On the Mechanics of Propaganda – a Few Quick Words

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Pragmatic philosophers with no conflicts of interest debating and sharing information in order that they may make the best decisions concerning the governance of their country.

Ahoy readers!  There is not a moment to lose, and thusly let’s clap on directly to the plum in the pudding here:

One of the themes of the novel – the manifestation of the effects of propaganda on society – has come to mind as of recent, upon observing the several variants of reported news and related divisiveness concerning such, nebulous to the 2016 US presidential election and party primaries. Let us see if we may spot a morsel of prescience in Of Woodbridge and Hedgely by the rousing out of some parallel features concerning these current events and that which was said on the subject during my scribbling of the book.

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Old Promo Card: Two Towns Torn Apart By Propaganda; A reminder of the vicious media storm that occurred this 2016 election cycle.

In the middle of the fifth episode we do indeed find the lower rungs of society suffering from one part of such having been molested by the ill hands of disinformation – this generating an apparently chronic series of intra-class altercations, physical in nature, with the Hedgely’s tribally seeking blood from their brothers, the Woodbridge’s – and the subsequent legal adjudications regarding these, presided over by the elder Mr. Moore – the two towns’ squire and community leader:

The corn harvesting in Woodbridge and Hedgely had come a bit late in the year, and as most farmers in the region were of a mixedhusbandry sort, their post-gathering schedules had been affected, so that there were still a significant number of deciduous laborers hanging about, quite willing to make themselves drunk and sociable when such could be afforded, and who were positively beastly in comparison to their more permanent brethren of the towns.  Nevertheless the former’s itinerate qualities, they did possess a fierce loyalty to their employers, especially in the cases of the steadily returning hires, and by default were sympathetic, if not in total agreement, with their master’s religion and politics, that those in Baptist Hedgely’s camp thought rather poorly of Jonathan Moore’s scientific sermons, and on intoxicated occasion had made such known in the presence of their cohorts in the Woodbridge camp.

A few men from each of these respective sets who were unrepentant brawlers had indeed engaged each other over philosophical conflicts similar to those apparently illuminated in The Balanced Scale – the unusual periodical which did of recent plague the Moore’s so, and whose contents had been generously passed down and along by those that could read the material, framing such as a radical attack on Christian orthodoxy and the soul’s path to preservation. Little attention was paid to their initial excursion, as those nebulous to such had presumptively considered it an individual event, but as more material concerning the age of the earth, that of the fossils, and the nature of animal forms and kinds trickled down upon, and circulated around these pawns, such fueled a steady supply of minor violence that was eventually deemed fit for reconcile, and brought to the attention of the area’s lay magistrate:  George Moore.

Mr. Moore’s Michaelmas session had already occurred and it was not yet time for the winter Epiphany, but the squire saw fit to address the issue in an unofficial capacity with the tacit understanding by the offenders that such could convert to a Petty Offence were they not to come to an agreeable conclusion with him.  He was tolerant of a drunken brawl, provided no chronic harm was done to any participant – and indeed there was but a small a number of those to be had over a credible length of time in their small community – yet this particular situation was starting to escalate into an ongoing feud, placing the towns’ reputations one notch closer to the butcher’s block. Thusly he sat at his desk with the Hedgely lot before him, just as he had done with the Woodbridge’s a few days prior:

‘Please to explain sir – your initial objections with the men of the other party’, he asked of one of the more rational members.

‘Well sir, I believe ‘twas the night o’ the social meet at the inn, which we were mind’n our own, next t’ the lot which was mind’n their own, whenst one o’ our fellas here says t’ one o’ theirs, “Praise be t’ God mate – our day o’ rest!”’, as we all o’ us were fixed t’ make ourselves drunk – sorry, sir. ‘twas then that the man gave us joy, but followed with that he was very sorry t’ tell our fellas that there was no day o’ rest, ‘cause God made the earth not in one day, but in a great many ten-fold-a-thousand years, having it on good authority by his parson that that be true.’

‘I see’, said George Moore, who noted a certain reluctance in the voice of the laborer, who was indeed bashful to insult the ‘good authority’ – he of course being the brother of the justice before him.  ‘Go on then sir’, he commanded in as fair a voice as he could intonate, not wishing the man to be the least bit shy on any detail of his case.

‘Yes sir, which I then told the man that we was attentive that that was being told to folk ‘round our village, but it did not signify ‘cause the Bible says otherwise, and there were a right many learned chaps – like the Cuvier fellow their good parson was obliged to – who were just as clever as that ol’ Hutton lad, which knew it t’ be true by their own philosophizin’. Then I cautioned their lot not t’ dig into every bone a learned man had for ‘em, ‘specially if they was – excuse me, sir – pay’n ‘em in supper t’ believe ‘em, for those university gents are returned even better than that by the thought, no matter was it ill or not, just as long as it be plausible t’ their audience – and half of ‘em atheists at any rate’.

The Baptist laborer further explained that the Anglican lot had then accused them of ‘biting into their own ill plausibilities, for ‘twas the recent hand o’ man that penned the Creation date o’ four thousand and four years before the birth o’ the Savior onto the start o’ the Holy Book’, to which the Hedgely’s hastily countered that were God not to have had it so, he would have smote the hand of the amender, which put them in an anxious position regarding their masters’ reverence of traditionalism. This had then grown a bushel of disagreements, including the laborers’ stand that volcanoes were greatly exaggerated things – mere coal seam fires – and surely not evidence of some deep earthen furnace that motivated change from the Lord’s original intentions:

‘“The learned’s lust for boasting a catastrophic strength of a but gently puffing mountain is founded in a latent desire for tragic playwritin’ and self importance”, I says t’ ‘em, directly from the mouth of my master, which such a thing riled ‘em up so, that after an exchange o’ more impolite notions we took t’ the street t’ pink each other’s cheeks a bit more than the grog had done’.

Incidentally the phrase ‘framing such as a radical attack on Christian orthodoxy’, with regard to the work of the propaganda rag, The Balanced Scale, in the novel, brings to mind ‘Fair and Balanced’ Fox News’ War On Christmas theme (and variants of such) that is drummed up at this time of year.  Readers should also note that in the last quoted paragraph, there lies a bit of satire regarding modern climate denial propaganda which seeks to belittle those that are concerned with the long term costs of unregulated carbon pollution, often qualifying them as ‘Chicken Little’s with their radical notion of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming who seek popular attention and the money brought with it’, authored by those that consider short term reactions to problems to be more valuable than long term prophylaxis; they having not put much thought into the weight of this particular problem or suffer that it will not affect them personally to any significant degree.  However we will stray directly back to the goose we are chasing:

Firstly we will note that were we to place these fictional characters on our own history’s timeline, little has changed in the last two hundred years with regard to stoking the fire of tribalism in the lower classes for the purposes of political leverage; and the general effect of such is too preserved.  There was plenty of bruising to be had this year engendered by the enthusiasms shared by the Hilary’s and the Trump’s, secondary to the primarily negative messaging that was volleyed at and around each camp, naturally so concerning strategy, considering these were two of the most disliked politicians in recent history (or perhaps not so recent). Some of this occurred at rallies, some of it presented but randomly in the regular goings-on of the American day-to-day, and we had one anomalous case exemplifying how embellished and nuanced an ill sentiment can grow, where an armed man showed up at a local District of Columbia pizza shop with the intention of getting at the plum of a pedophile ring that Hillary was supposedly administrating there; this story fabricated not by the masters of mankind, but by the pawns themselves, thusly exemplifying the archetypal notion that there is little which cannot be presented as plausible to the ignorant, by the skillful sophistrist and storyteller, especially in the presence of a particular grudge.

Indeed in the last chapter of Of Woodbridge and Hedgely we have men than have become so attached to the propaganda they were initially fed (not unlike the Drain the Swamp/Brick & Mortar Mexican Wall proponents or their Russia Cost Hillary the Election counterparts), that they continue to both embrace and self generate ridiculous bits of fiction, in an effort to continue to preserve their flawed belief systems, even after adequate information has become available that definitively unmakes such.  Here is one explaining how all the town’s farmland is to be converted to greenhouses so that their political rival, Mr. Winter, can indirectly benefit from the money generated from the taxing of glazed windows – a feature of the tax policy at that particular time in England:

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An old estate glasshouse – supposedly the right farmer’s greatest rival according to partisan Hedgely’s

‘Sir, you know it to be true: In ten year’s time, there will be glasshouses all up and down the fields and the Moore’s and Winter’s will have lined their coffers with tax money from Cheltenham to Cirencester!’, cried one of the old fellows, uncommonly proud of his distrust of the said parties and the tax collector. And though the lass was a bit less trusting of this man – the counterarguments against him having always been more well thought out than his repetitive snippets of debate – she nodded her head affirmatively at the idea of glasshouses as far as the eye could see.

And one should observe as the conversation continues, the man continuously has to invent new flawed rationals to support the old ones, creating an exponential rise in ridiculousness upon every new level of support for such:

‘Oh Lord, here we are again; and again I will ask of you: Who would pay for such a thing?; ‘cause ain’t none of it cheap!’, returned another from the more sensible camp across the table.

‘Oh the parties in question will pay, for the taxes are just that compelling! Look at ‘em trying to bleed the ground out of a few more bushels of wheat! That’s a rich man’s greed for ya! And not only that, but there will be one in every cottage’s back yard that their tenants may garden all year ‘round; which’ll put all our right farmers out of work!’, the man insisted in as gushing a voice as could be exhibited without him being asked to move along by Mrs. Bagley or one of her men employed at the inn. His proposal was, by any reasonable man’s part, entirely fictional – indeed it conflicted within itself in that the first part required farmers, whilst the second destroyed them – yet it afforded him an ill temper as were it not, but something credibly to be worried upon; and such then did cause his opponent too to become more animated:

‘Unreasonable, sir! Our farmers provide for all the county and more, and one backyard glasshouse per cottage here could scarcely keep enough corn to make half of a loaf of bread a year for its tenant and their family, much the less that for all of Cheltenham or Gloucester!’

‘Oh?; and are you so naïve that you suppose they would stop building once the limits of our towns were achieved?’, the fellow queried, as if all there was to the art of argument was to continue to rabidly answer with ever more cynical and conspiratorial sentiments.  Indeed perceived truth and cynicism had so passionately embraced within him that he gloated in having brought – by his own consideration – such cleverness to their table.

Secondly, of course there are several distinctions between the propaganda of current events and that occurring in the novel, namely the latter is concerned with misinformation designed to confound acceptance of scientific truths/facts, authored by men in fear of what they perceived as an existential threat facilitated by these (paralleling the current attack on climate science by the fossil industry), whilst the former has more to do with two rival sides manufacturing untruths for political gain (sometimes targeting each other, sometimes targeting middle class wealth and livelihood on behalf of the establishment), exacerbated by disinformation agents whose living depends on creating outrageous headlines and content to opportunistically prey upon those inflicted with emotionally driven partisanism.  On another incidental note, regarding these arbiters of so called ‘fake news’ (as were the ‘real news’ that much cleaner), the presence of child or teen related rape propaganda directed at and redistributed by both factions does indeed work as a proxy measure for the present level of smoldering anger in the country.

And in closing (apologies on the abbreviated posting) we must always keep to mind that there is a lighthouse in this tempered sea of low quality information – the scientific method.  I will let Sir Humphry Davy close this day’s missive with the selfsame words he did in the novel concerning the effect of enlightenment in the pursuit of rigorous science:

There are sufficient motives connected with both pleasure and profit, to encourage ingenius men to pursue this new path of investigation. Science cannot long be despised by any persons as the mere speculation of theorists; but must soon be considered by all ranks of men in its true point of view, as the refinement of common sense, guided by experience, gradually substituting sound and rational principles, for vague popular prejudices…  

Addressing the Literary Questions: Question Four

Ahoy readers!  A minor window has at present come to open – merely enough that I may fold and slip this missive through it by the use of two hands on a body that indeed requires at best a doubling of such; for I am constantly awash in multiple disciplines, each owning seemingly infinite demands.  Let us not joke about then, and tackle directly question four of the literary questions existing in the back of Of Woodbridge and Hedgly, after the story has concluded.  This will be my second shot at the questions; the first – my examination of the seventh question – can be found here.

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Spring time, ain’t it?

4.  Throughout the novel, the antagonists – a faction of Hedgely Particular Baptists and their agrarian laborers – have latched onto geological hypotheses and theories that were in the process of falling out of favor at the time (ex. Werner’s Neptunism).  Why did these men hold so fervently to these ideas?   Did each individual and socioeconomic class have its own reasons for this?

In addressing question four, we shall sail to the head of chapter four in the novel, which serves as an introduction to the antagonists’ propagandistic designs – those that confound Mr. Winter and Parson Moore throughout the story.  It is here that they – the antagonists, Preacher Edwards, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Wyatt – start to enthusiastically clap hold of obsolete geological theories, that, were these men not in the throes of rivalry, would have been found to be of little good by any of them.  Their tutor, and fellow they’ve hired to incorporate these weary ideas into counterarguments against our protagonists, goes by the name Princep – a man with credible talent for understanding natural philosophy but who possesses none of such regarding personal contributions to the discipline:

Mr. Princep was something of a fading grey dandy, haggard but well shaved, and missing a hand’s area of hair his junior self did once possess atop his forehead.  More importantly to his company though, was that he was a natural philosopher and Fellow of the Royal Society of London – the title everything to their wants – and it was neither here nor there that he was a most unproductive member, having contributed no articles to the Philosophical Transactions along his tenure. 

Mr. Princep represents those which are known in our modern era as ‘fake experts’:  Men that antagonize a right scientific theory with sophistry and who hold no viable alternative against it, but who gain a large misguided following for being highly advertised in the media, which is complicit in the manifestation of this antiscience propaganda.  An example of such is Professor Richard Lindzen who teaches atmospheric sciences at MIT.  His Lindzen and Choi ‘series’ (in quotations as he has rewritten this selfsame paper multiple times, trying to sneak it past peer review, which does never occur) entitled On the Observational Determination of Climate Sensitivity and Its Implications  seeks to argue climate sensitivity (the steady state temperature the air close to the surface of the Earth will own upon a doubling of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere) is much lower than what the rest of his colleagues propose.  In the version I’ve linked above, the professor admits (after colleagues point such out during peer review) in the Feedback Formalism section of the paper that previous versions of the paper contained a novice error in the basic construction of his feedback algorithm.  Further the paper is riddled with unbacked assumptions which are explained by Skeptical Science here.  Lindzen is the most unsuccessful climate scientist of the modern era, and my character Mr. Pricep is in this respect modeled on him; he too having failed to publish anything substantial in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, the prestigious journal cataloguing the scientific discoveries of the day.  And just as science denialists prop up Lindzen by way of his position as a MIT professor, our antagonists wish to prop up Mr. Princep by way of his position as a member of the Royal Society – an ‘appeal to authority’ fallacy.

Let us hear what Mr. Princep has to say in our chapter of interest:

‘It is natural that he would be a champion of Hutton, having cut his teeth in Edinburgh’, said Mr. Princep to his dinner companions, Mr. Edwards and Mr. Wyatt.  ‘But it is poor form not to allow Cuvier and Werner their proper places, foreign as they are, and may I also note that Comte de Buffon retracted his findings regarding the age of the earth?’

Here we will break to note that Comte de Buffon only retracted his written ideas on an ‘aged earth’ – an earth he calculated to be 75,000 year old – because of pressure put on him by the powerful religious component that occupied Sorbonne (the former University of Paris), and not from some scientific revelation.  But our propagandist has communicated such to his audience  in a manner that makes it seem as though the latter could indeed be the true reason, and that their rival, who continues to use the retracted number, is in the wrong.  Mr. Princep is using the selfsame propaganda technique Fox News, or any of the climate denial blogs use:  They give the audience the rest of the story in a simple, quick, and elegant package, piquing their arrogance that they know something the othersthe simpletons – do not; agitating them in the process, that they may become active in the political process against the ‘charlatans’.

Mr. Princep continues to reel the men in with more on the Comte and age of the earth:

‘But the spots in the pudding have to do with this three million year number, supposedly entered into Buffon’s manuscript, based on his sediment observations; not because that too was self removed, as it did not appear in the published addition of Les époques de la nature, but because it varies so much from his first number, such that it is the like to an admission that he knows not a true figure.  Which is it?  Seventy five thousand or three million years?  If we subtract the latter by the former we have two million nine hundred and twenty five thousand years.  And if we subtract the former by the age of the earth then we have sixty nine thousand one hundred and seventy six.  There is a greater discrepancy between the man’s two numbers than there is between his formerly published number and the true age of the earth!  Would I had a quill and paper I could show you that the fractional difference between the division of his lesser and greater numbers and the true age and the greater number is quite insignificant.  He could just as well claim the earth to be but fifty years old and there would be little difference in such and what he has thus put forth.’

Here Princep offers some mathematical non sequiturs.  He tries to dismiss the growing evidence that the earth is older than what the Biblical generations infer by illuminating the large discrepancies in the earliest calculations on the subject.  As I was authoring this section of the novel, I was recollecting a particular mathematical non sequitur that was making the rounds in the low information climate denial community four or five years ago, which presented as the following:  ‘The difference in atmospheric concentration of CO2 concerning today’s readings and those of the preindustrial era only amounts to a 0.013% change.’  This number was billed as the ‘real’ number to ‘debunk’ the actual rise in concentration from 270 to 400 ppm (which works out to be 400-270/270 = 48%).  What the propagandists had done then was simply subtract the original atmospheric percentage from the present one:  400/1,000,000 – 270/1,000,000 x 100 = 0.013% (with respect to atmospheric diluent), or in other words, the CO2 concentration was 0.027% and now it is 0.040% (and this was supposed to ‘feel’ like a small, insignificant change to those without the capacity to question the effects of such).

After Princep riles the antagonists up into a righteous fever, he offers this:

‘You’ve told me of your parson’s account of Hutton, and now I will tell you of two equally compelling philosophical explanations of the origin of our world that vary considerably from The Theory of the Earth; one by each of these men:

‘First I must say that Steno’s superposition does govern all these men’s work – Smith, Cuvier,…; in this there is no divergence with the parson’s offerings.  Indeed, it can be rightly supposed that all these respective philosophers agree that stratification requires some measure of time to be accomplished.  But let us examine Werner who offers that all rock was indeed precipitated or deposited from a receding ocean, originally stocked with all the necessary elements that our strata presently contain.  On Werner’s earth, we start with an irregular solid body surrounded completely with a primitive ocean that is heavily saturated with these elements or minerals, who over time fall out in series based upon their particular qualities:  the primitive series precipitates first, still underwater, which contains our primeval rock – granite, granite gneiss and the like; a transition series then follows, universally depositing our most indurated limestone and seemingly intrusive interstices, by Hutton’s eye at least; after such comes our stratified series with our fossils, and then our sands, gravels, and clays which were deposited on land as the ocean permanently retreated; and lastly local lava flows.  I should add that these lava flows are not the product of some unproven, universal underground heat source, invented by a sprightly imagination to confound the sweeping of Hutton’s erroneous assumptions out the door.  Instead they are the consequence of local coal bed burning, which any man who’s warmed his hands by the material can readily understand:  I fancy the least burdensome explanation is quite often the most true, that I stand by such dogma fearlessly!’

‘Hear him!’ Mr. Wyatt generously applied to the room.  ‘Mr. Princep, a glass!’ he added emptying the decanter into each of the men’s glasses, they all suffering a boiling excitation arising from the discourse.  It wasn’t that the two staunch Baptists were suddenly great enthusiasts of Werner’s hypothesis, but that there existed such articulate opposition to what indeed was flowing out of the Woodbridge parish every other week.  ‘To ease in explanation’ was jollily toasted at such a barking fortissimo, that the serving maid presented some moment later, unprovoked, with a new decanter. 

After glasses were replenished, Mr. Edwards and Wyatt then reinvented conversations first had a few decades before, concerning the similarity of Werner’s all encompassing ocean and the Noahic Flood, each convincing the other that the hypothesis was evidence for the event and visa versa.  Mr. Princep then added a secondary piece of evidence by regaling the men of Cuvier’s interpretations of what he had found in the geologic column around Paris – a series of strata with alternating sea and freshwater fossils consistently ordered in the rock: such he found was the residuum of multiple singular and catastrophic events, each being followed by periods of stability in which a new succession of flora and fauna would repopulate the land.  The last of these catastrophic events, the naturalist explained, was what Cuvier believed to be the founding of Genesis, for the abrupt nature in which each series of fossil did appear over stratigraphic time, gave him cause to find no fault with biblical creation.

It should be noted here that Cuvier did not accept evolution (which is why he is plopped upon Princep’s dinner table), and at one point argued against his colleagues with respect to such by offering that they were relying too heavily on deep time to satisfy their desire for the success of the concept.  This has been wrongly inferred to mean that Cuvier was a proponent of the young earth hypothesis (derived from Archbishop Usher).  Indeed the father of modern geology, Charles Lyell, actively promoted this untruth, which one may read about here:  Rebuilding the Matrix: Science and Faith in the 21st Century (page 174).

But the plum in the pudding regarding Princep’s lecture is that the antagonists joyfully devour these ideas as they are presented, for they find merit in the function of their existence on a few counts:  Firstly, that they are in eloquent opposition to their rival’s position, and secondly, they can be sold in a facile fashion to not only their Hedgely flock, but to the Woodbridge community as well, as seemingly valid counterarguments against Mr. Moore’s scientific lectures, causing individuals to confusedly question the merit of the material from the parson.  That these outdated hypotheses are true or not is neither here nor there for their – the antagonists – part:  When immortal souls are at stake, or other issues of great importance, necessity compels the use of any devilish means.  This is the tragedy of holding fast to any rigid ideology, whether it be the religious conviction that Archbishop Usher was correct in his methodology and calculation of the age of the earth, or the religious conviction that greenhouse gas concentrations don’t affect the energy budget of the planet – at some point one will have to ally themselves with not merely untruths, but widely known and settled untruths, and look like a flat for doing so.

Break Time

I’ll be back later to talk of each antagonist’s motivations for conspiring against the Enlightenment, whether these be rigid ideologies, indifference to change, or perhaps a bit of romantic and business related rivalry for the part of one man.