Sunday, December 25, 2016

Avoiding and correcting false beliefs

People believe these things

Lawrence Davidson characterized the arguments in Rick Shenkman's 2008 book Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth About the American Voter as saying that Americans are: "(1) ignorant about major international events, (2) knew little about how their own government runs and who runs it, (3) were nonetheless willing to accept government positions and policies even though a moderate amount of critical thought suggested they were bad for the country, and (4) were readily swayed by stereotyping, simplistic solutions, irrational fears and public relations babble." Davidson then said that this is "a default position for any population," but that it is still a concern when, for example, "polls show [that] over half of American adults don’t know which country dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, or that 30 percent don’t know what the Holocaust was."

In 2014, the National Science Foundation said that only a slight majority of Americans polled were able to correctly respond that viruses can't be treated with antibiotics and that 26 percent said that the sun revolves around the Earth.

Since 2014, a small but growing group of "Flat Earthers" has met regularly in Fort Collins, Colo., with sympathetic meetings occurring in a half-dozen other U.S. cities. A leader recalls seeing a YouTube video that promoted the idea of a flat earth. “It was interesting, but I didn’t think it was real. I started the same way as everyone else, saying, ‘Oh, I’ll just prove the earth is round.’ Nine months later, I was staring at my computer thinking, ‘I can’t prove the globe anymore.” The article in the Denver Post says of this group: "Many subscribe to the 'ice wall theory,' or the belief that the world is circumscribed by giant ice barriers, like the walls of a bowl, that then extend infinitely along a flat plane." Today in 2017, searching YouTube by the exact phrase "flat earth" (with quotation marks) yields three-quarters of a million videos.

In 2010, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting received funding amounting to 0.00014% of the U.S. federal budget. CNN/Opinion Research found early the next year that "Forty percent of those polled believe funding the CPB receives takes up 1 to 5 percent of the budget, 30 percent believe public broadcasting takes up 5 percent or more of the budget and 7 percent of respondents believe the non-profit receives 50 percent or more of the federal budget." The final cohort of respondents who thought it was more than half of the budget may also suffer from general mathematical or political illiteracy, but it seems fair to say that many people have false beliefs about the funding for public broadcasting. (For comparison, when a Roper poll in 2007 accurately informed participants that the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) receives funding equivalent to about $1 per American per year, half of the respondents said this amount was "too little.")

"There’s no shame in not knowing; there’s shame in not wanting to know. For years I’ve said this to my college students as a way of telling them that learning should never stop. But I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that, at a certain point, there should be shame in not knowing," Charles Taylor wrote in an opinion piece for the Boston Globe. He fretted over "creative-writing students who have never heard of Edith Wharton or Ralph Ellison; journalism students who can’t identify the attorney general; students who don’t know what the NAACP or the Geneva Convention are."

"The emerging narrative of this election is that Donald Trump was elected by people who are sick of being looked down on by liberal elites. The question the people pushing this narrative have not asked is this: Were the elites, based on the facts, demonstrably right?

* * *

That Trump voters chose an easily disprovable myth over readily available facts is one sign of their willful ignorance.

And still this imperviousness to fact pales next to the racism and xenophobia and misogyny — in other words, the moral ignorance — that Trump’s supporters wallowed in. All of the condescension of which liberals have been accused can’t begin to match the condescension of the current storyline that Trump voters are too disenfranchised or despised or dismissed to be held morally responsible for their choices.

* * *

The apologists for Donald Trump voters have given their imprimatur to a culture that equates knowledge and expertise with elitism, a culture ignorant of the history of the country it professes to love and contemptuous of the content of its founding documents."

It isn't clear from this brief column how Taylor thinks factual knowledge and moral knowledge might be related. Most people would say that moral knowledge depends on drawing conclusions that incorporate factual knowledge. (For example, you have to know whether someone else is threatening you before you can properly decide how to act in "self-defense." As another example, you have to know whether a crime occurred before you can express your opinion about it. Berel Lang wrote: "...the most extreme Holocaust 'revisionists' — Faurisson, Rassinier, Butz — do not deny that if the Holocaust had occurred, it would have been an enormity warranting moral reflection, judgment, and whatever else followed from these, presumably including condemnation and punishment; they deny only that it did occur."). Some would also say that moral knowledge is not merely a concatenation of ordinary beliefs and social agreements but that it exists in some separate sphere.

We care more about facts when we feel good about ourselves

“The 2000 [presidential] campaign was something of a fact-free zone,” said Brendan Nyhan, who was an undergraduate at Swarthmore at the time and who subsequently founded a political fact-checking website called Spinsanity that led to a book All the President's Spin. In his doctoral program at Duke University, he moved on to ask, as Maria Konnikova put it: "If factual correction is ineffective, how can you make people change their misperceptions?"

From Konnikova's article:

"Until recently, attempts to correct false beliefs haven’t had much success. Stephan Lewandowsky, a psychologist at the University of Bristol whose research into misinformation began around the same time as Nyhan’s, conducted a review of misperception literature through 2012. He found much speculation, but, apart from his own work and the studies that Nyhan was conducting, there was little empirical research.

* * *

One thing he learned early on is that not all errors are created equal. Not all false information goes on to become a false belief — that is, a more lasting state of incorrect knowledge — and not all false beliefs are difficult to correct.

* * *

When there’s no immediate threat to our understanding of the world, we change our beliefs. It’s when that change contradicts something we’ve long held as important that problems occur.

[For more examples of how this might work, see these Disruptive Dissertation blog posts. In religious thought: "The specious claim that human calamities are caused by an angry God" In political thought: "False reports that President Obama is a Muslim"]

Konnikova went on to say:

In a series of studies that they’ve just submitted for publication, the Dartmouth team approached false-belief correction from a self-affirmation angle, an approach that had previously been used for fighting prejudice and low self-esteem. The theory, pioneered by Claude Steele, suggests that, when people feel their sense of self threatened by the outside world, they are strongly motivated to correct the misperception, be it by reasoning away the inconsistency or by modifying their behavior.

* * *

Normally, self-affirmation is reserved for instances in which identity is threatened in direct ways: race, gender, age, weight, and the like. Here, Nyhan decided to apply it in an unrelated context: Could recalling a time when you felt good about yourself make you more broad-minded about highly politicized issues, like the Iraq surge or global warming? As it turns out, it would."

It is also important to note the difference between actually believing something and merely claiming to believe it to maintain one's public image. Public image is more obviously related to one's identity and also to one's material interests. Alexander C. Kaufman provided this example:

"In December 2006, Exxon Mobil Corp. convened a two-day summit of environmental and ethics experts at a rural retreat near the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia....For decades, Exxon had funded far-right think tanks that seeded doubt over the scientific consensus on climate change. [The new CEO Rex] Tillerson and Ken Cohen, Exxon’s PR chief and chair of its political action committee, wanted to broaden the company’s political reach. One step was changing their messaging about climate change, moving away from the denial the company had been attacked for supporting....Not long after the summit, Exxon began to modify its public stance on climate change."

Sometimes what is claimed publicly is done to maintain relationships and make money. Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky on how the American mass media operate:

"But a critical analysis of American institutions, the way they function domestically and their international operations, must meet far higher standards; in fact, standards are often imposed that can barely be met in the natural sciences. One has to work hard, to produce evidence that is credible, to construct serious arguments, to present extensive documentation — all tasks that are superfluous as long as one remains within the presuppositional framework of the doctrinal consensus. It is small wonder that few are willing to undertake the effort, quite apart from the rewards that accrue to conformity and the costs of honest dissidence."

Nyhan's work, by contrast, seems to be about more privately held beliefs.

So they say

Albert Einstein said, "Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I am not sure about the former." Elbert Hubbard: "Everyone is a damn fool for at least five minutes every day. Wisdom consists in not exceeding that limit." George Bernard Shaw said it would be better to know that one does not know: “Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.” As hope, nonetheless, the words of Phyllis Bottome: "There is nothing final about a mistake, except its being taken as final."


"Why Americans Are So Ignorant: It's Not Just Fox News," Lawrence Davidson, Consortium News, April 8, 2013.

"Poll: Americans way off on public broadcasting funding,", April 1, 2011.

"Highlights of the 2007 Roper Public Opinion Poll on PBS."

"Yes, there is shame in not knowing." Charles Taylor. Boston Globe. Dec. 19, 2016.

Berel Lang. Heidegger’s Silence. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1996. p. 14.

"I don't want to be right," Maria Konnikova, New Yorker, May 19, 2014.

"Rex Tillerson Supposedly Shifted Exxon Mobil’s Climate Position. Except He Really Didn’t." Alexander C. Kaufman. Huffington Post. Dec. 26, 2016.

Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon, 1988. p. 305.

Elbert Hubbard, quoted in The Village Voice, quoted again in The Week, Feb. 22, 2013. p. 19.

George Bernard Shaw, quoted in, quoted again in The Week, July 18, 2014. p. 15.

Phyllis Bottome, quoted in the Associated Press, quoted again in The Week, June 13, 2014. p. 15.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Pierre Darmon on impotence trials in pre-Revolutionary France

Pierre Darmon's Le Tribunal de l'Impuissance (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1979) was translated into English "for the general reader," minus "technical appendices dealing with juridical matters, and all footnotes and detailed references," according to the publisher's note. The English edition is Damning the Innocent: A History of the Persecution of the Impotent in pre-Revolutionary France (New York: Viking, 1986).

The 17th century was a perilous time for a man to be accused of failure to consummate a marriage. It often led to pseudo-medical examinations by the Church, to a public trial in court, and to legal dissolution of the marriage. The examination was generally informed by “the eternal trinity which confirms a man’s virility: ’erecting, entering, emitting’, in the words of the surgeon Guillemeau.” (p. 13) The examination of at least one man in 1694 was invasive enough to involve the surgical removal of a large bladder stone. (p. 115) By the 19th century, there was a backlash against this entire enterprise, and the public debate about impotence subsided.

Darmon writes:

"Deep in the shadowy unconscious of every man lurks a terrible fear of castration. The myth of virility can be seen as the sublimation of this anxiety into a more abstract form which is the basis of a man’s prestige, yet completely beyond his control. The forces that do control it are certainly mysterious. From one day to the next, its happy functions, the tangible proof of male prestige and perfection, can vanish like smoke in the wind, for no apparent reason. It is a cruel state of uncertainty. For all his pride, the virile male is a man trapped by his celebrated and over-estimated body, and the endless escalation of his physical prowess, which, far from reassuring him, plunge him into an infernal spiral of anguish. At any moment, the world which he has built up around himself may disintegrate. For this reason, the trial and condemnation of his impotent fellow men affords him substantial consolation. It serves to idealise his own position, and allows him the opportunity to display his own conformity with the collectively approved sexual norms – a conformity which is statutory, mandatory and of divine ordinance. The priests themselves submit to it, and the Church casts out all those whose virile organ, though sworn to inaction, reveals the slightest anomaly." (p. 2)

Thus impotence trials had a “dual objective: to reassure and to incriminate.” (p. 13) "Is it any coincidence that, from Sparta to Nuremberg, the most disastrous ideologies have been those founded largely upon a coherent mythology of virility?" (p. 229)

Darmon says we need a "categorical" and "visceral rejection" of the impotence trial, and a recognition that "to debate impotence in the first place is to trigger off a poisonous chain of logic" that will lead to an impotence trial. (p. 228-229) These trials were especially bad for men, constituting a form of public shaming. They did seem to empower women to divorce their husbands, but this could backfire, as sometimes the woman would be taken into custody. In 1667, a woman who petitioned the High Court of Provence for separation from her husband was sent to a convent by the bishop. Darmon says this was about "depositing temporarily in the hands of a third party an object whose ownership was in dispute. The husband had first of all to prove his ability to operate the object before he could reclaim it. In the eyes of the law, the title deed was acknowledged as valid only under these conditions." (p. 127)

Despite this opinion, however, Darmon's writing conveys humor when relating many situations. In describing the idea of "relative impotence" (when a man is able to perform sexually with one person but not another), he says this idea "was responsible for situations which made complete nonsense of the institution of marriage," including a man who fathered children with several concubines in his house but had never slept with his wife. "After twelve years of this regime, his wife finally came to realise that her household was in certain respects infringing the laws of Christian marriage." (pp. 25-26) He also quotes a transcript of an investigation in which a physician Croissant de Garengeot noted of one man's erection: "far from lasting longer upon being handled, as is the case with the true erection, it immediately faded away." After which Maître Simon: "What penis, he [Simon] exclaimed, however swollen it might be, when handled and examined by Garengeot (since M. Col de Vilars was content to hold the candle all the time) would not wilt on the very spot? Did this oracle from Bourges flatter himself that he was of sufficiently comely appearance and had a sufficiently enlivening hand to stroke the imagination of a man of modesty?" (p. 183)

There was a longstanding fear that if a woman was bound to a man who could not have the kind of intercourse that was sanctioned by the authorities, she was at risk of being abused as he took out his sexual frustration on her. “For the theorists of the classical period, the ‘counsel’ and advocacy of chastity drew its inspiration from an excessively refined conception of human nature. Sexual continence in marriage was merely a fiction, an abstraction. In reality – which was rather more prosaic – the wife of an impotent man was prey to the lascivious excesses and perverse wit of a spirit unhinged by its disability.” (p. 66) In part because of this, from the 16th century, “the marriage of a eunuch was seen as an intolerable threat to the doctrine of Christian marriage.” (pp. 12-13) As an example, in 1655, Denis Pinot wanted to marry Marie Bulot, but their parish priest would not publish the banns because Denis Pinot was, “by common knowledge,” a eunuch. The couple appealed to the High Court of Paris, but the court rejected the appeal. This case was famous for being a rare outcome. Generally, partners who wanted to marry would not reveal such a secret. (pp. 68-69, 71) In the eyes of the authorities: “By marrying, the impotent man commits an act of larceny, profanes a sacrament, and indulges in an inhumane, cruel and dangerous act. These were the three themes which, from the beginning of the sixteenth century to the end of the eighteenth century, recurred incessantly in the writings of jurists and theologians.” (p. 59) Yet: “At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the surgeon Guillemeau noted that the removal of one or even of both testicles did not put a definitive end to sexual relations.” (p. 23)

Accusations of impotence could, of course, be brought up as a pretext for preventing marriages that others opposed for other reasons and interests.

“Thus in 1639 an inhabitant of Pamiers decided to get married. His brother tried to prevent him, on the grounds that he lacked ‘those natural parts necessary for marriage.’ The accused retorted that ‘the beauty, whom the matter most concerned, had no complaints, and, when this was no longer the case, she would have him tamquam patrem, non tanquam maritum’ (as a father if not as a spouse). The parliament of Toulouse ruled that the marriage could proceed. Needless to say, ‘the beauty’ had been made heiress to a tidy little fortune.” (p. 67-68)

Darmon mentions one brief anecdote from Ancillon's 1707 Traité des Eunuques, but it is possible he learned about it from a secondary source, as this book is not mentioned in his bibliography. (It was a rare book that seems never to have been reprinted until it was digitized in 2010.) He does, however, address the question of eunuchs, since this overlaps significantly with the question of impotence.

"In the case of eunuchs – those afflicted by 'overt impotence' (Tagereau) resulting from some congenital malformation – there were fewer problems. In its fullest snese, the term 'eunuch' means a complete absence of genitals. Occasionally these do exist, but with some flagrant anomaly. Tagereau reported the case of a man 'possessed of two penises, each hindering the other', of another whose testicles were situated above his penis, and of a third 'who had a penis the size of a wart and testicles that of two peas, hardly discernible.'

The contempt in which these unfortunate individuals were held by the general public reduced them to the level of outcasts or monsters. 'They bear the mark of their ignominy upon themselves,' wrote the theologian Fevret. 'How might we consider them to be whole, since this blemish in them is so considerable, and what reasons might induce us to believe them fit for marriage?' The verdict of Sébastien Roulliard was even more savage: 'These castrates are incapable of progeny, and we do take it as given that it is these which either sex is accustomed to hold in abomination, and whom the Greeks termed half-men or half-women, neither men nor women.' In their hatred of eunuchs, some went so far as to call them creatures of the devil. According to the lawyer Peleus, 'spados [eunuchs] are incubate demons, for which reason, in the manner of those spirits that have relations with women, their substance is colder than the icy wastes of Scythia, and does spoil the reproductive faculty that women possess by nature.

As a result, eunuchs found themselves outcasts, rigidly ostracised by ecclesiastical and civil legislation....the articles of canon law...prescribe[d] a scrupulous and intimate physical examination of candidates for the monastic orders. ...eunuchs were prohibited from admittance to [civil] public office..." (pp. 17-18)

Through the 16th century, eunuchs – men with no testicles and no ability to ejaculate, but sometimes with the ability to get erections – were permitted to marry, but if their wives brought them to impotence trial, the marriage could be dissolved. On June 27, 1587, Pope Sixtus V required that the marriages of eunuchs should be dissolved regardless of whether the married couple wanted that. This was followed at the turn of the century by a prolonged legal battle of the Baron d'Argenton who sought to prove that his testicles, while undescended and thus not visible, nevertheless existed. He lost the case. In 1604, "[t]he whole of Parish rushed to be present for the autopsy of his body," and, when the doctors found his undescended testicles, "D'Argenton was posthumously declared potent, and the Faculty of Medicine in Paris pronounced by decree 'that for the purposes of engendering offspring, it is not requisite that the testicles be present in the scrotum of a man, provided nevertheless that he display other and sufficient marks of virility.'" (pp. 21-22)

Meanwhile, "hermaphrodites" – those who exhibited physical characteristics of both sexes – were at risk of summary execution from Roman times all the way through the ages, despite Ulpien's third-century Lex Repetundarum statute that dictated that they should be assigned to one sex or the other and treated accordingly, a precedent that continued to influence pre-Revolutionary France.