Propaganda - An Application Of Cognitive Science
    By Patrick Lockerby | August 14th 2010 09:13 PM | 10 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Retired engineer, 60+ years young. Computer builder and programmer. Linguist specialising in language acquisition and computational linguistics....

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    Propaganda - An Application Of The Forgetting Curve

    Learning curves,  forgetting curves, adjacency and the scientific roots of the black art of propaganda.

    Modern rules of propaganda have their roots in Über das Gedächtnis - On Memory, published by Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885.  In 'On Memory', Hermann Ebbinghaus described experiments which he performed on himself concerning learning and forgetting.  A related study concerned the serial positioning effect.  He also described what I will call here 'active learning' and 'passive learning'.  The difference is the same as that between looking and seeing; between listening and hearing.  Active learning is the process of acquiring knowledge or skill as a result of a conscious intent to learn.  Passive learning is the process of acquiring knowledge or skill where the acquisition of the knowledge or skill was not deliberately intended by the learner.

    Passive learning is how infants learn to talk.  The ability to learn passively remains active in adults.  Propagandists and indoctrinators know this.  Most people don't.  Thus they fail to notice if they are being subtly nudged into selecting an agendist's choice of action and think that they are acting of their own free will.

    Knowledge of the human learning and forgetting processes is empowering. 

    There are subtle ways in which linguistic or spatial adjacency effects can influence learning and forgetting.

    There are subtle ways in which the selective  presentation of data in serial or parallel modes can influence learning and forgetting.

    Unfortunately, in-depth study of the topic is incredibly boring to most people.  That is why it is usually only propagandists who are empowered by this knowledge of cognitive effects.

    Before I begin to discuss the methods of propaganda I want to give you some examples to analyze for hidden messages or propagandist trickery.  Test your instincts. 

    1 - We must not rush to judgment: we must first examine all the facts.

    2 - Everybody knows that the world is round.

    3 - A genuine extract from a Crown Court transcript.  The judge's final words in summing up a criminal case in which the defendant's defense against a specimen charge of assaulting two police officers out of about twelve involved in the incident was that he was the true victim of an entirely unprovoked assault by the police officers and that they had manufactured the case against him:
    The headbutt, there was no complaint, I have dealt with that already.   There is no evidence of the slight bruising or redness that he saw in the mirror and no complaint.   Does that not indicate that allegation is an invented allegation and that there was no headbutt, which is of course what the defence say?
    Of course it is also said there was no summons and no charge in respect of any of the earlier allegations; that is to say the speeding allegation or the absence of a tax disc.   Well again you must give that matter your consideration and see what you make of it in the context of the allegation that the police did not act in good faith.
    Well there it is members of the jury.

    What is wrong with these three statements - and the judge's summing up - in any context of science, law, lies or logic?  Is there any propagandist content anywhere else in this article?

    I will pause here for comments and questions, and will address them before proceeding.


    Patrick, thanks for the awareness.
    I see propaganda everywhere. One of the more dangerous propaganda campaigns is from the drug/food industry(Pfizer, Bayer, etc.): Feeding animals antibiotics to make them grow faster(This policy may now be banned in Europe, hopefully it is.) When I buy feed for my baby chickens from the feed store I have to specifically ask for non-medicated feed or I get....guess what?.....drumroll...You mean you guessed medicated feed.... I firmly believe that this one policy has the potential to kill millions of people...possibly more since these companies are now invading some of the countries desperately in need of more food. Of course, the disaster is larger than this, genetically modified foods(Monsanto: Roundup Ready soybeans, Roundup Ready rapeseed, etc.)
    This is only the tip of the iceberg. I could rant on these issues for quite awhile but that would be getting severely off topic.

    I could rant on these issues for quite awhile but that would be getting severely off topic.

    It was a rant and it did go a bit OT.  Consider your comment deleted.

    Vaughn A. - I'll let you off just this once because you have made useful contributions to reader discussions in the Chatter Box.  But consider your wrist slapped - virtually, but firmly.

    Patrick, have a look at Adam Curtis' 4-part documentary by the BBC - the century of self.
    It documents the history of propaganda, and he dates it back to Freud and the "discovery" of subconsciousness.
    Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays, is considered the father of propaganda (or public relations, as he called it). His orginal aims were to how control the masses in the interests of the elite after the advent of public emancipation. He was *very* successful in his orginal aims :)

    Jim: I will try to find time to watch that if it's available to view on line.  Thanks very much for the info.

    The mythical 'everybody' has heard of Freud, who began serious study of how the mind works in 1880.

    Very few have heard of John Ruskin, except perhaps in his role as an art critic.

    John Ruskin had theories, both good and bad, about the problems of the omission of psychological aspects of human behavior in the study of economics.

    Ruskin's 'Unto This Last', 1860, was a major influence on the politics and philosophy of that great man Mohandas Karamchand Ghandi.
    I deserved the "slap," sorry. There was a little more to it than just a rant as I was interrupted and decided to post without getting to my points for bringing this up in the first place:
    1. People spouting propaganda focus only on data/information that supports their point of view and limits/denies a view of the "big picture.". This includes many topics and when a person recognizes propaganda in one area...especially in an area where he/she may have extensive is a much smaller step to recognize propaganda in other areas. Since, hopefully, you have readers from many areas of expertise this comment may give one or two of these readers a different way to look at what is written as you have already eloquently done, although in a slightly different manner.
    Example: Back in early April 2010 when ice extent was close to normal, I read a statement from a climate change denier, "The Arctic ice has returned to normal," when referring to the NSIDC March 2010 report. What they conveniently left out was that the NSIDC also said at that time was that Arctic ice volume was very low, the ice was very thin, and that it would likely melt faster than average.
    2. People attempting to provide the whole story publish all relevant information whether it supports one point of view or the other based on as much currently available data/information/expertise as possible.
    Due to the tricky nature of propaganda, it is important for readers and writers alike to be vigilantly aware of propaganda and to search for "the truth" when writing or reading.
    An article was recently published in The Guardian that in my opinion has the "ring of truth" to it: "Will this Summer of Extremes be a Wake-Up Call?
    This article clearly expands the "bigger picture" about the effects of climate change.

    Vaughn A. Thanks for the input.

    Re: slap.  It was only an e-slap.  Harmless!

    From the article you cited:
    The carbon-dioxide effect can also change the preferred patterns of atmospheric circulation, which can exacerbate extremes of heat, drought, or rainfall in some regions, while reducing them in others.
    Very insightful.

    An op-ed from Australia's Herald Sun:

    You can dismiss these tragedies, if you like, or you can ask yourself if there are any lessons to be learned.

    Come summer, it could be our turn - and we're still squabbling about whether climate change is a problem and what, if any, action we should take to combat it.

    Colorado Bob
    Today's exhibit "A" ..........

    Climate change alarmists ignore scientific methods

    Colorado Bob: thanks for the link.  Classic propaganda but far too blatant, so it misses any entire section of it's intended audience.  People who may have been converted to science denial will more likely be falling about laughing at this crass piece of propagandist nonsense.

    Climate change alarmists ... 
    Stop!  Stop right there!  Let me give the would-be anti-science propagandists a free lesson.

    The first blow landed must have impact.  It must not, therefore, be a tired cliche.  The terms 'global warming' and 'climate change' have been done to death.  A new term is needed.  If it confuses the issue even more, then that is all to the better for fossil fuel shareholders.  May I respectfully suggest the new term: 'climate warming'?

    Climate can be regional, just as weather is local.  By cherry-picking a region where the climate was predicted to warm but where it is snowing because it is winter there, you can muddy the waters1 even further.  And it takes the wind right out of the sails of people who remind you that weather isn't climate.  After all, they can hardly say that regional climate isn't climate, can they?

    The term 'alarmist' has also become tired from excessive use.  With respect, may I suggest - in the same kiddies playground spirit as 'the sky is falling2', that we call the evil scum 'Jeremiahs'?

    'Climate Warming Jeremiahs'.  Now, doesn't that have a lot more propaganda power?

    [1] - Ezekiel 34:18

    [2] - the phrase is from the fable Chicken Little.  However, the original Latin ruat caelum - the heavens fall  - is from an appeal to justice: fiat justitia ruat caelum.  That phrase is an appeal to do justice even if, as a result, metaphorically speaking, the sky should fall.  All reference to the sky falling should be deleted by propagandist hackers wherever it appears on the web. 

    Suggested substitute: "My postillion has been struck by lightning!  Raise everybody's taxes forthwith!"
    Something to cheer you, Patrick:

    Melting scepticism

    So why has Greenland convinced me that the climate change doomsters may be on to something?

    And this is from the science editor of the Mail.

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Robert: many thanks for those links. I'll try to find time to email you on this topic - your insights would be most valuable.

    To the world at large:

    Can anybody say why the examples I give may be classed as propagandist?

    My whole article above has various elements of propaganda embedded in ways both subtle and unsubtle.

    Go ahead! Call me out.  Tear me a new one1. I shan't mind.  The whole point of these articles and discussions is to make a wider section of the scientific community and the public aware of propaganda techniques.

    [1] - 'I'm going to tear you a new one' = 'I am very angry with you'; 'I am going to equip your digestive system with a new exit path'.