Masonic Random Thoughts

A place for Masonic news, thoughts, discussion and education

Month: August, 2017

Junk News, Fake Facts and How to Find Them

The recent election cycle has brought a new focus on the issue of “junk” or “fake” news. Wild claims that seem just close enough to real or align with our own ignorance so well that we take them as fact. Because of this recent focus, I thought it would be a good time to take a look at how “junk” or “fake” news works and what we can do to avoid being sucked in by this type of “news.” Plus as Masons we have been and continue to be assailed by purveyors of this kind of dross in an attempt to further some agenda of the supposed expert. So we need to recognize it and how to fight back.

The first question that will come to everyone’s mind is “Is there really more junk or fake new and facts than in some time past?” And this is a valid question for we would hate to waste effort on combating something that is just a passing fad. But a quick look at history tells us that this has always been an issue. From the earliest days of our Western culture that have been myths, legends and oral tradition stories that have often stretched the bounds of credulity but somehow can stick in the public’s mind and become a “truth”.

Some of you might recall the famous War of the Worlds hysteria in 1938 that took place when Orson Welles and his radio players, put on a broadcast that sounded very much like an actual news report that we were being invaded by Mars! Despite disclaimers at the beginning and throughout the show that it was just a dramatization of a fiction story, the American public went berserk! This was probably one of the first true demonstrations of the power of the media and the lack of training in rhetoric and logic!

As PT Barnum said “There’s a sucker born every minute!” Look at the trash National Inquirer stuff at the check out stand, the near endless “secrets revealed” programs on TV and the always reliable…”But I saw it on the Internet / Facebook!” excuse.

The bottom line is that this sort of problem has always existed but it seems to have accelerated due to the ease of mass communication, access to what used to be hard to acquire technology and a massive shift in the education standards of the general public. It is just so much easier today to reach a massive amount of people with little effort. Give me a subject and a couple of hours and I can put up a website and be on social media with nearly any story you can dream up.

If you’d like to know more about how what amounts to anti-rationalism has affected our culture, pick up a copy of the book The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby (revised and updated / 2008). This book is a real eye opener as to how far we’ve managed to drift from being rational thinkers!

So why is this a Masonic issue? Masonry is built on the foundation of education, seeking the truth and improving ourselves above the normal level. The Fellowcraft degree, which used to be the final degree, is entirely about education and the need for it in a well-balanced man. We are taught that this education will make us wiser and consequently happier.

The Trivium or first three of the seven liberal arts are the beginning of being able to understand what we are being exposed to through the multitude of information streams that we have access to every day.

Trivium literally means the “meeting of three roads” and is used to describe the three essential skills of Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic.

These are described as follows (Wikipedia):

Grammar teaches the mechanics of language to the student. This is the step where the student “comes to terms”, i.e. defining the objects and information perceived by the five senses. Hence, the Law of Identity: a tree is a tree, and not a cat.

Logic (also dialectic) is the “mechanics” of thought and of analysis; the process of identifying fallacious arguments and statements, and so systematically removing contradictions, thereby producing factual knowledge that can be trusted.

Rhetoric is the application of language in order to instruct and to persuade the listener and the reader. It is the knowledge (grammar) now understood (logic) being transmitted outwards, as wisdom (rhetoric).

These subjects were considered essential for any thinking man to master in ancient Greek and that idea carried forward through Western thought. In the middle ages the Shield of the Trinity was repurposed to show the relationship between these three skills. Only with the use of all three can we reach the truth of any subject.

So by arming ourselves with the proper tools and methods we too can master these three skills and bring a balance to our understanding of the world and the endless stream of so-called information that bombards us every day.

To do so, we must learn to be skeptical thinkers not in a negative way but in a way that helps us to systematically remove the contradictions and find the trusted information within.

So now it is with great pleasure that I introduce you to the SBDK! Or the Sagan Baloney Detection Kit!

Many of you probably remember Dr. Carl Sagan. He was one of the foremost astronomers and scientists of his time and had a knack for explaining heavy science at a level most of us could understand. In 1995, he wrote a book entitled “The Demon-Haunted World” as he was quite concerned that the general publics lack of science training or emphasis and our seeming heavy reliance on superstition and wishful thinking was going to doom our society. (Yes, he was an atheist but the book is not just a denial of Deity or religion in general). One of the chapters of this book was entitled The Fine Art of Baloney Detection. This is where he laid out his suggestions for how to sift fact from fiction and how to avoid being taken in by those would try to deceive.

First we look at this list of things we have to actively do in order to be a good skeptical thinker:

  1. Where possible there must be independent confirmation of the “Facts”
    1. Self-explanatory. If you can’t find confirmation in other trusted sources, it’s probably baloney.
  2. Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of ALL points of view.
    1. This seems to be the hardest part and the one we most seldom practice. How many of use only read or listen to the news that supports our particular worldview? (MSNBC vs. Fox News)
  3. Arguments from “Authorities” carry little weight.
    1. Authorities have made mistakes in the past and will do so again. At best someone might be an expert but they are not flawless.
  4. Spin more than one hypothesis
    1. Think of all the different ways in which it could be explained and then test each alternative. Think Darwinian survival.
  5. Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours
    1. This is a tough one. Ask yourself why you like the idea and then compare it fairly to the alternatives. If you don’t, others will do this for you!
  6. Quantify
    1. If it can be measured, then do so this will help eliminate other competing hypothesis.
  7. If there is a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work including the premise, not just most of them.
    1. Happens all too often that you don’t think all the steps through.
  8. Occam’s Razor
    1. If 2 explanations seem to explain the data equally well, choose the simpler one
  9. Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. You must be able to check assertions out.
    1. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Example, we are all just living on a small particle (electron?) of something larger in the Cosmos. But we can never gather enough information from outside our universe to prove or disprove this hypothesis. Thus double blind studies for drugs, the required repeatability of experimental outcomes.

Now we turn to the things we must not do in order to be good skeptical thinkers. You might notice that the majority of these things are being used all the time to appeal to the consumer. In fact, in the recent election cycle, both sides gave a Master Class in how to use and abuse these tools.

  1. Ad hominem attacks
    1. Latin for “to the man”. Attacking the arguer and not the argument.
  2. Argument from authority
    1. The argument amounts to trusting someone because of their position e.g. the President has a secrete plan…
  3. Argument from adverse consequences
    1. If you do/don’t do this terrible things will happen. E.g. God will smote you, others will be encouraged to break this law.
  4. Appeal to ignorance
    1. The claim that whatever has not been proved false must be true and vice versa. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
  5. Special pleading
    1. Often used to rescue a proposition in deep rhetorical trouble. E.g. you don’t understand the mysterious ways of God.
  6. Begging the question / Assuming the answer
    1. The Stock market fell yesterday because of a technical adjustment…but is ;there an independent evidence for the causal role of “Adjustment” and have we learned anything from this purported explanation?
  7. Observational selection / Enumeration of favorable circumstances
    1. Francis Bacon: Counting the hits and forgetting misses.
    2. A state boasts of the Presidents it has produced but is silent on its serial killers (Masonry does this a lot!)
  8. Statistics of small numbers
    1. 1 in 5 people are Chinese or the gambler who thinks that since they’ve won the last 3 hands, the next is a shoo in too.
    2. Story from Bosch days of too small a sample of alarm dealers to make any difference
  9. Misunderstanding of the nature of statistics
    1. The President was shocked to discover that half of all Americans have below average intelligence.
  10. Inconsistency
    1. Consider it reasonable for the possibility for the Universe to continue to exist forever into the future but judge absurd the possibility that it has infinite duration into the past.
  11. Non Sequitur
    1. Latin for “It doesn’t follow”
    2. Our cause will prevail because God is with us but everyone thinks that.
    3. It’s a failure to recognize other alternatives
  12. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc
    1. Latin for “It happened after, so it was caused by”
    2. Getting cause and effect backwards
    3. We didn’t have nuclear weapons before women had the vote!
  13. Meaningless questions
    1. What happens when an irresistible object meets and immovable force? Well, it can’t be both!
  14. Excluded middle or false dichotomy
    1. Considering only the two extremes in a continuum of intermediate possibilities.
    2. If you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem!
  15. Short-term vs. Long –term
    1. A subset of excluded middle
    2. Why explore space or pursue fundamental science when we have so huge a budget deficit?
  16. Slippery slope
    1. Related to excluded middle
    2. If we do X then Y will shortly follow
  17. Confusion of correlation and causation
    1. Andean earthquakes are correlated with closet approaches of the planet Uranus; therefore despite the absence of any such correlation for the nearer, more massive planet Jupiter the latter causes the former
    2. Used heavily in advertising and marketing
  18. Straw Man
    1. Caricaturing a position to make it easier to attack
    2. Environmentalist care more for snail darters and spotted owls that they do for people
  19. Suppressed evidence or half-truths
    1. An amazingly accurate and widely quoted “prophecy” of the assassination attempt on President Reagan is show on television; but —an important detail—was it recorded before or after the event?
  20. Weasel Words
    1. Using words to give something a new name that softens the connotation of that thing or allows you to get around some rule or law
    2. It’s not a war, it’s a police action / pacification / safeguarding American interests.
    3. Talleyrand: An important art of politicians is to find new names for institutions, which under old names have become odious to the public.

Keep in mind that just knowing of these tools of rhetoric and logic are not enough. These tools can also be used for good or evil, you still have to use your own mind and evaluate carefully both your own arguments and those of others.

Conclusion

So, again, how does this affect us as Masons? We are supposed to be lovers of the seven arts and constantly trying to seek the truth. With these sorts of tools we can more easily or at least reliably, separate the truth from the obfuscation that seems to characterize our news. As citizens of society, it is incumbent upon us to be as well informed as possible and form our opinions and actions based on the best version of the facts we can obtain. This means that some work has to be done on your part. Do not just accept what shows up in your Facebook feed or blares from the TV or Radio by some alleged “unbiased authority”. Use your mind…THINK!

Here’s a fun exercise to get you in the habit of using these tools. Each week (or day if you have the time) pick a news story and run it through the tools listed above and see if it can pass all the tests. If it doesn’t, which one did it fail and why do you think it was presented in that manner?

Here’s a link to a printable version of the SBDK:  FakeNewsHandoutv2.5

Soon, you’ll be doing this automatically and be a much better informed person!

 

 

 

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Internal vs. External Qualifications

Some of the more progressive and “dangerous” ideas in Masonry seem quite obvious such as the idea of universal brotherhood, accepting all faiths and many of the statements in the obligations. Each of these things for their time in the 17th and 18th century were quite dangerous to the status quo of society and political and religious power and so were often veiled in allegory or only transmitted from mouth to ear.

Other progressive and “dangerous” ideas are hidden in plain sight, however, and are just as powerful but are often overlooked.

One such idea is given in the Fellowcraft charge. The newly passed Fellowcraft is told during the charge “…it is the internal and not the external qualifications of a man that Masonry regards…” While on the surface this may seem like a fancy way of saying “don’t judge a book by its cover”, but upon further examination, the importance of this short phrase becomes more apparent. (N.B.: this concept was allegorically introduced when the candidate was asked for “…something of a metallic nature…” and found he was destitute)

I believe that there are two possible sources for this revolutionary idea and they may be intertwined and therefore it’s impossible to say with any accuracy, which influenced the creators of our ritual more. Nonetheless, let’s look at this concept from both a Biblical and a 17th/18th century prospective.

The original source of this idea may well have been the book of Samuel.

The book of Samuel (divided into two books in Christian theology) tells the story of the rise and fall of David and is not considered historical as there are no extra-biblical sources that confirm the stories. Nevertheless, the book records a critical period in Israelite history, the transition from charismatic leadership, with leaders appointed at times of need, to an established, dynastic monarchy, politically uniting the Israelites. (Shawn Aster / www.myjewishlearning.com).

Saul was a choice of the people based on their visual assessment of Saul. Turns out he didn’t really have the right “heart” and so God sought to replace him.

In 1 Samuel 16:1:13, (N.B.: if you are not familiar with the background of the whole story, I recommend you read the entire book) we find Samuel being directed by God to go to Bethlehem and contact Jesse and that from his sons, a new king will be chosen (Saul hadn’t really worked out, he’d been chosen based on “external qualifications”). Samuel is reluctant to do so but eventually does as he is bade by the Lord. Samuel finds Jesse and has him present each of his sons, starting at the oldest, to see if one of them is the man whom God will have him anoint as King. Samuel expects it to be the first-born due to traditions surrounding first-born male children and because he is a fine-looking, strong man. But he is rejected! This continues through the other sons of Jesse and Samuel is confused. It is at this point that we find what may be the basis for our admonition to look on the “internal qualification of a man” in Masonry

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (NIV)

Thus David, the youngest son, the sheep herder is introduced into the picture and despite not having any positional power or great appearance or other qualifications that were often used to judge a man, this is the man that God chooses.

(The three degrees could be seen as a retelling of the arc of David’s life. EA is his youth and service under Saul, FC is his good days as King of the Israelites and MM would be his downfall (the sword will ever be with the house of David…The lion of the tribe of Judah will prevail (in Revelation it’s the Lion of the Tribe of Judah (i.e. the Davidic line) that opens the book))

So here for the first time we find the concept of judging someone by their intentions, actions and inner qualities and not by their physical appearance, birthright or other worldly things! In the big scheme of things, those items matter not. Even for the time of Samuel, this was a very different lesson to learn!

Now how would people in the 17th/18th century have looked at such an idea in the FC Charge?

Life in this time was all about the external as far as how people were judged. If you were born to the “right” family, you could be King or a Lord of a great estate regardless of your moral or personal values. Each man knew his place in the hierarchy and therefore, knew what he owed others in society and what they owed him. If you were born to a poor family, that is where you would stay with little or no chance of being able to move up in the strata of society regardless of your natural abilities or ability to learn.

The Church at this time was also, paradoxically, divided in the same manner and looked upon their flock in the same manner. Wealth, position and power controlled the lives of people of this time and had done so for many years. It was even worse for women and people of color, as they were generally regarded simply as property!

However, as England and Europe moved into the time we call the Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries for England), much of this began to be challenged and change. As philosophers (the first scientists) began to explore and explain the world around us, it became harder to control knowledge and therefore the masses. People began to believe that they could understand the world and the will of God as accurately as the Church if not more so. Understanding physical processes gave many an avenue to build an industry and raise themselves out of the dirt. The grip of Church and State was being thrown off and changed to be more in the favor of the common people. The philosophy that all humans had value began to pervade thinking. So it is very likely that our fore-brothers interpreted this idea in the charge from the massive changes going on about them in thought and society and boiled it down to the simple phrase “…it is the internal and not the external qualifications of a man that Masonry regards…”

However, even in early Masonry, this was not a common concept. Much of the chaos of the battle between the Ancients and the Moderns was really centered on the admittance into the Craft of men from the emerging middle class in English society. The established “upper crust” of Masonry was just as guilty of judging by “external qualifications” as the average citizen.

Even today in the Standard Ritual of Scottish Freemasonry, the Fellowcraft charge does not include the internal/external quote. The subject of equality of men is brought up in the ritual portion in the working tools explanation and the Master does meet the new Fellowcraft on the Level at the end of the FC degree:

This concludes the ceremony of your being passed to the Second Degree, and it affords me great pleasure to come to the floor of the Lodge and on the Level, extend to you the cordial right hand of friendship

But the exhortation is nowhere as clear as in the Fellowcraft charge in our ritual and appears to afford equality only AFTER the Brother becomes a Fellowcraft . (NB: the FC charge in the Scottish ritual is nearly word for word the same as our ritual with the exception of the internal/external qualifications statement)

In the UGLE Bylaws and Constitution (2016), there is a list of both the Ancient Charges and the current charges to Masons that are recognized by UGLE. The Ancient Charges contain no mention of such a concept of judging a man by his internal worth. The closest they get is that you must be “…a good man and true” and that no man can be made a Mason without “…due inquiry into his nature”. This would seem to be a nod to judging by a man’s character but does not go as far as to spell it out. The modern list of Charges only touches upon this idea as it relates to relates to relations amongst Brothers and states: “All preferment among masons is grounded upon real worth and personal merit only…”

How this phrase became standard in American rituals is yet to be discovered but it might be due to the influence of the various leading men and Mason’s that came to our fledgling country. These men were often very steeped in the finer concepts of the Enlightenment thinking and such influence is apparent in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Regardless of the source of inspiration, it doesn’t take much imagination to see how radical this idea was and how dangerous it would have been to the status quo. By meeting on the level, many prejudices can be broken down, ideas can be exchanged freely and if followed purely, the correct man can be chosen for the job at hand, not simply by title, wealth or position. The society becomes more peaceful and therefore more productive and progressive.

It would be nice if we could look at this and say “Well that was then, this is now, we don’t have that issue anymore” but that is patently not the case!

[The need to follow this precept] rings out loudly in our cultural context. We rely for almost everything on our sight, but it often proves untrustworthy. Advertisers know that the quickest way to get their fingers into our wallets is through our eyes–by bombarding us with images of sexuality and excess. Do we really think that wearing the same watch, as Heidi Klum or Tiger Woods will make us more attractive and successful? Apparently, since we buy the watches. And the cars, hamburgers, and light beer. We also tend to pick our leaders–politicians, principals, coaches, celebrities, and so on–based on our society’s norms about appearance. For the last century or more, the taller of the two final presidential candidates has almost always won. (Rolf Jacobsen / www.workingpreacher.org)

Only in the last century, have we as a society began to look at the harm of judging by external factors has created in society and every so slowly we are working on adopting a more internal rule by which to measure our fellow-man. Masonry has known this to be an important concept for over 300 years!

In the Fellowcraft degree we are taught about construction of physical objects but also the world and the person. We are introduced to those things that we should study to improve upon ourselves, and the world around us.

If the Entered Apprentice was about youth, and the Fellowcraft about manhood, then you can no longer be excused for the mistakes of youth. Nor have you attained the wisdom of your elders. You must take on the hard work of building yourself and the world around while you can. This means confronting such difficult concepts as Brotherhood based on internal qualities and shared values and not on those temporary things that separate us in the external world.

One the most difficult things any of us will do as a man and a Mason are to try to live up to the precepts of Masonry, especially this particular precept. As visual creatures and flawed humans we constantly fall into the trap of judging by external and not the internal qualifications. But as Mason’s it is incumbent upon us to recognize that natural failing and work constantly to overcome it. Thereby we will not only be happier and wiser but will set the correct example for the world, thus fulfilling yet another goal of Freemasonry.

Questions

  1. Should we put more emphasis on this concept?
  2. What are “internal” and “external” qualifications?
  3. Why is it only in the FC charge and not in the obligation if it is important? (Think of the difference between the goals of each. Charges are hortatory)
  4. How often do you judge other people for bad qualities that you possess, too?
  5. Will we ever truly be able to live in this manner? Why or Why not?