Paul Buckingham, Blog, philosophy, 19th century newspaper articles, photos of Annecy and Prague

Paul Buckingham

...a view across the lake

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Welcome to my web-site.  On it you will find some thoughts about current affairs under the heading 'Point of View' and various thoughts on philosophical topics.  I add to them when I can.

I have also included a selection of extracts from newspapers of the 19th century. They shed an extraordinary light on how life was lived by ordinary people.

As a bonus there are some photos of Prague and also of Annecy, its lake and the surrounding mountains.  Annecy is a beautiful mediaeval town in the French Alps.

I should be happy to hear from you with your comments*, but in any event hope that you will enjoy your browsing.

Paul Buckingham

The New Season

As far as the Met Office is concerned, it seems that Autumn has started. It began on 1st September.  I can hardly believe it. Time passes. But despite the social distancing required to avoid Covid 19, the end of Summer and the beginning of Autumn has been accompanied by quite a lot of events involving quite a lot of people. The children have gone back to school, as witnessed by the line of their parents’ parked cars in our road at school closing time. We can now see and hear large orchestras and choirs at the Proms concerts, even if only because they have the whole of the otherwise empty Royal Albert Hall in which to spread themselves out. There is talk of some theatres reopening, but so far nothing significant has happened. On the other hand, over the week-end live and recorded music (all in the same key) was beamed down to the streets and bemused citizens of Bristol from loudspeakers attached to seven hot-air balloons floating in the relatively becalmed air over the city. It’s true that football matches have restarted, but are watched with only the echoing sound of the pre-recorded reaction of fans - presumably both applause and boos at the same time from different ends.

With the partial lifting of lock-down, we have increases in infection rates where people refuse to observe the usual rules about distance and wearing masks. But this effect is multiplied up considerably where people are on the street protesting, as seems to be happening increasingly in numerous countries after the summer. And, quite naturally, the demonstrators consider their cause to be far more important than the risk of infection either for themselves or for others. Some demonstrations are violent and others are peaceful. In Belarus they are largely peaceful for fear of giving Putin an excuse to send in his troops.

In the USA the BLM protests increasingly fall into the violent category. Supported by the reporting of the violence on TV, Trump’s rhetoric is used to justify any actions taken against the black community by police officers or even armed civilians. He no longer makes any attempt to speak the truth and so whether the BLM demonstrations are peaceful or involve some violent protesters, he portrays them as being one long round of property destruction and assaults on the forces of law and order by the demonstrators.

The difficulty is that much destruction has indeed taken place, and Jo Biden is seen as weak on law and order by not criticising it strongly enough, so harming his chances among swing voters. The BLM movement excuse the destruction as a justified response to the killing of George Floyd and now the shooting in the back of Jacob Blake in Kenosha. The New York Times tells us that, so strongly does the BLM movement feel about this, that a commentator on Twitter, who pointed out that peaceful protest has historically worked better than violent protest, has lost his job for saying so. Omar Wasow, a professor at Princeton, recently published a paper in a prestigious political-science journal. It argued that non-violent civil-rights protests had, in the 1960s, been more politically effective than violent ones. Shor, a data analyst at consulting firm Civis, which works for the Democratic Party, tweeted a simple summary of it to his followers. Numerous people on Twitter demanded that he lose his job. And less than a week after he tweeted the findings of Professor Wasow, who is black, Civis’s senior leadership, which is predominantly white, fired Shor. So much for rational debate and peaceful protest.

But we can come closer to home. Early this week we had demonstrations in various cities in the UK and elsewhere by Extinction Rebellion. They want to persuade us to take the forthcoming extinction of the human race seriously. In fact a film which they were due to release said that scientists had confirmed that our extinction was imminent, only for the film to be hurriedly re-edited when the scientists concerned told them that they had said no such thing. As the rest of us know, there is no science to back such an extreme view of the effects of man-made global warming. This is particularly so granted the measures already taken to combat it – and this without replacing all bovine stock with a genetically modified version which does not belch methane. Yes I know that, just in the UK, in the absence of further measures to reduce carbon emission there would be massive problems around the coasts where sea-level rises would flood various towns and villages. The cost of dealing with it would be enormous. But then the cost of deliberately going back to the Stone Age would be enormous as well.

I suppose that they feel that we have lost sight of global warming in our concern to avoid Covid 19. This may well be true, but we are living in a time when our power consumption is lower than it has been for many years and people are concerned about their jobs and just surviving the virus. I’m not sure that now is really the time to blockade city streets in order to try to get our attention. I suspect that most people will not be very impressed by the priorities of Greta Thunberg and her acolytes.

But what was really quite extraordinary at the week-end was the demonstration against the ‘Covid fraud’ - that the very existence or at least the lethal nature of the Covid virus is a story made up by governments around the world in order to control the people. Thousands of protesters from across the UK gathered in London’s Trafalgar Square on Saturday afternoon to protest against coronavirus restrictions and to reject mass vaccinations.

The event drew people from a variety of protest groups including coronavirus sceptics, 5G protesters, anti-vaxxers and the other usual conspiracy theorists. Even supporters of the mainly American conspiracy theory movement, ‘Qanon’, were there. The placards railed against the World Health Organization, Bill Gates, George Soros and the government restrictions to reduce the spread of coronavirus. They called for an end to movement restrictions and mandatory face coverings. Many placards described the coronavirus pandemic as a “hoax” or “scam”. Speeches were made from in front of Nelson’s Column denying the reality and severity of the pandemic and accusing the government of using it to attempt to curtail civil liberties. 

Among those who spoke were Piers Corbyn, the weather forecaster and older and equally wise brother of the former Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and the former sports reporter and now conspiracy celebrity and complete idiot, David Icke.  Although the demonstration focused on coronavirus restrictions, those taking part had anti-authoritarian grievances ranging from the imprisonment of Julian Assange, to claims of child sexual abuse by the elite and allegations of a deep state which controlled the world.

I think that the rationality of the protest is best summed up by one protester who carried a placard that said on one side, “Let food be thy medicine” and on the other, “Health doesn’t come from the tip of a needle.” Of the food message on her placard, she said: “This is what we need to do. It’s worked for our ancestors, it’s worked for a lot of people around the world – and still is.”  That’s probably why the black death never took off, the Spanish flu caused so few deaths and why smallpox is now completely eradicated, despite the introduction by Jenner of the first ever vaccination – the one used against that highly infectious disease.  But just in case she’s wrong, I’ve booked in for my flu vaccination next week and await the Covid vaccination with eager anticipation. I’d like to take back my life.

Paul Buckingham

3 September 2020

Fake News

The brand leaders for untruth amongst politicians used to be the likes of Hitler or Mussolini but, these days, we have Mr Trump. It used to be 'You're fired', but ‘Fake news” is now Donald Trump’s favourite catchphrase. Since the election in 2016, it has appeared in some 180 tweets by the President, denouncing everything from accusations of sexual assault against him to the Russian collusion investigation, to reports that he watches up to eight hours of television a day. Obviously Trump uses “fake news” as a rhetorical device to discredit stories he doesn’t like. And so, ironically, he falsely accuses truth of being false. It is clear that these assertions, themselves ‘fake news’, and the many other sources of ‘real’ fake news are a serious problem, causing a greater polarisation amongst voters and an unwillingness to believe anything reported by journalists working for the ‘wrong’ news organisation.

An analysis by the internet media company Buzzfeed revealed that during the final three months of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, the 20 most popular false election stories generated around 1.3 million more Facebook hits - shares, reactions, and comments - than did the 20 most popular legitimate stories. The most popular fake story was “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President.” It is not, though, the fact that people read and react to such nonsense, but that they continue to believe it and act on it even when it is shown to be false.

So what drives a person to cling to a piece of incorrect information, even after it has been definitively disproved? One possible answer is tribalism. If a piece of information reflects badly on the other side - say, the suggestion by Trump that an American talk show host Joe Scarborough killed a young woman 20 or so years ago - his supporters, his tribe, have an emotional incentive to keep believing it, even when it is patently false. But how this overcomes our much vaunted rationality is not entirely obvious.

Perhaps their emotions mean that they’re not inclined to or able to listen to the opposing viewpoint very carefully. But in fact researchers have found that opposing tribes on Twitter are actually very aware of each others’ arguments. What they do, however, is misrepresent them, misquote them or take them out of context, so that they appear to be wrong. So then we are still left scratching our heads as to what the precise explanation might be for such irrational behaviour. Perhaps it's simply a reluctance to accept that you’re someone who can be wrong – but would this be such a strong factor even when you’re anonymous and could simply withdraw from the fray?

As we have seen, the idea of self image was relevant in a study of people’s decisions to keep or hand in a purse, with money in it and the owner's address, which they had ‘found’. Mainly they handed it in, because they would otherwise have to see themselves as dishonest. Their self-image as honest people created a cognitive dissonance at the prospect of acting dishonestly which, in turn, prevented them from doing so. And so why is it that people will misrepresent the truth? I would imagine that most people think of themselves as being honest and so not as someone who would deliberately mislead others. To change that self-image just to take a particular side in an argument, must for most people then surely be very unlikely.  One’s desire to see oneself as honest must at least be a substantial counterweight to other emotions. There must then be some other explanation for at least a large percentage of those who do exhibit such irrational behaviour. And there is.

Research published in 2017 by psychologists from Ghent University has shown there to be what looks like a simple explanation. It points to a widespread phenomenon that leaves a person particularly vulnerable to misinformation - one that can be found among people of all races, nationalities, and political parties. It is being not very bright or, in the case of Trump supporters, I suppose we can say that it's the effect of stupidity.  The "lingering influence" of fake news "is dependent on an individual's level of cognitive ability," the researchers tell us. They reported that people with greater cognitive skills can and do make corrections when new, better information supersedes a mistaken early report.  Those whose reasoning, understanding, and problem-solving abilities are less advanced have trouble making that switch.

Their study featured 390 adults recruited online. Half of them read a description of a young woman named Nathalie, a married nurse who worked in a hospital. They filled in a questionnaire giving their impressions of her qualities such as warmth, trustworthiness, and sincerity. The other half read a lengthier version of the mini-biography. It said that Nathalie was caught stealing drugs from the hospital, which she then sold in order to pay for designer clothes. They then filled out the same questionnaire. Afterwards, they "saw an explicit message on their screen stating that the information regarding the stealing and dealing of drugs was not true." They then read an amended version of the description, and again answered the same questions about the nurse. All participants also filled out questionnaires designed to identify two psychological traits identified with a reluctance to change one's mind - a tendency to authoritarianism and a lack of comfort with cognitive dissonance (i.e. find it difficult to accept that life isn’t simple). They also took a vocabulary test used as a proxy of cognitive ability or intelligence. In each round, they were presented with a word, and then asked which of five additional words was closest in meaning to the first. The researchers reported that even after getting the corrected information, "the false information effects never completely wore off in individuals with lower levels of cognitive ability."  In contrast, evaluations given by people with high levels of cognitive ability were not significantly different from those given by people in the control group. They made "appropriate attitude adjustments." And these differences persisted even after the researchers factored in any tendency to hold authoritarian beliefs or have a dislike of uncertainty. That strongly suggests they were driven by cognitive ability - or the lack thereof.

Which means that "alternative facts" can and do linger among a significant subset of the population. What we don’t know from the study is where the line is drawn – after all, by definition half the population is less intelligent than even the average.  And from my experience of life, I would guess that even the average is not a good starting place. That should of course provide a strong incentive to news organizations to get it right the first time. Unfortunately, it also gives unscrupulous politicians, and Fox News, a strong incentive to lie. They know - because they have seen it work and so profited from it - that lying will convince a section of the population that what they are saying is true - an impression that will never go away.  What Mr Trump has falsely asserted is true will last for many years, in fact during the whole lifetimes of those who are not the sharpest knives in the drawer.

Paul Buckingham

1 June 2020

To read my essays on other topics, please click here

25 October 2019
Whilst visiting Johnstown Castle in Ireland, just prior to Halloween,  I was privileged to meet the Honourable Member for the 18th century who graciously consented to be photographed in a recumbent position.


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All material on this page and that linked to from Point of View, Point of View - archive and Philosophy pages are © Paul Buckingham 2005 - 2020







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