Wednesday, June 02, 2010

"Innocent Until Proven Guilty" Part 2: Illustrations of Manipulations

Before you read this, I encourage you to first read my discussion on "the importance of never passively accepting information and to have a researching mindset" in the previous post.  Oh, moreover, read it to know why “Innocent Until Proven Guilty.”  I had already raised some points and this essay would serve as a supplement or additional support to those first arguments.  This essay is more on giving examples of manipulations.

There are plenty of techniques to manipulate people.  And I would discuss some of them here (at least, those that I’m aware of).    It is rather necessary to learn of these techniques so that we can be ready to watch out for these manipulations because they can hinder us from finding out what is real.  Even by simple flawed techniques of persuasion, we can fall prey upon it if it is delivered in a sly way.   Take the popular Red Herring approach.  It is simple but effective (I should know.  I sometimes use it).  In a debate, there are two sides of an issue.  A red herring means “changing the subject” or “diverting the issue.”  But to use red herring effectively in a debate – not just cheap “diverting the issue” tactics by being irrelevant – without being too obvious is to attack the opponent’s point.  Your arguments are all about proving that the opponent’s point is wrong or flawed, instead of proving that your point is correct!  This technique is not really completely fallacious, but, in a way, it is clever manipulative argumentation since all your energies are concentrated on poking holes in your opponent's points, instead of a combination of that and defending and proving your points.  Proving your opponent is wrong, does not prove that you are right.  But it would be implied that way if this flawed argument would not be noticed at all because your opponent or audience is inexperienced and passive.   To continually attack the opponent’s point would put him on a defensive – emotionally defensive, making him vulnerable.  You would win the argument not by convincing the audience that your point is right, but by showing your opponent is wrong; it should lead them to the conclusion that your point should be right then since the opponent’s is wrong.  Using Red Herring is just one technique. There are plenty of others, and we should learn them to be on guard and to prevent ourselves from being manipulated.    As I’ve said, we can be easily be persuaded by flawed or limited arguments (like "red herring") and techniques.  Thus, I had encouraged applying a bit of “I-believe-it-when-I-see-it” skepticism on every institution, individual, or other sources we get our information from. 

One of the most powerful tools of manipulation is by using statistics.  Statistics give the appearance of credibility or being scientific.  Because of this, people would nod and agree with one’s point even though they actually do not understand the presented statistical data!  People are impressed by and trust statistics too much.  And because of this, statistics would be fabricated to suit one’s argument and be confident that the receivers of the information would be convinced.  We should not allow ourselves to fall “hook-line-and-sinker” to the statistics presented to us.  We should ask questions.  It is advertized “10 times better.”  Ten times better than what?  Than the competitor’s product?  Than it used to be?  “9 out of 10 people prefer this product.”  Who are these ten respondents?  How can we be sure that the group was diverse and not homogeneous?  And why just ten samplings?  Can these ten really speak for the majority?  Usually, statistics are helpful, but it could also be misleading.  Even if the statistics are true, it does not tell the whole story. Example is the Kobe vs. Lebron “who is better?” debate.  In my hanging out in NBA blogs and forums, there are people from both sides that can argue their points effectively.  But there are also naïve ones.  Most of these are LeBron fans, arguing that because LeBron has better stats, then he is definitely better.  Using this fact solely is the most ridiculous and shallow argument to prove that LeBron is better.  Stats are not the whole story.  By actually analyzing all factors – stats, intangibles, and actual game – we can see that Kobe is better (of course, I am a biased fan ^__^).  Or at least they are in par.  In one particular season, Dwayne Wade was averaging like some tenths higher than one or some tenths lower than two both in steals and blocks.  So does it prove he’s a good defender?  No.  He was criticized that for always trying to get the highlight steal or block, he has sacrificed overall man-to-man and team defense – which the prime purpose is to make the opponent miss shots and then collect the rebound.  See, good defensive stats doesn’t mean one is a good defender.  Stats do not tell the whole story.  A good defender is like the guy in the gold jersey below:    

My main example of a “source of information” in the previous essay was the media, and there I gave a theoretical illustration (photo manipulation) on how media can manipulate us to sway on the direction of the way of thinking they want us to lean on.  Aside from that, I gave no other examples but settled with a discussion.  But I guess I would have to give a few more examples, so that you can have some idea of these techniques that can cleverly manipulate the receiver of the information.  Thus, the next time you encountered these techniques being used on you by the media or by others you would be on your guard.

Media uses some very clever psychological and trade techniques that would give us the illusion that they are objective and neutral, but are actually manipulating us to believe a message they are conveying.  Some of these techniques, you might remember, are taught when we encountered the “journalism” topic in our English subjects.  We are taught two important things: a) when news is reported or written, we have to start narrating the most important details first then to the less or least important or trivial details last; and b) the title should, somehow, give the summary of the news and to make it catchy.  The rationale given is this: people are always on the go, and, sometimes, have no time to read the entire article.  Thus, the important details should come first in the article, or just by looking at the title they would somehow “know” the news.  Makes sense, right?  Well, that is true, but this journalism “laws” can be used to manipulate.  Since we now all assume that the most important facts are at the beginning parts, media can now sensationalize the first part of the news to make it sell and bury the facts that might lessen the sensationalism at the last parts.  Like, tell all the negatives about a particular person or idea at the first part of the article, and put the positives at the last part.  As for the title of the news story, it could be used to condition mindsets of the reader for the story.  Example, we get the title “Boy Massacres Classmates After Playing Violent PC Game” or “Boy Massacres Parents After Watching Violent Movie.”  Simply by the titles alone, there are already manipulations to condition our minds about the news.  First, a strong word like “massacre” can now appeal to our emotion.  Our minds and emotions are now expecting bloodbaths or butcheries.  Even if we read further on the article that the deaths are less than half a dozen or sometimes even just two, we unconsciously think the number is irrelevant anymore, since by using “massacre”, we think of it as too horrible.  Yes, murder is horrible, but the murder was exaggerated when the word “massacre” was used.  It was used to provoke us to an exaggerated emotional response, putting as to an imbalance and making us vulnerable.  This leads to the second manipulation, the title says “…After Playing Violent PC Game” or “…After Watching Violent Movie”, it is now implied that the game or the movie has mentally influenced the boy to do the horrible crime, that it led the boy to mimic the violence he saw in the game or movie.  Then as we read the article, there was never a real indication that the game or movie had anything to do with the crime.  Since the media is “objective”, the reporter never said directly that the violence in the game or movie was the cause of the crime, but by his or her manipulation in the title, that was what he or she was trying to say.  “…After Watching Violent Movie” is actually the same as “Boy Massacres Classmates After Eating Lunch” or “Boy Massacres Parents After Waking Up” title; the fact that the crime was done after playing a game or after watching a movie was as trivial as after eating lunch or after waking up.  But then because the word “massacre” had already put us in an emotional imbalance, we had ignored these points.  Thus, we are manipulated to think that the movie or game had a part in the crime and we became outraged of the game or movie.

Another technique is disguising the writer’s or reporter’s opinion in the news or matter.  Since media should report news “objectively”, there is no room for personal opinions or unconfirmed or non-concrete facts.  But opinions can be disguised in reporting or arguing.  They begin a sentence by using weasel words like “many people…”, “many people…”, “most experts…”, “some say…”, “some ask…”, “some argue…”, “skeptics say…”, “authorities say…”, or “supporters say…”, but actually these are all opinions or perceptions from the reporters.  They do not actually cite who are these “many people”, “some people”, “experts”, “skeptics”, “supporters”, etc.  This is disguising: no actual sources, but only based on the reporter’s or writer’s opinions, but making it appear that those statements or point of views are from others.  Example, “According to most experts, this pill, combined with proper exercise and diet, would quickly make you lose weight” but it was not detailed who these “experts” are.  This technique of disguising opinions are also done in debates (I sometimes use it, and always gets away with it) and advertizing.  So from photo manipulations to title manipulations, we can see that the media can do some clever… well, manipulations to influence us. 

You see, media had been manipulating for some time now, throughout history.  Do you know about the “American-Spanish War” incident?  Well, some guys named Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst made it happen.   When the American warship USS Maine blew up with no determined cause, the two made reports in their newspapers implying that Spaniards did it.  They had been already sensationalizing and exaggerating the Cuban rebellion against Spain back then – fabricating facts and portraying the Spaniards as cruel murderers and rapists (actually, if this Spaniards in Cuba were the same as those here in the Philippines back then, there might be some truth with it) – before the USS Maine incident happened, and the American public was already getting pissed on Spain.  Thus, the USS Maine incident was the final tipping point (because of Pulitzer and Hearst’s manipulative reporting), America declared war on Spain, warfreak Teddy Bear Roosevelt gave the enemy hell, and the Americans took the Philippines from the Spaniards.  The power of media.   

                The media, though the biggest source of information these days, is just one institution.  There are other sources of information; other institutions have their own techniques in manipulating facts.  Even logicians, academes, and scientists – those governed with the scientific attitude of objectivity – will use manipulative techniques for their own agendas.  Using logic can effectively convince.  Even flawed logic can be used to manipulate or prove a point!  I forgot in the last essay to use the simplest and most popular illustration of a flawed logical reasoning: mathematical fallacies.  The most popular of which is “proving” that one is equals to two.  Here is the step by step illustration:
1.)    Let us assume that a and b are equal non-zero integers, thus a = b
2.)    Let us multiply both sides by a, thus a2 = ab
3.)    Let us subtract b2, thus a2 – b2 = ab – b2
4.)    Let us factor both sides, thus (a – b)(a + b) = b(a – b)
5.)    Let us divide out (a – b), thus a + b = b
6.)    Now, since the fact that a = b is already established from the start, we can change a to b, thus b + b = b
7.)    Simplify.  2b = b
8.)    Divide both sides by b, thus 2 = 1

There was no flaw on the algebra at all; we had followed the rules of algebra.  But common sense tells that, of course, one can never be equal to two.  So how did it happen?  Though there were no flaws in the algebraic reasoning, there is definitely a manipulation that broke the rules and made the reasoning as a whole fallacious.  We can find it in the 5th step.  Here, we have to divide both sides by (a – b).  Now since a and b are equal, to subtract b from a would result to zero.  And now since the result of every division by zero is infinity or undefined, the argument is invalid.  Any further solutions after step 5 are meaningless.    

            There are other mathematical fallacies, but I am not a mathematician so I forgot or am not aware of the others.   The point of the illustration is by even following rules of logic or math, if it is manipulated cleverly out of context, it could “prove” a wrong point.   Thus, as receivers of information and arguments, we should be able to take all of the data in context.  To see the whole point. The determine the valid and invalid arguments. 

          Sometimes an argument, though it is convincing, is not applicable to a certain point or idea.  Years ago, I decided to think and research on arguments about how to argue that there is no God.  Now, all my life, I believe in God, and had argued that with the complexity of and with the interaction of chaotic systems in Creation, it is silly to argue that there is no God that created and maintains the multiverse.  Of course, to satisfy my researching mind, at least, I try to look at the argument that God does not exist.  And among all arguments that deny the existence of a God, the argument that stumped me (for a while) and fascinated me most is the “Omnipotence Paradox” argument.  The omnipotence paradox’s bottomline is omnipotence is impossible, thus there is no God or at least no omnipotent God.   Why is that?  Well can an Omnipotent Being limit himself?  Example, can God create a stone that he cannot lift?  If he can and would, then the existence of the stone would cease his omnipotence since he is now limited – he cannot lift something.  But if he can’t create a stone that he cannot lift, then there is something he cannot create, making him limited and, thus, not omnipotent.  So, either way it goes, God is not omnipotent.  

The popular defense for this is: Omnipotence Paradox is invalid to God since God is not something finite.  Consider this: He is a Colossal Being that time and the universe cannot contain him, but, still, he dwells in the hearts of every Christian.  Paradox!  He is one God, but three persons.  How can three persons exist and distinct from each other but at the same time just One?  Paradox!  And by these “paradoxes”, He shows how actually mighty he is!  Paradoxes will not limit God. Human mind and logic will never completely comprehend or measure God.  Human words cannot describe God’s characteristics.  Human analogies can never effectively illustrate God.

However, though the points are correct, this approach is not really the most concrete logical argument that will allow us to dismiss Omnipotence Paradox.  The Omnipotence Paradox is as fallacious and invalid as the question that also limits God, “What is the thing that God cannot do?”, which the answer is “to sin” (if he can’t sin, he can’t do everything, thus he is not omnipotent).  C.S. Lewis dismissed this as ridiculous.  He compared it to asking God to create a square circle.  Indeed, the logic of the omnipotence paradox is fallacious and inapplicable to God.  As Christian apologists argue, God is neither above logic (in which he can make a square circle) nor under logic (in which logic disallows God to make a square circle), but logic is part of God’s nature.  God is logic.  God is order.  He can’t make a rock that he can’t lift, not because there is a flaw in his omnipotence, but because it would be at odds with his nature of order.  Two contradictory things or statements can’t be both true at the same time and at the same relationship.  “Believe in Jesus Christ and you will go to Heaven” and “Believe in Jesus Christ and you will go to Hell” can’t be both true at the same time.  Therefore, this logical premise makes the omnipotence paradox as something that can’t be applied to God.    

        By illustrating mathematical fallacies and that though the “Omnipotence Paradox” is a clever argument but actually not applicable to use to deny God’s existence, my point is: it is necessary to be knowledgeable and to be able to determine valid or applicable arguments from invalid or inapplicable arguments. 
        I hope I was able to make a concrete case to convince you to be able to think for yourself and be able to prevent others – whether it is media, religious leaders, philosophers, or even simple and humble bloggers like me – from manipulating you to believe every idea or information presented to you.  Let me leave you an anecdote that I love to share on how outrageous it is to believe an idea by means of clever but flawed arguments.  You may laugh at the story, but I hope it would provoke you to ponder.  Enjoy.

The following is supposedly an actual question given on a University of Washington chemistry mid-term. The answer by one student was so "profound" that the professor shared it with colleagues, via the Internet, which is, of course, why we now have the pleasure of enjoying it as well.

Bonus Question: Is Hell exothermic (gives off heat) or endothermic(absorbs heat)?

Most of the students wrote proofs of their beliefs using Boyle's Law (gas cools when it expands and heats when it is compressed) or some variant.  One student, however, wrote the following:

First, we need to know how the mass of Hell is changing in time. So we need to know the rate at which souls are moving into Hell and the rate at which they are leaving. I think that we can safely assume that once a soul gets to Hell, it will not leave. Therefore, no souls are leaving. As for how many souls are entering Hell, let's look at the different Religions that exist in the world today. Most of these religions state that if you are not a member of their religion, you will go to Hell. Since there is more than one of these religions and since people do not belong to more than one religion, we can project that all souls go to Hell. With birth and death rates as they are, we can expect the number of souls in Hell to increase exponentially. Now, we look at the rate of change of the volume in Hell because Boyle's Law states that in order for the temperature and pressure in Hell to stay the same, the volume of Hell has to expand proportionately as souls are added.

This gives two possibilities:

1. If Hell is expanding at a slower rate than the rate at which souls enter Hell, then the temperature and pressure in Hell will increase until all Hell breaks loose.

2. If Hell is expanding at a rate faster than the increase of souls in Hell, then the temperature and pressure will drop until Hell freezes over.

So which is it? If we accept the postulate given to me by Teresa during my Freshman year that, "it will be a cold day in Hell before I sleep with you", and take into account the fact that I slept with her last night, then number 2 must be true, and thus I am sure that Hell is exothermic and has already frozen over.

The corollary of this theory is that since Hell has frozen over, it follows that it is not accepting any more souls and is therefore, extinct...leaving only Heaven thereby proving the existence of a divine being which explains why, last night, Teresa kept shouting "Oh my God."

This student got an A.         

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