Some thoughts on truth

Image by Fotogoestober on Adobe Stock

Inspired by a question on Quora, I’ve been thinking about the idea of truth, and more specifically, the way societies seem to have an eccentric orbit around the truth—sometimes closer in, sometimes further away.

The United States, at the moment, is definitely at an apogee in its extremely elliptical orbit around the truth. At the moment, large parts of the American population, raised in a society that has attacked and undermined public education and critical thinking for decades, is of the opinion that truth is merely another opinion, and facts are whatever you want them to be. Don’t like the facts as they are? Come on down to Post Truth Incorporated, where we have 100% organic free-range no-cage alternative facts to suit every budget, agenda, and political ideology!

The pendulum doesn’t swing back and forth

A lot of folks think of society as a pendulum, swinging back and forth between two poles. This cyclic model of society suggests that countries or cultures swing back and forth between two poles, often liberalism and conservatism, but the overall tendency as time goes on is generally ‘forward,’ whatever ‘forward’ means.

I would like to propose that this is codswallop.

It’s overly simplistic. Societies don’t swing back and forth, and the poles are never fixed.

Instead, I think the truth is a strange attractor around which the trajectory of a society warps and bends, sometimes near, sometimes far, always in motion. The exact path the society takes is highly sensitive to that society’s origin myth, and varies with everything from current local politics to natural disasters to pop music trends.

Pretty much exactly like this:

Lorenz attractor (image: CC-BY

This means you could take snapshots of a society’s history, like paragraphs out of the society’s history books, and treat the pile of snapshots like a Poincaré map of that society’s eccentric orbit around the truth.

Mythologies are necessary for social identity, every culture will have one, and subtle variations in a society’s founding myth can have huge effects on its path around the attractor of truth. A society that, for example, idolizes the myth of the Rugged Individualist may at some point along its trajectory bend in the direction of the notion that truth is a matter of personal opinion, not empirical fact. A society that enshrines the value that belief in God is vital to being a good citizen might find itself pulled toward the attractor of authoritarian religion as it flows along its course.

But these attractions are never as simple as a pendulum swing. Too many variables, too many competing ideas go into a society’s culture. Just as you can never set foot in the same river twice, for when you return both you and the river will have changed, a society cannot revisit the same moment twice, however much its members may long for the nostalgic past.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That’s probably true over great stretches of time, years to centuries to millennia, but the loops and bends away from that direction happen all the time, drawn by the irresistible tropism toward Rugged Individualism, Somebody Else’s Problem, xenophobia, profiteering, fear, and the urge toward authoritarianism that seems baked into us as a species.

Right now, we’re on one of those crazy slingshots away from truth, in an era where American Republican operatives sneeringly refer to the opposition as the “reality-based contingent” and offer “alternative facts.”

For those of us trapped on this arc, it’s small comfort that given another 40, 50 years, the moral arc of the universe may once again bend back toward justice. So…let’s be kind out there.

Hacking as a tool of social disapproval

“The street finds its own uses for things.” —William Gibson, Burning Chrome

Last year, my wife, my co-author, and I launched a new podcast, The Skeptical Pervert. We talk about sex…and more specifically, we talk about sex through a lens of empiricism and rationality.

The Skeptical Pervert’s website runs WordPress. Now, I’ve been around the block a few times when it comes to web security, and I know WordPress tends to be a rather appetizing target for miscreants, so I run hardened WordPress installs, with security plugins, firewalls that are trained on common WordPress attack vectors, and other mitigations I don’t talk about openly.

I run quite a few WordPress installs. My blogs on and run WordPress. So does the Passionate Pantheon blog, where Eunice and I discuss the philosophy of sex in a far-future, post-scarcity society. In addition, I host WordPress blogs for friends, and no, I won’t tell you who they are, for reasons that will soon become clear.

I automatically log hack attacks, including failed login attempts, known WordPress exploits, and malicious scans. I run software that emails me daily and weekly statistics on attacks against all the WordPress sites I own or host. I also subscribe to WordPress-specific infosec mailing lists, so I am aware of the general threat background.

Because WordPress is such a common target—it’s the Microsoft Windows of the self-hosted blog world, with everything that implies—any WordPress site will get a certain low level of constant probes and hack attempts. It’s just part of the background noise of the Internet. (If you run WordPress and you’re not religiously on top of security updates, by the way, you’ve already been pwn3d. I can pretty much guarantee it.)

The fact that I host WordPress sites not connected with me to the outside world gives me a good general baseline reading of this background noise, that I can use to compare to hack attacks against sites that are publicly connected with me.

And the results…well.

In all the years I’ve been on the Web—and I started running my own Web sites in the mid-1990s—I have never seen anything even remotely close to the constant, nonstop barrage of attacks against the Skeptical Pervert site. Joreth and Eunice are probably quite sick of my frequent updates: “Well, the firewall shows over a thousand brute-force hack attempts against the Skeptical Pervert site so far today and it isn’t even noon yet” (seriously, that’s a thing that happened recently).

Here’s a graph showing what I mean. This graph covers one week, from June 13, 2022 to June 20, 2022. The “baseline” in the graph is an average of several WordPress sites I host that aren’t in any way connected to me in the eyes of the Internet at large—I don’t run them, I don’t put content on them, my name isn’t on them, I merely host them.

Note that the attacks don’t scale with traffic; the More Than Two blog has the most traffic, followed by, then the Passionate Pantheon blog, then the Skeptical Pervert.

So what to make of this?

Part of it is likely the long-running social media campaign my ex has been running. Attacks on and increased in the wake of her social media posts.

But that doesn’t explain what’s happening with the Skeptical Pervert, which has turned out to be targeted to an extraordinary degree.

Now, I don’t know who’s attacking the site, or why, so this is speculation. It’s hard to escape the idea, though, that when a site and podcast explicitly about sex, co-hosted by two women of color, talking about non-traditional sexual relationships is targeted, at least part of the answer might simply be the same old, same old tired sex-negative misogyny and racism we see…well, everywhere, pretty much. The fact that my ex doesn’t like me (and will say or do anything to get other people not to like me) doesn’t explain what’s happening here.

It’s easy to blame conservative traditionalists, but Eunice reminded me there’s another factor at work as well. The Skeptical Pervert approaches sexuality from a rational, evidence-based, skeptical lens. In the United States, there’s a stubborn streak of misogyny amongst the dudebros of the skeptics community. A podcast with two women that looks at sex from a highly female-focused, feminist point of view taking on the mantle of skepticism? It’s possible there are dudebros who will perceive that as an encroachment into their space.

In short, I don’t think this is about me. I think this is about women talking openly about real-world non-traditional sex, and getting the same pushback that women always get when they dare to do that.

If the podcast were just me, or me with obviously male co-hosts, I don’t think the level of Web attacks would be anywhere near the same.

The street finds its own uses for things. In the hands of people threatened by or frightened of non-traditional voices, the Internet has become a safe, anonymous tool of harassment.

The Fine Art of Flinging Poo

The contradictions and inconsistencies are a feature, not a bug

Image by Colin Lloyd

I’m writing over on Medium now, and I’ve just put up a piece you can read (free) there. Here’s the teaser:

I’ve been thinking about the Capitol riots lately. I don’t mean “how could this happen?” (anyone who’s read even a little bit of history already knows the answer) or “what role did the former President play? (that answer is self-evident, and getting more so every day).

No, that’s tedious, dreary, and altogether too predictable. What I’ve been thinking about is the fascinating narratives that have sprung up around the failed coup, how contradictory they are, and how those contradictions don’t seem to matter.

I’ve come to an unexpected conclusion: The fact that the narratives are inherently self-contradictory is part of what makes them compelling. The mutual impossibilities in the narrative threads are precisely why they work.

Okay, so hear me out.

In the aftermath of the January coup attempt, a bunch of different, competing stories started to coalesce on the political right about what happened. There were no riots; the Capitol attackers were just tourists. It wasn’t insurrection; it was completely peaceful. The attack wasn’t peaceful, but it also wasn’t Trump supporters, it was Antifa. Or no, not Antifa; it was an FBI false-flag operation. But the rioters were martyrs. If Trump is re-elected, he will give them all pardons.

Clearly these can’t all be true. The attack was orchestrated by peaceful tourists who were really FBI Antifa in disguise, yet they’re all martyrs who deserve pardons? Nobody can believe all of this.

And that’s exactly the point.

I’ve started calling this strange, scattershot approach to propaganda the “MSTF technique:” Make Something That Fits.

Propaganda 101

When I was growing up, my mother always used to say, “information by itself almost never changes attitudes.”

Check out the rest here!