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Brian Hughes

*Yes* obstruction: ‘Active information avoidance’ and the Mueller Report

It is one of the great ironies of modern politics that Donald Trump is associated with popularising the term “fake news” to western audiences. Heck, on a number of occasions he claimed to have coined the phrase himself. (At one point he even claimed to have invented the word “fake.”)

That claim turned out to be, yes, well, you know what it turned out to be.

It’s so obvious, it’s not even funny.

And speaking of obvious, here is the final paragraph — the FINAL CONCLUDING PARAGRAPH COMPRISING THE ‘CONCLUSIONS’ SECTION — of the Mueller Report:

Surely this is the killer bit:

…if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we were unable to reach that judgement.

After 400+ pages, it’s quite an in-your-face ending. All that’s missing is a Mic Drop GIF.

Pic: giphy.com

And yet…

What is it that some people can’t see?

I guess what we have here is a case of “active information avoidance.”

Active information avoidance is the term psychologists use to describe how people knowingly choose to avoid, ignore, or downplay information that they are aware (a) is available and (b) is materially relevant. People engage in active information avoidance when they choose not to look at something that makes them feel bad.

Active information avoidance helps us to understand that the idea that humans are, by default, rational self-interested decision-makers is actually a myth. In reality, most humans default to irrational (but still self-interested) decision-making. It’s the psychology of echo chambers, groupthink, false consensus effects, and confirmation bias. And it’s really hard to get rid of.

One example is the ‘ostrich effect‘, where investors literally avoid logging into their online share data when they know the stock market is ‘down’, but log in more frequently when the stock market is ‘up’.

A second example is more common — when middle-class people avoid eye-contact with poor people they encounter begging on the street. Prosperous people also commonly avoid visiting poor areas of town for similar reasons — to avoid finding out how poor the poor really are.

The reality is that most people are prone to active information avoidance, especially when there is a risk that new information might debunk their worldview or threaten their sense of themselves.

Photo by Rosemary Ketchum on Pexels.com

Active information avoidance helps people to preserve their sense of safety, righteousness, and certainty. We are all prone to it.

So maybe that’s why US Attorney General William Barr chose to selectively quote that last Mueller paragraph in his infamous four-page teaser trailer the other week. You know, the one where he quoted the “does not conclude/does not exonerate” bit and then implied that Mueller was making some kind of philosophical point about underdetermination.

And maybe that’s why Trump himself was so quick to summarise “DOES NOT exonerate” to mean “TOTAL exoneration.” In philosophy-of-science terms, we might consider this “Not-X-is-equal-to-Total-X” stance as consistent with an extreme form of “fallibilism” — the idea that no belief is ever justified; that every claim to truth is liable to be the opposite of true.

Instead of invoking Game of Thrones imagery, he could have just tweeted the Duhem-Quine thesis.

(Or maybe he’s simply just a liar. Who knows?)

Psychologically, the ultimate range of crowdsourceable ideas is wide open. Because of active information avoidance, it can include virtually anything. We shouldn’t be surprised to see black-is-white argumentation in modern politics. In fact, we should probably be surprised if we don’t see it.

But one thing about active information avoidance is that it can’t last forever. In most cases, it is self-defeating. Information, by definition, has utility — the term information is reserved for ‘counsel from fact’ that is useful, that resolves uncertainty, that leads to better decisions. When people avoid information, they avoid something that has utility. In theory, at least, they should ultimately fall behind those who are good at facing up to things — as when the people who have their medical check-ups ultimately fare better than those who avoid them.

You never know. Maybe this is the tipping point. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s an illusion.

Yep, maybe it’s fake (thank you, sir).

It’s ‘bogus argument’ time again, as Ireland’s right-wingers gear up for divorce referendum

A letter in today’s Irish Times:

And — oh look! — basically the very same letter in today’s Irish Independent:

This chap really does make heavy use of his letter-writing kit. It’s almost as though he is on some sort of campaign.

Here are some line-by-line hot takes:

“… we will be asked to facilitate more liberal divorce laws. We will also be asked to pave the way for the recognition of foreign divorces.”

Darn those foreigners! We don’t want their foreignness here!

We already have in our country too many victims of shattered households.

That may be, but it has nothing to do with divorce. Ireland’s divorce rate — 0.6% — is amongst the lowest in the world. It turns out that households shatter all by themselves, and that divorce laws have nothing to do with it.

Divorce is the end result of family break-up, not its cause. (I’m getting some serious “Hello Divorce, Bye Bye Daddy” flashbacks as I type this.)

“Those of us who are involved with homeless services, youth support or societies like St Vincent de Paul, are all too aware of the heartache and confusion caused by divorce and the fragmentation of families”

Caused by divorce” you say? This seems unlikely. In Ireland, divorce is only available after four years of separation. People who become homeless due to relationship breakdown become homeless straight away.

It is absolutely true that relationship breakdown is a risk factor for homelessness. For example, children of separated parents are more likely to become homeless, especially in socioeconomically disadvantaged families.

But this is entirely different from the claim that divorce causes homelessness. If anything, having a legal divorce helps to make homelessness less likely, given the way courts mandate the provision of alimony and other financial security for family members.

It is the chaotic nature of non-divorce breakups — where no law or court determines what financial arrangements are made — that places families at financial risk.

You could say that this is one of the main reasons for divorce laws: to protect families from the chaos of unstructured and unregulated family breakdown.

“Every marriage worthy of the name has to try to withstand the storms of life; it is more than just a fair weather relationship.”

I repeat the point — Ireland has one of the lowest divorce rates in the world. I think we get the fact that marriages are not fair weather relationships.

“My family and I will be voting No”

Ah, his family and he. Such a family guy. All about the family.

Remember the 90s? I sure as hell do….
(Pic: Newstalk.com)

Basically, his line — that liberalizing divorce laws will lead to an increase in family break-up — is a retread of what was run back in Ireland’s previous divorce referendum, in 1995.

I have written about that particular campaign, and the timelessness of its reactionary subtext, before.

But the argument holds no water. The ‘evidence’ presented — namely, that homelessness and family break-up exists — does not support the hypothesis — i.e., that reducing the mandatory waiting time for divorce will make homelessness worse.

Pic: Flickr/Free Stater

Meanwhile…it turns out our letter writer has been writing letters before.

Just last October, when writing to the Sligo Champion, he complained that the provision of abortion services would turn his local hospital into an “abattoir for infants.” In January, he popped up in the Irish Catholic to recommend that “spiritual counselling” be offered as treatment for women who suffer from “post-abortion trauma” (a mental health condition that, inconveniently for him, does not exist).

In past times, he was using the terms “foetus” and “child” interchangeably when discussing different types of abortion. Later he claimed that the “people of this area” — i.e. Sligo-Leitrim — “want the right to life of the unborn child to be protected” (the actual referendum result showed that 60% of them begged to differ).

Elsewhere he busied himself defending the Catholic Church from the Irish Times‘s terrible accusation that bishops had a habit of ‘dictating’ to the state. And he has popped up in the Irish Catholic on several occasions, at one point to offer a “big thank you to all our hard-working Catholic priests.”

I don’t know about you, but I think he might be a religious conservative.

And there it is. The folks to object to the mere existence of divorce, never mind the reduction of the mandatory waiting time, are all religious conservatives. That’s their beef. They don’t want divorce because, well, because Jesus.

You know, I’d nearly respect them more if they just said so, instead of trying to mount bogus arguments about X causing Y — as though they give a damn about using empirical evidence to resolve ethical questions.

Or about homelessness, for that matter.

If this is what the collapse of centrism looks like, then PLEASE give me more centrism

All the “worst people in Ireland” are running for election at the same time. We’re talking your racists, we’re talking your sexists, we’re talking your anti-vaxxers, your anti-fluoriders, your anti-Semites. The anti-5G brigade are in there. The anti-feminists too. And the anti-LGBT folks.

Not all of them are so negative. Some of them are actually pro stuff. For example, we have pro-lifers. We have pro-gun people. We even have pro-Illuminati Conspiracy theorists.

Pro or anti, there is something for everybody.

Conall McCallig has made a list (check out his original blog post for hyperlinks):

[Edit: The list has since been updated to include Allan Brennan (Independent) – Anti-5G, Anti-Vaxxer, Diarmaid Mulcahy (Independent) – Anti-Vaxxer, Anti-Fluoride, and James Miller (Independent) – Anti-5G, Anti-Vaxxer, Anti-Semitic, Anti-Muslim]

Is it just me, or are there rather a lot of names on that list?

In Ireland, 59 candidates are running in this year’s European Parliament elections. The above list accounts for a quarter of the field. But as Conall himself points out, there were other candidates about which he could source no information. These off-grid people could be even more fringe than the horribles he did manage to track down. In other words, we could be talking about close to a third of the slate holding extremist, esoteric, or, shall we say, eccentric views on social issues.

In the Irish part of the Euro elections, thirteen seats are up for grabs (two of which may be re-allocated back to Britain if the UK eventually decides not to leave the European Union). In other words, there are more kooky candidates than there are seats to be filled.

It seems to me that some of these folks are more sinister than others. If anything, the anti-Illuminati, anti-5G, or anti-GMO candidates are very much the lesser of evils. In fact their worst influence might not be to actually get elected. Rather, their damage would be to facilitate the seriously shady ones — the real bigots — to hide behind the crazy bush.

In other words, there’s a danger that the wackos who think that 5G internet is a deep-state conspiracy to line the pockets of Big Telecom while causing cellphone brain cancer in the masses will make the de facto racists come across as serious politicians.

But they’re not. The racists are…well…they are racists. And there are several of them. And this is precisely their opportunity to capitalize on a global trend of chaos to push xenophobic agendas through to the middle-class mainstreams of the Western world, including in our own little backwater here in grand old Ireland.

I mean, they are already setting fire to asylum centres.

This is far from a comedy election.

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