Post-truth, Open Society, and the Business of Behaviorism

Never before in human history have objective facts been so readily available, and so ignored.

Diluting accurate information can be accomplished by polluting public consciousness with disinformation. By decreasing the signal to noise ratio in this manner, the ordinary public is unable to effectively differentiate what is objectively true and then the mind retreats to where it is most at ease: the seeking of information which confirms preconceived ideas.

Source: Combating Confirmation Bias: Defeating Disinformation Campaigns In The Future By Extending Information Security — The Future of Text

As vast engines of confirmation bias pollute the public consciousness with disinformation, I am reminded of George Soros’ caveat to Karl Popper’s Open Society.

Investor and philanthropist George Soros, a self-described follower of Karl Popper, argued that sophisticated use of powerful techniques of subtle deception borrowed from modern advertising and cognitive science by conservative political operatives such as Frank Luntz and Karl Rove casts doubt on Popper’s view of open society. Because the electorate’s perception of reality can easily be manipulated, democratic political discourse does not necessarily lead to a better understanding of reality. Soros argues that in addition to the need for separation of powers, free speech, and free elections, an explicit commitment to the pursuit of truth is imperative. “Politicians will respect, rather than manipulate, reality only if the public cares about the truth and punishes politicians when it catches them in deliberate deception.”

Source: Open society – Wikipedia

There is no respect for reality from Donald Trump and the GOP. Post-truth is pre-fascism and perhaps the greatest enemy of an open society.

Post-truth is pre-fascism, and Trump has been our post-truth president. When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place. Without agreement about some basic facts, citizens cannot form the civil society that would allow them to defend themselves. If we lose the institutions that produce facts that are pertinent to us, then we tend to wallow in attractive abstractions and fictions. Truth defends itself particularly poorly when there is not very much of it around, and the era of Trump — like the era of Vladimir Putin in Russia — is one of the decline of local news. Social media is no substitute: It supercharges the mental habits by which we seek emotional stimulation and comfort, which means losing the distinction between what feels true and what actually is true.

Post-truth wears away the rule of law and invites a regime of myth.

The claim that Trump was denied a win by fraud is a big lie not just because it mauls logic, misdescribes the present and demands belief in a conspiracy. It is a big lie, fundamentally, because it reverses the moral field of American politics and the basic structure of American history.

Source: The American Abyss – The New York Times

What to do? In 2007, Soros said:

What is needed is a concerted effort to identify the techniques of manipulation – and to name and shame those who use them.

Source: From Popper to Rove – and back | US news | The Guardian

Facebook has endured some, but not nearly enough, naming and shaming for merchandizing the tools of mass manipulation. Beyond shaming individual companies, let’s name and shame one of the techniques: behaviorism. For the sake of open society, we should all get out of the behaviorism business.

I would argue, in total seriousness, that one of the places that Skinnerism thrives today is in computing technologies, particularly in “social” technologies. This, despite the field’s insistence that its development is a result, in part, of the cognitive turn that supposedly displaced behaviorism.

Source: B. F. Skinner: The Most Important Theorist of the 21st Century

5 thoughts on “Post-truth, Open Society, and the Business of Behaviorism

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