Decontextualization

Having examined what context is, what it does, why it’s crucial, etc. we turn to the flip-side of context, and examine a common logical fallacy: decontextualization.

You may recall that proper context was the key to something called charitable reading. Charitable reading is simply the idea that, if we see or hear something that seems wrong, or out of place, that we don’t simply jump on it. Instead, we try and see if we can figure out what went wrong, and simply fix it – or in some cases alert the speaker/author as to the mistake, so they can fix it. Here’s an easy example: a friend is telling you about having watched the Hobbit, but he keeps referring to the main character as Frodo, when you know it should be Bilbo. Here, charitable reading would tell us that the speaker is merely mixing up the names, and we can either correct them, or we can ignore – substituting Bilbo for Frodo.

Uncharitable reading, on the other hand, results in trolling. We can respond to catching the mistake by calling the person ignorant, by arguing that they have not actually seen the movie and are lying to us, etc. To be sure, it could be the case that our friend is, in fact, lying to us. However, most times, there is no nefarious design behind the mistake.

When we consider the context in which the mistake is made, we consider the speaker (a friend who does not lie to us), and we consider the intent (which is communicating some aspect of the story to us), it seems silly to assume the nefarious intent – and thus we read charitably. If we had a very different context – say a dictator known for violence against his own people, and ridiculous propaganda, then when another outlandish claim is made, even charitable reading seems to indicate that the claims are made with the design of sowing disinformation – hence, we should not trust them.

With that in mind, we can look at different issues of decontextualization.

To begin with, decontextualization happens very often. We have decontextualized reporting by official media outlets – as in the noted case of the Orlando Nightclub shooter. We also have decontextualized reporting on a great deal of social media – with misleading headlines and articles apparently crafted on the basis of reading only other people’s headlines. Then, we have the majority of comments – be it YouTube, or elsewhere – where the arguments made have little to no relation to the context, content, or intent of the author. We also, rather unfortunately, have science and science reporting turning to decontextualization for its own benefit. As Ben Goldacre notes, this is becoming a common trope – where the results of a study are blown out of proportion, or are misconstrued for publication or to gain popular traction.

Decontextualization occurs for one of three reasons – as far as I can tell:

  1. Ignorance by ignorance: if the speaker is unaware that there is important context to be considered, they do not look for it, and thus do not integrate it into their presentation of ideas. This is generally a benign issue – in terms of the speaker’s intent. They are not looking to make a bad argument or to misrepresent, they just don’t know any better. We can think of the ignorance in this case as stemming from “unknown-unknowns.”
  2. Ignorance by choice: if the speaker is aware of there being a context, but disregards it as unimportant – usually as a result of previously held beliefs – they do not consider the context as having anything to add, and thus do not integrate it into their presentation of ideas. This position can be either benign or malicious, depending on who the speaker is. If we’re dealing with someone who generally does not deal with context as an important factor in their ideas, then it may be benign. But if we’re dealing with someone who really ought to know better, then the it may be malicious. We can think of this position as a result of “known-unknowns.”
  3. Malicious misinformation: if the speaker knows the context, knows the importance of that context to the claims they seek to make, and yet leave it out in order to intentionally paint the picture in a way that supports their agenda or bias, what we have is outright lying for profit (the profit does not need to be monetary; any benefit to one’s agenda is a form of profit). This position is generally the kind of thing that all speakers seek to avoid – or at least avoid its appearance – because it destroys any credibility with the audience. We can think of the position stemming from “known-knowns,” but altered by preferences to trick the audience into believing and acting in a certain way, which would not happen if they knew the truth.

It may be hard to distinguish ignorance by choice from malicious misinformation, because the primary difference is intent. Without some kind of external verification that the person actually knows better, or that their agenda requires the misreading of the situation, it can be hard to characterize people as maliciously misinforming. As a result of this difficulty, and of the individual requirement to know the context before speaking, we often tend to view the second and third category as roughly similar; the speaker is at fault for misrepresenting the information.

With the background of decontextualization in mind, let’s take a look at three specific examples of decontextualization, and the kinds of problems they create.

Claim 1: “Religion Causes Wars.” This claim is a good example of the idea that, when something is repeated enough, it becomes “true,” in the sense that it becomes publicly believed. When such claims are made, the speakers will often back the claim with reference to the Crusades, and other such events. But once we dig past the cosmetic veneer, once we actually look at things like context of war, the whole thing collapses in a hurry. Let’s consider a brief list of major civilizations, and see if the claim holds up:

  • The Greeks all shared a religion, and were engaged in constant war against each other. The wars were for political gain. Even when they fought the Persians – who were radically different, religiously, it was political power they fought for. Alexander’s conquests were also not religious conquests, but political ones.
  • The Romans were a religious people, and waged constant war against all their neighbors. Yet, the cause of wars was political power, and they allowed the conquered populace to worship their own gods. Internal struggles in Rome were not characterized by religious differences, but political maneuvering.
  • The classical Chinese period was marked with a unity of religious ideology, but also with incessant warfare. The religious cause never became part of the justification for war, despite the wars lasting for centuries.
  • The Indian subcontinent also generally shared religious thought, but the political wars of domination were frequent and bloody. A great example of the “religion does not cause wars” can be found in the Bhagavad Gita – a Hindu religious text – that deals almost exclusively with an epic battle, and where one side literally has god as an adviser. Yet, the cause of war is not religious difference, but the notion of right and wrong, understood as the rights of the people to be ruled by a just authority.
  • The Mongols had a religion wildly different than the people they would conquer. However, they did not conquer from religious justification – only from a political one. In fact, the Mongols perceived any attempts to convert to their religion as strange – because their religion was a religion for Mongolians – not for others. Genghis Khan also famously held a number of interfaith dialogues, allowed people to worship whatever they chose, and was instrumental in creating the office of the Dali Lama.
  • Both World Wars were, rather obviously, fought for political gain, not for religious reasons. The major players were all Christians, and not even the schism differences (Catholic-Protestant-East Orthodox) held any meaning for who joined which side. Rather famously, the Ottoman Empire (considered the last Islamic Caliphate) was a close ally of the German (Protestant) state – for clear political and economic reasons.
  • Finally, the Jains are a pretty hardcore religious group, but have never been involved in violence of any kind – because absolute non-violence is the basis of Jainism.

However, if we take certain wars out of context, or if we take certain populist appeals made in war as being the only justification for that war – taking away the context of economic, political, and social issues – we can certainly misconstrue wars as having a religious cause. For speakers and authors with an anti-religious agenda, or those with a bias against particular religious groups, this kind of decontextualization allows them to make arguments based on the ignorance of their audience. It may be tempting to see the conflict between the Irish and British as a religious one – given the Catholic-Protestant difference. However, to reduce the conflict to a mere religious difference is to ignore the long history of brutal oppression of the Irish by the British; the political domination of an independent people by a powerful colonial force; and the prolonged public and political degradation and exploitation. Once that context is introduced, the mere religious difference becomes rather silly. Finally, the presence of Jainism means that the claim against religion, because it is made in an unqualified way, is clearly false.

Claim 2:“Al Ghazali’s theology is the reason Baghdad produced no scientific advancement after 1100.” This argument, made by Neil deGrasse Tyson, is an example of atrocious failure to consider any form of context on two separate fronts. Worse, it came from a public figure held in high esteem by the general public, making the proliferation of this claim all the more likely. The general idea behind Tyson’s claim is that religion stifles science (knows as the “conflict thesis”), and Al Ghazali serves as a prime example of the claim. Once we start to unpack the claim, however, the degree of misrepresentation becomes staggering. Let’s look at the context of Al Ghazali, of the general historic state at the time, and of the timeframe Tyson uses.

  • Al Ghazali (d. 1111), perhaps one of the most prolific and respected figures of the Islamic world (over 450 texts authored by the age of 53), was a polymath and a prodigy. His style is characterized by deep research and understanding of any subject, before commenting – a fact he stresses is necessary for any kind of meaningful academic work.[i] He did have a disdain for scientism, as well as ignorant and limited approach to studies – not for science in general. Thus, he argues that incomplete, or decontextualized knowledge, that attempts to encroach on unrelated spheres of study, is a great evil. For reference, what he means by this encroachment is something like taking theology and attempting to use it to make arguments in biology; in the process, one defiles both spheres of knowledge, and makes their own area of expertise look stupid, by failing to realize its limits. Clearly, the picture painted by Tyson does not quite fit the reality.
  • The general context of Baghdad, prior to 1100s, was as a world center of education and science. Ever since the 750s, the state had invested significantly in science and philosophy – constructing one of the wonders of the world with the House of Wisdom. All manner of science and research was encouraged, translations of foreign texts were paid for by their weight in gold, and a golden age of science took place. This was made possible by the security of the state, where all military and other threats were generally distant, and the military budget could be low – allowing the science and research budget to grow. Even with the Turkish invasion in 950, the political upheaval was relatively minor, and had no real impact on the role and funding of research.
  • Looking at the specific time period, 1100, we begin to see that Tyson fails to do any level of contextual research – despite there being some obvious historical problems with his claims. In 1098, the Islamic world suffered the first major military defeat, as the first Crusade burned and pillaged its way down the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. Jerusalem, one of the three sacred cities of Islam was destroyed – its population put to the sword. The enemy was not merely highly destructive, it was now on the doorstep of the rest of the Islamic political world. With the safety of the empire in question, the state shifted funding away from sciences, and towards military. By luck, this shift in state budget just happens to coincide with Tyson’s date for end of major scientific research in Baghdad,
  • Tyson also fails to account for the fact that, for the next 89 years, the entire region would be engaged in a bloody war of local political domination, and expulsion of the Crusaders. With the liberation of Jerusalem in 1187, one might expect that a shift in funding might return science to its former prominence. However, that would ignore the fact that additional crusades were again launched against the region, and that, in 1258, the Mongols overran Baghdad – and wiped out the entire House of Wisdom, despoiling the city, and killing a large percentage of the population. Having wiped out the research center, and murdered the locals, is it any wonder that further scientific research did not come out of Baghdad? Does it seem at all coherent to assume that it was theology – not the physical destruction of the entire region – that caused this calamity?
  • Finally, Tyson does not account for the fact that, despite the loss of research in Baghdad, the rest of the Islamic world continued to produce major scientific and philosophical achievements. Muslim India continued its investment in science and research, as did Egypt, and Muslim Spain. In all these places, the writings of Al Ghazali were known, and he was highly respected. Yet, once the element of war and destruction is taken out of the equation, it seems that the Muslim world remained dedicated to science and research.

To simply discard the entirety of the political, historical, and personal context, is academically unforgivable. Tyson is enough of an academic that he should have known that context matters. He should have known that, not knowing the context disqualified him from speaking about the topic. And if he was too busy to do the research himself, he should have had the forethought to have an assistant do the work. As we see, the introduction of the context into Tyson’s claims takes the argument apart at the seams. It also discredits him as a speaker on any subject other than his actual area of expertise – namely astrophysics.

Claim 3: “We can attribute the hack to…” Given the relative prominence of hacking over the past year or so, it becomes rather important to make sure that the information given to the general public is accurate.

  • The cyber-security field is badly misrepresented in popular culture – Hackers anyone? The particular issue is attributing cyber-attacks to state actors (Russia or China), often-based on claims like initial malware development or “style.” For those not into the cyber security scene, here’s a simple breakdown of the claim: Let’s say malware (compromising bit of software that infects your computer) called “Russia-hack-you” was first developed by Russia in 2005; and let’s say that we can attribute this initial creation to a specific group. When a variant of “Russia-hack-you” hits again in 2016, we might be tempted to claim Russian involvement again, because we know where the first malware instance came from. But here we run into the need for context.
  • Once malware is released, its code is freely available to every person in the world. That means that any person, group, government, etc. is capable of taking the original piece of software, editing it in any way they want, and releasing it again – for their own purposes. In fact, they don’t even have to change it before the new release. This means that, once the 2016 version of “Russia-hack-you” hits, there is no longer any reasonable connection between the malware and the initial source. Pretending that Russia’s original involvement in malware creation is somehow proof of later involvement, is like attributing the creation of iPhone 7 to Edison – because he patented the first telephone. Sure, there is a relation, but it is not a causal one, nor is the attribution at all reasonable.

From the preceding, it should be clear how decontextualization can paint a highly-distorted picture of reality. The act of decontextualization may be a simple matter of ignorance, or it may be a malicious attempt to intentionally manipulate the audience into believing and acting on biased information, for the benefit of the speaker/author. In either case, it is our responsibility to make sure we understand and incorporate the context of the idea, event, or action into our understanding of it. The failure to do so, as demonstrated above, leads us to a rather false view of reality. As a result, the basis on which our judgments and decisions rest, becomes unstable and divorced from reality – and thus we make incoherent decisions, with generally counterproductive results.

 

[i] A good primer for Al Ghazali’s philosophy and position on the sciences can be found in his autobiography.

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