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The Big Answer


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Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era

a book by Daniel J. Levitin

(our site's book review)

This Book Offers Fundamental Lessons in Critical Thinking

We’re surrounded by fringe theories, fake news, and pseudo-facts. These lies are getting repeated. New York Times bestselling author Daniel Levitin shows how to disarm these socially devastating inventions and get the American mind back on track. Here in this book are the fundamental lessons in critical thinking that we need to know and share now.

Investigating numerical misinformation, Daniel Levitin shows how mishandled statistics and graphs can give a grossly distorted perspective and lead us to terrible decisions. Wordy arguments on the other hand can easily be persuasive as they drift away from the facts in an appealing yet misguided way. The steps we can take to better evaluate news, advertisements, and reports are clearly detailed. Ultimately, Levitin turns to what underlies our ability to determine if something is true or false: the scientific method. He grapples with the limits of what we can and cannot know. Case studies are offered to demonstrate the applications of logical thinking to quite varied settings, spanning courtroom testimony, medical decision making, magic, modern physics, and conspiracy theories.

Dubya Bush's presidency was characterized by lies and betrayal, especially about Iraq
Dubya Bush's presidency was characterized by lies and betrayal, especially about Iraq


Obama's presidency was characterized by lies and betrayal
Obama's presidency was characterized by lies and betrayal

This urgently needed book enables us to avoid the extremes of passive gullibility and cynical rejection. As Levitin attests: Truth matters. A post-truth era is an era of willful irrationality, reversing all the great advances humankind has made. Euphemisms like “fringe theories,” “extreme views,” “alt truth,” and even “fake news” can literally be dangerous. Let's call lies what they are and catch those making them in the act. Lies, Incorporated: The World of Post-Truth Politics describes how in today’s post-truth political landscape, there is a carefully concealed but ever-growing industry of organized misinformation that exists to create and disseminate lies in the service of political agendas.


We Live in an Age of Misinformation Overload

Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era is an outstanding overview of critical thinking. It is a short read but it does get the brain cells cranked up. You can't just zip through it. You have to think and that's what makes it great. No wonder the public seems so confused and nothing ever changes. They're choking on misinformation! Most of the book is devoted to explaining how misconceptions and misunderstandings are inadvertently or purposely spread via print, the media, and online, particularly using statistics, charts, and flawed logic. This is a "watch out for this" book. The old adage was that we lived in an age of “information overload.” Now we're dealing with “misinformation overload,” says Levitin.

No wonder the public seems so confused and nothing ever changes. They're choking on misinformation!
No wonder the public seems so confused and nothing ever changes. They're choking on misinformation!

Democrats employ the same skewed and cherry picked statistics that mislead, anecdotes that misguide, and made-up stories that distort as their conservative opponents. So politicians are liars—who knew?! See Politics and Government, No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump's Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, and Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class.

Dubya's and Cheney's lies plus U.S.'s Iraq invasion put Saddam out of business, but then U.S. wrecked their country and killed countless Iraqi citizens—they're missing Saddam now
Dubya's and Cheney's lies plus U.S.'s Iraq invasion put Saddam out of business, but then U.S. wrecked their country and killed countless Iraqi citizens—they're missing Saddam now

"Lies can do more than mislead people," Levitin emphasizes; they can be weaponized. “The original weaponized lie was about weapons of mass destruction possessed by Saddam Hussein, which had the consequence of the U.S. bringing weapons to Iraq.” The latest was Pizzagate, when a conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton running a child sex slave ring out of the back of a pizza parlour in Washington D.C. went viral. It prompted one man to visit the parlour and fire a semi-automatic weapon inside.

How can people avoid falling for hoaxes like these online? Levitin says the first step is to get humble. “If you have humility, you’re open to learning,” he says. “If you think you know everything, it’s impossible to learn. So approach new claims with some questions. ‘Who said so?’ ‘What’s the evidence for it?’”

Facebook and Twitter icons
Facebook and Twitter icons

“Before you hit the like button or repost something,” he adds, “take 60 seconds or so and figure out whether it’s true or not.” (Source: Why Your Brain May Be Wired To Believe Fake News, Parmy Olson, Forbes)


Misconceptions and Misunderstandings Are Inadvertently or Purposely Spread Using Graphs

Misconceptions and misunderstandings are inadvertently or purposely spread using graphs—this chart is straightforward and honest
Misconceptions and misunderstandings are inadvertently or purposely spread using graphs—this chart is straightforward and honest


This graph is truncated to mislead you—it contains the same info as the chart above, but with purposeful sleight-of-hand
This graph is truncated to mislead you—it contains the same info as the chart above, but with purposeful sleight-of-hand


World Values Survey about Democracy (so you can see why new democracies are sliding back towards autocracy)
World Values Survey about Democracy (so you can see why new democracies are sliding back towards autocracy) (data is from World Values Survey, but graph is our creation—it communicates a lot and it does so clearly without tricks or misleading)

The author covers all the ways in which visual quantitative data like graphs can fool you. You really have to watch very carefully the scale of the X- and Y-axes to understand if someone is trying to mislead you. He explains the difference between correlation and causation. He also warns you not to get confused when small differences pop up as statistically significant that have little bearing on the outcome when you have very large samples. The author also warns against extrapolating trends especially when you go outside the boundaries of the variable values you observed within the learning sample of your data set. He covers the various biases and errors that can affect sampling, such as participation bias, reporting bias, and so on. There's a great chapter on probabilities that explains classic probabilities, frequentist probabilities, and Bayesian probabilities. He explains 3 types of reasoning: deduction, induction, and abduction.


We Need to Challenge the Lies Spouted by Politicians and Others

We need to challenge the lies spouted by politicians, the medical profession, the food industry, and any company or person with an agenda. The biggest problem here is that those who really need this book are the least likely to read it. Recall that people read things mainly to confirm their own beliefs, which means they want that emotional satisfaction more than they want to learn something. See The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us, and The War on Science: Who's Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It.

We need to challenge the lies spouted by politicians
We need to challenge the lies spouted by politicians

Here is a weaponized LIE (a.k.a. fake news) used as a political weapon: "The lie that the Washington, D.C., pizza shop Comet Ping Pong was running a sex-slave operation spearheaded by Hillary Clinton led Edgar M. Welch, 28, of Salisbury, North Carolina, to drive 350 miles from his home and fire his semiautomatic weapon inside the pizzeria on Sunday, December 4, 2016—just days after “post-truth” became the word of the year. . . . The best defense against sly prevaricators, the most reliable one, is for every one of us to learn how to become critical thinkers. We have failed to teach our children to fight the evolutionary tendency toward gullibility. . . . A Stanford University study determined that students were terrible at distinguishing high quality news from lies. . . . Fortunately, evidence-based thinking is not beyond the grasp of most 12-year-olds, if only they are shown the way." (Source: How to Train America’s Brains Against Weaponized Fake News, Daniel Levitin, Newsweek)

Fake news is everywhere, and it's fooling many
Fake news is everywhere, and it's fooling many

"Some voters are gullible. We always knew that. But lies have become weapons in the war against facts and truth, and a variety of people with their own agendas use them to manipulate us into believing things that aren’t true, or for voting against the things we’re really interested in supporting. Misinformation disrupts decision making. . . . Democracy doesn't mean that I get my way all the time. We understand that the leadership of the country isn't always going to be the one we want and that's ok. The purpose of government is to ensure order, the rule of law, and to maximize the chances that we can achieve happiness, security, and health. To some that means big government, to others it means small government. In a democracy, with freedom of the press and an informed electorate (and informed by facts, not nonsense) that choice comes down to the voters and it's the best system we have." (Source: An Interview with Daniel J. Levitin, EXEC ED, UC Berkeley Executive Education)

NBC reported on a thriving community of 'fake news' fabricators in the town of Veles, Macedonia
NBC reported on a thriving community of 'fake news' fabricators in the town of Veles, Macedonia

"Truth matters. A post-truth era is an era of willful irrationality, reversing all the great advances humankind has made. Maybe journalists don’t want to call 'fake news' what it is, a lie, because they don’t want to offend the liars. But I say offend them! Call them on the carpet. . . . NBC reported on a thriving community of 'fake news' fabricators in the town of Veles, Macedonia, who could well have been the source [of PizzaGate]. This region was in communist Yugoslavia until 1991. BuzzFeed and the Guardian found more than 100 fake news domain names originating there. Young people in Veles, without any political affiliation to US political parties, are pushing stories based on lies so that they can garner significant payments from penny-per-click advertising on platforms such as Facebook. Teenagers can earn tens of thousands of dollars in towns that offer little economic opportunity. . . . The best defense against sly prevaricators, the most reliable one, is for every one of us to learn how to become critical thinkers." (Source Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin on Critical Thinking in a Post-Truth Era)


Spotting Lies

What are some ways we can spot lies?

  1. Ask yourself if the numbers are plausible.
  2. Look at the source.
  3. See if you can corroborate it.
These tips can help us in our daily lives in a lot of ways, including making decisions about business relationships and who to hire.

Trust but verify. Give people a chance to speak freely, but look out for signs that something is amiss.

Also look out for vagueness. If a claim is vague, someone may be trying to hide something from you. (Source: How to spot lies and uncover the truth at work, Kirsten Salyer, The Ladders)


The Average Person Is Unable to Figure Out What’s True and Not True

The average person is unable to figure out what’s true and not true
The average person is unable to figure out what’s true and not true

What does it mean to be in a ‘post-truth’ era? According to Levitin, the average person is unable to figure out what’s true and not true. Some people have given up trying to figure it out. They don't even know what critical thinking means or what objective evidence is. Some of the highest officials in the country are saying things that we know are true are not true, and they are saying that they have 'alternative facts.' That’s just the type of Orwellian doubletalk that we should all be afraid of. The only way the administration officials could have alternative facts is if they have somehow located a door to a parallel universe where the crooked politician here is not crooked there but the demagogue here is a great statesman with no sign of demagoguery there and every fact is an alternative fact.

The only way the administration officials could have alternative facts is if they have somehow located a door to a parallel universe
The only way the administration officials could have alternative facts is if they have somehow located a door to a parallel universe

Since, according to Levitin, the average person is unable to figure out what’s true and not true and some people have given up trying to figure it out, we figure that the information below will help them sort out fact from fake fact.


Orwell's 1984 Was Based on Weaponized Lies; So Are All Things Trump

" . . . rereading Orwell, one is reminded of what Orwell got right about this kind of brute authoritarianism—and that was essentially that it rests on lies told so often, and so repeatedly, that fighting the lie becomes not simply more dangerous but more exhausting than repeating it. Orwell saw, to his credit, that the act of falsifying reality is only secondarily a way of changing perceptions. It is, above all, a way of asserting power. . . . People aren’t meant to believe [a Trump lie]; they’re meant to be intimidated by it." (Source: Orwell’s “1984” and Trump’s America, Adam Gopnik, New Yorker)

Many incorrectly believe that the ruling oligarchy is Trump, the Trumpsters, and the Trumpettes
Many incorrectly believe that the ruling oligarchy is Trump, the Trumpsters, and the Trumpettes


But the reality is that the ruling oligarchy is the shadow government
But the reality is that the ruling oligarchy is the shadow government

The dystopian terms such as "Big Brother", "doublethink" and "newspeak" have become part of everyday currency, and "Orwellian" is now a universal shorthand for anything repressive or totalitarian, and the story of Winston Smith, an everyman for his times, is still resonating with readers who have legitimate fears about the future. Smith was an underling of the ruling oligarchy. The Party has taken early 20th century totalitarianism to new depths, with each person subjected to 24-hour surveillance, where people's very thoughts are controlled to ensure purity of the oligarchical system in place. The figurehead of the system is the omnipresent and omnipotent Big Brother. Smith's job is to change history by changing old newspaper records to match with the new truth as decided by the Party. "He who controls the past, controls the future" is a Party slogan to live by and it gives Winston his job, but Winston cannot see it like that. He rebels. (Source: 1984: Themes, Motifs & Symbols)

Big Brother's security cameras watch you everywhere—apparently not only Santa is checking whether you're naughty or nice
Big Brother's security cameras watch you everywhere—apparently not only Santa is checking whether you're naughty or nice


By 2008, the idea of communications privacy in the United States had literally become a joke—our Big Brother government watches your every move
By 2008, the idea of communications privacy in the United States had literally become a joke—our Big Brother government watches your every move


Fly #353242252 reporting: Citizen #312,756,972 doesn't seem to be hiding a thing—my conclusion is that she's clean; but just to be sure I think I'll hang around a bit longer!
Fly #353242252 reporting: Citizen #312,756,972 doesn't seem to be hiding a thing—my conclusion is that she's clean; but just to be sure I think I'll hang around a bit longer!

One of Orwell’s most important messages in 1984 is that language is of central importance to human thought because it structures and limits the ideas that individuals are capable of formulating and expressing. So he has the Party dump English and adopt Newspeak instead, a language designed to make it impossible to even conceive of disobedient or rebellious thoughts, because there would be no words with which to think them. So WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH are "doublethink" mottos of the Party. In 1984, a single ruling class possesses absolute power, just as the shadow government neocons and oligarchs rule in 2017. See Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power to understand how they managed to control most of the wealth and power.

In Trumpopolis, people assume he's the ruler, but the shadow government rules in reality, and has been doing so for decades, and the rulers and Congress are puppets
In Trumpopolis, people assume he's the ruler, but the shadow government rules in reality, and has been doing so for decades, and the rulers and Congress are puppets

Trump's job—always the rebel—is to change our news by changing news reports to match with the new truth as decided by Trump. All news not jibing with the new truth of Trumpspeak is declared fake news. In 1984, psychological manipulation occurs in which The Party barrages its subjects with psychological stimuli designed to overwhelm the mind’s capacity for independent thought. Trump declares the truth to be lies and his lies to be truth and the end result is the media and the public focused on Trump most of the time, which he loves. As May West used to say, "call me anything—but call me often." In 1984, there are omnipresent signs reading “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU,” and in Trumpworld, there is omnipresent surveillance by cameras and surveillance of emails, calls, searches, social media, etc.

In 1984, Winston observes, even a tiny facial twitch could lead to an arrest since it betrayed a "thoughtcrime." In Trumpville, "facecrimes" are microexpressions or microaggressions that betray the person for not buying Trump's most recent lies. Reporters guilty of facecrimes and thoughtcrimes are ostracized, threatened, insulted ("bleeding from her whatever"), and called fake and liars. Torture in 1984 and now is used for thoughtcrimes like defying the Party (1984) or agreeing with terrorists that the USA's compaign of world terrorism needs to be stopped (now). In 1984, it is impossible to know who really rules Oceania, where Smith lives. In Trumpopolis, people assume he's the ruler, but the shadow government rules in reality, and has been doing so for decades, and the rulers and Congress are puppets.

Since all U.S. citizens have had thoughts that are unorthodox or outside the official government platform since Trump ascended the Trump-fantasized Trumpthrone, we're all guilty of thoughtcrimes
Since all U.S. citizens have had thoughts that are unorthodox or outside the official government platform since Trump assumed the Trump-fantasized Trumpthrone, we're all guilty of thoughtcrimes

The Orwellian 1984 Newspeak word "crimethink" means a "thoughtcrime," thoughts that are unorthodox or outside the official government platform. And a "facecrime" is an indication that a person is guilty of thoughtcrime based on their facial expression. And "goodthink" means thoughts that are approved by the Party and follow its policies, ideals and interpretations. It is the opposite of crimethink. And "misprints" are errors or mispredictions which need to be rectified in order to prove that the Party is always right. And "thinkpol" is the Thought Police. And "thoughtcrime" is the criminal act of holding unspoken beliefs or doubts that oppose or question the official government platform. And "doublethink" is the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct—today this is called doublespeak. (Source: List of Newspeak words)

We're in the post-truth era of fake news and alternative facts. So "misprints" are now opinions that differ from those of Trump, a.k.a. "fakeprints." And "facecrimes" are microexpressions or microaggressions that betray the person for not buying Trump's most recent lies. And "goodthink" are Trump-approved thoughts—all other thoughts are "fakethoughts." (E.g., all the election's votes were legitimate and not fruadulent, and the inauguration crowd was as low as the estimaters calculated.) And the Trump cabinet and his presidential assistants need "doublethink" to accommodate holding thoughts of the truth (reality) in their minds while simultaneously holding "goodthink" (Trump-approved thoughts) in mind about the same matter. This is a difficult feat of mental gymnastics, and all of Team Trump who have managed this feat and kept functioning without having mental breakdowns are to be highly commended as loyal Trumpsters and Trumpettes.

'You will respect my authoritah!' Is Trump merely Cartman 62 years later? Or is that thought a thoughtcrime?
"You will respect my authoritah!'' Is Trump merely Cartman 62 years later? Or is that thought a thoughtcrime?

Orwell provides compelling reasons for the people of the 21st century to, much as we did in the 60's, question authority—especially Trumpthority. If you love the U.S., resist, and never ever give up! (As Eric Cartman of South Park says: "You will respect my authoritah!" Is Trump merely Cartman 62 years later? Or is that thought a thoughtcrime?)


The Bottom Line: Catch the Lies, and Resist the Trump Assault on Democracy and the Environment

If you love the U.S., resist, and never ever give up!
If you love the U.S., resist, and never ever give up!

“If we are not able to ask skeptical questions … to interrogate those who tell us something is true, to be skeptical of those in authority … then we are up for grabs for the next charlatan, political or religious, who comes rambling along,” said Carl Sagan in 1996. He wrote Baloney Detection Kit, a chapter in his book The Demon-Haunted World.

Carl Sagan
Carl Sagan