The Disinformation Vaccine: Is There a Cure for Conspiracy Theories?

Andy Kroll in Rolling Stone:

Sander van der Linden was working in his office at the University of Cambridge a few years ago when he received a strange phone call. A professor of social psychology and director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Laboratory, van der Linden is one of the world’s leading researchers on how to combat the scourge of disinformation and misinformation. He receives  requests all the time about his work from government agencies, media organizations, and civil-society groups. But the person who called that day was not a bureaucrat or a diplomat. It was a representative from L’Oréal, the multi-billion-dollar global beauty product company. L’Oréal had what it called a “scientific disinformation” problem related to some of its products. Could van der Linden help?

At the heart of van der Linden’s research is a theory: Our information crisis can and should be treated like a virus. Responding to fake stories or conspiracy theories after the fact is woefully insufficient, just as post-infection treatments don’t compare to vaccines. Indeed, a growing body of social science suggests that fact-checks and debunkings do little to correct falsehoods after people have seen a piece of misinformation (the unintentional spread of misleading or false stories) or disinformation (the intentional spread of such a story with a purpose in mind). Van der Linden believes we can protect people against bad information through something akin to inoculation. A truth vaccine. He calls this tactic “prebunking.”

More here.

AI conquers challenge of 1980s platform games

Paul Rincon at the BBC:

Scientists have come up with a computer program that can master a variety of 1980s exploration games, paving the way for more self-sufficient robots.

They created a family of algorithms (software-based instructions for solving a problem) able to complete classic Atari games, such as Pitfall.

Previously, these scrolling platform games have been challenging to solve using artificial intelligence (AI).

The algorithms could help robots better navigate real-world environments.

This remains a core challenge in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence. The types of environments in question include disaster zones, where robots could be sent out to search for survivors, or even just the average home.

The work in this study falls into an area of AI research known as reinforcement learning.

More here.

The Secret Life of a Coronavirus

Carl Zimmer in the New York Times:

Last spring, coyotes strolled down the streets of San Francisco in broad daylight. Pods of rarely seen pink dolphins cavorted in the waters around Hong Kong. In Tel Aviv, jackals wandered a city park, a herd of mountain goats took over a town in Wales, and porcupines ambled through Rome’s ancient ruins. As the canals in Venice turned strangely clear, cormorants started diving for fish, and Canada geese escorted their goslings down the middle of Las Vegas Boulevard, passing empty shops displaying Montblanc pens and Fendi handbags.

Nature was expanding as billions of people were retreating from the Covid-19 pandemic. The change was so swift, so striking that scientists needed a new name for it: the anthropause.

But the anthropause did more than reconfigure the animal kingdom. It also altered the planet’s chemistry. As factories grew quiet and traffic dropped, ozone levels fell by 7 percent across the Northern Hemisphere. As air pollution across India dropped by a third, mountain snowpacks in the Indus Basin grew brighter. With less haze in the atmosphere, the sky let more sunlight through.

More here.

Reading the Room

Ryan Ruby in the New Left Review:

Since its consolidation at the end of the eighteenth century, the realist novel has been the premier vehicle for the depiction of contemporary life. For over two hundred years, a relatively fixed set of representational techniques – point-of-view, voice, description, dialogue, plot – has managed to adapt to the radical transformations of modernity: the nuclearization of the family, the entry of women into public life, the liberalization of sexual mores, industrialization and deindustrialization, urbanization and suburbanization, secularization, the lifeworlds of dominated classes and colonized nations, war on a planetary scale, and new conceptions of cognition and identity formation, to name just a few. By doubling down on its core strength – the linguistic representation of inner experience – the novel even managed to fend off challenges from rival media, like film and television. But over the last decade or so it has become clear that changes in the texture of the contemporary itself, due primarily to the diffusion of digital networked media, have begun to strain the capacity of the novel – as an institution, as a medium, as a form – to fulfil its traditional remit.

The reason most often given for this is that, bound to the format and economics of the book, an increasingly Jurassic technology, the novel’s production cycle cannot keep pace with the accelerated timescale of the internet, which contracts what counts as the contemporary into shorter and shorter units of duration by flooding the collective consciousness with data.

More here.

Sunday Poem

Origins of Violence

There is a hole.
In the hole is everything
people will do
to each other.

The hole goes down and down.
It has many rooms
like graves and like graves
they are all connected.

Roots hang from the dirt
in craggy chandeliers.
It’s not clear
where the hole stops

beginning and where
it starts to end.
It’s warm and dark down there.
The passages multiply.

There are ballrooms.
There are dead ends.
The air smells of iron and
crushed flowers.

People will do anything.
They will cut the hands off children.
Children will do anything—

In the hole is everything.

by Jenny George
Smith College Poetry Center

What if we’ve forgotten how to socialise?

Pamela Druckerman in 1843 Magazine:

During a rare excursion to a clothes shop I took last month, an older woman walked in, looked around at the other shoppers and exclaimed, “humans!” It was an unusual moment of bonding with strangers. Mostly I just hold my breath as people squeeze past me at the supermarket. In this year of staying two metres away from practically everyone, we’ve all become used to treating other people as potentially toxic. Now that vaccinations are under way, we’re allowed to hope that we will one day emerge from hibernation. What will socialising be like on the other side? And how will we cope with being together again?

Psychologists who study individuals in solitary confinement, or those living in isolated conditions such as Antarctic research stations, warn that people can become hypersensitive and skittish after spending too long in their own company or with just a few others. Most of our lockdowns haven’t been quite that extreme. But the pandemic has changed our response to the world. My patience has certainly deteriorated. I’ve come to like Zoom calls, because I can click “end meeting” then jump into the bath minutes later. When I had a friend over recently for a rare, socially distanced dinner, I quickly realised that for the next few hours, every time he said something, I’d have to say something back. Again and again. I was trapped.

Others have lost their patience with me. I’ve stopped politely asking strangers to back off if they’re too close to me in the queue at the post office. They either huff about my “paranoia” or spew germs while loudly insisting that they’re definitely not sick. And we’ve misplaced our sense of what’s interesting. One friend keeps insisting we take a walk so she can tell me about her colonoscopy.

More here.

How Negro History Week Became Black History Month and Why It Matters Now

Veronica Chambers in The New York Times:

Black History Month has been celebrated in the United States for close to 100 years. But what is it, exactly, and how did it begin?

In the years after Reconstruction, campaigning for the importance of Black history and doing the scholarly work of creating the canon was a cornerstone of civil rights work for leaders like Carter G. Woodson. Martha Jones, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor, explained: “These are men [like Woodson] who were trained formally and credentialed in the ways that all intellectuals and thought leaders of the early 20th century were trained at Harvard and places like that. But in order to make the argument, in order to make the claim about Black genius, about Black excellence, you have to build the space in which to do that. There is no room.” This is how they built the room.

1895: On Feb. 20, Frederick Douglass, the most powerful civil rights advocate of his era, dies.

Douglass collapsed after attending a meeting with suffragists, including his friend Susan B. Anthony. A lifelong supporter of women’s rights, Douglass was among the 32 men who signed the Declaration of Sentiments at Seneca Falls, N.Y. He once said: “When I ran away from slavery, it was for myself; when I advocated emancipation, it was for my people. But when I stood up for the rights of woman, self was out of the question, and I found a little nobility in the act.”

More here. (Throughout February, at least one post will be dedicated to honoring Black History Month. The theme this year is: The Family)

Rawls at 100

Joshua Cohen in Boston Review:

The American political philosopher John Rawls was born in 1921 and published A Theory of Justice in 1971. In celebration of these 100th and 50th anniversaries, we provide this reading list of great Rawls-related essays that have appeared in Boston ReviewOne of the pieces is by Rawls himself, and came to us through Owen Fiss. Fiss sent us a 1981 letter that he had received from Rawls recounting a conversation with Harry Kalven—whose book, A Worthy Tradition (1988), shaped Rawls’s understanding of freedom of speech—about the perfections of baseball. Rawls was also a regular reader of BR, which he described as “a jewel,” with “serious discussion at the highest level of pressing issues.” His most important contribution to BR comes from his conception of justice and democracy, which has helped to shape our editorial agenda.

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls presented an account of justice—he called it “justice as fairness”—that proposed a striking marriage of the values of liberty and equality. For much of the past century, the idea of a political philosophy devoted to both liberty and equality seemed to many people a contradiction in terms. Outraged by vast differences between the lives of rich and poor, egalitarians condemned classical liberals for giving undue attention to formal rights and liberties while remaining complacent in the face of grim inequalities of fortune on earth. Classical liberals, meanwhile, rejected egalitarianism for its paternalism and willingness to sacrifice human freedom in the name of a life-flattening equality. “Equality comes sharply into conflict with freedom,” Milton Friedman had written in Capitalism and Freedom (1962): “one must choose. One cannot be both an egalitarian . . . and a liberal.”

More here.

The tyranny of work

Jamie McCallum in Aeon:

Years ago, I set up a weekly Google Alert for the phrase ‘work ethic’ to help me gather material for the book I was writing. I have read thousands of these articles over the years. As individual stories, the alerts are only moderately interesting. A significant percentage of the pieces written in American newspapers and magazines that contain the phrase ‘work ethic’ are about sports, as star athletes are almost always routinely praised for their tireless practice-makes-perfect commitment. Others say the same about politicians, and a good portion are op-eds by elected officials or business leaders complaining about the pathetic state of the work ethic among today’s youth.

Taken as a whole, however, they illuminate a severe anxiety about a fundamental precept of the American civil religion. The work ethic is a tent-pole of national identity politics. Reading between the lines, across the media, or even just skimming the headlines, gives one the impression that we are a nation under attack. One national poll in 2015 found that 72 per cent of respondents said the United States ‘isn’t as great as it once was’. The principal culprit was the country’s declining belief in the value of hard work. More people thought ‘our own lagging work ethic’ was a larger threat to American greatness than the Islamic State, economic inequality, and competition with China.

Widespread anxiety about a diminished work ethic is confounding when considered against the actual data on how much time Americans spend working.

More here.

The Broken System

Elizabeth Anderson in The Nation:

Last spring, Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina explained why, at a pivotal moment in the Democratic primaries, he endorsed Joe Biden for president: “Our problem, it seems to me, is too many candidates spend time trying to let people know how smart they are, rather than trying to connect to people.” Clyburn said he hates it when candidates tell voters they need to be able to send their kids to college. What about the people who want to be electricians, plumbers, barbers? The promise of debt-free college, he continued, offers nothing to the significant part of his constituency that doesn’t want to go to college.

Clyburn’s endorsement played an important role in reviving Biden’s campaign: The former vice president’s thumping victory in South Carolina was the turning point of the Democratic primaries. Clyburn’s focus on higher education and the way it might alienate potential Democratic voters also points to a larger challenge that the party has faced since the 1980s: Despite seeking to protect working-class interests more than the Republicans, it has lost considerable segments of its working-class base. A candidate like Elizabeth Warren may advocate programs that advance working-class interests, including universal child care and pre-K and worker representation on corporate boards, but she failed to draw substantial working-class support. Much the same can be said for Warren’s more centrist colleagues, figures like Pete Buttigieg and Senator Amy Klobuchar.

Michael J. Sandel’s new book, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, gives us a deeper view into some of the reasons why many ordinary workers have become suspicious of the highly educated elites who seek to represent their interests in the Democratic Party. In providing a damning critique of meritocracy, Sandel also documents how, as both an ideology and a set of practices, it has become a driving force within the party as its members have become more highly educated. He argues that, in stressing education as the primary means to get ahead in society, the party’s educated elites have come to offer an increasingly narrow pathway to a decent life.

More here.

The Chinese ‘Debt Trap’ Is a Myth

Deborah Brautigam and Meg Rithmire in The Atlantic:

China, we are told, inveigles poorer countries into taking out loan after loan to build expensive infrastructure that they can’t afford and that will yield few benefits, all with the end goal of Beijing eventually taking control of these assets from its struggling borrowers. As states around the world pile on debt to combat the coronavirus pandemic and bolster flagging economies, fears of such possible seizures have only amplified.

Seen this way, China’s internationalization—as laid out in programs such as the Belt and Road Initiative—is not simply a pursuit of geopolitical influence but also, in some tellings, a weapon. Once a country is weighed down by Chinese loans, like a hapless gambler who borrows from the Mafia, it is Beijing’s puppet and in danger of losing a limb.

The prime example of this is the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota. As the story goes, Beijing pushed Sri Lanka into borrowing money from Chinese banks to pay for the project, which had no prospect of commercial success. Onerous terms and feeble revenues eventually pushed Sri Lanka into default, at which point Beijing demanded the port as collateral, forcing the Sri Lankan government to surrender control to a Chinese firm.

More here.

From Devout Christianity to UFOs

Jenny Valentish at The Guardian:

The Believer is the highly anticipated second book from Sarah Krasnostein, author of multi-award-winning The Trauma Cleaner. She immerses herself in the worlds of UFO chasers, paranormal investigators, Creationists, Mennonites, a woman whose belief in God is steadfast despite having been let down by the criminal justice system, and a death doula (essentially a midwife for dying).

The book is split into two parts, with three stories alternating in each, but it does not have the sudden, satisfying synchronicities that you might expect from such a format. Rather, it’s a philosophical meditation on all aspects of faith and self-delusion, with the elegant phrasing of ideas that made The Trauma Cleaner such a delight.

more here.

Reviewing the Book Review

Parul Sehgal at the NYT:

To wander through 125 years of book reviews is to endure assault by adjective. All the fatuous books, the frequently brilliant, the disappointing, the essential. The adjectives one only ever encounters in a review (indelible, risible), the archaic descriptors (sumptuous). So many masterpieces, so many duds — now enjoying quiet anonymity.

What did I find? Those misjudged masterpieces — on Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie”: “It is a book one can very well get along without reading.” The sensitive assessments — consistently by the critic and former editor of the Book Review, John Leonard, an early and forceful champion of writers like Toni Morrison, John Edgar Wideman and Grace Paley. Fluorescent condescension and stereotype — on N. Scott Momaday’s “House Made of Dawn,” which went on to win the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for fiction: “American Indians do not write novels and poetry as a rule or teach English in top-ranking universities either. But we cannot be patronizing.” Oh, no?

more here.

Saturday Poem

— An original poem written for the inaugural reading of
Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith at the Library of Congress.

In This Place

There’s a poem in this place—
in the footfalls in the halls
in the quiet beat of the seats.
It is here, at the curtain of day,
where America writes a lyric
you must whisper to say.

There’s a poem in this place—
in the heavy grace,
the lined face of this noble building,
collections burned and reborn twice.

There’s a poem in Boston’s Copley Square
where protest chants
tear through the air
like sheets of rain,
where love of the many
swallows hatred of the few.

There’s a poem in Charlottesville
where tiki torches string a ring of flame
tight round the wrist of night
where men so white they gleam blue—
seem like statues
where men heap that long wax burning
ever higher
where Heather Heyer
blooms forever in a meadow of resistance.

There’s a poem in the great sleeping giant
of Lake Michigan, defiantly raising
its big blue head to Milwaukee and Chicago—
a poem begun long ago, blazed into frozen soil,
strutting upward and aglow.

There’s a poem in Florida, in East Texas
where streets swell into a nexus
of rivers, cows afloat like mottled buoys in the brown,
where courage is now so common
that 23-year-old Jesus Contreras rescues people from floodwaters.

Read more »

The French Inquisition

Rafia Zakaria in The Baffler:

I HAVE NEVER FELT WELCOME in France. From the sneer on the face of the immigration officer stamping my passport, to the in-your-face staring of black-clad middle-aged women on the metro, to the standoffish workers in Parisian bakeries—it all adds up to a collective face-palm. They’re forced to let me into the country because of my magical American passport, but that doesn’t mean they have to be nice about it. I know the reason; traveling to France and being treated well is yet another exercise of white privilege, one open to all the fresh-faced English and French majors at American universities, and all the social-climbing women hoping to live some version of the I-found-a-French-lover/bakery/apartment-that-I-cannot-live-without. It’s not easy to explain to these uncritical consumers of a Fantasy France that the country is a racist and bigoted hell for those born sans white privilege. Americans have invested a great deal in anointing the trip to Paris as a ritual that endows the taker with the chic they so desire.

In the past several decades, but particularly in the past few months, France’s two-faced truths have been exposed in all their grimace-inducing reality. On February 16, the French National Assembly passed a bill, originally termed the “anti-separatism” law, that would allow the state to intervene and shut down any religious or community organization that it found wanting in its commitment to French secularism. The legislation, which is now under consideration in the Senate, mandates further scrutiny of homeschooling—a method many French Muslims have resorted to so as to educate girls who are not permitted to attend regular school because they wear the headscarf. The legislation will bolster the French state’s ability to impose its version of secularism—what they call laïcité—on everyone they dislike. France’s Muslims, who make up about 8 percent of the population and are widely stigmatized as being potential terrorists, are the targets. Absent entirely are any plans for the French state to confront how racism contributes to religious violence in France.

More here.

Ten Little Known Black History Facts

From PBS:

In an effort to honor this expansive and growing history, Black History Month was established by way of a weekly celebration in February known as “Negro History Week” by historian Carter G. Woodson. But just as Black history is more than a month, so too are the numerous events and figures that are often overlooked during it. What follows is a list of some of those “lesser known” moments and facts in Black history.

Of the 12.5 million Africans shipped to the New World during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, fewer than 388,000 arrived in the United States.

In the late 15th century, the advancement of seafaring technologies created a new Atlantic that would change the world forever. As ships began connecting West Africa with Europe and the Americas, new fortunes were sought and native populations were decimated. With the native labor force dwindling and demand for plantation and mining labor growing, the transatlantic slave trade began. The Transatlantic Slave Trade was underway from 1500-1866, shipping more than 12 million African slaves across the world. Of those slaves, only 10.7 million survived the dreaded Middle Passage. Over 400 years, the majority of slaves (4.9 million) found their way to Brazil where they suffered incredibly high mortality rates due to terrible working conditions. Brazil was also the last country to ban slavery in 1888. By the time the United States became involved in the slave trade, it had been underway for two hundred years. The majority of its 388,000 slaves arrived between 1700 and 1866, representing a much smaller percentage than most Americans realize.

More here. (Throughout February, at least one post will be dedicated to honoring Black History Month. The theme this year is: The Family)