Tag Archives: critical thinking

At the Mountains of Madness

Between the Trump campaign and Russia’s “information war” I have begun to feel like I’m stumbling around blindly in a torpor, trying to understand the grave phenomenon that seems to be unfolding before our eyes. As a history buff I’m always cautious about doom-saying and lamenting the supposed “decay” of civilization. I’m fully aware that every age had its prophets of doom who warned that their current younger generation would surely be the last, just as I am aware that on the whole, humans live longer, better, more satisfying lives than in any other period of history. On the other hand, unlike the overly-optimistic liberal establishment I am not so naive as to think that progress is an uninterrupted, irreversible process. Or to put it in layman’s terms: Yes, we can totally fuck everything up.

What phenomenon am I speaking of? Well Peter Pomerantsev calls it “post-fact.” Rather appropriate term, I think. I’ve noticed a growing trend whereby a person is presented with irrefutable evidence that something did or didn’t happen, and yet this makes literally no impact on their beliefs or behavior. Now in case this sounds normal, let me tell you now that it isn’t. There definitely seems to have been a change, a growing trend.

Take politicians’ lies, for example. It seems like in the not-too-distant past, most political lying was what they call spin, or being “economical with the truth.” This would seem logical in an era of the internet and ubiquitous recording, because if you tell an outright falsehood someone would easily catch you. Observing the Bush administration and Fox News’ antics at the time, it seemed like the trend was getting away from factual arguments and into opinion and things which couldn’t easily be disputed or verified. For example, maybe Saddam didn’t actually have WMDs, but how could you be sure he wouldn’t get them eventually? Realistically speaking that claim is highly unlikely, but virtually impossible to disprove. And as you’re trying to make the case against that unlikely hypothetical scenario, your opponent would have moved onto some other topic, such as Saddam’s use of chemical weapons against Kurds.

To be sure, this is not ideal. It was downright annoying, to say the least. But now something’s different. It’s evolved. See the politician-style rhetoric starts with a conscious realization that objective truth exists, but it might not be on your side. Therefore what you do is grease yourself down and be as slippery as possible. You know that if you get pinned down, you’ll end up saying something that is verifiable, and if someone checks you’ll be found out. This new lying isn’t even lying, insofar as those telling the lies appear to sincerely believe in them. These untruths are stated confidently, in strong declarative sentences as though they were self-evident facts. It matters not how blatantly they are contradicted by material reality. It doesn’t matter if this person is opining on a topic they’ve never even heard of until recently. Once they find the talking point that fits in with their world view, it is “fact.”

It seems I cannot stress enough how insane this is. Imagine we’re co-workers and you catch me eating your lunch in the company break room. Next to me is the paper bag you put it in. It has your name written on it, on both sides, with big black letters. You point out that it’s yours and I, still chewing part of your pretentious gourmet artisanal sandwich, confidently tell you that you are mistaken. Not only do I insist it is mine, but I begin bringing up all kinds of other topics that have nothing to do with the ownership of the food in question. “Someone once ate my lunch from the fridge! Why don’t you talk about them? Some co-workers have shared food with me in the past!” Some of these things could be facts, but they have absolutely nothing to do with the bottom line, which is that I stole your goddamned lunch. My basic line stays the same: “No, it’s not yours. It’s mine. It was always mine. Your name is not Bill. I am Bill. You are Jim.”

Or suppose we change the scenario a bit. You’re upset because you heard your significant other was making out with another co-worker at a party. I tell you that this is physically impossible, because I was at the party from beginning to end and saw neither your significant other nor the person they were supposedly flirting with. In fact, that particular person was on vacation in another country at the time. I can’t speak for the fidelity of your partner, but it is literally impossible that they did what you think. This never happened. Now one would think that, assuming you had no other reasons to suspect such behavior from your partner, at the very least you would probably rethink the dramatic confrontation you had planned for later that night. If anything, you might want to confront the person who told you that yarn in the first place. Put simply- you would modify your behavior according to the facts you have received.

If you’re a Trump supporter, Putin fanboy, conspiracy theorist, or quite possibly all three, maybe you wouldn’t. At least you wouldn’t if you applied the same approach to reality you use online and in political matters to your everyday life. I wonder how such people would react if someone sold them an obviously broken product and claimed it was functioning perfectly. I wonder because again and again I see people like this confronted with concrete facts, sometimes provided by myself, and it has no effect on them whatsoever. They just double down until you basically have to block them because they begin to look as though they’re trying to convince themselves more than anyone else. I guess it takes effort to maintain the fantasy. As one writer put it: They don’t believe in these things because they’re stupid, they become stupid because they believe in these things.

Again, someone might say, with a fair bit of evidence, that this kind of thinking has always been around. That may be the case, but I think that there might be a qualitative difference simply because we live in the information age of the internet and mass media. As others have pointed out in regards to the internet, it creates the ability to construct one’s own echo chamber. Over the years I’ve also personally witnessed another strange phenomenon, whereby people seem to be playing a sort of real-life role playing game in internet discussions. Rather than debating with other people like themselves, they apparently see their opponents as representatives of their chosen enemy. Neo-Nazis will accuse you of being a Jew. 9/11 truthers accuse you of being a government shill. Anti-GMO people say you work for Monsanto or “Big Pharma.” Kremlin supporters say you work for the CIA or State Department, and Ukrainian nationalists and cheerleaders accuse you of being a “Kremlin troll.” Nobody can simply disagree with them. Nobody could possibly have more access to the facts or expertise on the topic than them. So the only explanation must be that they are some kind of evil agent, deliberately spreading disinformation on the internet.

That, I think, is the factor that wasn’t present in past societies. Sure, there were plenty of political parties that demonized their enemies and may have offered their members some kind of adventure to spice up their dull lives, but these movements existed in the real world. You had to join them, interact with their members, learn their ideology, and engage in activism. If you were trying to recruit someone on the street and they said they weren’t quite sure about some of your claims, you couldn’t just point your finger at them and start screaming “SHILL!” The internet makes this all too possible.

In the same vein, if you joined one of these organizations in the past, you usually had to face the consequences of your actions and statements. If you engaged in long rambling speeches about things that never happened you’d be dismissed as a crank and become a public laughing stock. Or if you engaged in a public debate with someone far more knowledgeable and experienced on the topic at hand, you would be easily embarrassed. As soon as you get stumped on a few basic questions the audience would see through you, and you’d know it too.

None of this is the case online. Online you’re a revolutionary fighting for Western civilization against the “Cultural Marxist social justice warriors.” You’re an “anti-imperialist” waging war on American hegemony and globalization. You’re standing up to Putin’s “neo-Soviet Union” and his legion of “trolls,” i.e. anyone who disagrees with your claims or fails to present information that falls in line with the fantasy narrative you’ve created. It’s so much more exciting than reality!

Recently I’ve taken up reading Matt Taibbi’s book The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion, and I can’t recommend it enough from what I’ve read so far. In the introduction, Taibbi speaks of millions of Americans so befuddled and burnt out by politics that they seem to check out of reality altogether and construct their own alternative realities. Against this backdrop he documents the corruption and cynicism within the US government, and while those who have checked out of politics see themselves as some kind of “resistance” to the system, in actuality their abdication of their civic responsibility means the system has even more freedom to be as corrupt as it can. As you read his words you think about how accurately this describes 2016, and then you have to remind yourself that this book was published in 2008. In other words, we’ve exceeded the level of insanity we describe.

I wish I could offer some kind of solution here, but my usual recommendations probably wouldn’t even cut it if they were implemented. What’s the use of teaching people critical thinking skills  when they’ve long since graduated school and quite possibly suspect that the very concept of critical thinking is some kind of Marxist mind-control plot? Who would the teachers be? Who’s to say they won’t claim the teachers are shills for Monsanto or the US government? What about fact-checking projects like Stopfake or Politifact? These won’t sway the alternative reality crowd one bit. The former will be labeled a US government front and the latter is probably controlled by Soros or the Illuminati.

It seems to me in the short term, the only possible solution is to just shut these people down and block them out. I’m not talking about censorship; I’m talking about individuals. In the past I’ve tended to disagree with those who say you should never debate conspiracy theorists, Holocaust deniers, creationists, etc. I tend to disagree. These debates help sharpen one’s own knowledge and rhetorical skills, and they also show audiences that those on the side of truth can stand up to challenges. This, however, refers to actual debates- rules, standards, perhaps a moderator, and an agreement on basic facts of the matter.

Maybe the best response to bold, declarative statements devoid of any supporting evidence and arbitrary dismissals of contrary evidence is to simply say: “Sorry, but that’s incorrect,” and move on. I mean do we seriously need to sit down and “debate” as to whether or not the Earth is a flat disk? “No, the Earth is not a flat disk. No, sorry, but the sun is not a giant space-whale testicle floating in space. That’s wrong, you moron.” Or more relevant: “What’s that? You’ve never been to Russia or Ukraine and yet you’re going to lecture me on these topics and tell me what sources are reliable or unreliable because you have an internet connection?  No, sorry. You are wrong. Your opinion is frivolous and does not matter. Come back when you’ve put in the time and the work.”

Of course this only works for individuals and it is still a stop-gap. After all, the real work is for governments. Based on my own experience and what Taibbi and others have written, what I see is extreme alienation of large swathes of the population in industrialized countries. They’re suffering from things they don’t understand and can’t easily see, so they make up their own villains. This is why I keep saying that the real response to this so-called Russian “information war” must first start at home. Take care of your own people first and you will deny bad actors (including home-grown ones) from leading them astray. Whereas the Russian foreign-language media basically says “Yes, we’re bad, but everybody’s bad so don’t judge us,” the Western, especially publicly-funded media ought to be saying, “Yeah, things are really bad, here’s what you can do about it, here’s what others have done about it.” People often use fantasy as an escape from unpleasant reality, therefore we need to somehow make reality more appealing.

 

UPDATE: If you want to see an example of how unpleasant reality makes people receptive to bullshit, take a look at an excerpt from this article:

“During a discussion on the links between Brexit-backers and the Trumpian proletariat, NPR’s economics reporter Adam Davidson offered the following explanation for right-wing populism’s current appeal:

I know Hillary Clinton’s economic team fairly well, and I’m very impressed by them. They really are top-notch economists and economic policy thinkers. They don’t have anything for a 55-year-old laid-off factory worker in Michigan or northeastern Pennsylvania. Or whatever. They don’t have anything to offer them. And so I think it’s intuitively understandable that a screaming, loud, wrong answer is more compelling than a calm, reasonable, accurate, right answer: Your life is going to be worse for the rest of your life — but don’t worry, these hipsters in Brooklyn are doing much better.
[…] The threshold for wages has gone up. There was a long period in the 20th century where, simply being willing to go to a building reliably everyday for eight hours or 12 hours and do what you’re told was worth a lot. […] And you didn’t need to read, you didn’t need to write, you didn’t need to have any kind of education. Those jobs are all but fully gone. […] So in this country, we don’t have demand for the high-school-only graduates and the high-school dropouts we have, and that’s a big population. Something like 80 million people.”

 

Advertisements

Bullshit kills

The Boxer Rebellion of 1900 was one of the most important events in modern Chinese history. The rebellion pitted a secret organization known as the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists against Western and Japanese colonists who had been gradually forcing more and more concessions out of the ruling Manchu Qing dynasty. As the name of the secret society implies, members practiced traditional martial arts and thus Western observers labeled them the “boxers.”

One naturally wonders why so many young men would be attracted to a movement which planned to take on the most advanced arms of the day with traditional, often hand-to-hand modes of combat. The answer, as it so happens, lies in belief. The boxers were told that once they rebelled against the foreign devils, they would be joined by millions of spirit warriors from heaven. Yeah, just like in LOTR: Return of the King. More than that, they were taught that through diet, rituals, and martial arts practice, they would be invincible to the modern weapons of the Westerners and Japanese. One reported recruitment method involved a boxer teacher firing a musket loaded with a blank at one of his pupils. The audience of ignorant peasants would be awed by the pupil’s miraculous ability to withstand bullets. Sadly for those who bought into that little demo, the Germans, Austrians, Russians, Americans, Italians, French, British, and Japanese all elected to use live ammunition as opposed to blanks, and the results were predictable.

The moral of the story? Bullshit kills. Yeah sure, sometimes it’s just harmless wishful thinking, but there are times when the failure to think critically has real, concrete, and sometimes lethal consequences. Take the various conspiracy theories and misconceptions related to the HIV virus and AIDS. AIDS has ravaged many populations in Africa, for example, largely due to a lack of education and understanding about the disease. Determined not to be shown up by Africa, Russian “experts” have concocted their own way to exacerbate Russia’s long-standing problem with HIV.

A group of Kremlin-backed think tank wonks have recently declared that the HIV epidemic in Russia is part of…get ready for it…the information war against Russia! Yup, everything is an information attack nowadays, even the indisputable fact that Russia has had and still has a serious problem with HIV. Oh yes, let me deliver you the highlights…

“She defined the Western method of fighting HIV as made of “neoliberal ideological content, insensitivity towards national sensitivities and over-focus of certain at-risk groups such as drug addicts and LGBT people,” Kommersant reported.”

Does this moron even know what the word “neoliberal” is supposed to mean? How is medical knowledge based on years of study “insensitive” towards national sensitivities? Sounds like political correctness to me! And what kind of utter cretin would state that the best way to fight a disease is to ignore the most at-risk groups? It’s not like Russians deny these groups are at risk for HIV.

“The Russian model “takes into account the cultural, historical, and psychological characteristics of the Russian population, and is based on a conservative ideology and traditional values,” Guzenkova said.”

Gee, thanks for admitting from the get-go that your approach has an ideological basis and isn’t rooted in objective science.

“Study co-author Igor Beloborodov claimed that condoms were one of the factors causing the spread of the disease.

“The contraceptive industry is interested in selling their products and encouraging under-aged people to engage in sex,” he said.”

There it is, folks- the killing bullshit. The same kind of nonsense the Catholic church preaches to Africa and Latin America with disastrous results. Condoms don’t encourage under-age people, or anyone for that matter, to engage in sex. People engage in sex; it’s what they do. They’ve been doing it for a while now, and chances are in that time period when you think everyone was so prudish and upright they were actually engaged in acts dirtier than you can imagine. Condoms encourage responsibility.

This might be a good time to have a look at the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the developed world. Russia has steadily refused to teach sex education on the grounds that it will encourage teenagers to have sex (because there’s absolutely no way to find out about sex in a country where many people live in small quarters with thin walls). Naturally this plus Russia’s “strong traditional values” must surely mean that teen pregnancy in Russia is pretty low. Oh…waaaaait…noooo. In fact, as of 2014, 40% of girls in Russia lose their virginity by 15, one year before the age of consent. Must be another information attack!

So what is the secret of the conservative, national, patriotic, spiritual, Russian soul-filled solution to the HIV epidemic?

“Beloborodov said that the best form of protection against HIV was to “be in a heterosexual family where both partners are loyal to each other.”

Well let’s see, the first part of that solution might be problematic for people who are say, gay, or perhaps people who live in locales where there is an obvious lack of quality mates. As for the part about loyalty I’m sorry, what country do you live in? There’s a reason why Russian women have to specify “no married men” on their dating site profiles. And I can also tell you that plenty of ladies in this country are getting side action as well. I strongly suspect that Russia isn’t far removed from many other European countries in this respect, but the point is that it’s hardly the land of marital bliss and unshakable monogamy.

Just once I’d like to see Mr. Beloborodov have the balls to go on Russian TV and try to convince Russians, both male and female, to abstain from all sex until marriage. See that shit will play in the US where you have fundamentalist Christians who believe that faith entails a little more than wearing a cross around your neck, but it’s not going to fly here. Heterosexual family? No condoms? How will the Russian ruling class maintain their sanity if they don’t have their mistresses and call girls?

All joking aside, this kind of shit drives me up the wall because these hypocrites and dilettantes claim to represent Russia, to speak for Russia, and of course they are always “patriots.” Meanwhile they are engaging in activities which literally harm and in this case, potentially kill Russian citizens. Sex, underage or otherwise, will not increase in Russia just because schools start teaching kids about the risks and how to protect themselves. We have plenty of data from the US and various European countries to prove this. By contrast, the promotion of pseudoscience and the unwillingness to talk about the problem openly literally kills people. How do you call yourself a patriot while you not only lie to your own people, but your lies actually physically harm them, and what is more you get funding from wealth that ought to belong to them? Hell, the outrage doesn’t even stop there, because if any Russians get upset about these dipshits killing their fellow citizens, they’ll be branded traitors and agents of the State Department.

This particular story took place in Russia, but don’t think for a second that your country is safe from bullshit. The anti-vaccine movement in the US has led to a reemergence of diseases that had been all but eradicated decades ago. Pseudo-history helps sustain and legitimize far right movements not only in Russia or Ukraine, but also Croatia, Serbia, Poland, and many other countries. Donald Trump is now a serious contender, if not a favorite, for the White House, largely because of the boundless proliferation of paranoid, conspiratorial bullshit.

In many cases our hardwired mental biases, the product of millions of years of evolution, no longer serve us in the modern world and in many cases work against us. Now we can suggest a new evolutionary imperative- learn to think critically or die. In the modern world, bullshit kills, and if we don’t adapt it could one day end up killing off our entire species.

 

The Science of Bullshit

So I had a decision to make- I could collect another half dozen recent stories in Russia that demonstrate the maddening hypocrisy of this corrupt government, or I could not waste my time since there will probably be another half dozen such stories by the end of the week. What can I say? Some days I’m just not in the mood.

In compensation I’d like to look at the broader topic of critical thinking, starting with a story that has been making the rounds lately. Apparently an academic study found that people with lower cognitive abilities (i.e. intelligence) were more susceptible for falling for pseudo-profound, intellectual-sounding bullshit. Yes, they used the word bullshit in the study, 200 times in fact.

What do they mean by “pseudo-profound” and “intellectual sounding?” Well basically it seems they’re talking about the sort of thing people tend to share on their Facebook walls. For example you’ll see a photograph of someone doing yoga on a pristine beach and superimposed on this you see text reading: “Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty.”

That particular example comes out of the study. Judging from other such statements quoted by the media, it would seem that the study focused on “hippy”-like statements, the kind of thing you’d expect from Deepak Chopra. I can do one now: “The only tragedy greater than a full life not lived is the unrealized dream of an empty life lived alone.” Or how about: “Spirituality isn’t found inside of an ancient tome written in archaic language, but in the subtle interplay of the elements that make up our daily surroundings.” It’s pretty easy.

But this got me thinking, and the implications are quite scary. For one thing, Silicon Valley and the tech industry is similarly laden with statements that are little more than buzzwords arranged in different ways. “Innovation makes it possible to leverage the platform’s scalability exponentially, making it ultimately more disruptive.” I know from experience with such bullshit that this kind of empty nonsense is being used to woo people out of millions and in some cases, billions of dollars. Sure, these people are in most cases investing in highly profitable corporations which may indeed possess the key to disrupting entire markets and industries. On the other hand, we could be in for another dot com bubble brought on by idiots with money throwing cash at things they don’t understand because it was “innovative.”

There’s another aspect of this phenomenon that is far more interesting to me, and this is how this pseudo-intellectual bullshit is used in politics. I regret that I cannot dig up the exact post, but Ed at Gin & Tacos once referred to certain conservative rhetoric as (I’m paraphrasing here): shit that sounds intelligent to smart people. This is an interesting concept and I think it is very much related to this susceptibility for “pseudo-profound” statements. If someone can read a collection of random words about life, happiness, balance, and spirituality and come away with a feeling that this was profound and enlightening, it’s not too far fetched to suggest that posts containing random historical facts or complex political terminology could leave some with the impression that they are astute and politically savvy. Actually I think this kind of tactic is more dangerous in the world of politics.

I think this explains how, for example, people can fall so easily for endless regurgitation of Russian geopolitical theories. People who rarely really think about economic policy and who don’t have much experience in the world can easily be wowed by “sober” analysis about the BRICS alternative, trading in local currencies, the BRICS development bank, etc. Of course there are usually prerequisites that cause them to tumble down the rabbit hole. For example, they’re upset at their government and want to believe there’s some kind of powerful alternative bloc out there keeping their own leaders in line. But if that person is not sufficiently informed, they can easily fall for this sort of rhetoric.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not only aiming at the pro-Kremlin people here. Plenty of foreign Ukraine supporters jumped on the bandwagon of Maidan and Ukraine’s war effort without really fully understanding Ukraine’s history or its relationship with Russia. “European Ukraine” and “democracy” can be just as persuasive to the same sort of people as “NATO encirclement.”

The problem with all this is that in the case of politics, it’s not often a matter of cognitive ability. Sure, maybe it is with certain ideologies that require a major lapse in critical thinking, but it’s actually quite easy to fall for pseudo-intellectual bullshit in politics because oftentimes we have a severe lack of information.

To give one example, I didn’t really pay much attention to the Syrian civil war until about 2013. By that time, the dichotomy of Assad vs. jihadists, at that time Al Nusra and not ISIS, was dominant. And no, it wasn’t just coming from the Russian press or alternative media. For example, when debating airstrikes against the regime in the wake of an apparent chemical weapons attack in August of 2013, one Pentagon official reported to Congress that such airstrikes would most likely benefit Al Qaeda. This plus a lack of information and the flaws of memory could lead anyone to buy the “Assad is the lesser of two evils” narrative, even without regularly consuming pro-Assad media.

Maidan was another example. In the beginning I hardly had any reason to care. Then the media, including the Western media, began portraying the protests as being all about Ukraine joining Europe. Russian media went right along with that. At the same time, I started seeing these UPA, OUN, and Svoboda flags and symbols popping up in the protests, and my initial reaction was negative specifically for that reason. Like most Ukrainians, I had always been opposed to the idea of Ukraine joining Russia’s Customs Union or the Eurasian pseudo-union. European integration was, for me, a non-issue. But rehabilitation of fascists and Nazi collaborators, in any country, is something I simply cannot abide. As I said back then, I had no fear at all that Ukraine would actually be taken over by fascists. What I was afraid of was nationalists getting into key positions where they could impose their revisionist historical narrative on the country with the help of the state, something they basically ended up doing.

There were some points about Maidan I always conceded. I naturally have more respect for people who resist poor treatment even if I despise their politics. But the real reason why I eventually took a pro-Maidan position, long after the fact, was that I actually started talking to people who were involved in the movement, and I also learned how both the Western and Russian media essentially collaborated to paint a picture of Maidan that was false from the start, even without Russia’s tall tales of a Nazi putsch.

What could have prevented my mistake? Well if I’d been paying close attention from the very beginning in November 2013, this might not have happened. But there lies another problem- in the beginning there was little reason for anyone outside of Ukraine to suddenly take notice and start paying attention. Speaking personally, there was even less reason for me to start closely following the details of the peaceful uprising in Syria before the civil war started. You can try following Twitter but the problem is that you’re not likely to know which stories are going to be mundane and quickly disappear from view and which are going to snowball into something much bigger and historically significant.

There’s another element to all this, which is that a person who is actively trying to sell you a certain narrative can take advantage of this in order to deceive you. All they have to do is spit out a series of “facts,” some real, some distorted, some entirely made up, assertively and confidently. That and some ideological hook designed to get you on the same “side” can be more than enough to get an otherwise reasonable, intelligent person to fall for political bullshit.

Want to see this in action? Try my little quiz. The following statements are bullshit, but you should think about what you would say in response, off the top of your head, without access to Google and the internet.

Situation #1: You’re discussing WWII history with a fellow at a gun show (bear with me). The topic of the Holocaust comes up, and he starts talking about how it was “grossly exaggerated.” He asks how it can be that 6 million Jews were gassed to death, yet not a single autopsy ever showed that a concentration camp victim died of poison gas. He points out that Zyklon B was a commercial delousing agent, and that there were delousing chambers at all concentration camps, including those which were never “death camps.” He says that it would be impossible to kill people with carbon monoxide using diesel engines, as diesel engines don’t generate enough CO. Lastly he tells you how the whole thing was Communist propaganda, and points out how the plaque at Auschwitz used to say four million Jews died there, only to later be revised to 1.2 million after the fall of the Polish Communist government.

Situation #2: You’re at the same gun show (you need to stop engaging gun show patrons in political discussions), and you meet a guy who says the US government had foreknowledge of the Pearl Harbor attacks. One of his strongest pieces of evidence is that the carriers which were based at Pearl Harbor were curiously missing on the day of the attack. According to him, this means that Roosevelt knew the attacks were coming and so he or the conspirators made sure that the war-winning carriers wouldn’t be in port when the attack came.

Situation #3: You’re online and a pro-Kremlin poster talks about how George Bush promised Gorbachev that NATO “wouldn’t expand one inch” if the Warsaw Pact broke up. Instead, NATO expanded, thus posing a threat to Russia, which is only responding to NATO’s encirclement.

Situation #4: You didn’t learn your lesson about talking to people at gunshows and this guy starts telling you that 9/11 was an inside job. He tells you that WTC property owner Larry Silverstein said in an interview with PBS that he made the decision to “pull” building 7, and “pull” is a demolitions industry term for taking down a building via controlled demolition.

Situation #5: A radical Ukrainian nationalist denies OUN involvement in Holocaust related crimes, claims that the OUN fought against the Nazis as well as the Soviets, and points out that Bandera was arrested by the Nazis and locked in a concentration camp in 1941.

What would you say if you were confronted with these claims, some of which are factual or at least half-factual, if you didn’t have the background knowledge on the specific topics, you didn’t have internet access at the moment, and the person is delivering them in a confident, assertive way, as though they know what they’re talking about? What if they try to pull credentials out on you? A history major, a former expat in Russia, a diesel engineer- would you be prepared to dispute them, especially in public? By all means try, put your answers in the comments here if you wish. 

I think what this little lesson demonstrates is how easy it is to sell bullshit when it comes to politics and history. Spiritual buzzwords and feelgood phrases might be more effective on people who are literally dumber, but technical jargon, info-dumps, and random historical facts can be used to dupe otherwise intelligent people into believing very stupid things.

The good news is that we have a toolkit against this, and it’s called critical thinking. What is more, once we have enough info, we can make a choice whether to be stupid or not. Many people who have stupid ideas about the world don’t fall for those ideas because they are stupid. They become stupid because they believe those ideas, and doing so requires you to be stupid by ignoring mountains of contradictory evidence. When it comes to important political and historical events, I think if you’re unable to catch them and follow them critically from day one, the best course of action when confronted with any ideological narrative is to go back to the beginning of the event and try to get all the basic facts from as many points of view as possible. In other words, before adopting someone’s “alternative theory,” you need to be sure you know the “official story.”