Sunday, March 08, 2015
Hating modernity, hating the Jews: a reckoning with Heidegger
The Green/Left love the old Nazi navel-gazer
The eternally recurring Heidegger controversy always misses the point. There is no doubt he was a Nazi. There is no doubt he was an unapologetic anti-Semite, right to the last. He was ‘a small man’, lamented George Steiner. But the point at issue, the point that we must grapple with, is the relationship between his anti-Semitism and the thought that has entranced so many.
Because make no mistake, Heidegger is one of the most compelling and formidable thinkers of the twentieth century. In Being and Time he offered nothing less than a philosophical refutation of philosophy, and, more than that, he offered a vision of what it is to be, of how we come to know the world, of how it comes to appear and mean something to us (in short, we come to know the world not through the contemplation of a world apart from us. Rather, we come to know it through our dealings with it, through the way we use things, through our everyday praxis). But he offered something else, too, something that was to resonate so profoundly with successive generations of intellectuals in Europe and elsewhere. He offered a critique – a critique of modernity, of Western civilisation. He not only showed how we come to think about and use the world around us – he condemned how we come to think about and use the world around us.
For Heidegger, Western civilisation, from Plato and Aristotle onwards, has forgotten the question of being, the Seinsfrage. ‘The being for whom being is a question’, as he put it in Being and Time, has taken to accepting easy answers. Why? Because we have inherited this metaphysical idea that man is a rational animal, a zoon politikon, and, as such, we have tended to view the world instrumentally, as something which we can know and use for our ends. Man is assumed to be the measure of all things. And as humanity has ‘grown up both into and in a traditional way of interpreting itself’, with each generation advancing the course of Western metaphysics, extending this way of seeing and using the world, so we have lost ourselves, have forgotten to ask what it is to be. The modern age is merely the latest, most dangerous instalment in this history of ontological forgetfulness. Technological and instrumental, rational and calculating, the modern way is assumed to be the only way.
Even our language has been reduced ‘to being an instrument of domination over beings’, as Heidegger put it in the Letter on Humanism (1946). Heidegger continued this criticism of humanist instrumentalism in The Question Concerning Technology: ‘[We put] to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such.’ We no longer let beings be - we enslave everything to our ends. And that, argues Heidegger, goes for other humans, too. We are ‘subservient’ to ‘enframing’ - subservient, that is, to the rational, technological, calculating imperatives of modernity. We have become, like all other beings, a mere means for rational, technological, calculating ends. ‘“Life” is a business’, notes Heidegger in Being and Time, ‘whether or not it covers its costs’.
And this is where the Schwarze Hefte are revealing. Heidegger’s anti-Semitism is not incidental to his critique of modernity and the instrumental reason which is destined to hold us in its thrall. It is essential. For Heidegger, Jews, alongside Bolsheviks, are the agents of modernity, and, as such, they are the harbingers of our destruction, the ‘type of humanity’ that has assumed ‘the world-historical “task” of uprooting all beings from Being’. Jews, he continues, belong to ‘the metaphysics of the West’. They have helped to spread both ‘empty rationality’ and ‘a capacity for calculation’, and they are intent on realising ‘a rootless, homogeneous, technological mass society’.
What the Schwarze Hefte show, then, is that Heidegger’s anti-Semitism was entwined with his anti-modernity. His critique of the modern world, which was so attractive to so many, always went hand in hand with his critique of the Jews, which has proved discomfiting for so many. But his anti-Semitism can’t be ignored. Only when this association is grasped, only when Heidegger’s identification of Jewry with everything that he loathes about the modern world – its rootlessness, its instrumentalism, and, yes, its human-centredness – becomes clear, does his initially shocking suggestion that the Jews effectively brought the Holocaust on themselves make sense. If the systematic extermination of Jewry is presented as the logical endpoint of humanity’s rootless, technological, calculative trajectory (our ‘destiny’), then the Jews, as the agents of rootless, technological calculative rationality, are indeed the architects of their own downfall.
It’s a revealing moment for those accustomed today to rehearsing platitudes about how meaningless, unfulfilling and destructive the modern world is. Environmentalists and avowed lefties love to spew out sub-Heideggerian theses on the irrational rationality of economic development, of people’s duped immersion in an unsustainable way of life, and of our impending climate-driven comeuppance.
But is there not another echo of Heidegger’s thought in that strange, obsessive antipathy towards Israel which is so prevalent among the right-on and left-leaning? If there’s a stench of anti-modernity among too many of today’s self-styled radicals, is there not also a whiff of that peculiar brand of Heidegger-style anti-Semitism, too? Strangely enough, then, the Heidegger case sheds light on a contemporary species of anti-Semitism. It’s not the biological version, in which certain races are deemed superior to others. It’s not even the ‘Jews control the world’ one, although that persists.
No, it’s the sense that at some level, Jews, in the form of Israel, embody modernity, embody, that is, the very things – the cruel rationality, the uprootedness, the technological ambition, the comfort with capitalism – that so many just love to loathe. Hating Jews, then, still goes hand in hand with an intense disillusionment with modernity.
Heidegger’s champions are right. He needs to be read today regardless of the revelations in black. But he needs to be read, not because he is right, but because his thinking is, in a sense, our thinking. He needs to be read because his profound rejection of modernity has proved too resonant to be ignored. He needs to be read because his stripe of anti-Semitism is in the process of being rehabilitated. He needs to be read because he needs to be reckoned with.
UK: Vote Labour, get press censorship
John Cleese was not joking last week when he compared journalists to murderers at a rally in Westminster where, as reported on spiked, ‘the hysteria and intolerance of Hacked Off were on full display’.
Even worse than the ranting of the former funny man was the contribution to that rally of Labour’s deputy leader, Harriet Harman, who nobody could ever accuse of cracking a joke. Harman’s speech gave the official stamp of Labour Party approval to the hysteria and intolerance of the press-bashing lobby.
Harman assured the select group of Hacked Off supporters gathered in Westminster that if Labour wins the UK General Election in May, it will not hesitate to impose the full system of state-backed regulation of the press proposed in Lord Justice Leveson’s report. ‘We are absolutely committed to what Leveson proposed and we do not think that business as usual is acceptable’, declared Harman. What is more, she insisted, winning the election would give Labour a mandate to ‘follow through on Leveson’.
Such is the degraded state of our democracy when it comes to a vital issue such as the freedom of the press. Labour Party leaders can make private plans for what they will do to the press after the election – to be discussed in passing with a handful of Hacked Off celebrities and lobbyists, but not seriously with the electorate. Then, after the election is over, they plan to claim a mandate to ‘follow through’ and dump on press freedom.
Lord Justice Leveson might not be dirtying his hands by standing for election in May. But it is clear that the unelected, unaccountable lord justice will be the eminence gris behind a Labour government, having already effectively written the party’s plans to turn the ‘colourful’ UK press grey. A quick reminder, then, of some of the ‘Leveson principles’ to which Labour now claims to subscribe. Key proposals in the 2,000-page report of the Leveson Inquiry, published in November 2012 and designed to sanitise the entire ‘culture, ethics and practice’ of the media, include:
— A state-backed ‘independent’ regulator, underpinned by the power of the law, to police and punish the unruly press — rewriting the editors’ code, issuing fines of up to £1million — and reward tame, well-behaved newspapers with a health-and-safety style ‘kite mark’ of official approval. Leveson wants this regulatory system to be overseen by Ofcom, the quango stuffed with government appointees that makes sure the BBC remains the Bland Broadcasting Corporation.
— A complainants’ charter, under which the new state-backed arbitrator would hear complaints not only from individuals alleging press mistreatment, but from ‘representative groups’ and third parties who don’t like something/anything they have seen or read. The members of the great and good on the panel would have the power to order the publication of a correction or apology, and to determine how and where it is printed. Look forward to future front pages edited by judges.
— A more secret state, where the police could not give the media off-the-record briefings and the press would be barred from naming arrested suspects. (These proposals have largely been implemented already in a post-Leveson environment where the police have been far keener on hacking reporters’ phone records and arresting tabloid journalists than letting the press know what they’re up to.)
— The further criminalisation of investigative journalism. Leveson proposes tightening the 1998 Data Protection Act to give journalists less protection and jail those who break the new rules for up to two years, and amending the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act to remove the ‘journalistic exemption’ for material that has been ‘stolen’ — which would mean most information leaked by whistleblowers — and let the police or even the Financial Services Authority go into newspaper offices and seize it.
— The Fox-in-Charge-Of-the-Chicken Coop Act. Leveson proposes a law to ‘guarantee media freedom’ by, err, giving the government the right to intervene in media affairs ‘insofar as it is for a legitimate purpose and is necessary in a democratic society’. That’s all right, then; the state can interfere with the freedom of the press only when the authorities decide it is ‘for a legitimate purpose’. What could possibly go wrong?
This is apparently what you can expect to get if you vote for a Labour government. Just don’t necessarily expect them to spell it out before the election.
Just now it might seem as if the struggle over the future of press freedom in the UK has been suspended, if not ended. As a high-profile political issue it has certainly been kicked into the long grass since the press refused to sign up to a regulator recognised by Royal Charter — the deal that was stitched up between the political parties and Hacked Off in 2013. Yet there are snakes lurking in that long grass, getting ready to strike after May.
The Hacked Off elitists have been lobbying in their usual behind-closed-doors fashion to get the political parties to sign up to a tougher state-backed system. Last August, the tabloid-bashing group’s new executive director, the snobbish jobbing journalist Joan Smith, smugly observed in an interview that the state of press regulation ‘might be in a very different position’ after the General Election. If the press has not bent the knee to regulation by Royal Charter, she said, ‘we would then expect that to trigger a failure report to the government saying the Royal Charter has been set up and the newspaper industry has basically stuck two fingers up against it’. At which point a fully fledged Leveson Law would be expected to follow.
To that end, Smith assured the Press Gazette, the Hugh Grant-fronted lobby group was twisting UK politicians’ arms to make a manifesto commitment to creating a regulator backed by the state. She was sure that the Lib Dems were already signed up, and that Labour ‘are sympathetic, but we’d like more of a commitment about what’s actually going to go in the manifesto’. Hacked Off, she wanted to assure them all, will ‘keep going until we see quite dramatic improvements in sections of the press’. In other words, until the press submits to meeting the standards set for it by Ms Smith and Mr Grant.
Labour, the traditional top-down party of state socialism turned managerial machine, has never been a friend of press freedom and seems the natural ally of the Hacked Off clique. Harman’s previous insistence that her party is ‘not the political wing of Hacked Off’ prompted thoughts that the deputy leader doth protest too much. On the other side of that alliance, Hacked Off seems relatively unmoved by current revelations of widespread phone-hacking by the Labour-supporting Mirror newspapers, certainly compared to its feather-spitting hysteria over lesser offences by the despised, New Labour-deserting Murdoch press.
There is no need to imagine that the Conservatives are the freedom-friendly alternative to Labour and the Lib Dems (despite the presence of chief whip Michael Gove, the one politician to tell the Leveson Inquiry that press freedom was not in the gift of the good lord justice). The Conservatives are no more of a positive alternative to Labour than IPSO, the ‘tough’ regulator set up by the newspaper industry, is better than the system of regulation-by-Royal Charter. Both IPSO and the Tories have publicly swallowed the ‘Leveson principles’.
It was Tory prime minister David Cameron, after all, who set up the Leveson Inquiry/inquisition in 2011, haughtily announcing that, while it’s all well and good for the press to speak truth to power, ‘it is equally vital that those in power can tell truth to the press’. Cameron’s Tories were party, along with the Labour and Lib Dem leaders, to the late-night deal with Hacked Off that agreed the Royal Charter two years ago — the first system of state-backed press regulation in Britain since 1695.
However, this sorry tale should give serious pause to anybody with an ounce of feeling for freedom of speech and of the press who still imagines there might be a reason for voting Labour as the more progressive/radical/liberating alternative. You have been warned by no less an authority than the Labour Party’s once-and-possibly-future deputy prime minister: Vote Labour, get Lord Justice Leveson. (Or whatever version of his proposals Ms Harman and Labour leader Ed Miliband might ultimately have the nerve to implement.)
The fool formerly known as Basil Fawlty might have risked ridicule by comparing journalists to murderers. But it was the Right Honourable Harriet Harman QC MP who pledged in all po-faced seriousness that a Labour government would carry out Judge Leveson’s death sentence on press freedom.
It would be better by far if all this could be brought out into the open and the freedom of speech and of the press turned into election issues. Any politician out there willing to, in the horrified words of Hacked Off, ‘basically stick two fingers up’ to the Royal Charter, state-backed regulation of the press and all of the stultifying ‘Leveson principles’ would get my vote.
'Fight the Jewish scum!' Shocking anti-Semitism on streets of BRITAIN as Jewish journalist is spat at, abused and even stalked
With as many as 45 per cent of British Jews fearing they 'may not have a future in Britain', according to a survey by the Campaign Against Antisemitism - and following an experiment by Israeli Zvika Klein on the streets of Paris, British journalist Jonathan Kalmus decided to test the levels of prejudice in two British cities with shocking results. Volunteers in Copenhagen and Rome also suffered some abuse, as well as welcoming reactions, while Jewish journalists in Stockholm and Berlin walked for hours without incident.
'You Jew' was the anti-Semitic scream which came from a passing car. My shaken wife tried to explain it away to my seven-year-old daughter as a very large sneeze. They were simply playing in a local park in Manchester a few weeks ago when the incident ripped through what should have been a peaceful and wholesome time for any mother and child.
'Fight the Jewish scum' and 'Jew, Jew, Jew... Run', were the more vicious threats hurled at me in the past few days, however, when I decided to secretly film and find out whether 'Jew-hatred' really is alive and kicking on British streets.
The answer to that question is a resounding and heart-sinking yes.
I took the inspiration from the viral videos of Israeli journalist Zvika Klein, who filmed himself being threatened on the streets of Paris, and Muslim Hamdy Mahisen, who filmed himself getting abuse in Milan.
Zvika walked in Paris for 10 hours, Hamdy in Milan for five. It took me just one minute. One minute of walking one single, busy major street in Manchester before abuse was flung at me.
In 25 minutes on that one single street in Longsight, I was spat at by one man and called 'a Jew' multiple times by passers by, even by a young boy walking with his father.
I was just walking in the street testing the effect of being clearly identifiable as a Jew by wearing a small traditional Jewish head covering called a kippah.
David Cameron today hit out at the 'shocking' discrimination filmed in Manchester and Bradford.
The Prime Minister, speaking to MailOnline, said: ‘There are no excuses for the shocking anti-Semitism revealed in this report.
‘The idea that Jewish people feel unsafe again in Europe strikes at the heart of everything we stand for.
‘We must fight anti-Semitism with everything we have got and make sure Britain remains a country that our Jewish communities are proud to call home.’
Labour leader Ed Miliband told MailOnline: ‘Any act of anti-Semitism on our streets brings shame on those who demonstrate hatred and intolerance towards each other.
‘We need to renew our vigilance and ensure every family of every faith can be secure in our country.
‘We must defend loud and clear and with defiance and determination the values we believe in: tolerance, diversity, freedom of speech and freedom of faith.’
A spokesman for the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: 'Many who are visibly Jewish do suffer this kind of abuse and anti-Semitism and figures from the Community Security Trust (CST) indicate that these kinds of incidents are on the increase.'
However, a spokesman for the CST revealed even it was shocked by the number of comments in the time.
‘The fact incidents like this take place of that nature still takes place does not surprise us. The frequency with which they took place – he experience 10 in an hour’s walking – that is worrying,' the spokesman said.
'It suggest lots of these types of incidents maybe going unreported.’
In Bradford the situation was more shameful. It took 13 minutes, during which I was stalked by a man who repeatedly took pictures of me. He followed me on foot for five minutes and thirty seconds according to my footage.
There was a shout of 'you Jew' at me as I crossed the road to Bradford City Park. Minutes later a man turned his head and yelled 'fight the Jewish scum' just behind my back.
Some time later three youths shouted at me across a street repeatedly, 'You're a Jew, not a Muslim...Jew, Jew, Jew run!'
I was prepared to walk for hours and expected to get nothing on camera. On Manchester's curry mile, a haven of mixed cultures and skin colour, it took two-and-half-minutes for a young lad on a bike to ride up to me and shout, 'You're a Jew' in my face. I was left speechless that anti-Semitism is so obvious.
In total, between the two cities I suffered a series of anti-Semitic hate incidents, more than those in Zvika Klein's video and achieved in one-tenth of the time here in Britain. What a horrible reality.
Why did I pick Bradford? For a simple reason. Last summer during the height of another Gaza conflict between Israel and Palestinians, 5,000 people, predominantly young Muslim men, gathered for a mass rally in Bradford City Park. The city's MP, George Galloway, spoke while flanked by two butch men wearing T-shirts emblazoned 'Palestine's army you are not alone'.
Mr Galloway has repeated on many, many occasions that his message and political struggle is with Israel and Israelis, not Jews. Despite that, statistics show that bringing the Middle East's struggles onto the streets of Britain has a direct effect on how people treat Jews.
No one could accuse me of targeting Muslim neighbourhoods to provoke a reaction. This was the centre of an ordinary English city and I was minding my own business.
No one could accuse me of wearing something provocative or political. A Jewish person or any peaceful person walking in a British street anywhere, let alone a city centre, should be welcome.
Google’s fact checking scheme: A war on truth
Google to become final arbiter of “facts”?
Google recently published a research paper proposing that the world’s largest search engine change its ranking algorithms to dampen sites with a high number of “false facts”. The paper specifically uses the example of Barack Obama’s nationality, and New Scientist uses the specific example of “anti-vaccination sites”, leading some to speculate this is an effort to target “conspiracy theories” and alternative news.
It’s a worthy concern. Facebook not long ago launched a feature to do just that. When people don’t like a story that’s getting around, they can report it as false, and Facebook will dampen that link, no matter who shares it. I’m going to speak anecdotally about my own experience here for a moment, but I hope you’ll come to see the bigger picture.
For those of us who make enemies on social media, this presents a pretty serious problem, because Facebook does not check these reports, at least not thoroughly. I have been banned from Facebook dozens of times, and usually it is because somebody reported something I posted as containing nudity, violence, or racism, where none existed. Those reports are made by ideological rivals for ideological purposes, and my voice is repeatedly and severely diminished as a result.
Whether the issue at hand is Facebook’s reporting system, or Google’s fact checking, those of us with unpopular ideas are going to be contradicting the vast majority of people out there, and a system that punishes us for doing so is troubling to say the least.
For me, Facebook is my top referrer for traffic to this website, Google is my second. I imagine that I’m not alone in this. Algorithm changes of any sort damage my business and my voice, and they happen more frequently than you might imagine if you don’t monitor these things. Were the standard for relevancy to change to credibility, and to be measured by “how many people agree with him” I would essentially be erased from the Internet. That might sound like a good idea to some people, but I’m not the one you need to be concerned about.
What I do here, for better or for worse, is start conversations. This works out pretty well in the present paradigm where the primary ranking indicator is popularity in terms of who is linking to and talking about you. I’ve long said that there is no such thing as bad press, in part because all “bad press” does is drive up your relevancy on search engines and social media. I certainly prefer people say nice things about me, but I prefer them to say bad things, than to say nothing at all.
This doesn’t always work out so well on a system like Reddit, where there is a reputation system that includes a downvote. There are coalitions of people on the web who hate me so viciously that they will do anything to damage my reputation and diminish my distribution.
One such coalition exists on Reddit, and downvotes anything posted there from this website, without even reading the content. The fact that it comes from my domain is enough. This has caused Redditers to delete posts from this website, because the downvotes on my content damage their reputation on Reddit. Other times it causes the content to become labeled as controversial, and the competition between upvotes and downvotes causes the content to appear more popular, driving a great deal of traffic to this website. In large part, it just depends on who gets to it first, but it has almost nothing to do with the quality, much less the factual accuracy, of the content in question. Point being, agreement has no bearing on quality or accuracy.
Rather than paint this as all doom and gloom, I should point out that this could be used for good. We’ll talk about problems with the fact checking algorithm later, but for a moment let’s consider the value of a “truth meter”. Presuming one existed and was accurate, this could be an excellent tool.
The paper proposes a similar model to Google’s “Knowledge Vault”. If you ask Google a question, Google will often give you an answer that doesn’t require you to click through to another site. When I want to check the exchange rate of Bitcoin for example, I search Google for “Bitcoin price” and Google displays the current average from Coinbase.com, updated every three minutes. This is fine with me, because I consider Coinbase to be a reputable source for this data. If I search for “cure for cold” I get some information from the Mayo Clinic on cold remedies. Even though we all know there is no cure for the common cold, this is about as close as we’re going to get to an answer to my question.
There are other reputation metrics on the web right now, and clearly there is nothing wrong with that. Web of Trust for example is a browser plugin with over 131 million downloads. It checks the reputation of the website you’re visiting “based on a unique crowdsourcing approach that collects ratings and reviews from a global community of millions of users who rate and comment on websites based on their personal experiences”. That store with the prices that seem too good to be true? WOT might save you from a frustrating and time consuming battle with identity theft. LazyTruth is a browser plugin that checks if the email you’re reading is some kind of chain letter hoax by comparing it against FactCheck.org and PolitiFact, which are themselves a sort of reputation metric.
If Google wants to get into the fact checking business, they could save me the trouble of installing yet another browser plugin, or searching for topics on fact checking sites, similarly to how they save me the trouble of visiting Coinbase or Mayo Clinic now. That’s a valuable service which a lot of people might appreciate.
Additionally, ranking a site highly just because it is already popular might not be the best way to determine the quality of the content, factual or not. New websites pop up every day, and some method of promoting them over a popular competitor whose quality is in decline might be of great benefit to content producers and consumers alike. Fact checking could be one way of establishing that quality.
The primary problem as I see it, is that Google, Facebook, and other services we use to get ourselves connected to information have largely served to connect us with the information we want by determining what others have found relevant. This is a very specific task, and changing it to fact checking is a dramatic change in protocol. It is a completely different business model that in no way resembles the service you originally signed up for.
As stated earlier, there are already reputation metrics available for people who want to use them. These are specific services provided by entities who specialize in providing it. If they aren’t doing a good job, you just stop using that service, or go to a competitor. You lose nothing other than their fact checking service by leaving that website.
If Google gets into the fact checking business, and does a bad job, you lose your search engine. If Facebook gets into it and does a bad job, you lose your social network. More importantly since the idea behind these algorithms is to prevent you from seeing the content in the first place, you’ll never actually know if the content is fact or fiction, because you’ll never even see it. When the services that connect us to content start hiding it from us because they disagree with it, we never get the opportunity to find out of the service provider is doing a bad job. If we don’t find out that they are doing a bad job, then we lack the information necessary to make the decision to choose a different service provider.
I would have next to no problem with “Google Truth” or “Facebook Reputation” services. Even if they did a poor job, I could always choose a different service, or compete with them if I saw fit. They might wrongly slander and harm the reputations of good people, but if they did so on a large enough scale, it would in turn damage the reputation of those services.
Take for example, the Southern Poverty Law Center. They smear people as violent racists and sexists and gay bashers all the time, often on very flimsy evidence. This type of institution gains a lot of sway with race baiters and social justice warriors, but they are despised by most conservatives and libertarians. We just make a value judgement on whose word we’re going to accept and move on for the most part.
The SPLC on the other hand isn’t deciding whether or not I see the content of the people they smear. Google and Facebook do. That presents a far more serious problem, which makes me inclined to stop doing business with them.
Let us say that Google takes the position that widgets do not cause cancer. Let us also say that some smaller source says that widgets do cause cancer. Now there is a dispute between these two institutions on the factual accuracy of the question.
As a content producer, I see that Google sends me a great deal of traffic. I am dependent on that traffic for my livelihood. I also see that the smaller source provides me with no traffic at all, because they are not a search engine, that is not their function. Should I come to the side of the smaller entity, Google will punish me by pushing my site down in the search results. Potentially not only the article in question, but the entire domain could become discredited and even content Google sees as credible would be pushed down in the rankings, dramatically injuring my business. This makes content producers extraordinarily unlikely to disagree with Google.
Let us say someone does defy Google, and gets their business ruined as a result. Someone else sees that happening. They know that Google is constantly adding new “facts” to their database, and contradicting those facts will punish your search engine placement. A statement they make today, could be deemed false by Google tomorrow. Even if the content producer who Google punished yesterday was factually incorrect, even if he deserved to be erased from the Internet, doing that to him will have a dramatic impact on other well meaning content producers. They will be weary of challenging main stream narratives in general.
Google’s research paper mentioned the “Birther” conspiracy, and this provides a perfect example. Let us pretend that in 2016 there emerged a presidential candidate whose nationality really was in question. Content producers would be inclined not to report on the issue, for fear of being silenced by the world’s largest search engine, a system they rely on to put food on their tables.
New Scientist mentioned “anti-vaccination” sites. Well, if Google were to take the position that vaccines were safe and anybody who said they weren’t was a liar, then the emergence of a dangerous vaccine at some point in the future would not be as widely reported on due to fears of censorship by their biggest driver of traffic and advertising revenue. The real fact on vaccines is that they are not as safe as marijuana, so would pro vaccine sites that say “vaccines are safe” as a blanket statement be flushed? I have a hard time imagining that this would result in anything positive.
In short, Google would not just be driving down the emergence of incorrect information, they would have a dramatic impact on what people said before they said it. That goes contrary to everything we’ve come to enjoy about the Internet as a place for the exchange of ideas, and competition for hearts and minds.
The Myth of Neutrality
As I recently remarked, there is no such thing as neutral. We all have certain biases, and the best that we can hope for is to make those biases known and let people decide for themselves how to interpret data. The FCC cannot make the net “neutral” they can only control it in the way they see fit. There is no such thing as an unbiased news source, because to even say a thing is news is to take a position on an issue. The pages of Wikipedia are fraught with left wing and feminist bias that has been well reported on by many, not the least of which was to label “Cultural Marxism” as a conspiracy theory.
To decide whether or not a thing is true, and to flush the untrue statement to the bottom of search results, necessarily would make Google an arbiter of debates. Google might make some attempt to appear neutral in that, but the biases of their developers would bleed through in some way no matter what. Say a developer implements a fact checking system, sees results he does not agree with, and then alters the fact checking algorithm to fit his world view. If Wikipedia, a system that anybody can edit, will throw cultural Marxism into the conspiracy theory dumpster, then let us not pretend that a more tightly controlled mechanism like Google’s search algorithms won’t be subject to the same biases.
Were Google search results to begin flushing “conspiracy theories” down the toilet on wikipedia standards, just imagine how many conservative and libertarian websites would cease to have a voice on the world’s largest search engine.
Popularity By Any Other Name
Ultimately, Google is incapable of actually being the arbiter of truth. The proposed method of determining the factual accuracy of a given statement is actually just a different measurement of popularity than they currently use. Instead of determining popularity based on how many people are linking to the content, they would judge the popularity based on how many people were saying the same thing, and call that factual accuracy. This itself, is factually inaccurate, as popularity and truth are often worlds apart.
Per the research paper from Google:
"We propose using Knowledge-Based Trust (KBT) to estimate source trustworthiness as follows. We extract a plurality of facts from many pages using information extraction techniques. We then jointly estimate the correctness of these facts and the accuracy of the sources using inference in a probabilistic model. Inference is an iterative process, since we believe a source is accurate if its facts are correct, and we believe the facts are correct if they are extracted from an accurate source. We leverage the redundancy of information on the web to break the symmetry. Furthermore, we show how to initialize our estimate of the accuracy of sources based on authoritative information, in order to ensure that this iterative process converges to a good solution."
Facts are accurate because they come from a reputable source, and a source is reputable because it is accurate. They determine if it is accurate based on how many people are saying the same thing. This is just another popularity contest using a different yard stick. Instead of judging relevancy based on inbound links, they are determining “accuracy” based on similar thought processes. This of course, is no measure of accuracy at all.
For a great deal of time it was thought that tomatoes were evil. This very popular notion parroted by many of the time, turned out to be complete nonsense. It took awhile for people to figure out that aristocrats were dying of lead poisoning, not tomatoes themselves. Imagine that phenomenon in the age of Google fact checking, any site that said tomatoes were safe, would quickly be flushed to the bottom of the search results.
Think about the hysteria that followed the release of “Reefer Madness” in the 30’s. That nonsense went largely unrefuted, and was in no small part responsible for the countless cages and coffins now filled due to the war on drugs. Challenging those ideas on the Internet is why Washington, Colorado, Alaska, and Washington DC have legalized marijuana in defiance of the federal government, and states like New Hampshire are moving towards decriminalization. Now imagine that trying to take place in an era of Google “fact checking” where to disagree with the notion that marijuana leads to rape and murder, would flush you to the bottom of the search engine rankings.
Trying to pass off popularity, however your measurement is taken, as accuracy is a fundamental flaw in the way human beings think. Our confirmation bias is a huge problem in discussions on all sorts of topics from politics, to economics, to health, and beyond. It is specifically because things like Google and Facebook have operated in the way they operate that we’re able to overcome some portion of that hazard, and the proposal by Google’s researchers would put a huge dent in that progress while competitors struggled to gain market share back with better ranking policies.
That doesn’t just harm businesses or screw up your enjoyment of the Internet. That costs lives, fills prisons, and steers nations to war.
Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.
American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.
For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS and DISSECTING LEFTISM. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here.