JD Ferries-Rowe. Head Geek at Brebeuf Jesuit. BYOT, Social Media, edtech. also debate, comics,and Jesuit Stuff. married w/kids.
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Logic: a Primer

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Published on November 15, 2019 4:04 PM UTC

There are many definitions of logic but we can affirm, without loss of generality, that logic is the study of what is rational and of the inference methods that can be used to achieve a truth.
Logic represents the foundations of philosophical and mathematical thought, we could even go so far as to say that logic is what the totality of human thought is based on. Nowadays, however, logic seems to be nowhere to be found in everyday life: if there is a disease of thought that inflicts the modern world, it is undoubtedly a terrible lack of the former. By this I do not mean that we find ourselves in the most irrational slice of history (Middle Ages, anyone?) and personally I do not believe that human history unfolds "asymptotically", that is from a lesser perfection to greater economic, political, of-thought perfection, towards the final self-realization as Hegel and Marx believed.
I just want to say that we inhabitants of this space-time region we call the 21st century have been pardoned with the possibility of obtaining any information we need with times and costs approaching 0 and the fact that we are still so illogical in spite of everything makes us embarrassing and unworthy. If the tone of the speech makes me seem extremely embittered it is because I really am. Think for example of all the controversies that have arisen in recent years regarding vaccines: they make children autistic, they give rise to other diseases in adulthood etc.
To disprove these statements, an internet connection, a minimum cognitive capacity and a semblance of critical thinking are enough. You just need to discriminate between fake sources and reliable sources. A quick glance at global statistics is sufficient to verify that:

1) Vaccines have saved millions of lives since they were invented.

2) There is no stochastic correlation between autism (or other diseases) and vaccines.

In fact a rapid self-training on the subject should be sufficient to convince anyone that vaccines have been one of humanity's greatest achievements. And this is just one of the millions of indicators on the lack of inductive and deductive capacities of which we suffer.

Let now concentrate on the basic aspects of the logical doctrine. Logic is the study of reasoning and it takes place in a well-defined and consistent formal system.
The basic rules of the formal system are called axioms, ie fundamental prepositions which cannot be proved but which are so intuitive that their truth is accepted a priori. Based on these "atoms", (almost) all theorems can be derived.
Now we will proceed to create our very simple formal system of which we will explore the logical attributes.

Let's call our system S, we define the Axioms of S.

Let P, Q, Z be Propositions of S, then:

1) P=P (identity) - in English: Every thing is equal to itself.

2) P=Q Q=P (symmetry) - in English: if proposition1 = proposition2 then proposition2 = proposition1 .

3) P=Q and Q=Z P=Z (transitivity) - in english: if proposition1 = proposition2 and proposition2 = proposition3 then proposition1 = proposition3.

4) ¬¬A=A - in English: saying "not not something" is equal to saying "something".

5) P¬ P = True - in English: The statement "one thing or its opposite" is always true (tautology).
This axiom is the basis of the famouse joke: "I asked a logician if he wanted his coffee with or without sugar and he answered "Yes".

6) P¬ P = False - in english: The statement "one thing and its opposite" is always false (contradiction).

These are generally the axioms of first-order logic.
In the above rules we have listed the logical connectives (or, and, not) but not the quantifiers, of which no logic of the first order can do without.
Simply put, quantifiers serve to expand the properties of propositions beyond themselves, to all propositions that share the same characteristics:

Existential quantifier () - in English: "There exist".

Universal quantifier () - in English: "For All".

Now let's try to derive some theorems of our system S starting from the axioms and the quantifiers enunciated:

(P,Q,Z)  ((PQZ)¬(PQZ))) This means that for every
propositions triad either their conjunction by "or" connective is true or the negation of their conjunction is true, this derive from the fifth Axiom (in fact it is nothing but a restatement of that axiom and applies to any grouping of propositions, not only for triads).

ABC  ((AB)(BC)(CA)) which means that there exists three propositions such that the above formula is always true, that is when A and B and C are true.

¬(¬AB)A=A This is a theorem whose utility is found in the simplification that it gives us, mapping a furmula with 4 connectives and two variables to a single variable of the formula itself.

A(AB)=A Another simplification.
It is easy to see that the two identities above hold up, just take a look at the following truth table:

0 0 | 0
0 1 | 0
1 0 | 1
1 1 | 1 

Where 0 means false and 1 means true. This Boolean truth table reflects the behavior of the above formulas and it can be seen
that the output is always equal to the value of the 'A' variable.

At this point the basic mechanics of logical reasoning should be clear to everyone.
Note that, in logic, we are interested in proving truths and not falsehoods: falsehoods are trivial, truths are not.
What has always fascinated me about logic is its deductive power and its ability to produce tautologies. If you try, as an experiment, to ask a child "Is A equal to A ?" or if "A and not A" is true or false, a meaningful sample will answer correctly, this is because there is something innate behind these reasonings.
Moreover, it is almost magical that, starting from very simple rules, we can get to prove the Poincarè conjecture or Fagin's theorem or Ads/CFT Correspondence or billions of others mathematical milestones (mathematics emerge from logic).
The greatest value that mathematics/logic has for me (and here I could sound a little fundamentalist or Platonic) is to allow us to study eternal truths of priceless beauty.
Think for example of the Pythagorean theorem, it was true before the birth of the Universe, before Pythagoras himself formally proved it, it is true today and will be true even after the thermal death of the universe.
Religion tells us that God created the world in seven days, that God is love, that God is eternal, that God is truth and truth will set us free but never gives us any proof of anything. Logic and mathematics, on the other hand, show us substantial truths that , once proved, they cannot be refuted. To be honest, mathematics is a process of discovery, when a theorem is proved it takes a truth value for us (human beings) but in fact it has always been and always will be true. Religion in comparison is ash. Excuse me for the small and emphatic philosophical digression, we can go back to examining concrete problems and the ways in which logic could eradicate them. In my country, Italy, you can't breathe good air lately. The revival of old and dangerous ideologies
The revival of old and dangerous ideologies has been raging for some time now and this has led to the appearance on the scene of politicians with dubious ethical orientations and even more dubious management skills. The point is that if logic seems innate in man, his inclination to irrationality is innate too, the latter being much more dangerous and contagious than the first. One person, one thought, one irrational event inevitably attracts others like a magnet and, before realizing it, one finds oneself in a stinking social and cultural climate.
I'm thinking that maybe I should have warned you that this post would have political content, but now it's too late. I stress out, however, that these contents are indispensable to the achievement of my point.
I maintain that the blame for the rise of these dubious individuals, who would probably be treated as psychiatric patients in a healthy society, is not to be attributed to them but to the millions of supporters who, acting in an illogical manner, let themselves be misled by their empty words.
Let me give you an example: The propaganda of these presumed politicians is mainly based on racial and gender hatred and more stringent nationalism.
In one of the many public events, an internet channel has interviewed some of the supporters of these ideologies, let me report an answer in particular:

"I am in favor of the death penalty but against abortion because you cannot decide for the lives of others."

Doesn't this sentence cause you some rational annoyance? Doesn't it cause you a cognitive short-circuit? Remeber our fifth Axioms? The above proposition is the is the English equivalent of P¬ P
and if you hare receptive readers you will remember that this axiom represents a contradiction, that is a thing that is always false, no matter what the proposition under consideration is.

Let me conclude by saying that I passionately believe in the power of logic as the sole deterrent against our self-destruction but, in order to emerge victorious, we must teach ourselves how to reason logically again and, above all, we must not be tempted by the simplest and most primitive pleasures of irrationality.

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3 days ago
What a good read for introductory logic and it importance.
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Shocker: ISPs Cut Back 2020 Investment Despite Tax Breaks, Death Of Net Neutrality

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Why it's almost as if you can't take telecom giants (and their lawyers, consultants, and political allies) seriously.

If you recall, the broadband industry and the Trump FCC repeatedly proclaimed that modest consumer protections like net neutrality had dramatically stifled telecom sector investment, and were we to ease regulatory oversight of giants like AT&T and Verizon, it would result in a wave of new sector investment the likes of which we'd never seen before. Ignore the fact that data routinely disproved this claim; this "net neutrality stifled investment" claim was made almost daily by the telecom sector and the wide variety of mouthpieces paid (one way or another) to support them.

Funny thing about that. Despite just having received billions in tax breaks and regulatory favors, AT&T, Comcast, and Charter are all slated to lower their CAPEX and network investment significantly in 2020. Many of these reductions come despite the slow but steady deployment of 5G:

"Comcast and Charter missed 3Q expectations for capex and guided 2019 lower than previously planned," wrote the analysts at Nomura's Instinet in a recent note to investors. "We have lowered our combined 2019 capex forecast for Comcast and Charter from $14.6 billion to $14.2 billion."

And AT&T...surprised Wall Street analysts with a significantly lower-than-expected capex for 2020. The operator said it expects to spend around $20 billion on capex next year, which is way down from the $23 billion it expects to spend this year and the $22 billion that most Wall Street analysts had expected AT&T to spend in 2020."

Fewer jobs and lower investment was not the end result the telecom sector claimed. It's not what the endless parade of think tankers, academics, consultants, and other hired mouthpieces claimed. And it's certainly not what Ajit Pai promised when he recently told Congress net neutrality had a disastrous impact on sector investment.

Granted this is a game AT&T has been running on the American public for decades now. The company will proclaim that immense broadband deployment and employment gains can be made if the government just lobotomizes itself and does whatever AT&T is demanding at the moment (lower tax rate, fewer regulations, new regulations AT&T supports, merger approval, etc.). When the government inevitably follows through, AT&T's promises then mysteriously disappear. And like Lucy and Charlie Brown football, nobody in the US seems interested in learning from the experience.

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13 days ago
Ice...still cold
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Giuliani hires former Watergate prosecutor Jon Sale as personal attorney amid impeachment inquiry

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Former Watergate prosecutor Jon Sale is now representing Rudy Giuliani amid new congressional inquiries and subpoenas, Fox News has confirmed.

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48 days ago
Lawyers all the way down!
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Is competition good?

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Published on September 10, 2019 2:01 PM UTC

From Thiel's Zero To One:

The problem with a competitive business goes beyond lack of profits. Imagine you’re running one of those restaurants in Mountain View. You’re not that different from dozens of your competitors, so you’ve got to fight hard to survive. If you offer affordable food with low margins, you can probably pay employees only minimum wage. And you’ll need to squeeze out every efficiency: that’s why small restaurants put Grandma to work at the register and make the kids wash dishes in the back. Restaurants aren’t much better even at the very highest rungs, where reviews and ratings like Michelin’s star system enforce a culture of intense competition that can drive chefs crazy. (French chef and winner of three Michelin stars Bernard Loiseau was quoted as saying, “If I lose a star, I will commit suicide.” Michelin maintained his rating, but Loiseau killed himself anyway in 2003 when a competing French dining guide downgraded his restaurant.) The competitive ecosystem pushes people toward ruthlessness or death.

You have a restaurant. It's a local monopoly, and you're running decent profits. A new restaurant opens down the street. Some of your customers are diverted, so you lower your prices. You can no longer buy that sweet Ferrari.

You have a restaurant. It's a local monopoly, and you're running decent profits. A new restaurant opens down the street. Some of your customers are diverted, so you lower your prices. Your have to cancel most of your donations to AMF.

In the first example, we can be reasonably sure that competition increased value. In the second example, we can be reasonable sure that competition decreased value.

So here's lemma 1: low competition is a good thing iff the increased profits are spent on something more valuable than distributing it among customers. Or let's put it this way: more resources to people that create above-average value is good. Let's call this type of person a "good" person.

What makes a "good" person?

Let's assume that goodness is largely dependent on incentives. There might be some residual factors like nature and habits, but these are generally small variations on the status quo that is dictated by the incentive landscape.

Incentives can be instrumental and terminal, and the terminal ones are usually called "needs". Maslow was a pioneer in this field, but the most up-to-date list of needs that I can find is this 2011 paper. It says:

  • There is indeed an ordering of needs, so that humans tend to take one at the time in an order that is roughly the same across people.
  • The needs identified, in order of priority:
    • Basic (being able to afford food and shelter)
    • Safety (feeling safe walking alone, not having anything stolen, not being assaulted)
    • Social (experiencing love, having others to count on in an emergency)
    • Respect (feeling one is treated with respect, being proud of something)
    • Mastery (having the experience of learning, doing what one does best at work)
    • Autonomy (choosing how one's time is spent, experiencing freedom in life)

The idea of hierarchical needs is that, as long as you don't have need i satisfied, you won't really care about needs {i+1, ..., n}. Someone who is struggling to gain respect, won't care as much about autonomy. Someone who is trying to feed themselves, won't care as much about safety.

You have a restaurant. You're hardly getting by. A new restaurant opens down the street. Some of your customers are diverted. You need to survive, so you lower your cost price by secretly dumping your excess waste into the river.

Conversely, even if your needs are satisfied up to i, you will not be able to allow things that threaten these needs:

You have a restaurant. It's a local monopoly, and you're running decent profits. Many people in the neighborhood love and respect you for providing them with this service. You lobby with the local council to make sure no one else can open a restaurant near you.

So an incorruptible person is one that has all of their needs met, but doesn't depend on anything for it. They can always make the moral choice, because no choices are incompatible with the foundation of their well-being.

Which needs lead to altruism?

Of the needs listed, I imagine that "respect" is the one that is most important for making people altruistic. It seems to me that respect is mostly a matter of fitting into the values that your local culture celebrates. Now this could be owning a Ferrari, or it could be donating to AMF.

A culture can be seen as an agent, with its values being its operating system. A culture which values altruism will do better. This is one way in which altruism tends to make you better off: it will make you gravitate towards the people that value it too, surrounding you with altruistic people. This is a Darwinian process: altruistic cultures win, and cultures that win grow. Those that are invested in it grow along with it. But your investment only pays off when you are actually valued by the culture. This is, in my model, why people care about altruism at all.

When is competition good?

You have a restaurant. It provides you income. People love and respect you for it. Working in the kitchen gives you a sense of mastery. You're free to do it your way. A new restaurant opens down the street. Without your restaurant you are as good as dead, so you compete to the death. You dump your waste into the river, use the cheapest ingredients that are super toxic, put out annoyingly flashy ads for your restaurant. If all else fails, you are ready to have your opponents killed.

You have a restaurant. It provides you income, but you could opt for a basic income programme instead. Your local community has a culture that values unconditional love. It also cares a lot about consequentialist utilitarianism, and by fitting in that belief system you get your respect. You get a sense of mastery out of your hobbies. A new restaurant opens down the street. You find that customers like it better. You put some effort into upgrading your service, but to no avail. You congratulate the owner and thank them for improving upon your work. You set off to find a new job that creates value.

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69 days ago
fascinating. Talking about altruism and independent choice using a variation of maslow without self-actualization...also, still using maslow.
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The Annihilation of Original Sin

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Five years ago this month, the book Annihilation, a science-fiction-meets-existential-horror story by Jeff VanderMeer, was released. Last year, also in February, Alex Garland (after his success with Ex Machina) wrote and produced a movie adaptation of the book. However, Garland took the structure of VanderMeer’s book and forged a new path (he even admitted to only reading the book once, and adapting it from memory). VanderMeer, for his part, was supportive of the endeavor.

The story centers around Lena (played by Natalie Portman), who joins a covert mission with four other scientists—all women—to explore a mysterious area known only as “The Shimmer.” Her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) disappeared with his military unit within the Shimmer, and she agrees to join the new team out of a desire for closure. Once crossing the border, they find themselves in what appears to be a mutated world, full of strange and fantastic plants and beasts.

It’s a story intentionally soaked in mystery; the ending of the expedition provides few answers, unwilling to ever hit that point of exposition ‘where all becomes revealed.’ Which is part of why I like it so much: Annihilation is not a puzzle, a whodunit sort of thriller that needs to be fully teased out and understood. I see it as a story that’s fundamentally about original sin, and how we deal with our own brokenness.  


The movie opens with Lena showing and describing apoptosis: programmed cell death that is part of the healthy growth and change of a multicellular organism. However, she reveals that the cells on her screen are actually cancerous, which is part of what happens when apoptosis doesn’t function correctly. Spoiler: this idea is important for the rest of the movie.

A year after Kane’s disappearance, Lena has still not processed the potential death of her husband. Wracked with guilt, she agrees to join the next excursion into the Shimmer. However, once inside, she and us begin to see the myriad ways in which the other members of her team are wounded, from addiction to bereavement to terminal cancer. Lena, frustrated with her team leader Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), at one point calls the whole expedition a suicide mission. Ventress, a psychologist, responds:

“Is that what you think we’re doing? Committing suicide? … I’d say you’re confusing suicide with self-destruction. Almost none of us commit suicide, and almost all of us self-destruct. In some way, in some part of our lives. We drink, or we smoke. We destabilize the good job, or the happy marriage. But these aren’t decisions, they’re impulses. … You’re a biologist. Isn’t self-destruction coded into us? Programmed into each cell?”

Ventress articulates what philosophers have struggled with for millennia: if we desire to be good and happy, why do we so often make decisions that go against that desire? The explanations have been as varied as the people who posited them. For Plato, it came from ignorance. For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it came from civil society. For Christian philosophers, it came from original sin.

Outlined by Augustine, original sin was the first sin, committed by Adam and Eve, that caused the fall of humanity from being in union with God. Consequently, every human being is a sinner, fundamentally incapable of ensuring one’s own salvation. Aquinas actually describes original sin as “a lack of justice,” reflecting the Christian belief that only grace can put us in a state of right relationship with God. Ventress looks to a much less supernatural explanation, noting that self-destruction is literally part of our DNA, courtesy of evolution. Both views, however, converge on a single truth: we cannot escape the horror of watching ourselves change against our will.

Regardless of how we feel about it, life means change. We grow, we develop, we react to our environment. We form plans and expectations, fall in love and make enemies. One of the other team members, Cass (Tuva Novotny), opens up to Lena about her own experience of losing a daughter to leukemia: “In a way, it’s two bereavements. My beautiful girl, and the person I once was.” Though Cass has begun to process her grief in a way Lena has so far failed to do, she acknowledges the death of self that comes with that process. She did not welcome the death of her daughter, but she acknowledges the way she was broken and tries to do something with the pieces. In her healing, Cass has let go of the person she once was, implicitly showing that original sin does not mean we should embrace nihilism. Like apoptosis, there can be good death, actually a ‘healthy’ death, where we let go of something we were before. In death there is an opportunity for a new beginning. We cannot control the fact that we change; we can only decide what to do with the new self we find before us.


In the climax of the movie, Lena encounters the cause of the mutating landscape. She wrestles with herself, trying to come to terms with the change she’s been forced to undergo. In the moment, it’s unclear whether she’ll let her old self die, or if she’ll keep holding on to what she was before. Then after she returns from the expedition, an interviewer attempts to get to the bottom of the story, to resolve the puzzle and figure out how to move forward. He tries to understand the alien presence, arguing that “It came here for a reason. It was mutating our environment. It was destroying everything.” But Lena disagrees: “It wasn’t destroying. It was changing everything. It was making something new.”

Lena, after undergoing the horror of the journey, has acknowledged the reality of change and death, and so has begun to recognize the inevitable journey of evolution that every person undergoes. In a sense, she has responded to her own condition of original sin.

But there is a certain ambiguity, by the end of the story, whether the change Lena has undergone is a good thing. It doesn’t seem like she has escaped the problems that caused her to seek some sort of death in the Shimmer in the first place. Perhaps this is because just acknowledging brokenness and inevitability isn’t enough. Self-destruction can be good if we die to the worse parts of ourselves; likewise, it’s harmful if it destroys what is good. Apoptosis (programmed death) is good for the body; cancer (unregulated growth) can be deadly.

Fortunately for us, Lena is not the only model we have. Josie (Tessa Thompson) is one of the other team members, who always wears long-sleeves to hide the scars of self-harm. After understanding how the environment was being forcibly mutated, she simply sits outside, enjoying the warmth of the day, finally wearing a light shirt that exposes her cut skin. She reflects, “Imagine dying frightened and in pain, and having that as the only part of you which survives. I wouldn’t like that at all. Ventress wants to face it. You want to fight it. But I don’t think I want either of those things.” As Lena watches, Josie walks away from their camp to disappear into the wilderness, apparently giving in to change and the death of her self.

Josie, like Lena later on, recognizes her own original sin. She acknowledges the scars that she carries, and the potential for new life if she lets go of her pain. Unlike Lena, Josie is not horrified by change, but calmly acquiesces to its inevitability. And unlike any other member of the team, she sees that what survives is just as important as what dies. She doesn’t want pain to be the only part of her that lives on. In her self-destruction, she lets go of her fear and anxiety to embrace a new peace.

I think Josie, in her moment of sitting in the sun, doesn’t knows what’s going to happen next. She has conceded to her brokenness, and hopes for something better on the other side of destroying her old self. She has given up control, yet isn’t afraid.

In the context of the movie, I’ll admit her choice to just walk off seems a bit crazy. But then again, I’ll admit I sometimes feel like my decision to join the Jesuits was a bit crazy. Original sin means that we don’t always know if what we change into will be something better than before. I know that I haven’t always changed into a better person; sin has a way of turning our best intentions against us. We strive to be more kind, more patient, more holy. But our striving is an imperfect thing. Good thing we have God’s grace.

Like Josie, I trust a process that is beyond my comprehension. Because like Josie, rooted in my hope in God, I know I need to hold on tightly to peace. Original sin means we often stumble, and often can’t control the changes we see in ourselves. But grace carries us through, and helps us (re)focus on what’s most important. So in all of the changes and craziness of my life and vocation, I also do my best to hang on to love. No matter what I become, wherever my journey leads me, whenever I might walk off into the great unknown, my only hope is that my love and peace will remain.

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276 days ago
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How the media should respond to Trump’s lies

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President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally at the Southern Illinois Airport on October 27 in Murphysboro, Illinois.

A linguist explains how Trump uses lies to divert attention from the “big truths.”

President Donald Trump has hacked the media.

As Vox’s Ezra Klein argued recently, the press is in a lose-lose situation — and we all know it. Trump thrives on opposition, and often the media plays right into his hands, feverishly chasing every lie and half-truth he utters or tweets.

George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics and cognitive science at UC Berkeley and the author of the 2004 book Don’t Think of an Elephant, recently published an article laying out the media’s dilemma. Trump’s “big lie” strategy, he argues, is to “exploit journalistic convention by providing rapid-fire news events for reporters to chase.”

According to Lakoff, the president uses lies to divert attention from the “big truths,” or the things he doesn’t want the media to cover. This allows Trump to create the controversies he wants and capitalize on the outrage and confusion they generate, while simultaneously stoking his base and forcing the press into the role of “opposition party.”

I reached out to Lakoff to talk about Trump’s media strategy, but also, more importantly, about solutions. If the president has indeed turned journalistic conventions to his advantage, how can we, the media, respond constructively?

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

Can you lay out for me in simple terms how President Trump manipulates the media?

George Lakoff

He manipulates the media by constantly tweeting and saying more and more outrageous things. The media says, “Well, we have to cover the president. We have to repeat what he says.” But there is no real reason this has to happen. Journalists could, if they choose to, ignore the president’s tweets.

Sean Illing

What, then, would you have reporters do? Ridiculous or not, what the president of the United States tweets or says has real-world consequences, so it’s not quite that simple.

George Lakoff

I wrote a book called Don’t Think of an Elephant, which makes the point that if you negate a frame, you activate the frame. When Trump says something and people working in the media deny it, they’re helping him. But they don’t realize that they’re helping him.

There’s another possibility. Journalists could engage in what I’ve called “truth sandwiches,” which means that you first tell the truth; then you point out what the lie is and how it diverges from the truth. Then you repeat the truth and tell the consequences of the difference between the truth and the lie.

If the media did this consistently, it would matter. It would be more difficult for Trump to lie.

Sean Illing

So you’re saying that instead of amplifying the president’s message by repeating it in the course of debunking it, we should focus on his tactics and talk about the truths he’s trying to suppress.

George Lakoff

Well, not just talk about the truth he’s trying to suppress. The truth sandwich is more than that. It shows the difference between the truth and what he’s saying — putting the truth first, and then putting it afterward, and talking about its consequences.

People say, “Oh, well, here’s the real fact.” That doesn’t really matter because Trump is getting his frame out there first. What he’s trying to do in each of the tweets he sends out is to frame something first and then repeat it.

Notice that when you repeat something, you’re strengthening it in people’s brains. The more a neural circuit is activated, the stronger it gets. Trump is using certain communicative tactics that are very sophisticated and he doesn’t realize it.

Sean Illing

I take your point, but I wonder if Trump is just kryptonite for a liberal democratic system built on a free press. If someone is truly indifferent to the consequences of lying, if they welcome negative coverage and are backed by a base primed to disbelieve inconvenient facts, I’m not sure there’s much we can do to contain that person once they’ve ascended to power.

George Lakoff

It’s difficult; I know it’s difficult. But I don’t think it’s impossible. It has to do with the media not being willing to be manipulated by Trump, not being willing to say, “Oh, we have to report everything he says.”

If his tactics didn’t work, he wouldn’t be able to manipulate people the way that he has.

Sean Illing

So you’re saying that the president has created a situation in which journalists, by merely doing their jobs, are reinforcing his entire communications strategy.

George Lakoff

Right. That’s where we’re at, but you see, there’s still a question of what the media’s job is.

Many journalists still assume that language is neutral, that you can just repeat language and it’s completely neutral. In fact, language is never neutral. Language is always framed in a certain way, and it always has consequences.

If in the process of reporting, you simply repeat the language Trump is using, you’re missing what’s going on.

Sean Illing

But if the president spreads malicious lies, those lies have consequences. Take the recent shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue. Trump helped popularize a conspiracy theory about George Soros funding a caravan of illegal immigrants, and an extremist took that claim seriously and acted on it.

Isn’t that a strong case for why we have to expose or challenge lies?

George Lakoff

I totally understand, but simply exposing the lie about the Soros conspiracy theory doesn’t work, because to call it a lie is to repeat it, to repeat the content, which strengthens it in people’s brains. If I say don’t think of an elephant, you think of an elephant.

Sean Illing

So how exactly should the media have responded in this case to the Soros conspiracy theory tweeted by the president?

George Lakoff

By not reporting it.

Sean Illing

At all?

George Lakoff

Not one bit.

Sean Illing

The president has 55 million Twitter followers and a vast conservative media-industrial complex that will happily amplify his comments. Nothing the rest of the media does will change this. Is there a solution to this problem?

George Lakoff

Well, it’s not a simple solution, and your point about the conservative media is a good one. But you have to have a media that is engaged with what I call truth sandwiches and that repeats them — that’s all you can do.

Sean Illing

Why do Republicans seem to be doing much better in terms of framing the debate?

George Lakoff

A lot of Democrats believe in what is called Enlightenment reasoning, and that if you just tell people the facts, they’ll reach the right conclusion. That just isn’t true.

People think in terms of conceptual structures called frames and metaphors. It’s not just the facts. They have values, and they understand which facts fit into their conceptual framework. You can’t understand something if your brain doesn’t allow it, if your brain filters it out in terms of your values.

Democrats seem not to understand this, and they keep trying to employ reason as a persuasive vehicle. I wish Enlightenment reasoning was an accurate model for how most people think and judge, but it isn’t, and we better acknowledge that fact.

Sean Illing

So on some level, you’re saying that Democrats have to accept that they’re playing a different kind of conversational game, in which truth and falsity are irrelevant. If that’s the case, what use is there for a free press, or for discourse at all?

George Lakoff

Well, that’s why the truth sandwiches are important. Let me say one more thing that’s really crucial in this respect. Kellyanne Conway talked about alternative facts at one point, so the phrase comes from her. When I heard that, it occurred to me that there’s a sense in which she’s right.

If you’re someone who shares Trump’s worldview, there are certain things that follow from that worldview. In other words, certain things have to be true, or have to be believed, in order to sustain that worldview. The things that aren’t actually true but nevertheless preserve that worldview are “alternative facts” — that’s what Conway was getting at, whether she knew it or not.

The conservatives use those alternative facts all the time, and so does Trump. If he’s talking to his base, he’s talking to people who have already bought into a picture of the world, and his job is to tell them things that confirm that picture — and he knows they’ll believe it for that very reason.

I think we have to understand “alternative facts” in this way, and understand that when Trump is lying, he’s lying in ways that register with his audience. So it may be lying, but it’s strategic lying — and it’s effective.

Sean Illing

Do you think the media is going to be able to adapt and figure this out, or do you think it’s going to persist in aiding Trump in the way it has?

George Lakoff

I’m an optimist. I think the media can get out of it. But I don’t know if it will.

Journalists don’t study the field of cognitive science. They don’t study how brains actually work and how the mind works. Cognitive science is a field that is not widely reported on, but it needs to be, because journalists cannot serve the public if they don’t understand basic facts about the human mind.

The sorts of things I’m saying have to be repeated over and over — it has to be argued. The evidence has to come forth.

This story was originally published on November 15, 2018.

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314 days ago
I need to create a #digcit lesson that teaches students how to respond with "Truth Sandwiches" - maybe useful in debate too
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