Tag Archives: manipulation

Remembering the sacrifice

Many times and in many places I have seen a call to remember the sacrifice of the soldiers who died in some past conflict. Often, this call seems an attempt to direct attention away from the misguidedness of the particular conflict or the incompetence and selfish motives of the leadership who decided to enter the war. It tries to make people focus on the noble courage of the soldiers, not the sordid power-hunger of the rulers. The bravery of soldiers is discussed in another post (http://sanderheinsalu.com/ajaveeb/?p=595); here I would like to clarify this sacrifice business.

If the soldiers volunteered under reasonably accurate information about the reasons for the conflict and the chances of success, then indeed they chose to sacrifice themselves for the cause. Then we should remember their sacrifice. If, however, they were conscripted (dictatorships often call this volunteering) using the threat of punishment for them or their family, then they did not make the sacrifice any more than a sacrificial animal sacrifices itself. Others sacrificed the conscripts to further their own ends.

These ends are unlikely to prioritize defeating an evil regime and making the world a better place, although the propaganda claims this was the objective. Mostly the goal of leaders is to preserve and expand their power, whether by defending the country against takeover or conquering additional subjects and wealth. Even if this is acknowledged, current propaganda may point out some good side effect of sacrificing the soldiers, e.g. defeating an old enemy. This is again a distraction attempt. The world is complex and interconnected, so every event, including a mass death, has some beneficial side effects, just like every event has some negative side effects. One should consider the overall consequences of an event, not just one side effect.

If the soldiers genuinely volunteered, but due to being misled by propaganda, then they wanted to sacrifice themselves for one cause, but their leaders sacrificed them for another. Usually volunteers underestimate the length of the war and the probability of dying. Thus even when they know the true goal of the conflict, the sacrifice they are led to is larger than the one they intended to make.

The most clear and direct self-sacrifice is made by suicide bombers. They probably think that their bombing serves a good purpose, but such belief is almost always misguided. Religious indoctrination of the bombers manipulates them into believing in a noble cause, hiding the true goals of the leaders ordering the bombing.

I have not heard many calls to remember the sacrifice of present-day child soldiers. Rather there are calls to pity and save them. The situation of many soldiers in many wars has been similar to children forced to fight – ignorance and fear of punishment. Obeying the conscription order often offers a greater survival probability than refusal.

Instead of remembering the sacrifice of conscripts, we should remember them being sacrificed. Remember with pity. Remember to prevent.

On accepting apologies

There seems to be a social convention that an apology has to be accepted and that someone who does not is unfriendly and a bad person. This seems strange to me, because an apology often tries to undo deeds with words, or cancel unthinking words with considered ones.

The willingness of most people to trade words for deeds seems irrational to me – there is a qualitative difference between words and deeds, in that words can be neutralized within the hearer’s mind. If the hearer or reader does not understand, hear or attach emotional significance to words, then these have no effect. Deeds, on the other hand, have consequences that are not just in people’s heads. A punch causes bruising even if imagined to be a caress. An insult does not cause bad feelings if it is interpreted as a joke by all concerned.

Accepting words in compensation for deeds makes one manipulable. The perpetrator of bad actions can get away with them repeatedly by promising each time to change and to sin no more (Hitler’s “last territorial demand”). The social convention that words have to be accepted as compensation helps the unscrupulous. If instead good works in sufficient quantity were required to make up for misdeeds, then taking advantage of others would be less profitable. Some people would have to spend a lifetime undoing their crimes, which creates the incentive problem of how to make criminals work. Perhaps gradually easing ostracism and restrictions as the debt is worked off. The quantity of good actions required must be large enough to make the overall profit from a bad deed negative.

Cancelling unthinking words with a considered apology benefits impulsive liars who initially insult and then talk their way out of the opprobrium by pretending to be sorry. Every time I find in the media that a politician or a white collar criminal says sorry, I interpret it as them being sorry they were caught. If they were sorry about the deed itself, they wouldn’t have done it in the first place.

A good person who did something bad by accident would volunteer to make amends. They would not have to be forced to it as punishment. Of course, if volunteering to compensate starts being interpreted favourably enough by society, then selfish and manipulative people would also volunteer. Making amends is a costly signal of good intentions, but if the benefit of signalling is large enough, then even the bad types signal to imitate the good.

Which ideology is more likely to be wrong?

Exercise in Bayes’ rule: is an ideology more likely to be wrong if it appeals relatively more to poor people than the rich?

More manipulable folks are more likely to lose their money, so less likely to be rich. Stupid people have a lower probability of making money. By Bayes, the rich are on average less manipulable and more intelligent than the poor.

Less manipulable people are less likely to find an ideology built on fallacies appealing. By Bayes, an ideology relatively more appealing to the stupid and credulous is more likely to be wrong. Due to such people being poor with a higher probability, an ideology embraced more by the poor than the rich is more likely to be fallacious.

Another exercise: is an ideology more likely to be wrong if academics like it relatively more than non-academics?

Smarter people are more likely to become academics, so by Bayes’ rule, academics are more likely to be smart. Intelligent people have a relatively higher probability of liking a correct ideology, so by Bayes, an ideology appealing to the intelligent is more likely to be correct. An ideology liked by academics is correct with a higher probability.

Comparing dictatorships

Why compare evil regimes? Sometimes a choice must be made which one to support. Inaction and refusal to choose is also a choice and may favour one or another. The help or harm to some regime may be indirect, e.g. through the enemy of an enemy.

How to compare evil regimes? I have encountered people who compare based on words, justifying crimes against humanity by some countries with the argument that their goals were good or the ideology was good, just wrongly implemented. (The subtext here is that if it was wrongly implemented in the past, perhaps it should be tried again in the hopes of implementing it rightly.) I disagree. Actions should be the basis of judgement, not narratives. A failure of a political system is a negative signal about it. Regardless of whether it signals a fundamental flaw or a low likelihood of right implementation, until all other systems have been tried and have accumulated a similar weight of negative signals, the failed system should not be tried again. This can be mathematically formalized as optimal sequential control under incomplete information.

I believe comparisons of countries should be based on objective criteria, preferably specified before the data is gathered (as in the scientific method). These objective criteria are for example the number of people killed, tortured, wrongly imprisoned, expropriated, the number and extent of wars started, the territory and population conquered and for how long, the economic and environmental damage caused. The number of ethnic or religious groups eliminated may also be counted, but this has the effect of weighting the deaths of people from smaller groups more.

The measures can be total or divided by time or by the number of supporters of the regime. The total of these criteria is generally larger for bigger countries. There is simply more opportunity to kill, torture, etc when there are more people available. The total measures are of interest because they show the whole negative impact on the world.

Division by time results in criteria that measure the flow of evil done. If the decision is which regime to eliminate first, it is optimal to focus on the one with the greatest predicted negative influence per unit of time. This strategy minimizes the total impact of evil regimes.

To find the expected number of crimes of a person from a dictatorship (or its leadership) without other data about them, the total crimes of the regime should be divided by its population (or number of leaders). Dividing by both people and time gives the expected flow of evil per person, suggesting an optimal strategy of removing leaders of criminal regimes.

The above focusses on past evil, but for predictive purposes the attractiveness or “selling power” of the regime also matters. How likely is the dictatorship to survive and expand? If more people favour and justify it, including outside its borders, it has a greater opportunity to do evil in the future. So the niceness of the narrative used to excuse its actions is actually a negative signal about an otherwise criminal regime. If the stories the dictatorship tells about itself make people consider its goals good or ideology good, then the dictatorship is more dangerous than another that cannot manipulate audiences into supporting it.

Principles help in resisting the siren call of “the end justifies the means.” For example the principle that nothing justifies crimes against humanity. No story about the greater good, no idealistic ideology. Another good principle is that actions speak louder than words. If a regime fails at good governance, excuses should be ignored.

Religion is wrong with positive probability

When a person says that some god wants X or rewards X and punishes Y, then how do they know? They, a limited human, claim knowledge of the mind of a god. When asked how they know, they say either that the god told them directly (using some revelation or sign perhaps) or that the god told some other person (a prophet) in the past, who passed on the message in the form of a book or an oral tradition. They certainly do not have replicable experimental evidence. If some other person was told, then recall the telephone game (children whispering in each other’s ear change the message radically) and people’s general lying, misunderstanding and misremembering. In any case, at some point a god must have told a person.
Let us look at this unavoidable transmission link between a purported god and a human. Could not an evil spirit have impersonated the god to the human (if evil spirits exist in their religion)? Or could it have been just a hallucination, dream, false memory? Psychology shows false memories are easy to induce (Brainerd and Reyna 2005 “The science of false memory”). How could a human tell the difference? Plenty of people in insane asylums claim not only to know a god’s will but also to be a god.
If there is a method for distinguishing real revelations from gods from false ones, how do you know it works? Either a god told you directly that it works or a person told you. In both cases we arrive at the previous question: how do you know it was a god and that you (or the other person) understood and remember the message correctly? If there is a method for finding and verifying good methods of distinguishing real from fake revelations, how do you know that works? And so on. Everything eventually relies on belief in the claim of a human. There is always a positive probability that the human imagined things that were not there or is deceiving self or others. Any religious claim is wrong with positive probability.
The next fallback position for advocates of religion is that even if it is wrong with positive probability, it does no harm to believe it. But how do they know? Back to the question about knowing the mind of a god. Why cannot a god reward nonbelievers and punish believers? And which religion out of the multitude in the world should one believe for maximal benefit? Some religions claim that a wrong religion is worse than none (heresy worse than paganism), some the opposite. To compare the expected benefit from believing different religions and from atheism, one needs to know the size of the rewards and punishments and also their probabilities. All this reduces to (conflicting) claims by humans about the will of a god. Which are wrong with positive probability.

Why politics is as it is and how to change it

Politics in all democratic countries is dishonest, propagandistic, riven by special interests etc. From time to time politicians who promise to change this arise. Mostly these politicians fall into the old ways and create no change but sometimes they turn their countries into dictatorships.

It is very difficult to change the way politics is done because there is a reason why politics is the way it is. Not many people set out to lie and cheat their way to the top. Mostly they start with good intentions but gradually adopt the tactics generally used.

The reason for dishonesty is that politics is an evolutionary process (mutation, selection, reproduction). People invent new ways to manipulate others all the time (mutation). Those who use the kind of tactics generally used in modern politics are likely to get elected (selection). Their tactics are then copied by the next generation of politicians (reproduction). The end result is a thoroughly dishonest political class because lying and cheating work as ways to get to the top. There is no lack of idealists trying to do honest politics but mostly they won’t get elected because their restriction to honest methods severely limits the crowd-manipulation tools available to them. If they do get elected, they will be outnumbered by the dishonest ones.

 

Proposed method of change

Trying to get enough honest politicians elected to change the system just won’t work because honesty limits their tools of making people elect them. Politicians use dishonesty because it works and gets them power.

In a democracy the power ultimately rests with the people. If all people or even just a bare majority were rational and perfectly informed, there would be no room for manipulation and dishonesty. The present political situation is only possible because people are stupid enough to be manipulated into electing the people who create such a political situation. Every nation deserves its leaders.

The way to lessen dishonesty in politics is to make people recognize and dislike it. Most people are not clever enough to see through the manipulation themselves, so the media and perhaps scientists should help them.

When televising speeches of politicians the news agencies could place a running commentary on the speech in the subtitles, pointing out logically or factually wrong statements, demagogy and meaningless phrases, giving examples of the politician’s possible motives for saying certain things, pointing out the interest group to whom a promise is aimed.

The news agencies could keep a file on every politician of sufficient influence. The file should contain their earlier promises, statements, voting record and press releases. Every time the news agency runs a story containing that politician the online version of the story should have a link to that politician’s file. If the politician contradicts his or her earlier talk, it should be pointed out by the news agency and a link to the appropriate place in that politician’s file placed next to the reference.

People could be educated in basic mathematical logic so they could notice some logically false statements (one can never teach most people enough to make them recognize factually wrong claims, that is what the politician’s file would be for).

In countries where a certain number of citizens can initiate laws, those interested in honest politics could campaign for a law recalling a politician who has lied. Then a referendum can be organized to pass that law because politicians themselves certainly would not do it. Lying would need to be clearly defined in the law so that uncertain statements and slips of the tongue would not empty all government institutions. In some cases, however, it can certainly be proved that what the politician said contradicts the facts or is logically false.