victims in this scenario, they have historically very often been perpetrators.

**In my case, as an atheist, arguendo; in the case of those religious, this is almost a given as a matter of definition. Should we not accept these premises, chances are that the Church or religion must be rejected in its entirety. (Similarly, it can be legitimate for someone to see a religious position not matching his own preferences as a reason to reject a particular Church or religion entirely. An obvious example would be a Church that insists on a literal interpretation of Biblical events that are not compatible with mainstream science. Still, this only gives the right of rejection—not the right to force the Church to change its own stance on any given issue.)

Particularly dangerous areas, especially with an eye on artificial “echo chambers”, include:

  1. Governmental restrictions on opinion, be they direct (e.g. an outright ban) or indirect (e.g. in that only sufficiently orthodox parties or scientists receive public subsidies).
  2. Deliberate abuse of or naturally developing “echo chambers” in the education system to enforce some set of of opinions. Unfortunately, this is by no means restricted to the lower stages—as demonstrated by the current U.S. crisis of the college system.

    (If influenced by the government, this can overlap with the previous item.)

  3. A press dominated by some set of opinions.

Note that these can all (a) have a massive effect on the overall population through a very wide reach; (b) can tend to be self-perpetuating, e.g. in that non-conformant parties are hindered from gaining votes through less founds and can therefore not affect changes to the rules for public subsidies, that the chances for a college student to eventually join the faculty can depend strongly on having the “right” opinions, and that an aspiring journalist faces a similar situation. And, yes, these are all definite problems in today’s Sweden.

Excursion on topics, fiction, and similar:
Unfortunately, these problems extend into areas not directly relating to opinion, e.g. in that certain entire fields of investigation, topics for books, choices of characters for a movie, and similar can be unduly suppressed or altered, in order to avoid controversy and criticism. For instance, (real) science that deals with e.g. biological differences between men and women or psychometrics is often viewed very negatively by ignorants. (Say, as inherently sexist or racist, or as modern versions of phrenology. Worse: Some seem to believe that even if there is something to discover in this area, it must not be discovered, to avoid influencing opinion in the “wrong” direction.) Similarly, a work of fiction that shows a hero rescue a damsel in distress (or any number of other scenarios) stands the risk of being condemned as e.g.“perpetuating stereotypes”; while it is common to see tiny women with some martial arts training easily beating up men twice their size and with more martial arts training,* women abounding even among “STEM” professionals, …—that the world depicted is sufficiently PC is more important than that it is realistic.

*Going well beyond the typical, already unrealistic, “hero bonus” that is so common in fiction.

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Written by michaeleriksson

July 18, 2018 at 2:36 am

My take on objective truth and subjectiveness of opinion

with 6 comments

Recently, I have been involved in several discussions where the topic of a search for a “truth” has surfaced—and where I (through misreadings by the other party or misformulations by me) have been misunderstood.

For easy future reference, I will here outline some of my opinions in a less ambiguous manner:

  1. There are many issues where taste and preferences, different circumstances and needs, or similar, can be so important that it makes no sense to speak of right or wrong in anything even resembling absolute terms.

  2. In many others, we have an arbitrariness on an abstract level, but a typical context which can make one or the other alternative superior within that context (and the context is sometimes sufficiently given that it need not be mentioned). This applies in particular to issues relating to humans. For instance, the colors of a webpage are arbitrary in principle, but when we factor in how the typical human perceives colors, what combinations lead to higher or lower readability, what combinations can cause a headache, whatnot, then clear statements can be made about the superiority (in context) of at least some combinations over some others.

  3. Preferences, while arbitrary in principle, can also be seen as better or worse, which can affect the rating of otherwise arbitrary evaluations. For instance, if someone feels that a webpage with a particular color combination is aesthetically pleasing, but that combination leads to text that is very hard to read, then a combination with higher readability should be chosen: Ensuring readability is a more rational goal than aesthetics when it comes to a medium with the purpose of spreading textual information, because it achieves the intended purpose better, is more user-friendly, is more likely to result in pleased and returning visitors, etc. (I make the contextual assumption that this is what is wanted—if someone merely uses the colors to surround images of art works, e.g., then the situation can be different.)

    Obviously, preferring rational preferences is in it self a preference of some arbitrariness. Going into that discussion, however, opens a far wider field. Other similar preferences may be present, but left unstated, in this post.

  4. In many cases, reasonably objective statements can be made based on reasonably objective criteria, and (while the subjective aspects should be kept in mind) it is usually better to do so than to speak of subjectiveness. Often a very high degree of objectivity and/or certainty can be reached (as is often the case in the “hard” sciences) and the mere fact that there is a theoretical possibility of something else on the very edge of probability is no excuse for claims like “Evolution is just a theory!” or many of the extremely relativistic positions of many post-modernists.

    (Notably, post-modernism is based on a few sound ideas, but these ideas are rarely truly understood and they are often applied in an ridiculous manner—to the point that some in the PC or feminist movement seem to consider truth something that, using post-modernist motivations, should be bent to fit their own ideals without regard for the real world. A lack of understanding of science is almost always present.)

  5. Even in those cases where there is no objective truth to be found, the search for an objective truth can be rewarding in that it forces the exposure to different perspectives, the critical investigation of claims and arguments, the weighing of pros and cons, … In this way, a richer and deeper understanding can still be found. Indeed, it even happens that an, as it eventually turned out, faulty scientific model or theory had benefits through e.g. predictions that were better than an even earlier model or no model at all.

  6. The wish to actually search for the truth of the matter (a better approximation of the truth, new or refined insights, …; as opposed to merely convincing others of a pre-formed opinion) is central to good debating.

  7. Objective truth is an ideal that I feel that we should strive for even when it cannot be reached: The more objective and less subjective we become the better—and rejecting this search because we can “only” reach better approximations is not constructive and will lead to less progress and more arbitrariness. A bowler may know that his chances of scoring a perfect game are next to nil, but he can still dream—and if he is a professional, he should also try to improve his game to increase the chance. In the same manner, the scientist, philosopher, debater, amateur thinker, …, should strive to gain deeper insight—even when he knows that he will never reach perfect insight.

    (Reading up for this post, I note that perfect bowling games, while still rare, are far more common today than a few decades ago, due to changes in materials, shape of pins, and similar. The analogy may be best seen with an eye on the “good old days”.)

  8. There is nothing wrong with claim “X, because Y” (unless a non sequitur). On the contrary, this is indirectly a challenge to others to investigate the argument, point to flaws or special cases, come with counter-arguments, …

Written by michaeleriksson

March 1, 2011 at 2:14 pm

The misconception of defensive statements as proof of guilt

with 3 comments

I recently encountered a (sub-)discussione that well illustrates a common misconception: That a defensive statement equals admission of guilt. (The main discussion circles around an anti-Islam academic, does not interest me, and seems to be the same old arguments from both sides.)

Consider the following statements:

(Danny)

I think its fair to say that if you have to end a sentence with “…this statement was not racist,” it was probably a racist sentence.

(Sheikh Jahbooty)

Easy logic.

You communicate. They hear a racist idea. Either you are total crap at communicating or you were communicating a racist idea.

Then you attach, “…this statement was not racist.”

It can mean

1) You are incompetent. (Let’s assume that NYU doesn’t give PHDs to people who lack competence in communicating, although I’m not sure that’s a safe assumption.)

2) You are terribly racist.

(My reply)

Faulty logic:

As case has it, many people abuse the word “racism” to include things that are not racist out of ignorance, while others use it as a (deliberate) personal attack in order to discredit the speaker.

In my native Sweden, e.g., a minority of all uses of “racism” that I have seen the last few years have been justifiable.

In the US, in turn, there are nowadays cases when e.g. criticism directed at Obama or his policies is denounced as racist—despite the fact that Hillary would have been met with the same criticism. (Notwithstanding the possibility that a minority of the criticism does have a racist base.)

See e.g. http://www.aswedeingermany.de/50LanguageAndWriting/50Racism.html for more information.

(Lòt Poto-a)

Well, I always have doubts about the validity or authenticity of someone’s perspective when they are unnecessarily defensive. Think about it. The subject of race comes up in a conversation and the first thing someone says is “I don’t hate white people,” or “I have a black friend” (Just ONE black friend! Ha!).

If you have nothing to hide, then you have no reason to try to defend yourself. End of story.

What happens is simply something very different: There are great groups of people (including racists, anti-racists, Swedish leftist, and feminists) who often fail to argue their case by arguments, but instead tend to use personal attacks, undue generalizations, and distortions of their opponents opinions.

The result is that the opponent again and again sees himself confronted with the same, usually unfair, accusation of e.g. mansplaining. The case of racism is dealt with by the above link, but also in e.g. my discussion of Sverigedemokraterna—the core being that being a racist is not to be confused with (above) being anti-Islam(ism), anti-immigration, or justly criticizing an individual member of a minority on objective grounds. My article series on Unfair argumentation methods has some discussion of the more general topic of name calling instead of arguments.

Now, when again and again confronted with such accusations, it is only natural that one learns to expect them—and this is the reason behind such statements: Not knowledge that one is X, but knowledge that one regularly will be accused of being X.

The above tendency to name calling is sad enough, but the sickening part is that when someone either tries to preempt the unfair accusations or reacts negatively to them—then this is taken as further proof against him! In combination, these argumentless debate methods bring the opponents into a “damned if you do; damned if you do not” situation—either they remain silent and see themselves vilified through a misrepresentation of opinion; or they speak up and are vilified with the very fact that they spoke up as “proof”.

I note in conclusion that some of the most narrow-minded, intolerant, biased, and over-generalizing people I have encountered in the blogosphere and in Swedish politics have been self-declared anti-racists, anti-bigots, and similar—exactly those people who the most loudly complain about narrow-mindedness, intolerance, whatnot, in others.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 8, 2010 at 12:30 pm

Comment censorship and comment policies V: Selective distortion of debate

with 4 comments

One of the main reasons why I object to comment censorship (cf. earlier entries) is selective distortion of debate. This is comparatively common on “image building” blogs—together with censorship for the purpose of not to having ones “wisdom” or “expertise” questioned.

Those who spend a lot of time in the blogosphere have probably noticed that there are many blogs that are more geared at building the image, brand, reputation, whatnot, of the blogger than at anything else. Usually, the individual entries are relatively poorly written, high on over-use of “you”, and consist mostly of information that anyone could get from an introductory book on the topic at hand—or that is so trite that even the educated layman already knows it. This, however, is presented as the supreme knowledge of a leading expert.

(For examples, see e.g. the marketing tage at WordPress; in particular, entries with titles like “10 ways do X”, “5 common errors in Y”, and similar.)

While I have been a victim of censorship comparatively rarely, disproportionally many cases have occurred on this type of blog—probably, because I often question the content, point to errors in reasoning or fact, show an alternate view point, or similar.

A recent poste that I found on the WordPress frontpage provides both a good example of this and an illustration of why it is dangerous. (It should be noted, however, that this blogger is not a perfect match for the profile above. That he actually tries to give some, if specious, justification for his censorship, is what makes his entry a superior illustration.)

The blog entry, author mrl8nite, contains a legitimate discussion of what formats to use for resumes and the like, ending with the conclusion:

Bottom Line – Stick with the Word 2003 “.doc” format for now, as it is still the de facto standard document format.

My first comment (published):

PDF should be the default, unless the prospective employer explicitly requests something else. For some reasons why we should never send (specifically) MS-Office formats without the receivers explicit consent, see http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/no-word-attachments.htmle

As an aside, it is important to differ between application and format (although Microsoft has done its best to obliterate this definition): Even if someone has to send a Word-2003 document this need not be done in MS-Word: OpenOffice can handle that just as well (with reservations for some features that do not belong in a resume in the first place, like complex macros).

mrl8nite’s reply:

Thanks for the remarks. I understand your point, and I mentioned some of this a bit in the posting. However, I want to make sure the readers understand that when it’s about a resume, it’s not their choice, it’s what most of the recruiters and job sites and corporations want to receive. We need to make sure that our preferences for “document storing and sharing” don’t get confused with what needs to be done to have the highest chance of getting an interview. While I don’t disagree with your point about Open docs and I respect your preference of PDF (also a proprietary format), it’s about job search success and not diminishing the opportunity to get to the next step in the job search.

So far, a perfectly acceptable and constructive exchange which could be beneficial to the reader who wants to make an informed choice. The problems begin when mrl8nite decides not to publish my following comment. Unfortunately, due to an unexpected browser crash in the interim, the text is lost to me, but the gist, from memory, was:

  1. PDF is the generally recommended standard for exchange of documents and is the “smallest common denominator” to be preferred as a default. (Assuming that plain-text and HTML are not acceptable in the context.)

  2. Those who require a different format have the opportunity to state so.

  3. MS-Word is actually seen as unprofessional by at least some companies. (Due to problems with viruses, information leaks, compatibility problems with different versions, and poor printability.)

  4. PDF (unlike what mrl8nite implies) is far from my first choice: I would go with LaTeX and PostScript or a more “semantic” approach—if I had the choice. The reason why I go with PDF is that I do not have the choice, and that PDF is the safest bet, with regard to compatibility, courtesy, whatnot.

The problem here: It may be that, specifically for job applications, MS-Word is the better choice (mrl8nite repeatedly emphasizes tracking systems and claimed problems, to which I am skeptical, with information extraction from PDF files). It may be that PDF is the better choice. It may be that it is toss-up. However, by cutting off the discussion we are not given the opportunity to find out. Notably, an uninformed visitor reading this page will likely, by default, be convinced by mrl8nite’s position—not because it is the correct one, not because it is better argued, but merely because it is the only one given free reins.

Importantly, we also have no idea how many other dissenting comments by others, using what arguments, were disallowed. As a result, the page is nearly valueless in the quest for the best format. (Just like a sales pitch for X brings very little value for someone wanting to make an informed decision between X and Y.)

While I, obviously, do not know what the degree of censorship was, others were censored too. I quote a private email (in response to a “reminder” comment from me, wanting to eliminate the risk that my second comment was simply stuck in the spam queue or similar):

> At the time of writing, my comment from “August 23, 2010 at 9:16 pm” remains unpublished. I kindly ask you to correct this.

Thanks. I am working through numerous replies. I am also trying to make sure that the discussions remain beneficial for my core readers and provide a clear guidance on the resume/jobhunt process.

Further, the concluding comment by mrl8nite (my emphasis):

[…]

I haven’t approved all of the feedback, as just another “thanks for the article” posting, while appreciated, would deter from the good discussions taking place here. Also, I’m trying to keep the discussions focused on helping job seekers and as such have limited extended discussions where we might confuse the job seeker, avoid commercial advertising, or get us too far away from the key point (yes, I think PDFs are a good alternate choice; yes, I like Open products; yes, Word files have limitations; yes, I like html resumes; yes, update your LinkedIn Profiles; yes…).

For this post, the focus of the article was, based on my research and feedback from many recruiters, that Word 2003 .doc files are still the most accepted, the lowest common denominator [stealing a formulation I used to refer to PDF in my unpublished comment], the most beneficial to recruiters/managers, and thus the best choice (for now) for you to share your resume when a file needs to be sent. […]

From the above, it is clear that mrl8nite had a very clear agenda of pushing his pre-formed opinion—with only marginal room for discussion. This is, obviously, contrary to the spirit of good blogging and the (ideally) productive discussions, back-and-forth, refinement of opinion, etc., that is an integral part of blogging.

In the end, the readers that mrl8nite claims to want to help are the biggest losers from his distortive censorship.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 2, 2010 at 4:25 pm

Unfair argumentation methods I: Preliminaries

with 2 comments

As the recurring reader knows, I have an article on misuse of the word “racism” (and some related issues) in the workings—but it does not seem to actually become written and, further, is branching out in scope.

To counter this, I have decided to make a series of somewhat shorter articles dealing with unfair argumentation methods. The preliminary schedule is (within, possibly, the next week): This entry dealing with preliminaries; a discussion of this problem in general and on the Swedish left; a discussion of the Swedish party Sverigedemokraterna, and how they are treated; three specific examples from discussions I have myself been involved in recently from respectively Germany, Sweden, and the US; and the originally intended article (maybe split in two, depending on developments). Possibly, I will throw in a post with links to my previous writings on related topics or interesting discussions by others.

Obviously, this series of articles can only cover a few aspects of a very wide topic—and the reader is cautioned to be wary of the incompleteness of the discussion.

Considering the topic (and for reasons that will be clear in due time), I will use a stricter comment policy than usual for this series of entries. Notably, comments containing any form of bad language or personal attacks, controversial claims not supported by links, misrepresentations of others opinions, or any indication of foul play or ill intentions (regardless of the target), will be blocked or edited.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 4, 2010 at 12:27 pm