Letter from South America

Up for Grabs...Live

Up for Grabs…Live (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dear Bob,
Not long ago events here in Colombia made me think of Episyllogism and a topic discussed in this blog many times: the power of bullshit or spin.  As you might have heard the Colombian government negotiated a peace agreement with the guerrilla group FARC – a negotiation that took four years after several failed attempts during previous governments. In order to make it law, the president had two options: have a referendum or have it approved by the congress. He chose to take this to the polls, so we had a referendum in October. The country divided over the matter; which seems like a surprise, as the choice of peace would appear to be a no-brainer. The social networks helped the NO campaign big time (ah! and many church leaders too!). They were inundated with bullshit. The messages either distorted what was included in the agreement or simply made up outrageous facts. After hearing some of these claims from my students, I decided it was time to read the real agreement; a difficult task, given the length and the complexity of the text, but undoubtedly, a necessary thing.  And then I found myself almost getting mad at a one my students about all of this. One day she told me she was going to vote against. Why?, I asked. She pulled out her cellphone and was ready to show me a message forwarded to her on WhatsApp. I tried to stop her: No, no, no. Don’t even show me that. Do you know the source? –Yes…my brother in law…  No, no, no!. The real source! Those messages are propaganda! I don’t want to read that. 
And I mentioned some of the things I had read which completely debunked the lies in the message. Later I pondered about my reaction. The bullshit made me mad and I almost had a fight with my student! Then I heard in the news that indeed many friends and families were fighting over this. But I had a good reason to be mad: the exaggeration was so ridiculous and it was so easy and convenient to read these “summaries” of the long text: Read the damn text carefully! – I don’t have time…. In the end my effort was fruitless: my student voted against the agreement despite my attempt to rectify the bullshit. The campaign to vote NO was rampant in the net (and in some pulpits too). After it succeeded, the campaign leader of one of the biggest groups against the agreement acknowledged that he had used well-known spin tactics, clearly distorting and confusing. But this confession didn’t have much effect.
No one wanted to say they had been deceived and therefore wrong about their vote. I wonder if the country learned anything about bullshit or we are too proud to admit we can be victims of spin-doctors if we don’t watch it. Fortunately, the congress approved a new agreement and it is in the process of implementation. And by the way, Canada is sending some troops to help with peace keeping.
Well, that is all for now. Peace for all. Until next time,


8 thoughts on “Letter from South America

  1. Thanks for this “Letter from South America” and I certainly look forward to reading one every month.

    You raise some interesting philosophical problems in telling us of your experience with a student and your response to the false claims raised by that person. We have, it seems, many similar examples in this the “Post-truth” era. Philosophers and psychologists have done a massive amount of work on topics around knowledge, belief, truth, fallacies: or epistemology. For the general discussion a good place to start is the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

    Epistemology is the study of knowledge. Epistemologists concern themselves with a number of tasks, which we might sort into two categories.

    First, we must determine the nature of knowledge; that is, what does it mean to say that someone knows, or fails to know, something? This is a matter of understanding what knowledge is, and how to distinguish between cases in which someone knows something and cases in which someone does not know something. While there is some general agreement about some aspects of this issue, we shall see that this question is much more difficult than one might imagine.

    Second, we must determine the extent of human knowledge; that is, how much do we, or can we, know? How can we use our reason, our senses, the testimony of others, and other resources to acquire knowledge? Are there limits to what we can know? For instance, are some things unknowable? Is it possible that we do not know nearly as much as we think we do? Should we have a legitimate worry about skepticism, the view that we do not or cannot know anything at all?

    And there are “self- help” sources as well that are fun to read. I find the scholarly work on false beliefs in kids fascinating. For example,

    A new study finds that, under the right conditions, 2 1/2-year-old children can answer questions about people acting on false beliefs, an ability that most researchers believe does not develop until age 4.

    “Having the ability to represent false beliefs means recognizing that others can have different thoughts from us,” said Peipei Setoh, who, as a graduate student, conducted the study with University of Illinois psychology professor Renée Baillargeon and fellow graduate student Rose Scott. Setoh is now a professor at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
    The results are reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    Having just observed the election of a president in the USA we in Canada are aware of the power of bullshit in shaping the beliefs of citizens. Your letter has prompted me to consider these matters carefully. Thanks again.


    • BS everywhere indeed! How can anyone trust Mr. Tr!? The US election was such a shock: how amazingly wrong the polls were. Some analyst suggested that perhaps people did not answer the surveys truthfully. Why? Out of shame! Ashamed to admit they liked Trump. Funny, but I don’t know. It does not seem very plausible if these polls are conducted as usual, i.e., no personal information provided. But anyway, it is an important possibility. We know we need to be skeptical about others’ stated intentions. Factual info is a different story and thanks to journalists like Michelle Yee Hee Lee!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Thank You! | Episyllogism

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