Reflections on Elections

Last night the United States held their midterm elections. They were, almost any way you want to try to look at them, a giant customer satisfaction survey about the 45th President of the United States. (He who shall not be named.) And they weren’t happy.

I applaud the victories; regaining a majority in the house, getting rid of that awful human being Kim Davis, electing an openly gay governor. But the losses in the senate means that their judicial pendulum is about to swing hard to the right and stay there probably for the rest of my lifetime.

Of course, the American electoral system is really confusing to a foreigner like me. But if you stand back and look at it in its blurriest possible terms, they have two parties (plus some miscellaneous odds and ends) and one of those parties is clearly on the wrong side of history.

Democrats are certainly not without their problems, but the Republican party has become a party disconnected from reality. I’m old school in the sense that I believe facts matter and many of lost the inclination to even pay lip service to the value of facts. It has become clear that much of the stability that was historically there didn’t come from the brilliant social architecture of the founding fathers, but was held in place by ordinary gentlemanly conduct. It used to be that if it were revealed that you had an affair with a porn star, even though there’s nothing illegal about that, you would quietly step down and out of public life. But it turns out that if that type of common decency is absent, we don’t actually have mechanisms in place to do anything about it. We didn’t appreciate politics was a game played on the honour system, and someone could walk in, decide not to play by the rules, and win. No one had thought about it before.

Actually it turns out, people had. Kurt Andersen’s wonderful book Fantasyland, explains how this phenomenon has been a long time coming.

The cartoonist cum political commentator Scott Adams pointed out that HE never apologizes for anything. And to the casual viewer, we mistake confidence for accuracy. The complete and total absence of apology that we would reasonably decry as a bug has been harnessed as a devastating feature.

Now What?

The way forward starts by reintroducing penalties for dishonesty. If you can say whatever you want knowing that attention spans are so short, no one will remember 24 hours later and there will be no consequences. Perhaps people aren’t lying more. Perhaps technology has just greatly enhanced our ability to fact check. (To that end, I’m very excited for the forthcoming release of He Who Shall Not Be Named’s tax returns.)

In one of his early books (Either End of Faith or Letter to a Christian Nation), Sam Harris used the thought experiment of a “perfect weapon”, that is a weapon that killed the person you wanted it to kill with no collateral damage, and to imagine how that weapon would be deployed in the hands of either George W. Bush or Osama Bin Laden (clearly a dated reference) and the difference between how you imagine them using them really does convey something of moral significance.

Based on that, I came up with the idea of a perfect fact checker. Say you had a wristwatch that just listened to your conversations and compared factual statements to the collected human knowledge on the internet and in government databases. If someone said crime was down and it wasn’t, your watch would ding. If they unemployment was up and it wasn’t, your watch would ding. Imagine it even being sophisticated enough to parse scientific peer reviewed journals so that if someone said Vaccines cause autism, your watch would ding. What would that mean if it went off twice in a 20 minute speech or 40 times? What would that tell you about a person’s character and electability?

Of course many would argue cynically that, no one would want to wear the watches, either because the truth would be upsetting and ignorance is bliss, or that they would listen to them ding joyfully and exclaim “fake news!” every time they went off.

The “fake news” thing is also a serious problem. Separating fact from fiction is hard. Usually it can only be done by specialists. (I recall the controversy here in Canada now a couple of years ago that skyrocketed Jordan Peterson to international fame, was a claim based on the contents of a piece of Canadian federal legislation. He was making a fact claim about the consequences of the legislation, except whether or not he was actually right was something that you probably had to have a law degree to adjudicate.) But over the past fifty years (again this is summarized in some detail in Fantasyland) various groups have developed a handbook for “Doubt on Demand”. Essentially. thanks to the efforts of smart people confronted by facts they didn’t like — tobacco companies, creationists, the academics that grew into postmodernists, and now fossil fuel companies and identity politicians — there is a step by step playbook that can be used to create doubt about any claim of fact they want. We all know about terms like “bias” but most of us don’t know how to reliably detect bias. So we more or less take for granted “biased” as synonymous with “can’t be trusted” and stop thinking.

So I’m looking forward (optimistically?) to a future filled with facts. Let’s see how we do.

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